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
But already the villagers were gathering to fight the blaze and begin rescue work. Her call had at least prepared them for the devastation; faces were set in grim, determined lines.
“We won’t be soft,” she murmured.
The captain’s dark gaze assessed the activity in one efficient sweep. “Not what I expected from people living off slave labor.”
“Stop it.” She wheeled on him. “Enough.”
After a moment, he nodded. “Let’s do this.”
They plunged into the chaos.
The bombs were the worst sort of terror tool, shredding as much as killing, so that the victims were a horror of their own and the buildings left standing were death traps of instability and flames. The villagers had already set up a triage; Yecho and Rislla unpacked the runabout in the midst of the moaning wounded. Since they seemed to have everything under control there, Benedetta followed the captain toward the nearest building where rescue efforts were still underway.
He glanced at her. “Go back.”
She set her jaw. “I’ll be more use here. I am stronger than I look.”
“You’re also my payment. Can’t lose you now.”
“At the rate things are going, there won’t be anything to pay for.” She passed him at a jog.
Someone had tossed down a pile of mismatched gloves, not much more than decorative knitting, but she yanked on a pair over her silver-threaded hands and joined the villagers pulling aside debris where the frantic calls from the trapped were loudest.
A woman clutched at her arm. “L’auralya, my children! They were in the back room. Please...”
Big hands—too big for any gloves—set the woman to one side and reached past Benedetta. “Let me make the hole,” Corso said. “Put the sway in those hips to good use and see if you can shimmy past the obstructions.”
She nodded. While he levered up a still-smoldering beam, she cracked a lume stick and tucked it behind her ear. The hot timber prickled on her back as she scuttled underneath, but her backside burned with a different sort of heat: the fever of the qva’avaq.
He’d noticed her hips?
Behind the fallen beam, one wall had toppled, but the other still stood. The triangular corridor of open space was big enough for her to crawl quickly toward the back of the house, following the terrified cries, wordless and pleading.
“I’m coming,” she called. “Hold on.”
She shoved past crumbled masonry and burst into the collapsed room. Three sets of wide eyes stared back at her, arms wrapped in a knot around one another.
“L’auralya,” the smallest of the three whispered. “Have you come to take us to paradise?”
Benedetta held out her hand. “I’ve come to take you to your mother. She’s waiting… This way. Quickly now.”
Still the eldest of the three clung to the smallest. “His leg is caught under the bed frame.”
Around them, the house groaned a warning, and a puff of smoke rolled through the space. A horrified thrill raced along Benedetta’s nerves, and the middle child began to cry.
“None of that now.” Benedetta modulated her voice to comfort and cajole as she’d been taught. “Can you be brave for me? If you stop crying, I’ll sing you a secret l’auraly song when we get out.”
Lips quivering, they stared at her, but at least they swallowed down their sobs. They’d need all the breath they could get as the smoke thickened.
Benedetta crawled into the children’s midst, physically disentangling them. “Go now, you two. Here’s my lume. Follow my path back to your mother. You can see right there how I went. Tell the big man at the other end that we are still here, your brother and I. He’ll know what to do.” Although what Corso could do… The back of the house was in ruins; he could never punch through the fallen outer walls before the fire reached them.
The two children scrambled over the debris into the haphazard corridor.
“Quickly,” Benedetta said.
“I’ll race you,” the eldest challenged the middle. They disappeared into the thickening gloom.
Benedetta turned her attention to the little boy. Without her lume stick, the red glow of the encroaching fires seemed closer than ever. The boy stared at her with solemn dark eyes.
She traced her hands down his small leg to the snarl of wood and wire that had been the bed frame. “What is your name, child?”
“Rooly.” He sucked in a breath and coughed once on the thickening smoke but didn’t cry out. “I think I’m really stuck. Will your friend come back for us?”
“Yes,” she said absently, still feeling for the place where he might be caught. But then she heard herself and paused. She
think Corso would come. “Yes, Rooly,” she repeated more firmly. “But we could surprise them if we got you free first.”
Not crushed, his foot was merely snared in the webbed wires that supported the mattress.
