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Authors: Airicka Phoenix

When Night Falls (5 page)

BOOK: When Night Falls
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“Rolf?”

“Yeah?”

She studied the toe of his scuffed boot stretched so seemingly far from his lean body. It was almost amusing that there was a whole two feet from where her flats stopped and his legs continued.

“How was your day?”

The question must have surprised him as much as her, because he looked at her.

“It was fine,” he answered carefully, like he wasn’t sure where she was going with this. “How was yours?”

“I don’t know,” she murmured. “I think it was all right.”

“You think?” The amusement in his voice reflected in his warm eyes. “You’re not sure?”

She felt a hollowness form in the pit of her stomach. “I don’t … I try not to remember today, my birthdays, I mean. I think I’m cursed.”

He was quite for a moment.

“You’re not cursed,” he said at last.

“Did the world end on your birthday, too?” she only half teased.

He made a sound that could have passed for a chuckle. “But we also found a new home on your birthday.”

She didn’t know what to say to that.

“Tell me what you think about when we come here,” she whispered and instantly regretted it when he stiffened beside her. “Unless you don’t want to. I just thought … it’s our last night and…”

He pulled his knees up and folded his arms over top. “I wasn’t supposed to be here,” he began after a long stretch of silence. “My dad got the tickets from a friend as a wedding anniversary gift. He was supposed to be here with my mom.”

“What happened?” she asked when he stopped talking.

“He gave them to me, said it was time I explored the world, saw what was out there. Mom wouldn’t let Lauren go and Darryl, Kiera’s brother, had an internship at the World United Order so Dad suggested I take Kiera since we…” he trailed off, cleared his throat before continuing in a constricted tone. “He thought it would be best if we spent some time together since we were…”

“Dating?” she supplied, struggling to keep her tone neutral when the single word burned like hot ashes up her throat.

“Yes…” He squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger as he shook his head. “No.” He dropped his hand and turned his head towards Scarlett. She was grateful for the darkness concealing the pain clawing up her chest. “It’s complicated.”

For several long moments, she didn’t know what to say or what to think, or why she was even so surprised. She’d known he was taken. It was her own stupid fault for falling for an unavailable guy.

“Tell me about your family,” she said, changing the topic.

She thought she heard him sigh, but she kept her gaze fixed on the hands she’d knotted in her lap.

“There was the four of us - me, my parents, and Lauren. Lauren was seven when we left. She would have been ten this year. Biggest brat you would ever have met. She knew exactly what to do to get what she wanted and no one ever refused her. I think it was the smile. She had this…” He waved a hand in front of his own face. “Amazing smile that seemed to light up the whole room and when she laughed…”

“You sound like you were very fond of her,” Scarlett murmured.

“Aside from Darryl, she was my best friend. We did everything together. I think I miss her most.” He turned his head and peered at her. “What about you?”

She shook her head. “I didn’t have any siblings. It was just me and my parents. They wanted so badly for me to be on this cruise. They entered every contest and applied for every loan and scholarship to get me onboard. Then Grandma’s bakery was picked from amongst hundreds to be part of the vendor section. The spot came with two extra tickets and my parents begged and bribed her to let me go. I agreed, but only if Hunter could come, too. It was my birthday present, they said, even though my birthday wasn’t for another full month into the voyage.”

“So I’m guessing that Hunter’s not your brother?”

Scarlett chuckled. “No, but we grew up together, went to the same the Academy. He’s more than my best friend. I love him.”

He shifted and twisted his head around to stare at the stars. “I’m glad you’re not alone.”

No. Unlike many of the people onboard, she had two people still in her life that meant everything to her.

“You’re not alone,” she said, trying to sound optimistic. “You have Kiera and the other marshals and Jack and … I like to think we’re friends.” In an odd sort of way.

His fingers clenched and unclenched a few times before he let them drop into his lap. He glanced at her, his face bathed in shadows. She couldn’t see his eyes, but she could feel the warmth of his gaze caressing her face.

“If that’s what you would like,” he said at last.

