A fast, edgy, and passionate story."
—Mary Jo Putney, New York Times bestselling author
Profile: Highly trained in every method the assassins guild has to offer. Always goes by the book.
Profile: Rogue assassin who kills only to rid the world of hardened criminals. Hates organizations. Always does it her way.
Misha's mission is to get Rikki to join the guild or give up her guns. He completely underestimated the effect she would have on him...and what heat and chaos they could bring to each other...
About the Author
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Hands fumbling, fingers shaking, head aching, Rikki leaned one shoulder against the wall, blocking the view of the airlock controls from the corridor. Elio Testrial leaned against the wall at her feet. She hoped he looked drunk.
Things hadn't gone as planned. Things never went as planned—she should have learned that a long time ago. But she kept thinking she'd get better with each job.
She completed each job. That was a victory, or at least, that felt like one right now.
The corridor was wide and relatively straight, like every other corridor on this stupid ship. Every floor looked like the last, which had caused problems earlier, and all were painted white, as if that was a design feature. She didn't find it a design feature. In fact, it was a problem feature. Because any dirt showed, and blood, well, they said blood trailed for a reason. It did.
So far, though, she'd managed to avoid a blood trail. Of course, she'd thought about avoiding it, back when Testrial really was drunk. And because she thought about avoiding it, she had.
But there was no avoiding this damn airlock.
Her heart pounded, her breath came in short gasps. If she couldn't get a deep lungful of air, her fingers would keep shaking, not that it made any difference.
Why weren't spaceships built to a universal standard? Why couldn't she just follow the same moves with every piece of equipment that had the same name? Instead, she had to study old specs, which were always wrong, and then she had to improvise, which was always dicey, and then she had to worry that somehow, with one little flick of a fingernail, she'd touch something which would set off an alarm, which would bring the security guards running.
High-end ships like this one always had security guards, and the damn guards always thought they were some kind of cop which, she supposed, in the vast emptiness that was space, they were.
Someone had fused the alarm to the computer control for the airlock doors, which meant that unless she could figure out a way to unfuse it, this stupid airlock was useless to her. Which meant she had to haul Testrial to yet another airlock on a different deck, one that wouldn't be as private as this one, and it would be just her luck that the airlock controls one deck up (or one deck down) would be just as screwy as the controls on this deck.
She cursed. Next spaceport—the big kind with every damn thing in the universe plus a dozen other damn things she hadn't even thought of—she would sign up for some kind of maintenance course, one that specialized in space cruisers, since she found herself on so many of them, or maybe even some university course in mechanics or design or systems analysis, so that she wouldn't waste precious minutes trying to pry open something that didn't want to get pried.
She cursed again, and then a third time for good measure, but the words weren't helping. She poked at that little fused bit inside the control, and felt her fingernail rip, which caused her to suck in a breath—no curse words for that kind of pain, sharp and tiny, the kind that could cause her (if she were a little less cautious) to pull back and stick the offending nail inside her mouth.
She'd done that once, setting off a timer for an explosive device she'd been working on, and just managed to dive behind the blast shield (she estimated) fifteen seconds before the stupid thing blew.
So she had her little reflexes under control.
It was the big reflexes that worried her.
"Need help?" Male voice. Deep. Authoritative.
She didn't jump. She didn't even flinch. But she did freeze in place for a half second, which she knew was a giveaway, one of those moments little kids had when they got caught doing something wrong.
"I'm fine, thanks," she said without turning around. No sense in letting him see her face.
"Your friend doesn't look fine." He had just a bit of an accent, something that told her Standard wasn't his native language.
"He's drunk," she said.
"Looks dead to me," he said.
She turned, assessing her options as she did. One knife. (People were afraid of knives, which was good. But knives were messy, hard to clean up the blood, which was bad.) Two laser pistols. (One tiny, against her ankle, hard to reach. The other on her hip, obvious, but laser blasts in a corridor—dangerous. They'd bounce off the walls, might hit her.) Fists. (Might break a bone, hands already shaking. Didn't need the additional risk.)
Then stopped assessing when she saw him.
He wasn't what she expected. Tall, white-blond hair, the kind that got noticed (funny, she hadn't noticed him, but then there were two thousand passengers on this damn ship). Broad shoulders, strong bones—not a spacer then. Blue eyes with long lashes, like a girl's almost, but he didn't look girly, not with that aquiline nose and those high cheekbones. Thin lips twisted into a slight smile, a knowing smile, as if he understood what she was doing.
He wore gray pants and an ivory shirt without a single stain on it. No rings, no tattoos, no visible scars—and no uniform.
