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Authors: Janelle Taylor

Tags: #Fantasy fiction

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BOOK: Moonbeams and magic
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Dagan watched Starla approach in a green jumpsuit that matched her eyes. Long brown tresses tumbled over her shoulders. Her movements were fluid and graceful, confident. Her aura was feminine, despite the laser weapon strapped to her waist. She sat down and sipped her drink as they studied each other. "It's late. I had given up on seeing you tonight," he told her.

"We didn't have plans to meet."

"I know, Starla, but I was hoping you'd come."

"Why?"

"So you could tell me about Tochara and working for Tochar."

"You'll learn all you need to know later, after your meeting with Tochar; that's when you'll be told if he accepts you or not."

Dagan leaned forward and propped his arms on the table, catching a whiff of her fragrance, which was so different from Yana's heavier scent. "I was under the impression he had hired me and assigned you as my teacher."

"Not until he has a lengthy and private talk with you."

"About what?" he asked, and took a long drink from his glass.

"That's between you and Tochar. I can't tell you anything until you're an insider and we're certain you can be trusted."

Though the crowd had lessened at the Skull's Den, Dagan leaned closer and murmured in a low voice, "You should

know I can be trusted, since I didn't betray you. What's my continued silence worth?"

Starla walked her gaze over his grinning face with deliberate leisure. "Since I didn't take your life, that should be ample payment."

"Weren't you just a little nervous and surprised when you saw me?"

"No more than you were when you saw me."

"Aren't you afraid I'll change my mind and expose you?"

Starla leaned forward and whispered, "No, but do it and I'll kill you for certain next time because you wouldn't deserve this second chance."

Dagan scrutinized her frosty gaze and heard her cold tone, but felt they were faked. She had been scared and tense during their earlier meeting, but she had concealed her feelings with skill and practice. Her fiill mouth was tempting and he wanted to taste it. He wanted to know everything about her, but not succumb to her many charms. He chuckled. "I believe you would attempt to kill me, so I'll try hard not to rub you wrong or be caught off guard again. Why exactly did you let me live?"

Starla felt her rebellious body and emotions responding to him and ordered them to cease. "I don't want to have life-taking charges placed on my record, and I don't kill unless my life is in jeopardy. I presumed you wouldn't be a future threat because you'd be long gone from this sector; I figured you must have been free-riding for a good reason. I was partly right."

"I assume, since you covered my head, Moig didn't see me."

They were keeping their voices low and could not be overheard. "That's right," she admitted. "But even if you tell Tochar who you are, I doubt it will get me exiled; I'm too valuable to him. He'll consider it a weakness but not a fatal flaw. Don't forget, Tochar knows and trusts me."

"Will he, after learning you lied to him and Moig about

my death? From my experiences, disobedience is more acceptable than deceit."

"I'll deal with that problem if it comes up. Besides, you also deceived him and could be exposed. Why did you hold silent about me?"

"I doubt Tochar would hire any man who was recently disabled by a woman, or by another man for that matter. That would tarnish my prowess, right? Surely you didn't expect me to admit you tricked me and stung my ego. Besides, I felt I owed you for sparing my life. If our positions had been reversed that deega, I would've taken your same course of action. Despite what we are, taking lives unnecessarily is dangerous and costly. What you did doesn't make me doubt your loyalty to Tochar, so why report it? Besides, Moig made that decision and gave my extermination order."

"But Tochar agreed with it after our return and even rewarded me for killing you. Now, tell me. How did you really get here?"

"After I came to, hardly able to breathe thanks to you and that sack, I piloted the vessel close enough to use the escape pod, then sent it on its way out of this sector. I came down in the wasteland, out of their sensor range, and walked here. Tochar's patrol found me and took me to him. I'm sure he's already checked me out thoroughly."

That's what you think, Dagan, but you 're in for a surprise tomorrow. "So, you were heading for Tochara all along?"

"It sounded like the best way to earn plenty in a short time and in a safe haven. I was planning to take over that transporter that evening, but you intruded. Since we're going to be working together, it would be nice to be fiiends. We already have a bond of protective secrecy."

"Let's keep it like that. Did you get a good price for those crystals?"

