Authors: P.J. Schnyder
Tags: #Romance, #Fiction, #General, #Science Fiction
By PJ Schnyder
As a mercenary, Kat Darah doesn’t have to pass for a normal human. On the edge of the solar system, she’s just another biped. Most of the time.
Nearing the end of his military tour, Lt. Christopher Rygard debates the idea of hanging up his uniform for good. Looking for answers at the bottom of a glass of scotch, he meets Kat. One shared night of mutual desire seems harmless. But when their tryst is interrupted by attackers hunting Rygard, Kat must reveal her other form, the predator beneath the human façade.
Together they embark on a dangerous mission—a race against time to meet the enemy’s demands, while trying to deny the passion between them. Rygard is faced with a terrible choice in the face of duty: Report the existence of a human turned shape-shifter. Or forget he ever met her.
I feel as though it was just last week I was attending 2010 conferences and telling authors and readers who were wondering what was next for Carina Press, “we’ve only been publishing books for four months, give us time” and now, here it is, a year later. Carina Press has been bringing you quality romance, mystery, science fiction, fantasy and more for over twelve months. This just boggles my mind.
But though we’re celebrating our one-year anniversary (with champagne and chocolate, of course) we’re not slowing down. Every week brings something new for us, and we continue to look for ways to grow, expand and improve. This summer, we’ll continue to bring you new genres, new authors and new niches—and we plan to publish the unexpected for years to come.
So whether you’re reading this in the middle of a summer heat wave, looking to escape from the hot summer nights and sultry afternoons, or whether you’re reading this in the dead of winter, searching for a respite from the cold, months after I’ve written it, you can be assured that our promise to take you on new adventures, bring you great stories and discover new talent remains the same.
We love to hear from readers, and you can email us your thoughts, comments and questions to [email protected] You can also interact with Carina Press staff and authors on our blog, Twitter stream and Facebook fan page.
Executive Editor, Carina Press
Those of us who continued to grow after the 932
My thanks to Ariya Dararutana Lapan for being my sounding board as I brainstormed and to Mallory Braus for teaching me so much while we polished this story to be the best it could be.
“Give me back my bra, you little tube rat, or I’ll rip out your spine and steal your soul.”
Scampering for the open door, he assumed he’d be fast, too fast for anyone to catch. And he would have been—if Kaitlyn’d been human.
Lightning quick, she pounced, nabbing him by the scruff and bringing him to eye level. She bared her teeth in a silent snarl.
“You found him!”
The scrawny ferret squeaked, probably relieved at the sweet sound of salvation, as Skuld breezed in from the corridor.
As the ship’s engineer whisked him out of Kaitlyn’s hand, her bra fluttered free. The tiny marauder had dropped his loot. Catching the lingerie, she looked it over carefully. If those sharp teeth had done any damage to the lace…
“Sorry, Katy.” Skuld tucked her pet into the front of her rumpled ship suit, raising the zipper until only his furry face peeked out from her cleavage. “I was, um, working with one of the station engineers and Chester slipped out of his cage when we bumped into it.”
Uh-huh. Skuld practically glowed, with her cheeks flushed and hair tousled. She always wore her ship suit loose, the sleeves rolled up at the elbows, but the baggy legs had been hastily tucked into magnet-soled boots. Mingled with her usual scent of lavender soap and engine oil was a man’s musk.
Considering the ferret’s cage had been built of solid plasteel and doubled as Skuld’s desk, they had to have bumped it hard. For the cage door to have opened, they’d been going at one heck of an angle. And Kaitlyn stopped considering any further because she
didn’t want to know.
“He’s lucky he didn’t damage anything,” she growled, letting the sound rumble from deep in her chest in a way no human could.
The perpetrator trembled in his bosom of safety.
“Aw, c’mon, Katy. Chester wouldn’t do anything intentionally. He thinks your stuff is neat.” Skuld fluffed her soft blond curls. “Besides, why have fantastic lingerie when you never show it to anyone?”
Kaitlyn turned away, stowing the garment in the appropriate cubby. “I like the way it feels to wear it.”
“You’d like the way it feels to let a man take it off too.” Skuld took up the familiar argument. “Slide the straps down your shoulders, unhook the back and let the cups fall away. Or maybe he could play with it on for a while, bite at you through the lace. You’ve got a great rack.”
“Skuld!” For the love of klepto weasels and big ship’s engines, the woman needed to shut her mouth.
“You need to get boinked, Katy. Tumbled, screwed, whatever you want to call it.” She tugged an oil-stained rag from a hidden pocket and slapped it against Kaitlyn’s thigh. And damn but she made it sound easy, but then Skuld had always been comfortable with her sexual desires. Desires she satisfied every time they docked at a decent space station. “Okay, fine, when you first came aboard you had some issues to work through. And it took a while to ease into working with the guys.”
“I had my reasons.” The kind that gave her nightmares—waking and sleeping. Evils she could never forget because they were burned into her genetic code.
