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Authors: Bernadette Gardner

Forbidden Worlds - Box Set

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Forbidden Worlds

A Collection

 

Seven Steamy Sci-Fi Novellas

 

By

Bernadette Gardner

 

 

 

Published by: Bernadette Gardner

 

copyright 2015 Bernadette Gardner

 

Cover art by
BGD

 

Note: These stories have been previously published under separate cover. They have not been significantly altered from their original versions. This is a single author collection.

 

 

This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places, brands, media and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be confused with fact. Any resemblance to living persons or events is merely coincidence.

Kindle Edition

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Amazon.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

* * * *

 

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

Escape from Ambrax

 

A Novella

 

By

Bernadette Gardner

 

 

 

 

 

This book was previously published under the title

Forbidden World: Ambrax
and has been revised since that printing.

 

Chapter 1

 

 

The miners’ bar on Soffran smelled like sweat mixed with the tangy, medicinal aroma of the black ore they dug from the airless tunnels below the planet’s surface. The unmistakable scent of testosterone laced the dry, recycled air as well, and it was that essence that drew Lea Vargas into the deepest recesses of the male-dominated lair.

Lea carried her drink high to keep from spilling it on the boot-scuffed floor. The one-armed bartender had served her the bubbling blue Dimarian rum concoction with a scowl and a few words muttered under his breath in Soffrani. She supposed he had a right to be surly. Rumor had it he’d lost the missing limb in a bailer explosion less than a month ago. To keep his Company pension, he had to continue slinging watered drinks to a bar full of men who would have preferred to be anywhere else in the universe.

Funny, that was precisely where Lea wanted to be as well, but she had less choice than the miners. Her promise to her sister held more weight than a Company contract, and even the dangerous looks from a few of the patrons who recognized her as a Company baby, couldn’t induce her to break it.

“Bring some of that over here, babe,” a gnarled man in dusty trousers and an ore-stained shirt flashed her a gap-toothed grin. “All the rum you can drink for a fast ride to paradise.”

His bar buddies snickered, and Lea eyed them each in turn. Apparently her reputation hadn’t filtered this far into the bar. A point in her favor, no doubt. Nevertheless, she shifted to allow the trio of drunks a better view of the shock-stick holstered at her hip. The only weapon allowed on Soffran, it wasn’t deadly, but rammed into certain bodily orifices it packed a punch not easily forgotten. “I’ve got something you can ride, drock turd, but you won’t end up in paradise.”

Snaggletooth stopped grinning, though his companions laughed themselves breathless. His curses followed Lea halfway across the bar, but she didn’t look back.

She’d located her objective, and nothing else mattered, least of all the lewd suggestions of a man who would leave nothing on her sheets but ore-dust. The object of her search sat with his back to the wall, as she would have expected, and he sat alone. There seemed to be a void around him, as though the boundaries of his personal space were impenetrable. No one muscled in on his territory, and that was exactly the kind of man she needed for this job.

She strolled toward him and set her own drink down next to his on the scarred table in front of him. The clear liquid in his glass didn’t bubble or smoke or change colors in the dim light from the overhead glo-panels. Lea respected a man with simple tastes.

He looked up only when she placed her hands on the table and leaned forward just enough to give him a teasing view of her cleavage. The skin-tight crimson flight suit she’d chosen for this excursion invited leers from all over the bar, but the appreciative look in this man’s eyes was worth a little exposure. She’d been told money alone wouldn’t be enough to entice him to work for her.

“Damon Cantor.” It wasn’t a question. The man who’d directed Lea here had described him perfectly. His black hair was cut short and spiky, and he wore the brown vest of an independent trader. Massive hands curled around the slender glass of what smelled like bootleg vodka. The muscles cording his bare arms flexed at the sound of his name, and he pinned her with a gaze that had the same effect on her insides as if he’d jammed a hand into her panties. Her clit responded with a curious pulse, eager for an introduction, but Lea ignored the reaction.

She wasn’t looking to get laid, though later that might be part of the bargain. She certainly wouldn’t object if it became necessary to—

“I’m not interested.” His voice rode over her like molten lead, making it hard for her to move or speak.

“I-I’m not a...”

