The Hunter’s Heart, by Astrid Sharpe
Book 1 in the Love After Earth series
General Release Date: 18th May 2021
Word Count: 72,708
Book Length: SUPER NOVEL
ACTION AND ADVENTURE
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I thought my job sucked. But I’m about to be sold as a breeder to a seven-foot panther-man, so things can get worse…much worse.
Zensah is the reluctant leader of his nearing-extinction tribe. He’d thought he was paying the passage for willing settlers, not abducted females. If only he’d trusted his instincts and refused the trade. But then he would never have met Poppy, the brave human leader whose beautiful eyes burn with courage and defiance. She’s the only female he’s ever yearned to claim as his mate. But will she ever accept him?
When Poppy fights her captors, Zensah and his men help the humans escape, but find themselves stranded in the wild territories of his home planet. Determined to live independently, Poppy asks Zensah to teach her survival skills on their journey to her rendezvous with her fellow humans. She should hate him… Except she’s never felt so alive.
Reader advisory: This book contains scenes of abduction and some violence.
South East London, UK
It’s the end of another long, uneventful day.
I lower the security shutters at Frank’s Fries and the metal rolls down with a rusty shriek. Graffiti and dents are littered across its surface and when the mechanism sticks—as it always does—I give the key my signature wiggle to get it working again. I’m the only one Frank trusts with a key. I’m still paid the same as the other girls, though. ‘Times are tough.’
It could be worse, I remind myself, as I look up at the stars. I can still see a few of them, despite the sickly glow of the estate. I suck in the frosty air and close my eyes, savoring the cold. After standing for hours over a deep fat fryer, it’s a nice change. Turning away from the fish and chip shop, I head home.
It’s times like these when I miss Mum the most. She was so ill for so long that everything else passed us by. There’ll be no one waiting for me back at the flat tonight, or any night, and the loneliness gets me down sometimes.
I walk through the alleyways with my head down and my collar up. Summercotes Estate is a 1970s concrete monstrosity. Three tower-blocks loom over the estate, flanked on all sides by low-rises that sprawl beneath like tentacles. A labyrinth of streets and alleyways. Frank says the architect who designed it called it ‘the future of social housing.’
‘Streets in the skies!’ Frank had said with a snort, wiping meaty fingers on a greasy towel. ‘More like a crumbling rat maze!’
There’s a faint crunch to my right, and unease shivers down my spine. I look around me, but the street is empty. The surrounding flats are scattered with lights, but I don’t see anyone at the windows. I stride out into a pool of light from a streetlamp overhead, the entrance to my tower block in sight.
There’s a heavy thud behind me. Thick arms grab me around the waist, pulling me into the shadows. I’m dragged into the darkness, my boots scraping uselessly against the pavement. A cold, wet hand clamps over my mouth, choking my scream. It’s followed by a sharp prick of pain as a needle plunges into my neck. My muffled cries and desperate struggles are the only sounds I hear as the shadows close in, taking my world with them.
* * * *
I jolt awake, my heart pounding against my ribs like it’s about to burst out of my chest Alien-style. My eyelids are too heavy to open. I try to sit up, but I only manage to raise my head an inch off the ground. There’s a slight resistance against my neck, and my head flops back against hard metal. The surface is flat and smooth like a table. My ears are ringing, and my mind is sluggish.
The memory of being attacked hits me hard and fast. My whole body tenses.
I’m not lying on the pavement!
I must have been drugged. Panic grips me by the throat. My muscles contract painfully, coiled to run but without the energy to do more than tremble. What the fuck! Why would someone drug me? Who would abduct me? What have they done already and what else are they going to do? My stomach heaves.
Calm down. Think!
I focus on my breathing, gulping down air until the cramp in my limbs begins to ease and my heartbeat steadies. Apart from the grogginess and dull headache, I’m not in pain anywhere else. In fact, I’m still fully dressed. My skinny jeans and work shirt scratch against my skin. I still smell of batter, grease and vinegar. It’s familiar and comforting. The sick bastard who grabbed me hasn’t done anything…yet.
I’m not sure if I should be relieved—I guess it depends if he’s still here. I notice a wheezing and croaking sound to my right, but I don’t hear anything else.
Cracking open my eyes, I’m blinded by a yellow light above me and I turn my face to the side. It takes my eyes a second to adjust. Despite the piercing light above, the rest of the room is dim—either that or I’m still feeling the aftereffects of whatever crazy cocktail I’ve been injected with.
