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Authors: Autumn Dawn

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BOOK: When Sparks Fly
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Anyone who had too much to drink was cut
off. This had started as Gem’s father’s policy and remained hers.
To prevent drunken protests, the policy was posted at each table
along with the drink list, and carved in a sign above the bar. In
spite of this, there were still a few belligerent drunks who
thought they could intimidate an old man into giving them more. It
was times like that when Jaq’s military training saved the day. He
might be of advanced years, but he was deadly. The inn wouldn’t be
what it was if not for him.

Gem had retreated to her office and was
trying to focus on accounts when the fire alarm went off. Her pen
left a streak on her document as she jumped up. She ripped open the
door and watched the guests race by, babbling as they went. She
waited for an opening then dashed up the stairs, pushing past
people who tried to knock her down in their haste to escape.

As she gained the second floor she found the
smell of smoke everywhere, but she couldn’t tell where it was
coming from. Using a master key, she started opening closed doors,
going room by room to make sure each of the guests had evacuated.
Brandy was at the other end of the hallway, doing the same.

“Empty!” Gem called as they met in the
middle. “All empty. The ventilation system must be spreading the
smell around. Let’s check upstairs.”

The smoke became visible as they raced up to
the third floor, making them cough. Jaq was already there, kicking
in doors. Gem winced, but they didn’t have time to be careful. The
fire extinguishing system should have turned on by now. It hadn’t,
and that worried her.

 

“Down here!” Jaq called. Smoke billowed out
of a door he’d just splintered. Using the fire extinguisher he’d
grabbed off the wall, he sprayed all around as he walked in, likely
unable to see.

“Jaq, no! The floor!” Xera rushed in from
nowhere, armed with her own extinguisher. “You don’t know what it’s
going to do.”

Gem shivered at the thought of Jaq crashing
through a burning floor, then ran into a different room and grabbed
a towel, soaking it in the bathtub. Brandy had found an
extinguisher herself and was using it, but the actual blaze wasn’t
what Gem was considering. She was worried about the people putting
out the fire. If their clothes or hair caught, they could be
seriously injured.

Sirens sounded, announcing the volunteer
fire department’s appearance; too late, as it turned out. The fire
was almost dead by the time the men rushed up the stairs, ready to
save the day. Coughing, Gem, her family and Jaq let the new
arrivals take over, grateful to retreat downstairs and find cleaner
air. Outside, the paramedics checked them over, treating their
minor burns while a crowd of neighbors and guests looked on.

Gem sat on the grass and rested her elbows
on her knees as she watched the circus unfold around her. It was
going to be a late night getting everyone re-settled, and they’d
all sleep with the scent of smoke in their noses. Why hadn’t the
fire extinguishing system gone off? That room should have been
coated with foam before the blaze even got started.

The fire chief had the answer. “It was
turned off.”

“Excuse me?” Gem said, unable to believe her
ears.

Chief Puyta looked grim. “Someone spread oil
on the rug and set it on fire. You’re lucky they didn’t use
something faster burning or the damage would be a lot worse. Have
you checked your till to make certain nothing is missing?”

Jaq had locked the till in the bar and it
was untouched. Gem’s office had been the target. Her petty cash box
was missing, and a pile of dog poop sat squarely on her desk. A
fork was stuck in it. The message was pretty clear.

The chief’s almond eyes narrowed. His green
hair was graying, but he was still plenty sharp. Tall and usually
quiet, the Kiuyian had been a friend of Gem’s father until Gem’s
father had passed away.

“Someone has a sick sense of humor,” he
said.

Gem’s stomach churned, but she tried to
lighten the moment. “Yeah. You know how long it took me to balance
that ledger?”

“It’s on the computer,” Brandy snapped,
coming forward with a plastic bag. When she was angry, she
cleaned.

“Leave it a bit,” the chief ordered. “Let
the crime scene techs do their thing. Maybe we can catch the guy
who did this.”

Xera cracked her knuckles, her face
dark.

Knowing they needed to work off some steam,
Gem started giving orders before her family dispersed. “All right,
let’s start settling guests. I’m going to talk to the police and
find out which rooms they need to look at. Xera, you’re in charge
of damage control. Anything that can be done to mollify guests, do
it. There’s going to be smoke smell all over the rooms, so if you
can find any fresh linens, please replace what you can. Get the
rest in the wash and have the maids start scrubbing.

