Authors: Zoe York
But on her subsequent escorts back and forth between Earth and Midgard, she’d only seen him at the farm, far from the political daily grind.
It didn’t matter.
Although it was all she could think about now. Aldric the Mysterious.
Shaking her head, she climbed into the airlock and fed the signalling device, now activated, into the drop chute.
Closing the hatch on the chute, she climbed out of the airlock and secured the door before pressing the button to drop the device into the dark quiet of space.
She didn’t want to go back to the cockpit just yet. She wasn’t ready for more hostility, on either of their parts, and now that the offer of a shower and clean clothes had been made, she was desperate to scrub the prison filth off of her skin.
It wasn’t a big ship, so finding the showers didn’t take long. One side of the ship had a private cabin. The other, where she’d just been, had storage, the airlock, and the engine room behind that. In between was a galley kitchen and general living space, as much as a small spacecraft allowed. The cockpit at the fore and washrooms at the aft completed the space.
On every surface, she could sense Aldric.
This was his ship, she knew it in her bones.
Why did the Viking have a spacecraft meant to race between stars?
Navena’s digital footprint moving around his ship. The red light that came on when the airlock door opened. The automated alert that flickered in the corner of his screen, telling him something had been placed in the drop chute. The red light again, followed by another alert that the chute had released something into space.
Then a long stretch of nothing, where his imagination tormented him with a pulsing, repeating image of Navena unfolding herself from the co-pilot’s chair, her golden brown legs bare from her toes to the tops of her thighs. The very top.
Shadows were all that had kept him from visually molesting his new wife. Shadows and the barest scrap of self-control, because she hadn’t asked to be wrapped up like the sweetest of treats.
Another alert flashed on his screen. She’d turned on the water. It was a precious resource in space, so he’d installed a precise digital meter in the tank. She poured barely a cup of water.
Use as much as you want
, he wanted to holler back to her. Instead he scrunched low in his seat and stared at the dark light that indicated when the ozone shower would come on.
Apparently, his cockpit equipped him nicely to be a creepy stalker.
Once she was in the shower, he told the computer he was stepping out of the cockpit, and went to his cabin. Ashleigh had packed a bag for Navena, so he grabbed that and carried it to the back of the ship.
Clearing his throat, he leaned against the wall that separated the shower from the common space. There was no door, so she’d be able to hear him over the quiet hiss of the ozone spray.
“I have a bag of clothing for you here,” he said as he passed it around the corner. “From Ashleigh.”
Her fingers slid over his and took the handles. “Thank you.”
“I’ll find you some food.” He stalked away before she could answer again.
What did you think would happen? You’d sweep her off her feet and she’d finally see you as the man of her dreams?
His back tightened up as he pulled stew and potatoes out of the freezer. There were only a few real meals tucked in there, but after what Navena had just been through, she deserved good, hot food in her belly after weeks of nothing but prison rations—and who knows if she even got her fair share of those.
She also deserve a pause on unnecessary quarrelling.
He set the food in the reheater and headed back to the cockpit. His ship was small and nimble, and hard to find in the slipstream. But head in one direction long enough and your path would be figured out. He needed to jump to another route. Head in a direction where nobody would look for them.
You want time with her
. He shook that off. It was true, but it wasn’t entirely selfish. He was being safe. Practical.
He was dancing precariously close to the kidnapping line she’d accused him of already crossing. This was a dangerous game that could easily blow up in his face.
He didn’t think twice about grabbing a star chart that would head in the opposite direction of either planet they might call home.
For better or worse, they needed some time alone.
he Navena Johnson
that stared back at her from the small mirror in the stark, windowless bathroom—only a boy would have a stupidly small mirror, she thought absently—was a frightening sight.
Maybe the small mirror made sense. Space travel, Viking-style, was rough and basic, and her hair had not survived the ozone shower well.
At least she had clean clothes to put on. Her best friend had given her a few pairs of standard-issue FedNat tank tops and shorts, and she pulled a cotton t-shirt and linen pants on over the familiar base layer. Ashleigh had even included socks and a pair of leather boots. Wicked.
