Authors: Jessa Slade
Tags: #Firefly spaceship captain, #Linnea Sinclair, #Susan Grant, #Nalini Singh, #Ann Aguirre, #Queen of Starlight: Sheerspace Book 1, #alpha male, #space opera, #hot sexy, #futuristic romance, #science fiction romance
The hatch remained stubbornly up. Discussions were probably underway inside, although the captain had no doubt already confirmed that the decommissioning edict was no bluff.
Just as well she’d insisted upon coming alone, leaving the other l’auraly to wait at the temple. She had estimated the odds that Deynah would shoot her down on sight. Chances were, he would not be so iniquitous, but she
threatened his ship. Though an hour of meditation-in-motion had not made her perspire, at the memory of his furious glare, a bead of nervous sweat traced between her breasts.
She triggered the lume stick she’d brought and set it at her feet to let the warm yellow light bell around her. One of the first sets of talents the l’auraly mastered was the art of presentation, and Benedetta knew she looked her best in the welcoming illumination. She’d chosen loose-fitting trousers and long sleeves in a clear-sky blue to counterbalance the yellow light. Plus, the demure cut would undermine the common misunderstanding about the role of a l’auralya. After all, she was more than a sexual plaything.
But her reasons for reminding herself of that slipped out of her head through her slightly slackened jaw when Deynah stepped into the
Oh, he was…he was more—much more—than she’d expected.
He was taller than she’d estimated from their on-screen conversation. He’d looked so broad through the shoulders, she’d assumed he was shorter than average and keen to make up the lack with well-maintained musculature. But he filled the entire hatchway so that the light behind him could barely escape. When he stepped down, he had to turn sideways lest the pulse hazer, slung casually across his broad shoulder, bash the hydraulics as he stalked forward. The big laser weapon was outlawed throughout more enlightened communities since the hydrogen plasma did not even pretend to have a “less lethal” setting.
Behind the captain, two crew members stepped into the opening, similarly armed although their hazers looked larger in their less imposing hands. And they did not even bother trying to look casual. The muzzles were pointed outward at the night. At her.
Benedetta kept her hands loosely clasped in front of her, fingers laced in the two-up, two-under weave pattern of alliance. The niceties of the l’auraly gesture might be lost on the mercenaries, but she hoped they would at least appreciate her inability to reach quickly for any weapon of her own.
“Captain Deynah, thank you for coming.” She pitched her voice as warm and welcoming as the lume.
When he strode across the empty ground, the thud of his heavy boots reverberated through the earth to her bare toes. He was easily double her weight, and not a gram of it superfluous. Though he was more battering ram than dancer, the l’auralya in her had to appreciate the controlled strength with which he carried himself, his steps unhesitating, every movement as precise as a charted course.
He stopped on the edge of the lume’s glow. The uneven hack job of his hair—the only part of him that seemed wayward—hung in thick sable locks around his deep-set eyes. In the fitted cut of his black ship’s clothes that emphasized his powerful frame, he was darker than the soft night.
“I’m here.” The growl that arose from his chest was deeper and darker yet, and for all his fierce restraint, she was suddenly reminded of the wild things that prowled the jungle behind her. “Cancel the decomm edict.”
“I cannot do that.” When he stiffened, she hastened to add, “But I will take you to Yecho. He was the last commissioner’s l’auralyo and knows what to do. I told him once I explained our situation to you, you would be more agreeable and we needn’t hold such unpleasantness over your head.”
“Unpleasantness.” The hard edge of his square jaw flexed. “You threatened to kill my ship.”
The stubbled grass prickled her soles. Much like her conscience pricked her. “We wouldn’t have done it.”
He spun on his heel, his boot grinding up the soil.
“Wait!” She jolted a few steps toward him. “You’ve come this far. Just hear us out.”
He glanced over his broad shoulder, his black eyes echoing the titanium-infused glint of the hazer barrel. “Threats or lies. Which will I hear this time?”
She swallowed. “Hate me if you must, but I am trying to save everything I know, and everything you know as well.”
“I can’t say as I’d care if this little rock were blown to pieces, one shiny crystal at a time. On our way in, we saw the big hole in your only docking port. That’s a good start.”
