Authors: Michelle O'Leary
He seemed suddenly anxious to get rid of her. Or…maybe he had another reason for putting her to sleep. She bit her lip while she considered this, pushing slowly away from the chair. Renewed caution sent possibilities and tendrils of panic through her.
Stryker stared at her with his piercing dark eyes, seeing right through her. A corner of his mouth twitched and he shook his head in slow disgust.
you’re like glass. What do you think I’d do to you asleep that I couldn’t do when you’re awake, little Keza?” He loomed over her, his big body crowding her all of a sudden. She hadn’t seen him move. His voice lowered to a dark growl. “You know hunters better than that don’t you, farm girl? What fun is a limp, lifeless body? Much better to chase, see the fear in your eyes, watch you squirm and try to wiggle out from under me.”
His eyes were hot and savage again, his face etched with predatory hunger. Sukeza swallowed hard, holding very still. Yes, she knew predators. She also recognized the taunting tone, the sarcasm. He’d just lost patience with her nerves and distrust. He wasn’t serious. “You said you weren’t a rapist.” She tried for strong resistance, but her voice sounded weak and shivery instead.
“Would it be rape?” he asked, his voice low and rough as he lifted a hand and traced his fingers from her brow to her chin, his touch feather-light and stunning in its impact.
she told herself again, trying to remember how to breathe, while her entire body seemed to shimmer with heat and longing.
He’s just making fun of me.
It was hard to remember that though, when she was drowning in the midnight heat of his eyes. She opened her mouth to answer him, but her mind was a blank. The only word that came out was, “Stop.”
His hand dropped away, eyes shuttering. With a snort, he kicked away from her, drifting across the cabin. “You remember how to calibrate a cuff?” he asked curtly.
Sukeza couldn’t answer, still trying to find solid ground. Hard to do in z-grav.
nuts,” he snarled, and she caught hold of the pilot’s chair to steady herself, not looking at him. After a moment of sharp silence, he said, “Look at me, Sukeza bet Marish.”
Her head jerked up and she stared at his grim face with wide eyes.
“If I wanted to hurt you I would have already. Hell, if I was smart I would’ve left you on that damned dirtball, but I didn’t. Taking you anywhere with me is a huge risk I shouldn’t be taking, even if you were worth selling or trading, which you’re not. I’ve got no reason in the universe to help you, but I am. So get your ass over here and put this cuff on.”
For reasons unknown she felt tears sting her eyes. Lifting her chin, she refused to break eye contact with him. “You’re a stranger to me. You’re an escaped convict. I’m alone and completely at your mercy. Why wouldn’t I be afraid of you?” She was proud of the quiet steadiness in her voice.
He looked away first. Face like a stone, he stared at the hull and asked again in a voice devoid of emotion, “Do you remember how to calibrate a cuff?”
“No,” she answered with as much dignity as she could muster. Pushing toward him, she continued, “I’d appreciate it if you’d show me.”
He didn’t try to help her when she caught herself on the bulkhead, even though she wobbled in a rather ungainly fashion. His reticence did something unpleasant to the center of her chest. She took the cuff from him without meeting his eyes.
“I haven’t done much space travel,” she said into the uncomfortable silence. “I’ve only done hiber-sleep a couple of times.”
“Slid it over your wrist,” he instructed, his voice neutral, though it had lost that flat, hurtful quality. “If you press that part, it’ll scale down to fit—good.” He walked her through the process, explaining the induction phase and timing of the control doses without touching her or the cuff. In fact, he stayed a good arm’s length away.
When he finished explaining and she’d calibrated the cuff to his satisfaction, he monitored her while she wrapped herself in clingy cloth and activated the cuff. She didn’t feel the needles pierce her skin, but a sensation like ice moved up her vein and made her grimace. “Cold,” she muttered and he nodded.
“See you on the other side.”
His steady, dark eyes were the last thing she saw before blackness closed over her head.
A persistent, annoying beep pulled Stryker from sleep. For a moment, he stayed still, listening with groggy incomprehension. Then alarm pierced his fog and he convulsed out of the wrap, flying across the cabin to the control panel. Heart beating a heavy rhythm, he scanned the displays.