Not security, then. Or at least, not security that happened to be on duty.
"He's drunk," she said again, hoping Testrial's face was turned slightly. She'd managed to close his eyes, but he had that pallor the newly dead sometimes acquired. Blood wasn't flowing; it was pooling, and that leached all the color from his skin.
"So he's drunk, and you're messing with the airlock controls, because you want to get him, what? Some fresh air?" The man's eyes twinkled.
He was disgustingly handsome, and he knew it. She hated men like that, and thought longingly of her knife. One slash across the cheek. That would teach him.
"Guess I've had a little too much to drink myself," she said.
"Oh, for God's sake," the man said as he approached her.
She reached for the knife, but he caught her wrist with one hand. He smelled faintly of sandalwood, and that, for some reason, made her breath catch.
He slammed the airlock controls with his free fist. The damn alarm went off and the first of the double doors opened.
"What the hell?" she snapped.
He sighed, as if she were the dumbest person he had ever met, then let her go. She did reach for the knife as he bent at the waist and picked up Testrial with one easy move.
She knew that move wasn't easy. She'd used an over-the-shoulder carry to get the bastard down here, after having rigged the corridor cameras to show footage from two hours before. Not that that did any good now that this asshole had set off the alarm.
He tossed Testrial into the airlock itself, then reached inside and triggered the outer door. He barely got his hand back into the corridor before the inner door closed, protecting them from the vacuum of space.
"What the hell?" she asked again.
The man gave her a withering glance. "He was dead, you were going to toss him out, and then you were going to go about your business as if nothing happened. I just helped you along a little."
"And now every security agent on the ship will come down here," she snapped.
"Yeah," he said. "But it won't be a problem."
"It won't be a problem?" she asked.
But he already had his arm tightly around her shoulder, and he dragged her forward. The movement felt familiar, as if someone had done this to her before.
Except no one had ever done this to her before.
"C'mon," he said. "Stagger a little."
"What?" she asked, letting him pull her along. Her hand was still on her knife, but she didn't close her fist around the hilt. Not yet.
"Do you know any drinking songs?" he asked.
"Know any... what?"
"Stagger," he said, and she did without much effort, since he was half-carrying her, not allowing her feet to find a rhythm.
They stepped onto the between-decks platform, which she loathed because it was open, not a true elevator at all, and he said, "Down," and the stupid thing jerked before it went down, and suddenly she was on corridor cameras.
"Do you know any drinking songs?" he asked again.
"No," she said, ready with an answer this time. "I don't drink."
"No wonder you lack creativity," he said and added, "Stop," as they passed their third deck. He dragged her down the corridor to the airlock, and slammed it with his fist.
Another alarm went off as the inner door opened, and he reached inside, triggering the outer door.
"What the hell are you doing?" she asked again.
"Is that the only question you know?" he asked.
"Just answer me," she said as he turned her around and headed back toward the between-decks platform.
"Weren't you ever a teenager?" he asked.
"Of course I was," she said.
"Then you should know what I'm doing," he said.
"Well color me clueless," she said, "because I don't."
His eyebrows went up as he looked at her. "Color you clueless? What kind of phrase is that?"
"The kind of phrase you say when someone won't tell you what the hell they're doing."
"Watch and learn, babe," he said. "Watch and learn."
He took them to the platform again, and as it lurched downward, he pulled her toward him using just his arm and the hand clutching her shoulder. A practiced move, and a strong one, considering how much resistance she was putting up.
He held her in a viselike grip, and then, before she could move away, kissed her. She was so startled, she didn't pull back.
At least, that was what she told herself when he did let go and she realized that her lips were bruised, her hand had fallen away from the hilt of her knife, her heart was pounding rapidly.
That was a hell of a kiss, short but—good God, had she ever been kissed like that? Mouth to mouth, open, warm but not sloppy, his tongue sampling hers and hers, traitor that it was, responding.
"Yum," he said, as if she had been particularly tasty, and then he grinned. He was unbelievably handsome when he smiled, and she didn't like that either, but before her addled brain figured out what to do, he added, "Stop," as they reached one of the lowest decks.
He propelled her forward with that mighty arm of his, and she tripped stepping from the platform into the corridor, which was a good thing, since a male passenger stood near the platform, looking confused.
The passenger, middle-aged, overweight, tired, like most everyone else on week three of an interstellar cruise, peered at them.
The man beside her grinned, said, "Is this the way to the lounge?" and then kept going.
The male passenger said, "What lounge?" but they were already too far away to answer him.
They reached yet another airlock and the handsome man still holding her hit the controls with his fist, setting off yet another alarm and doing his little trick with the doors.