Scarlett frowned into the darkness, her mind scrambling to decipher his cryptic response. There were so many possibilities in what he was saying, yet they contradicted with everything she knew to be true, so she had no idea what he was trying to tell her. Surely he wasn’t suggesting he would be more to her if she but asked. He couldn’t be. He had Kiera. He had no need for her. He had never given any indication that he would be more.

“Rolf?”

His boots scuffed as he repositioned himself by stretching out his long legs once more. “Yeah?”

“What do you think the new world will be like?”

He rested his head back against the railing. She heard him sigh. “I guess like earth before buildings and technology. We’ll have to start all over again.”

She moistened her lips. “Is it strange that I’m scared?”

“No.” He reached between them and took her hand. “I’m scared, too.”

His confession took her by surprise. “You are?”

“Sure,” he murmured. “But we’ll make it work and everything will be fine.” He gave her fingers a light squeeze that sent tingles throughout her body. “Don’t worry, okay? I won’t let anything happen to you.”

Hope and ridiculous delight speared through her. “You won’t?”

“Of course not. We’re friends, remember?”

Friends. Of course. How could she forget?

Chapter
Four

 

Life resumed aboard Dawn Light as though the previous night had never happened. Scarlett woke up, showered and dressed for work, then walked with Hunter to the refectory for breakfast.

With the coffee shortage, the ship was a dangerous place first thing in the mornings so the whole affair was a somber one, mostly people shuffling around with their trays and the occasional mumble of greeting.

Scarlett caught sight of Rolf sitting with the other marshals, head bent over what looked like a bowl of oatmeal. He was nodding slowly to whatever Lance Crost was telling him. She watched as Lance pointed at something on his data link, his face scrunched in concentration and frustration. She wondered if there was news of the planet.

As a rule she left her data link back in her room when she was working. She’d learned after her first day that harvesting wasn’t just digging and planting. It was lifting and dragging and stomping. One of the girls from her row had dropped her link and the screen had shattered. The operators had refused to give her another one. After that, Scarlett just left hers at home.

“Is there news of the planet?” she asked, turning her head to Hunter.

Scarfing down eggs and bacon, Hunter looked up. “Not that I’m aware of. Why?”

She jerked a nod in the direction of the marshal’s table. “They seem very interested in their links. I was just curious.”

Frowning, Hunter dug into his pocket and drew out his palm-sized device. With several skilled sweeps of his finger, he brought up the ship’s information page. Scarlett leaned into his shoulder and peered down at the screen as familiar images and information scrolled past.

“Nothing here,” he said after a moment of searching. “Must be marshal stuff.”

She glanced back over to the marshal’s table and stiffened when her gaze was caught by Rolf’s. Memories of their night together brought patches of heat cutting into her cheeks. Her lips bowed into a hesitant smile.

“Hey, you finished?” Hunter nudged her, unknowingly breaking the spell.

Scarlett jumped and turned to blink startled eyes up at Hunter.

“What?” he asked, frowning down at her from behind his glasses. “Is that a no?”

She glanced down at her barely touched plate and nodded. “Yeah, I’m done.”

Eyes wary, Hunter took their trays and headed for the compactor. Scarlett rose out of her seat and turned. She frowned when she found Rolf’s seat already empty and the marshal already gone from the refectory.

“Ready?” Hunter appeared at her side, dusting his hands.

She nodded and followed through the throng of people to the door. They walked in silence to the transporter and parted ways on their respective levels. Scarlett got off on deck four—harvesting level – agriculture. One level above her was livestock. Sometimes, she wondered why she hadn’t picked that career.

Originally, it was because of the smell. She was sure she wouldn’t have been able to handle it baking into her skin and hair, but since the manure was carted down to use as fertilizer in the fields, there was no escaping it anyway. Nevertheless, she wasn’t very good with animals. Truth be told, she was terrified of being attacked. There was a certain level of courage needed to venture into those pens and she did not have it. Plants were more her speed. They were very unlikely to attack.

The corridor leading from the transporters was remarkably short compared to most of the other corridors. It ended at a set of wide, double doors that opened straight onto the fields. Artificial sunlight poured through from the overhead lights, drenching the lush landscape of blossoming vegetation and herbs.

