Authors: Michelle O'Leary
for a little woman, she sure did have a set of lungs on her. He kept his amusement from showing when she turned back to him, but she didn’t glance at his face, her eyes narrowed on his wrist. Then she turned her head, chin lifting when she focused outside the room, probably on the bulky law keeper. Stryker watched her back into the room and stiffened at the tension in her slim body. She was afraid again and he discovered that he didn’t like it.
The big man appeared, brow lowered and face ruddy with aggression. Stryker felt a spear of answering violence course through him and flexed his confined limbs. Clavis spared him one contemptuous glance before fixing his wrath on Sukeza. “What?”
Stryker couldn’t see her face, only the tense line of her back, but her voice was calm. “I can’t tend to his injuries properly with his wrists cuffed. Would you please take them off?”
The man’s eyebrows skyrocketed, little pig eyes round and staring. “You gotta be kiddin’ me.”
“One at a time, of course. He couldn’t possibly do anything with the rest of him chained down. Right?” She sounded a bit uncertain at the end, shooting Stryker a dubious look over her shoulder.
Much as he would love to take advantage of the opportunity, the odds against success were too high and the lure of his other escape route too enticing. Besides, good behavior now might relax the man into a false sense of security, which would only help later. Stryker nodded, looking past her at Clavis. “Hurting her or taking her hostage wouldn’t do me much good, would it?” he asked the big man with low sarcasm. “She’s fixing me up. I’ll behave.”
The man snorted but hesitated, eyes traveling from Stryker to Sukeza. His gaze narrowed and Stryker saw something in them that he didn’t like. “Sure, why not? Always did love watchin’ you work, Suki,” he said with a smirk. Lumbering forward, he kept a wary eye on Stryker while he pulled a rough key from his pocket and slid it into the shackle. Turning it, he stepped back hastily as if he expected the prisoner to explode, but Stryker gave him a humorless smile and didn’t move.
Sukeza edged around the other man and bent over Stryker’s wrist, opening the shackle and examining the welts. She had that absorbed look, but he caught her sending him a quick glance out of the corner of her eye. She was skittish again. Moving slowly, he pulled free of the restraint and flexed his arm, working the kinks out of his muscles. She watched him for a moment, eyes trained on his moving limb, and he wondered what she’d do if he asked for a massage.
Glancing at Clavis, who had backed further away and was watching them from under lowered brows with his hand on the butt of his weapon, Stryker held his wrist out to her with his palm open. Now was not the time to encourage petting. He felt her cool, gentle touch, but he didn’t take his eyes off his jailor. The man’s gaze flicked between them, wary when he looked at Stryker, greedy when he watched Sukeza. His eyes swarmed over her, an alarming contrast of lust and contempt vying for supremacy on his doughy face. Stryker tensed, understanding several things at once and liking not a single one of them.
“Seems you took a real shine to the outlander, Suki,” Clavis said, his tone conversational but with a dangerous undertone that made Stryker’s muscles twitch.
“Why, because I’m treating him like a human being?” she asked in a calm voice, not pausing in her care. The stinging and throbbing from her cleaning the area eased as she smeared a pungent ointment on him.
“You defended him. And you’re fussin’ on him like he’s a prize puller. Got a thing for bad boys, do ya?”
“Don’t be offensive,” she answered in a cooler tone, hands still working over Stryker’s wrist. “I would do the same for anyone. Even you, Clavis.”
The snarl Clavis gave her exposed back made Stryker jerk in her hold, an aggressive response he managed to curb with effort. She must have thought she’d hurt him, though, because she whispered, “Sorry,” and gentled her touch even further. A moment later, she straightened and glanced at him, her hands falling away from his bandaged wrist.
Without taking his eyes off Clavis, Stryker stretched his arm back out and placed his wrist in the shackle. She hesitated, and then closed the metal over his flesh, clicking it into place and turning the key slowly. Taking the key with her, she gathered her supplies and stepped around his knees to the other side.
Clavis watched her, jaw working as he ground his teeth, but he didn’t stop her from opening the second shackle. “Shouldn’t be feelin’ sorry for him, after what he done to the boys,” he said, his tone as easy as if he were merely cautioning her to look both ways before crossing the street. But his eyes told a different tale.