“Whore? In that outfit, Cherry, what else would you be?”

Heat rushed to her cheeks, and she straightened her spine, letting her fingers trail off the dusty surface of the table. Up until this moment, there wasn’t a man alive who intimidated Lea Vargas. She would take on anyone with a set of balls to match his bravado, and she never backed down from a challenge, but Damon Cantor, bounty hunter, left her speechless.

He flicked his gaze across the bar toward the exit, a wordless dismissal.

“I want to hire you.” The words tumbled out fast, and she wished she had the strength to pick up her drink. With her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth, it would be near impossible to say anything else.

His lips curled in an expression that might have been a smile or a sneer. “I doubt you can afford me.”

“Ten thousand a day is your going rate, I believe.”

He lifted his glass and took a single, measured swallow before responding. “Plus expenses.”

“There won’t be any expenses. I have a ship, and I have a landing permit for Ambrax.”

Several nearby heads turned at the mention of one of the forbidden worlds, but Cantor silenced any curious murmurs with a sweeping glance of his ore-black eyes. He leaned back in his seat and scowled much like the bartender had, only the expression served to make his handsome face more sensual rather than cruel. Dark brows knit over those bottomless eyes. “Didn’t whoever put you up to this explain that I don’t have a sense of humor?”

“This isn’t a joke.”

“Of course it’s a joke.”

Lea tugged the zipper of her suit down an inch and snaked her fingers inside to where a slim pouch rested against her bare flesh. A moment later she slapped a wrinkled paper onto the table.

He gave it a casual perusal, though his gaze lingered on the official Federated seal. “You’re not the first person to come up with a landing permit. Anyone with a bucket of cash can—”

“It’s not a forgery.” Interrupting him was a gamble. Lea’s heart thundered.

“I didn’t say it was a forgery.”

“I need a good pilot and a guide. You were recommended. Do you want the job?”

He pursed his lips and stared at his half-empty glass as if contemplating another swallow. “You’ve been mislead. I’m not a ferry service, Miss.”

“Vargas. Lea Vargas.”

“I didn’t ask your name, but since you made a point to tell me, let me rephrase my response.” He sat forward, and Lea fought the urge to step back. She probably should have used an alias, but her name usually opened doors for her. Vargas Industries, the Company, owned Soffran and ten other planets stretched across four systems. If nothing else, the name was a guarantee that she was good for the money.

“I don’t play games with rich bitches. I can tell by the look of you this is personal, and I don’t need those kinds of complications. Not to mention the fact that I would never take a woman to Ambrax, and if you have to ask why, you should be back in your daddy’s mansion polishing your nails.”

Lea allowed herself a curse under her breath. “I’m not naïve, Mr. Cantor. I know why Ambrax is forbidden.”

“Then you know whoever you’re looking for will be very hard to find, and he won’t want to leave.”

“What makes you think I’m looking for a man?”

This time Lea imagined a thread of amusement in his sharp laugh. “There’s not a man alive who wouldn’t sell his mangy soul to go to Ambrax, and I’ve never met a woman brave enough to think she’d survive the trip.”

“I’m willing to do what’s necessary.”

That peaked his interest, and he straightened in his seat. “Do you really know what’s necessary?”

She arched a brow. “There’s a reason I chose you, Mr. Cantor. I’ll be honest with you. I don’t like the idea, but I’m willing to fuck anything that moves if it means retrieving my sister’s husband from a forbidden world. Are you up to the task or not?”

 

* * * *

 

Damon Cantor’s throat closed convulsively on his next casual sip of vodka. The clear liquid burned like hot acid going down, but he willed himself not to cough. Only the rusty croak of his next words belied the fact that he’d just stripped his vocal chords raw. “Oh, I’m up, Miss Vargas. I’m definitely up.”

What man could refuse an offer like that? Despite his earlier remark, Damon had to admit to himself, he’d been watching her since she walked into the bar. She was sleek in her tight flight suit--long legs and arms, graceful fingers and ivory skin. Her short, dark hair contrasted to the lush femininity of her shape, but he liked it. It marked her as being practical and efficient, no long waves to curl and fuss over. Her blue eyes needed no enhancement to make them the focal point of her face. In fact, since she’d appeared at his table, he’d been hard pressed to look away.