It always amazed her just how enormous the three harvesting levels were, spanning the length of the entire ship. It had been one of the main attractions of the cruise while it was being built. It was the main plug the creators used to shamelessly sell tickets—freshly grown vegetables, grain and real animal meat. No bio-engineered tofu or artificial growth and fertilization. Natural. Of course they couldn’t have known just how much those crops would save their lives.

Soft soil pressed beneath her work boots as she made her way around the side to the check in booth. She got in line behind a brunette. It must have been her first day because her long, dark hair was down around her thin shoulders and she was wearing makeup. Also, there wasn’t a scuff on her boots. Scarlett pondered whether or not to tell her she really needed a hair elastic when the girl spoke to the tiny blonde in front of her, who looked as spotless as she did.

“This is so stupid. I can’t believe my dad is making me mingle with these low classes. It’s disgusting.”

The blonde nodded, making her choppy locks flutter around her round face. “I know right? I don’t understand why I need a career to begin with. Isn’t it the man’s job to work and provide for me?”

All thoughts of assisting them vanished from Scarlett’s mind. Class elitists annoyed the hell out of her. It took all her self-control not to scream at them that the world was over. Class no longer existed.

It did in the sense that first and second classes claimed the more luxurious quarters and got first picked in positions for operator and marshals, but no one flaunted it anymore. Money and power and position held as much sway as a stock of corn. No one cared who your grandfather was back on earth or how much credit you had because there were no longer any banks, thus no credits. Everything on the ship was on trade only or supplied, like food and clothing. Everyone pitched in to make sure no one went without. The girls would learn. They always did.

The line shuffled forward and the girls logged in, then moved to the right to wait for a mentor to show them the ropes. Scarlett walked to the booth and placed her hand on the data scanner. She waited as her arrival was logged and she was given her instructions. She almost groaned.

Weeding—back subdivision, which basically meant she was isolated to the far corn fields, possibly alone.

“Attention harvesters!”
a woman’s voice, low and melodious rang through the com.
“Please be advised, we are scheduled for rain at thirteen hundred. All harvesters are required to complete their tasks and vacate agriculture before that time. Thank you.”

Rain. Fantastic.

Scarlett checked her wrist unit. Six hours to de-weed an entire field. Well, at least they hadn’t asked for the impossible.

Moving quickly, she hurried to the supply closet and retrieved a pair of gloves and a rod. She conveyed her task to the mentor in charge, watched her key it into the system before setting off at a brisk pace through the maze of vegetation.

The way the creators had the fields setup was that all the things that grew high would be at the back with all the under the soil things like potatoes and carrots at the front. The corn field was second last to the fruit trees, which were isolated and quarantined behind a wall of glass. The temperature on the other side had to be kept at a certain degree that didn’t coincide with the one they set for the vegetation. A lot of the fruit needed special areas or soil and were closed off from the others. Scarlett had never worked the fruit fields. That was kept to the specialists who were trained for months on the proper treatment and harvesting. However every few months, a small handful of novices were asked to help gather the ripened fruit. Scarlett never volunteered and she was never asked.  The last thing she wanted was to kill off an entire section by accident. The whole process seemed so delicate.

As was her habit, she started at the back, going down on her knees and tearing out the little blades poking out of the dirt. She used her rod to obliterate them with a quick zap.

They were told not to zap the weeds while still rooted in case they accidentally fried something important so the task was to pull out and kill. The process was a mindless one, if not tedious.

Sweat collected between her spine and the stiff material of her jacket. It rolled down the sides of her face from her temples and plastered tendrils of escaped hair to her face. She swiped at them with the back of her gloved hand and sighed.

“You look thirsty.”

Having been alone for nearly two hours, Scarlett wasn’t expecting the shadow that draped over her. Her head shot up, her eyes squinted against the harsh lights haloing her companion, turning him into a dark silhouette. But no amount of obscurity could conceal the familiarity of those wide shoulders and limber legs.

“Hi,” she said, straightening. She cupped one hand over her eyes. “What are you doing all the way back here?”

Rolf shifted so his frame blocked the lights, allowing her to lower her hand and see him better. He extended one hand, offering her a clear, plastic tube filled with water.