“He did nothing to those boys.”
Stryker wanted to tell her to shut up, that she was making things worse for herself, but knew any concern he showed would only fuel the fire he saw in Clavis’s eyes.
“Where’s your proof, Suki?”
“Where’s yours, Clavis? He hadn’t a speck of blood on him.”
“He cleaned up and came back to the scene,” the big man said in a mulish tone. He’d obviously had this conversation with her before and wasn’t pleased to be having it again.
“Not enough time. His ship’s all the way—”
Stryker jerked and said, “Hey, watch it,” as if she’d hurt him, though she had been doing nothing more sinister than cupping his hand while she reached for the bandages. She sent him a curious look then seemed to catch on, pressing her lips together and wrapping his wrist in silence.
When she finished, she held onto him a moment longer before she let go with a frown. He stretched his arm out, placing his wrist in the shackle. He watched her chew on her lower lip while she reached for the metal slowly and knew the instant she made the decision to take the key. Stryker held in a sigh of exasperation. The woman was as transparent as glass.
“Thank you for letting me tend him and for keeping watch, Clavis,” she said, her words accelerating while she locked the shackle and gathered her supplies, moving toward her bag. “I appreciate your vigilance. I’m not used to dealing with men in chains, so it was—”
“I’ll take the key, Suki,” Clavis interrupted, eyes narrowed on her in clear suspicion.
“W-what?” she asked in a faint tone, looking around vaguely. “Oh, right, yes.” Dropping her supplies into the bag, she stepped toward the other man and held out the key. “I’ll be staying a few more minutes. Don’t forget, you’ll need to take him to the facilities in a little while,” she said with surprising calm.
Clavis snatched the key out of her fingers and glared at her. “You done enough. I want you outta here, Suki.”
“He needs to finish his food, and I should get more fluids into him. It was a furnace in here when I arrived, Clavis. Any longer and he would have had heat stroke. I won’t be long, don’t worry.” She turned away from him, moving to Stryker’s side to inspect her handiwork again. Her air of nonchalance was credible, if the other man didn’t notice the trembling in her slim body.
Apparently, he didn’t. With a scowl at her bent head, he lumbered out of the room, slamming the door shut. Sukeza straightened immediately and went to the door, swinging it wide and propping it open. Then she paused, gripping the wooden jam with tight fingers and resting her forehead on the door.
“That was stupid,” Stryker said quietly. “He’s already suspicious of you.”
“I know,” she whispered without moving. “I just—” She shook her head and let out her breath in a heavy sigh. Then she straightened and moved back to his side, not meeting his eyes. “How do those bandages feel? Are they too bulky? I don’t want the cuff to cut off your circulation.”
“They’re fine, thanks,” he said, watching as she bent over his wrist again. She touched the edge of the bandage and grasped his hand, trying to turn it. He did it for her, showing her that there was still room inside the shackle for him to move. She nodded to herself, adjusting the edge of the bandage with one hand while the other trailed a long stroke down his forearm, sending goose bumps up his flesh and down his side. He said nothing this time, just watched her slim fingers glide over his skin with a hunger that was impossible to define or deny.
Then she straightened, seemingly unaware that she’d been petting him again. “More food?” she asked, picking up the rest of the pastry. When he nodded, she broke off another chunk and resumed feeding him. She was quiet, her eyes on her hands and a faint, thoughtful crease between her brows. The middle of the pastry didn’t have crust to hold it together, so she had to resort to mashing it together and offering it on her fingertips. He resisted temptation as long as he could, but when she offered him a small bite, one he couldn’t take without touching her, he closed his lips over her fingers with relish.
She pulled away, slim body vibrating with tension. Pretending not to notice, he kept his gaze on her hands while he chewed and swallowed. When she didn’t break off another bite for him, he decided a distraction was in order. The woman was way too nervous for her own good.
“Let’s see it,” he said without lifting his eyes from her hands.
“What?” Her voice held a little shiver.
“Your mat tat,” he answered, nodding to the bit of color he could see on the underside of her wrist.