“Brandy, find Jaq and tell him to close the
bar for the night. Tell the kitchens they’re on light duty and have
them air the place on that end.”

Her sisters bolted off to do as they were
told. Gem sat at the bar and watched the organized chaos unfold
around her, stuck where she was answering questions for the police.
No, she had no known enemies, no obvious suspects; though if she
were going to put her money on pranksters, she’d consider the
neighbor kid, Bijo. She could see him and his buddy pulling a stunt
like this. Still, he was a kid and she didn’t like mentioning him
to the cops. It was a necessary evil, though. Someone could have
been hurt. If it was Bijo, he needed a wake-up call.

Mentioning his name didn’t stop the flow of
questions, though. They kept coming, adding stress to an already
tense situation.

Brandy brought a pot of herbal tea, earning
herself a grateful smile. Gem’s sister had managed to wash her
face, which only reminded Gem of the soot coating her own. The
moment she could slip away, she washed up, watching the grime twirl
down the drain, just like her evening.

Ah, well. No doubt tomorrow would be
better.

 

 

Chapter 2

“Stinks like smoke in here.”

Gem looked up from her consultation with her
head chef, Jamir, and blinked. Blue had showered. He’d shaved. He
was standing there in her kitchens, dwarfing her and the tiny Latq
at her side.

“How tall are you?” she asked before she
thought. She might come up to his collarbone. The Latq was barely
four feet high and fine-boned, making Blue seem even bigger.

He grinned. “Impressed?” He’d pulled his
black hair off his face and bound it with a piece of twine, and
while his clothes were the same, they smelled a lot better.

“I am. You’re walking straight and
everything.”
He smirked. “So, you got something for me? I know you can’t wait to
get me out of these clothes.” His voice was lazy, suggestive.

She sighed. “I’ve had a busy day and haven’t
gotten to it. We had a fire here last night.”

“I heard. You still owe me clothes,” he
replied.

She stared at him. “I’ve yet to see you do
any work.”

“Baby, I can work you right into the
ground,” he replied, looking smug. “Get me some clothes. I wouldn’t
mind some breakfast, either.” He eyed the lizard egg quiche Jamir
had just taken out of the oven. “That’ll do.” And before they could
say a word, he’d grabbed some potholders and snatched the whole
pan.

“Hey!” Jamir yelped, then started cursing in
his language. He waved a wooden spoon threateningly, his milky-hued
face turning pink, but he didn’t dare strike Blue, who sat at the
table, arms protectively circling the pie dish as he wolfed down
the food. The quiche was steaming hot, and Blue gulped air into his
open mouth to cool it before swallowing.

Gem grimaced and murmured an apology to
Jamir. “We’ll teach him manners.”

“I heard that!”

Jamir bared his sharp teeth and started
banging pots around.

Casting an irate glance at Blue, Gem picked
up her communicator and keyed in the code to a clothing store. She
talked to the clerk for a few moments, describing what she needed,
then pressed the comm to her shoulder and told Blue, “They need to
know what sizes you wear.”

He shrugged. “Tall.”

She rolled her eyes. “Just send me several
sets for tall men, in different sizes. I’ll send back what I don’t
need. Yes, thanks. I’ll expect you.”

Blue looked up with interest, having wolfed
down the entire quiche. “Must be nice to have someone do your
shopping for you. That a regular thing?” He grabbed an unguarded
drink on the table and gulped it down.

Gem frowned. “Not really. I’d take care of
it in person, but I don’t have time today and I don’t trust
you.”

“You think I’d walk off with your
money?”

“Would
you
trust you?”

His smile was answer enough.

“Fine. If you’re finished eating, let’s go
to the gardens and I’ll give you your first task.”

“After you,” he said. He grabbed a fried
dumpling on the way out.

Birdsong and the heavy smell of barbed melon
flowers greeted them as they stepped through the rusted garden
gate. Herbs and buju berry arbors lined the dirt path to the
vegetable patches, providing shade for less heat-tolerant plants.
Past them, just before the main garden, were piles of jumbled stone
that served as the egg-lizard huts. Several reptiles were out
seeking bugs or sunning themselves on the rocks, while a few
brooding females flicked forked tongues, staring out of darkened
nooks. A few hissed irritably as Hyna and Gem walked by.

