Breaking assassin Jonathon Decker out of a maximum-security prison on Trakis One seemed like a good idea at the time. Now, pursued across space by the two most powerful factions in the universe, the crew of El Cazador are having second thoughts. They'd like to give him back. Unfortunately, that is no longer an option.
Jon is used to working alone. Now, he's stuck on the space cruiser El Cazador until he can work out just what he's supposed to know that puts him on everybody's most-wanted-dead list. He's not happy that the crew includes a runaway priestess with designs on his virtue-such as it is. Jon likes women, but he gave up the role of protector a long time ago, and Alexia, High Priestess of the Church of Everlasting Life, is an accident waiting to happen.
After twenty-four excruciatingly boring years of doing her duty, Alex is finally having some fun. She never meant to run away-it was a rash impulse-and she means to go back-eventually. But first, she's going to squeeze enough excitement out of the situation to last her a lifetime. And what could be more exciting than a stunningly gorgeous werewolf?
Meanwhile, the Church are chasing their missing priestess, and the Collective are pursuing their escaped assassin. Being hunted has never been more deadly...or more fun.
About the Author
Nina Croft grew up in the north of England. After training as an accountant, she spent four years working as a volunteer in Zambia, which left her with a love of the sun and a dislike of nine-to-five work. She's since then spent a number of years mixing travel (whenever possible) with work (whenever necessary), and has settled down to a life of writing and picking almonds on a remote farm in the mountains of southern Spain.
Read an Excerpt
A Dark Desires Novel
By Nina Croft, Liz Pelletier
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Nicola Cleasby
All rights reserved.
Where the hell am I?
Jon's head throbbed, and his mouth tasted like shit. He shivered with the cold, and then a moment later sweat broke out on his forehead. Nausea roiled in his gut. He rolled off the bed, landed on all fours, and retched. There was nothing in his stomach, but he stayed, head hanging low while he attempted to piece together what was going on.
He was alive, and he wasn't sure how he felt about that.
Shaking his head, he tried to clear the haze from his mind. Cryo always did that to him — left his reactions slow, his brain sluggish, and the rest of him feeling like crap.
What the hell had happened?
The last thing he remembered was being captured, and his last thought h ad been that he was as good as dead.
Instead, he was here. Wherever here was.
It appeared to be a cabin — not a cell, and he wasn't restrained in any way, but his inner senses were screaming danger. Closing his eyes, he breathed in and caught the lingering scent of death on the air. Not the usual sort of death that vanished with time, but the evil, blood-sucking sort that refused to lie down and rot.
A sharp buzz shrilled through the cabin, and his muscles tightened. He forced himself to relax as he realized someone was outside. At least they w ere being polite. He stumbled to his feet, swayed, and supported himself with one hand flat against the wall until his legs steadied beneath him.
Goddamn cryo made him as weak as a puppy. He was also naked, so he grabbed a small towel from the bed and wrapped it around his hips.
At the door, he peered into the monitor. A boy stood in the corridor, skinny with a shock of dark red hair and big gray eyes. Shifting from foot to foot, the boy had a bundle of clothes tucked under one arm and a tray of food balanced on the other. Jon's stomach rumbled.
After locating the panel beside the entrance, he pressed his palm to it an d then stood aside as the door slid open and the boy shuffled inside. Up close, the kid only came as high as Jon's shoulder — he must have been fourteen, fifteen at the most. At the sight of Jon, his eyes widened and his gaze flicked down over Jon's body before fixing some where to the left of him.
"Yes?" he snapped when the boy said nothing.
His gaze shot back to Jon's face then settled on his chest. "I'm Al, the ca bin boy."
"I brought you some clothes. And we've had supper, but earlier you said you wouldn't eat with a piece of Collective ..."
Christ, he couldn't remember, though it sounded like the sort of thing he would say. He hated the Collective. Not as much as he hated the Church, which wasn't really saying much. Forcing his mind to concentrate, he struggled to remember where he was and how he'd gotten here. A vague memory of the boy showing him to the cabin earlier flickered through his mind. There had been some talk about the Collective, but Jon had only just co me around from the cryo, and he hadn't been paying attention.
