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
He nodded curtly. “Take us out, Evessa. The faster, the better.”
Benedetta watched as the pilot interfaced with the ship’s controls while Corso murmured one-word commands. They wouldn’t be needling into the sheerways, so the enhanced genetics that allowed a human to guide a sheership through the folds of space weren’t required, but Evessa’s alterations were obvious in the black-on-black emptiness of her eyes. How could the captain be so understanding of a pilot’s adaptations when he so reviled the l’auraly?
As the rumble of the ship began to make her knees quake, Benedetta turned away from the two shipmates working in companionable harmony and sank onto the bench Corso had indicated. Certainly this noise and shake was normal, wasn’t it? Wouldn’t a captain look more concerned if his ship were on the verge of exploding?
She realized her fingers were wrapped around the edge of the bench and her gaze fixed on Corso. He raised his shaggy dark head and met her glance.
With another soft order to Evessa, he crossed the room. “The first time can be unsettling.”
“I...” To her horror, her throat closed.”
He slid beside her on the seat, his hip nudging her around. “Look out there. Watch. It’s beautiful.”
She gathered the pale green veils around her and shifted awkwardly, half facing the window but with his profile still in view.
As the ship rose, the blues darkened to deepest violet and then to brilliant flame as the ship broke atmosphere. The ice and dust planetary rings made a silver bridge across their view. And then all was blackness.
Except for billions of stars, echoing that fiery ascent in their brilliant pinpricks. All reflected in his upraised eyes.
He slanted a glance at her along with a smug grin. “Amazing, isn’t it?”
He thought she was looking at the stars.
She nodded, letting him be wrong. To see that pleasure in his eyes and want it when he looked at her… No, that would give him too much power, the kind of power that launched a ship into space. “Amazing,” she murmured.
The curve of the planet blazed as the sun rose again, time rolling backward. The rings shone with luminous beauty as the
danced between them, guided by Evessa’s nimble fingers.
“Qv’arratz has a strange confluence of radiation belts and these mineral rings,” Corso said.
Benedetta nodded. “According to our studies, that confluence is what allows some of our people to meld with the qva’avaq.”
“We can use that to our advantage against your attackers. We’ll hide the
in the sensor dead zones and, when they return, we’ll blow them out of the sky.”
Benedetta swallowed. The beauty of space had stunned her and now the violence did the same. But she’d brought this to them; they needed it to survive.
To distract herself, she continued her history lesson. “I’m afraid the value of the crystals, in creating the l’auraly, has also prevented Qv’arratz from exploring our other resources. We import nearly everything, even many foods despite the abundant harvests you sampled, and that has made us vulnerable to this attack. We can’t bring in traders if we have a mortar drop overhead.”
“It won’t be there for long.”
“You are very sure of yourself.”
“I assume you are too, or you wouldn’t have brought me.”
She shifted. The friction of his thigh against her made her want to squirm again. “I think I’ve been unfair to you.”
His lips quirked. “Which part? Where you brought me here with a threat? How you haven’t paid me yet? Am I missing anything?”
She grimaced. “I didn’t know… No, I did know what I was doing, what I was forcing you to do. I just didn’t know I would feel so conflicted about it.” She breathed out a long sigh that sent her leaning back into him. “As captain, you must have sent people into danger. How do you stand it?”
“It helps when they buy into the danger voluntarily.” He gave her a nudge and a significant stare before relenting. “But it should never be easy to send someone into danger. That makes for a bad captain. And I never ask anyone to do what I won’t do.”
She contemplated his words a moment. “That’s why you were able to break with the other squadron commanders at L-Sept, isn’t it? You said you’d sold yourself to become commander, but that was never true. You gave up a corrupt command of many, for one ship that was only yours. All yours.”
He stared out at the planet spinning above them. “I didn’t think about it.”
“Of course not; you didn’t have to think. You just acted. There must be a certain relief in that.”
He scowled. “Being a dumb mercenary.”
“Being so confident in yourself,” she countered.
