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Authors: Susan Grant

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Fantasy

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BOOK: The Star King
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Rom clenched his jaw. Dreams were one thing, but today had been a near disaster. If not for the quick-thinking officer monitoring the viewscreens of the cameras mounted on the exterior of the
Quillie,
Rom would have been excluded from the day's events. Vehicles had been picking up delegations from the other ships all morning, and would have skipped theirs had his bodyguard not blocked one of the automobiles with his sizable bulk. Oversight? Rom doubted it. It was subterfuge, and most certainly Lahdo's doing. Rom would waste no time locating the impertinent commander at the gathering, and looked forward to sharing a few choice words of wisdom on the subject of violating the Treatise of

 

Trade. By the time he was done with Lahdo, the buffoon would never consider such traitorous behavior again.

 

* * *

 

Poised on the edge of her bed, Jas waited for the broadcast to begin. Applause signaled the
Vash
diplomats' arrival. The president, the members of both houses of Congress, and heads of state from around the world stood as the
Vash
delegation filed in. Dressed in their beautiful indigo uniforms, they greeted their audience with their distinctive handshake, gripping each Earth diplomat's forearm and wrist. But they saved most of their enthusiasm for the secretary of commerce, whom they flocked around until she was lost behind them.

 

After a spirited introduction from President Talley, Commander Lahdo stepped up to the podium. His resonant voice boomed, while a translator relayed his hopes for partnership, understanding, and, to no one's surprise, profit. To test her grasp of Basic, she concentrated on Lahdo's voice. Here and there a phrase eluded her, a few words that she didn't recognize, but she could understand him. A talent for learning languages was something she'd inherited from her linguist mother, but it had never proven useful until now. Not that Basic was complicated. Throaty and to the point, it was designed to facilitate dialogue between inhabitants of countless worlds. Other languages existed, but they were evidently never used in commerce.

 

To hearty applause, Lahdo relinquished the podium to the secretary of commerce and rejoined his delegation, basking in their adulation, their handshakes and smiles, until a tall
Vash
stepped in front of him, blocking his path.

 

A
Vash
dressed like a futuristic buccaneer.

 

Jas sucked in a breath. It was the devilishly charming space rebel. His lean body radiated strength, purpose, and a powerful, masculine self-confidence that made her head swim and her body respond with a deep, aching yearning.

 

Then he turned his back to the camera. His hands were fisted behind him and hidden from Lahdo, his fingers clasping and unclasping, betraying the intensity of his anger.

 

Lahdo's uneasy delegation began gathering around their leader, while dark-suited Secret Service men hovered closer, drawn by the
Vash
leader's discomposure. A microphone placed nearby was picking up the argument, barely. Jas grabbed the remote, punching up the volume. The tall
Vash's
tone was low but intense. "The Articles of Frontier Trade state that I may trade with whom I please. You cannot exclude me, Lahdo, as you tried today. I will commence contact with the merchant leaders of my choice."

 

Lahdo fidgeted. "The agreement will be signed next week. Earth will no longer be a frontier planet then, and your articles will not apply."

 

The tall
Vash's
hands closed into fists. "But until then, Commander, they do."

 

Lahdo's tawny skin gleamed with perspiration. He tugged at his collar, and his clipped Basic took on a pleading tone. "It would be best if you and your companions leave the planet. I trust that one Earth week will be enough time to prepare the
Quillie
for departure. Shall my crew assist you in gathering the supplies you need?" Applause exploded and in the foreground of the screen, the secretary of commerce relinquished the podium to the British prime minister. More heated words were ex-

 

changed between the Lahdo and the other
Vash,
but because of the noise, Jas missed them.

 

"One Earth week," Lahdo said, louder.

 

The tall rebel gestured to two similarly dressed men standing nearby. One was tall and muscular with hard and handsome features like him; the other was much younger and had hair of a lighter blond. With glowering faces, the rebel and his friends strode out of camera range, trailed by a battalion of Secret Service men.

