To Protect A Prince – Space Opera Romance

To Protect A Prince - C A NicksTo Protect A Prince
Alexandra Marell writing as C.A. Nicks

The Aluderia Chronicles – Book One (unfinished series)

 

Space Opera Romance
31,000 words
Rating – Adult for language and sexual content

Blurb

When the Lady Shula and the young Prince Cristan of Aluderia need urgent transport off-planet, there’s only one man for the job. Unfortunately, Captain Daniels, ace-pilot and super-stud extraordinaire, is just about to be beaten to a pulp by a creature three times his size for not paying his brothel-bill. To his great surprise, Shula steps forward and offers the credits he needs. To his even greater surprise she announces that she’s his wife and the child she’s holding is his.

The last thing Captain Daniels needs is a woman and a baby on board. Particularly one being chased across the galaxy by the most elite bounty hunters in the business. He has enough problems trying to stay one step ahead of the gangsters out to recover the debts he owes them.

Shula will do anything to save the child and when she offers sex in return for passage she activates the Aluderian marker, a hormone that can put men in thrall. Now Shula and Captain Daniels find themselves fighting to outrun their pursuers and the effect of the marker. Dan wants her on his own terms, not because he can’t help himself.

In order for prince Cristan to grow into a warrior capable of reclaiming his throne, Dan must make a difficult decision. But, in doing so, he may just rediscover a man he thought lost and find a love he never thought would be his.

———————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

Read the story free here

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means mechanical, electronic, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior written consent of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

The right of Alexandra Marell / C.A. Nicks to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

First Published November 2009 by Alinar Publishing LLP

All characters in this publication are purely fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Edited by Kate Aley

 

Chapter 1

So this was the great, no, the legendary Captain Daniels?

Shula Araphni, late of the most noble Estepharian house of Aluderia, sank into the shadows biting back her frustration. “Shh…” she whispered to the child strapped securely to her chest. “It can’t be him. The barkeep said he was nine kleftas tall with arms the size of Yorikel hams.” She glanced again at the man pinned to the wall by a massive hulk of a creature. The crunch of fist on flesh made her suck in a sympathetic breath.

Blue-hide jacket. Dark, cropped hair. Eye-patch. It was him. And in about ten heartbeats he would be out for the count, or dead, and of no use to her whatsoever.

The captain ducked, swerved away from the advancing fist and landed a punch of his own to the creature’s side. A yell of pain echoed around the small courtyard. Cradling his fist, the captain slumped back against the wall. The creature grinned.

“Call him off, Sark.” The captain twisted and appealed to the wraith-like humanoid who stood watching the beating. “I tell you, I don’t remember ordering twins.”

“Of course you don’t, Captain Daniels. No one ever does.” Sark flicked open his Reader and arched a thin brow. “My, my, not only twins but Nabian twins. And you had them nineteen times in one night? We are quite the stud, aren’t we?”

“Nineteen times?” The captain let out an explosive laugh. “When I was sixteen, maybe. Look, there’s obviously been a mistake in accounting, let’s all–”

Whatever he had to say was cut off by a large hairy paw gripping his neck. With an angry croaking sound, he started to turn blue.

“Let him down, Nilas.” Sark clapped once and waved the hench-creature away.

Captain Daniels wiped his blooded nose with the back of his hand.

“I’m afraid this time, Captain, we’ll be taking your ship. I’m ordered to impound, the…” Sark brought the Reader closer to his face. “Marium mark 2 until all outstanding bills have been paid. Which, by the state of you, will be when you’re about seventy-five zulan-years old. Nineteen times at five thousand credits a go, well, you work it out.”

Impound his ship? Shula’s heart gave a lurch. Not only was Captain Daniels in imminent danger of death, but he was also about to lose the most important part of her requirement – a transport off this hell-hole of a planet. The baby shifted and gave a small cry.

“Have no fear, my prince.” She dropped a swift kiss to the baby’s downy head and rose from her crouch. At the naming ceremony, she’d sworn to protect the child and protect him she would. Even if it meant taking on the might of the universe itself.

In the light of that thought, Captain Daniels and the two ugly thugs accosting him were the least of her problems. Day two of her escape and she’d managed only three planet-hops. Her situation looked desperate indeed.

“Husband!” She took a shaky breath and stepped from the shadows. “There you are. I’ve been looking everywhere for you. Isn’t it time we were leaving this horrible place?”

The trio froze, their heads turning in unison towards the sound of her voice. The hairy creature’s eyes widened, showing pink rims that indicated its poor eyesight. Slowly, its bunched fist lowered. With a little luck, it wouldn’t realise how small she was. Shula straightened her spine and remembered that her ancestors had been at every pivotal battle in the Galaxy’s history. Never mind that they’d famously sat on the sidelines imbibing strong liquor while others fought for the glory of the home-land. The name of Estepharia was emblazoned on her soul.

“Get lost.” Sark waved her disdainfully away, then peeled back his lips to show sharpened teeth. “If you know what’s good for you.” He growled low.

“Will you let him talk to your wife like that?” Shula managed to catch the startled Captain’s eye. Begged her limbs to stop trembling. “You do remember you have a wife, don’t you, husband? And… a daughter?”

“I do? Oh hell, how drunk was I last night?”

With a long-suffering sigh, she strode into the patch of light illuminating the narrow courtyard. As long as her legs didn’t crumble, and Captain Daniels was a better actor than he looked, she might be able to pull this off.

“Oh Husband, why do you do always do this to us?” Close up, she noticed the star-shaped tattoo on the back of the captain’s wrist, the tear in his sleeve. He stank of strong liquor and of whatever had died to make his patchwork jacket. A man who’d obviously seen life, his one good eye narrowed, taking her measure. Dark as sin, she thought, and immediately felt herself blushing.

“How much does he owe, this time?”

Sark, who had been surreptitiously beckoning the ape-like creature towards her, perked up at the mention of funds and favoured her with a toothy smile. “Ninety-five thousand credits, good lady wife.”

Without flinching, she reached into the pouch beneath the baby-harness. “A piffling trifle. Here, Husband, pay the man and let’s be gone. Wanda is long overdue her nap.”

The Captain lingered a heartbeat too long, straightening his jacket, adjusting his eye-patch with deliberate care, while she waited, heart still pounding, for him to take the Aluderian credits.

“You’ll excuse me for checking this,” he said flicking through the stack of notes and barely glancing at the now very-eager Sark. “Wouldn’t want to overpay, now would we?”

Stupid man. Briefly, Shula closed her eyes. No time for macho posturing. Men and their pride. She’d never understand them. Her shoulders sagged, the adrenaline-surge that had propelled her across the courtyard fading rapidly. Somewhere a door slammed. Muted voices, accompanied by the background thump of earthy music, drifted from the high windows, laughing, arguing. The dank air was thick with smoke, almost too heavy to breath. For a moment, she wavered. Then she remembered why she’d given up everything for this mad chase across the galaxy. The warm, sleepy bundle lying close to her heart. Her life, in all but name.

Gently, she pulled the wrapping-blanket over the baby’s tiny head. Should she have brought a guard? Someone she could trust to be the strong arm she needed to get through this?

Trust? When had an Aluderian trusted another? Any one of them would turn her in for the hefty reward. She’d learned, in her turbulent life, to trust no one.

Except perhaps this man who stood beside her, blood trickling from his battered nose, who would no-doubt be in exactly the same situation this time next moon-tide.

What did that matter as long as he got her away from this place?

The captain grinned and tossed the credit-notes high into the air, snorting at the way Sark immediately dropped to his knees to retrieve his scattered bounty.

“It was twenty times, actually. And triplets, not twins. But who’s counting, eh?”

Captain Daniels turned to her and bowed low, extending a hand. A perfect courtier’s bow, Shula realised with a start. Was her breeding that obvious? Or was he just mocking her? She placed her fingers in his, unable to stop their shaking. She couldn’t fathom his expression.

Formalities observed, his arm stole around her shoulders, holding her firmly. Guiding her towards the exit like a man who would soon be demanding answers.

She was prepared to tell him anything, but the truth.

* * * *

Now he had to start believing in angels and miracles and all those other fairy-tales his grandmother regaled him with as a lad.

Captain Daniels pulled off his eye-patch, dipped his face into the basin of ice-cold water and kept it there until he needed to breathe. When he emerged, gasping for air and feeling only slightly less drunk, the woman was still there, parked on the forward courtesy seat near to the front-door hatch. Still clutching what looked suspiciously like a baby. His baby, if she were to be believed.

An angel of mercy? He’d buy that one. His wife? Not in this lifetime. She was an Aluderian to start with. So inbred they were about to disappear up their own backsides. Chances she’d ally herself to a low-life were so slim as to be laughable.

“So, are you going to tell me why you spent the best part of a fortune on my pretty ass?”

While she considered her answer, he popped five industrial-strength pain-killers and washed them down with a large slug of Chela brandy. Wiping the neck of the bottle with his sleeve, he offered the angel a drink.

Her look of surprise and faint disapproval made him laugh out loud.

“I would have thought that was obvious, Captain Daniels. I’m looking for passage and you came highly recommended.”

“So you’re not my wife, eh?”

Her lips twitched. “Wouldn’t you remember acquiring a wife?”

“Not necessarily. Let’s just cut through the shit, shall we? My head’s about to explode and I got places to be. Twenty words or less. I need me some sleep.”

“Why do you wear an eye-patch when there’s nothing wrong with your eye?”

“It’s good for business. And before we even start this conversation, I’m strictly hard-goods only. I don’t trade human life and I’m not interested in black-market babies. What’s wrong? Couldn’t shift it back there so you want to try your luck elsewhere?”

“How dare you suggest such a thing! How…”

“That’s better. Now we’re getting somewhere.” Captain Daniels slipped off his jacket and threw it over the safety railing. Emptied the basin into the water recycle bin, all the while studying his strange visitor. No need to push. Given time and space, people usually revealed themselves.

Pale to the point of transparency, he could almost see the blood pumping in the blue veins lining her aristocratic skin. Arrogant or clueless? He’d never been able to make up his mind about her race. Even now, she sat, back straight, chin tilted in challenge. She’d fight him to the end of time for the baby, he already knew that. Yet she was wandering blithely about the ass-end of nowhere, flashing her cash and toting one of the most valuable commodities in the galaxy, without turning a single strand of her silver hair.

An unfamiliar twang of guilt gave him pause when the woman shifted uncomfortably on the small seat. The baby had hardly uttered a sound on the walk back to the ship. It obviously had more sense than she did.

At least for now they were safe.

He dismissed the thought immediately. Don’t get involved. Not his problem. Wasn’t life complicated enough?

“I can’t take you with me. It wouldn’t be appropriate.”

The woman’s eyes widened in alarm. “And leaving me here would? Captain Daniels. May I remind you that I paid a considerable amount for this passage? You can’t just take my money and turn me out.”

“If I don’t, the next man you meet will. And he’ll take a lot more than your cash. Consider yourself lucky to have met me first.”

“They wouldn’t dare.”

He could see why she’d made it this far. She had a backbone of pure arlonite, but luck only lasted so long. That lesson, he’d learned from grim experience.

“They would, and some, lady. Go home. I’ll pay you back when I have the cash. Leave a deposit number and I’ll make sure it gets to you. Whatever you’re running from, it’s nothing compared to what you’ll encounter out there.”

“I can’t go home.”

“Neither can half the galaxy. Stop looking at me like that.”

“How else am I supposed to look at you?” She stood abruptly, the seat springing closed behind her with a sharp thwack.

“I haven’t cleaned my teeth in three days. I’ve spent my every credit saving your sorry hide and– and– have you any idea how difficult it is washing baby diapers in the restrooms of seedy backwater dives like this? I should make you change him,” she cried, rocking the stirring infant furiously. “See how you like it. Now look what you’ve done, he’s awake and will need feeding. Do you have any baby-milk, Captain Daniels? Some cloth I could use for diapers?”

A lock of the woman’s hair had escaped from the clip securing it in place. She took hold of it and tickled the baby’s grasping palm, quickly converting the impending tears to laughter. When she lowered her face and touched the baby’s nose to hers, the captain’s heart did an alarming back flip. She finished with a shaky smile and whispered close to the baby’s cheek. Words in her own language, not the Pidgin hybrid spoken in the outer reaches.

He’d been beaten into submission more times than he cared to remember. Nearly died, twice. Spent three years in a penal colony on Ariadne 4, but never had he been so gently and thoroughly backed into a corner as now.

“How do you know you can trust me?” A last feeble attempt to fend her off.

“The bar-keep at O’Reilly’s Tavern told me to seek you out.”

“Remind me to thank her. I bet she also said I was nine kleftas tall.”

Another smile, this time for him. “Captain Daniels. If the credits weren’t enough, I am more than willing to pay for my passage in other ways.”

“So what? You’re offering sex in return from passage?”

The smile vanished. “Of course not. I must remain pure until marriage. But I could…” She glanced around the small lobby. “Clean this ship for you. Wash your clothes. Prepare your food. I need your help, Captain. I will get down on my knees and beg, if that will convince you.”

His mind still hadn’t moved on from the sex for passage thought. Now compounded by the image of this desperate woman at his feet, offering herself to him in every way imaginable.

When was the last time he’d been content with one woman instead of hiring half the brothel? A slow, lingering fuck followed by restful sleep, instead of sexual marathons fuelled by a cocktail of stimulants? Clean women were four times the going rate of those found plying their trades in the bars and space-docks. And he liked his women clean. A fortune earned and spent on liquor, and the best sex his credits could buy.

The woman ran a finger along a metal ledge and held it triumphantly aloft. “When was the last time you dusted? Do home comforts mean nothing to you? We could be of use to each other, Captain. ”

“Dusted?” He choked out the word on a rusty laugh. Had he ever? “It’s kind of low on my priorities,” he said at length.

“So you’ll help us?”

Her eyes, which had been a shade of misty blue slowly changed to the colour of Raleme violets. She was a prize, no doubting that. A quick dash to the slave markets of Tramilan Superior and he’d be able to buy the brothel in its entirety.

As if it could read his thoughts, the baby’s brow creased in a frown. The woman’s gaze flicked from the child to him.

“His father was an empath,” she said. “He’s starting to pick up the feelings of those around him. The gift will grow stronger with age. I think we’re upsetting him.”

“No kidding. Look,” the captain said, capitulating to his pounding head and sleep-deprived body. “Stop talking. If the ship co-operates, you got yourself a ride to the nearest civilised world. But you’re here of your own free will. I’m assuming no responsibility for anything that happens to you or the child. Take the cabin, you look done-in, I’ll flop on the bench.”

“Thank-you.” The woman’s shoulders sagged, the weight of tension rolling away like a cloud on a windy day. He knew something of that. Keeping vigil with no chance to relax or let down your guard did things to a body and soul. Left scars. Living life on the edge was a rush, but one day came the inevitable slip and plunge into free-fall. On this side of life, few made the distance.

“I need to know your name,” he said. “If I’m to keep you safe, I need your real name.”

“Shula. My name is Shula.”

“And his?” he nodded at the child.

“Colin.”

Scratching at his three-day stubble, he watched her disappear with a little too much haste into the interior of the ship. One out of two wasn’t bad. He wondered which of the names was real. One for sincerity, the other to throw him off. An old trick. No matter. Breeding like hers would have a family tree going back to the last ice-age. The image-finder would have her in a micro-moment.

He flopped onto the hard bench in the cramped rec-room, and mentally calculated the distance to a world where she wouldn’t stand out like a green elephant at a picnic. Crosios maybe, or Plenies 11. They’d both signed the anti-slavery edict. Find her a good family who needed a tutor for their brats. She’d saved him a savage beating. He should thank her for that.

“This is the last time,” he muttered as he drifted into sleep. And then he realised he’d been too drunk to check the woman for weapons. Perhaps he’d misjudged her, this whole situation. What if she were some clever thief hiding behind a baby and a pair of mesmerising kaleidoscope eyes? Before falling asleep, he slid his short-sword from its sheath and slipped it beneath the bench.

Trust was a two-way thing. Why did he keep forgetting that?

Chapter 2

Tucked into his make-shift crib, the baby slept the sleep of the innocent. Would that she could. Thoughts of the alarm and shame her actions had brought to her family kept sleep at bay. Disorientated, Shula lay still and listened to the child breathe. The tiny cabin reeked of stale food, dirty socks and the underlying stench of lubricant that pervaded the whole vessel. Her empty stomach lurched in protest.

Did luxury matter when measured against the need to be free?

Too wired for sleep, she slid from the bed and pulled open her tote. Pitifully empty of essentials save the few items of baby clothing, the flexipaks of baby nutrient and the handful of diapers she’d snatched before her flight.

What she would have given to see Grand-Uncle Morten’s face when he discovered his missing credits. Credits she’d all but used up on Captain Daniels. With only a few hundred remaining, she now had the added burden of finding employment when they finally landed somewhere obscure enough to call home.

“I’m going to take a shower, sweet-heart. If one exists on this rust-bucket. Sleep tight. I promise nothing will harm you here. You’re safe now.”

The baby rewarded her with a sleepy smile. She loved the way he empathised so naturally with her thoughts and thanked her gods once again that his only requirements were a warm bed, a clean diaper and regular meals. Had he been a few months older, they would never have escaped attention of the wrong sort. Even now she considered it a miracle they’d avoided the rogue slavers and pleasure gangs reputed to roam this part of the sector.

Before leaving the room, she gathered up the clothes littering the floor. Putting them into the washer might deal with some of the smell.

What she really needed were some Attars, the delicately perfumed flowers carpeting the hillsides of her family’s numerous estates. The thought brought her close to hysteria. Attars and silks, servants and well-bred escorts were a thing of the past. Welcome to broken nails, weekly showers and dubious favours in return for passage.

“So what now? You’re stealing my underwear?”

“Oh! Captain Daniels! You startled me.” Shula bent to retrieve a rogue sock, trying not to stare at the shirtless man blocking the corridor. Her cheeks prickled with tell-tale heat.

Arms folded, the captain leaned one shoulder against the metal wall. “That’s twice I’ve seen you blush.”

“I was taking these to the washer,” she said, attempting a smile. Under his amused scrutiny, the heat in her cheeks increased. In less than ten heartbeats, her whole face would be a hideous fiery red. “House-keeping in return for passage, as agreed. Where are your laundry facilities?”

