“We’re taking you back to your planet, Prince Jagger. Isn’t that what you’ve been demanding?”

Jagger felt stunned. Was it possible? “I thought…Niki said I was his mate, and I couldn’t go home.”

“We’re not kidnappers, Prince. You agreed to be Nikolai’s mate, and now you say you didn’t know what that meant. You said you wished to return to your family and reject Nikolai. He’s giving you what you want.”

Stunned into speechlessness, he allowed them to push him into a passenger seat and strap him in. His stomach ached abominably. Leaving was what he wanted, wasn’t it? This was what he’d asked Niki to do, and it seemed Niki had given him what he wanted. Why wasn’t he here to speak to him though? To explain or to at least say goodbye? Why had he left it to these others? Did he hate him now? If he could have just one more minute to speak to Niki, explain to him…but perhaps Niki didn’t want to see him again.

Surprised a little at the sharp pain this thought caused him, he slumped in the seat, preparing for the takeoff, his eyes still searching behind him even as the door of the transport closed behind him. He still half expected it to open back up and see Niki look in at him with his cocky, confident smile. Jagger straightened in the seat, closed his eyes and laid his head against the seatback as the Lycans opened the space port and piloted the small craft quickly down to the planet’s surface.

In what seemed like only a few minutes, the craft landed and the Lycans grimly took him from his seat and escorted him to the hatch. As Jagger climbed out, he saw his father rushing toward him and he clasped him in his arms, glancing over his shoulder at the Lycans. The big one stood cold and grim by the hatch door and addressed his father, completely ignoring Jagger.

“The Alliance has been notified of your situation, King Larius. I have no idea what actions, if any, they’ll take, but I’m sure sanctions will be put in place. You should prepare yourself and your people. No more trading will take place between your people and the planets of the Alliance.” The Lycan paused to let the full import of his words sink in. No more trade would be utterly disastrous for their planet. Jagger’s father hung his head in despair. Clenching his fists, Jagger stepped in front of him protectively.

“Surely you understand we were desperate. The Rogers have my mother.”

“I understand that, Prince Jagger. But taking our relative and our shipment was a criminal act. You should have asked us for our help instead of trying to just take what you needed. You intended to keep Nikolai as a hostage, so in my opinion, you’re really little better than the Rogers. We wouldn’t normally forgive such grievous acts of aggression against us, but Nikolai has asked us not to retaliate, so we’ll respect his wishes.” His cold glare encompassed the king, Jagger and the soldiers standing nervously around them. “Consider yourselves fortunate.”

Turning on his heel, he climbed back into the transport. In seconds, the craft lifted up and sped off, climbing rapidly until Jagger lost it in the thick clouds over Jayron. As it pulled away, a tearing pain ripped through his body, taking him to his knees, and he felt a crushing despair. This was what he wanted—wasn’t it? Then why did it feel as if he were dying?

* * * * As Jagger read the message in his hand, the blood rushed from his face, and he had to sit down suddenly. It had been three days since Jagger had arrived back on his planet—three long days of stress and worry and unrelenting pain in his stomach, pain so bad he could barely function. Three long days of listening to the King’s council rage at both him and his father for their mishandling of the entire Lycan affair. And three interminable days of worry that the people would rise up and cast both the King and his son from the throne. In all that time, no matter how much else was wrong, Jagger could think only of Niki. The sight of his own room was unappealing to him now, because his big Lycan wasn’t there, teasing and making love to him. The memory of the things Jagger said to Niki on the ship haunted Jagger now. How could he have told him he didn’t love him? It had been his pride and his anger talking, and he bitterly regretted his words. He went over and over those things in his head, wishing he hadn’t been so harsh, so unforgiving. He wished he hadn’t lied when he said he didn’t love Niki. Because it had been a lie, an awful lie, but Niki had believed him and sent him home.

Then later that morning, out of the blue, a message had arrived from the Lycans. The message had come in on their diplomatic channels, not from Nikolai, but from his leader, Lucas. It was simple and straightforward.

King Larius, we are prepared to offer you a deal. We will rescue your queen and deliver her to you unharmed, while at the same time, ending the threat from the Nilaniums from this time forward. In addition, we will arrange for trade shipments to begin again with your world, and offer you a no-interest loan of a quarter million diamond standards to aid your people in setting up trade agreements. In return for these more than generous considerations, Prince Jagger will surrender himself to our cousin Nikolai until such time as Nikolai should tire of him. After that time, he will be allowed to go free. We are awaiting your decision.