“You looked like you could use a drink.”

Grateful, she stripped off her mud-crusted gloves and took the cylinder. She unscrewed the cap and guzzled all but a few mouthfuls in a single swallow. The cool liquid eased the burn eating her up from the inside. She moaned as the temperature in her body ventilated.

“Thank you,” she panted, screwing the cap back on and handing him the bottle. “I always forget to bring water and I never want to waste time going to get some.”

He took the water. “I know.”

She swiped a hand over her mouth. “It’s not usually this hot though.”

He glanced over his shoulder. Then back at her. “They raised the temp this morning. Apparently one of the mentors accidentally forgot to regulate the ventilation last night and the temp dropped. It didn’t harm anything, but they’re trying to readjust. I think they set it a bit too high.”

Scarlett exhaled. “Yeah, no kidding.” She picked at the front of her jacket and shook it, generating a feeble gust of air to form between her skin and clothes. “At this rate, I won’t even get half finished.”

“You should take your jacket off,” he supplied.

She glanced at him, eyes narrowed. “You know that’s against regulations.”

His lips twitched, but a smile never fully formed. “I won’t tell if you don’t.”

She grinned then. “Are you asking me to break the rules,
marshal
?”

Amusement danced in his brown eyes as he observed her through the thick fringes of his lashes. “Like I said.” He reached up and unzipped his blazer. “I won’t tell if you don’t.”

All humor died as she watched him strip out of his jacket and toss it onto the ground. He stood before her in his sleeveless black top and fingerless gloves. Something about the sight he made had all the heat rising into her face. He looked ruthless and dangerous in his boots and trousers, his enforcer strapped to his hip. He bent on one knee in front of her. He removed the glove on his left hand and took the ratty, green gardening glove from her, but only the left one and slipped it on. She watched in amazement as he began tearing out weeds.

“What are you doing?” she asked, unable to keep the astonishment from her voice.

“Marshaling a crop is hardly as exciting as one would think. I figured I would make better use of my time if I helped.” He cast her a sidelong glance from the corner of his eye. “Are you going to take it off?”

“What?” Why was her mouth suddenly so dry? Hadn’t she just drank half an entire bottle of water?

“Your jacket.”

Feeling abnormally dazed, she lowered her gaze to the zipper on her blazer. Her heart cracked into her breast with unhampered force. Her fingers trembled as she reached for the tab and began drawing it down. She raised her eyes and felt another shot of heat wash through her to find him watching her, watching her hand and the growing gap the lower the zipper went. She gulped audibly as she shook off the blazer and sat kneeling in front of him in her white work shirt. The thin material was damp from her sweat and transparent, clinging to her like a second skin. It somehow felt more revealing than her dress had the day before. She flushed. Her fingers tightened in the material of her jacket.

Rolf straightened, weeds forgotten. His darkened eyes roamed over her, touching her in places that made her skin tingle and her breathing quicken. She wasn’t prepared when his hand lifted and reached for her face. She wasn’t quick enough to stifle the gasp that escaped when he skimmed the pad of his thumb over the slope of her cheek.

The soft, pathetic sound sharpened the intensity in his gaze. The thumb smoothing away the gritty flakes of dirt from her face dipped, slipping along her jaw to the corner of her parted mouth. His long fingers tucked beneath her chin and nudged her face up. Her breath caught in her chest.

“Better?”

Mesmerized by the spell he wove so skillfully around her, Scarlett nodded. “Yes.”

A ghost of a grin darkened his eyes, but never touched his lips as he studied hers, tracing the shape. She felt them prickle under the attention.

“Red? Come in, Red!”

Both jumped at the ethereal voice lashing through the crackling tension cocooning them. Rolf snapped his head away, concealing his features from Scarlett as she fumbled with her wrist unit.

“Hunter?”

“Hey! I’m on my break. Wanted to see how things were with you.”

Frustration sharpened her tone. “Well, I’m not on break and you’re disturbing me.” She instantly regretted it. Guilt gnawed at her as she raised the com to her mouth again. “I’m sorry. They screwed up the temperature in here. It’s boiling and it’s making me cranky.”

BOOK: When Night Falls
3.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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