Al nodded. "Anyway ... I brought you some food. Though the captain says you're not a prisoner, and if you stay on this ship, you eat with her crew."
Jon had no intention of staying on this ship or eating with the crew. At t he first opportunity, he was away. He had a bloody double-crossing bastard to hunt down and exterminate.
"If I'm not a prisoner, I presume I'm free to leave."
"I suppose so. Though you don't have a ship, and we're in deep space, and ..." Al shrugged a shoulder. "There's a meeting tomorrow to decide what we should do. Skylar says the Collective will come after you."
"She's Collective, but she said she was your sister — that's why we broke you out of prison."
Well, that was really sweet, except he didn't have any family. So what t he fuck was going on? "I don't have a sister."
Al shrugged again. "Anyway, you should stay here. The captain will keep you safe."
Jon didn't want anyone keeping him safe. He worked alone, and he liked it that way. But it occurred to him he should find out a little about where he was, who had gotten him out of prison, and what they wanted in return.
"Where is here?" he asked. "What is this ship?"
"It's the El Cazador. El Cazador de la Sangre."
The name sounded vaguely familiar, but he couldn't place it. "What sort of shit name is that?"
"It's old Earth talk. It means The Blood Hunter."
Jon breathed in deep and caught again the lingering scent of death. "Well, that figures. Who's the captain?"
When he didn't get an answer, he frowned. "Well?"
Jon belatedly realized Al was still juggling the clothes and the tray and looked about to drop both.
"Sorry, I ... here." The boy held out the tray, and the bundle tucked under his arm tumbled to the floor. Jon took the food and put it down on the small table by the bed, his stomach rumbling again as the smell drifted up. Then he picked up the clothes. Black pants and a black shirt. After dropping the towel, he pulled on the pants. They fit — just.
He glanced up. Al stood frozen in place, staring as though he'd never seen a man before. Jon ignored him and shrugged into the shirt. It was tight across the shoulders, but it would have to do. He'd chucked his own clothes down the recycling shoot to rid the cabin of the stench of prison.
Al was still gawking at him. Jon opened his mouth to tell the boy to piss off when a loud boom rang in his ears, and the ship jolted sideways. Jon reached instinctively for the kid, wrapping his arms around his skinny frame as the force hurled them both to the floor. He crashed, and Al landed on top of him.
Swearing, Jon gripped the boy's shoulders, intending to toss him away — he wasn't in the business of protecting anyone these days — but another shock hit the ship, flinging them across the room. This time they came to rest with Al beneath him.
Jon stayed still, waiting. Al wriggled, but he ignored the movement. If the ship was hit again, the floor was the best place to be.
"I can't breathe." Al's voice sounded weak, and a small hand pushed between them and shoved at Jon's chest.
After a minute when nothing else happened, Jon levered himself up slightly. For the first time he really studied the face beneath him. The gray eyes, the irises circled in black, thick dark lashes, creamy skin, the small nose, and the wide mouth. Something wasn't right. Closing his eyes, he breathed in and allowed his other senses to take over.
When he looked again, the new knowledge must have shown because Al's eyes widened with panic. He wriggled again, but Jon held him still, his hands curved around a narrow waist, then slowly he pressed his hips down. Shock held him immobile.
Al shoved hard. This time, Jon didn't try to hold on. Instead, he watched through narrowed eyes as Al twisted from beneath him and scrambled to his feet.
"I have to go find out what happened," he said, his tone breathless, and then he whirled around and vanished through the door.
Jon sat on the floor, his back against the wall and watched as the "boy" disappeared. Though one thing was for sure — Al was no boy. He remembered the curve of her waist, the feminine cradle of her hips. She was also older than the fourteen or fifteen years he'd first guessed. He shifted in the too tight pants, frowning at the unfamiliar ache in his groin. How long since he'd allowed a woman to affect him that way? Too many years to remember.
