Read Badlands Online

Authors: Seleste deLaney

Tags: #Science Fiction, #General, #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #SteamPunk

Badlands

BOOK: Badlands
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Badlands

By Seleste deLaney

After a brutal Civil War, America is a land divided. As commander of her nation’s border guards, Ever is a warrior sworn to protect her country and her queen. When an airship attacks and kills the monarch, Ever must infiltrate enemy territory to bring home the heir to the throne, and the dirigible Dark Hawk is her fastest way to the Union.

Captain Spencer Pierce just wants to pay off the debt he owes on the Dark Hawk and make a life for himself trading across the border. When the queen’s assassination puts the shipping routes at risk, he finds himself Ever’s reluctant ally.

As they fly into danger, Ever and Spencer must battle not only the enemy but also their growing attraction. She refuses to place her heart before duty, and he has always put the needs of his ship and crew above his own desires. Once the princess is rescued, perhaps they can find love in the Badlands—if death doesn’t find them first…

Dear Reader,

A new year always brings with it a sense of expectation and promise (and maybe a vague sense of guilt). Expectation because we don’t know what the year will bring exactly, but promise because we always hope it will be good things. The guilt is due to all of the New Year’s resolutions we make with such good intentions.

This year, Carina Press is making a New Year’s resolution we know we won’t have any reason to feel guilty about: we’re going to bring our readers a year of fantastic editorial and diverse genre content. So far, our plans for 2011 include staff and author appearances at reader-focused conferences such as the RT Booklovers Convention in April, where we’ll be offering up goodies, appearing on panels, giving workshops and hosting a few fun activities for readers. We’re also cooking up several genre-specific release weeks, during which we’ll highlight individual genres. So far we have plans for steampunk week and unusual fantasy week. Readers will have access to free reads, discounts, contests and more as part of our week-long promotions!

But even when we’re not doing special promotions, we’re still offering something special to our readers in the form of the stories authors are delivering to Carina Press that we’re passing on to you. From sweet romance to sexy, and military science fiction to fairy-tale fantasy, from mysteries to romantic suspense, we’re proud to be offering a wide variety of genres and tales of escapism to our customers in this new year. Every week is a new adventure, and we want to bring our readers along on the journey. Be daring, be brave and try something new with Carina Press in 2011!

We love to hear from readers, and you can email us your thoughts, comments and questions to [email protected] You can also interact with Carina Press staff and authors on our blog, Twitter stream and Facebook fan page.

Happy reading!

~Angela James

Executive Editor, Carina Press

www.carinapress.com

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Dedication

This book is dedicated to Kelley Armstrong for kicking my butt in the nicest way possible (more than once) and for telling me time and again not to give up. Without your support, I wouldn’t have dedications to write. Thanks for everything.

Acknowledgements

So many people helped get this story ready for primetime, and I’m sure I’ll end up missing someone. If it’s you, please forgive me.

To my fabulous beta readers: Chris, Danielle, Janelle, Ken, Steve and Terri. You guys made me laugh and made me cry. Thankfully, it was more of the former.

To my writing group who helped tear up the first chapter or two for me—much Rebel love to you all.

Thank you to Angela James and the entire Carina Press acquisitions team for taking a chance on me. However, the biggest thank you goes to my editor, Gina Bernal, who loved this story and characters as much as I did and pushed me to make them the best they could be.

And always, I owe my husband and my kids for their undying patience and love, without which I would never get a story finished.

Chapter One

The tent flap swished open and Ever shielded her eyes from the glare. Her second-in-command eased inside. “We’re behind schedule, Catherine. Where have you been?”

Stripping out of the simple tunic and pants the border guards wore in the desert, the curvy brunette shrugged. “Jaye announced her engagement. It was all I could do to get the other women back to their tents to change.” She raised a brow as she looked at Ever. “I’m surprised she gave the news without you there.”

“Jaye knows I do not approve.”

“Of men or marriage?”