“Everyone’s talking about the l’auraly,” the boy said. “Everyone says you should just give the crystals to the bad men and then they’d go away. The bad men did this, didn’t they?”
Benedetta gritted her teeth as she tried to pry the wires apart. “Yes, they did this.”
“Maybe you should have given them the crystals and then they wouldn’t have done this. That’s what Mother tells my brother when he won’t share his toys with me and I cry.”
Though the boy was just repeating what he’d heard, guilt twisted in Benedetta as cruelly as the wires around his foot. She tugged until the fabric of the gloves gave way. “Turn your foot, can you, Rooly? See if—”
With a surprised cry, the boy slipped free. “You did it! Oh, my foot is all sticky with blood. But it doesn’t hurt at all.”
“We’ll look at it when we get out. Can you crawl very fast? Faster than your brother?”
“Surely! And faster than you too.”
“Show me.” She let him race away from her into the tunnel she’d made. The debris chewed at her knees but her hands were worse. She refused to look down where the wires had cut past the gloves to her flesh.
“Etta!” The roar reverberated down the corridor.
“We’re coming,” she called back. “I have the child.”
As if that hadn’t occurred to her. She quickened her scramble, trying not to feel the pebbles that ground into her torn hands. The smoke in her lungs tore at her from the inside. Just ahead of her, Rooly was a scuttling shadow. So close to escape…
A gout of fire shot across the corridor in front of the little boy.
Rooly recoiled into her, his heels grinding over her fingers. She gasped and pulled him into her arms. Apparently the fire wanted to come farther in.
They couldn’t return to the collapsed deathtrap of a room. They couldn’t go forward. The timbers groaned a protest at the flames licking toward them. The groan intensified to a shriek, which Rooly echoed.
The tilted wall beside them began to smoke, then glow red. Clutching Rooly to her chest, she edged back, despair dragging at her muscles.
The wood of the wall blistered. Benedetta turned to shield the little boy from the broiling heat just as the butt of a hazer—wrapped in big hands—crashed through the burning laths.
“Etta.” In the barrage of splinters and plaster, Corso crouched. His dark skin was streaked with soot. “The front of the house collapsed. We have to go out through the side here.”
“The other children?”
“Out. Just you now. Come on.” He reached for her.
She dumped the boy into his arms. Together they hunched toward their survival. Through the opening ahead, she saw Patter and Jorr still battling back the flames. Holding their own, but barely. The fire snaked overhead, licking along every crevice.
With a cackling roar, it flared up. Sparks rained down so the fire seemed all around them. Benedetta ducked but the hot ashes never found her. Corso lifted the flap of his coat around her. On the other side of his broad chest, the boy clung, eyes clenched tightly shut.
She raced forward under that protection, and they were only steps from the exit.
As if the fire had sucked the last life from the building, the remaining timbers breathed out one last crackling shower of sparks. And buckled over their heads, swinging toward them as they fled.
Through Corso’s heavy body, Benedetta felt the impact as the beam struck him from behind. The heat singed the air around them and he staggered but didn’t drop the boy or even the edge of his coat around her. “Don’t stop,” he growled. The words echoed through her like another impact.
All around them, the night had turned to fire. She heaved for breath, and tears half blinded her as they burst from the crumbling house. Jorr grabbed the boy and Patter yanked Corso—Benedetta still under his arm—free from the chaos.
They staggered away from the mess into the frantic cries from the mother. The little boy shrieked—the last of his bravery gone up in smoke—and Jorr quickly passed him over.
Around them, the last of similar dramas were playing out as the flames died down.
“What next?” Corso hunched with his hands on his knees and coughed.
“Are you all right?” Benedetta angled herself beside him. “That crossbeam—”
Jorr raked his hair back, leaving ashy streaks. “That’s it, Captain. We should get back to the
. We’re too vulnerable down here.”
Benedetta glared at him. “Will your ship hold all the Qv’arratzy too?”
The crewman didn’t flinch. “This is your rock, not ours.”
Corso straightened. “I want a status report on the drone up there. What’s its next timed drop? That’ll give us a clue when our friends are coming back.”
Jorr gave a terse nod and moved away to mumble into his comm.