“My laundry facilities?” The captain’s eyebrows raised a fraction. “With the butler and the platinum breakfast trays, where do you think?”

“You have a butler? On a ship this size?”

“Yeah. And a cook and a twenty-strong harem up front. Put those down and come outside for a moment. Get some air, cool you down.”

“There’s no need.” Stepping around him wasn’t an option since he filled the entire width of the corridor. And squeezing past would mean touching him, which would lead to more blushing and the risk of an embarrassing fainting fit.

“All right,” she conceded, after a short pause. “For a moment only. I shouldn’t leave the baby alone for too long.”

When he turned around, she bit back a gasp at the sight of the fire-red dragon emblazoned across his shoulder blades. The work was exquisite, the hand of a true artist. He’d turned casually, but she was already getting the impression that Captain Daniels didn’t do anything without a good reason.

“The tattoo means nothing to me,” she said as they waited for the ramp to lower. “I assume you wanted me to see it?”

The captain shrugged. “Just something I woke up with one morning. You’re still looking hot. Does your entire race blush like they’re fit to burst?”

“Only those with the mutant gene.” And when standing next to shirtless men with bodies to die for.

Reaching over, he grazed her cheek with the pads of his fingers, his thumb tracing the line of the bone. Her shiver made him smile. Instantly, she schooled herself to indifference as etiquette demanded.

The captain winked. “That’s right. Keep ‘em guessing Sugar.” His hand moved to her hair, smoothing, rubbing the delicate strands between finger and thumb. “Perch yourself there on the ramp and take some deep breaths,” he ordered in his low rumble of a voice. “And then tell me who you really are and what this is all about.”

She lowered her gaze to stare at his mud-splattered boots. “I can’t. Don’t ask me.”

“We’re not moving from here until you do.”

He’d positioned himself between her and the entrance to the ship. Deliberately? A wave of panic fluttered low in her belly. Foolish to leave the baby alone.

“Breathe. And forget protocol,” he said, noticing her distress. His voice softened, “If you don’t tell me the full story, I can’t protect you. Or the child. Do you understand?”

Protect her? Tears stung her eyes. After weeks of watching and waiting, the hectic chase across three planets, to be able to relax at last, knowing this man might stand solidly at her back, overwhelmed her.

“I’d rather hear your version of events,” he added.

“You’ve already found out who I am, Captain Daniels. Can you tell me you haven’t’?” She wanted to stand, to meet his challenge head on, but she couldn’t be sure her shaking legs would hold her.

“Wasn’t difficult. Noble family. You attended the Academy Elite. Broke your arm when you were nine zulan-years. The baby isn’t yours.”

“I’m his aunt, and birth-guardian. To my race, that’s a sacred duty.”

The captain picked idly at a piece of loose metal dangling from the door-casing. “So, what? You’re taking him on vacation?”

She swallowed down the rising panic. “Whatever they’re offering, I will double. You must get me away and out of this sector before they catch up with us. Captain Daniels. We’re throwing ourselves upon your mercy. If the child returns to Aluderia, he will die. If you help save him, your name will go down in history.”

The metal-trim parted company with the door-frame. Captain Daniels shot it a look of disgust and tossed it onto the landing bay. He spread his hands.

“Well, I could use the credits, as you might have noticed.”

“Did they say I kidnapped the child?”

“Dwindling populations, rampant infertility and him being an empath, too? You know how much he’s worth.”

It didn’t look good from any angle. Between her and the most precious thing in the universe stood a desperate man. Or even worse, a ruthless one who would be inside, door closed before she could stand.

And she’d offered to do his laundry? Shula clutched the dirty clothes to her chest like a shield. He’d suggested sex in return for passage without giving pause. She might yet have something of more value to him than the reward offered by the Aluderian High Council of State.

She stood carefully, glad to find the dizziness receding. In the brighter lights of the landing-bay, she made out the dragon’s tail looping about his biceps in a spiral that ran down to his wrist. At his hip, just above his heavy metal belt, she noticed the deep gouge that could only have been made by a sword. Like his battered ship, the captain had a story to tell. And as in all things, the outward display showed little of what went on underneath.

He was still blocking her path, arms folded now. Set features giving nothing away. Appraising. Deciding where her worth lay.

“I’m willing to rethink my stance on sex for passage.” The words tumbled out in a rush. “Have you ever mated with an Aluderian, Captain?”

If her question threw him off balance, he showed it only the slight narrowing of his dark eyes.

“Get myself and the child to safety and I will give something of greater value than any reward.”

“And that would be?”

“My virginity. Given freely, Captain Daniels. My virtue in return for safe passage. What do you say?”

* * * *

Given freely? Holy sin, the mere mention made his gut clench and his cock stir. Calm, he ordered. It ignored him, as usual.

“Had that been on my mind, your virtue would have been long gone, lady.”

“You don’t want me?”

The shock of his refusal made Shula wilt visibly, buying him a very slight advantage in this conversation he’d only ever dreamed of having. Sex with an Aluderian? The greatest ecstasy known to being-kind according to the more exclusive pleasure-clubs. And even then so rare that they were usually foisting genetically-enhanced Ekrans on the poor unsuspecting bastards with a lifetime’s savings to blow on a single mind-shattering orgasm.

If he took up her offer, one mind-shattering orgasm before he was horribly tortured and killed by her pursuers. Or by his.

It was almost worth it.

“Freely given,” she said moving towards him. “I would make sure to be properly receptive to you. To keep careful control of the markers. Treat you as my husband in all but name. You will never experience anything like it.”

“Don’t kid yourself.” He couldn’t step away, even though his mind told him to bundle her into his cabin and lock the door until they’d cleared three systems. “I’m an expert in Tialn meditation. You could strip naked in front of me and still I wouldn’t be interested.”

The dirty laundry dropped onto the ramp. “It’s worth more than any reward.” Shula’s finger started a slow journey across her lips. She let it linger and then traced the line of her neck to the top curve of her breasts. “And you know it.”

If that finger moved any lower, he’d be a goner. Her eyes were now almost the colour of Ebon Emeralds. Dark and mysterious, so deep they’d keep and devour him forever. With the effects of the Valagra still whizzing about his bloodstream, his powers of resistance were precisely zilch.

“Hold it right there,” he said summoning every atom of will-power. One day he would kick himself soundly for letting the opportunity of a life-time slip through his fingers. But at least he’d be alive to tell the tale. Falling into this woman’s thrall now would weaken him when he needed total control of this rapidly-complicating situation.

“The baby is Prince Cristan, Aluderes the fourth, now heir to the Kalimar throne of Aluderia. Correct?”

Shula’s arms dropped to her side and the overpowering rush of marker faded as swiftly as it had thickened the air between them.

“Heirs are crowned king at their tenth zulan-year,” she replied. “About a moon-cycle ago, his supporters defected to the house of Alarn. We who remained loyal had fewer resources for bribes and one by one our number dwindled. Whispers began to circulate about an assassination plot so, as his guardian, I took matters into my own hands. I stole a great deal of credits from my grand-uncle. Funds he was holding to establish the usurper in place. And funds which will be yours when you help us. I was told you were trustworthy, Captain. Are you?”

Her tale succeeded in dampening his ardour enough for him to think straight. A reward fit for a prince would pay off his debts. Buy him a life-style. A luxury apartment. Private dancers. A ship with a hyper-drive that actually worked.

“Captain Daniels.”

He snapped out of the dream. Pay off his debts and what then? Continue on the path to self-destruction? Or use this opportunity to start the slow journey back to the man he once was? Could he even remember that person?

“Get inside,” he said. “The baby, the prince, might want you or something. And try to avoid touching me. I know all about the effects of the marker and I need to clear my head. To think. If what you say is true, this is big. Secret Channel Elite Bounty-Hunter big.” He gave a low laugh. “And I don’t even know if the hyper-drive survived that last blast from Galazt Patrol.”

“But you can get us away?” Shula’s now-clear eyes regarded him, unblinking.

“I can get us out of space-dock.” He followed her back into the Marium, keeping a safe distance. “Do you pray, Lady Shula?”

“My family is high-born enough for a personal deity. Yes, I pray.”

“Well, you do that while I go check that hyper-drive and nocens. To get out of this one, we’re going to need every advantage we can muster.”

* * * *

What had she unleashed?

Shula clicked shut the cabin door, taking care not to wake the sleeping child. Now she knew why the act of mating had been relegated to the strict confines of the marital bed. She sucked in a deep breath and willed the raging tide of marker and emotion to abate. The marriage contract ensured that protocols were adhered to. That neither partner became overwhelmed by the torrent of feelings and sensations the act could so easily unleash. It was a thing far too powerful to indulge in for the sake of a night’s pleasure.

Breathe, woman, breathe!

Sex could not be used as a weapon if it could not be controlled.

Prince Cristan smiled in his sleep. Could an empath this young pick up real thoughts and feelings? She hoped not.

The baby smiled again and she scrabbled frantically to empty her mind and focus on more practical matters. Clean clothes. Where would she find those? She had none of her own and given the size of the closet, most of the Captain’s were lying in a heap on the bed.

The tiny drawer set in the cabin wall held only two pairs of undergarments, and a black tank-top. The closet, even less. Shula pulled out a grey military-style jacket and held it against herself. It fell to mid-thigh, but would suffice while her own clothes dried. She quickly disrobed and slid into the coarsely-woven jacket. Her skin immediately began to itch.

It would have to do. The captain didn’t look like a man who wore silk or fine-tailoring. She scratched at the rash already breaking out on her left breast and cracked open the door to the corridor.

All clear. Shula dived for the door to the smallest bathroom in civilisation. Enough room to turn, but nothing else. And no lock. Best be quick then. She dropped the jacket and stepped onto the shower-mat. Nothing happened. And no signs of any dials or touch-pads that might activate the water-stream.

Eventually, after prodding each of the metal wall-tiles in turn, a lukewarm trickle of water dribbled from the shower-hose. Not what she was used to, but pure heaven after two days on the road. Shula tipped back her head and let the water stream over her face and hair. A line of itchy bumps now spread from her breast down to her navel. Frowning, she examined the rash and wondered if the captain kept salve on board. Such delicate skin was a mark of high breeding on Aluderia, but out here, in the galaxy, it was a vulnerability she didn’t need.

For the first time, she envied the tanned, lusty bodies of the immigrant peasants who worked the fields and heavy industries of the southern provinces. They didn’t have to go gowned in strong sun, or slather themselves in canis-repellis every time they went near something with fur.

They-

A sharp knock on the door had her scrabbling for the jacket. Dragging it over her wet skin.

“You in there?”

“Yes Captain,” she called back. “Don’t come in. I couldn’t find the lock and I’m naked.”

Was that a groan she heard through the metal?

“Lock’s the small grey pad at the side of the door. Wanted to tell you the blower is broken so you’ll have to use a good old-fashioned drying-cloth.”

Leaning forward, Shula gathered up her hair and twisted it to wring out what she could of the water.

“Thank-you Captain Daniels. Where will I find one?”

“Out here. I’ll leave it behind the door. And please stop calling me Captain Daniels.”

“What shall I call you, then?”

“Dan. Call me Dan.”

The snarls in her hair would take a lifetime to comb out. “Do you have any shears…Captain Dan?” Silver hair would be valuable, she reasoned. The captain wasn’t the only person to need credits.

“Why?”

“I wish to cut off my hair. It’s too long to handle without an army of servants.”

“You’ll do nothing of the sort,” came the sharp reply. “Touch a single hair and I’ll tan that pretty hide of yours.”

The words stopped her in mid-finger comb. “You’ll do what?”

“Never mind. Just leave your hair alone, okay? And hurry up. Got an energy top-up any moment now and I need to be away before they realise how much I owe them. Then I’ll file for clearance. I want us off-planet before sunset and I need me a shower before we go.”

Tan her hide? The words had caused another burst of marker, although she had no idea why. Thank the goddess for the sturdy metal door blocking any chance of the marker reaching the captain. No need to waste her virtue now he seemed willing to carry her and Cristan without the added inducement.

The rash had now reached the top of her thighs. The itch intense. Endure, she thought. It won’t last forever. Swapping the coat for the drying-cloth helped a little. She wrapped herself in the linen, praying the captain hadn’t felt her reaction to him.

Out in the corridor, she walked straight into the heavy musky smell of a male-in-heat and realised he most certainly had.

Chapter 3

The reward had already doubled. Damned middle-men were already getting in on the deal. Dan tapped in the second code-word and waited for the screen to unscramble. Nothing. Systematically, he went through his hack-codes until the snow cleared and yet another picture of the Lady Shula appeared on the screen. Up three levels of security in less than an hour. That couldn’t be right. Someone was breaking underworld-protocol at the highest levels. Not good news.

The second screen flickered.

“Daniels?”

“Is not at home,” he muttered and minimised the screen.

“Daniels, my dear boy. Now why did you do that?”

“Go fuck yourself, Astor. I’m busy.”

“Oh, I intend to, later on. But now, I have a very important message to impart. I do hope you’re listening carefully.”

Dan’s hand hovered over the off-switch. The sound of Astor’s heavy breathing crackled through the single working speaker. Tuning him out would only put off the inevitable. Might as well hear this now.

“Shoot and be quick. I’m busy.”

“Oh, don’t we know it. Who paid your release from the Ark-club this morning?”

“A fairy. Popped up out of nowhere and told me I’d won the lottery. I couldn’t have been more surprised.”

The energy light turned from red to green. Dan changed screens and typed in his decoy flight plan.

“So we heard. If you have money to pay for Nabian whores, you have money to pay the General.”

“No problem. Give me a full moon-cycle and he can have it with interest.”

“You’d like me to buy you time?” The heavily-affected accent dripped mock-sincerity.

One day, Dan thought, I’ll have that ugly neck of yours. “How long have I got?”

“He wants it day after next.”

Energy-transfer complete, the green light turned to amber.

Flight plan accepted.

Dan clicked affirmative and started up the primary thrusters.

“Two days? No can do. Buy me five.”

Astor’s voice wavered. “Losing you, old boy. Five it is. Oh and I’ll have to increase my cut now you’re playing the big-time. Take care, old friend. The General gets a whiff of what you’re carrying and you’re history.”

“I love you too, Astor. Now be a good boy and fuck off.”

Dan closed the screen in disgust. The Generals of this galaxy might run the show, but slime like Astor was the lubricant that kept the cogs turning. A bluff. The man couldn’t possibly know about the Marium’s impromptu passengers yet. Could he?

Concentrate. Get the… Footsteps sounded behind him. Oh hell, not now.

“Captain, I mean Dan. Excuse me for interrupting but will we need to come up front and strap ourselves in for take-off? I promise I have the…sex thing under control.”

“I told you, it’s not a problem.” He adjusted his erection discretely. “I’ll call you when I’m ready. Go back to the cabin, I can’t think with you talking at me.” And I need the blood in my brain, not rushing to my cock every time you get within spitting distance.

“Of course, I don’t want to be a nuisance. And I hope you don’t mind me borrowing your clothes. Your coat brought me out in a rash, but I found this tank-top in the drawer and my skin seems to quite like it. I thought I’d better ask.”

“It’s fine. Just go…” He made the mistake of turning around. The black tank stood out in stark contrast to Shula’s blue-white skin. The scooped neckline dipped low, barely covering her soft round breasts. Pert little nipples stood to attention through the thin fabric. Smooth shoulders, a slim, elegant neck.

Death by torture or by desire. A toss-up which would happen to him first. The visuals were nothing compared to the messages her body was sending to his.

“Out!” he barked. “And whatever it is you’re doing, switch it off. Unless you want me to drive this thing straight into the middle of that wall. I have a trajectory to calculate.”

“Once the marker is activated, it can’t be switched off. But,” she added hastily, palms raised in a gesture of peace when he half-rose from his seat, “It can be controlled. More easily between two Aluderians, granted, but I will make every effort to keep it contained. Be sure of that.”

“Just leave,” he said, more gently.

Lust addled your brain, made you do stupid things. A single whiff of marker and he already wanted to paint her naked and then fuck her senseless on the console. He wanted to write a poem to her hair.

Then he wanted to do it all over again. Stupid idiot.

Submit trajectory.

“Refer to flight plan. M class world preferred. B class optional. Avoid all craft on special list by three million light years.”

He studied the star-map forming on the screen. Dragging his attention from Shula’s breasts to the small matter of getting them off this world without being tracked by slime like Astor.

The Malivulan Moons glowed in the centre of the array. Too close, he decided. Ralivar? Possible. M class, which meant a surface society. A few towns, but mainly small settlements in the mountains by the great lakes. How did one lose a woman and a child in so small a galaxy?

He scrolled the screen sideways. Pasiphae. Ghost-moon of Argon. His dragon twitched as he flexed his shoulders. Dare he show his face there again? The perfect hiding place. But only for one of his passengers.

Primary ignition phase complete. Secure for lift-off.

“Acknowledged. Stand by.”

He rubbed his aching forehead. Sobering up was grim, but at last his focus had returned and his stomach stopped rolling. Soon as his erection subsided, he’d call in Shula and the kid and they’d be away.

What a beautiful irony. The more dangerous the mission, the bigger the profit. Or so it usually went. One small tweak to his flight-plan and he’d have the General, and gang-leaders ten times more important, biting off each other’s balls for a piece of his cargo.

If only. A man had to have some standards, set some limits or he was no better than a beast. This life hollowed you out, stripped you bare, but he’d managed to cling to a little of his soul. Enough that he knew the difference between right and wrong. And trading human life was plain wrong.

Did the gods still listen when a man had been silent for so long? Would Pasiphae welcome the prodigal son, or cast him out once again?

Only one way to find out.

He opened the intercom.

“Okay, bring up the kid. It’s time to go.”

Chapter 4

“He’s very small.”

Shula waited for Dan to complete his scrutiny of the child. When she turned to rinse out the washing-cloth, she caught him twisting his features into a grimace. Cristan’s eyes widened and then his bow-lips turned up into a smile.

“Babies usually are.”

The smaller the planet grew in the view-screen, the more she felt able to shrug off some of the mantle of worry. Tending to Cristan’s needs grounded her in the moment. Stopped her brooding on the what ifs and if only’s.

“Thank you for this consideration,” she said nodding at the bowl of warmed water, the relatively-clean drying-cloth and the shirt the captain had ripped up for make-shift diapers. “This will not go unappreciated, I promise. Would you kindly dispose of the contents of this diaper?”

