He wasn't what she wanted.
He wasn't right for her.
She was wrong—so wrong.
When Lauryn Daring rejected skinny Xavier Stone's advances in high school to build an empire in the big city, she had no idea the mistake she was making. But after years apart, the man that walks back into her life is far from the geek she once knew. Xavier changed—in all the right ways. After being stationed on a dangerous planet of werewolves for nearly ten years, the tall, rugged, ferocious, and undeniably sexy soldier is back for what he's wanted all along: Lauryn.
And this time, Lauryn won’t be able to resist.
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Day 397, Year 2256
An unexpected name scrolled across my screen: First Lt. Xavier Stone.
I couldn’t breathe.
Compared to on-planet services, communication between systems was practically Stone Age technology. There was no video, no sound, only text chats that were supposed to be real-time but often were not.
For once, it was shockingly fast, like seeing an asteroid a second before it hit you. I couldn’t talk to him just like that. But it was already too late.
Lauryn. How long has it been?
I hadn’t seen Xavier in years, not since he pulled out on a military transport to Alzar-4 after graduation. We had been best friends growing up, all the way through graduating from high school, when he ruined it by trying to kiss me.
I turned off voice dictation. I was losing my voice from talking and networking all day, so I had a keypad projected onto my desk.
Too long, I typed back. To say I hadn’t thought about him would be a lie. Regret balled itself in my stomach.
Growing up, he had been the person I had connected with the most. He had risked his life to help me save my sister. And regrettably, through my own foolishness, he was not in my life anymore. I deeply regretted our final parting. Once you enter the real world, it’s hard to find friendships as deep as the ones you had when you were young.
And I had missed him.
Have you forgiven me?
I had been so angry with Xavier when he kissed me because I knew it would only fuck up the closest friendship that I had ever had. And it had. I didn’t want to be hiding in a nameless town like my mother for the rest of my life. I was going to do things, go places, and make sure we would never have to rely on our absent space pirate father for protection ever again. I knew I couldn’t do that if I was with Xavier. I knew what he was really asking, but for some reason, I couldn’t answer him.
For not writing me for so long? That might take some time.
You could have written me.
I did. Several letters, in fact. But I never sent them. I had moved out and up of the nowhere backend town we had grown up in, and once my company was successful, my family followed. There were very few who remembered the small town girl I once had been.
He was one of them.
I’m not the same girl you used to know.
I’ve lied. I’ve cheated, and yes, once I fucked someone in order to get a real estate deal done, but it was a gamble when I was starting out that paid off. I’ve also blackmailed (those who deserved it), broken laws, and crushed my opponents in ways that were far from fair. A better person would feel guilty, but then again, I wouldn’t be in a position where I could protect my family. In short, I had become as bad as my father.
I’m not the boy you knew either.
Images of Xavier throughout our youth flickered through my mind: blowing bubbles at the playground, running through a soft-leaf oaksandal field, and finally, his tackling a pulsar-rifle wielding space pirate. Xavier knew he had no chance, but chose to do it anyway to prevent Skye’s abduction by my father’s enemies. I thought it had been so unlike him at the time, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense considering the soldier he had become.
On another screen I pulled up what info I could find on Alzar-4. When First Earth had started exploring, oddly enough they kept finding humans scattered among the stars by a long-gone alien race for a purpose we didn’t understand. They were humans, but not any kind of humans ever seen on Earth. They were humans who shifted into canine and feline types, as well as ones with wings.
Alzar-4 was a planet with wolf shifters. Most of the information on Alzar-4 was classified by the military, which had a base there. I thought about what I could ask that wouldn’t automatically be censored by the military codebots crawling the text-based chatlines.
Have you had it rough?
Camping on Shelter Lake was easier.
I laughed. Okay, we were like ten, and those noises in the bushes were our classmates pranking us, but we had both had nightmares about that for months afterwards. I was still afraid of spryders, glowing horned armored insects that stunk of ash that I swore had been swarming our tent. I wondered if he was too.
But I’m done here for now. I’m coming home.
He was? My stomach fluttered.
Where is home?
I don’t know. My parents sold the gallery and farm. They’re doing an installation on one of Neptune’s moons.
I chuckled. That was like Shirley and Miranda. They had always been such nomadic artist types.
You should come here.
I typed and hit enter before I could stop myself.
There was no immediate response. My heart started to pound. It didn’t mean anything. In the millions of light years between our systems, there was bound to be a lag.
