PHANTOM CORPS: MESMERIZED by LAUREN DANE
Copyright 2011, Lauren Dane
All Rights Reserved, The Berkley Publishing Group
“So you taught yourself all this?”
He shrugged with one shoulder. “Either that or deal with broken crap and time in lockup for assaulting the owner for not taking care of business.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time you were in lockup for knocking heads.”
“No. But I don’t do that anymore.”
“All right. What do you do then?”
He looked up at her briefly. “Pretty much what I did before, only I don’t go to lockup for it. What do you do then?”
She snorted at his evasion, waving a hand around. “This is what I do. I run cargo. My crew isn’t so big as to attract unwanted attention but big enough that most of the time we’re left alone by the others. That took a while. I’ve got a great right hook, or so I’m told.”
“I remember that about you.”
That warmed her. Odd as it was.
They fell into long, quiet periods as she cleaned her weapons.
She was conscious of him on a whole different level, in ways she hadn’t known to even be at seventeen. She knew it now. There hadn’t been a steady man in a long time, but there had been enough of them she recognized that purely female fascination with an attractive male. Even through the sharp scent of the lubricant and heated metal, she could pick him up. He smelled good. Like warm earth and a hint of something else. Something wholly male. There was darkness in his eyes. Enough a wise woman would understand and avoid. But she was never very wise.
His hands were nearly delicate as he worked. Hoping he didn’t notice how much she stared, she continued to watch him. His shoulders were nice and wide. He’d taken off his sweater so he was in a short-sleeved, snug-fitting shirt. A dusting of dark hair lay against the golden toned skin of his arms.
There was nothing left of the boy he’d been, not physically. The years had done him good. Fleshed him out. Brought a gloss to his hair. Self-conscious, she patted a hand over the ropes of her braids, captured at the base of her neck.
“I like it that way.”
Surprised, she drew her fingers back, blinking. She couldn’t have stopped her pleased smile to save her life. She’d inherited her mother’s hair. They had the photographs to prove it. Jiao Roundtree had been a beautiful woman. Strong, but three children, several miscarriages, famine and violence had done her in.
Piper shook her head to free that memory and send it away.
It was silly to have long hair when her job had her traveling all over the place in storms and intense heat and cold. But she hadn’t allowed herself many luxuries, and her hair was one of those few.
It made her feel like a woman. Even if her hands were work-rough and her nails were a mess. “I should cut it,” she said, hoping he’d argue.
“That would be a shame. Though your face is certainly beautiful enough that short hair wouldn’t harm it.”
“Thank you. I hope you won’t cut yours either.”
“Not unless I absolutely have to.”
There was a story that went with the way he worded that, but he didn’t add anything. “You’re . . . taciturn, yes, that’s the word.”
His laugh did things to her. Low, dirty things, and she allowed herself to wallow in them a bit.
“Shooting your mouth off can get you in a lot of trouble.”
“Thank you.” She said it quickly and with finality.
“For what? Not shooting my mouth off?” He looked up from his work, all the focus in those eyes on her.
She wondered what he’d be like in bed as a man. They’d been in a sweet, young, passionate love. A smile she couldn’t stop came to her mouth. There was not much evidence of the boy who’d been just as virginal as she had been. This Andrei would most assuredly know his way around a woman’s best parts.
“For the courier packets.”
He shook his head and went back to work. “Nothing to thank me for.”
“I beg to differ. Also, Andrei Solace, I have known you a very long time. Don’t you presume to know what I do and don’t need to thank a body for.” She crossed her arms and gave him her best glare.
He chuckled rather than skittering off like so many did. He put time into her, attention. She narrowed her eyes, waiting.
“Okay then. You’re right, and you’re welcome.”
She played through his words, looking for any sign that he’d patronized her, and found none.
“Last night I noticed you didn’t have guards posted, and correct me if I’m wrong, but you don’t have anyone here in medtech training?”
“You’ve been busy.” Anyone but him poking around that much, and she’d be suspicious and angry. She respected his opinion, and it helped that he was right.
“Just took a look around. I spoke with Kenner about doing some defense training while I’m here. That can address the lack of posted guards. Really, Piper, with all this upheaval around you, there should be guards posted every moment of the day. Perhaps a little update on munitions would be helpful as well.” He shrugged like it wasn’t a big deal.
“How long will you be here?”
“Long as it takes.”
“You used to be nice to me,” she teased with a laugh. If she hadn’t, she might have blurted out how glad she was to see him. How much she’d missed him.
He looked up again, amusement clear on his features. Her gut squeezed at how he looked, at the way it felt to simply be with him again. She fisted her hands rather than let them shake.
He went back to work, the smile still on his lips. “You used to say that all the time. Usually when you wanted to be involved in something inherently dangerous, and I said no.”
Unwillingly, she snorted, totally guilty. She supposed she might have—at one point in her life when she was very young and had the most beautiful boy around—been a tad spoiled. He’d guarded her. Protected her.
Everyone had known she was his, and because of that, no one dared harm her.
“You wound me.” She sniffed delicately and looked back to the valve in his hands. She still had the little tributes he’d brought back to her. A bracelet made from the shiniest of baubles he’d boosted from some outlander down at the Portal. A picture in a delicate frame. Someone else taken somewhere else, but the lady in it had been regal and beautifully exotic to Piper’s eyes. A scarf, a pin, a hat, gloves. Most precious of all were the books. Two classics from Earth. Because he knew it meant something to her. And a collection of poetry from Ravena’s top modern poet, Eleni Portony.
“I read Little Women to Eiriq and Lune’s children.”
He swallowed and licked his lips. Inside, in that place she hadn’t wanted to face, the place where the voice in her head had told her he didn’t care anymore, that place eased, dissolved like smoke.
She did still affect him. To what extent she didn’t know. But it hadn’t been some memory she’d embellished over the years. That connection, that bright spark that she’d always felt was special and unique, really was between them.
Then and now. Perched near him, watching him work and enjoying his presence, it was as if those years hadn’t existed. It was so very simple to her. She wanted him now, as she’d wanted him then. No, no, she wanted him more. She was older. More experienced. Harder in many ways. She wanted to know what he felt like, naked, against her back. His lips on hers. Wanted to know what it felt to have his cock inside her when they didn’t have to worry about getting caught. When they both knew a few more things about pleasure.
So what do you all think of a taciturn hero? The strong silent type? Do you prefer their more talkative brethren like Brody Brown and others?
Today’s prize is a signed copy of MESMERIZED! I’ll choose a winner from the comments to this post – tomorrow morning September 2. Winners are responsible for checking back to see if they’ve won and have two weeks to claim their prize. Good luck!