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
Without waiting for a response, she pivoted on her bare heel and walked out the door. He followed more slowly to find his boots and weapon. Not to mention his calm. The departing sway of her hips was like a wave goodbye to what he’d just turned down.
The temple was serene in the morning light, but over the tree line, thin curls of smoke still rose from the village. He found the comm link in the pocket of his vest and wrapped the wire behind his ear.
“Good morning, Captain.” She rattled off the ship’s condition in a comforting torrent of borderline gibberish. This was a song he understood. “Basically,” she concluded. “All’s well. Including yourself, it seems.”
“For the moment.”
“As always, Captain.”
He grunted. “Where’s Patter?”
“Behind you, sir.”
Corso turned to find his first crouched under the low window of Benedetta’s bedroom, scrawling on his tablet.
Corso stalked over to tower above him. “How much did you hear?”
“Wasn’t sure she wouldn’t try something while you were unconscious.” Patter snickered. “But I only thought she might try to kill you, not do
Despite years of military discipline and more years of mercenary mayhem, Corso’s cheeks heated. “You could have moved a little quicker to save me.”
The leer dropped off Patter’s face, and he lifted one eyebrow quizzically. “You didn’t want… Sorry, Captain, I thought you were playing hard to get.” He rattled the stylus against the tablet as if equally abashed, but then slanted a glance upward. “You really wouldn’t be willing to be her slave?”
is the slave,” Corso reminded him.
Patter shook his head. “If you say so.”
Corso synced their tablets. If only he could download the enigmatic l’auralya’s thoughts with as few clicks. For all that her skin was inked in silver like a star map of her physical desires, he was finding that, inside, she was as tangled as the most dangerous of uncharted sheerways. He’d have to find some other way to unravel her.
For some reason, that dire thought accelerated his pulse, and he steadied his suddenly trembling hand on the tablet; he’d never been the sort to risk a flameout just to see how hot the engines ran. “I want options in an hour and specs on a plan by midday.”
“I hope lunch is as tasty as dinner last night,” Patter mused. He ducked away when Corso glared at him. “You should bring the rest of the crew in. They could use some unfiltered sunlight. And dessert.”
“I don’t want to be caught with cold engines.” Corso scowled when Patter sighed mournfully. “Fine. We’ll swap out after lunch. I want guns on the ground anyway.”
Patter tilted his head. “You think we can pull this off? One ship against who knows what?”
Though the broken ribs were the more recent injury, Corso’s scarred shoulders ached when he shrugged. “No choice.”
Patter stared down at his blank screen. “Now who’s the slave?”
Benedetta spent the day checking on the wounded in the village and reviewing accounts for beginning the reconstruction. Qv’arratz had placed fewer l’auraly in the past several decades which meant a decline in the planet’s coffers. Yecho and Rislla had noted that at current rates of expenditures, they’d be bankrupt in another decade. Not that they could order in Union building materials anyway, not when they were likely under attack by Union raiders.
As the sun set and the first of the three moons rose, she and the other l’auraly wrapped themselves in veils of palest moth green and stood on the hill beyond the villagers’ burial grounds to sing the dead to sleep.
From darkness, to darkness,
The day between is done,
We close our eyes
To step into the still water,
And we are home
As the last notes of the chorus faded away, she focused on the low rumbling voice behind her: Corso, giving his orders.
“Keep your comm links open,” he was telling the black-clad crew gathered around him. “The
will make a quick orbital survey then be back overhead for the night.”
Leaving the l’auraly behind her, Benedetta hastened to join him. “You’re going?”
“Not far, not with half my crew down here.”
She pushed back her veils to give him a chiding look. “Of course you wouldn’t. And they know that, which is why they respect and trust you…even worship you.”
He shifted from one boot to the other, sidling away from her. “Hardly. I don’t pay them that well.”
“It’s not about the pay. I’ve heard them talking, and their voices are full of reverence.”
As the crew members who’d supped at the temple melted into the darkening forest, Corso gave an annoyed grunt. “I don’t pay them to talk.”
they say; it’s how they say it.”
“I hadn’t noticed.”