Dan took the soiled shirt reluctantly between his thumb and forefinger, face creased in a look of disgust. “This came out of that? Holy sinfulness, I think I’ve just discovered a secret weapon. Did the replicator work?”

“You mean for the baby nutrient?” Shula wiped a dribble of milk from the baby’s chin. “It’s not ideal, but I think he will tolerate it in the short term. Have you decided on a safe harbour, yet? His Royal Highness needs stability. The chance to grow and attain manhood.”

“Then what? He goes home to claim his kingdom? I think I saw that movie.”

“Yes, he will go home. That he’s already told me.”

Dan’s eyes narrowed. “Looks a bit young to talk.”

“At moments of closeness, I feel things, in here.” She placed a flat palm over her heart and laughed. “Fanciful, I know. Sometimes I have a strong feeling that he’s…protecting me in some way.”

“Not so unusual with empaths. I’ve seen stranger.”

That made her smile. “I don’t doubt it. This is my first time off-world.”

“You’ve never seen the Rings of Artemis? Thought a toff like you would have done the Grand-Tour.”

Bathing finished, she set about fashioning another diaper from Dan’s sacrificed shirt. “I was sick as a child, the Tarlan virus which kept me abed for most of my twelfth year. By the time I’d recovered, my childhood had passed.”

“Never had an illness myself,” Dan said sniffing the air. “Only the self-inflicted kind. Better get rid of junior’s little present, here. Swing by the galley when you’re done. I’ll fix us both something to eat.”

“Thank you.” Instinctively, she dropped him a small curtsey. He returned a bow, all the while fighting to contain a knowing smirk. Shula refused to ask where he’d learned the ways of court and simply acknowledged him with a small nod of her head. She knew all about subterfuge, the way people put on fronts to further their own interests. This close she could see the paler circle of skin around the eye on which he’d worn the patch. The gemstone in his canine flashed as it caught the light. The dragon’s tail peeked out from beneath his sleeve.

She turned away, already feeling the familiar tendril of longing reaching out to him, entwining with one of his own.

“Don’t forget to wash your hands, Captain.”

“I’ll be in the galley,” he said, tersely, but not unkindly. “Join me when you’re ready.”

As she finished tending to Cristan’s needs, she went through her breathing ritual and did a quick visualisation she’d fashioned to close down the markers that released whenever Dan moved into her sight.

Why didn’t they tell you this in life-skills class? Everyone knew about the frenzy; the phenomenon was well-documented in history class. It was even whispered that some of the lower orders still indulged their baser needs in such a scandalous fashion. But as a race, they’d mostly evolved past all that.

Sexual restraint had brought calm and prosperity. And a life of excruciating boredom, she now realised. There existed a fine line between order and lifelessness. Two days in the company of Captain Daniels had taught her that lesson.

Cristan had fallen asleep on the table, head to the side, both arms raised. Every time she looked at him her heart melted with love and clenched in fear of the future. Between the child and the captain, she would be lucky to survive with her wits intact.

“Come on, sweet-heart.” With Cristan gathered safely into the crook of her arm, she moved to the computer terminal set in a small desk area. A little knowledge might prevent further embarrassment.

Tapping the hash-key, she said, “Aluderian mating ritual, rules and regulations.”

Access denied.

She let out a frustrated breath. Not surprising.

“Daniels code 24A reinstate restriction one.”

Access denied.

Tapping the star key ten times, she did a mental search for the access code purchased to spy on her grand-uncle and his cronies.

“Configure link Delta chrome. Reverse cycle Alcandae.”

Access to primary mail only. One new communication.

She sat back, sighing. All right. Simply explain the situation to the captain and tell him that, for both their sakes, she would need access to the Mating Rules, and quickly.

Subject Passengers. Read now or save?

Passengers? Her heart started a slow heavy thudding. Stand up and walk away, she told herself. You either trust the captain, or you don’t.

“Read,” she whispered, senses in free-fall. For the sake of the child, she couldn’t afford one wrong-foot.

The path, which has grown between us, is strewn with the debris of life. All have said and done that which we regret. The male’s voice was sombre, cracked with age. She caught a hint of censure in his words.

You are forgiven for the shuttle incident. Return, my son. And be absolved.

Hastily, she cleared the screen. The message, signed with a name she couldn’t pronounce, meant nothing to her. But then, it wasn’t for her.

A faint blush tinted her cheeks. The cosiness of the past two days on this ship, the growing feeling of security had made her forget her mission.

Nothing mattered but that.

* * * *

Somewhere, between the wise-cracking and the smart-talk, he’d lost himself.

Dan turned his back on the image reflected in the polished metal of the replicator cabinet. Ace-pilot, super-stud extraordinaire, drunk. The downward spiral of risk-taking and good-times had crept upon him too slowly to notice. The replicator announced the arrival of food. A thin, grey mess that would supply nutrients but nothing else.

Pulling the tray from the replicator, he tried to remember the last time he’d tasted good, honest home-cooking. Last night’s Eligor eggs, at three hundred credits a bite, sat heavy on his stomach. He had a vague memory of ordering eggs for everyone in the house, but that could have been the Vintor Club on Ragnar7. He rolled the shoulder muscle almost wrenched from the bone in the arm-wrestling marathon. The ladies were always very generous to the victor. And he liked to win. He reached for the brandy.

“Captain Daniels?”

“That’s me.”

Shula hovered in the doorway, a hint of anxiety colouring her features. Silver hair flowing loosely down her back. He beckoned her inside the small galley.

“Hope you like your food grey,” he said. “Think the base-unit’s shot.”

Two days into the journey and they’d fallen into a tentative camaraderie. Now she looked anything but relaxed.

“You don’t like grey food?” He slid the tray back into the replicator. “Can be any colour you like. What’s your fancy?”

“You have mail,” she said at last. “I didn’t mean to pry. In fact I was looking for Aluderian Mating Rules and well…the mail just popped up.”

“And which mail would this be?” Violet. He tapped the new colour into the replicator. She looked like a violet kind of person.

“I can’t remember the name.” Shula stepped into the galley. “The subject matter caught my attention, so I read it. Wouldn’t you have?”

Now here was a woman who shot from the hip. Half his size. Completely out of her depth. Spirit unbowed.

“Don’t hold back,” he said meeting her challenge because this kind of bravery deserved no less. “Tell me what’s on your mind. You think I’m about to sell you and the kid to the highest bidder?”

Shula’s voice held an edge of hysteria. “Can you blame me for wondering? Look at the state of your ship, Captain. You said yourself that you needed the credits.”

“Why do women always jump to conclusions? The wrong ones,” he added. “Have I done anything to make you think I’m about to betray you?” Behind him, the replicator beeped.

“I don’t know.” She looked resigned rather than angry with him. And tired to the point of exhaustion. Between worrying about him and the baby, had she gotten any sleep since she’d come onboard?

The violet food looked as appetising as road-kill. “I guess it’s less than you’re used to,” he said pushing the dish towards her. “I would have worn my tux, but…”

“It’s at the cleaners,” she finished for him. “Captain, I would rather know my fate now, than wake up a slave in the outer-reaches. The bar-keep at O’Reilly’s Tavern said you were the only one I could trust. Did she lie?”

“Yes and no.”

Shula sagged visibly.

“Oh, don’t worry. She’s a rare judge of character, that one. But, as you can see, I’m not nine kleftas tall.” He spread his arms wide. Let her take his measure.

“You’re mocking me, Captain.” Shula lowered her gaze, two spots of colour spreading across her pale cheeks. “Trust is such a fragile thing. So hard-earned and so easily broken.”

“You got that right.”

She lifted her chin. “You must not be offended when I say I don’t trust you yet. It’s too soon. Too much hangs in the balance.”

“Well, I don’t trust you either,” he said stabbing a fork into the violet mess. “I’ve met assassins with prettier faces than yours. Slept with a sword under my bed for the past two nights.”

Shula moved fully into the room and perched herself on a stool, hands folded into her lap. “You cannot deny that you have the advantage of me, Captain. Until we reach land-fall, I am your captive.”

“I told you to call me Dan.”

“Please, I am at your mercy. You must know how vulnerable that makes me feel.”

He pushed away the plate, frowning. “You foist yourself on me, and then accuse me of evil intent? I’m not going to turn you in, okay? You have my word on it.”

“Are you willing to prove that to me? Show me that I may truly trust you and I will make you a rich man. A very rich man.”

“I thought you’d already spent your every credit on me. Now, eat your food.” He shoved the plate at her, conscious of the rising heat between them. After mentally counting to ten in three languages, he continued.

“I’ll let you drive if it makes you feel more comfortable. The mail was from an old friend. I needed his advice, he gave it.”

“Was your friend talking about us? Me and Cristan?”

“If you can handle the truth without getting hysterical – yes, he was.”

Head bowed, she digested the news. Through the curtain of pale hair, Dan saw the colour rising in her cheeks, suffusing the delicate arch of her neck. Poor Shula, she’d never make a poker-player.

“I have a proposition to make,” she said. “One that will place us in a balance of trust. May I put it to you?”

“Only if you eat something.” He tilted his chin at the dish. “I’ve hardly seen you touch a bite.”

“I will, but let me say this first. We should mate with each other. Give in to these feelings. As a show of trust, you understand?”

He stood up so fast the stool crashed to the floor behind him. Already half-hard, heart beating fit to crack a rib. “Whatever happened to remaining a virgin for your future husband?”

“That does not seem to matter so much right now.” Tilting back her head, Shula gazed up at him, lips slightly parted, eyes dark and knowing. “I have put myself into your hands. Will you put yourself into mine?”

“You want me to give up control to you?” The idea was unbearably exciting. The timing, all wrong.

“Only a little. With practice, I should be able to control the markers.”

“Practice?”

“Their instinct is to run wild. We have protocols in place to avoid that. The Aluderian Mating Rules are probably somewhere on the web.”

He closed his eyes. Being sober made a guy all too rational. “If we get through this in one piece, I’d love to fuck you ‘till you can’t stand. Too much happening right now for me to start thinking with my dick. Do you understand that, Shula?”

“I could make you do it.” She stood too, pushing back her stool with a sharp scrape. The galley was three steps wide. Narrow enough for them to touch without moving. “I’m very good at getting what I want. Or you could simply trust me as I wish to trust you. Take my hand.”

Warily, he raised his palm and slid it against hers. “This isn’t going to end well,” he murmured. She tugged him to her gently and placed his hand on her soft breast, moving slightly into his curled fingers.

“See?” she said, her voice a mere wisp of breath. “It can be controlled.”

“You think?” He made a sound somewhere between a laugh and a groan, looped one arm around her back and lifted her clear from the floor. “But who’s controlling who, Sugar? Be very careful, you may not like what you start.”

“Let me be the judge of that.”

Her warm breath on his face made him shiver. Two steps and she’d be on the narrow table, legs wrapped around his waist. He’d come on the first hot plunge into her willing body. Then he’d want her over and over again until he forgot everything but the need to be with her, to be fucking her, kissing her swollen lips while she begged for more.

“You think we can easily stop this? Walk away when the time comes to say goodbye? Just flick a switch and everything will be back to normal? Did you think of that?”

“No.” The sadness, the loneliness in her voice made his heart turn over.

Smoothing back her hair, he said, “If you want a bit of comfort, something to make you forget all this for a little while, I’ll be happy to oblige, if you can get a hold on that marker. Add strings to sex and it gets messy. Believe me, you don’t want to be saddled with a pussy-whipped drooling idiot who has no other thoughts but to get his hands into your pants. You deserve better than that. Right now, you need better than that.”

His speech did the trick. The tide of markers turned, the air thinned. A swift release in the shower would sort him out. Her? She stood forlorn, a little dazed. He wanted to fuck her, but not out of pity and not because he couldn’t help himself. Not this time.

“Go sit in the rec-room for a while. Sort yourself out. I’ll be up front at the con.”

One day she’d thank him for his sheer bloody-mindedness. And for a valuable lesson learned. How could he put himself into her hands when he didn’t know himself how this story would pan out?

Better that she kept up her guard. He didn’t trust himself to do the right thing, so why in hell’s name should she?

Chapter 5

Dan was right. Trust couldn’t be bought or sold. Its very nature made that impossible. Now she had the double problem of having to face him after her failed seduction and wondering why he’d refused her test of loyalty.

A man like Captain Daniels lived life according to his own code. And she’d attacked him with all the subtlety of a rock through glass.

If not for Cristan, she would have thrown herself into the garbage disposal and ended it all right there.

“The compensators are out. Bumpy ride coming up. You might want to strap yourself and the baby in.” Dan sauntered into the rec-room wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. He tossed a greasy rag onto the small central table.

“I’ve done a bit of tweaking, but it’s the best I can do ‘till we next hit port. Going to take a shower. It’s hotter than a Gerig fire-storm up there.”

“Really?” She felt listless, probably sounded petulant. Hard to care what the captain thought of her. Less than a moon-cycle and they’d part ways. Never meet again. So why worry?

“Something’s come loose in the nocens, I think. Need to hire a tube-crawler to go see what’s up.”

“A tube-crawler?” She still felt the imprint of Dan’s hand on her breast. The way the fingers had squeezed and moulded themselves to her shape. The hard length of him pressing against her thigh as he’d held her to him. And all he could talk about was tube-crawlers?

“Little folk who can get into the spaces brutes like me can’t reach. It’s cheaper than hiring a specialist tool. They’ll usually do it for a bottle of brandy.”

“It sounds dangerous.”

“Nothing more than an inconvenient design flaw, really. Cover’s fallen open most probably. It’ll hold in clear-space. Rattle a bit when we get to the asteroid belt. Nothing to worry about.”

“Does anything ever worry you?” She’d brooded on her faux-pas for the best part of the day. Wrestled with her conscience over the use of unfair tactics in love and war. And Dan? Their encounter in the galley might never have happened.

“Worrying is a waste of time and energy.”

No arguing with that.

“And so is sulking.”

Dan’s face remained deadpan, although a mischievous light twinkled in his dark eyes. She would have slapped him if it hadn’t meant dragging a stool across the small room in order to reach that smug face of his.

“On my home-world,” she said. “One lift of my finger and you’d be in chains for such insolence.”

The grin he’d been holding back escaped. “You gotta to stop fantasising about me and bondage, Sugar. I’m up for it, don’t get me wrong, but we have a few more important things to worry about right now.”

“I know.” Head spinning from lack of food, legs trembling with exhaustion, she sat abruptly and waited for the cabin to stop moving.

The grin faded from Dan’s face. “Go up front, take the co-pilot seat. I’ll fetch the kid.”

“You have a co-pilot?” Taking his offered hand, she allowed herself to be pulled up.

“Had. These days I work alone.” He dropped his gaze to their still-entwined fingers. “Well?”

She managed a wan smile of her own. Far more subtle than her own shameless request for him to mate with her. Deliberate touching could so easily unleash a storm from which he’d emerge a changed man, forever in her thrall. Keeping the markers in check was difficult, but not impossible when she thought about the consequences. He knew the ways of the galaxy, the places she might trip and fall, say the wrong thing. She did not. Nothing should be allowed to impair his ability to get her and Cristan to a safe port.

At the con, the computer terminal sat tantalisingly within her reach, screen unlocked. Another incoming mail waiting to be read. A test? Or a decoy to put her off the track?

She ignored it and snapped the seat-belt in place. The same dank air that pervaded the rest of the ship filled the cabin, overlaid with the stench of sweat from the damp underarm patches on her tank-top. Blushing made her sweat, releasing the marker made her glow. How would she survive without the chest of toiletries and potions that had kept her looking so sleekly and aristocratically groomed?

Well, at least looking like this, she’d fit in with the company she would now be forced to keep.

Her stomach clenched at the sight of the red mark staining the webbing directly in line with a repair in the viewing screen. Dan’s seat appeared to be cobbled from salvage, since it didn’t match anything else. So different from the Royal Yacht on which she’d travelled as a privileged passenger since birth.

I do it willingly, she reminded herself, keeping the mantra foremost in her mind. Necessity not choice forced Cristan and herself into hard-times, but they would endure.

Dan ignored the flashing incoming message, instead, holding Cristan up to the viewing screen, the child’s chubby hand clasped firmly about his smallest finger.

“Going to be a wanderer, aren’t you boy?”

He winked and passed the child to her. Cristan regarded them both with his solemn, knowing stare and relaxed into her arms. Dan settled himself into the pilot-seat and changed screens.

“Taking her through on manual. Fancy a bit of excitement?”

“You’d put the child at risk for a thrill?” Horrified, she reached for the release catch, then remembered they had nowhere to go that was safer than this rickety seat in an even more rickety space-craft.

“He asked me to. Didn’t you, little fella?” Dan winked again, as if he and the child shared some secret she wasn’t in on. Cristan looked back in what looked suspiciously like adoration. Shula made a mental note to keep him away from bad influences like Dan when they started their new lives.

“Okay, he didn’t,” Dan said snapping on his head-set. “But he would if he could. Let him experience life. You don’t know it yet, but bringing him out here, showing him what it’s really all about, that’s what will make him into a real king. Not that nambying about learning manners and how to bow and look more superior than the next guy. One day, he’ll thank you for more than saving his life, Sugar.”

She resisted the urge to cover the baby’s ears. Cristan’s gaze was still firmly fixed on the man who might be about to shoot them straight into the centre of the nearest asteroid.

“My name is Shula. I wish you’d use it.”

“I kind of like Sugar. Hold on to him, here they come.”

The ride through the towering rock-giants lasted no more than sixty heartbeats; she knew that because she counted every single one of the attempts of her heart to burst through her ribs. Her stomach was somewhere on the ceiling as they dodged the last of them, but Cristan hadn’t turned one of his silky hairs.

Aluderia needed him and his strength. She prayed he would find a way back to claim his throne.

The ship banked and resumed an even keel. Dan let out a triumphant roar and turned to her, eyes shining.

“Now that’s what you call living.”

“You fool, you might have killed us.”

He responded by hooking his arm about her neck and pulling her in for a swift, hard kiss that left her lips tingling and her senses in turmoil.

“You’ve broken free. Get a life and live it to the full. Did you feel that?”

The ride or the kiss? Both had left her reeling and disorientated. Unable to tell which way was up. And this time she couldn’t blame the marker. Fear had effectively blocked its release.

The scratch of Dan’s stubble burned her chin. Her lips ached for him to kiss her again.