“So then you’ll take the job?”

“I usually stay out of family affairs. If you want your brother-in-law dead, there are cheaper ways to do it.”

“I was told you were a bounty hunter, not an assassin. I only want to find him and bring him home.”

“Dragging a man out of the ‘bosom’ of Ambrax so to speak, is akin to killing him. If he went there voluntarily, I can only assume there’s an angry Missus left behind who wants her revenge.”

“He was looking for a Braxan healer. It was never his intention to remain there.”

Damon laughed again, but the steely determination in Lea Vargas’s eyes made him feel guilty about it. “Good intentions don’t survive long on Ambrax.”

She cocked a shapely hip at him, and he tilted his chin up, hoping for another look down the enticing crevasse between her breasts. “It was assumed he would indulge while he was there. But he went for a good reason. My sister, his wife, has Lorcan Syndrome.”

Lorcan was a death sentence. The virus robbed its victims of higher brain functions, eventually turning them into mindless bodies—physically healthy but incapable of free thought and action.

“I’m sorry about that.” Expressions of condolence were foreign to Damon, but something in those bright eyes, the set of her jaw, and the downward tilt of her full lower lip touched a deeply buried cord of sympathy in him.

He didn’t like that at all.

“Mr. Cantor, I know this is an unusual request. It’s not about money or revenge, the things that I’m sure usually motivate your clients. It’s about life. I promised my sister I’d bring Troy back, along with the healer he was looking for. You’re the only man in this sector who’s been to Ambrax and left voluntarily. I need your help.”

“When I left, it wasn’t with the intention of ever going back.”

“I’ll double your pay.”

“It’s not about money. I don’t like what I became on Ambrax, and I can guarantee you won’t, either.”

“Triple.”

“No. That place is forbidden for a damn good reason. If your brother-in-law has been there any length of time, he’s not the man who left home.”

Her voice went hoarse. “He loves Darya, and once I remind him of that—”

“Cherry, he’ll have his cock in your mouth before you can say hello. I’ll bet a day’s pay he doesn’t even remember her name anymore.”

“Does that mean you’ll take the job, just to see if you’d win the bet?” The hopeful note in her voice ate at him, but he couldn’t take the bait.

“No. My advice to you is to go home. Tell your sister he’s dead. That will be less painful for her than seeing what he’s become.”

She straightened, thrusting out those breasts that had drawn the attention of every digger in the place. “I made a promise, Mr. Cantor. I won’t break it. If you won’t accompany me for triple your going rate, then I’ll find someone who will, or I’ll go alone. I don’t have any other options.” She pushed her untouched drink toward his. “It’s on me. Thanks for your time.”

A dozen heads turned to watch her walk away, and Damon promised himself if a single man rose to follow her, he’d intervene with deadly force.

She’d find someone stupid enough and greedy enough to go with her, someone who would take everything she had to offer and leave the broken remains of her on Ambrax among the creatures there that had once been men. And her sister would probably fade away to nothing all alone, never knowing what became of the people who loved her enough to risk their souls to save her.

Damon finished his drink in silence and ordered another. Too bad it wasn’t his concern.

 

* * * *

 

By the time Lea finished her pre-flight check, she’d run out of curses for Damon Cantor. The man was every bit the bastard her contact had described, but she hadn’t counted on his uncanny ability to refuse the fortune she’d offered him.

That, coupled with the unspoken but implicit offer of her body, should have had him drooling at her feet. Anyone else would have jumped at the opportunity to visit a forbidden world where men ruled and sex was the universal currency. Finding a willing guide should have been easy, but after twenty-seven years as a “rich bitch,” Lea had learned to be very careful about spreading her legs indiscriminately. She needed a professional, someone with the kind of integrity it took to resist the lure of the mythical forces that transformed anyone who landed on Ambrax.

Maybe it was foolish to believe she could give Darya one more chance to see the man she loved, but Lea had to try. Even if it meant losing herself in the process. Her life would mean little when her sister was gone anyway. No other member of the extensive Vargas family knew Lea the way Darya did. No one ever would.

BOOK: Forbidden Worlds - Box Set
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