“You seem very confident.”
“Only in what I’ve been taught to do. Outside of that...” She shook her head. “When we were attacked, I realized how dependent we’ve grown on others. Not just us l’auraly, but all Qv’arratzy. We’ve never relied on ourselves the way you and your crew must.”
He grunted, as if that were an answer.
Benedetta found herself less interested in the vastness of space outside and more in the unfathomable inner life of the man beside her. “Why didn’t you change the
’s name? An ancient flower is not very...”
“I was going to say it’s not very masculine.”
His lips quirked. “That was her name.”
“But you bought her. You could change her name to whatever you wanted.”
“That was her name,” he repeated.
She tilted her head. “Why, Captain Deynah, are you a sentimentalist?”
He snorted. “Do you know how many credits it takes to repaint the outside of a sheership? Besides, what else should I have called her?”
Fight and Flight
He nudged her again, harder. “You make it sound like I can’t abide any humanoid connection.”
“Just none that might get in the way of your freedom.”
As he stared out the portal, brow furrowed, his hand closed on the trailing edge of her veil and he rubbed the silky fabric between his fingertips. The veil was long enough that the idle movement didn’t tug at her. She wouldn’t have even noticed the link between them—he didn’t seem to realize he was reaching for her at all—except she was watching for the gesture.
Yes, the captain fought with everything he had to keep his eyes on the stars, but some part of him wanted this touch.
“Space is lonely for a reason.” His tone was abrupt, but his grip on her veil remained. “The sheerways get tangled when ships pass too closely. Ships end up lost or shredded. That distance keeps us alive.”
“People aren’t sheerships,” she said, since it seemed he needed the reminder.
“I suppose not.” He didn’t sound convinced.
They’d been leaning closer into each other, but they both leaned away when Evessa cleared her throat. “Course is set and locked, Captain. I’ll be monitoring from the bridge. Summon me if you have need.”
She slipped out of the room, and the door whispered shut behind her. The light off Qv’arratz and the glow of the holo view of their course left Corso’s face in shadow as he stared after the departed pilot. For a moment, Benedetta thought he would follow the woman out.
Instead he murmured a lock command on the door. The double click made her heart catch.
“What were we talking about?” Her voice sounded a little breathless in her own ears.
“Something about me not wanting to make connections.”
“I think you said that, not me.”
“You implied I’m a loner, a coward, and possibly a misanthrope.”
“Not a coward anyway.”
He slid closer to her on the seat. She scooted away until the curve of the viewport windows pressed into her back. Of course the deadly cold of space was held at bay, but still somehow the radiation from the reflected sunlight seemed to scorch through the transparent steel. Only a sun’s worth of burning hydrogen could explain the heat in her skin; even the qva’avaq could not blaze this hot.
“Now who’s the coward?” His murmur brushed her cheek.
“I’m not afraid,” she protested, which was mostly true. She’d spent a lifetime preparing for this moment, but… “I am just not certain you know what you want from me.”
“I’m not sure either. I’m figuring you out as I go.” He braced one hand on the viewport and without any of the rest of him touching her, he leaned in for a kiss.
It was worse than before. Or better. Anyway, it knocked her spinning thoughts of arousal stages and mating rituals into disarray like an asteroid plowing through the tidy orbits of outer moons.
His tongue swept hers. No more tentative tangling and retreating, he took her mouth with a marauding power that would do any mercenary proud. She moaned against his lips, and the heat inside her went supernova as the qva’avaq that laced her skin chimed softly.
One touch from him? Truly? His mouth was the spark that lit her crystal lines.
She clutched his broad shoulders, as if her grip were the only thing that kept her from tumbling out into space. Still he did not touch her, though his lips drifted from hers to the edge of her jaw and then down the column of her neck, along the wild flare of her pulse—avoiding the a’lurilyo torque—to the hollow at the base of her throat.
He licked the notch where the qva’avaq pooled, and in answer, the notch between her legs went hypernova.
