Authors: Dani Worth
Again, this is for my husband Robert. Thanks for the years of support, babe. To my children for putting up with me and my laptop.
I’d also like to dedicate this one to the ladies of Romance Ink (CJ, Sarah, Kathy, Carol and Lou) for the years of encouragement. To T.L. Schaefer, who first read
and said “Yes. Big time.” To my agent, Miriam Kriss, who stays stubbornly convinced this is the right career for me—and who beta read this story. And to Rachel Vincent, critique partner extraordinaire, who is the first pair of eyes on the young adult and urban fantasy stories I write under my own name and who never fails to pick me up with one phone call.
My back was to the woman as I walked the long, drab hall to the rental bunks of the small supply space station. I’d heard she was the pilot in charge, recognized her voice immediately. Lux Moyans. Someone who’d been a huge chunk of the most annoying part of my life—yet one of the happiest, too.
I no longer did happy.
“Jarana, I know it’s you—even with that leather mistress helmet thing you’ve got going on. No one could forget that arrogant stride.”
I closed my eyes. Counted. Which was exactly how I spent most of my flight college years around Lux. The woman drove me nuts. I’d have to deal with her sooner or later, so I tightened my fingers on the faux leather boots dangling from my hand and turned, knowing my bare feet looked ridiculous with the tight red and black skin suit. The flooring in this station was made of interlocking metal hexagons, like an Earth beehive, and my high boot heels had forced me to go barefoot.
“Still a bitch, I see.” Lux stalked to face me, her flat-soled boots loud on the metal floor. Narrow features and pretty olive skin paled when she got a good look at my face. To say I’d changed would be an understatement. I’d been nicely round—or lush, as my lovers had liked to say. I’d preferred my body that way, but years of hard work and fury had turned me stick-thin and changed my once round, attractive face blade sharp. Everything was harder about me now and I didn’t care.
“Captain Moyans.” I inclined my head, knowing she wondered how I’d fit all that Gwinarian hair into the tight, red shell cap.
“So, it is you.” Her eyes were so wide they had to be drying out in this docking station’s piped-in wind—which was supposed to be breezier to make it feel natural. Something was obviously wrong. Plus, nothing would make the gunmetal gray walls and floors feel natural anyway.
I winked at her. “Close your mouth. I’m pretty sure they pipe in Earth gnats along with these silly breezes.”
She pulled strands of black hair out of her mouth. And then the toughest woman I’d ever met sent shock through my system when she blinked back tears. The low, green fluorescent lights placed five feet apart down both walls gave her eyes a shiny, lime-colored tinge. It wasn’t her best color, and I tried to focus on that instead of the tiny clenching somewhere in the vicinity of where my heart used to be. But it hurt. Snarling, I moved to go around her.
She grabbed my arms and it did make me pause. Lux hadn’t been the touchy-feely sort either. In fact, the only way I’d gotten what I wanted out of her had been through a fantastic beverage from the Toquerian Sector. My lips twisted at the memory.
Was a good one
. Everyone knew the famous pilot Lux did what she had to in order to get her way. But Gwinarians are a stubborn race too.
She nodded. “Yeah, it’s you. I recognize that shit-eating grin. And I know what caused it, so let’s not go there.”
This voice caused every nerve in my body to go on alert. The deep tenor was like music to my ears, and it sang of my home world deep in my soul. I closed my hands into fists, the boots I’d chosen for style over function making a loud crunching sound. Resisting the urge to jump into Egan Lothbrun’s arms made me shake. The younger me would have already been wrapped around him—or carting him off to the closest bed. Restraint burned along my nerve endings, causing my heart to beat painfully on my ribcage. I sucked in stale, manufactured air, worked to school my features as long, luxurious, Gwinarian-red hair and amber eyes filled my vision. His hair was the color of the tawnlet flowers on Kithra: deep, dark and stunning.