"I doubt it, because I didn't know their value. Tochar does, so I assume they're targets during raids, despite his warning. I saw the way he looked at them and touched

them, and he told me large ones supply the power for his defense system. What do you know about them?"

"If you join our team tomorrow, I'll tell you about the crystals and our raids."

As she took a swallow of the purple liquid, he asked, "Why do you keep saying 'if'?" He watched her tongue collect a droplet from her upper lip and felt his loins quicken and flame at the enticing action.

"You're a clever man so you must realize Tochar wouldn't hire anyone on first sight. He'll want to question you further, in detail, in private."

"No problem; I'll tell him whatever he wants to know."

For certain and without control, my ignorant auslander. I wish you would stop looking at me like that. What is it about you that's so irresistible? His black hair seemingly begged her to hide her fingers in its depths. His full lips called to her to kiss them, as did his handsome face and throat. His dark-blue eyes were as potent and mesmerizing as a swirling vortex, drawing her ever toward it. But he was a criminal, one of her targets soon, so she must not lose herself in him.

"What's on your mind, Starla? You look puzzled, worried."

"Somehow you don't strike me as a man who works for others."

"I rarely do, but I have no choice if I want to purchase a new ship. I heard Tochar pays well and gives unreachable sanctuary to his men. Of course, if I could get my hands on a load of those crystals, I'd be rich."

"If you could find a buyer without being captured and terminated."

"They're that important?"

"You'll see if you're around the next time Tochar tests his weapons or gives a display of power and warning to would-be attackers. It's formidable; not even a fully aimed fleet of starships could attack here. Those beams are so

powerful they can penetrate force shields. They also have other abilities."

"That means rich buyers are needed, and it's a risky venture to steal them. Why do you take such chances for him?"

"For the payment and excitement, and I have nothing else to occupy me at this time. As you know, it requires a lot of money to keep a ship supplied and fueled, and there are only certain kinds of raids one can pull off alone. To-chara is the best place to rest and hide."

"Hide from what? From whom?"

"Anybody who's after me."

"Such as?"

"Lots of people, maybe some of the same ones who are seeking you." She was enflamed by his sexy grin and rich chuckle after her response. He certainly made it difficult to keep her mind where it should be!

"That's possible, since we're so much alike. Auken told me you have a ship and live on it, and Tochar said you're one of the best pilots he's seen."

"All true, and I'm not boasting."

"I believe you. How long have you been on Tochara?"

Starla shrugged. "Who keeps track of time without a reason?"

"How long do you intend to live and work here?"

"I'll stay until I'm bored, since I doubt I'll get a better offer."

He noticed a tiny smile that time, but it didn't soften her steady gaze, so he decided it wasn't a natural one. "Where are you from?"

"All over, many places."

"I meant, what's your origin point?"

"It doesn't matter. I left it long ago and won't be returning."

Noting her sad expression, Dagan probed, "Any particular reason?"

"Several."

"Such as?"

"Nothing worth telling you. Besides, it's in the past, long gone."

Dagan realized he wasn't getting much information from her. She was as tight-lipped as a Kalfan leech, and was on tense alert. He wondered why he was making her so nervous, since she wasn't worried about him betraying her to Tochar. He finished his drink. "Any family?"

"No, all dead. What about you?"

"The same. My ship was my home and I miss her; she's probably been destroyed by now."

"That's too bad; our ships become like a part of us. It's certainly impossible to come and go freely without one."

"Where and when did you learn to pilot a ship?" he asked.

"Long ago and by somebody special to me." My father and brother.

"How long have you been living and traveling alone?"

"Apparently not long enough, since I'm still doing it."

"Doesn't it get lonely and scary for a woman in space by herself?"

"Is that how it affects you, why you're willing to be a lander?"

Dagan surmised she was amaizingly quick and clever, an expert at this sort of get-nowhere conversation. He was more impressed and intrigued by the preon. "It happens on occasion to the best of us, doesn't it?"

"If you say so. But I'm not alone; I have an android for company."

"I know; Moig told me. But a robot isn't the same as a real person."

"Cypher is. He's the only companion I need, that I trust fully."