She sucked in a much-needed breath and focused on the pinpricks of light, the swathes of transparent colour littering the viewing-screen. The space between worlds, gas-globes and lifeless lumps of rock was largely a featureless nothing punctuated by the unexpected. A change of trajectory and your whole life went with it.

“Yes, I felt it,” she said. “Let me show you.” Leaning across the small space between them, she reached around Dan’s neck to pull him down for a kiss that told him exactly how far she’d come in so short a time. A light grazing of skin on skin, tongues barely touching. His kiss was declaration of war, hers a promise of peace.

“Thank you.” The snap of the seat-belt seemed loud in the silence following the kiss. She caught Dan’s frown before gathering up the child and fleeing to the sleeping cabin. Saw him flop back into his custom-built seat, shaking his head, muttering under his breath.

Back in the cabin, she placed Cristan into his make-shift crib, kneeling beside the drawer when he refused to release her finger from his sturdy grasp.

If she could control the marker… Oh sweet goddess, a genuine kiss that asked nothing other than she kiss Dan back, and mean it. She wanted to learn how to do that. But how, without overwhelming them both?

* * * *

Minor adjustments to the flight-path were normal, but the Marium was way off course. Cut-price parts were never a good idea. Especially in a ship this age. Dan stilled and listened. Compensators whining. Nocens way off. He rubbed his face and kicked the console.

Should have spent a little more of his cash on the machine rather than the black hole of insatiable pleasure.

“Open first message.”

No extension, I’m afraid. The General wasn’t having it, my boy. Seems someone got wind of your little liaison back on Rialto so do the right thing, old chap and turn in your cargo like a good man. And I’m a fool for telling you this, but there’s an interceptor tracking your trajectory. And not the General’s, either. My money’s on bounty hunter from Stable Nineteen or, if your luck really has run out, Shoari. You may thank me for this information in your own good time. Love, as always, sweetie. Message will delete in ten, nine, eight…

Interceptor? Dan switched to code-view and studied the read-out of figures. Easy to miss, the cloaked pursuit craft was as yet, out of range, sandwiched between a larger trading vessel and a flotilla of slow-moving pleasure-ships. Mercenary or Aluderian Imperial Navy craft? The ID codes didn’t scan whichever way he punched them in.

Second Message.

Offering accepted. Rendezvous point, striking of ninth-sun on the Agu-dynasty temple. Keep him safe, my son. I must tell you that the oracle has already blessed the child with the Chi-Non-Tung. The honour of first marking is yours, Brother Daniels. This is indeed a joyous time for the order.

The Chi-Non-Tung. Dan tipped back his seat and let out a long breath. The likes of that honour were seen once a millennia, if that.

An uncharacteristic nervousness pinned him to the seat, the unsettling feeling of being in the presence of something too great to contemplate. Or, he thought, levering himself from the seat, it could be because he needed to tell Shula that he was about to draw an icon on her precious baby before he delivered it to a bunch of odd-looking monks who lived in a fortress on the the most remote plains of the ghost-moon Pasiphae.

Pulling back his own sleeve, he took a long hard look at the mark, which, should he have finished his training, would have covered his entire torso and arms. Each year of study earned another piece of the puzzle that led, eventually, to the One True Enlightenment. The eye in the centre of the Chi-Nung-Tay stared back at him. The oracle had blessed him with the title, Child of Weary Mothers, much to his disgust. His subsequent tantrum at the revelation, after years of training still made him cringe with embarrassment, but over the years he’d learned to live with the mark. Even grown to like it at times.

He’d been too-easily bored. Too eager to see the universe in all its glory, rather than be told about it by some grizzled old monk who droned and lectured until he fell asleep dreaming of escape. Fifteen zulan-years after his induction, he’d stolen six caskets of communion wine, a shuttlecraft and aimed it straight at the nearest brothel.

Cristan wouldn’t last the distance, either. The child already had a spirit of adventure that would keep him on the move, spur him to action. But for now, The Fortress was the best place for him. A place where he’d stay alive, learn and hide from those who meant him harm.

A place where no woman was allowed to step.

Something else Shula wasn’t going to like.

* * * *

Cristan needed a father. Someone who would walk him through the world and teach him the ways of men. That duty should have fallen to her counterpart, his male birth-guardian, but despite the blood-oath, the bastard had been bought off with all the others.

“Should I marry?” she asked the child. “Provide you with a daddy who will teach you to ride and to hunt and to change a blast-stabilising couplet?”

She frowned. Blast stabilizing couplet? Where in the blazes had that thought come from?

Cristan hiccupped and continued sucking his thumb. The innocence didn’t fool her.

“Just what has Captain Daniels been teaching you?” she said, tickling his foot until he squirmed and giggled. “And no, he is totally unsuitable daddy material. Don’t even think it. Instead of lessons, he’d be dragging you half-way across the universe on wild adventures, taking you star-jumping and teaching you to out-swim the giant gorindas of Seti 4.”

“Sounds like a good life, to me.” Dan ducked into the rec-room and threw himself onto a bench, legs splayed. The stench of lubricant followed him. “Afraid I’m going to have to make an unscheduled stop. Get the nocens seen to. We’re barrelling and that’s not good news. If I can get us in under a fake id, we should be untraceable.”

Shula wrapped Cristan more securely in his blanket in an effort to contain his exuberance. She’d always known he’d be a fast-developer, but his acceleration since coming aboard the Marium stunned her. Particularly since he’d started taking an interest in the Captain.

“Would I fit into the tubes?”

“I guess so. You want to try it?”

She turned Cristan so he could stare at his hero and hopefully settle for his nap. “If you’ll take Cristan. He’s fighting sleep, but he might go for you.”

Dan wiped his hands on his soiled pants. “Okay, hand him over.”

“Wash first, you’re–”

“Stop coddling the kid,” he said and rose from the bench. “A bit of dirt isn’t going to hurt him. And don’t hover, it’s annoying. I’m not about to drop him.”

“Drop him and I’ll smother you in your sleep.” She placed the squirming bundle into Dan’s giant paws and backed away, never taking her eyes from him. Cristan immediately reached for Dan’s stubbled cheek, which had been a source of endless fascination to the child. When Dan blew a raspberry onto Cristan’s forehead the child burst into a round of hysterical giggles that did not bode well for sleep.

“You’re over-exciting him.”

“And you’re nagging me. Go find yourself some of my old clothes, the tubes are pretty greasy. I promise not to corrupt the infant while you’re gone.”

Reluctantly, she left the rec-room to retrieve the coveralls she’d bundled up for washing. She couldn’t resist a snort of laughter at the sound of Cristan filling his diaper.

“Change him,” she called out, knowing full-well that Dan’s love of babies extended only to being a role-model who amused them with silly noises and completely unsuitable bar-room songs. Anything to do with feeding or cleaning was woman’s work.

“Well, not this time,” she muttered. Knowing they were probably being tracked, even pursued by the scum of the galaxy made impromptu stops a terrifying proposition. She’d crawl into the reactor-core itself in order to avoid that.

The limbo of space, the confines of the small ship, gave the illusion of safety. But, she’d seen the constantly changing patterns of dots and dashes on the read-out screen. Knew that space was crowded with personal vehicles, freighters, large and small, hauling interplanetary tonnage, huge intergalactic cruisers. Any one of them could be carrying someone willing to collect the bounty on the head of an innocent child.

In the cabin, she wriggled out of her pants and underwear. Pulled off the tank-top and slid into the oversized coveralls. She looked ridiculous, but was well past caring about outward appearances. With only a quick glance at the wavering image in the polished-metal wall, she rolled up the legs and pushed back the long sleeves. The waist she cinched with her own belt, pulling up as much of the fabric as she could in order to be able to walk without waddling.

She met Dan in the corridor. He placed a finger to his lips.

“He’s asleep.”

She glanced past him dubiously. “You didn’t put him down dirty?” she said in a stage whisper.

“I changed him,” he said proudly.

“And you want what? A medal? Come, show me where these tubes are. I really don’t like the idea of making planet-fall before we’ve cleared this sector.”

“If the couplings are shot, we’ll have to anyway.”

Dan was staring straight down the gaping cleavage of the coveralls, a look of outright appreciation on his face. She wasn’t quick enough to stop the burst of marker releasing and filling the space between them.

“Sorry,” she said “I’m trying, I really am.” A delicious pulsing had already started, low down, the place between her legs growing damp as her body prepared itself to receive his. Dan gave a low rumbling groan and adjusted his pants.

Since the kiss in the asteroid field, he hadn’t touched her. Whatever happened, he wanted it free of ties. Fanning her hot cheeks with her hands, she followed him to the ladder leading up to the engine-room. He climbed first, disappearing through the small circular hatch. His head and shoulders reappeared to haul her across his body and into the cramped space.

“Need to clip on the safety-line,” he said ignoring the small pulse of marker reaching between them. No way could she control it when she was lying across his hard body, lips only a whisper apart. With his large hands clutching her arms so firmly, she wouldn’t be able to fight him off should he decide to take her here and now.

Wriggling away, she pushed back images of sweaty bodies tangled in ecstasy and replaced them with hard metal and flickering lights. And rabid bounty-hunters who would take her and the child back in pieces if they had to.

Her pupils widened to let in the meagre light filtering through from below. A crippled ship would make easy pickings. Even at full-strength, a craft this age wouldn’t outrun the newer Kelarium-powered models. Dan slid his fingers into her belt and secured her to the line. The other end he clipped to a hook on the wall.

“Anything happens, I can pull you out.”

Blue-light glowed at the end of the narrow tunnel. “You said it wasn’t dangerous.”

“Would you go if I did? Here, put on the gloves.”

For a man who made such stupid decisions with money, he mustered an impressive focus when required. Fortunate since her own thoughts were increasingly scattered to the nine vectors.

In answer, she twisted and dropped onto her elbows. Slipped her fingers into the too-large gloves. “Tell me what to do.”

“About half-way in, you’ll see a coupling leaking fluid. That’s what you can smell. Snap the cover closed and twist the dial until the light goes green. Don’t over-tighten or it will blow. Got that?”

“Yes.” Her voice sounded surer than she felt. “What if I break it?”

“Then it will have to be plan B. Go on, the more fluid we lose, the harder it will be to close the cover. I’ll pull you out if you get into trouble.”

“You have a plan B? I’m impressed.” Laughing in the face of danger seemed as good a strategy as any and how hard could this be? In, snap, twist, out. Easy.

“Always pays to have a plan B,” he replied, dryly. “Let’s get this done.”

Chapter 6

Better not tell her that plan B involved fucking her ‘till she couldn’t move, while the ship slowly died and drifted into the path of some intergalactic monster which would hardly notice the impact.

If they lost the compensators, he might as well hang a sign on the tail-end of the Marium and announce open-season.

“It’s stuck, I can’t move it.”

“Keep calm. And keep trying,” he added. “Claustrophobia hits, just take a couple of deep breaths.”

“You owe me a bottle of brandy for this,” she called back. “It’s no good, I can’t make it move.”

“Fuck!” The sound of his fist hitting metal echoed around the chamber. “Give it another go. Are you sure you’re turning it the right way?”

“It won’t move. And I need to get out, now. Oh goddess, I can’t turn around.”

Recognising the sounds of impending panic, he tugged lightly on the safety line. “Just crawl backwards. I have you.”

Shula’s feet appeared at the rim of the tube. “Pull me out,” she said a note of hysteria in her voice. “Get me out.” She fell into his lap, cheeks ablaze. Trembling and gasping for air. Grease streaked her hair, her face, the front of the coveralls.

“Hot in there,” she said on broken breaths. “Help me get…” she clawed at the coveralls. “Help me get these off.”

“Hey, just breathe, Sugar.” Dan held her shaking body, hands holding hers firmly in place. “It’ll pass.”

“You didn’t tell me it would be…so hot in there.” She softened in his arms, breathing evening out. Tipped back her head to look into his eyes. Hers had lost all colour in the dim light.

“I couldn’t do it,” she said. “I so wanted to help.”

“Shh,” he said, twisting his legs to enclose her with bent knees. “Was a long-shot anyway. I didn’t think you’d do it. Brave girl for trying, though.”

“Girl?” The notion seemed to amuse her. “Do you know what my full title is?”

“It’s nothing less than ten words, that’s for sure.”

“I am The Lady Shula Araphni, of the most noble Estepharian house of Aluderia. What do you think of that?” The words were slurred, drunken.

“I think you need cooling down,” he said pressing a palm to her burning cheek. “Can you turn around?”

No answer. For a couple of heartbeats, she was a dead weight. Then her eyes opened and stared vacantly back at him.

“Misha?”

“Dan. Keep breathing, Sugar. Need to get you down the hatch when you feel able.”

“Sugar? Who’s Sugar? Goddess, I’m so hot.”

“I know. You do need to take this off.”

Helping her to cool down, that’s all he was doing. Liar, he thought. No marker this time, she was too out of it to be playing him. Too soft and pliable in his arms to resist. If he took her now, it would be on his own terms.

The fasteners gave under his questing fingers, sliding over her smooth shoulders, revealing pale breasts tipped by the darker buds of her nipples. He looked and groaned and called himself every type of shit for not averting his gaze.

“Need you on my terms. Wish it could be otherwise.” The pang of regret surprised him, but with an unscheduled stop now on the cards, everything had changed. Never mind what she thought of him afterwards. And she would hate him for what he had planned for Cristan.

Best way to keep someone in line? Give them something that makes them forget who they are. Drugs? He couldn’t do that to her. But this? Sliding a hand into the open coverall, he touched her skin, covered her breast and squeezed until she moaned and pushed herself into his hand.

Arrogant bastard. One day she’ll turn around and slap that smug face of yours. And rightly so.

Hero or villain? He traced the soft curve of her stomach, shifted her in his lap to give his searching fingers better access. Pushed away her hair to expose her neck. Her thighs parted with no coaxing. She was already slick and wet when he covered her mound with the heel of his hand, slid his fingers between her legs.

“Kiss me,” he ordered, voice rough, barely controlled.

“The marker,” she said, suddenly struggling to be released. “You didn’t want…”

“Like this, it’s not a problem.” He spoke the words in between nips of her ear, a line of kisses across her cheek. When he lifted her hair completely and blew on her sensitive nape, she pulled him down and sealed her lips to his.

The first hint of marker seeped through the barely-released passion. Time to pull back before his plan backfired on him big-time.

“That’s how it feels when I’m free, when we’re both free,” he said with a final kiss to the top of her head. “I’ve so much more to show you.”

“Now. Show me now.”

“Later,” he said, briskly pushing the folds of the coverall together. “We’d better go check on Cristan.”

“I know what you’re doing.” The spots of colour marking her cheeks had nothing to do with the heat. Shula pulled away from him, fumbling at the coveralls. “It’s just a game of one-upmanship, isn’t it? Or what? Do you need me in thrall so I don’t notice when you sell us to the highest bidder?”

“Doing you a favour, Sugar. I can teach you to turn that marker off. Give you the chance to experience the responses of a man who wants you for yourself, not because you tricked him or enslaved him with your mojo.”

“Then I should thank you, should I not?” She gave a small hysterical laugh and shoved past him to the ladder-hatch. “Thank you Captain, for teaching me so many valuable lessons.” The hatch swallowed her. Then her head reappeared.

“I’m not angry with you. Don’t think I am. I…”

He dived at the hatch just as her fingers loosened on the top rung. Not angry? Dangling by her coveralls, bunched into his clenched fist, she looked furious with him.

“If that was meant to make me flounce away in a righteous huff, then your little plan has failed. To become a woman of the world, I will need knowledge of the world. Put me down.”

A smirk quirked his lips. “Grab the rung and secure yourself. I won’t let you fall. I told you before. I can offer comfort, pleasure but without strings and without ties. Best way I’ve found to survive this life. Get used to it. If I can find you a place of safety, and it’s a big ‘if’, bare survival is all you have to look forward to. Did you think of that when you started this crazy quest?”

By the god of sin, her face would melt the coldest heart. Dan shuffled back into the compartment and twisted to sit back against the wall. His own hands were shaking when he unsnapped his metal belt and jerked open his pants. Oh, sweet relief. The pressure on his heavy erection eased as his cock bobbed free.

On the third moon of Aloana he’d find tube-crawlers strong enough to close the darned nocens cover. A dock-master who would neglect to log his landing. And maybe a whore who would give him a swift, satisfying blow or even full sex, if she were desperate enough to take a payment on promise.

If he couldn’t save the three of them, then he’d settle for the kid. Shula would understand that.

When he was in a fit state to walk, he shimmied down the ladder and went forward to see how many other craft had joined in the game. To some, that’s all it was. Rewards were a bonus, second to the thrill of the chase, the satisfaction of stalking a prey across systems and galaxies. Pinning them to the wall. Getting high on their fear.

And torture. More than a few of them would relish quality-time with him and a fully-charged elektroprobe.

His balls tightened.

When you start walking a path you believe to be the right one, keep walking, regardless of the terrain. His old teacher’s words echoed in his head.

All the exits were blocked. From now on, they could only go forward and hope they could do that faster than the people who came behind.

* * * *

If Dan wanted sex in return for helping them, then why didn’t he just come out with it? She’d vowed to do anything to protect the child. Sex with Dan would at least be a pleasurable experience if he could indeed teach her how to turn off the marker. Not as if he was some Eighty-year old slime-ball with five cocks and a tongue longer than her arm.

Language, lady Shula! Her great-aunt’s voice rang in her head. But what use were pretty words out here? She would ask Dan to teach her a few choice phrases and retorts. Learn to swear like the peasants who emptied the sewage disposal-units. When she could face him without bursting into flames. Her blushing problem had run out of control since meeting the captain.

Freshly showered, back in her own clothes, she should have come down from his teasing by now. Should have regrouped and be planning a counter-attack. Yet this was too serious to be seen as a game. Dan wanted her on her knees at his feet, naked and begging for him to take her. Oh goddess, had she really just thought that? And worse, she wanted to be there. To have him finish what he’d started in the galley and continued in the engine-compartment.

What she’d started, she corrected. Dan may have taken the advantage, but she’d ignited the spark.

Leaning forward, she threaded her fingers in the fine strands of her silver hair, working systematically through the snarls, one eye on the sleeping child.

“Oh, goddess in chains,” she muttered. Cut it off and have done. She glanced around for anything resembling shears or a knife and remembered Dan’s order to leave it as is.

What did he know? Hip-length hair was for ladies with servants and time to waste on washing and conditioning and combing.