The Spark employed two full-time gardeners
during the height of the season, a father and his son, but the son
had hurt his back two days ago and hadn’t been in to work. Blue
would come in very useful, provided he put forth decent effort.

Gem led him to a cart and handed him a
shovel. Thanks to kitchen scraps and specially designed toilets,
they had an abundant supply of aged compost. “Here you go. All the
raised beds in this back section need a side dressing of compost,
about three to four inches deep. When you’ve used up this cart,
pull it back to that pile there and get some more.” She pointed.
“When you’re done with that, you can use the weed burner to torch
these thorn starts and carnivorous weeds between the rows.” She
kicked at a clump in illustration.

Hyna looked around the large garden. “This
is a two-day job.”

She shrugged. “Job security. You could
leave.”

He stared at her for a moment as if tempted,
then stuck his shovel into the pile. “When’s lunch?”

She laughed. “Noon, if you can find room
after that quiche. There’s a hose at the head of the path if you
get thirsty; you saw it on the way in. Have fun.”

Brandy met her at the gate with a sour
expression. “He actually showed up?”

“Shaved and bathed, too,” Gem said
cheerfully, plucking a flower on her way out.

“I heard he ate a whole pie.”

“He’ll work it off.”

“You don’t know that. You might go out to
check on him and find him leaning on his shovel.”

“Might. We’ll see. Meanwhile, I have some
insurance forms to fill out and I have to call the carpenters back.
Did you finish tallying what needed to be replaced?”

The day flew by as usual, and it was hours
past noon when she had a moment to check on her new worker. When
she asked Jamir if Blue had been inside to eat, the cook shook his
head in annoyance.

“He ate an entire roast fowl, a tart, a huge
plate of fruit salad
and
half a loaf of bread. The man is a
pit. A pit!”

Well, she hadn’t really been worried that he
would skip out on lunch, she realized as she entered the garden.
She wondered what he was used to eating. He wasn’t skinny, but
wherever he’d been getting his food, it probably wasn’t anything
like Jamir’s dishes.

She came to the garden and stopped in her
tracks. Blue had taken off his shirt and was on his way to a wicked
sunburn; though deeply tanned, his bare skin was no match for
Polaris’s fierce afternoon sun. “Hey! You’re turning red, you
know.”

He twisted and leaned on his shovel. “Didn’t
feel it.”

She averted her eyes from his bare chest.
“You’ll feel it tonight. Better put on your shirt before it gets
worse. I’ve got some salve that will take the burn away, and
tomorrow I’ll give you some blocker.”

“Good idea. I’ll cut these pants into shorts
and work like that.”

She glanced at his ripped jeans and imagined
him running around in cutoffs and nothing else. Not a good idea.
“Why don’t we see if your new clothes are here? Let’s hope they’ll
have the right size. I’ll order you some shorts as a bonus.”

Hyna grinned and stuck his shovel in the
ground. “You must like me.”

“You appear to the worth the cost,” she
allowed, looking at the amount of work he’d gotten done. “Nice
job.”

He just shrugged and followed her up to the
inn, shirt slung over his shoulder.

The newly purchased clothes had indeed been
dropped off, but Gem held them out of reach as he grabbed for them.
“Whoa! Shower first or I’ll have to pay for the whole lot.” She
couldn’t imagine the clothing store would accept ill-fitting
returns that smelled like compost.

At first Blue looked mad, but then his
expression became calculating. “Your place or mine?”

Gem shook her head and showed him to the
employees’ bathroom. “Soap and towels are inside. Clean up, find
the clothes that fit and I’ll take care of the rest. Dinner should
be ready soon.”

Her words apparently spurred him. He was out
of the bathroom in five minutes, dripping water and dressed in
black pants that fit a little too well. The short-sleeved indigo
shirt, meant to look plain and utilitarian, looked nothing of the
kind as it hung open down the front. He was buttoning his pants as
he came out.

BOOK: When Sparks Fly
8.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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