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   ―One day soon I hope to show you my favorite entertainment.‖
   ―Time,‖ Tante called, saving Eden from making a response. Only the Goddess knew what she might have said.

* * * *

The next morning Tante summoned Eden to her private quarters. Her personal physician—a wizened crone Eden adored—sat at Tante's side. Both looked so grave, Eden's happiness at seeing Arabella evaporated like water on a sizzling griddle.
   ―I have heard some disturbing rumors about you, Eden,‖ Tante said, looking so disappointed in her Eden's heart ached.
   ―May I know what these rumors are, Tante?‖ She knew better than to ask for their source. Tante considered tattle telling the ultimate sin.
   ―First, that you have had your entire body sculpted.‖
   Eden fought the urge to laugh. Tante would have had to pay for any procedure like sculpting. Tante's frugality wore credits to such thinness they almost disappeared. Not only was sculpting costly, but it took weeks to recover. Tante would never excuse Eden for two days, never mind longer. Moreover, Tante prided herself on her pupils' natural physical beauty and would not allow anyone to alter one of hers.
   ―I know that rumor is an outright lie,‖ Tante continued when Eden said nothing. ―The second rumor is more serious. Only Arabella can attest to its validity.‖ Tante steepled her fingers and stared at Eden so intently she wanted to squirm. ―Unfortunately, Arabella is partial to you and every student knows it. Therefore Dr. Dean will
examine you.‖
   Eden shivered with distaste. She couldn't mistake the kind of examination Tante intended to inflict. Over her years at Rising Moons, Dr. Dean had examined her a few times and seemed overly interested in her breasts. The thought of his hands on her body—in her most private places—made her skin crawl.
   ―Will Dr. Arabella also be present?‖ Eden asked, her voice betraying nothing of her anxiety.
   ―As will I.‖ Holding up one finger, Tante silenced Eden's objection. ―The second rumor concerns your virginity. If you are no longer a virgin, Eden, you must withdraw from the competition. And I shall have to refund all fees to our guests. At least to those who are interested only in you.‖
   And only the Goddess knew how Tante's reputation would suffer. She could lose the academy completely.
   ―I understand, Tante. Where…where will this examination take place?‖
   Tante patted the bench where she and Arabella sat. ―Right here. I'll not add to the rumors by parading you to Arabella's clinic.‖
   ―I might prefer it,‖ Eden said softly. ―My vindication would spread as quickly as these lies.‖
   ―Don't worry, child. I shall take care of any necessary vindication.‖

* * * *

―You know Azura's behind this,‖ Colette murmured as she and Eden made their way to the kitchens.
   ―I suspect she is, but I have no proof. What puzzles me even more is who told Tante about the lies? You know how she despises gossip.‖
   ―True. But Azura has a way of making enemies.‖
   ―Which means anyone could have started the rumors, knowing Azura would be blamed. Our disliking each other isn't a secret.‖
   ―Well…whoever started the rumors, I hope the Goddess curses her forever.‖
   So do I, Eden thought.
So do I.
She wanted to subject the miscreant to Dr. Dean's not-so-tender examination of the liar's most tender parts.

Chapter Four

The Second Competition

The aroma of roasting meat quickened their pace. Thirty-eight men rushed into Rising Moons' elegant dining room. Kaliq and Kamal strolled in, each seeking the woman of his choice.
   Kamal spotted Eden at the far end of several long tables, each table containing different kinds of food and hosted by a Rising Moons courtesan. Heading for Eden, he said to his brother, ―Life being short, I'll start with dessert.‖
   Grinning, Kaliq countered, ―I'm in the mood for succulent chicken.‖ He headed for Azura, his grin fading when he saw twenty or more men lined up at her station. Hearing her sweet voice offering a selection of meats, he decided he didn't mind waiting. ―Chicken or turkey?‖ ―Steak or roast?‖ ―Lobster or crab?‖ The words had never before summoned the need to taste each morsel from a woman's lips. But he wanted to taste them from Azura's. At last he reached her. What remained on her trays looked over-cooked and dry. He attributed the lack of edible remains to the greedy horde that had filled their plates to heaping.
   ―Oh dear,‖ she sighed, dark blue lashes fluttering, kissable pink lips pouting. ―It will take hours to prepare more. Well, the steak could be ready in a few minutes. But the crab and lobster are the very devil to shell.‖ She held out one dainty hand. ―I've dozens of tiny cuts, I labored so long over them.‖
   Taking her hand—any excuse to touch her— Kaliq raised it to his lips. He could feel no cuts, tiny or otherwise. Nor did he feel the instant lust he'd experienced when he touched Eden. Disappointed, but willing to try anything to spend time with Azura, he took a plate.
   ―I'll take a taste of everything that's left.‖ Her smile felt like a benediction. ―Can you sit with me while I eat?‖
   She stiffened. Had he affronted her? Or was she simply showing off her cleavage? Her full breasts lifted
then fell with her deep sigh. Her lashes drooped, modestly hiding her eyes.
   ―Alas, I cannot. Tante won't allow us to show favoritism. You must wait until the very last evening to be alone with me.‖ Looking up, she smiled. ―If, that is, you are the highest bidder.‖
   Sketching a half-bow, Kaliq smiled back before he eased away. When Azura turned, he put his plate on a bus-tray and headed for the salads and vegetables. Although he had eaten nothing, a disagreeable taste lingered on his tongue.