She mirrored his outrage back at him. “We have no defensive capabilities, and all our sheer-worthy ships were lost, so we can’t escape. Seven were injured and one killed in that ‘big hole.’ ”
He shrugged. “Maybe you’re lying about that too.”
“I wish I was.” Her shoulders sagged. He had her beat on the indifference; impossible to match. “The raiders want coordinates to the mine where we extract the l’auraly crystals. You have to convince them we are too much trouble to steal from, because if we let them take the qva’avaq, they could take the sheerways and everyone therein.”
Slowly, he let the hazer slide from his shoulder to rest alongside his leg. The stance was hardly less menacing, but at least that black bore was no longer pointed her way.
“What do you mean ‘take the sheerways’? Anyone—anyone with a ship and a pilot and the navigation codes anyway—can fly the sheerways. No federation, union, or alliance controls space.” His lips quirked in the dry humor she was already coming to know. “Not that they haven’t tried.”
Since he hadn’t shot her yet, she took another step toward him, hoping the weight of her concern would convince him. “With the crystals, they could do it.”
His wry smile slipped. “How?”
At least he hadn’t dismissed her outright. She took a breath. “The only export from Qv’arratz is the l’auraly. Without us, Qv’arratz has nothing of value. So you appreciate our determination that the crystals not be taken. And it speaks to the depth of our urgency that we are giving you the only unclaimed l’auralya in our temple: Me.”
He pinned her with an unwavering stare. “I get that you don’t want to lose your precious resource. But you said the sheerways are at risk.”
Of course, he only cared about what it meant to him. She squelched her disappointment. They’d chosen Deynah as their savior specifically because he was a mercenary. He had learned the hard way to value his freedom, and he was going to make her fight as hard for their survival.
“As you know, l’auraly are enhanced with emotively resonant crystalline elements.” She thumbed the torque around her neck. “This is the crystal that will align my qva’avaq to my future a’lurilyo—my patron.”
“Your owner,” he snapped. “Who will control you.”
She ignored his curt interruption. “According to our off-world sources, the Universalist Union has been exploring a technology that could weaponize the resonant crystal pairs. Whoever holds one half of the qva’avaq can key the other half. And through it, key the person in the crystal’s influence.”
She cleared her throat. “In the right—or should I say wrong—hands, the resonance could be used as mind control.”
“And you say you aren’t a slave.” His lips twisted again. No smile this time, but revulsion. “If you are the only keyed l’auralya, are you the one in danger?” A spiraling fury rose in his eyes: At her, or for her?
“Not just me,” she admitted softly. “If we lose the qva’avaq mine to the raiders, anyone could be exposed to half a crystal pairing. In small amounts, it would not be deadly. At least, not at first.”
“And before the victims died, they could empty treasuries, expose state secrets, reveal sheerways codes...” He raked his fingers through his hair, leaving the dark locks to bristle. The look he shot her made her swallow as if his fingers wrapped around her neck. “Is this worth your thrice-tangled pleasure?”
“Obviously I can’t explain the l’auralya-to-a’lurilyo bond to you, Captain.”
“Right. An ignorant mercenary could never understand the nuances of such a refined relationship.” The loathing on his face deepened to a sneer.
She’d meant that a man accustomed to the black freedom of space would have no use for the compromises she’d known from her earliest memories. But she wasn’t going to try to soothe his outrage. He wasn’t her a’lurilyo, to be pampered and appeased with all her l’auralya talents.
Not yet anyway.
The quiver of awareness that had sprung to life with her first glimpse of him over the hijacked thread to his shipboard berth plagued her anew.
She’d seen naked males before, of course. Dozens of them. One wasn’t raised to become l’auraly without a complete and thorough understanding of humanoid physiology. Of course, she had seen only Yecho and Icere in the flesh, and Yecho was well into his eighth decade while Icere had stopped running around the temple unclothed when he was four. Still, holographic simulacrums were very lifelike.
And yet none of that complete and thorough understanding had prepared her for Captain Corso Deynah on her comm screen. And definitely not for the sheerways warrior standing in front of her.
He was so large and effortless in his strength. And according to his file, when he killed, he killed with the same simple coldness as space itself.