The shadows coalesce, forming shapes that I recognize. There’s a young woman laid out on a metal table beside me, presumably like the one I’m lying on. She’s wearing a party dress, jacket and heels. Her long blonde hair is a wild mess. Her pretty face is turned up toward the lamp above. But her eyes are closed as if she’s asleep. Glowing bars are strapped around her limbs and chest. I glance down at my own body. Yep, same glowing bands.
The lamp above the blonde descends, and it’s then I notice the figure standing beside her.
My limbs jerk and shiver against the restraints.
It’s a man-sized toad, pulling the lamp down with huge, webbed hands.
I squeeze my eyes shut.
It’s not real! It can’t be! It has to be a guy in a suit, right? Some sick prank?
Fuck! I’ve been abducted by Kermit!
A weird hysterical giggle chokes out of my mouth. I gasp for air, trying my best not to hyperventilate.
I peek again. This time my world tilts with dread and horror.
This isn’t a joke. The way it moves, the sweat on its skin, the flicker of intelligence and malice in its eyes…
It’s nothing like the fuzzy puppet, but it is frog-like, or toad-like I should say. This thing is freaky. It’s standing on two webbed feet, its thick muscular legs out of all proportion to its shorter arms. It’s tall, at least over six foot, and strong judging by the cords of muscles on its limbs. It wears a black boiler suit with a utility belt full of surgical needles and horrific blades. Its skin is dark green with luminous jade markings.
It looks wet, slimy and utterly repulsive.
However, its head is the worst thing of all. There’s no neck, only thick shoulders curving upward toward a huge bulbous mouth. Two bulging eyes, each one the size of my fist, sit on top of its flat nose. The wheezing and croaking are coming from the monster. As it inflates its throat and snaps its rubber lips, I realize it’s talking. I can hear another voice, but there’s a crackle to it like it’s coming from a loudspeaker.
My ears pop, and I’m dizzy for a moment. An eerie sensation washes over me, as if something inside my brain has switched on. Synapses fire and the sounds the monster makes aren’t wheezing croaks anymore, but words. The sounds have meaning and my brain understands them.
“I’m almost done. One more language download to go,” he says. Its voice is a deep baritone, so I presume it’s a ‘he’.
The monster peels back one of the blonde woman’s eyelids with a long silver tool. He pushes the lamp directly over her unfocused iris. She’s unconscious. Thank God.
I guess I was too, and I’m grateful for that when I see the light change to a bright blue laser. Her body jerks against the restraints in a terrible and involuntary way, as if she’s having a fit. It stops immediately as the light changes back to yellow.
“So, are they suitable?” asks a disembodied voice.
“They will breed well with Relicai,” says the monster, and I shiver at his words. I don’t want to ‘breed’. I want this nightmare to end. Especially if the ‘Relicai’ are anything like this thing. The monster returns the lamp to its original position and removes the tool from her eye, dropping it into a nearby dish with a clang.
She groans, her eyelids fluttering.
“They’re awake,” he says, looking past me. I turn my head to follow his gaze. Three more women are laid out on the other side of me in a row like in a morgue.
The blonde screams, a high-pitched hysterical sound.
The monster winces and stabs at a button on the lamp. Her scream is strangled as her whole body becomes rigid and her joints lock. Pain contorts her pretty features into a mask of horror.
“Please! Leave her alone! Stop!” I shout, but he takes no notice of me. His eyes are fixed on his victim, his head tilted to the side and a repugnant smile on his rubbery lips. Loud sobs echo through the room, and someone farther down tries to shush them. To my utter relief, the monster releases the blonde from her purgatory and she slumps, her breathing fast and shallow.
“Do. Not. Scream!” he snaps at the blonde, each word a clear threat to all of us. He looks over at me and grins. I can’t bear to look at him and turn my face away.
I make eye contact with the woman lying next to me. Her dark eyes are focused and penetrating, her bruised jaw and fists are clenched tight as silent tears roll down her cheeks.
The tables slowly rise up to a ninety-degree angle, like we’re about to go on a hellish rollercoaster ride. I didn’t cry at first. I was too shocked to cry. Now, I’m struggling to fight back the tears, determined to not give our abductors the satisfaction of seeing my fear.