 

Jas flopped backward onto the bed. Her
Vash
man had just been unceremoniously and undemocratically kicked out of a joint session of Congress. For Pete's sake, he'd been kicked off the planet, too, if she'd heard Lahdo correctly. Her thoughts plunged ahead. The trade commander wanted to exclude him. Why? He apparently was not part of the delegation. She'd assumed all the
Vash
were, but if he wasn't, it would explain why she hadn't seen him in any of the previously aired interviews. In fact, she'd begun to think she had imagined him.

 

Without warning, a memory of the rebel's golden eyes evoked a shivery, erotic echo of the way she'd felt when she woke from the dream of him. But she clenched her teeth against the unbidden image; she'd endured too many years of unbidden images, fantasies that were more vivid than life. Common sense told her that this flesh-and-blood man had nothing to do with her dreams. She couldn't fathom why he affected her so profoundly, but maybe somewhere in his world was her answer.

 

His world.

 

She sat up, her elbows on her knees, her chin in her hands. She wasn't wealthy, and she wasn't a dignitary. Average citizens like herself would have to wait many years for the chance to travel into space. And even that was only conjecture. She massaged her temples and concentrated. It looked as though her only way into space was though the back door. But short of thumbing a ride on one of the
Vash
ships, how would she do that?

 

Thumbing a ride . . .

 

Yes, she could hitchhike. Her heart sped up as she analyzed the plausibility and risk of such a scheme. It was a rash idea. Insane.

 

Electrifying.

 

She lurched off the bed and began to pace. All her life she'd been praised and rewarded for making sound, logical choices. Even her unconventional desire to become a fighter pilot had been driven by a sense of duty to her country. Dependable, do-right Jas. Well, except when it came to her love life, but she was smarter now. Her thoughts circled back to the
Vash
rebel. He was the key. If she could somehow make it worth his while, he might be willing to take her along. She'd even bet that he didn't play by the rules, as did Lahdo and the others. He was an outcast, or better yet, an outlaw—exactly the kind of individual she needed for her plan. Yep, he was her ticket out of here. And she had one short week to prove it.

 

Chapter Four

 

Jas lurched to a sitting position in bed. Her silk robe fell open in a sensual glide to her elbows, exposing her breasts and thighs to the cool, air-conditioned breeze. Still dazed from her dream, she reached for the bedside lamp and rumbled for the switch. Hugging a pillow to her chest, she stared unseeing at the TV she'd forgotten to shut off after watching Lahdo's address. She'd dreamed of the desert again. Only it hadn't been this intense, this real, since the days immediately after the crash. As always, she found herself wandering through the twilight in a barren but lavishly hued landscape. But this time the charismatic
Vash
rebel was wailing where only the blurred image of a man had been before. When she knelt at his side, he'd splayed one hand on the back of her head and pulled her down to his warm mouth. Every nerve ending in her body throbbed with the echo of their passion-filled embrace. If she hadn't woken, she might have made love with him. A
joining that would have meshed our hearts and souls forever.

 

Jas flung one arm over her eyes as if she stood a chance of smothering the almost poignant yearning that flared inside her. In the weeks following the crash, these dreams had visited her nightly, leaving her with the same futile longing. Little wonder she had been overcome by a sense of destiny, of magic, falling in love at first sight when Capt. Jock Hamilton, armed with roses, wine, and apologetic eyes, came to visit on her first day home from the hospital. Convinced that their meeting was meant to be, certain that Jock
must
be the man from her dream, she'd thrown aside the reason that had guided her all her life and went to bed with him. Without protection. And after learning she was pregnant, a consequence of that one night, they'd done the right thing. Only it had turned out so wrong. Never in a million years would she regret having Ian and Ilana, but the marriage? She winced. What did she expect, playing dream interpreter, believing a man she'd never met was her one and only, her true love, who had transcended the dreamworld to be with her?

 

She'd learned her lesson. Never again would she mistake fantasy for reality. The
Vash
man was real, but the man from her dream wasn't. Any similarity between the two was coincidence and nothing more.