Patter, who had turned aside to converse with Icere, glanced back. “Got four dead, a couple dozen injured—a few look bad. Could use some derm patches, hypo sprays, and meds from the ship.”
“Get it done.” Corso glanced at Benedetta. “How bad are your hands?”
She blinked. “I don’t know.”
She didn’t look down as he lifted her hands and uncurled her clenched fingers. “Make a fist. Now open up. You’re cut deep in a few places, but everything’s working.” He gently folded her hands closed again but didn’t let go. “A lot of crystal there. Maybe it protected you a little.”
The warmth of his touch sank through her cold skin. “The qva’avaq tends to flow along nerve pathways, showing where we are most sensitive.” She sounded a little breathless but couldn’t find the control to steady her voice.
“Then it must hurt, so have Jorr look at it. He’s a good medic despite his bedside manner. He’ll take care of you.”
She focused on his face. The smudges made him somehow more approachable—if the world could make a mark on him, perhaps she could too. “Are you leaving?”
“I’m not going anywhere,” he mumbled. Then his eyes rolled back and he toppled over at her feet.
He’d passed out before—a professional hazard for a mercenary ship’s captain—so he rarely felt any confusion upon regaining consciousness. If he’d passed out for bad reasons, he’d wake up in a med bay. If he’d passed out for good reasons, he’d wake up in somebody’s bed.
He almost always woke up in med bay.
But Corso was confused to revive this time. He’d been injured, clear enough, and yet he was in somebody’s bed. He tried to avoid that kind of woman.
The woven coverlet rubbed over his bare chest as he took a pained breath to catalogue his injuries. Broken ribs, that was a given. From the hitch in his innards, he’d probably nicked something important. A derm patch itched at his neck, so he had analgesics aboard, not that they were doing enough. Which meant Jorr had seen to his wounds; Jorr
a good medic, but he chronically shortchanged his victims on the painkillers. Always said since the pain hadn’t killed them, it only made them stronger.
Morning light—almost, but not quite, as soft as the sheet under his hands—filtered through filmy curtains across the room. He turned his head. A bit of a struggle, that, since the pillow was softest of all and tried to swallow him.
Benedetta was curled in a round cushioned chair next to the bed, her cheek resting on her bandaged hands. A flowing robe coiled around her. Despite the generous folds, the fabric seemed to have settled in all the important places, leaving the peaks of her hip and breasts outlined to his wandering eye.
As if she’d felt the weight of his gaze—or maybe he’d made some betraying noise—her eyes opened. In the gentle light, their tarnished copper softened to their earlier citrine meld of summery green and gold. The gemstone colors of a rich planet. A treasure she’d offered him.
She gave him a sleepy smile as she angled herself higher in the chair. “How are you feeling? Shall I summon your medic?”
“I’m breathing. Jorr will figure his job is done.”
“Well then, what can I do for you?”
His mind had already been headed down that path without any particular incentive, but her words goaded him along. He didn’t like her sitting up while he was flat on his back, especially with the bed frame so low. But when he tried to push upright against the smothering pillows, the strain sent a bolt of pain shooting through him. He hissed out a curse.
Benedetta rocketed from the chair to kneel at his side, her robe fluttering behind her. “Here, let me.” She eased him up. And she hadn’t been lying; she was stronger than she looked. She plumped the pillow behind his head. “Jorr said that beam swinging into you broke two ribs, one of which nicked your liver. You were bleeding inside and could have died.”
He caught his breath as the pain settled, and his chest filled with the dark, sweet scent of her. “Jorr exaggerates so I’ll pay him better.”
“Ah. You fainted merely to justify his expense. Thoughtful.”
He grunted. “Send in Patter. I need to—”
“The mortar drone is disabled for the moment. The timing sequence shows one more drop scheduled for tomorrow. With coordinates I’ve given your crew, Evessa says she can redirect the strike to an uninhabited area. According to your schedule, that implies our enemies are planning to return in no fewer than two days after we are properly softened up.” A glint of copper returned to her gaze. “Patter says you should use those two days to knit your bones and come up with a plan for saving our asses.”