Cristan muttered and wriggled one arm free from the wrapping-blanket. Instinctively, she leaned across to adjust the cover.

What in the name of the sleeping goddess? Three spots of dark colour stood out clearly on the back of the child’s hand. Pulling back his sleeve, she noticed four more, extending above his wrist. Menen virus. It could take a child in less than a day. The panicked thought came and went. When she pressed the skin, the spots remained inky dark. She licked her finger and rubbed gently. A small smudge appeared around the rim of the spots. Her fingertip was similarly smudged.

The bastard. She turned for the door and then checked herself. An identification mark, that much was obvious. Only Dan could have put it there. But why? So Cristan could be picked up when they landed for the service-call? She checked her own arms, twisting frantically.

Where would it end? In some back-alley with a slit throat? Or locked in a harem on some obscure world, while Cristan was raised elsewhere as the son of a rich, childless couple?

Features set, she made her way to the con with no idea how to play this game in the face of a master. She didn’t have the credits to buy him off and he knew that. Sex? That he could purchase, unencumbered, at any port. No wonder he’d been so indifferent to her pathetic offering.

Not so indifferent.

But not so interested, either.

Appeal to his reason?

Reason had a way of disappearing in a vapour-cloud when faced with temptation and personal gain.

“Your eyes are black. Sure sign you’re mad at me.”

Shula stood in the doorway to the con, glaring at the back of Dan’s custom-seat.

“How can you see my eyes?”

“I guessed.” The seat swivelled. Dan tipped forward, arms resting on knees. He’d changed into a relatively clean shirt that may once have been white. Black straight-legged pants hung over his boots. His cheeks were clean-shaven for the first time since she’d barged into his life.

“Are you expecting someone, Captain?”

“Eventually, yes.” From the fingers of one hand hung a small flute. The image of this hulk of a man teasing out the delicate notes of the Philan threw her. He tossed it onto the con and rose in one fluid movement to stand before her. Filling the cabin with more than his physical size.

Too close to look him in the eye. Hastily, she stepped back.

“I take it you saw the marks.”

“You thought I wouldn’t?” She wanted to hit him. Would he even feel it? “Why, Captain? I thought we had a deal.”

“Keep your hair on. We still do.” Dan picked up the flute. Blew a few notes. Laughed softly as some sudden memory.

“So, you’re going to tell me why you tattooed a picture of a…oh goddess, a dragon-tail.” She saw it now. On the back of Dan’s own hand, three dark spots surrounded by the more intricate markings of the dragon tail. “What’s going on, Captain Daniels?”

“The saving of Cristan’s precious little ass. That’s what. Any more questions?” He raised the flute.

“Stop that!” She lunged at the Philan, missed and collided with the arc of his forearm as he swung the instrument out of her reach.

“Holy sin, woman!” Dan checked her momentum, pushing her to arm’s length so the punch that followed disturbed only the air between them.

Undaunted, she swung again, this time catching his biceps. She might as well have tried to punch a hole in the ship’s metal wall.

“Why did you mark Cristan? Tell me,” she demanded, ignoring the heat suffusing her cheeks. “He’s just a child. How could you do this to him, to me?”

“I told you, tempting though the prospect is, I’m not going to turn you in.”

“The marks are the same as yours. Why?”

“Not telling you.”

“Just like that? You’re refusing to tell me?”

“About sums it up. Guess you’ll just have to trust me on it. Do you know you’re one heck of a desirable woman when you’re mad? Hot and juicy and not a damned marker in sight.”

He was leering in open appreciation. Not even bothering to hide it, while she quivered with pent-up anger and frustration.

But no marker. She’d touched him, got near enough to breathe in his exhaled breath with not the slightest hint of marker.

“I’m furious with you.”

“I know.” His eyes glittered with intent. “Exciting, isn’t it?”

“No.”

“Liar. What you’re feeling now, that sinking feeling in your gut, it’s good old fashioned desire Sugar. High emotion’s blocking the marker. Kind of a distraction technique, I guess. Hit me again. I can see you want to.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. And please don’t tell me you marked the child to make me receptive enough to sleep with you. I will never forgive you for that.”

“Just a fortunate side-effect. I would never do that, but it would be a darned shame to waste this opportunity, don’t you think? Sex with no ties.” Dan touched her hot cheek. “Want to seize the moment? Get rid of all that pent-up frustration.”

She’d been to an amusement arcade, once, during the idyllic summer before illness and court duties had put a premature end to her childhood. All she remembered was the feeling of disconnection and disorientation after a day of roller-coasters and astro-rides and oversized hairy creatures who lumbered about making children scream with laughter and sometimes terror. She felt the same way now. Dan tripped her up, flipped her over and then caught her when she went into free-fall.

A different kind of heat was building between them. A sensual wave balanced by mutual desire. Sex because they wanted it, not because they wanted something from it. She moved towards him, unable to stop the sway of her hips, or her tongue sweeping slowly over her dry lips.

“Quickie in the captain’s chair,” he said and sat deliberately, hands reaching behind his head, legs splayed. “See what you do to me?”

“You want me?” She stood between his legs, a flat palm on each of his thighs, caressing, kneading the hard muscle beneath. Avoiding the long hard length of his erection. His hips moved, fractionally, a subtle invitation to slide her palms higher.

When she let her fingers glide, every so lightly, over the straining fabric of his pants Dan let out a slow breath. With the back of her fingernail, she measured the length of him and let her hand come to rest on his heavy metal belt.

His eyebrows raised in query.

“Give me your knife,” she said, her fingers moving up and down his straining cock.

Without the slightest hesitation, his eyes never leaving hers, he flicked open the sheath hanging at his hip and spread his arms wide.

“Go on,” he said, and she was almost disappointed at his lack of protest. She hesitated, knowing that once again, he’d wrested the advantage from her. But she was learning fast, the rules of this game of give and take. Now it was her turn.

“Is it sharp?” she asked fingering the plain bone handle. It slid from the sheath in one smooth movement. In answer to her question, Dan touched the pad of his index finger to the point. A fat bead of blood swelled to quickly cover his fingertip.

She was no threat to him. Who would pilot the ship if he were injured or killed? And he must know she’d never put Cristan at risk by harming herself. Beneath the tension of all but baring his throat to a crazy woman wielding a razor-knife, she felt the question. His eyes regarded her with an intrigued scrutiny, waiting to see what she meant to do with it. His thighs tightened, almost imperceptibly, holding her in place.

She’d already known she wouldn’t be faster than him. He had her wrist firmly in his grasp before she’d sawn through half a hank of her hair. He looked both annoyed and relieved at the lock of sacrificed hair scattered in his lap.

“Let me,” she said in challenge. “You can sell it to pay for the repair.”

The battle lasted only a few heartbeats. His grip relaxed and he nodded curtly.

She wanted to kiss him for that. For allowing her the choice, when he so patently disapproved. He picked his battles well.

“Turn around,” he ordered.

Understandable that he wouldn’t want to watch while she hacked off her best feature. She turned, still trapped by his thighs and raised the knife. Again, he stopped her.

“You get more if it’s in one piece,” he said without emotion.

His fingers scraped her skull, gathering the hair into a thick handful. Swiftly, he divided it into three and worked the strands into a tight plait, tugging just a little too hard. Blurring the lines between the pleasure of his touch and the pain of losing her beloved hair.

“Go ahead,” he said.

“I can’t see…I don’t know…”

“Then let me.” It was both question and command. She gave up the knife willingly. Felt a sharp tug.

“It’s done.”

And it’s only hair, she told her frantically beating heart. No need to become so overwrought.

Catching the static, her bobbed hair sprang free and floated about her face. She shook her head, wondering at the lightness after years of the familiar weight of it hanging down her back. Cautiously, she turned to face Dan. Her smile wobbling.

“You know that’s significantly reduced your price at the markets, don’t you?” Dan’s hands traced the outline of her shoulders, the line of her arms. Taking her own hands, he turned them over and inspected her palms, rubbing his thumb over the pads of her fingers.

“Never seen hard-labour, that’s for sure. But then again, only a fool would put you to work in the mines.”

Her heart slowed as he continued his appraisal, keeping her on the edge of wondering whether he was playing with her or deadly serious.

He splayed a flat palm over her stomach, causing it to clench with a sudden stab of desire. She listened, breathless to his low rumbling voice, the words spoken so close they made her tremble. His hand moved lower, sliding between her legs, cupping and possessing.

“A virgin, eh?” His thumb traced slow circles through the cloth of her pants.

“An Aluderian virgin,” she said. “My price would buy you a new ship.”

“I’m kind of used to this old bird. And you’d only drive the poor guy who bought you crazy. I couldn’t do that to my fellow man. Take these off for me.”

“I might end up driving you crazy.”

“A risk I’ll have to take.” Dan pulled her hard against him, grinding their hips together in a parody of what must surely follow

“You still want me, looking like this?”

“In hell’s name, yes,” he growled. “Do we understand each other finally?”

“Stop talking,” she said. “And make love to me while I’m still mad at you.”

“Holy sin, you can stay mad at me for all time if this is how it feels. There’s a condom in my back pocket. Find it for me.”

“You knew I was coming?” The tide of irritation, which had begun to subside, rose again. A prickling of her skin. The need to slap that smug smile from his face.

He chuckled, low in his throat. “That’s right. You stay good and mad at me and together, we’ll detonate an explosion they’ll see from Alpha Chrom 4.

Or we might even make love, she thought.

Goddess, it was becoming a real possibility.

Chapter 7

Selfish bastard. You’ve won her trust. Send her back to the kid. Tell her to keep hold of her precious virginity.

It was the one thing guaranteed to keep her alive when they finally caught up with her.

The fight with his conscience lasted precisely five heartbeats. Long enough for him to lift her onto the edge of the navi-console and push her thighs apart in a move he’d done how many times? With how many faceless women?

He pushed up the tank-top, exposing her breasts for his hands and mouth. Shoved the flimsy top up and over her head, only dimly aware of her helping by raising her arms, then attacking the fastenings of his shirt with equal urgency.

Dropping to his knees, he spread her thighs, and pulled her onto his mouth, tonguing her to a first, shivering orgasm with an almost feral desperation. When she cried out in disbelief, he did it again, faster and harder, without mercy, determined she wouldn’t forget her first time.

First time. Devil incarnate, she deserved more than a frantic fuck against the wall for her first time. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he rose and released his belt-catch. Twisted open the fastenings closing his pants. If she told him to stop, now, he would implode.

So far, only the faintest hint of marker, but that could all change in a heartbeat. Shula looked altogether too loose and sated to be still mad at him. Gazing at him through dark-as-sin, half-closed eyes, she reached out a languid hand and ran it lightly down his thigh.

“Do it now,” she said. “Before…”

“I know,” he replied, ripping open the condom packet. “Stay mad. I’m a fuck and run kind of guy, Sugar. Good at sweet-talking women into bed. You know it. Don’t read anything into this. It’s just an itch that needs scratching. Slide down a little, I’ll make it as easy as I can for you.”

Ironic didn’t begin to cover it. First time in a long time, he wanted to go deeper, to spend time learning how every part of her tasted. Wanted to make endless love in the dim lazy hours before dawn on an elgin-down mattress strewn with rose-petals that released their hot musky scent as they crushed them beneath their sweaty bodies.

When would he learn that optimism and sex didn’t mix?

“Dan?” Shula blinked and raised both her arms in welcome. “Right now, I want nothing more from you than this.”

Another pulse of marker, drawing him to her like an invisible thread. He closed his eyes, panicked at the thought that he might not be able to stop. That she had been playing him all along. Cristan’s safety depended on his ability to think with his brain, to make hard choices that might involve pain, or even death for some of them.

He plunged into her hot, moist depths too hard for a first time, biting back the regret. Pain registered in the widening of her eyes, resignation in the firm line of her mouth. Tender thoughts and feelings were for lovers contemplating a life-time of bliss. At least she understood that. Better they didn’t complicate things with feelings.

Hands grasping her buttocks, he lifted her hips and tried to control the pace of his thrusts. Tried to disconnect the act from the fantasy as his release thundered through him too-soon.

Shula’s sad eyes held questions she would never ask. When he pulled out, her body curled defensively, as if she were reclaiming her territory, while he retreated to his.

“This is the bit where I tell you to get dressed and go.” He dumped the used condom into the garbage. “Need to land this baby without too many people knowing and I can’t do that with you flashing your goods at me.”

“I understand.” Shula unpeeled herself from the metal ledge, grimacing only slightly as she bent her body back into shape. A brief glance before crouching to retrieve her discarded clothes.

He turned his back, not wanting to see the reproach or to run the risk of going sappy on her by offering words of comfort. This lesson she had to learn, one way or another. Better that she learnt it from him. There were those who would slit her throat at the first hint of marker. Others who would die if it meant experiencing the ultimate, Aluderian bliss.

He wasn’t ready to die yet.

Yaticera, they called him, on more worlds than he cared to admit. Breaker of hearts.

He fingered the silver plait that would buy them a ticket out of this mess. The title was no longer such an honour.

* * * *

Both hair and virginity gone in less than the time it took to recite the Taro-chi.

In the eyes of Aluderia, her ruin was complete. Keeping the hair long was a gift to the husband, not down-payment on a tube-crawling dwarf and a few spare space-craft parts. Virginity gave proof that she did not marry carrying another man’s child.

At least Dan had spared her the humiliation of having her virgin-blooded bed-sheet flown from the flagpole for all to see.

Red streaks smeared the inside of her thighs. She rinsed a cloth in the small bathroom-sink and wiped them away, thinking there should be more to show for such a momentous rite-of-passage. Taken on the flight console while hurtling through space. Not the scenario she’d dreamed of since she’d first learned about love and marriage and the things a man and a woman did when the doors finally closed on them.

The bathroom intercom crackled. A muffled voice said something intelligible. It crackled again. “Come on forward and strap in for landing.” Whatever else Dan said was lost in another loud burst of static. The poor old ship was dying by degrees. Patting the metal wall, she willed it to keep going and threw on her clothes.

The faint, background hum of engine noise had changed tone, become a little louder. Would it be safe to leave the ship when they landed? The dank, industrial stench and the cramped spaces were beginning to wear on her nerves. She’d started to imagine the walls moving, closing in. Crushing her. Then she remembered what might be out there, waiting for her and Cristan.

If a big man like Dan could stand it, then so could she.

Cristan was awake when she went back to the cabin, chubby fists waving haphazardly, legs kicking. She wasn’t the only one feeling confined.

“You must be a very good boy,” she said, hauling him from the drawer. Cristan frowned and raised his tattooed fist.

“Well, you can thank Captain Daniels for that one, my sweet.” And then she hugged him to her until he squirmed and protested with a series of weak cries.

“Can we really trust him, sweet-heart? I wish you could speak. Tell me what’s going on.”

She strapped herself into the co-pilot seat, belly fluttering. Let out a long breath.

“No need to be nervous.” Dan slid a cylindrical disc into a socket and inspected the readout. “Can do this in my sleep. Bringing her in on the dark side to avoid too many questions. Harbour-master fancied a silver wig, and we got a tube-crawler on standby, so it’s all worked out.” He finished with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes and redirected his attention to the console in front of him.

So much for love-making. They might as well have been discussing the last royal tea-party.

“It’ll be fine.” She felt Dan’s hand on her knee, squeezing briefly. “Moment I say, get yourself and Cristan into the bathroom and stay there until I give word. It’s sensor-shielded. Best that no-one knows I’m carrying passengers.”

The fluttering increased. “You’re expecting trouble? Should we go now?”

“Stay right where you are. And hang on to junior. Going in on a 180 degree tilt. Can’t guarantee your safety until I level off.”

“Let me guess,” she said. “Seat-tilt compensators are shot, too?”

“I’m impressed. We’ll be scanned before they allow us to open the front-hatch. Be a good girl and make sure they don’t pick either of you up. Promise me you’ll stay put. I need to know you’re not going to go wandering off like those stupid women you see in movies.”

“So you are expecting trouble?”

“Always. Now, shut up and let me land this thing.”

“Yes sir,” she muttered, pulling Cristan in closer. The child should be in a custom infant-restraint, not huddled in her lap.

“You won’t drop him,” Dan said casually. “And he likes this better than you, don’t you buddy? Here we go.”

This was what they called moving on with life without looking back. The empty condom packet slid past her feet as the ship tilted coming to rest on the side of Dan’s boot. He snatched it up, without taking his eyes from the console and shoved it into his pocket. The military-style jacket she’d worn on her first night on the ship together with the white shirt and black neck-cloth, lent him an air of authority he usually kept well-hidden.

The ship levelled and slowed and the viewing screen filled with the blue-grey hulk of the third moon. Dan adjusted the focus, bringing the mining settlements into sharp view.

“An uglier lump of rock you’d be hard-pressed to find. Brace for landing gear.”

The struts fell from the gear-bay with a clunk, the jolt throwing her against the seat-belt. Shula’s muttered curse earned her a glance and a half-smile from Dan.

“Excedra One, requesting escort to bay,” he said to the blank console screen. He tilted his head towards the cabin door. “That’s your cue, Sugar. In the bathroom and don’t come out until I give the code. They’re waiting to go to visual, get.”

The seat-belt wouldn’t budge until Dan reached an arm out and unsnapped it for her.

“Breathe,” he said. “You’re looking hot.”

“Trying,Dan. I’m trying.”

At the door to the cabin, she paused.

“His Royal Highness is very grateful for everything you have done so far. He hopes you will continue to serve him in the same vein?”

“Get,” Dan said, an edge of exasperation in his tone. “Bathroom, woman. Now.”

“There’s no need to be rude. Especially after, well…what happened earlier.” There, she’d said it. “You said you’d give a code. What will it be?”

“Best sex ever,” he said without hesitation. “Don’t move from that bathroom until you hear me utter the words, ‘best sex ever’. You got that? ”

She nodded.

“Good. Now you go hide like a good little girl, and leave me to get this done.”

* * * *

He would soon know if the sensor shield had worked.

Nothing seemed amiss in the crowded industrial dock which hummed with the perpetual background noise of the huge hammer drills that extracted ore and precious metals for shipment all over the galaxy. Few years here and a man could set himself up for life. If he survived the high mortality rate and the background radiation that ate you up from the inside.