I stared at Egan as a starving woman stared at her last slice of gorvo fruit. I hadn’t seen anyone from my home world in seven years, and to see this man I’d called friend…alive… My gaze flicked down, and I caught the scars on the side of his neck and closed my eyes.
“Jarana?” He did what I couldn’t. Pushed Lux aside and wrapped long, strong Gwinarian arms around me tight. “Jarana,” he whispered in my ear. “The sun is bright on Kithra today.”
I held my breath at the traditional greeting a Gwinarian gave another when there was great attachment involved. Then I flinched when Lux touched my back softly. I’d never known her to be so easily affectionate, but if she was with Egan, I understood. His flirty good nature and big heart had made more than one Gwinarian woman contemplate family filing. And it took true commitment and love for one of our females to form the kind of attachment that jump-started our reproductive organs.
He let go, a faint frown marring the beauty of his welcome features. I knew what was wrong—I stayed stiff, unyielding, nothing like the giddy, sex-happy Gwinarian girl I’d been before.
I wondered if they’d clued in to who I was now. It’s not like I’d kept my life as a Tracker hidden, and specializing in hunting down Replicants had given me a reputation I’d earned rightfully. Replicants were an alien species that could change form as long as they had the race’s DNA and the form was humanoid.
Taking a couple of steps away, I focused on the foot-tall black and yellow painted squares of the side paths. They held sensors that beeped when hover dollies got too close. I breathed in the fake air and remembered that this wasn’t a homecoming for me; this was a takedown.
“Damn, Jarana, it’s good to see you. And it’s nice of you to raise the temperature of this supply station with that outfit of yours.” Egan winked.
A frown pulled Lux’s dark eyebrows together. “She looks like the Sadistic Mistress of the Clan Ladybug.”
I turned a glare on Lux that would once have sent her temper straight to her fists. But I caught the sliding caress of Egan’s hand on her ass before he squeezed her waist and pulled her close to his side. She shivered, shot him a grin, and something ugly snapped in me.
“See you developed a taste for Gwinarians.” I lifted one eyebrow at Lux, knowing it disappeared under the tight cap. “Guess that nibble of me in college wasn’t an acquired taste after all.”
Egan threw his head back as loud masculine laughter filled the tunnel. Lux punched his side and he choked, swallowed heavily and put his lips on her forehead. “I do wish you’d told me the name of the Gwinarian from college before. My fantasies would have been so much more vivid.” His VR screen beeped and he excused himself, walking a few steps away.
I watched him, unable to take my gaze away. I’d heard a few Gwinarians survived, of course, but I’d thought everyone close to me—parents, sisters, cousins, friends and lovers—was gone.
Everyone I’d loved had perished in the blink of an eye.
Red filled Egan’s cheeks. He gulped, and my body couldn’t help but respond to the desire and flare of need that hit him so powerfully, his flight suit revealed it in loving detail. I pointedly stared at his hardening crotch as he came back toward us. He didn’t even look at me, just handed the screen to Lux. “Message from Kol,” he said.
Fascinated despite my solid vows to stay out of everyone’s business, I watched the human woman I’d lusted after in college glance down. She laughed, but a faint hint of red crept up her neck. “He misses us. Bad.”
“You’ve embraced the Gwinarian way of life completely. Interesting.” I was a little jealous despite myself. Not of her—I was years past that short fascination in my life—no; jealous of something normal, and on Kithra, normal committed relationships had come in all shapes and sizes. I had a sudden and painfully fierce desire for a time machine that could take me back to a time before the explosions. When my people flourished. I shook it off fast. “Kol, eh? Another man…but now I have to wonder if I helped you acquire any other tastes. Just how many are in your relationship?”
“That’s none of your fucking business.” Lux glared at me.
My shoulders relaxed. That was the Lux I knew.
She crossed her arms over the T-shirt that read EARTH 1 SUCKS. “Why are you on this docking station anyway? It’s only a supply stop for Kithra. And how did you get here, because I didn’t see a matching Lady Bug Mistress ship docked out there.” She looked me up and down. “The new duds are something else, so I’m thinking maybe you hitched a ride on a flying S&M palace?”