“You wouldn’t. That’s what I’m trained for. To listen and watch and think—and feel.” She spread her hands, repeating the final open-handed gestures of the night song. “The l’auraly specialize in feeling.”
His gaze shifted even farther from her than his boots and she knew he hovered on the edge of fleeing. “I hadn’t noticed that either.”
She shook her head at his obstinate blindness. “Take me up with you.”
He straightened abruptly. “What?”
“I want to see your ship. I want to see space.”
“Nothing to see but black.”
“Then why does it mean so much to you?”
He was silent, his face turned away from her to reveal only the flexing of his hard-edged jaw as he ground his teeth. After a moment, he cut his gaze toward her. “You want to be with me because you think I’ll go looking for the crystal mine.”
“Will you?” She let her hands fall into the resting stance, fingertips pressed lightly together in an inverted steeple at belly height. The cup-like gesture was supposed to facilitate peaceful openness and sharing. Mostly she hoped it would keep her from strangling him for his intransigence.
As if he discerned her decidedly non-peaceful thoughts, he hitched the hazer higher in his grasp. “Our working plan doesn’t require that information.”
“That wasn’t much of an answer.”
“And apparently, unlike my crew, you don’t trust me.”
“But I respect you. And I know you won’t let any piece of information escape your grasp. Even if you don’t need it.”
He finally turned to face her straight on, his dark eyes glinting. “I thought a l’auralya would abide by her owner’s every wish. Doesn’t that include leaving him the hell alone?”
“Sometimes the owner doesn’t know what he truly wishes.” She stepped into his anger and angled her face up to his. “And you aren’t my a’lurilyo.”
In the clearing that had been designated the
’s temporary roost, her blue-white running lights lit the trees and threw black bars of shadow across the ground toward them like a ladder. The sound of the engines firing rose over Corso’s muttered curse.
When he reached for her arm, his grip was firm but not cruel, and as he marched her toward the ship’s hatch, he modulated his stride to hers. She hid her smile and greeted Jorr cordially as she preceded Corso into the ship though the studded ramp bit at her bare feet.
Jorr scowled, a worthy reflection of his captain’s habitual frown. “What’s she doing here?”
“Reviewing our strategy.”
“Since when do slaves get a say in strategy?”
“When they pay.” His boots rang to a halt in front of the medic, and his broad shoulders seemed to fill up half the big hatch bay. “And you’ll be rethinking that tone, crewman.”
Jorr stiffened. “Yes, sir. Sorry, Captain. I spoke out of line.”
Corso steered Benedetta onward but glanced back at Jorr. “By the way, I saw your efficiency update to the recon grid. That is the good work I want from you.”
Jorr nodded once, the tense crinkle around his eyes relaxing. “Yes, sir. We’re all aboard. I’ll close up and tell Evessa to shove off.”
“When the surface survey is finished, have her put us in geo sync between the village and temple and run powered down. I’m not expecting trouble, but if it comes, let’s make sure we see it first.”
“Yes sir.” The medic saluted crisply and went to the hatch to close the ship.
Benedetta matched Corso’s brisk strides into the main corridor and restrained a grateful sigh when the studded grill underfoot gave way to cold-but-smooth, blue-gray panels. “I don’t need your protection, but that was well handled.”
“I wasn’t protecting you, I was maintaining order on my ship. And I don’t need your approval.”
“I suppose you don’t, since you get so much of it. And it doesn’t mean much from a slave-whore.”
He stopped abruptly and turned to her. In the lower lighting of the corridor, his face was as hard set as the sheership’s uncompromising lines. “He shouldn’t have said that.”
She lifted her chin to match his expression. “Your medic is not the only one who thinks that way. You’ve said it too, Captain.”
He took a step closer and stared down at her, brow furrowed in fierce concentration. “You never yield, do you? Not once.”
“Should I?” She closed her eyes for a heartbeat, gathering her qva’avaq as she would in the meditation dance. When she looked up again, she willed him to feel the flaring energy. “Are you the man to make me yield?”