And yet a sheership could not be muscled through the perilously shifting curtains of sheerspace. That needed a certain sensitivity and delicacy of touch.
Considering his touch, she shifted her attention to his big hands, to his one long forefinger poised unerringly over the trigger of the hazer, a trigger that was roughly the shape and not that much bigger than her own passionate trigger point…
The rush of awareness that washed through her rivaled the Qv’arratz monsoon for its moist heat. She jerked her gaze up to find the captain staring back at her, and she realized she’d been silent too long. And maybe she’d been panting slightly.
She tightened her jaw. She’d simply been shocked speechless that he was demonstrating such an unfortunate lack of understanding and compassion. Well, he made her appreciate her imaginary holographic a’lurily patrons even more.
“Captain Deynah, despite your lack of imagination regarding the possibilities of connection between man and woman—” She ignored the roll of his eyes. “You seem to have readily grasped the need to protect your ship and thus ensure your ability to avoid future entanglements.”
He lowered his chin to pin her with his dark glare and remained menacingly silent.
“So if you don’t want the UU to gain control of the crystals and from there the rest of the universe—along with the sheerways you so adore—then you will just have to help me now.”
His jaw continued to work over the many words he clearly longed to say. Finally he spit out a terse, “You told me you’d show me more.”
She didn’t gloat. They didn’t have cause to be gleeful. But she gave him a smile she hoped came across as more approving than smug. “Return with me to the temple. Yecho will explain, and Icere has the beginnings of a battle plan.”
“I make my own battle plans,” the captain growled.
She inclined her head to the angle halfway between agreement and submission, giving him the pleasure of that small victory he clearly needed. She’d learned that much at least from the males of the temple, old and young as they might be. “That is, after all, why we brought you here.” She bit back a smile when he ground his teeth again.
The circumstances were dire, but at least one mercenary sheerways captain would learn to appreciate that a pleasure slave could find more than one use for her clever tongue.
Hazer at the ready, Corso paced along the shadowed path behind the slave-whore.
Tangle and shred it, he was being a bastard, but he didn’t much plan to change his way of thinking anytime soon. She’d threatened the
. He’d never forget or forgive the ruthless resolve in her husky-sweet voice.
He didn’t, however, see a way out of this. Yet.
Through the comm link curled behind his ear, he heard Patter and Jorr murmuring with Evessa back at the ship as the two crew members flanked him, keeping to the trees. He’d told them to stay out of sight, away from the yellow glow of the lume stick in Benedetta’s hand.
Stay out of the slave-whore’s hands. He repeated the good advice to himself.
What sort of creature submitted so gracefully to her own slavery?
His gaze settled on the Euclidean curves of her hips, charting their sway with the same concentration as he manned his sheership.
When Benedetta had stripped off her tunic to bare her back to him, the folds of silky material had caught over those hips. Now that he had them in visual range, they looked just as dockable in real life. More so.
Corso jerked his gaze up and caught her watching him over her shoulder, her citrine eyes brighter than ever in the yellow light of her lume stick.
Maybe he never forgot or forgave, but apparently he could be distracted.
She blinked, briefly shielding those night-predator eyes. “This way, Captain.”
They walked out from beneath the shadowed trees into a tiled courtyard. A handful of buildings—all low single story, but with roofs that swept upward to high points—formed a semi-circle, their latticed windows filling the courtyard with elaborate patterns of cheery light. The largest building nestled in the center, and its double doors stood wide open. A smell drifted out, a complex fragrance as sweet and tart as Benedetta herself, and Corso lifted his head.
Benedetta smiled when he sniffed. “We’ve prepared a meal for you. Yecho says what he missed most from his station life with the sheerways commissioner was fresh fruit. Luckily, pixberries seem to thrive everywhere with an atmosphere and soil, and here they are always in season.”
“Maybe I can pay my crew in berries. Unless you l’auraly share your…gifts.” Oh yeah, he was being a bastard, but the tangy aroma caught in his throat until he thought he might choke.
She lifted one eyebrow, smile still fixed in place. “Perhaps we could start by allowing your crew to dine with us. Unless having them target me from the shadows makes you feel protected from me.”