Once dressed, she found Aldric in the common room.
“Hi,” she said quietly.
He looked up from the counter where he’d set out two bowls full of stew and potatoes.
She let out a small gasp. She couldn’t help it—her mouth was watering.
So were her eyes.
She swiped at them with the heel of her hand. “That’s real food,” she whispered. “It smells amazing.”
He held out his hand, a small smile twisting the corners of his mouth. “I’m just the delivery mule. Dinner is courtesy of your best friend, who is very worried about you.”
“The sub-space signal was for them?”
He nodded. “A code that Reinn will be looking for and understand.”
Her mind was still reeling, but her stomach had baser needs to satisfy. A loud growl from her mid-section had him laughing and pushing her gently toward the small table set up in the middle of the common space. “Sit. I’ll bring the food.”
As soon as the spoon and bowl were in front of her, she dug in, barely aware of Aldric on the other side of the table.
She needed to pace herself so she didn’t get a stomach ache, but with each spoonful, she negotiated with herself.
Just one more bite.
When she finally put down her spoon and looked up, Aldric was laughing at her, but his eyes were friendly.
“I haven’t eaten well in weeks,” she muttered. He knew that. She didn’t need to make an excuse, but there was something about him that unnerved her. Something new and strange and nebulous. She didn’t like it.
She didn’t hate it, either. It just felt weird—she’d never been so self-conscious and aware of someone else’s warm attention.
“I wasn’t laughing at that,” he said, catching his lower lip between his teeth as he flicked his gaze to her hair. “Your braids went kind of crazy in the shower.”
She winced. “Yeah, I was only able to get half of them undone. And you know the ozone mist, it gets into every nook and cranny.”
“Completely unsatisfying and annoyingly efficient,” he added.
“Exactly.” She groaned. “I think you’re just going to have to put up with me having crazy hair until we…” She trailed off. “What
we doing? Going to Midgard?”
He hesitated, then nodded.
She narrowed her eyes. “Aldric…”
“Don’t worry about it. We’re doing this on the fly, but I’m not going to take any risks. If we can find a wormhole to jump into without explaining too much, then we’ll be home soon.”
“And if we can’t?”
He didn’t answer her right away, and when he spoke again, it was a deliberate subject change. “I can help with your hair.” He didn’t look at her as he made the offer, and she didn’t know what to make of it. “If you want me to.” When he caught her gaze again, he shrugged. “But it’s not so bad.”
“It’s kind of terrifying,” she laughed, letting him set aside the conversation about their travel plans—for now. At least talking about her hair was light and easy. She’d swear it was growing bigger and puffier with each passing second. “What can you do?”
“There’s this oil we have. It helps with knots and tangles, and washes out easily.” He smirked. “Practically every person on our planet has long hair. It’s not like we have a barbershop on every corner. I could even cut it if need be, but that would be a shame.”
It was true—long hair was easier to braid and forget about most of the time. Some people in the FedNat followed the archaic tradition of a close-cropped haircut, but not Navena.
Although at the moment it sounded like a better idea than ever before.
She looked at Aldric’s own shaved head. “Wouldn’t it be easier?”
He rubbed a hand over his stubbled dome and gave her a rueful look. “Would you like this?”
A blast of heat surged through her torso. Under her hands? Between her thighs? Yes, she would.
. Clearly the rescue and forced marriage and escape and hot, delicious meal had all been a bit much. Now Aldic, or the bad-boy version of Aldric, was making her…
Nope. Not going there.
Besides, he’d meant for
. “I shaved my head for basic training.” A million years ago. Man, she felt old all of a sudden. “It wasn’t my favorite look, but whatever we gotta do, I guess.”
He laughed as he stood up from the table and strode across the room to his cabin. Re-emerging a moment later with an amber glass bottle in one hand and a wide-toothed, wavy comb in the other, he took his time coming back to the table.