* * * *

―Aren't you going to eat?‖ Eden asked when Kamal remained at her station.
   By way of answering, Kamal took a bite of Venusian cracker bread
then chewed. His face wore an expression of serious evaluation. ―Interesting flavor.‖
   Eden laughed. ―It has very little flavor. Here, try it like this.‖ Breaking off a generous piece from the bread round, she layered it with a string of pale cheese
then a slice of juicy red fruit. ―The cheese prevents the melon from dissolving the bread. Together they make a delicious trio of texture and taste. Try it.‖ She held it to his lips, cupping a napkin beneath his chin.
   Maneuvering carefully, he managed to take a bite and suck the juice off her fingers. Once again he felt lust jolt through him, saw her gold-brown eyes widen and then glaze. His pantaloons suddenly seemed far too tight for his spear's comfort. Licking juices from his own lips, he saw Eden's gaze shift to his mouth.
   ―You want to taste me, don't you, Eden?‖
   ―Yes,‖ she whispered
then looked over his shoulder.
   Seeing men lined up behind him, he filled his plate with cracker bread, cheese and fruit. ―I'll come back for your sweets,‖ he muttered, winking at her before he strode to a nearby table. He was especially interested in the creamy custard dessert and how it would taste when he licked it from Eden's creamy flesh.
   When Kaliq joined him, both men watched Eden.
It seems, brother, you are coming to appreciate Eden.
I am not coming at all.

* * * *

For Eden the evening went by too quickly. She'd wanted time to study the men and how they interacted with the other courtesans. Maybe she could figure out who had spread those vicious rumors about her. But in a short half-hour, all her desserts were gone. Even the man who'd snubbed her last night had smiled at her as he took two sweetmeats.
   Kaliq appeared at her station, disappointment clear in his expressive eyes. ―I should have followed Kamal's lead and gotten dessert first.‖
   ―There's another food competition on the last night,‖ Eden told him.
   ―If my brother and I are fortunate enough to be seated at your table.‖
   ―A polite way of saying
if you buy me,‖ s
he said before she thought. She truly did not want to alienate either one of them.
   He took her elbow and, as she had with his brother, she felt a subdued jolt of lust. ―Sit with me. And don't tell me you can't. Your sisters are
sitting with other men.‖
   ―We call each other cousin.‖ She allowed him to lead her to his empty table.
   ―My brother had time alone with you last night.‖
   ―You could have had the same time, Kaliq.‖ She wanted to ask him where he'd gone, but didn't. Perhaps he'd heard the rumors regarding her virginity and had decided he wanted someone else. She didn't know how she felt about that.
   Pulling out a chair, he seated her before he sat. The old-fashioned courtesy pleased her.
   ―I had some business to tend.‖
   ―You needn't explain.‖ Realizing she intended to ask him to explain the lust she felt whenever they touched, she laughed.
   As if he'd read her mind he said, ―Ask away. I don't mind if you don't mind my not answering.‖
   ―Are you and Kamal in business together?‖ That seemed an innocuous beginning.
   The twinkle in his green eyes made her laugh. ―I should have asked a different way. What business are you in?‖
   ―We collect things.‖
   ―Such as?‖
   ―Rare and beautiful things.‖
   Sensing a compliment in the evasive answer, Eden lowered her gaze to the table. His sunbronzed hand lay within easy reach. Temping reach. She looked up again. Straight into his steady emerald gaze. His eyes were lighter than his brother's, but had the same effect, bringing images of fetid jungle heat and humidity. Of bodies joined, their sweat, sighs and groans mingling. Scents more pleasant than any swamp— not sandalwood, but something fresh and musky and uniquely Kaliq.
   ―Where are you from?‖ she managed at last, licking her lips and imagining their salty sweat on her tongue.
   Licking his own lips as if he'd shared her thoughts, he said, ―We call no place home as yet.‖
   ―Evasiveness seems a family trait.‖ A horrible thought popped into her mind and out her mouth. ―Is your business illegal?‖
   ―No!‖ He sounded as horrified as she felt. ―The things we collect we pay or trade for. Sometimes sellers realize they've sold something priceless too cheaply. They may resent us, but their lack of vision isn't our problem.‖
   ―Has anyone come after you or claimed you cheated him?‖
   ―We're not thieves, Eden.‖
   ―I didn't—maybe I did mean that. But who am I to criticize? Many men call women like me whores.‖
   ―Kamal and I aren't among them.‖ He took her hand.
   Under the jolt of lust, she felt tenderness and acceptance—emotions so unexpected tears burned her eyes.
   Seeing Kamal approaching, she bade Kaliq a hasty goodnight. She needed time to sort through her feelings—feelings she'd never thought to have about the man who bought her.

Chapter Five

The Third Competition

Eden perched on a stool in the middle of the stage, her lute on her lap. A gauzy screen hid all but her silhouette from her audience of forty men. Tante had insisted that, for tonight at least, the women have complete anonymity. Forty men, Eden thought, feeling like Ali Baba among his forty thieves. Perhaps she should feel more like Scheherazade, weaving a thousand tales and falling more and more under her husband's spell—despite the fact he would have her killed when her stories ended.
   This particular event was her least favorite. It would reveal too much of her soul. But tonight's storytelling must be truthful and about herself. Tante insisted and would tell the men if any of her courtesans lied.
   Sighing, Eden cradled her lute and plucked out a cheery, bouncy melody. She sang about a happy little girl who traveled with her parents all the way from Earth to Venus. For four years the little family had shared great joy with the students and teachers of Rising Moons Academy for Sensual Pleasures. But midway through the fifth year, the parents died, leaving the girl an orphan. Eden sang and strummed a dissonant note. Continuing the mournful tune, Eden told of Tante's kindness and endless patience. Of her willingness to let the girl remain with her. Of her encouragement to study subjects not normally offered at the Academy for Sensual Pleasures. The melody brightened and built to a crescendo when the girl—now on the brink of womanhood— announced her heart's desire. She would become The Consummate Courtesan, bringing welldeserved renown to Tante and Tante's academy. Eden strummed a final chord—neither dissonant nor gay. It told of uncertainty, mirroring her own uncertain future.
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