Two over-sized workers in grey coveralls stopped to laugh at the ship. When he didn’t react, they did it again, determined to get a rise out of him. His hand itched to pull back his jacket to reveal the Interceptor Class 3 blast-gun. The short-sword sheathed at his hip.

He scratched his eye-patch, shrugged and gave a clueless grin. Behind them he saw the bald-head of Sal, the dock-master.

“Beat it.” She stabbed the nearest ape with her swagger stick. “Don’t pay you to stand gawking at idiots.”

Same old Sal. Taller than him by a good head, she missed nothing as he sauntered down the ramp and casually removed the bundle containing Shula’s hair from his pocket.

“Open it,” she said. “I haven’t forgotten about the Gorlian sausages.”

“An honest mistake,” he said, peeling back the cover. “You got me my crawler?”

Sal’s eyes widened a fraction at the sight of the pale strands. “I’ll need to–”

He snapped the parcel closed. “When I get me my crawler and those other little extras we discussed.”

“Yeah, and I could log you in under your real id. Do you know what kind of shit I’m in if they catch me falsifying incoming data?”

“I’m sure they’ll be shocked,” he replied deciding it was time to appeal to her maternal side. “I’m in trouble, Sal. Boarded by the SER, had to leave in a hurry, know what I mean? You were the first person I thought of. The only person I knew would help me.”

“Don’t lay it on too thick,” she warned. “You helped me, I help you. After this time, I don’t ever want to see your ugly face here again, got that?”

“Yes, Ma’am.” He lifted two fingers to his forehead in salute. “Take it,” he said offering the parcel. “Call it a mark of trust.”

Inclining her head in acknowledgement, she took the parcel and dropped it into the bag slung at her hip. “Walk with me, big boy. My men’ll watch the ship.”

“Sure.” No refusing Sal when she asked you to walk with her. The hulking bodyguards stepped forward at the snap of her fingers. Took up position at the foot of the ramp, arms folded. It was impossible not to think of Shula and Cristan huddled in the bathroom. If she made a sudden appearance now, he would wring her neck himself.

A few steps from the ramp, Sal blocked his path with her stick.

“Word is you’re carrying extra-hot, Dan. Mostly whispers at top level, but I’m hearing names. The General, Alti Manello, the Shoari for fuck’s sake. All associated with your name. Why are the Shoari interested in a one-credit operation like yours?”

A prickle of sweat formed on the back of his neck. “Maybe they like my beautiful face?”

She wasn’t deterred. “How much do you owe?”

“More than I can pay, as usual. General has called in the loan.”

“And you got nothing on board that I should know about?”

“An illegally harvested Tigras claw and some Eldan Jadir. Apart from that?” He shrugged. The bead of sweat trickled between his shoulder blades.

“If you’ve turned to slaving, I’ll whip your hide, boy.”

“Come on, Sal. How long you known me?”

Sharp as the keenest edge, she regarded him for a long moment before nodding curtly. Survival depended on knowing who to trust, making the right judgements.

“Your sensor shield is down. I won’t ask what you’re carrying, but I want it off my rock the moment you’re done. You got me?”

“Don’t start me wishing I’d left your dear old dad to burn, Sal.”

“I’ve deleted all your landing data. You got junior and his brother there on guard until you leave. Best I can do, Dan. Oh, and I’ll make an offering for you next time I’m at the shrine. A big one. Sounds like you’re going to need it.”

* * * *

“It can’t be much longer, my prince. I promise we’ll be out of here soon.”

Shula held the child away from her glowing body, trying to cool him as best she could. Stripped down to his diaper, he was a hot sweaty bundle of misery. His usual stoicism evaporating in the stifling heat of the air-less cubicle.

Muted voices, footsteps, the clang of metal on metal. The urge to crack open the door and peek tested her willpower to the limit.

Cristan arched his back, pushing away from her, whimpering in short strained bursts.

Best sex ever. Shula listened for the words, which could either be a message or a sick joke and heard only the thump of heavy boots or the thud of a hammer hitting metal, she couldn’t tell which.

She felt a prickly heat rash forming on the small of her back at the point where she’d almost scraped it raw on the navi-console. The place between her thighs ached and she longed for a hot rosemary-infused bath to ease the pinpricks of pain making themselves known all over her body.

She listened again, weighing up the chances of reaching the galley, replicating a drink for herself and the child and getting back to the bathroom without being seen.

Dan would understand.

She gave a half-laugh, half-sob. Dan would have her hide if she stepped out of this prison without his say-so.

Another crash, a shout. The screeching sound of something being dragged over rough metal.

Cristan’s eyelids drooped, the heat at last sending him to sleep. She contemplated hitting the shower valve to cool them both off, but had no way of knowing if the sound of the water would be detected elsewhere in the ship.

Gently, she blew on Cristan’s sleepy face. Tested his cheek with the back of her hand.

“You’ll thank me for this, one day,” she murmured. “If it gets any hotter, I’ll crack open the door. But for now, just endure, precious heart.”

And pray that Dan’s out there mending the ship and not selling us both into a life of slavery.

Closing her eyes, she tipped back her head. What did she really know of the man into whose hands she’d put the most precious thing in her life? The man she’d given herself to with such abandon?

Hot tears stung her eyes. She blinked them back, wiping them away with her arm. Only children cried for the things they couldn’t have. If she lived, her life would be one of sacrifice, dedicated to Cristan and his quest to return home. Better resign herself to that now.

Another crash caused her to jump and clutch Cristan to her breast. Footsteps outside the door, advancing, receding. Someone calling out. And then a light, insistent tapping coming from somewhere in the walls.

The service-maintenance, nothing more. Bound to make a bit of noise.

She’d be a good girl and wait for the code. And if she felt brave enough, she’d ask Dan exactly what those words meant.

Chapter 8

Caring about others made you vulnerable. Stopped you thinking straight. The need to check on Shula and the kid had him standing outside the small bathroom, bunched fist hovering over the locked door.

Don’t risk it. With no sensor shield, every movement aboard the ship was liable to be picked up. To those knowing what to look for, the child’s print would give them away in a heart-beat. The occasional woman had found her way onto the ship, but never a child. Cristan would definitely arouse interest of the wrong sort.

Walking away from the door, Dan checked his weapons and thought about rigging some temporary block on the life-form readouts. Bypass the central controller so the crawler working in the nocens tube didn’t pick up the interference.

Hotter than a fire-pit with the air-circulator working over-time. He shrugged out of the jacket. Un-knotted his neck-cloth. Crawlers wouldn’t work in anything less than forty-six C. Hotter it was, the faster they worked, which normally wasn’t a problem.

Unless you had a woman and a baby stashed in the smallest room. Dan threw his jacket into the galley and checked his wrist-chronometer. The creature should be done by now, even with the extra tasks he’d offered to do for double-fee.

If the creature had fallen asleep in the tube, he would blast it out with an air hose. And then, knowing his luck, it would probably get its sorry hide stuck in the–

Dan bent to retrieve the small pliable disc lying adjacent to the galley-door. Turned it in his fingers. Retrovator valve. From the crawler’s temp-regulator. What was the creature doing on this side of the ship? And worse, why hadn’t he seen him? He’d been careful to keep himself between the bathroom and the creature at all times.

The short-sword whispered from its sheath. Dan darted back into the galley. Glanced at the ceiling. The creature had probably crawled down a service-vent from the nocens in the hope of finding some brandy. There was a reason you never paid crawlers up front.

None of the panels looked out of place, no rivets missing. The small table was bolted in place. He nudged the controller that operated the storage closet, sword aloft in a ready, two-handed grip. When the door slid back an empty brandy bottle rolled out and rattled across the galley floor.

“Okay, come out now. And I’ll let you live. I catch you, I feed you to that hulk at the bottom of the ramp. Hear me?”

He racked his brain, trying to remember where the other nocens service ducts came out. Slid along the wall to the door. One emerged at the top of the corridor, near to the front-hatch. Sal’s hulk would still be guarding the end of the ramp. Dan didn’t want them alerted to any trouble. Fewer people knew about trouble, the better.

“Son of a whore!”

A grate of metal on metal low down, a dull pain and he was on his knees, wondering which way was up, the sword still clasped in his right hand. Another blow sent him reeling sideways into the wall. He slashed wildly with the sword, slicing through the air between him and whatever had taken him down. Larger than a crawler, that was for sure. The blow had come from above his head.

Sal’s guards? He fought to stay conscious, scrabbling for purchase against the blood-stained wall. Everyone double-crossed you eventually. If she had and he lived through this, he would personally rip her head off.

The third blow caught his sword arm. His hand went numb, but he managed to catch the sword with his left hand as it fell from his grasp. The creature standing above him was neither a crawler, nor guard. A good three heads taller than him, its lifeless eyes registered nothing but a focused intent. No emotion in the way it raised one of its arms to pound him into oblivion.

“Shoaria?” he said, deliberately mispronouncing the word. “I’m honoured.”

“Kul fante. You are dead.”

“I understand you just fine,” he muttered, twisting to avoid the next fistful. It landed on the wall, punching a dent in the metal panel. Blood pooled behind his eye-patch. “Mind my ship, will you?” Stabbing with his sword, he lunged in the direction of the blur of legs. How in sin’s name had it got past the guards?

The blade jammed into the Shoari’s leather boot. Stuck fast. Dan yanked at it, feeling his arm weakening. “If you’ve damaged my ship, I’ll be sending you the bill,” he ground out.

The ceiling lurched towards him, then a huge, bunched fist. The unstoppable creature paused, raised his head and then took out a small sensor-reader.

Scum, but stinking rich scum. The latest technology, top secret devices, they had it all. But so far, he hadn’t heard about any of them being able to transform into crawlers.

Dan fought the gathering blackness. “Hey,” he called, weakly. “Not dead yet. Don’t turn your back on me, you fucking great ape.”

Or someone else might have said it, he wasn’t sure. The words were thick and incoherent, coming from somewhere far away.

The Shoari lumbered towards the bathroom, sensor scraping the wall, eyes on the read-out. The sword clattered to the floor.

Dan reached out to grab it, but his fist closed around nothing but air.

* * * *

Dan’s voice. Loud, incoherent.

Shula slid her butt to the door and pressed her ear to the metal. She’d thrown the inside lock with no idea whether it would keep anyone out. The door rattled. Why would Dan do that?

“Hush,” she mouthed to Cristan and listened again. A heavy rasping sound that might have been breathing, or some kind of tool intent on opening the door. The noise came from just under the door-frame. The door slid back a fraction, closed again with a thump. She heard what sounded like a curse.

Oh goddess in chains, the thick, leather-clad legs and bare, meaty arms definitely didn’t belong to Dan. Her head spun, a frantic jumble of thoughts all trying to force themselves through at once. Plan B would be good, right now. She scooted back towards the shower-pad, looking around for anything she might use as a weapon.

A flexi-pak of sani-soap. Shampoo, in a pump dispenser. An old-fashioned cut-throat razor.

“You stay there,” she whispered to Cristan. “Can’t fight and hold you at the same time.”

The door slid open again, this time sticking at half-way point. A tattooed arm hooked itself around the edge and heaved.

If Dan wasn’t out there, fighting the thing off, he must be hurt. Or dead. Cold terror gripped her, locking her in place. How quickly fortune turned. The door-metal groaned and started to buckle. The creature grunted and renewed its assault. In a few more heartbeats she might be dead, too. Expecting this very outcome didn’t make it any less surprising.

How had she ever thought to out-run her enemies? The open blade of the razor glinted in the artificial light. She snapped it closed and stuffed it into a pocket. No sense in giving the creature a weapon to kill her with. And no place to hide the child. Unless she could rip a weld-riveted wall-panel away with her bare hands.

“I’m Dan’s wife,” she said backing against the wall. “Ask him. He’ll tell you.”

Had the creature been ordered to kill the child, or was he after the ransom?

“I can pay,” she said. “Anything they offer, I will double, treble. Name your price.”

The door finally slid into its housing with a sharp thwack, revealing the creature beyond. Sweet goddess, the blade wouldn’t even penetrate its blubber. Its gaze moved beyond her to Cristan. The creature grunted and crammed itself into the tiny room.

One last stand was all she had. She would die without knowing Dan’s fate. Had he cursed her at the end, for barging into his life? For forcing him to care?

She braced for the assault, one hand in her pocket, curled about the razor. Blood singing in her ears. The creature’s hand shot out too fast. Lifted her as if she were nothing. Jagged nails bit into the tender flesh of her neck, fingers squeezing away her breath.

The creature’s bulk filled the small room, its feet dangerously close to Cristan’s head.

“He’s worth more to you alive.” She choked out the words. “We both are. Dan!”

The creature squeezed harder, cutting off her words.

“Let. Me. Go.” Her arm swung in an arc, fist clutching the blade. A neat line of flesh opened on the back of the creature’s hand. It looked down, frowning. Knocked the blade away and jerked her head back into the wall. The room dimmed, came back into focus.

“The baby is Captain Daniels’,” she cried. “His daughter. You’ll be laughed out of existence when you return with the wrong child.”

The creature had her jammed between the toilet and the washbasin. The only weapon left to her, the shampoo and soap. She stopped struggling, hanging limp in its grasp. One twist and he would have her head.

Her stomach lurched. Not today.

As the creature bent towards the child, she grabbed the flexi-pak of shampoo and shoved it into the creature’s eyes, squeezing hard. It gave a yell and loosened its grip on her neck. Enough for her to wrench herself free and slide down the wall onto rubbery legs.

“Shula!”

Dan stood slumped against the door-frame, short sword in his hand, blood seeping from a sticky clot in his hair. “To me,” he roared extending his hand. The creature lunged for her again. She ducked under his swinging arm and dived for Cristan, covering him protectively with her body. He hadn’t uttered a single cry. Such bravery would surely see him return home in triumph.

With another roar, Dan charged at the creature, driving the sword into its hip, ramming it home with a twist.

“Come on, you fucker. You fight like a girl, you know that?”

The sword tore free, ripping flesh. The creature gave an angry snarl and took Dan’s head between its fists.

“Get out,” Dan dropped the sword and grabbed the creature’s hands with his own, arms trembling as he tried to heave it off. “Run, Shula. Go now.”

“You stay,” the creature ground out. “Or he die.”

“Go.” Dan coughed and spat out a mouthful of blood.

Honour his sacrifice. The words came from nowhere, clear in her head. Cristan continued to gaze at her waiting for her choice. She scooped him up without hesitation and ducked under the creature’s arms, past the choking Dan and into the corridor. There had to be another weapon on board, or someone off-ship who would help.

Leaving the ship would mean exposing herself and the child to more danger. Who knew what lurked in the shadows of this world? But what choice did she have? If Dan died, who would fly the ship? If he died, how would she ever forgive herself?

Dan’s jacket. On the galley table, lying open, she saw his jacket, the inside pocket holding what looked like a blast-gun.

She darted into the cabin. “He’s not going to die. Sorry my sweet, just a little longer.” She pulled the blanket over the back of Cristan’s head and placed him on the floor, in the corner of the room. The blast-gun was heavier and larger than the one she’d practiced with on the range back home, but the arming pin and trigger mechanism were in the same place. With a flick of her thumb, she pushed forward the pin and pointed the whining gun upwards and away as she’d been taught.

Dan was still struggling to free himself from the creature. With hands the size of power-shovels, it had no need of weapons.

“Shula held the blast-gun in a trembling, two-handed grip. “Give me a clear shot, Dan.”

“No!” Dan choked out the words. ”Enclosed space. Too dangerous.”

“I can take him.”

“Put down. Or he dies now.” The creature lifted his chin at the gun.

“If you had the balls to kill him, you would have done it by now. He’s ten times your worth. You fucker,” she added with grim satisfaction. ” Hands shaking so much now, she could barely hold the gun. The chances of hitting Dan were too high.

With a scream and a quick prayer, she charged at the bounty-hunter, jamming the gun into its side. Dan fell to the floor, rolled and grabbed at her legs. She fired on full power at point-blank range, the white-hot charge blowing her and Dan out into the corridor. Her cheek ground into the floor, Dan’s full weight covering her, pinning her down. Protecting her.

The creature stiffened and went into spasm, jerking uncontrollably, bouncing from the walls of the tiny cabin.

“Up.” Dan groped for her hand and hauled her upright. Shoved her down the corridor, stumbling after her.

“Where’s Cristan?”

“Galley. Oh Dan, what did I do?”

“You—“

A muffled thump rocked the ship, knocking them to the floor. When she raised her head, Shula saw the green mess that was once the Shoari, oozing from the bathroom.

“What have I done?” she whispered.

Dan rolled onto his back, chest heaving. He scrubbed at the congealing blood, smearing it over his cheeks, his mouth and chin. He let out a short, grating laugh.

“You just saved all our lives. That’s what you just did.”

* * * *

What he didn’t tell her was that she had also most likely blown a hole in the side of the ship. As well as alerted everyone within hearing to her presence. News of the explosion would spread like white fire, rumours would start.

They were about to become very popular.

“He’s unhurt.” Shula crouched over Cristan, cradling the child. Behind her, stood one of the security guards, face inscrutable. The other emerged from the bathroom, wiping his hands on a drying-cloth.

Dan hauled himself up on one elbow and grimaced.

“Containment,” he said to the guard. “What can you do?”

“Call it a reciprocator blow-out. Mistress Sal is on her way.”

Damn, that was two people too many who’d seen Shula and the child. Sal’s men were bonded trustees, tagged, their lives liable to be snuffed out at the merest hint of disloyalty. But they would report fully on what they’d seen. He moved his head, discretely pointing Shula to the sleeping-cabin. Her mouth a thin line, she nodded and rose without further comment.

Reciprocator blow-out might explain the explosion. But if a base-team was not hired to put right the damage, people would ask why. Moment news of it got out, the con would be abuzz with messages offering cut-price spare parts.

“How did the Shoari get in?” Dan sat up and twisted his neck back into place. His head felt three sizes too big and if the brute had cracked his skull, he’d need a medic to solder the bone.

“Found a hole under the ship, port-side.”

“And the integrity-sensor didn’t pick it up?” He got himself upright, holding on to the wall until the corridor stopped swinging from side to side.

“We found a crawler stuffed into the hole.”

Closing his eyes, Dan managed to stop the inappropriate laughter and braced for Sal and her interminable questions.

“Have we retained integrity in the bathroom?”

“Mainly a clean-up, which we execute at Mistress Sal’s command. She arrives now.”

“Mainly?” Dan fended off the nausea and straightened. “We need to leave asap.”