 

Jas extricated herself from her tangled sheets. It was nearly six-thirty
a.m.,
later than she'd thought. As she finger-combed her hair into a ponytail, she stared bleary-eyed at a basket of clean laundry sitting by the bed. Her socks were wrapped one inside the other in matched pairs; her panties were tidily folded; her running shorts were stacked one atop the other. So neat and ordered.

 

So unlike her immediate future if she went ahead with her plan to hitchhike into space.

 

She dressed in a pair of jeans, an apricot silk blouse, and a pair of socks decorated with little Halloween pumpkins. Then she picked up the telephone and called Dan Brady. Of all the people close to her, no one was better equipped to help.

 

* * *

 

By nine
a.m.,
the coffee shop near the Arizona State University campus was crowded. She told Dan about the tall, rebel
Vash,
the argument she'd overheard in Congress, and what she wanted to do. As she'd hoped, he listened with interest and respect. "In other words," she concluded, "I've found the vehicle and the driver. Now I need the incentive."

 

Dan cradled a cooling latte in his hands and regarded her soberly. "I'd be lying if I said I wouldn't rather keep you here."

 

You're indispensable; everyone needs you.
Jas let out a breath. She was leaving her children behind; she was disappointing Betty, her family, and now Dan. Steeling herself against a resurgence of doubt, she replied more harshly than she intended. "The plan is only for six months, Dan.
Six months.
For God's sake, people take cruises for longer than that."

 

"Hey." His expression gentled. «That wasn't said to make you feel guilty. I'll miss you, that's all."

 

Her fists clenched convulsively. "Sorry," she whispered.

 

He relaxed in his seat and stretched out his legs. "Now explain how it is you think I can help."

 

"It sounds like he expected to make money while he was here, but the others won't let him. That's where we come in. You've served on or headed up every major business association in town. You have plenty of contacts."

 

"I know the governor," Dan conceded. "So do you."

 

"I know his wife. We need more than that. And we don't have much time. Lahdo gave him a week to pack his bags and get out. And we've already lost a day. That leaves us six more. And there's the weekend to consider."

 

"No problem. I do quick work. Everyone seems to have their eye on space these days. If it's resources our
Vash
friend wants, he won't be lacking in Arizona economic and leadership support by the time we're through." He picked up the pad and pencil she'd laid on the table and began writing out a list. Flooded with gratitude, Jas stilled his busy hand. Dan must have seen the question in her eyes. "Yes, I'm doing this for you," he replied frankly. "But naturally I'm very, very interested in the outcome."

 

She shared his slow grin. "I can tell. Your capitalist heart is beating hard."

 

"Oh, yes," he said. "No doubt about that."

 

* * *

 

Jas wrapped her son in a fierce hug. Ian's Harley-Davidson T-shirt blotted the tears she tried to hold back. "Call Dana," she said huskily. "Once a week. Make sure she's not burning the candle at both ends."

 

"I won't forget to call her."

 

"Remember, the house payment and the other bills will be paid automatically—"

 

"I know, Mom."

 

"Betty will make sure there's always money in your account. Your father manages Ilana's finances, so there's

 

no problem there. And of course Dan will be here to look in on you every once in a while—"

 

Ian grasped her shoulders and moved her back. "Mom, I'm going to be fine. You can't worry. Just go on your trip. Paint lots of pictures. And tell me all about it when you get back."

 

She smoothed her hand over his cheek. "I love you."

 

His lips compressed as his eyes reddened. "Love you, too."

 

"We have to leave in ten minutes," she said softly. There was no room for error. If she missed this flight to Washington, D.C., she'd miss her chance to leave earth. The reporter who'd won the flight into space had departed days ago. According to CNN, two more ships were lifting off at midnight. She was betting one of those was the
Quillie,
the rebel's ship. "Help me check my gear one more time."