She pressed it to her belly as if in protection, and he noticed that the lower front of her shirt was almost transparent with moisture, showing the color of her skin beneath. His sweat, from when she had so gently mopped his face. His sweat on her skin. A shaft of animal heat drove through him and he clenched his hands into fists.
“W-why?” she asked.
He lifted his eyes to hers and didn’t answer, watching dark lashes flutter over amber. Her gaze skittered away and she glanced around the room as if looking for support or escape. Then her lips compressed and she slowly turned her wrist up for his inspection.
It was beautiful work. The colors were vivid, the artwork elegant, using the curves of her flesh to dramatic effect with ocean waves of blue and green. The soft gray and lavender skin on the sea creature sparkled and looked raised, as if something was embedded in her flesh. He had the strongest urge to feel the matrilineal marking, to stroke her as she had stroked him.
“Nice,” he said in as neutral a tone as he could manage. “What is it?”
She hesitated, and he glanced up to see her studying the picture with her bottom lip caught between her teeth. “We call them selkies after an Old Earth legend. They’re indigenous to my birth planet. They were hunted almost to extinction by the first settlers, so now they’re pretty elusive.”
He studied the sleek lines of the graceful creature, caught in joyful motion as it leapt from the sea. “What planet?”
He looked up at her, startled. That was more than matrilineal—that was downright Amazonian. “You’re a long way from home, farm girl.”
A spasm of longing and sorrow passed over her face before she lowered her arm and met his gaze with strange determination. “I stopped at the barn on the way over,” she said in a low voice, breaking off a hunk of the pastry. He nodded and took the bite from her fingers, careful not to touch her this time. “Stockton was there, so I couldn’t spend much time, but I noticed that there was a place over Suni’s stall where somebody could hide. That might be why she was alarming. If I could get up there and get some samples, I might be able to tell if someone hid there the night of the murder.”
He swallowed hastily. “Why not just take samples from where the bodies were and do a process of elimination?”
She shook her head, expression pained. “I wish it were that simple, but Stockton’s barn is pretty popular. Many of the smaller farms board their animals or rent his livestock. I’d probably find most of the town’s DNA there, including my own. Besides, they got rid of the floor.”
He didn’t take the last bite she offered, staring at her until she raised her gaze to his. “They got rid of the evidence?”
She nodded, her eyes wide with misery. “The blood had soaked into the wood.”
“You know what that looks like.”
She dropped her gaze, mouth taking on a pinched look. “They think they’ve caught their killer. They don’t think they need proof.”
“It’s more than that, farm girl. They’re covering, getting rid of the evidence just in case a Universal Magistrate comes calling. That ain’t likely to happen, but they’re doing it anyway. Why do you suppose that is?”
She lifted her head, looking at him with a puzzled frown as the hand with the final bit of pastry dropped to her side. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“They know it wasn’t me. They know who did it and they’re covering.”
She gasped, stepping back from him as if he’d tried to bite her. “I don’t—that’s— You’re just being paranoid! How could you know that?”
How could he explain? It was the panic hidden under the grief in their eyes when they caught him. It was how Clavis wanted her and hated her at the same time. It was how they chained him, with a hatred that went beyond horror at the murder. It was their method of execution, brutal and erasing. They removed the floor and stripped his ship. His long years’ experience with the darker side of human nature told him that these things added up to a secret. He didn’t know the details—he didn’t have to know. It was bad news and that’s all that mattered.
“You should drop what you’re doing. They’re not gonna tolerate you poking around.” And if they realized that the game was up, they might just decide a swifter execution was in order. They also might make it a double.
Confusion drew her face into such innocent lines that he could barely look at her. “I can’t just drop it. They’ll—you’re going to die.”
“Not if I can help it,” he said dryly but relented at the pained expression on her face. “Look, just let it go for today. Wait ‘til nightfall to do any more detective work. Stop being so damned obvious about it.”
She looked a little insulted but nodded and bent to pick up the jug. “Water?”
He drank deeply and took the last bite of food, watching while she packed her bag and backed away from him.
“I’ll be back later. Around dinner time,” she said, not quite meeting his eyes. She turned her face up to the small window. “You should have plenty of ventilation now. I know it’s still hot, but…will you be okay until then?”