Surrender himself! “I’ll tell them no, son. Don’t worry, please. I’ll tell them it’s out of the question.” His father put a comforting hand on his shoulder.

“No,” Jagger said quietly. “I’ll do it.”

“It’s insupportable!” King Larius cried. “How can I trade my wife and my people for my son? No, no, I can’t do this to you, Jagger.”

“You’re not doing it, father. I’m a grown man now, and I can make my own decisions. This is the only way, and it’s a very good plan. More than we could have hoped for. The Lycans are right. They’re offering extremely generous terms, and we must get my mother away from the Rogers. I can’t stand to think of what she must be going through. Besides all of that, it will save our people.” Jagger stood up and squared his shoulders. “Go back to the council and tell them to reply in the affirmative. I’ll pack my things and be ready when they come for me.”

“Oh son,” his father said sorrowfully, holding his head in his hand. “Perhaps they won’t be able to do as they’ve promised. Your mother is heavily guarded—what if she should be hurt in the attempt?”

“Not with Nikolai and his family,” Jagger said, surprised to hear a hint of pride in his voice. “You saw them in the throne room the last time when they came for Nikolai. They are the fiercest people I have ever known. No, if they say they can do it, I have no doubt. Let’s go now and tell them we’ll agree to their terms. I don’t want my mother to have to spend one more night than she has to in that place.”

The council members were ecstatic when they heard Jagger’s decision. The king’s head advisor, Herren, came forward and bowed from the waist. “Prince Jagger, thank you for your sacrifice.”

Jagger inclined his head. “I would like you to open a channel with the Lycans please. I have one stipulation.”

“B-but Prince Jagger. Surely they have been more than generous. Couldn’t you…”

“I said open a channel, Herren. I’m still your prince. Do it immediately.”

The advisor dropped his gaze and hurried over to the Communicator screen to hail the Lycan ship. Within a few minutes, Herren nodded to Jagger. “Prince Jagger, I have the Lycan ship.”

Jagger walked to the screen and nodded solemnly into the cameras. He could see Lucas, the alpha, sitting in his command chair, with several figures behind him. He saw Nikolai standing behind Lucas and to the right, with his arms crossed and a belligerent look on his handsome face. “We agree to your terms, Alpha,” Jagger said, “with one provision.”

Before Lucas could speak, Nikolai stepped forward angrily. “The terms were quite generous, Jagger. What possible leverage do you think you might have?”

Jagger was surprised at the level of anger he saw on Nikolai’s face and his own face grew warm and heated. Soon he would be under this man’s control, and little better than his slave. He would have to face that anger head on, and could he do it? Did he really have a choice?

He raised his chin and stared straight back at Nikolai. “I don’t have to agree to this at all.”

Nikolai scoffed. “Ha! That’s right, Prince, you and your father can show your usual level of intelligence and diplomacy and tell us to take our offer to save your asses and go to hell. Of course, meanwhile your mother is still captive and your people are probably ready to throw you both in the dungeons. Perhaps we should just wait a few days and save ourselves the trouble of a negotiation with the two of you.”

On the screen, Lucas stepped over to Nikolai and put a cautioning hand on his arm. “Let him speak, Nikolai. Let’s at least hear what he has to say.”

Nikolai made a dismissive gesture and turned his back on Jagger, but Lucas inclined his head. “Go ahead, Prince. What is your provision?”

Jagger cleared his throat. Nikolai had rattled him, but he tried hard not to show how intimidated he was. He lifted his chin even higher and squared his shoulders. “I want to go with you to get my mother. I’m a warrior, and I can be of service.”

Before Lucas could reply, Nikolai turned around and roared at him. “Absolutely not! It’s out of the question!”

“But Niki, it’s my mother! Please!” Jagger instinctively used his pet name for Nikolai and held out a hand in appeal, but Nikolai actually snarled at him. Jagger took an involuntary step backward, and right away both Lucas and another Lycan who Jagger thought was Nikolai’s brother, Kyle, came forward, speaking urgently in his ear. Nikolai shook his head, but after a few minutes, he finally stepped to the rear of the command chair and out of range of the cameras. Lucas faced Jagger instead.

“We accept your provision, Prince Jagger, with one of our own. You may go with us, but you will stay in the rear, and follow our commands to the letter. Is that clear?”

“Yes, thank you. I’ll do as you say.” From somewhere off camera, Jagger and the entire council heard Nikolai make a rude, profane comment in response, but Jagger held onto his composure with rigid control. Lucas kept his eyes straight ahead and pretended not to have heard.

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