Still, I couldn’t stop myself from typing more.
I have plenty of room. I live in New Tokyo. You can stay with me as long as you need to.
The minutes, the seconds crept by. Why did this one boy’s response matter so much to me?
Deep in my heart I knew, but I just wouldn’t admit it to myself. I tried to busy myself in the usual way: multitasking. I pulled up a spreadsheet to crunch some numbers for another alien-ruin luxury condo project on the East Side, but the only number I kept looking at was the timestamp from my last message.
Finally, the response came.
It might take awhile for me to adjust. I’ve heard it’s not easy. Especially in a big city like New Tokyo. You might be in for more than you bargained for.
He’d always been a small town boy. What had he said to me so many years ago? You don’t have to go anywhere, Lauryn. We could be happy right here.
And I had known at that moment that it could never work between us. He didn’t understand how much I needed to go to the big city, and make sure no one could ever mess with my family again. So I just told him I wasn’t attracted to him.
He didn’t buy it, at least right away. His words echoed in my head. I know you, Lauryn. You can try, but you’re not going to be able to forget about me.
I left, and to prove him wrong, I just never contacted him.
Yeah, that worked out well.
But now? The city flew by below me. LD Holdings had interests in at least one building, if not more, on nearly every city block.
My fingers flew across the screen.
You can stay as long as you need to, just to get your bearings back on our world. I’m not home most of the time anyway. I travel a lot for work.
Let me think about it. I have to go.
So soon? Something clawed at me. He had every right to still be upset with me. As far as he knew, I hadn’t thought about him since I’d left. He didn’t know I'd pestered my sister for news about him, or that I'd sent anonymous donations to his unit to make sure they had one real food meal every All-eve holiday. But what had been done was done, and no apology could make it better without opening a can of tanksnakes.
No, I had to play it cool.
Understand. Don’t be a stranger, Xavier.
I turned off the screen, and leaned back in my chair. I had signed multi-trillion starcoin deals in the last few days while feeling less emotion than I had in a single conversation with someone I hadn’t seen in more than a decade.
Why did this matter to me so much?
Xavier and I had both been outcasts, him with his hand-them-off clothes and me with my big black hair and body that had started curving when I was eleven. It wasn’t that there weren’t other black girls in the town, but they didn't have hair like mine. My hair was wiry, kinky, and disobedient, and I refused to change it. My body was big, bigger than his in fact, bigger than any girl in our small town. It had taken me a long time to actually make peace with myself and understand that I would never be the boob-and-ass stick that those other girls were, no matter how much exercise I did.
I smiled. Xavier had always liked my hair. I never minded him touching it.
A part of me wished we had never grown apart. But when he kissed me, I knew it was the end of our friendship. I couldn’t have a weakness like him in New Tokyo.
The real truth, the truth that stared at me through the nightglass of my aircar, visible in the buildings below, was something else altogether.
I would welcome Xavier back as a friend. But I had to stop things before they got out of control.
Day 398, Year 2256
I nearly fell out of my chair at that tell-tale off-world chime. I had to stop this. Every time it happened, I hoped it was Xavier. Every time it happened, it was always about something else: disappearing transports of construction supplies, hostile bids to take over my company, or tiger-shifter ghosts haunting one of our newer developments over an old burial ground.
I glanced at the screen. Sunshit, it was Xavier.
My heart jumped. I closed the file I was working on and all the other screens around my desk.
This was ridiculous. Okay, I admit it; I was desperate for a friend, someone who didn’t want to talk to me for my money or my business.
I saw on the stellarwebs you’ve been busy, Lauryn. Do you own all of New Tokyo?
No. Not all of it. We probably manage more than we own.
You’ve lived a very different life.
That was probably an understatement. I had been wondering what kind of environment Xavier had been stationed in. A little more research on Alzar-4 turned up gorgeous photos of crumbling alien stone cities in ruins. The working theory was that werewolves were developed by aliens as living weapons. Some had escaped from captivity before the aliens dragged them off-world to be annihilated, along with themselves in an ancient galactic war.
Not nearly as interesting as yours.
I’ve been a soldier for more than a decade. I’m not the Xavier you knew. Are you sure you want me, Lauryn?
Hadn’t he already said that? I rubbed my eyes. It had been another long day of meetings trying to get another series of deals done. My brain was so electrofried that I was reading more into the lines of text than were really there. There was no way Xavier still nurtured a schoolboy crush on me after all this time.
