Authors: Susan Grant
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #Fantasy
Surprise sparked inside him. Yes, her luminous gaze radiated hope. He had become so damned jaded that he'd forgotten what it looked like.
"You two are getting along better, I see," Gann said.
Rom thoughtfully stroked his chin. "She informed me that she was once a pilot."
"Hmm. A rather odd vocation for a heavenly being."
Rom ignored the amused lilt in his friend's voice. "Perhaps." Yet he couldn't resist the urge to catch Jas Hamilton in a lie, any lie. "I say we test your theory. Of course," he said glibly, "a more diplomatic man might warn her before handing over full manual control of the ship."
Rom ignored his friend's warning and switched off the automated flier. Jas yelped, then launched into a muttered stream of Earth epithets. Both men grabbed hold of whatever they could as the ship pitched. It was a stomach-wrenching ride for a moment or two, but Jas gained control and maintained a straight course for the
with nary a ripple. Stunned by this newest unexpected dimension to the woman, Rom turned the automated flier back on.
Gann grinned smugly.
Rom set his jaw. "Point made; she told the truth— with regards to the flying, at any rate." Arms folded over his chest, he paced along his usual path in front of his command chair. Jas's obvious truthfulness may have cooled his anger, but not his determination to decipher her role in his long-ago vision—and in his life. "From this point forward, I will proceed assuming she's simply forgotten our meeting." Slowly he began to walk away, then turned and headed back. "The obvious course of action is to make her remember."
Gann appeared doubtful. "How?"
"I'll seduce her."
His friend slapped his hands on his thighs. "An ambitious and daring undertaking, B'kah. The sign of a true warrior."
Rom refused to allow Gann to bait him. "On Balkanor, she and I never finished what we started. This time we will." He climbed down the gangway to where Jas was unstrapping herself from the pilot's chair.
As Rom approached, Jas smiled. "I did not expect what you did. Thank you for the chance to pilot your ship."
"You fly like a seasoned space jockey."
His compliment brought her an unexpected jolt of pleasure. "Thank you."
"You continue to astound me," he said with candor. "I would like to learn more about you. Perhaps we can chat further over dinner this evening." His voice dropped to what seemed a meant-for-her-ears-only pitch. "A private meal. My quarters."
Awkward and out of practice in the spotlight of his flirtation, she twisted her bangles around her wrist, desperate to come up with a witty response before the silence became too awkward. She hadn't gone out on a single real "date" since being divorced. She hadn't wanted to—hadn't felt ready. Was she ready now? Dinner for two with the
hunk? "We can discuss the commerce agreement," she ventured lamely.
"Ah, yes, the list of merchants who wish to trade with us," he said as if it were the last thing on his mind.
Tell him. Warn him that you're not like other women, that he ought not to get his hopes up.
She gave her head a quick shake. She'd come here seeking adventure, hadn't she? Besides, it wasn't like she was intending to jump into bed with him.
Flustered, she spoke quickly. "I do not know why I did not make the contract in Basic. But I translated it after the morning meal. It should be transparent now"— she tapped the heel of her palm against her forehead— "no,
The agreement will not expire—ever—if you have that concern. But everything we can review tonight."
The ends of his mouth lifted in the barest hint of a smile. His voice was low and earnest. "Yes, we have much business to discuss. Both finished and unfinished."
"Right." And then she'd be able to get him out of her system and finish this voyage without worrying that she'd do something she'd regret.
To her relief, she heard Gann call out, "Thrusters to max."
They were diving into hyperspace, a place beyond the relentless passage of time, achieved only by speed. The sheer physics of it baffled her, despite her technical inclinations.
"Thrusters to max," repeated Terz. "Three ... two ... one."
The ship shuddered, and distant metallic components moaned. A fleeting magenta-orange glow suffused the bow of the ship. "Light speed," Gann confirmed. Ordinary stars elongated into cometlike objects, trailing threads of light behind them. Excitement danced with her accelerating pulse. "Look at the stars," she said to Rom.