“It’s been three years.” Each word dropped like a stone. In her own way, Skuld had no mercy. “You can work with our boys now and merc teams from other ships. You don’t even flinch when strangers come aboard anymore.” Skuld paused. When she spoke again, her voice turned gentle. “You’ve come a long way. You can hold your own and you deserve more than mission after mission, scouting and doing those impossible search and rescues.” The rag slapped against her thigh again. “Now go out and get some.”
“What makes you think I want some…whatever?” Kaitlyn folded her arms.
Raising her eyebrows, Skuld marched past Kaitlyn to the cubby and yanked out the black bra, turning to wave it under her nose. “No woman owns an entire collection like this unless she’s thinking about sex.” She swept her arm out to indicate the small medical bay and alcove serving as Kaitlyn’s personal quarters. “You’re effectively solitary unless someone is bleeding or full of holes. The rest of us get some interaction, get off ship and socialize. It’s not healthy for you to be alone, and regardless of what you want the rest of the crew to believe,
know you don’t want to be.” Skuld raised an eyebrow. “C’mon, give up the specs. What revs you up?”
“Ah.” Skuld cut her off, staring her straight in the eyes, heedless of how it engaged the predator in her. Probably because of it. “This is me, Katy.”
Kaitlyn set her jaw and took a deep breath, reaching for patience or forbearance or whatever it would take to not rip her pretty blonde shipmate to shreds. Only Skuld could harass her with immunity, the only person to constantly prick her temper and walk away unscathed.
“Okay, okay, I think about sex.” There, an admission.
No one alive and kicking. Nobody since Katzer. “Haven’t met a guy good enough yet.”
“But you are into guys?”
“Well, what kind of guy?” Skuld folded her arms across her breasts, making Chester squeak again. “You don’t even notice the science guys, so academic types must not be your thing.”
“Please, I could bench press any one of them. Pass.”
“It’s not like anyone would know to look at you.” Skuld wrinkled her nose. “You scare more people off with your ‘come near me and I’ll rip your face off’ attitude than your size.”
away. From day one you’ve popped right into my medical bay and stomped all over my personal space.” Kaitlyn nodded to indicate the current situation.
“Well, I did pause for a picosec or two.” Her brows drew together at the memory. “You stepped on board the first day, looking all dark and broody, staring right through every one of us.”
Back then, Kaitlyn struggled to control her cat instincts, still new to the changes. Walking on board Dev’s ship for the first time, without bolting or attacking his crew, took every ounce of control she’d had left.
“Then those others came aboard loading cargo and got nasty. When you dropped that spacer on the deck for grabbing my hair, I figured you were badass.” Skuld gave her a melting smile. “But badass with a protective edge. Call it instinct.”
“More like lack of survival skills.”
Seeing the male hurt Skuld flipped a switch inside, gave her an outlet and a path of action. It still amazed Kaitlyn how little Skuld knew in the way of self-defense, but her position as engineer rarely placed her in combat or even off ship during missions.
Skuld shrugged. “We’re talking about you here. Start simple, Katy. I know this is a stretch of verbal skills for you. What kind of man do you sweat for?”
“Fine.” The image of Katzer’s lopsided grin and rakish expression floated across her memory. No. He was gone. “I like a guy who looks good in uniform.”
“Now we’re talking. What kind of uniform?”
Kaitlyn shook her head. “It’s not about the kind of uniform, it’s about what it takes to wear it and make it something real. There’s a difference between a guy who looks good because he’s got a uniform on and a soldier who makes the uniform look good.”
And the thought of that kind of soldier made her blood heat.
Skuld looked ready to pull out a comp tablet and take notes. “It’s pretty obvious you’re not even going to notice a guy unless he’s smart enough and strong enough to take you.”
“I can respect a man who can hold his own.”
“You don’t need to say against you, it’s a given.” Skuld grinned. “The other merc teams we coordinate with come and go. There’s always at least one tough guy in the bunch, trying to make a conquest out of you or prove he’s the better merc. You always shut him down. And then once he’s beat, it’s like he’s ceased to exist on your radar.”
Because he no longer represented a threat. “So?”
“You get along with every permanent member of this team because we’ve each got a talent you respect.”
“And this applies to a guy for me how?”
“If it takes respect for you to live with us on ship, it’d take at least that for you to let a man into your bed. He’s got to earn it.” She paused, pursing her lips as if considering. “And no male bitch syndrome, either. You’re moody enough for the both of you.”
“Male bitch syndrome?” They turned to see Dev leaning in the doorway.
Kaitlyn had fallen silent at the sound of his approach. She absolutely refused to admit participation in the conversation to her captain.
“Kaitlyn gave up her specs on men.”
Of course, Skuld would spill every detail anyway.
“And this unique male condition enters into this how?” A grin hovered around Dev’s lips, just waiting to make an appearance. He stood there dying to laugh right in her face.