Jon dismissed the thought. It was none of his business what or who Al was. He just wanted off this ship. Preferably before someone blew it into tiny pieces. At least the attack appeared to have stopped. He pushed himself to his feet and glanced around the room.
"Shit." His dinner was on the floor.
* * *
Alex hurried down the narrow corridor, but when no more blasts hit the ship, she slowed her pace and finally came to a halt.
Holy Everlasting Life.
Her heart hammered against her rib cage, but she was aware it had nothing to do with the attack. This wasn't fear racing through her blood. Her body tingled where he had touched her, and the imprint of his fingers burned at her waist.
Closing her eyes, she pictured Jon as he'd appeared when she opened the door. His huge body hardly covered withthat tiny little towel. She swallowed and wiped her clammy hands down her pants. Her breasts ached where she'd bound them tight beneath her shirt, and she had to resist the urge to run her hands across them. What would it feel like if Jon ...
She was a sick woman. There was no doubt, and she should probably fall down to her knees and pray. But she didn't want to pray.
He'd been so big and bulky with massive sloping shoulders, a lean ridged belly, and long muscular legs. His shaggy hair had hung down to his shoulders, a blend of dark brown and gold, the colors repeated in the stubble on his chin and the smattering of dark hair over his chest.
And when he'd fallen on top of her he'd felt hard. Everywhere.
Had he known?
He'd certainly spotted something he hadn't been expecting, and she'd se en the shock in his eyes. They were beautiful eyes — amber with thick lashes. Skylar had told her Jon was an assassin, but nobody with eyes like that could be really bad.
Alex forced herself to move on. She needed to get to the bridge and find out who'd shot at them. Was it the Collective? Had they found Jon already?
When she reached the bridge, the rest of the crew was already there. Only the Trog was missing, but then he never left his engine rooms unless the captain gave him a direct order. No one paid Alex any attention as she edged into the room.
As usual, Janey was busy on her console, tapping away with her perfectly manicured fingernails, ignoring the restof the crew. Daisy sat in the copilot's seat, watching the others and twirling a strand of long green hair that had come free of her ponytail.
Rico's long, lean, black-clad figure lounged in the pilot's chair. Skylar stood beside him, matching in her black jumpsuit and knee-high boots. One hand rested possessively on Rico's shoulder, the deep purple ring he had given her sparkling on her finger. They scanned the monitors while Tannis, the captain, paced the floor, her hands jammed in the pockets of her tight black pants.
"Great, just great," Tannis muttered, not quite under her breath.
Rico rolled his eyes. "Get over it."
Tannis scowled and jabbed a finger at Skylar. "You do know this is all y our fault, don't you?"
"Yes," Skylar snapped. "And you know how I know? Because you already told me. Lots of times."
They glared at each other; both were tall women and they stood eye to e ye. A quick stab of jealousy poked at Alex, and she tried to stretch a little taller. Not that it would do much good.
"Well, do something about it," Tannis growled.
"Like do that mind-reading
thing with your Collective friends and persuade them to hold off b lowing us into pieces."
"And whoever that ship is out there" —
Skylar waved a hand at the monitor — "they're not Collective."
Rico swiveled around in his chair. "What? Are you sure?"
"Believe me, if it was Collective, I'd know."
Alex believed her. Although they hadn't known it until earlier that day, Skylar was a member of the Collective.
Five hundred years ago, Meridian, a rare radioactive element, had been discovered on Trakis Seven. Meridian had the ability to bestow immortality on those lucky enough to afford its exorbitantly high price, and a new class had evolved — the Collective. Ultra-rich and powerful, they now controlled most of the civilized universe.
That Skylar was one of them still filled Alex with awe.
Tannis frowned. "If it's not the Collective, who the hell is it?"
"I have no clue." Skylar smiled sweetly. "But hey, you know what? It's just possible that everything is not my fault, after all. It's possible that may be you've managed to piss off quite a few people all on your own."
Tannis pursed her lips but didn't answer. "Rico, you got any ideas?"