"A temporary distortion," he explained. "They'll appear this way until the end of the voyage. When we slow
approaching the Depot, the stars will look just as you remembered."
Thoughtful, she gazed out the forward window as the
streaked farther away from Earth and all she'd ever known. Rom said that the stars would be unchanged at the end of this journey. But she doubted she'd be able to say the same about herself.
* * *
Rom prepared his quarters for dinner with the same meticulous attention to detail he'd use readying a starfighter for battle. The laser-candles were lit, bathing the room in a warm, romantic glow. Incense gently sweetened the air. The ancient music of Sienna—cymbals and cascading bells—floated down from the sound vents. The table was set in the traditional
way. Bowls of every size held the few delicacies left on the ship. Some vessels were covered, with steam wafting from beneath the ornate lids; others contained morsels that were iced, salted and dried, or preserved with liqueurs gathered from around the galaxy—some acquired through legally recognized means, most not. It had been years since he'd enjoyed a meal presented entirely in the old way, and he found he was looking forward to the evening.
If only you weren't as apprehensive as a young man on the night of his marriage rites.
He cinched the tie on his robe and poured himself a tiny glass of rare and quite illegally obtained star-berry liqueur. Eyes closed, he let the sweetness glide over his tongue. Fleetingly, it numbed his throat before warming his belly, leaving behind the barest hint of its notorious intoxicating power. Tonight he would partake sparingly, so he could apply the time-tested erotic skills he'd been taught at the palace in his youth, along with the more subtle techniques he'd gleaned as a man, to give Jasmine the most exquisite pleasure imaginable—if she allowed him to make love to her. Heat pooled in his groin as he pictured ways to arouse her before bringing her to fulfillment, and he chose several that he was certain would inspire her to give up her secrets as easily as star-berry blossoms fell in the first snow.
"Open." The doors to his personal-items repository slid apart and he chose his attire prudently, skillfully, as a warrior might select his weapons. Lifting his best shirt from a protective wrapper, he fastened the coppery Nan-dan silk tunic from left to right across his chest, and then tugged his dress boots over a soft pair of Nandan trousers—procured years ago, and worn but once. In texture, and in feel against bare skin, the luxurious fabric had no equal. He poured a few drops from a golden flask into his hand, rubbed his palms together, and massaged the oil into his scalp. Peering into the mirror, he combed his freshly trimmed hair back from his face. This was not preening, he assured himself, but a hunter's meticulous attention to setting his snare.
His viewscreen chimed. He flicked it on. Jas was standing in the corridor outside his door, her arms wrapped around a packet that looked suspiciously full of paperwork. The soles of her shoes sported cylindrical protrusions that raised her heels off the ground. With surprised pleasure he noted that her skirt, decorated with blossoms of some sort, reached only to her knees. It was not the custom for women—other than the pleasure servants who advertised their wares in the sex markets—to wear short dresses, so Rom treated himself to a leisurely perusal of her bare calves. "One moment," he said into the comm. The doors swished open. She cast an admir-
ing but nervous gaze around his quarters. Bowing, he beckoned her inside with a sweep of his hand. "I'm pleased that you came."
"I look forward to this. We have much to talk about." Her tone was purposeful but pleasant. "I can tell you more about the agreement now."
"Care for a drink?"
She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "Yes. Thank you."
He filled two thimble-sized glasses with star-berry liqueur and touched his glass to hers. "To adventures not yet taken."
Her mouth curved. "Perfect."
He waited until she'd almost lifted the glass to her mouth before he stopped her. "Wait. This is star-berry liqueur, a very special drink. It is to be shared in the traditional way." He dipped his finger into his glass and dragged his moistened fingertip along her warm, pliant lower lip.
She stiffened, her nostrils flaring. They maintained eye contact long enough for him to see her alarm. Then, glancing away, she said dryly, "That is some tradition."