"You're a strange and beautiful woman, Starla Vedris, but a captivating mystery. Are you always so distant and secretive with everyone?"

"I prefer it that way; work and diversion never mix well." They definitely would not mingle safely and wisely with you, Dagan Latu.

"Are you speaking from experience?"

"Let's just say I'm convinced of that conclusion."

Dagan saw her green gaze widen and her enticing mouth part in surprise when he asked, "Are you interested in To-char as a man?"

"Tochar has a lover; Palesa. Beautiful and . . . feminine. I'm certain Palesa is very talented at servicing his needs." Cravings for both sexes would be his only reason for having a Binixe lover. At least his carnal preference had prevented any sexual overtures toward her. She had been ready to allege she was a lesbian if such an offensive predicament arose.

Dagan leaned closer to her from across the small table. His gaze meshed with hers. "You didn't reply to my query. Are you afraid to answer?"

Starla decided that if she were compelled to get closer to Dagan for any reason, she musto't allow him to think she was chasing after or was involved with their leader. "In the sense you mean, I'm not attracted to or bound to any man, including Tochar, and even if Palesa didn't exist. My sole interest here is my work. Why would you ask such a personal question?"

"Are you displeased you'll have to work with me?"

"Why should it bother me? One partner is as good as another, if he has the skills to be my equal and backup. If not, he doesn't work with me. So, why did you ask if I had any interest in Tochar or any other man?"

"What if a teammate finds you lacking in some vital area?"

"That hasn't happened so far. Now, reply to my previous query or our conversation is over."

Obviously she didn't fear his answer or she would stop pressing for it. Was she hoping he would admit to an interest

in her? If so, he mused, why? "Just curious. Td hke to see your ship. Any chance for a visit?"

"You will, if you join our unit, because we use it sometimes. We were on the Liksa that deega we met. Tochar often pairs me with Moig.*'

"From your look and tone, you would prefer Auken or Sach; right?"

"Yes; they have more skills and prowess and personality. Moig seems to enjoy harassing me under the guise of silly jokes. I find that annoying."

"I promise to make you an excellent partner when we travel as a team, which I hope is very soon. How old are you?"

Stars afire, go trekking alone with you! "Twenty-two yings, why?"

"Just curious. Would you like another drink? Your glass is empty."

"No thanks. I'll be leaving now." She needed to put distance between them after two lengthy and trying encounters in the same night. He was far too appealing to suit her, and she could not bear the stress any longer.

"Can I see you tomorrow night to get better acquainted as a team?" Dagan asked. "We'll be leaving on our first raid in two deegas and I have much to learn."

A bold idea entered her mind. "What if someone else joins you first?"

Dagan noticed instant, but rapidly concealed, vexation with herself after that query slipped fi-om her mouth. "Were you here earlier?"

She had not made a rash slip, but pretended she had. She reasoned that if he didn't want to risk offending Starla, suspecting her interest would keep him ft^om making a premature move on Yana, as sexual overtures to Yana would force her into making a decision about how far she was willing to go for the success of her crucial mission. Too, Yana might not be able to extract clues if she didn't surrender to him.

She also hoped that hearing she had sighted him with the sultry temptress would stress the point they were different women. A little encouragement might also pull him toward Starla in case he proved worthy of being trusted and asked to work with her on her assignment. Since he was a man who loved challenges, winning over a reluctant Starla should be enticing to him. If not, Yana would have to use him. "I'll see you around, Dagan Latu, if you stay past tomorrow," she said in parting.

Dagan grasped her hand, forcing her to stay seated. Realizing he had done the same thing with Yana gave him an eerie feeling. Her hands were a little larger than the golden-haired beauty's, but Starla's were cool and just as soft. Her green eyes glittered in warning, a contrast to Yana's alluring blue ones. Her complexion was darker, but flawless and supple. Her figure, as perfect as Yana's. Comparing the two women was like trying to parallel night and day. Yana was desirable and provocative, but the space pirate had intoxicating spirit and vitality. Starla was strong; yet, still feminine. Yana was the type of female perfect for enjoyable company and pleasure, but Starla Vedris was of value at any time and place. "You don't like being attracted to me, do you?"

BOOK: Moonbeams and magic
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