“I’ve already filed your flight plan.” Sal appeared, face creased with concern when she saw his injuries. “I should terminate you both for allowing this,” she said to the guards. “Contain this mess and give me a damage report. Now!”

“You want to change ships, Dan?”

He covered his face with his hands. Considered the offer. “I can’t afford a new ship. I can’t afford a single seat on a new ship. Transgalactic goods transfer don’t pay like it used to. Decoy would be good though. If you could manage that?”

Sal gave him a tight smile. “Where you headed?”

“Come up front. This is already out of control.”

On the flight-deck, he flopped into his custom-seat and tipped it back.

“Let me worry about where I’m headed. What did they tell you?” he said.

“That you have a woman and a child onboard.”

“I got the General on my back. Astor’s mediating that one. Can you rig up a line of credit rats? Put him off the scent for a while?”

“Astor?” Sal raised a bushy eyebrow. “He’s not that stupid.”

“Untangling the threads will keep him busy for a while. By the time he gets to source, we’ll have a head-start on them.”

“With a hole in your hull? You’ll be lucky to get off planet.”

“Then rig me a patch.” He regarded her coolly. “Sal, forget business and return of favours. I need all the friends I can muster right now.”

“Let me see her.”

“See who?”

“The Lady Shula. Of the most noble Estepharian house of Aluderia. Godmother to king presumptive, Prince Cristan, Aluderes the fourth, heir to the Kalimar throne of Aluderia. I want to pay my respects. Not often we have royalty on the base.”

“Admit it. You’re just a sucker for a baby.”

“We get even less of those,” she replied dryly. “Introduce me.”

“I’m fond of them.”

Sal acknowledged the simple words and the weight of their meaning with a tight nod. When they entered the sleeping-cabin, Shula rose from her perch on the bed to quickly stand between them and the child.

“Friend,” he said. “Shula meet Sal. Me and her old dad go way back.”

“You told her who we were?” Shula’s eyes widened in accusation.

“Sal’s clever enough to work it out for herself. She wants to see Cristan.”

Sal had already moved towards the child, bending to stare at him intently. The look of longing on her face took Dan aback.

“Your majesty,” she whispered and then turned to Shula “Would it be presumptuous to ask to hold him?”

“He loves being held,” Dan cut in before Shula could protest. “Go ahead.” If Sal needed proof of their trust and loyalty, then what better way to show it?

Cristan creased his features, puzzled at the new face regarding him with such intense scrutiny. Sal acknowledged the marks on the baby’s hand with only a brief pause.

“I might just keep him,” she said lightly. “Bring him up as my own son. He’s beautiful.”

Dan grasped Shula’s arm in warning. Stopped her from snatching away the child.

“You would make him a wonderful mother,” he said. “I can’t think of a better person to place him with.”

“But?” Sal said, a wry smile on her lips. “He is already promised. And eventually he must return home. I hope he will be able to thank you, one day, for the life you chose for him.”

“He will know of your kindness.” Shula extended her arms to receive the child. Tensions visibly draining once she had him back in her grasp.

“We shall see.” Sal clapped her hands and flipped back to command-mode. “My men will patch the ship, but get her properly repaired before you attempt hyper-jump. She won’t survive it otherwise. I can disappear a few parts without anyone noticing, but too many and people will start asking about the who, the why, the where. We have a few supply ships due out today. I’ll swap you an exit-code and flight plan. Is the ship capable of a 360? That will bring the least notice.”

“I’ll fly her off on my own back, if I have to,” Dan replied. “Mask us and keep Astor busy for a while. And leave the rest to me.”

“Fortune fly with you, Dan. And give my regards to the Dragon-Master. So you get your absolution at last?” She squeezed his shoulder. “I’m pleased for you, boy. Never liked seeing your soul out there, in the wilderness.”

She finished by placing a lingering kiss on his bloody cheek. “You may thank the Lady Shula for the hair,” she whispered. “Keep her. She’ll be good for you.”

“Too good for a rogue like me,” he whispered back. “Save your prayers for the kid. I was always a bit of a lost cause.”

Sal shook her head. “Oh, not any more, Dan. Not any more.”

Chapter 9

“Didn’t your mother teach you not to pick fights while wearing your best clothes?”

“My mother didn’t teach me a lot of things. Never knew her, or my father. Ahh…”

Shula stopped her gentle probing. “You should rest. Lie down on the bed. Are you sure nothing is broken?”

“Sal gave me a quick scan. Hairline fracture, no clots. Big bruises. I’ll live. Help me off with this.”

“I’ll never get the stains out,” Shula said sliding the soiled shirt from his back. Scanning Dan anxiously for wounds. “Blood is a complete…” Sudden tears pricked her eyes. She wiped them away with her wrists. “Ignore me. You’re the one who’s hurt and I’m the one crying. I thought I’d be stronger than this.”

“Taking out an elite Shoari bounty-hunter single handed isn’t strong? I’d hate to see you really angry.”

“It’s not a pretty sight.” Despite the banter, the smile wouldn’t come. “Stop talking, you’ll split your lip again before the sealer gets a chance to work. Here, hold this over your eye and lie back.”

“Don’t have time to lie down.” Dan sucked in a hissing breath at the feel of the cold salve hitting abused flesh. “Got to keep an eye on the ship’s vitals. I’ve sealed off the rear-hold, but if that hull-patch goes, we’ll have to make land-fall pretty quick. Come up front with me. I’ll show you what to do if I pass out.”

“Don’t you dare!” The panic was genuine. She’d never driven anything larger than a land-car. If she had to pilot the ship, they were doomed.

They were doomed anyway. The Shoari was only the first of many. They’d keep on coming until she and Dan couldn’t fight them off any more. At that moment Dan didn’t look as if he could fight off a baby, let alone a fully trained, single-minded bounty hunter.

Her eyes filled up again. Delayed shock. At the attack. Their survival. “Give me a moment to get myself together,” she said. “I really thought I would be forced to watch Cristan die.”

“Not the Shoari.” Dan hooked a hand about her neck. Pulled her in between his thighs. She felt his fingers push into her shorn hair.”They work for ransom or trade. Cristan’s too valuable a commodity to terminate on sight.”

“Don’t talk about him like that.”

“That’s how they see him.” His fingers drifted lower, tracing the line of her neck, her collar-bone. Leaving a trail of heat in its wake. She tipped back her head, exposing her throat. Answering his unspoken question.

“What are you doing, Dan?”

“Taking advantage of the lack of marker. What do you think?”

Her heart clenched. “Is this all we have? To be together when I’m angry, or sad, or terrified out of my mind?”

Tilting his head, he peered at her through the least-swollen of his eyes. “Why should I want it any other way? I told you–.

“Yes, I know.” She loosed herself from his arms. Half-twisted away. Found herself held fast in his strong grip. “Let me go. Cristan might wake up. I don’t like doing this while he’s in the same room.”

“Any more excuses?” Dan turned her back to face him. Cupped her cheek.

She resisted the urge to lean into his touch. Why make things worse by showing how much she wanted him?

“There are a thousand different reasons why we shouldn’t do this,” she said. “You trust me. I trust you. We have nothing to prove to each other. Doing this will only lead to heart-ache.”

“Then break my heart. Wouldn’t be the first time it happened. Won’t be the last.”

“I don’t believe you,” she said, temper rising. “How can you say things like that? How can you be so cruel?”

He released her and stood, bringing his body flush with hers. His hard arousal evident. “Because I want you,” he ground out. “And the only way I can have you is like this. I don’t want to be your love-slave. I want more. Does that answer your question?”

“You still don’t trust me?” Tears fell unchecked, the shock of the attack finally overwhelming her. “I don’t believe you.”

“Believe what you like. I’ve got a ship to fly. People to out-run. You’re not the only one who’s hot. General gets hold of my ass; I won’t be sitting down any time soon.”

“Who’s the General?” She almost had to run to keep up with Dan as he strode back to the flight-deck, stopping by the galley to retrieve his jacket. He slipped it on and slumped into his custom-seat.

“Not as grand as his name implies, but I owe him more than I can pay. You picked the wrong guy to be your saviour. Do you know how many ships were trailing us before we stopped off at the third moon?”

She lowered herself carefully into the co-pilot seat, swivelling it around to face him. Noticed with alarm the slight tremor of Dan’s hand. Impulsively, she bent her head and kissed the dragon’s tail. Remembered the marks he’d given Cristan. When he pulled away, she slipped her hand into his and held him in place.

“When we first met, you showed me your dragon. Why did you do that?”

Dan shrugged. Leaned forward to study the read-out screen.”

“Stop, Dan, and talk to me. Why did you draw my attention to the dragon? Why won’t you tell me anything about it?”

“Because the less you know, the safer I can keep Cristan.”

“Tell me why you marked him. What is has to do with your absolution? Tell me why you’re so scared of me.”

The silence stretched between them. Dan’s right eye was swollen closed now. His left not far behind. Every move had him gritting his teeth against the pain. He stared stubbornly at the read-out, refusing to acknowledge her questions. Building a shield with his pride.

There must be a time at which love begins. A time of looking back on and thinking: yes, that’s the moment I knew. Her heart reached out to his, aching, melting.

Falling in love with a man she couldn’t have. Not the wisest thing she’d ever done.

She turned his hand over and placed a lingering kiss on his work-roughened palm. When he made no move to stop her, she ventured further and pushed back the jacket to kiss her way across his shoulder to the curve of his neck. Her other hand, she placed flat on his chest, resting lightly over the crisp hairs. He stayed very still, neither helping nor pushing her away.

“Show me how to fly the ship,” she said, sliding onto his knee. “And don’t tell me you’ve never had a woman in this position before.”

“Good friend of mine died in a one-man A70 shuttle with his girlfriend on his lap. Trying to impress woman does terrible things to the aerodynamics.”

“You’ve already impressed me. Tell me what to do.” She whispered close to his ear, lips tickling the skin. “What I should touch and what I should steer clear of. You said you’d teach me to control this thing, so teach me.”

“It’s just a question of mind-set. Overcoming your preconceptions.”

“Like this?” Taking a deep breath, she imagined the two of them in perfect balance, locked in a kiss that was as much give as take. Balance was the key to holding back the marker. She knew that. Achieving it was a different matter when Dan had no marker to counter hers.

Holding on to the picture, she pressed back against Dan’s hard erection, making him groan and grind his hips against her back. His hands moved without her prompting, covering her breasts with his dragon and his star. Hot breath fanned her nape, soft lips touched her skin. Like an offering, she tipped her head forward silently begging him to continue.

“Oh Shula.” He bit lightly, sucking on her exposed skin. “There’s no future for us, even if we can control this thing. Don’t start thinking there is. Doesn’t matter how much we both want it. If we live through this, and that’s unlikely, I can’t offer you anything.”

“I’m not asking for a future,” she lied. “Just a now. If the future is so uncertain, shouldn’t we be making the most of now?”

“I’m about to drop, sweetheart.” His voice was a bare whisper. “Defences are low. You keep on being nice to me and I won’t stand a chance. I want to carry you to bed and fuck you slowly after savouring every inch of your sensitive flesh. I want to be inside you for so long, you won’t remember a time I wasn’t there. See what you do to me?”

The words engulfed her with such longing, her heart threatened to break right there.

“You paint a wonderfully sad picture.” She leaned back into the crook of his arm, laying her head onto his shoulder. “If you still want me, I’m sad enough to be safe. Shall we do it here, or find somewhere more comfortable?”

His lips touched her forehead and then he leaned his cheek on her hair.

“With or without the marker, I’m never going to be safe around you, Shula. With you, I’m in danger of becoming one of the good guys, and that scares the shit out of me.”

“You are one of the good guys.”

“You won’t be saying that tomorrow.”

“What happens tomorrow?”

“If we survive our next move,” he said in a weary tone. “You get to find out just what kind of man I really am.”

* * * *

Comes a time in a man’s life when he just needs somewhere to call home. The vision was too tempting. A house. A piece of land. A baby in a cradle and a wife in his bed.

Dan cleared his head and returned his attention to the calcs. The Bradley Compensation might just do it. Or then again, they might just break up on entry, or materialise in the middle of some distant star.

Lord of Sin, the read-out had to be wrong. Six craft following his precise trajectory. Mostly slower, single-pilot vessels, but the chances of random matches this close were slim.

“Double mask and reverse,” he ordered the computer. It would confuse their pursuers for a couple of hours maybe, but once they’d unscrambled the code, they’d be back on his tail.

“Configure hyper-bounce,” he said hopefully. A series of lines worked their way across the read-out screen, ending in a V-shaped spike.

Fuck. They were toasted elgrats. “Reverse third primary,” he said and punched in a row of figures. Sitting back, he bit his thumb and waited.

Well, there was the bounce, but a fifty-percent chance of break up on re-entry was too much. He leaned in closer, screwing up his swollen eyes for a better look. Of course. He’d forgotten to trim the rafter-gens.

Scenario seventy-five percent ideal. The computer’s robotic voice droned out the specs. Enact?

“Store and standby,” he said and heaved himself out of his custom-seat. Twenty-five percent chance they’d die in the jump. Hundred percent chance they’d be caught if he didn’t pull something spectacular out of the bag.

He found Shula in the galley, a replete Cristan lolling in her arms.

“My lack of hair confuses him, I think.” Lowering her head, she let the child grab hold of a lock of her short hair. “See sweet-heart, it’s still there. It will grow again.”

Cristan stuck a thumb into his mouth and regarded them both with sleepy eyes.

“You want to go put him down?” Dan said. “I need to talk to you.”

He waited for her in the galley, helping himself to a brandy, pouring one for her. She returned, eyes a little anxious.

“What is it?”

The brandy burned his throat, just the way he liked it. “Here,” he said and pushed the beaker towards her. “Drink and tell me how brave you feel.”

“Will getting me drunk turn off the marker? I thought you’d decided…” She fingered the beaker, lifted it and sniffed the contents. “I’m not as brave as I imagined I would be. Here’s to you and yours.” She lifted the beaker in salute before throwing the contents down her throat and slapping the cup onto the table as tradition demanded. “Oh,” she said grasping at the table-ledge. “Intoxicating.”

Today she was Miss Prim in the formal blouse and pant-suit she’d worn for her escape from Aluderia. He could well imagine the buttoned-down men of the court having more than one wet-dream with wondering what she kept inside that tantalising package. A vision of elegant decadence as she swayed and flopped back to sprawl across the bench-seat.

“Oh, I’m sorry Captain Daniels,” she said, mortified. “Did you wish to speak to me? I will be with you just as soon as my legs return. I don’t take my drink well, as you can see.”

What a woman. Cheeks already ablaze, skin so sensitive, she only had to look at an irritant to break out into a rash. Never travelled off-world, but that hadn’t stopped her taking off across the galaxy with a baby in tow in order to save its life. Cristan’s mother in all but name. Who better than a mother to protect a child?

She would not give him up easily.

“I want to attempt a hyper-bounce,” he said. “Got a rendezvous tomorrow we can’t miss and we won’t outrun our pursuers unless we do something drastic. It’s dangerous, more so with the drive out of commission. Chance we won’t make it.”

“You wouldn’t be asking me if it wasn’t our best chance.” Shula sat, back straight now, hands in her lap. A perfect lady. In another life. A life she would never see again.

“I may be about to kill us all. You want to risk that? Slavers get hold of Cristan, he’ll be sold to a rich, childless couple who’ll spoil him to death. Woman like you will be quite a prize. It may be your best chance.”

“But if my grand-uncle catches us, we will be killed.”

“So, what’s it to be?” Cowardly making her decide. Not like him to think twice about any decision. Best he could hope for, if caught, was a short stint in the deepest mines of Agrat before he died. The General had already explained that particular future to him in great detail. He’d choose death over bondage, any day. But some wished to live, no matter what the cost.

The hit of the brandy was wearing off. He watched Shula clear her mind, her eyes darken to a deep violet. So beautiful. And so out of reach.

“What would Cristan choose for himself?” It wasn’t really a question. They both already knew that answer.

“Hyper-bounce it is, then.” His shoulders sagged, releasing the tension he’d been holding. “I’m just diverting power from the rear drives to the front. Shouldn’t take more than an hour. Hungry?”

Shula shook her head. “You have tried a hyper-bounce before?”

“Wish I could say yes. If it works, we’ll patent it.”

“I trust you, Dan.”

“I know.” He frowned, surprised at his declaration. Even more surprised when he realised he meant it. Dancing around the issue had only led to impasse and blind alleys. Frustration and words of regret. Time they both came out and said it like they meant it.

Or better still, show her.

Those with nothing to lose are both the wisest and the most foolish of men. The words of his old teacher made him smile.

He closed the space between then and in one smooth movement, took her hand and pulled her from the seat. Sometimes, the best decisions are those made without thinking.

“We have one hour,” he said, curving his fingers about her chin. Turning her face up to his. “Might be all we have left. I think we should make use of it. Don’t you?”

“Are you sure?

She trusted him, but still she looked for the trickery behind his words. Couldn’t blame her for that after the way he’d treated her.

“In your hands,” he said lowering his mouth to hers.

This was one act he wanted to live to regret.

Chapter 10

“I can’t control it,” she said. “What I feel for you, right now…” Another pulse of marker reached out, ensnaring them both in its seductive thrall. “We’re about to die, aren’t we? That’s why you’re suddenly willing to risk all doing this?”

“It’s only partly the reason. Kiss me again.”

Oh sweet goddess, they were going to die. Heedless of his damaged lips, Dan’s mouth ravaged hers with an intensity that made her head spin.

“Your poor lip,” she said wiping away a smear of blood.

“It’s nothing. Why didn’t I notice how beautiful you were? Why didn’t I tell you?”

The room spun and she was sitting on the table, Dan between her open knees. His fingers pulling insistently at the fastenings of her pants.

“I wanted to go slow, but you drive me crazy. I want you naked, in my arms. Now.”

Even as she lifted her hips to allow him to pull off her pants and undergarment, a small voice of reason told her to slow down. To give him a chance to pull back.

“Shh,” she said and placed a finger on his lips. “Listen to me. I want you, too. But I know you didn’t want it like this. What’s changed?”

“I’m keeping you. That’s what’s changed.”

“You’re what? Dan, this is the marker talking. You don’t mean that.”

“We survive the hyper-bounce, you’re staying with me.” He kissed a frantic trail from her lips to her neck, expertly working open the fastenings of her blouse. “I don’t want any man but me to do this with you. Devil in chains, you have the most beautiful breasts.”