Then he relaxed, sighing his relief. Only the proximity alarm, the signal that they were approaching their destination. The planetoid was a solitary drifter, wandering on an erratic orbit around a cold star. There were a few blips of traffic, but small and ordinary, the usual traders to this little outpost. No Collectors. Stryker sagged against the seat, thinking that adrenaline was at least good for getting rid of the residual effects of hiber-sleep.
Glancing over his shoulder, he saw that Sukeza slept on, her form bundled so completely in the wrap that only her face could be seen. She looked small and defenseless, her delicate features a silent reproach. He turned away, guilt and frustration roiling in his stomach. He shouldn’t have lost his temper with her. She couldn’t help being an innocent and he had no business lashing out at her for it. He especially had no business stalking her, lusting after her, touching her. But she’d damn near shattered his control when she’d woken him up like that. He remembered the feel of her, pressed against him all soft and luscious, her cool fingers splayed against his hot flesh, and he blew out a harsh breath, body reacting as it had then. She’d been wearing that absorbed expression, amber eyes soft and fearless. For all of three seconds.
He’d had to work hard to rein himself in, to restrain the hunger and pretend nonchalance. He’d thought he had it under control until she’d tried to touch him again, wanting to look at his damn wrists of all things. He’d nearly lost it, nearly pulled her on his lap and growled,
yes, touch me there and here and here and pet me, Keza, all over…
But her wide amber eyes had stopped him again. Her fear.
He ran a hand through his dark hair, feeling desperate and stupid. He couldn’t understand it. She was small and terrified of him. Why did he want her so badly? So badly that he’d tried in spite of her fear to woo her. His timing sucked. Scaring her on purpose and then trying seduction hadn’t been his most brilliant move. But she’d smelled so good, like sunshine and wildflowers—she turned him into a drooling idiot. He rubbed his thumb over the tips of his fingers, remembering the silk of her skin and wondering if she was that soft all over.
he’d lost it. Out of his blasted mind. With a sharp shake of his head and a despairing growl, he focused on their approach to the planetoid. He contacted traffic control and announced himself using an alias and a fictitious ship ident. The bored, drawling voice didn’t challenge him, directing him to the docking area for his ship class. He knew his false name and ident would raise flags in any Universal System, but he also knew it wouldn’t be checked. That’s why he’d chosen this place. Most of their clientele were outworld rats—it wouldn’t do to call attention to themselves, unless they were feeling suicidal.
Midway through docking procedures, he heard Sukeza stir. He didn’t look over his shoulder, just reached to pull the divider across behind his seat. Gravity settled over them in slow waves, pulling him down into the chair. With the ease of long practice, he shifted to accommodate the change, listening for any sounds of distress from his passenger. But the change must have been gradual enough not to cause her any problems—he heard nothing but quiet rustling sounds.
Jockeying the cutter into its cradle, Stryker felt only a small shudder when the ship made contact and the airlock sealed around their hatch. A mechanical, automated voice welcomed them to Bristol Cross, announcing the berthing cost and giving directions to various informational hubs. He ignored it, having heard it many times before. With swift fingers, he dispatched the credit necessary to pay for the ship’s berth and heard the airlock chime as dockside gave them open passage.
Then he killed some time requesting information on who else was docked at Bristol, listening for signs that Sukeza was ready. When he was sure he wouldn’t be violating her privacy, he pushed the divider back into place and turned to look her over. She was wearing dark slacks and a cream blouse with a thick, natty sweater over it, her hair pulled into a knot at the back of her head. Very country, very demure, and not at all provocative.
Unfortunately, it turned him on.
With a long-suffering sigh, he rose and snagged his shirt from where it’d fallen. Yanking it over his head, he asked, “Ready?” When she didn’t answer, he looked at her again. Her face was pale and she was bracing herself against the hull. “What’s the matter?”
She grimaced, avoiding his gaze. “Hiber-sleep. I get queasy and headachy after. Do you have a tonic or something?”
Of course she’d get sleep-sick. Naturally. Tightening his jaw, he hit the hatch release. “Farmers took the restoratives. We’ll grab something on the way. Come on.”
They moved into the airlock and the station air hit them, ripe with the complex smell of the outworlds, the stink of machines and people pushed past endurance, decadence and decay living side by side. Stryker barely noticed—this smell was as familiar to him as his own skin.
Sukeza turned green.