Ever’s fingers deftly slid buttons through the decorative loops on her jacket. “I have never discouraged the pursuit of sex. Without some release, we’d all go mad.” She twisted her long hair up and pinned it. “Marriage is another matter entirely. A distraction.”

Catherine’s hand fell on her shoulder. “Queen Lavinia has brought us the closest thing to peace the Badlands has seen since the Union first began sending prisoners into exile. If any of us are to find happiness, now is the time.”

“That you equate men with happiness proves you don’t understand anything.” She shrugged off Catherine’s grip.

“Not all men who live here are criminals.”

With one hand on the flap, Ever paused. “That is only because we do not provide them the opportunity.” She stepped outside, hoping the brutal desert air would scour away some of her irritation.

For seven years, she’d patrolled the borders, capturing the men sent across the Mississippi—or killing them if necessary. She’d seen the true heart of evil. It made what Queen Lavinia and her predecessors created out of the harsh mountains and deserts all the more precious. Even the natives respected the Badlands and all it stood for: honor, loyalty, obedience, and above all the power of women. Ever would proudly give her life to protect the fragile peace of her homeland.

Divided loyalties had no place along the borders.

Ever paced outside the tents, waiting for her troops to gather. With a grimace, she tugged at her snug formal jacket. The uniform was ridiculous. She could barely move; this wasn’t the attire of a Badlands warrior. Even with nothing beneath, it was too tight. At least these state dinners only came around once or twice a year.

Minutes ticked away as sweat began to dampen the fabric. She refused to give the women under her command any longer. It was time to go.

Ever opened her mouth to bellow the order when a shrill noise pierced the still air of the Painted Desert.

The siren.

Eyes wide, Ever yelled, “Weapons! Now!”

She ducked back into the tent. Catherine had already slid her knives into their sheaths and slung a rifle over her shoulder. “Drill?”

Ever shook her head. Queen Lavinia might have a strange sense of humor, but she would never sound a drill without announcing it to the senior officers.

“The prisoners then?”

“Perhaps.”

Ever hated to consider the implications. The queen’s southern fortress housed the worst of the criminals the United States sent over the border. If they’d truly escaped…

She could only hope some overzealous steward sounded the alarm due to an uprising inside the cells.

But she had to assume otherwise.

She tore off the jacket and strapped on her weapons belt. Instinct told her not to waste time with anything else—with her tight, high breasts, she could fight naked if she had to. Crossbow flung over her shoulder, she dashed from the tent.

The rest of the women waited in various stages of undress but all were loaded with weapons. Ever nodded at them and they raced toward the fortress, their feet pounding out a rhythm on the packed sand. Spooked by the siren, horses would take longer than traveling on foot.

They reached the outskirts of the protected field in minutes, but it was too late. Men with weapons swarmed the area. For every one her women cut down, Ever counted two more taking their place. Some wore uniforms—clearly soldiers—but others were in the rough cotton supplied to prisoners.

A woman—a cook by her dress—dashed through the field. A man in faded indigo prison garb raised a rifle and shot her in the back. The woman’s fingers brushed Ever’s outstretched arm as she fell, her eyes wide. Ever lifted her crossbow and sent a bolt flying into the man’s skull. She reloaded with one hand and picked off a soldier with her pistol.

“There are too many,” Catherine yelled.

Through the gun smoke, the bulk of a dirigible revealed itself. Even if Ever knew how many prisoners the fortress housed, she couldn’t guess the number of soldiers carried by a ship that size.

“Just continue fighting. We need to know who survived.” Ever pushed forward and downed another prisoner, even as her sheer skirts caught on a fallen weapon and tore.

A hand clamped down on her shoulder and she spun, her pistol raised. Catherine blocked the weapon’s progress, her eyes downcast. “A stable hand made it out. He says the queen is dead.”

Ever froze, refusing to accept the words. “That is not possible.”

“You have to go. It’s your duty.”