I ignored the dig. My ship, the most precious thing I owned, was safe on a better storage station. No way would I trust her on this dump, so I’d caught a ride here. And I’d had the fake leather suit made for specific reasons that were my own. “I signed on for a stint on Kithra to help with the building of another kithronite ship.”
“Oh.” Lux suddenly lost the teasing glint. “We do need good mechanics, and I remember how talented you were in college.”
“I’m sure you do because I sailed past you there.”
She nodded, shrugged. “In that department only.” She wrinkled her nose. “I never did like that part of the job. Luckily, I don’t have to mess with it much these days. My other partner is Kol Frega.”
I couldn’t stop my grin. Guessed right. “I’d heard he was off planet and working under the famous Captain Lux. Just didn’t know it was literal. Dropped that old rule of yours, did you?” I was referring to the famous Captain Moyans’s strict rule about not sleeping with anyone ranked under her. Rumors about her occasionally floated around supply stations, ones usually a lot bigger than this rat trap. The Company certainly hadn’t splurged to set this up.
“How did you know about that rule?” she asked.
Chuckling, I crossed my arms, loving the rasp of the faux leather. “Everyone knows about it.”
“Told you,” Egan murmured.
“Well.” She blew out a breath. “Incidentally, Kol is ranked with me these days. Egan, Kol and I have set our home base on Kithra.”
My mouth dropped open. “You filed family status?”
“I did. Kithra is really coming along. You’ll be happy to see it.”
“Will I?” Inside, everything tightened to a small knot of pain, and I shoved it away. It was still an issue I couldn’t afford to address until the last Replicant from this specific prison break was found. Two more. Two more and this job was done. I planned to get on that planet, find one of those prisoners and fly right back out. “I have to get some sleep. When do we leave tomorrow?”
“Don’t know yet,” Egan said. His amber stare looked at me too hard, too deeply. “Are you truly prepared to return, Jarana?”
“Yes.” I didn’t elaborate. Everything I’d told them was a lie. I did not want to go to Kithra, but I had a job to do, one that gave me the purpose I needed so I didn’t fly my ship into an asteroid. I turned to walk toward my rental.
“Hey,” Lux called out as I reached the palm panel. “I’m really curious. How did you stuff all that hair you loved so much up in that tight helmet?”
Smirking, I reached up and peeled the cap off, revealing the red buzz cut on my head. “I didn’t.”
I glanced around the five by ten bunk room and tossed the helmet onto what promised to be an uncomfortable bed. After slinging my satchel onto the cheap floor, I unzipped the special jacket, the key part of the outfit they made so much fun of. This material was genius. It kept anything stored in the inside, hidden pockets off radar, metal detectors, and best yet, DNA scanners. I’d had the suit made skintight on purpose because one glance told security guards I couldn’t hide anything on myself. I kept my guns in sight at all times in a sling on my hip, but everything else followed the lines of my body. I looked like a boy in every place other than my chest these days, where once I’d been quite the opposite. Didn’t really care. Food held little interest for me, especially when it wasn’t in my favorite Kithran recipes.
Pulling out the tiny device I kept hidden, I let it rest in my palm and stared. The Nucleic Exemplar Device, or NED, was only an inch across, and it strapped around my fingers with colorless elastic straps so it rested unseen in my palm. It had cost me two full bounties and would hopefully be worth every penny. I would be the first to test it out, and if it worked, I’d stay the number one Tracker of Replicants. This tiny thing would shave months off each job because I wouldn’t have to monitor them so closely, waiting for the moment they shifted back into their own recognizable forms. Their shifting abilities were so smooth, no one could ever know for sure, not until they shifted back. Not even me. And I could continue after this prison break job, go after slaver ships as well. It’s why I’d put every penny I’d earned into this device and my ship.