"Thousands of years old. Now you anoint my lips with star-berry liqueur. Methods vary. Be as inventive as you please."
She gave him a long look, color rising in her cheeks.
"Perhaps another time," he said under his breath, relenting. He couldn't remember the last time his words alone had made a woman blush. Her unexpected innocence captivated him as much as her spirit and intelligence. "Go on. Sample the liqueur."
Self-consciously, she licked her bottom lip. "It is delicious"—her eyes narrowed—"and alcoholic."
"Very much so." Rom clinked his glass to hers. "Now we empty our cups." When she finished, he asked, "What do you say we have dinner? Perhaps we can get to know each other better over a good meal." He motioned for her to follow. They paused several times to peruse the artwork adorning the walls. After explaining the history behind the Centaurian weavings in his collection, he led her to a nest of pillows surrounding the dinner table.
"No salt?" she asked warily.
"I have some if you wish to add it to the food."
"No. Thank you." She grimaced. "The crew ate a year's worth at breakfast. Do you have a doctor on board? Has he checked your"—she searched for words in a way he found surprisingly endearing—"blood pressure lately?"
He laughed. "The salt is a rare treat. I thought the crew deserved it after the months wasted in your system. By tomorrow, what I gave them will be gone, and they'll be back to normal fare. In the absence of salt, we spice our food differently." He waved at the festively set table. Dropping gracefully to the floor, she slipped off her shoes. Above her left heel was a tiny, fresh cut. A similar wound marred her ankle.
"Have you encountered sharp edges in your quarters?" he asked. "I'll call Terz for repairs."
She dropped her face into her palms and groaned.
"What is it?" he asked worriedly.
She lowered her hands. "I showered too slowly this morning. Since you do not allow more than one shower per day, I had to shave my legs with lotion." Her cheeks colored further.
"You shave the hair from your legs? The way a man removes his beard?"
"Yes, I do."
His loins tightened. He had a dozen related questions he wanted to ask her but didn't know where to begin.
As if she sensed the direction of his thoughts, she said in accented, carefully worded Basic, "I hope you do not mind if we talk about something else. Surely there are more engaging topics than my poor leg-shaving technique." With a supple flex of the muscles in her calves, she pointed her toes, then curled her legs to one side, eliciting in him a sharp, erotic image of those strong, long legs wrapped over his hips, squeezing him as he made thorough and delicious love to her.
"For instance," she said, splintering his reverie. "I want to know about your clothing. The workmanship is lovely. All the clothes I have seen here are this way. Not manufactured, like on Earth. May I?" She reached for his shirtsleeve and rubbed the material between her fingers. "So soft... I am an artist—I paint. But I often wonder if it is not the wrong medium, because I have always loved fabrics."
"This is not a surprise. As an artist your senses are tuned to a higher level. Smell and touch, sight and sound, and, of course, taste." His gaze lingered on her throat, then her mouth. "They affect you more than other people."
Jas snapped her hand back into her lap. It was new to her, this kind of deep and meaningful eye contact. Flattered, self-conscious, and despising her lack of sophistication, she studied her clasped hands. "Are your pants of the same fabric as your shirt?"
"Yes. Nandan silk."
"Nandan silk." She savored the exotic name, pictured delicate, amber-skinned women using looms on a distant tropical planet. "From plant or animal?"
"Plant. The strands are made from the sap of a willow found on the planet Nanda. The trees aren't grown anywhere else. It's forbidden to take the seeds off-planet, making the cloth rare and beyond the reach of all but the very wealthy."
"Business must be good for you to be able to afford such luxuries."
He gave a soft laugh. "Not that good." Plucking at his trousers, he told her, "The clothes were a gift from a grateful seed-stealing smuggler sentenced to death by the Nandans. Since Drandon and I had a nice little business supplying
plantations in the frontier, I facilitated his escape from a rather dismal dungeon."