Order in the Badlands depended on a ruler. Once word of the queen’s demise spread, those outside the military would scatter and hide. It was only a matter of time before the escaped prisoners began taking over. Snapping out of her reverie, Ever met Catherine’s eyes. “You are in charge here. Kill them all.”

As much as she hated to turn her back on the fight, Catherine was right. Ever raced from the smoke and death, hoping her women would make it out alive.

Wind-blown sand scoured her bare arms and torso, making her curse the decision to discard the too-tight jacket. Though her skirts were torn and streaked with the blood of both friends and enemies, at least they offered her legs some protection. After tucking what she could of the fabric out of the way, she yanked the goggles from her belt and strapped them over her eyes.

The mountains towered before her. She needed to lose herself in their crags and shadows. After a furtive glance behind, she tucked her pistol back in its holster, secured her crossbow, and began the ascent. Ever had climbed these rocks since she was six years old—far too young to understand how dangerous the ascent was, but already far too stubborn to care. Even knowing the mountain, though, the jagged rocks threatened to slice her hands with every hold.

Sweat leaked through a weak spot in the seal against her skin and slipped into her eye. She blinked fiercely, fighting for sight against the burning. The toes of one foot on a narrow hold, she practically dangled from her right hand as she jerked the goggles down and wiped her face.

There, three inches higher, was a hold for her left foot. The soft leather covering her toes caught the new ledge as the one beneath her right shattered with the echoing refrain of a gunshot.

“Stop right there, ma’am. No need for more killing.” The voice was young—some soldier just following orders.

Ever’s arm strained to hold on as she glanced back to judge his location. “If I do not move, I will fall. Whether you pull the trigger or not, it will still mean my death.” Her biceps quivered and sweat poured down her back, dripping under her belt. He must’ve seen her weapons, known she was a warrior.

“All right, ma’am, find your footing and climb back down.”

A slow smile curved onto her face. “Thank you.” As she pretended to look for a handhold, Ever let her foot slip from the rock. She screamed and threw her body to the left, twisting as she fell. Her left hand snagged on the hold as her right pulled the pistol from its holster and fired.

Through the smoke and dust, the soldier—barely out of his teens from the look of his unlined face—raised a hand to his throat. Blood poured from the hole there, collecting in his cupped palm. Shock was writ large across his features, mouth gaping, eyes wide as he fell to the ground.

Ever’s shoulder burned, and a sharp protrusion sliced against her arm. Sticky redness oozed from the cut, dripping down her biceps. Feeling around with her feet, she eventually managed to take the pressure off her strained joint. She tilted her gaze skyward. The flat that had been only five feet away now taunted her from more than twice that. She bit her lip and shoved the pain deep. Someone would come looking for the soldier soon. Only distance and height offered her protection. She re-holstered the gun and renewed her search for a handhold.

Two hours later, with storm clouds rolling in and painting the sky in yellow-tinged shades of gray, Ever reached an outcropping and settled onto a boulder, a stone arch at her back. As a child, she’d called this her throne and dyed patches of the rock in the pattern of warrior tattoos. Now, fifteen years later, her body sported many of the same designs. Her eyes welled up remembering how her mother had beamed with pride when she received her first mark.

Ever dashed the tears away with the back of her hand, pulled out her oculars and pushed a spring. The machine came to life, ratcheting from a flat brass oval to a pair of dual lenses. Ever shuddered. She’d heard tales about what the clockwork technology of the United States was capable of and it terrified her. Even this outdated contraption made her skin crawl. With care, she focused them on the fortress. Soon, the storm would destroy all visibility, and she had to be sure.

The airship was there, tethered outside the walls. They had executed the attack flawlessly, landing outside, just as the supply ship would have. The gates would have opened wide, expecting traders. Instead, the gatekeepers had been met with death.

She searched the dirigible for identifying marks. Her eyes watered, but Ever was certain she’d seen blue. Not Texas then. She blinked and looked again, squinting to make out the symbols. Not the Confederates either. The ship bore the stars and stripes of the United States.