“Can you imagine a grumpy, mood swing-prone guy in combination with Katy? So not good for her.” Skuld rolled her eyes. “Has there ever been a guy who could make her smile?”
“Yes,” he said it slowly, watching her. “At least one.”
Too much history hung in the air between them. He’d been there, held her, as she stood at the comm the final time Katzer’s voice crackled across the link.
Katzer had even made her smile through her tears before he’d gone offline in a soundless explosion in space.
First kiss, first love, first loss. There hadn’t been anyone to call her Kitten since.
“Is it time, Kat?” Dev’s voice brought her back to the present, using the personal nickname he’d given her as she grew into her place as one of his crew. He’d bled for her back then, earned the right to use it. “You ready to go looking for a smile?”
The deceptively light question had a world of comprehension behind it. He’d seen what she’d survived, knew how she’d been broken.
She lifted her lip in a snarl. “I’d sooner take a hole to the head.”
“Well now, maybe you don’t need a smile so much as a tad less aggression toward those of us of the male persuasion.” Her captain held up his hands in a harmless gesture. He knew how to handle her, how not to antagonize the predator.
She dropped the snarl but lifted her chin in a sharp motion. “You getting too tired to handle it?”
Dev didn’t move, but suddenly he filled the whole doorway. “I can handle you just fine, Kat. We both know it.” She might be faster, stronger, but he was more experienced. He’d taken her when she’d lost control, contained her before she hurt innocents. If she ever went feral, he’d be the one to help her back to human, again.
Satisfied, she subsided.
He relaxed into the door frame once more. “A little work on your social skills wouldn’t be out of place.”
Kaitlyn watched him, wary. She didn’t just owe him. He’d also proven over time he had a lot to teach her, and his light comment clued her in to a pending attempt to add to the knowledge base.
Dev pushed away from the doorway, stepping into the room and presenting a data stick the size of her pinky finger. “I’ve got a messenger run for you. It’s for a man on Dysnomia station who likes his privacy. Easy hand off, just be sweet and don’t maim the nice man.”
“You talk as if it’s a given I’ll want to.” It might be, but she didn’t like Dev making assumptions.
Dev only grinned. “Now, Kat, you got a true talent for violence any man can appreciate—from a distance. In fact, you make it into the sort of thing they set to music on occasion.” He would bring up the time she’d fought at his back in the middle of a formal ball. There’d been music, all right. A touch of steel threaded through his voice. “As your captain, I’m looking to expand your skill set into the negotiation and diplomacy areas. I know it’s outside your comfort zone, but I do like to give you a challenge every now and again.”
Also true. And okay, maybe she’d been more antagonistic towards men than necessary. It couldn’t hurt to do a single messenger run and try not to scare the bejeebers out of the contact guy.
“Fine,” she sighed, taking the data stick. “I’ll play sweet and nice.”
“Why not check into one of the station hotels and spend a night or two off ship?” Skuld took fire with her own suggestion, following words with action by grabbing one of Kaitlyn’s duffels from under her sleep pallet and tossing lingerie into it.
“Oh no.” Kaitlyn slapped the cubby closed before Skuld trotted out the whole collection for Dev to see. “I can do the messenger run and be right back aboard ship within a couple of hours max. That’ll do me just fine.”
“You do have a mighty backlog of R and R time you need to be taking, Kat.” Dev peered over Skuld’s shoulder to see into the duffel bag. “Those runs you take on the jungle planets after missions don’t count as either rest or relaxation.”
“Running through jungles and woods
relaxing.” Absolute truth. Sometimes the wildness took hold and the only outlet Kaitlyn had was to shift to her panther form, burning off the energy in the kind of motion humans couldn’t achieve.
Her beast rose up at the thought of shifting. Her paws driving into soft soil, muscles gathering, surging—
“You have relief for the furry you.” Dev conceded her point with a nod. He waited, watching, as she swallowed and got her composure back. “But you need to unwind for the human aspect. You need to be thinking about taking some real time away.”
She and her animal aspect preferred to run, hunt. “I’ll think about taking some after the next mission, maybe visit one of those resorts or something for quiet time.” Kaitlyn shrugged.
She hadn’t fooled Dev, but he let it go. “Messenger run goes at fourteen hundred hours station time.” Turning to leave, he tossed a parting comment over his shoulder. “In the meantime, I’m going to try to scrub the images of lacy bits out of my memory like a good captain.”
“Let’s go to the Dissention Bar and hit up Syn for a few beers, maybe something stronger. I need to scrub the sight of your sorry ass out of my memory.”
Lieutenant Christopher Rygard grunted in reply. DeSarto’s grumbling tended to be mostly hot air anyway. With regret, he changed into his only remaining uniform. The other set would take days to get back from the cleaners, if salvageable at all. He’d have to make do. Regulations required his team stay in gear on Dysnomia Station, even off duty. Until he made the decision whether to reenlist, he wouldn’t requisition another set.