This time he kept going straight, swaying a little, knocking her off balance.
"Too bad you don't know any drinking songs," he said. "But then, you don't smell like booze. Enhancer, maybe? Too many mood elevators? No, that doesn't work. You're not smiling."
They rounded a corner, and came face to face with three terrified security guards, standing in three-point formation, laser rifles drawn.
"Stop!" one of them, a man as middle-aged and heavyset as that passenger, yelled. He didn't sound nearly as in control as Rikki's companion had when he told the platforms to stop. In fact this guy, this so-called guard, sounded dangerously close to panicking.
Rikki stopped, but the man didn't and neither did his arm, so he nearly shoved her forward, but she'd faced laser rifles before, and had even been shot with one, and she'd never forget how the stupid thing burned, and she wasn't going to get shot again.
"Ah, jeez, Rik," the man said, and she jolted. The bastard knew her name. Not the name she was using on this cruise. Her real name. "Let's go."
"I said stop," the guard repeated.
"You," the man said, turning to the guard, and slurring his words just slightly, "are too tense. C'mon with us. We're heading to the lounge."
"What lounge?" the female guard asked. Not only was she the sole female, but she was the only one in what Rikki would consider regulation shape. Trim, sharp, but terrified too. Her rifle vibrated, probably because she wasn't bracing it right.
"I dunno what lounge," the man holding Rikki said. "The closest lounge."
He grinned as if he had discovered some kind of prize, and if she didn't know better, she would've thought he was on something.
"You've gotta be kidding me," the third guard said. "Is that what this is all about?"
"I dunno," the man said, "but you sure got a lotta doors leading to nothing around here. Where's the damn lounge? I paid good money to have a lounge on each floor and I been to—what, hon? Three floors? Four—"
He looked at Rikki as he said that and pinched the nerve on her outer arm at the same time. She squeaked and hopped just a little as he continued.
"—and we ain't found no damn lounge anywhere. I wanna drink. I wanna enhancer. I wanna burger. Real meat. You got real meat on this crappy ship?"
The first security guard sighed, then lowered his rifle. The other man did the same, but the woman didn't.
"Oh for God's sake," the female security guard said to the guard in front. "You gonna let them get away with this just because they're drunk?"
"I'm not drunk," Rikki said, and the man pulled her close again so that she had to put a hand against his waist to steady herself.
He tried to kiss her again, but she moved her face away. "She's not drunk," he said rather grumpily, "because we can't find the damn lounge."
The front guard shook his head.
"They opened three airlocks," the female guard said.
"They're passengers," the male guard hissed at her.
"Reckless ones," the female guard said.
"What's your room?" the guard asked.
"Um..." the man said, his hand so tight around Rikki's upper arm that he was cutting off circulation. "B Deck, Something-something, 15A?"
"If you're on B Deck, it would be 15B," the female guard said.
The man extended his free hand. "'S on here," he said, and to Rikki's surprise, let them scan the back of his hand to get the code upscale passengers had embedded into the skin so they didn't have to carry identification.
"B Deck," the female guard said to the others, "Section 690, 15B."
"Suite," the male guard hissed again. "Expensive."
Rikki tried not to raise her own eyebrows. She had a cabin, K Deck, without a view. Cheap.
"We'll take you to a lounge," the male guard said to the man holding Rikki, "but we're going to have to fine you."
"For taking me to a lounge?" He sounded indignant. "Jus' tell me where to go."
"I'd love to," the female guard said.
"No," the male guard said. "We'll fine you for the airlocks."
"Not interested in a damn airlock," the man said. "Wanna lounge."
The second male guard shook his head. "I need a new job," he said softly to the woman.
"Good luck with that," she said back to him.
"I've got your information," the male guard said to the man holding Rikki. "I'll be adding 6,000 credits to your account. Two for each airlock you opened."
"Didn't open no damn airlock," the man said.
"We'll talk about it when you're sober," the male guard said.
"Don't plan to be sober anymore this entire trip. Too damn dull." The man glared at him. "You said lounge. Where's the damn lounge?"
"This way," the guard said and headed off the down the corridor.
The man holding Rikki lurched after him, dragging Rikki along. She tripped again, this time because her toe caught the man's heel. He was doing that on purpose, but she didn't argue. She was slightly breathless from the strangeness of it all, and from the way he held her.
The other two guards followed a good distance behind, clearly arguing.
The first guard led them to an actual elevator, in the main section of the ship. Four other passengers stood inside, three women, one man, all older than Rikki, all better dressed. They eyed her as if she lowered their net worth by factors of ten.