He reached up one hand…and leaned past her to trigger a panel in the wall with his palm print. A door popped open, and he slotted the hazer in among a half dozen other weapons. The click and whir as he shut the panel and locked it again almost covered the sound of his low sigh as he leaned with his hand flattened against the wall. “I shouldn’t have said it either. We do what we must to survive. I must be getting lazy to have forgotten that.”
She shrugged. “Maybe you’re too principled to be a mercenary.”
When he straightened, he trailed his fingertip under her raised chin, tracing the silvery lines she knew marked the inner contour of her jawbone. Despite the weariness of his stance, his dark eyes speared her. “No. I’ll still take that payment you offered.”
Though the threads of qva’avaq were faint there, the shock of his touch echoed all the way down her spine, forcing the breath from her body in a gasp she couldn’t contain. And when she inhaled again, the air around her was rich with his male scent, sharpened with the ship’s metallic tang. L’auraly texts described the symptoms of crystalline desire, but even set to music, those poems did not capture the keen rush now accelerating her pulse. The
—revved up and ready to soar—must feel like this.
She struggled to keep her voice light. “Then I should have brought dessert with me, since you gave up supper to the rest of your crew.”
His gaze fell to her mouth as he held the point of her chin in a loose grasp. “I wasn’t thinking of berries.”
He lowered his head so slowly she thought her qva’avaq pathways might ignite with her anticipation. But the sound that came out of her when his lips closed on hers was nothing more than a whimper.
The touch of his mouth was exquisitely tender, almost tentative. The dance of desire she’d been taught started with the slow slide of his tongue along the seam of her lips. The glissade mesmerized her so that she forgot the steps she should follow and instead sank her hands into his hair to anchor his mouth to hers.
He echoed her grasp, and they clung together as if the
were falling into the sun and this was their last breath. Certainly Benedetta’s body felt the rising heat and pressure all around her. He shifted his thumbs along the points of her jaw, forcing her mouth open farther, and tilted his head over hers, taking the kiss deeper. She moaned into his throat, and his knee thrust between her legs, pinning the fragile folds of her veils to the bulkhead. She dropped her hands to grasp his hips and angled herself to ride his thigh.
He lifted his head with a gasp, his hold falling to her shoulders. “Etta...”
“If you’re going to say something stupid or rude, please just kiss me again instead.”
His hands flexed, driving into her flesh. “Fuck.”
“That was the idea.”
“This isn’t what I...”
She waited a moment but he didn’t continue. “Another injury of some sort? I know ways around any of that.”
He slammed one fist into the wall behind her.
She pursed her lips. “I take it that wasn’t what you meant?”
He dipped his head down to glare into her eyes. “Believe me, I am fully capable.”
“But not willing.”
“I thought I made that clear before.”
“And I thought you had changed your mind, given that kiss.”
“I… No, you were trying to change it for me. Don’t think you can control me, princess. Not with your crystals, not with your kisses.”
She lifted her chin until their lips were only a breath apart. “There would have been more than that.”
He thumped the wall again and backed away just as Jorr passed them from the unloading hatch.
“Evessa has your orders, Captain, and we’ll be underway in T minus three.”
Corso nodded. “I’ll be up in navigation.”
He marched Benedetta ahead of him through the ship. Slightly dazed as she was, she didn’t pay as much attention as she should have. She was too intrigued by the slight sting of her lips, the ache between her legs. They’d done nothing—hardly anything—and her body was ready for more. How much of that was the crystal, and how much her own intensifying curiosity? And how much was simple desire?
She had the jumbled impression of blue-gray corridors and doorways that all looked the same, and crew who looked at her with suspicious eyes, also the same. Corso slapped his palm over another door lock and propelled her into the darkened room. Viewports encircled the room, framing the Qv’arratz twilight beyond.
“You wanted to see space. Go sit there and wait.”
She turned swiftly, thinking he was about to lock her in alone, but he strode to a raised dais and with a few terse commands called up a schematic of the planet.
A woman slipped into the room, her pilot collar shining green. She slanted a glance at Benedetta then focused on Corso. “Captain, I’ve plotted a recon course for this cruise as you ordered, and marked two possible dead zones near the geo sync where we should be able to scatter the signal if anyone pings us.”