“On second thought, wait here,” he said warily, watching her for signs of projectile vomiting while he backed through the airlock. He found what he needed quickly and brought her the antidote to the hiber-drugs. Their second attempt to enter the station went much more smoothly.
Then Stryker began to enjoy himself. He couldn’t remember ever appreciating Bristol so much, ever being so grateful for the seedy, brutal side of this place, because Sukeza transferred her fear of him onto everyone else. Now, instead of avoiding his touch, she was plastered to his side, griping his arm so tightly that her knuckles were white while she watched the passersby with wide, anxious eyes. He tried not to gloat. One hairy beast of a man leered at her and she damn near climbed him. He wrapped an arm around her and she tucked against him with complete trust. He wanted to kiss the ugly brute. He gave him a warning look instead and the man kept moving.
“What…is this place?” she asked in a thready, breathless voice.
“Just an outpost,” he answered, slowing his pace to prolong the pleasure of holding her, savoring her trust. It made him feel like a god. “Traders, scavengers, smugglers mostly. Nowhere near any exchanges, even minor ones, so there are no major players out here. Just a bunch of lowlifes, looking to survive. Stop making eye contact, Keza,” he said with some humor as a fierce looking woman glowered at his charge.
Sukeza squeaked something inaudible and ducked her chin.
Stryker smothered a grin and settled her closer against him. “The businesses you see here cater to that crowd—bars, hotels, food stops, and re-supply places like that one over there. Mostly, it’s a place to meet buyers and unload goods, or vice versa. So there’s lots of entertainment, loud places where people can’t hear you and don’t care anyway. We’re headed for the biggest one on this rock. The owner’s a friend of mine.”
They exited a wide passageway and entered a cavernous area, ringed by businesses with flashy signs and bright lights. Mobile shops dotted the center and the crowd ebbed and flowed around the space like a restless amoeba. At the far end, a huge sign in ominous purples proclaimed the sprawling business below it to be, “Belladonna’s Delight.” Stryker headed straight for it.
He tried the side entrance first, but it was blocked by a stunner barricade and no one was in sight. With a frown, he turned Sukeza toward the front entrance. He wished he didn’t have to go in the main way—too many people would get a look at his face. But maybe he was just being paranoid. Bella’s was so smoke-thick and packed that an army could go through and no one would notice.
As they drew near the doorway, he glanced down at Sukeza and smirked at her round eyes and open mouth. Yeah, this was going to be fun, too. Heavy, throbbing music vibrated the rock under his feet and tendrils of smoke curled out of the open doorway. The doorway itself suggested a biting mouth, metal points like teeth hovering over their heads while they stepped to the threshold.
Sukeza balked. “Is that Haze?” she asked, staring at the bluish smoke.
“Yeah,” he answered, studying her with amusement. “You get sick off that, too?”
She shook her head, closing her mouth with a very determined look on her face. He nearly laughed. He’d bet a hundred credits that she’d never inhaled Haze in her life. An annoyed patron brushed by them with an expletive and Sukeza got her feet moving again, but not for long. Her second dead stop happened to be at the pay counter, so he didn’t fuss about it while he paid for their entrance.
Then the bouncer offered Sukeza a flail. “On the house,” he shouted. She recoiled, staring in obvious shock and amazement from his tattooed, metal-spiked features to the freak show that was Bella’s. Chains, whips, cages, piercings, nakedness, and congenial violence abounded. The thick Haze made it even more surreal, hiding and then revealing scenes out of someone’s worst nightmare—or dirtiest fantasy.
Sukeza turned wide eyes to him. Stryker lifted his eyebrows, keeping his expression neutral. She swallowed visibly as she shut her open mouth again and turned to the bouncer. “Thank you,” she said and surprised Stryker by taking one of the flails. The big man gave her a wink and a friendly grin. Stryker felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up and decided they needed to get moving.
Grabbing Sukeza’s wrist, he pulled her into the crowd. The music beat through his body, a disconcerting counterpoint to his own heart. The sweetly spicy Haze filled his nostrils and stung his eyes for a moment until he adjusted to it, absently noting the mild buzzing sensation he achieved from the smoke. He’d been around the stuff too much to feel more than that anymore. It was humid and hot in this wicked candy store, the smell of perfume, sweat, and sex heavy in the air as bodies pressed around him.