Anything for an old friend.
There was another odd pause for several minutes. I could hear the hum of the air scrubbers and vacuum-bots outside my room. I felt almost jittery, like a wyrmdust junkie waiting for her fix. I felt ready to jump out of my skin. Time didn’t just creep, it seemed to be tied up, dragging itself and fumbling blindfolded into oblivion.
Tell me the last dessert you ate.
I thought about it. I could tell him what I really ate: a meal replacement bar from the instameal for dinner. Or I could tell him something I shouldn’t. Something more interesting.
Strawberries and whipped cream. I like dipping the whole berries in cream and licking them off.
There was another pause. This one seemed so much shorter.
That sounds sinful. You are evil.
I couldn’t keep the grin off my face.
Why am I evil?
Because I haven’t had a strawberry since I left Gaia.
I’ll make sure I’m fully stocked on strawberries before you arrive.
Don’t forget the whipped cream.
Of course not. Licking cream off before you taste the fruit is the best part.
You’ll have to show me your technique.
Only if you say please. With a cherry on top.
I haven’t said please in a very long time. You’ll have to make it worth my while.
Oh, you’ll be begging me for it.
I look forward to it.
An icon appeared, showing me he had ended the chat. I shouldn’t be flirting with Xavier like this. I owed him more than that.
He hadn’t done anything but be a good friend. But I ceased being a good person a long time ago because it cost too much in the war that was business.
I twisted the white elorantium ring I wore on my thumb. It was a reminder of what I had been working so hard for: safety.
Unwillingly, I heard my father's voice. “I know you won’t understand. But what I do protects you, your sister and your mother. Your mother calls me a space pirate. But I’m a businessman. There is no safety, no surety without money.
He had taken the ring off his finger and handed it to me to pay for Skye and Xavier’s injuries as a result of the attempted kidnapping. Neither of them would touch his money. So I took the money and used it to make my way in New Tokyo. Eventually I got the ring back.
Xavier would have never let me become like my father.
My mouth tasted of salt.
Now, when it didn’t matter anymore, I could let myself admit that I probably might have even been happy with Xavier.
I wiped my eyes. Stupid air scrubbers must be malfunctioning.
Fuck, I couldn’t let Xavier get to me like this.
Day 399, Year 2256
Are you sure you’re ready for me?
Instantly I closed the file I was working on. All day, I’d hoped he’d text me again, but I knew the realities of military life made schedules unpredictable. To ask someone to be available three days in a row was like trying to find a legit venture capitalist for a starship hauling illicit dragon wings.
The question you should be asking is if you are ready for me.
I’ve been ready for a long, long time. I’m coming soon.
My heart began to pound.
I’m leaving on a transport tonight. I’ll be in New Tokyo by this time next week.
It was so soon. And for all intents and purposes, he would be unreachable while zipping through the wyrmholes between star systems. Wait, next week?
I’m not going to be in New Tokyo next week. I’m going to a conference at a wilderness resort off the coast of Banff.
Banff. Big skies, big trees and big game. I’ve heard there is good hunting in Banff.
I wouldn’t know. Come as my guest. If you aren't used to cities, perhaps this would be a better place for your re-entry into Gaia.
You’re inviting me to Banff. Sure you are J
There was an odd pause. Would he say no? He couldn’t say no. I quickly pulled up another screen and with a few taps sent him a separate message.
It’s already done. When your transport gets to New Tokyo, I’ve arranged for you to get on a private flight to Banff. It will bring you to the resort. Just give the front desk your name and they’ll take you to your room.
More seconds, more minutes creeped by. This was a bad idea. May be I could tell him it was a joke.
But then it was too late. He replied.
I’ll pay you back for all of this.
Don’t even think about it. It’s a gift.
No. You are a gift.
He signed off without letting me reply. I had an odd feeling in my stomach the kind I usually got when I made a deal that I knew wasn’t going to turn out the way I planned. There wasn’t any reason he couldn’t just stay in New Tokyo until I got back, other than the fact that I wanted to see him.
I really wanted to see him.
I sunk my head between my hands. My hair felt overly dry, in desperate need of moisturizing. This was so stupid. We were different people now. Why would I even think that things might be the same between us?
I couldn’t risk our friendship a second time. I’d just have to pretend those conversations never took place. Xavier would get the hint, wouldn’t he?
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The alpha wolf is coming home. This time she will be his.