 

Ian read from the checklist she handed him, and she inventoried the contents of her waterproof cylindrical travel bag. In addition to the floral skirt and lavender twinset she was wearing on the plane, she'd packed three black microfiber jumpsuits and a jacket that a seamstress had created from her sketches—clothing suitable for both a spaceship journey and sightseeing. Next to the jumpsuits was her old air force flight suit that she'd use as a disguise at Andrews Air Force Base. There were the barest of toiletries, her watercolors, a pouch containing every piece of real jewelry she owned, and all the boxes of Morton's table salt she'd been able to cram into the remaining space. If the rebel captain required a down payment for her trip, she was prepared. On top of it all she laid the slim leather folder that Dan had given her. Inside were promises and statements from a dozen of the most powerful CEOs in Arizona, from aerospace firms to mining operations to banks, and, of course, beer, where Dan had typed the name of his microbrewery at the bottom of the list. "It's all here," she said, opening her wallet to check her cash and credit cards.

 

Her cell phone rang, and her heart sank. She'd already endured all the bittersweet farewells her emotions could handle. Everyone but Betty, her children, and Dan was under the impression that she was taking a long vacation, but if she successfully boarded the spaceship, Betty would call the rest of her family and pass on the news.

 

Ian hoisted her travel bag onto his shoulder. "I'll put it in the trunk," he said and disappeared into the garage.

 

She snatched the telephone off the foyer table and sailed through the town house, checking one last time for any items left behind. "Hello?" she said breathlessly.

 

"You're acting like a dammed teenager, Jasmine— taking off on a joyride and leaving our kid alone in the middle of the school year. What the fuck's gotten into you?"

 

She squeezed her eyes shut.
Not Jock, not now.
"It's no longer your business where I go or what I do."

 

"Oh, yes, it is if it concerns my son."

 

"Who's grown, in case you hadn't noticed." Her stomach roiled. "Listen, I'm on my way to the airport. If you feel like fighting, go find your wife."

 

"Oh, I'll find her in a minute, Jasmine," he shot back, "but I guarantee it won't be to fight."

 

Inhale... exhale... inhale.

 

"Self-absorbed as always, Jas," he went on. "Vain and irresponsible. When we had infants at home all you wanted to do was hop back into the cockpit. Fortunate for all of us the docs said no. But you won in the end,

 

didn't you? Made those kids go through a divorce because you were too self-centered to put out any effort in bed."

 

An invisible fist squeezed her, and shame heated her cheeks. The man had the knack of knowing where she was most vulnerable. And somehow he'd figured out a way to make her feel responsible for his failures, using her built-in sense of obligation to justify his behavior.

 

But if you leave, he won't be able to punish you for his sins, and that scares him.

 

The realization slammed into her with the force of an explosion, and she grabbed the edge of the nearest table to steady herself. So much was becoming clear about her life. "This isn't about Ian at all, is it?" she said. "You're desperate. You can't let me go. If you do, you'll have no one to blame for your mistakes." Why hadn't she seen it before? Why had it taken so long?
"You
shot me down. Jock, and that got you booted out of the air force.
Remember?
But you hated the fact that I was still in, so you told me I'd do a lousy job of raising our kids if I returned to flying. I stood by you through everything—the Saudi incident, the court-martial. Even when Glen accused you of sleeping with his wife." Her voice shook. "I must have been blind! Every time you failed— as a soldier, as a husband—
I
paid the price." There was silence on the other end. Her voice gained strength and purpose. "Guilt was your weapon of choice. Used quite effectively, I might add, when I found out you'd been fooling around on me for years. That's my fault, too? Go to hell, Jock. The reason I was lousy in bed was because
you never could find the target."

 

Jas jammed the off button with her finger as Ian popped his head through the garage door. "Ready, Mom?"

 

Her heart thundered and her hands shook. "Yeah, sweetie."

 

She climbed into the Range Rover's passenger seat. Clutching her hands, she stared straight ahead as he backed out of the driveway. "I don't care how you do it. Just get me there in time for the eight-ten night to D.C."

 

"You got it." Tires squealing, they were off.

 

Ian gave her a sidelong glance. As if sensing her disquiet, he joked. "So, madame. Is this trip for business or pleasure?"

 

With that, a surge of pure excitement swept through her, along with the calming sense that what she was about to do was right. With a sigh, she relaxed against the leather seat. "Well, now. I suppose I'd call it a little bit of both."

 

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