Rico grinned, revealing the tips of his sharp white fangs. "Could be one of thousands."
"Well, they seem to have gone quiet. Have we lost them?"
"No. There they are." Rico swung his chair back around and pointed at the monitor. Alex inched closer to peer around Skylar. The screen showed a ship, getting bigger by the second as it closed the distance between them.
"And it looks like they're coming back for another go at us. Hold on, everyone." Rico grabbed Skylar and pulled her onto his knee. "If we're going to die, we might as well die happy."
Alex spotted an empty seat, threw herself into it, and fastened the harness. Adrenaline surged through her bloodstream as she waited for the shot to hit them. They might all be going to die in a few seconds, and she had never felt so alive in her entire life.
The ship rocked as the blast struck El Cazador's stern. For a few seconds, the lights flashed, and Alex's small hands gripped the armrests tightly, her muscles locked solid. Then the ship righted herself, the lights returned to normal, and Alex released her breath.
"Any damage?" Tannis asked.
"None." Rico studied the console in front of him. "At a guess, they're warning shots ... so far."
"Yeah — but warning us of what?"
"They're trying to comm us," Janey said. "You want to hear what they have to say?"
Tannis shrugged. "Why not?"
"Just a moment — I'll put it on speaker."
"This is High Priest Hezrai Fischer."
As the familiar voice boomed around the bridge, Alex jumped and the breath caught in her throat. She would have fallen out of her chair if she hadn't been strapped in. After the initial shock, she froze in her seat and peeked surreptitiously around, sure everyone must be able to see her guilty secret. No one was paying her the slightest attention, and she forced her muscles to relax. Maybe it had nothing to do with her. Maybe it was a huge coincidence. She chewed on a fingernail.
Should she sneak away now? But she needed to know, and besides, she was on a space cruiser heading through deep space; where was she supposed to hide?
"Dios," Rico muttered, "it's the goddamn Church. Have I mentioned how much I hate the Church?"
"Frequently," Skylar said drily.
Five hundred years ago, the old religions had almost died out, but that h ad all changed with the discovery of Meridian. While not everyone could afford that route to immortality, everyone wanted to live forever, and the old beliefs had gained a new popularity. The Church of Everlasting Life offered the masses a cheaper, if less reliable, alternative with its promise of a n afterlife in paradise. They had quickly grown until they were now the second most powerful faction in the civilized universe.
Tannis opened her comm link. "So, you're a High Priest. Big deal. What ever it is you're selling, we don't want any."
Hezrai ignored the comment. He'd always been excellent at ignoring what he didn't want to hear. Which included most of what Alex had ever said. She and Hezrai had existed in a state of mutual animosity for as long as Alex remembered. Longer than that even, according to Sister Martha. Apparently, Alex had thrown up all over him at their first meeting and things h ad only gone downhill from there.
"We believe you have something that belongs to us," Hezrai said. "We want it back."
Wasn't it just like him to refer to her as an it? He'd never seen her as a person.
Rico glanced around the room. "Anyone got a clue what he's talking about?"
"No idea," Tannis said.
Alex shrank into her chair and tried to make herself very, very small.
All her life, except for the last three months, she had done her duty, and it had been hard — every single day a struggle against the stultifying boredom of ritual and routine. Even so, this time away was only ever meant to be temporary. She' d always known she had to go back sometime. There were people who believed in her, had given up their lives for her. But was it so wrong to want to see a tiny bit of the world before she returned? To live a little?
Yes, she'd go back. But just not yet. There were things she had to do. An image of Jon's nearly naked body flashed across her mind — important things.
Tannis ran a hand through her short, dark hair. "They've obviously fucked up and confused us with someone else. We have shit that belongs to them." She was silent for a moment as she considered their options. "As far as I'm aware, at the present time we're not holding any illegal contraband on the ship. Why not let them board, check things out, and maybe they'll piss off and leave us alone."
Excerpted from Deadly Pursuit by Nina Croft, Liz Pelletier. Copyright © 2013 Nicola Cleasby. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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