I think back to the bullies on the estate. The best way to stay safe is always to keep out of their way. Or if you had to pass them, you had to act tough, give them no reason to pick on you. Then run as soon and as fast as you could.
The monster stands in front of us. The tables we were lying on are now upright vertical pillars, giving us the appearance of standing, when in fact we are still being held completely still by the glowing bands—a macabre butterfly display.
“Can you all understand me?” he asks. Bulging eyes snap between us with reptilian speed. I understand his words, but when I think of ‘yes’ in his language, there’s no way I can replicate the sounds he makes.
I nod dumbly instead, and he coughs up some more words that my brain quickly translates. “You may speak in your own language. I will understand.”
“What do you want from us?” chokes out the dark-haired woman beside me. Purple bruises are blooming on her neck and arms. She’d put up a fight. Except she’s still here with us. I look a little more closely at our captor and notice there are some discolorations on his arms and face. She got a few hits in before they took her down. Good for her. The knowledge that he can be hurt is comforting.
“You’ve been given a gift. A new life,” he says, sounding smug.
“Bullshit!” I snap, trying to be ‘tough Poppy’. “He’s going to breed us!”
“We are currently orbiting the Relicais’ home planet, where you will soon be delivered. The Relicai have very few females. You will be treasured amongst them,” he explains calmly, and I breathe a sigh of relief that he didn’t shock me as punishment for speaking out.
“We’re going to be sex slaves?” A brunette gasps in horror, her accent dripping with privilege. They’ve taken us from all over. Curious, I strain to get a better look at her. She’s draped in an oversized cashmere jumper, with perfect Dior makeup and Ugg boots. She sounds like one of those socialites from Chelsea.
The monster is getting impatient. His skin ripples like a chameleon’s as he shifts his splayed feet. “They’re a peaceful race. Your life will be better there.”
“Then how come you didn’t ask us to sign up? Be tributes or whatever.” When his slimy gaze focuses on me, I instantly regret drawing his attention for the second time. But if I don’t speak up to find out answers, who will?
The monster sighs as if he can’t be arsed with the human slave orientation he’s been dumped with. “We are Greenskins, a master race. Your permission is not required, or desired. I would suggest you do not fight against your situation.” He looks pointedly at the bruised lady beside me. She glares back, and I like her even more.
“Why me?” sobs the redhead to no one in particular. She’s eastern European by her accent.
The Greenskin doesn’t seem to understand rhetorical questions. “We used specific criteria—age, health and location, as well as the fact that you will not be missed.”
Harsh but fair. “Fuck you,” I grumble.
“No, thank you,” replies the Greenskin with a slow blink in my direction, and my stomach lurches. I gulp back the hot bile in my throat. Best be careful what I say in future.
“I’ll be missed!” cries the redhead. “You’ve got the wrong person! Take me back! I’ll be missed.” She falls back into hysterical sobbing, and tears burn the backs of my eyes.
“No, Anna, you will not.” The Greenskin laughs, or at least that’s what I think it is. “The Relicai will arrive soon, and you will be released for the exchange. If I were you, I would make a good impression. Life on the Relicai home world is hard. You will need to please them. Your future happiness depends upon it.” He leaves the room without a backward glance.
I look at the women around me. They look as horrified and desperate as I feel. I try to think of something to comfort the sobbing Anna. But honestly, I can’t think of anything that might help. ‘At least you’ve got your health’, and all the other crap I heard after Mum died doesn’t quite cut it right now.
I clear my throat and try to compose myself. I don’t sound like I’m about to freak out, which is a clear win in this current situation. I take a deep breath, resolving to stay strong no matter what—somebody has to. When Mum was dying I managed to take care of everything for years. I can do this! “I’m Poppy.”
There’s silence for a moment, and the fighter beside me speaks up, her voice a brittle whisper. “Harpreet.”
“Ceri,” says the blonde, her Welsh accent awash with tears.
“Louisa,” adds the brunette.
Anna cries some more, and I don’t blame her.
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About the Author
I’ve had a long love affair with all genres of romance since I first picked up my mum’s fabulous Fabio books as a teenager. I love to create stories and characters that are out of this world, and I hope you enjoy reading them. I live in East London with my husband, two children and two cats, when I’m not writing I pour pints at my local theatre.
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One Reply to “Book Blitz & Excerpt: The Hunter’s Heart + Giveaway”
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