Or maybe he was giving her time to run away.
Hard to tell.
Around them, the ship’s noises seemed to amplify. The hum of the engine, the whoosh of the ventilation system. A creak here and a hiss there, all ordinary but suddenly extraordinary. A soundtrack to a moment she didn’t really understand, but the look in Aldric’s eye said this was definitely a moment.
She turned her head away from him as he stopped beside her. Hair. He was going to fix the horrifying disaster that was her hair.
And then she was going to sleep for a day or three, and shake the crazy fever she’d clearly come down with.
His touch on the back of her neck was gentle. Soothing. But there was something else, too. A distracting edge that she fought against, refusing to let her mind explore how else his touch could be interpreted. His fingers, big and rough, touched her braids and knotted hair puffs with surprisingly light strokes, and then he leaned over her and poured some of the oil into his palm.
She felt him tug and nudge her head this way and that as he deftly coated the liquid over her head with one hand and started to work at her hair with the comb in the other.
Tug. Smooth. Shift.
“Ouch,” she muttered, and he laughed as he whispered an apology under his breath. She bit her lower lip as her eyes watered. “Maybe we should cut it all off after all.”
“Won’t be necessary,” he rumbled, his thigh bumping her arm as he moved around her to work on the front of her hair. She could feel long locks falling freely over her ears and down her back. They were probably curly and twisted to hell, but another shower would fix that.
Apparently her Viking man was a miracle worker.
min smukke kone
,” he announced, setting his comb on the table.
“Does that mean acceptable?” She twisted her torso so she could look up at him. She ran her hands through her hair, the free-flowing length a comforting return to normal. “Thank you.”
He touched her cheek, his eyes burning that now familiar outlaw heat he wore far too well. She parted her lips—to say what, she wasn’t sure—but he dropped his gaze and turned away before she could formulate any words.
She didn’t know why, but that annoyed her.
Like, give a girl a minute, right?
Aldric had always been so patient with her. This was a completely different man. Right from the moment she’d woken up in her jailer’s office with him at her side, he’d been pushing her blindly through a crazy plan she still didn’t understand.
Taking care of her, yes. But why not just explain everything now?
“So, what now?” she asked, standing up to clear the dishes.
He took the bowls from her and cleaned them.
“I didn’t say anything, Navena.” His voice was strained. Well, screw him. She was the one who was at the end of her rope. Literally. She was his fucking prisoner, no matter how nice he was about it.
“When are you going to involve me in the decision making?”
His shoulders stiffened. She watched the back of his head as he took his time answering her. “I promise to include you in the next decision.”
“And what about the decisions you’ve already made?”
“There isn’t a FedNat ship we can rendezvous with. I’m sorry.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about,” she ground out. “You
. As a bride! We’re technically married. Without me having a fucking say in it.”
He turned then, slowly, and gave her a slow, hooded look that she couldn’t read at all. “I’m sure it’s not binding on either Midgard or Earth. And if it is, we’ll have it annulled.”
God. The way he said that like it was no big deal. He got under her skin in the worst way when he was sarcastic. “No biggie. Just get married, and then erase it.”
“That’s one option, yes.” He lifted his brow and smirked.
Fuck. Him. She stomped away, then whirled. There was nowhere to escape on this godforsaken ship.
Go to bed
, she told herself. She hadn’t slept well in weeks. Was well past the crashing point. But there were things that needed to be said.
She was pretty sure.
Biting her lip, she moved toward the cabin. Sleep. Yes.
Behind her, Aldric cleared his throat.
Nope, no sleep. First she needed to put him in his place. Squaring her shoulders, she turned around, determined to have the last word. “I take it you’ve played this Buy a Bride game before? It’s all just so
no big deal
“No.” He frowned. “You should get some sleep.”
“Oh, shut up, I know that. You don’t need to make that decision for me, too.”
“How do you know we even have an annulment option?” She laughed, the hysterical edge to it freaking her out. “I mean, I guess it wouldn’t be that big of a deal to get a divorce.”