She gasped and tipped her head back with a thunk against the viewport. He chuckled, a deep vibration against her throat that echoed all the way down to her core.
How unfair that he could control her with a flick of his tongue. Time she did the same…
She raised her head with difficulty against the wicked gravity that seemed to have immobilized her. He seemed equally determined to hold her in place, so she levered her hands between them, inside his shirt.
He caught his breath, and his sucked-in belly gave her extra room to shimmy her hands higher. The crisp scrape of hair across her palms made her close her eyes. Her fingertips skimmed the beads of his nipples and his hips bucked against her thigh.
“Etta,” he growled into her neck.
He bit her. Not hard, but enough to make her fingers tighten in surprise.
He groaned. “Again.”
She did and then he was over her, his big body pinning her in a curve to the seat and viewport, and his hands were everywhere, unwrapping her veils to get to the simple white tunic shift underneath. With one hand, he eased down the neckline of her tunic, exposing her shoulder. With his other hand, he reached for the hem, pushing it up her thigh, then trailing his fingers back down the length of her leg.
As was l’auraly custom, she was barefoot to better experience the flow of life around them. But of course she’d also been taught to keep her skin soft and supple, a blank canvas for her future patron. So the path of his fingers over her arch made her foot twitch in reflex.
He grabbed her ankle, and the lock of his big hands around her slender bones made her heart catch again. Only her years of training kept her foot arched, her pose at once graceful and yielding.
He stared into her eyes, so close the shining rim of Qv’arratz gleamed back at her from his dilated pupils.
“I want you,” he said.
“I feel that.”
“I don’t want to want you.”
“I feel that too.” She touched his cheek. “I won’t take anything you don’t give me, Corso. I can’t.”
“But what if I—?” He cut himself off to kiss her again, hard, without the teasing heat from before, just the possessive fury of two suns locked in a declining spiral orbit.
Ah, she needed him to fall into her. She must use everything she had been taught, everything she knew in the depths of the qva’avaq. Feminine power flowed through her. This time, he would not stop. She wouldn’t let him.
With a hand anchored at his nape, she drew herself close against him. His hand slid up her leg from ankle to knee to thigh, setting fire to every nerve and thread of crystal along the path. She writhed, letting the motion ruck her skirt higher, reveling as his big, calloused hand tightened possessively on her hip. The bench under her was warm from their body heat. The parts touching him were much, much hotter.
“No underthings,” he murmured. “I love these backwater planets.”
“The traditional l’auraly keying ceremony undergarment has nine latches, thirteen ties, twenty-one threaded rivets, and two locks,” she informed him, her voice husky. Oh, by all the shining stones, she was melting.
“Good thing this isn’t a keying ceremony.”
She drew back just enough to meet his smoldering gaze. The distance seemed to cool the torque around her neck. “It could be.”
She kissed him, as hard as he’d kissed her. No, harder yet, at least it felt that way with the crystal crushed between them.
She slipped the tunic from her shoulders. The fabric slithered down but snagged on her breasts.
“Benedetta...” Instead of a rejection this time, his groan was pure entreaty. He swept the material away, his hand fisting in the folds as he stared.
This was not how a l’auralya unveiling should go. If she’d been given in the traditional way, the a’lurilyo would have his payment in one hand. With his empty hand, he would accept the qva’avaq ornamentation while her l’auraly mentor retrieved the payment and bowed out.
When they were alone, she would undo the many closings on her ceremonial undergown—although she’d heard, in practice, some patrons were unable to wait for the slow revelation to be completed. The garments were made of fine, weak threads for exactly that reason. Once she was naked, she would fit the torque around her a’lurilyo’s neck and then…
Well then, she was just skipping ahead.
One more wriggle and her skirt pleated at her waist, leaving her bare to him, then she stilled under the weight of his hand, letting him look his fill.
His dark gaze tracked the lines of her qva’avaq, lingering where the crystal traces converged over the peaks of her nipples, down to the mound of her pubis where the silvery shine only emphasized the small dark triangle of hair that beckoned