She meant to stop him. When he took a nipple into his mouth and grazed it with his teeth until she turned liquid in his arms. When he pushed a hand between her legs and stroked her to a slick readiness. When he slid a finger inside her and whispered words of such wicked delight, she heard herself begging for more.

“Open my pants.” He kissed her again, filling her mouth with his languorously stroking tongue. “Touch me, Shula.”

The marker surrounded them, like an embrace, holding them in place with its gentle restraint. She was as much a prisoner as he as she scattered caution to the winds and took his cock, hot and heavy, in her hands. “Do you have a condom?” she said on a panting breath.

The ship lurched. Dan hardly gave it pause. “I’m clean. We don’t have to.”

“For your sake, we do.” It was a struggle, pushing him off when all she wanted was for him to take her, there on the galley table. “I don’t want you hating me when you come to your senses. Look at me.”

“Don’t make me to stop. I can’t….” He was a million light years away. Dark eyes glazed and distant. Holding her so hard, his nails bit into her arms. His cock hard against her belly.

“Yes you can. I won’t let you lose yourself over me. To find a balance, you have to help me. Are you listening? Find a condom and then make love to me.”

For a moment, she thought he would refuse. Teeth bared, every muscle rigid and shaking, he clung to her as if she were a life-raft on a stormy sea.

“Don’t hurt me,” she said unable to keep the tremor from her voice.

“I would never hurt you.” The words were almost a growl. His breathing harsh. “Devils alive,” he said in between desperate breaths. “Why would you ever think I’d hurt you?”

He let go his death grip, arms still circling her, but holding now, not crushing.

“You went a little crazy just now. Looked so far away. I didn’t know if I could bring you back.”

Dan’s breathing slowed. “Well, at least now we know. Devil in chains, I think I did lose myself for a moment, there. How did you bring me back?”

“You don’t remember the condom?”

He raised his eyebrows and tipped back his head. “As great a passion-killer as ever there was. I didn’t…hurt you, did I?”

“No, you didn’t. Do you still want to make love to me? That…didn’t put you off?”

“Still as hard as a rotovine strut,” he said looking down at himself. He groped into the back pocket of his pants. “Put this on me. And if I go again, then you bring me back.”

“There’s less marker now. Can you feel it? How do you do this?”

“Very carefully.” His hand covered hers. “Like this. And yes, I can feel it. Although I still want to rip the head off any man who looks at you.”

“That will pass. Ahh…” A slow glide, undulating hips. None of the frenzy of before. The marker released in measured pulses, small tugs at their awareness. A long, drawn out pleasure.

She stroked his hair while he recovered his senses. Finally, his hips stopped moving and the tension flowed from his tight body. Had he meant his fervent declaration to take her and Cristan with him to whatever new life he’d planned? She didn’t dare ask in case she’d heard only the mad ravings of a man in thrall. Or simply a man who wanted sex and knew how to sweet-talk a woman.

They stayed locked together, holding on, while the moments ticked away. In less than an hour they could all be dead. Or on their way to a new life on the other side of the galaxy.

“It’s time,” he said, eventually. “Are you ready?”

In response, she kissed him, a gentle touch of her lips to his.

A kiss of hope and of thanks. Or a kiss goodbye?

Soon she would know.

* * * *

Dan took one long look at Shula before they made the bounce. No matter how hard she tried to control the marker, he’d never be free of her. With or without the marker, she was a part of his life now. Where she went, he would surely follow.

Cristan would walk another path. One which would ultimately lead him to greater things. Hidden on some obscure world, struggling on the edge of poverty, Shula wouldn’t be able to give him what he needed in order to grow into the man who would one day wish to return home.

Dan made the final adjustments and strapped himself in. She’d understand this was for the best, but that wouldn’t stop her blaming him for separating her from the child she loved more than anything in the galaxy.

“Okay, you got him secure?”

Shula lifted her arms to show Cristan strapped into the infant-harness which was in turn strapped about her chest.

“Good,” he said. “It will be disorientating. You might experience nausea, dizziness. Don’t want you dropping him.”

“He’s secure.” Shula gave him a watery smile, her eyes flicking to the read-out screen counting down the moments.

“Relax and go with it and I’ll see you on the other side,” he said and added a silent prayer that there would actually be an other side. And that the ship had enough power in reserve to resist the gravitational pull of the three celestial bodies involved in the complicated manoeuvre.

If it worked, they’d jump three orbits, like a stone skimming water, each time disappearing and reappearing on a different trajectory. An intricate series of dives, free-fall and power-jumps should sling them to the far side of the fourth planet from the sun. From there, they’d make their way undetected to Pasiphae, deliver the chid and then…

Executing in ten, nine, eight…

A familiar shot of adrenaline sharpened his senses and had him mentally counting down alongside the computer’s monotonous voice. This time the anticipation, the promised exhilaration was shot through with a thread concern for Shula and the child. Dan covered her hand in a reassuring squeeze. Winked at Cristan. Turned his full attention to the controls.

…four, three, two…

“Love you, Dan.”

Time slowed, speeded up, stopped. He was aware of Shula screaming, his own cry of triumph. The words hanging between them. A blur of light as the ship attempted the jump to hyper-space, and failed.

So far, so good. The largest moon of the chosen planet hurtled towards them, grew impossibly large, then gradually smaller. A change in engine pitch and they were free of the pull and hurtling towards their next objective. The same smooth manoeuvre and then the planet itself filled the viewing screen.

“Worst part over,” he said, head pinned to the seat. “We just got…holy sin, who put that fucking satellite there?”

“Don’t swear in front of the child,” Shula returned, head tipped back, one hand gripping the arm-rest, the other wrapped firmly about Cristan.

A crunch of metal against metal and the ship was clearing orbit while the satellite spun away into space.

“Sorry,” he muttered. “Buy you a new one next time I’m in town.”

Free of the G force, head spinning, he motioned Shula to stay in place while he swiftly configured a stealth route to Pasiphae. Slip into a line of traders on route for the gas mines of Electra. Or even better, fly in the wash of one of the humungous pleasure-cruisers. If some-one else wasn’t already doing that. All well-tried tricks that worked, for a short while.

“That was amazing.” Shula rolled her head sideways, eyes alight. “You are amazing.”

“I try,” he said unable to stop a grin spreading across his face. “Sheer poetry when theory translated so well into practice.” It reminded him of why he’d taken to the stars instead of finding a regular job on some stable world. Out here, every day was an invention, the distance you travelled limited only by the depth of your imagination.

“Cristan okay?”

“Confused, I think. Look at his creased little brow. Isn’t it adorable? How far away is this world you’re taking us to?”

“Half a day’s ride. Less if I can sneak us a tow.”

An incredulous laugh escaped her. “I’d love to have known you as a child. I can bet you drove your teachers mad.”

“How did you know that?” he said, allowing himself a few moments to savour his victory. There was that word again, love. Said in the heat of extremis, did it mean anything?

“Half a day’s ride and you’ll see your first glimpse of your new home,” she whispered to Cristan. “Our new home. I can’t bring you up like a prince, but you will know where you came from, who you are. You will have your revenge, Cristan.”

Tucked safely in behind the Cruiser Elan 45A, the Marium remained masked for a few precious hours. Time enough for him to work out how to tell Shula only one of them would be staying on Pasiphae.

The pain-killers were wearing off, a dull ache pounding one side of his head. After the high came the inevitable crash, which left them both sitting in place, staring at nothing. Too tired to move, for now.

“Is he asleep?” he said at length.

“Almost. I’ll take him back to his crib.”

“Let me,” he said rising from his seat. “Rest, you look beat.”

“I am.” Shula handed the child over without protest. Eyes almost transparent with fatigue. “How are you feeling?”

“Pleased to be alive.”

“I never doubted you’d do it.”

“Liar. But thanks for the confidence.”

He pressed a kiss to her hair. No marker. But then he had just almost scared the life out of her. The perfect time to make love – if he didn’t have more important things to do.

He turned away, unable to face Shula’s look of gratitude. Or to ask her whether the words she’d spoken during the countdown, were from her heart. Cristan’s tiny hand rested on his large paw. The smudged marks echoing his own.

Time to add the final trio, which were his due as foster-father elect. The rest were the privilege of the monks who would mentor him to manhood. Teach him to be a true warrior. A worthy king.

“I’ll do it quick as I can,” he whispered to the sleeping child. “I promise you won’t feel a thing.”

* * * *

“Will we remain on the ship until we find somewhere permanent to live? Now we’re finally here, I have no idea what to do. I’ve only a few hundred credits left, but…”

Shula giggled, her pent-up nerves getting the better of her. From the tiny viewing portal, she saw rectangular stone buildings, each small dwelling in line with the next. At the end of the avenue stood a taller, more elaborate building that reminded her of the temples back on Aluderia. Behind that, fields of purple and green stretched across a flat plain to a distant mountain range. The whole place had an aura of austere calm. It was also quite deserted.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know laughter isn’t appropriate, but all of a sudden, I feel such a weight lifted from me. I don’t know how to describe it.”

She’d been prattling on since the landing, too excited to notice that Dan wasn’t really listening. He’d been oddly possessive of Cristan since the bounce, but that she put down to a growing fondness for the child. The deepening bond between them warmed her heart.

“You’ve been very quiet since we landed.” She pressed into Dan’s side, leaning her head onto his biceps and gazing down at child tucked into the crook of his elbow. She felt Dan’s arm slip around her back, fingers curling about her waist.

“I’m so nervous I’m in total control of the marker.” She traced a pattern on his thigh with a finger. “Have we time to take advantage of that?”

“Ahh, Shula, I wish we had.” His sigh came from deep within. A sigh of such regret, that she sat up and twisted to look at him.

“Something is wrong?”

“No,” he said. “Everything is as it should be.”

“Then what?” She pressed a hand to her cheek, already feeling the uncomfortable prickle of heat that accompanied anxiety. “Dan?”

“Only one of us is going ashore.”

“You’re not making sense. You mean you’re going ashore first?” It took an effort not to reach for Cristan. To stay calm when her heart was pounding, slow and heavy in her chest.

“I asked you once how brave you felt. Cristan is staying here. You and I are not. It’s as simple as that.”

“What is this place?” She did reach for the child then. Dan rose smoothly, moving him out of her grasp.

“I can’t tell you, but don’t be angry with me. This is the best way I know of keeping him safe.”

“Give Cristan to me.” She stood on rubbery legs and held out her arms. “I’m his guardian and I won’t be parted from him.” She swallowed the growing lump in her throat. “He belongs with me.”

“Not any more.”

The look of grief in Dan’s eyes made her step back. Grief, and something else. A steely determination that made her heart clench. He placed the child gently into her arms and hooked a finger under her chin, his dark eyes fixed on hers.

“You said you trusted me, Shula.”

Cristan lay, peaceful in her arms, unaware that the next few moments would determine his future. Or was he? When he gave her a tentative smile, her heart almost broke. The air was suddenly too thick to breathe, her eyes too full of tears to focus.

“I was just going to take him. To let you wake up and find him gone. But I couldn’t do that to you. I wanted to give you a chance to say goodbye.”

“Goodbye? Why? What have you done?” She felt Dan’s thumb on her cheek, wiping away the tears.

“I’ve offered him as novice to an order of holy brothers who will teach him what he needs to know in order to be a true king. Teach him to become a warrior and a great empath. It’s a gift without price and he will thank you for it, one day.”

“I can teach him all that.”

“And keep him safe?”

“You said you were keeping us. Or was that just madness brought on by the marker?”

“You.” His fingers pushed into her hair, curved around her skull, holding her gently in place. “You, Shula. I’m keeping you. I want you to enslave me and keep me by your side. I want to stand between you and the universe. To make a shield with my body that will keep you safe from all harm. If you’ll have me.”

“I want you both.” Her voice was a bare whisper. “I can’t do this. Can’t give him up.”

“He can disappear here, amongst all the other children. When he’s grown, the monks will tell him who he is.”

“Will they love him? Hold him when he cries?” She hugged the child closer, ready to fight to keep him. “I can’t just hand him over to people I don’t know. What if the bounty-hunters track him here? If Sal knew where you were taking him, then won’t they be able to work it out? She saw the marks, didn’t she?”

“And drew the wrong conclusion,” Dan said. “The dragon is a decoy. No-one knows my real past.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” She turned her back, shielding Cristan from Dan’s waiting arms. “This is happening too fast.”

Don’t cry. Don’t cry. I will see you again.

The words echoed in her head. Words from Cristan the man, not those of the child she would never hold again. He stared at her, waiting for her decision. Dan’s hands rested lightly on her shoulders.

“They’re coming for him. Welcome them aboard. I want to see their faces when they realise I’ve brought a woman with me.”

“They don’t like women?”

“Understatement. This club is strictly men only.”

“You lived here?”

“For a while, yes. They’re good people, Shula. They’ll shield Cristan from harm until he’s ready to make his own way. Now, show me how brave you are.”

Dan dropped to one knee, dark head bowed. The ancient, bare-chested monk at the foot of the ramp inclined his head in acknowledgement.

“You do us great honour Father Abbot. Will you come aboard?”

The monk gathered up his long sarong and stepped onto the ramp. “Well of course I’ll come aboard. Do you think I’m here for my health?” he muttered and regarded Dan for a long moment. With a speed belying his age, the old man closed the distance between them and raised a hand in blessing.

A hand covered in a constellation of stars.

* * * *

“Tell me I did the right thing.” Dan’s customary bravado evaporated at the sight of Shula, arms wrapped about her body, locked in shock and grief. “Tell me that one day, you’ll forgive me.”

“He was so tiny and yet the ship feels so empty without him.” Shula gave him a tight-lipped smile, her eyes the colour of tears.

Dan pushed his hands into his pockets to stop himself touching her. The decision to come back to him should be hers. At that moment, the distance between then felt like a million light years.

“You don’t have to like what I did. You can hate me for it. But please say you understand.”

“That’s what makes it so hard. I want to hate you, but I can’t. You made the right decision, I know that. I wish I were as brave as you. Without you I’d never have been able to leave him”

“I’m not brave. You heard Father Abbot giving me absolution? Nice little perk for me, don’t you think?”

“Stop it. You would have done it anyway.”

Gentle fingers on his arm. Reassuring, reaffirming. He sat beside her, feeling the chasm between them closing. Took one of her hands in his and kissed it. With or without the marker, he was hers.

“I’m no saint, either,” Shula continued. “Don’t start thinking I am. I once put nettles in the Lady Arabia’s bed. And aga-root in my grand-uncle’s tea.”

“Sounds like he deserved it.”

“I miss Cristan. Goddess, how I miss him.” Her fingers tightened around his. “Promise me we’ll see him again. That he’ll always be able to find one of us.”

“I can promise you that. May I hold you?”

“Please.”

“Ship might make it to Stalos minor. How do you fancy being a farmer’s wife?”

“You, a farmer?”

“Stranger things have happened.”

The soft weight of her at his side felt familiar and right. If he was to fall into her thrall, then so be it. All the better to protect her.

“What?” she said. “What stranger things have happened to you? Tell me.”

His face creased into a mock-frown. “Damned if I can think of anything. But I want this. I’m surprised at how much I want this.”

Shula raised her head and contemplated him, long and hard. Her scrutiny made him oddly nervous as if he yet had to pass some test to be allowed the privilege of being with her. For a man who took life for granted, it was an unsettling experience.

“It will certainly be different from court-life,” she said and then to his alarm, shook her head. “I can’t do this to you. I’ll only be holding you back. Find me a safe haven and I will make my own way as best I can. Mark the years until Cristan reaches manhood and then join him when he returns home to fight for his kingdom. You…”

“Hold it right there,” he said pressing a finger to her lips. “It’s the whole deal, Sugar. And I’m kind of persistent. Like you, when I want something I usually get it.”

She didn’t quite cover the small sigh of relief. “I must admit to dreading the thought of going it alone. How can I ever thank you for this?”

Dan arched a brow. “You really want me to spell it out?”

“Ahh,” she said, smiling at last. One of her fingers traced a pattern on his shirt. “You wish me to be your love slave?”

“I wish to be yours,” he said with a laugh. “If you leave, who will keep me out of trouble? I need you, Shula. Let me stay with you.”

“A farmer’s wife?” For a moment, she closed her eyes and appeared to be contemplating the idea. “I have to tell you, I’m afraid of cows,” She said at length. “Quite terrified of them, in fact.”

“Then we’ll keep wool-backs, or grow something edible.” Shula’s smile trembled, the ghost of sadness shading her eyes. “I’m a poor substitute,” Dan said gathering her close, “But the pain will lessen in time. When he needs us, Cristan will know where to find us.”

“I swore to protect him”

“And that’s exactly what you’re doing–”

Her fingers touched his lips. “No, let me finish,” she said. “I swore to protect him, but I never could have achieved that alone. When I prayed to Lady Fortune for help, she led me to you.”

“Remind me to thank her.” Dan angled his head and touched his lips to hers. “And remind me to do this every day for the rest of our lives.”

“And this?” Shula flicked open the top fastener of his shirt and slipped a hand inside.

“Yes,” he said on an exhaled breath. “That, too.”

Her hand moved lower.

“And especially that.” In one smooth movement she was under him, sprawled across the narrow bench-seat. Her body moulded to his. “Let’s disappear together. Change our names. Don homespun. Build ourselves a home somewhere.”

Shula moved beneath him, the tiniest hint of marker rippling between them. “I have the best bounty-hunters in the galaxy seeking me.”

“And I owe the General a debt I’ll never be able to repay. Quite the pair we make, don’t we?”

Shula tightened her embrace. “He won’t get within ten paces of you. Not if I have anything to do with it. ”

They were in for a rough ride, that was for sure. Dan held her close and vowed to savour each moment, to pledge his life to keeping her and Cristan alive.

“Are you sure, Dan? I barged into your life and forced you to help us, but now…”

Dan stopped her with a kiss that left her too breathless to argue back. “You think I’d miss out on an adventure like this? This is one story I mean to see out till the end.”

Her smile warmed him like nothing ever had. Made him want to sing love songs from the top of the highest mountains. The stars flashed by and the marker pulsed between them. Dan felt himself drawn in, falling into something wonderful. He didn’t resist.

Why would he when this was the place he wanted to be for the rest of his life?

The End

 

Comments are closed.