The man holding her grinned at them. It was a silly, sloppy grin, and it made him seem harmless. "You goin' to the lounge too?" he asked.
She realized as he continued to slur his words, all trace of that accent was gone.
The four passengers leaned against the walls and looked away, wanting nothing to do with him.
They got off on the main level, but the guard led Rikki and the man to B Deck and took them to the B Deck-only lounge.
"It's exclusive," he said to the man. "Just touch the door with your fist, like you did with the airlocks."
She stiffened. The man holding her had ID embedded in his hand. They had known who he was from the moment he hit the first airlock.
That was why she stayed below decks. Cheaper. No identification required.
He grinned at the guard and gave him a mock salute. "You need a favor, friend, I'm there for you," he said, then slapped his palm against the door to the B Deck lounge.
The guard nodded, almost smiling himself. "You won't say that tomorrow when you look at your accounts."
"Hell, I got enough. Should tip you, really," the man said.
"No, you shouldn't." The guard was smiling now. "Enjoy your evening, sir."
The guard stepped back as the door slid open. The man staggered inside, pulling Rikki along. The noise startled her—conversation and music, live music, and a view. The entire wall was clear, showing the exterior of the ship, darkness, pinpoints of light, patterns she didn't recognize.
Full tables, filled with overdressed passengers, laughing, talking, a few waving drinks. Some people at a roulette wheel to the left, others at a card table to the right, some sitting on couches, leaning against each other, listening to the music.
No one noticed as Rikki and the man holding her entered.
"Thanks," Rikki said, starting to pull away, but he held her tighter.
"Not yet, babe," he said as if he had the right to call her "babe." He pulled her to the bar, slammed his fist on it as if it were an airlock control, and said, "Dos cervezas, por favor," and the accent was back, thick and wrong. He clearly didn't speak Spanish either, at least not like a native, so he wasn't from Earth, not that Earthers were common this far out.
The bartender—a real person, male, wearing a blousy shirt with tight sleeves, matching pants and some kind of decorative apron—poured two amber-colored beers with an expression of distaste. The foam flowed down the side of both glasses.
Rikki fumbled for her credit slip, but the man caught her hand. "On me, sweets," he said.
Then he grabbed his beer, still holding her, and started for a table, stopping suddenly and nearly spilling.
"You need your drink," he said with the mock seriousness only the really drunk seemed to have.
He backed up, but didn't turn around, so she had to move slightly to grab her beer. The glass was cool and wet beneath her fingers, the foam yeasty, like real beer, not the stuff they served below decks.
His grip on her wasn't as strong, and she knew she could shake him off. But she wasn't quite ready to now.
She let him lead her to an empty love seat near the clear wall. The material between her and space itself looked thin and unreliable, even though she knew it wasn't. It made her dizzy, especially when she realized she could see herself reflected against the view.
She did look out of it, hair messed, shirt askew, pants stained along one thigh. Shadows under her eyes, hollow-cheeked, too thin by half, but muscled. Hard to miss the muscles, even with the shirt twisted.
He kept his arm around her shoulder until they reached the love seat. Then he slid his hand up to her clavicle, and shoved hard, so that she either toppled sideways or sat down.
She sat, without spilling a drop. Apparently her shaking had left her long ago.
"Do you always manhandle people you've just met?" she asked as he sat beside her.
His smile was different now, slightly feral, revealing a perfect row of teeth. "How do you know we just met?"
Her pulse increased. She studied him again. White-blond, blue-eyed, naturally pale skin, not the pasty stuff that came from living in space. Midthirties, maybe younger, stronger than she was, which was saying something, and—oh, yeah—he knew her name.
"What was all that?" she asked.
"Just me saving your ass," he said.
"I don't need saving," she said softly.
"Oh, honey, yes you do." He sipped the beer, made a satisfied sound and leaned back on the love seat.
"Well," she said and set her glass down, resisting the urge to wipe her soggy hand on her pants. "Let me thank you for the beer and the grand adventure, but—"
"No," he said, catching her arm. "You're not leaving."
"Because the entire crew of this ship thinks we're here to drink, so we're going to drink. We're going to get roaring drunk. We're going to dance and laugh, and come close to screwing right here in the lounge. Someone'll tell us to go to our room, which we'll do, and then we'll look mighty sick when we come out twenty-four hours later. Hungover and queasy because we forgot to take something before we decided to get drunk. Might help if you can puke on cue. Can you puke on cue?"
"Are you kidding?" she asked.
"Just hoping," he said and sipped his beer again. "So drink up, milady. It's gonna be a long night."