Her teeth ground together, sealing her mouth against the curse she wanted to voice. Ever wished she could kill them all.

She shifted her oculars to the left. There. In front of the gates, for all who remained to see, stood a pike topped by Queen Lavinia’s head. Dried blood coated the rough edges around her neck and gore stained the ground. Yet, even in death, the queen’s face was a mask of serenity. As though she knew Ever survived and had already begun the quest to bring Princess Laurette back to take the throne. The curse that she’d bitten back died as her throat constricted painfully.

No. There would be time to mourn later. Duty came first.

Because one thing was certain—whoever attacked the fortress wouldn’t stop with Queen Lavinia’s death. The release of the prisoners attested to that. If someone wanted to destroy the tenuous peace in the Badlands, the first step would be destruction of the royal line. All of it. If Ever didn’t find the princess first, she’d be as dead as Lavinia, and the Badlands would never be the same.

Activity near the airship caught her attention. Men ran to and fro, slicing through tethers, making her wonder what had them spooked. None of the desert beasts could withstand firepower of the sort they’d brought. Something else then. Something…

Soft thunder had covered the sound, but there, the higher pitched rumble of steam engines. Ever stood and twisted around. A second dirigible crested the craggy peaks. Its markings were familiar; it was one of their usual cargo ships.
Dark Hawk
. Yes, this ship had brought supplies many times.

Her mind shuffled pieces around. Clearly, the ship on the ground knew the
Dark Hawk
was approaching. She’d intended on waiting until night to rappel down and take a horse. But that way would take her days to reach Texas, much less find transport to the north. Her new plan had risks to both the
Dark Hawk
and herself, yet there was no question regarding the fate of the dirigible’s crew if they landed. A handful more deaths wouldn’t stop the men who had slaughtered their way through the fortress.

Ever grabbed her knife, cut a swath of fabric from her skirt and secured it to a bolt. Dehydration and exhaustion made her fingers clumsy. It took three tries before she managed to tie it properly. As soon as she had the bolt loaded into her crossbow, she took aim and let fly. The first signal flew low and she swallowed a cry of frustration. Her hands shook as she tore off another strip. By the time her traitorous fingers attached it to a new bolt, the cargo ship hung in the air above her. There was time for one final shot. After that, any warning would come too late.

She took aim, inhaled deeply then let the breath whoosh from her lungs. The crossbow fired; the bolt arched up and sailed right across the bridge windows, trailing its ribbon of white.

If they didn’t see that, it was back to the original plan.

Ever’s arm fell heavily to her side. She’d never felt so tired. The rocky throne looked more comfortable than she’d thought possible, the sun setting behind the clouds bathing the base in strange red-hued shadows. Ever tilted her head to the side, staring, then gave it a fierce shake. The world swam around her and she staggered backward, her heels teetering on the edge of the outcropping, a three-hundred-foot drop the only thing waiting to greet her. She glanced at her bow, wondering why it was so much harder to lift now. Her left arm ran slick with blood from where she’d cut it on the climb up.

Ever blinked. How could she forget something so basic as binding the wound? She shook her head again, bringing on a fresh wave of dizziness. Intent on staunching the flow of blood, she lifted a foot to step toward her throne, but the bow threw her off balance. She tried to catch herself…and stepped backward. The world tipped beneath her then disappeared as she fell into the abyss.

Just this one last trip and she’s finally mine.
Captain Spencer Pierce stared out the window of the bridge, lost in his thoughts. Ten years ago, he’d signed himself over to a life of indentured servitude in order to earn ownership of the
Dark Hawk
. Almost a third of his lifetime spent locked into a contract with a bastard who barely paid a living wage and argued over even the most basic repairs needed to keep his crews safe.

Deliveries to the Badlands included hazard pay, and Spencer signed up for every one he could, knowing true safety would only come when he finally owned the ship. Besides, since they’d never had to make a forced landing, they’d never run into any of the prisoners on the plains. The biggest hazards his crew had faced were the ones they created for themselves.

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