A scene from MESMERIZED when Andrei comes face to face with Piper after he’d left Asphodel without a word years and years before…
Phantom Corps: MESMERIZED by LAUREN DANE
Copyright 2011, LAUREN DANE
All Rights Reserved, The Berkley Publishing Group
He’d approached the compound in the same trajectory he had earlier. The light was lower now, having been several hours later, but the memory of that time when he’d had to force himself to patiently wait for the right opportunity to get up into that tower brought a cold sweat.
And then, as shots rang out all around her, he had to force the quiet so he could take out each and every threat to her. Knowing she was down there. Knowing that a movement to the left or right could have gotten her head blown off.
It was over. She was fine, and there was no reason to let his boyhood love for Piper Roundtree get in the way of getting his job done. And if it put him in a position to keep her a little safer, even for a short while, then that was all right, too.
Piper stood in a doorway, leaning casually there as she watched Andrei approach. “I imagine you’d like to clean up.” She handed him a drying cloth and some soap. “Through here.” Pointing, she pushed herself upright and led him back through the cool, dim of the house.
He nodded his thanks, needing the time to get himself together. He’d been surprised by the place, he had to admit. The bathing area he used was spacious, the water warm and copious. A lot of houses, including the one he’d grown up in, didn’t have indoor plumbing at all. He hoped he’d helped, even a small amount, to give them a better quality of life, and here he was faced with evidence that he had.
It had been a stupid thing, sending the packets of credits. He should have disappeared totally, though it wasn’t mandatory to do that and be a member of Phantom Corps. He knew they needed the credits. They would have simply because it was Asphodel and want was a common way of life there.
He’d had them, and he’d given them freely. Still would. They had built something here, and he’d support that when he could. And yes, he supposed he could admit to himself it kept a link with her. Even though he shouldn’t. He couldn’t let go all the way.
Piper tried to remain casual about his being there. She shouldn’t be upset. After all, he’d been her friend. Had been a friend to her family. He couldn’t have left the way he had without some measure of pressure. Asphodel had been a dead end for him anyway. She understood that. Her head got the logic of it quite well. Her heart wasn’t as logical.
Kenner tossed himself into a chair at the table, across from where she sat. “Don’t pretend you’re not off balance.”
She shoved a mug of kava at him, regretting how nice she’d been to make it for him to start with.
“Of course I’m off balance. It’s not every day a horde of Imperialist troops breaks into my compound and tries to kill me and my people.”
He looked at her over the rim of the mug. “This is how you’re going to play it? With me?” He shook his head. “I was there. I remember what it was like when he left.”
They’d thought he had been taken to a work camp. Or worse. He’d been arrested, both he and Kenner had been, for a bloody fight at the tavern in the portal city. The man who’d tried to rob them and the man’s two friends had ended up in a medi-clinic. Kenner had been sent home because Taryn had signed off for him. But Andrei had no one who’d claim him.
She’d railed then. Had cried and screamed at the unfairness of Andrei being there when Taryn had been willing to sign off for Andrei, too. But they hadn’t let him, and Andrei’s mother had been murdered only two seasons before, so there was no one to help him.
They hadn’t let anyone in to see him, which had made matters even worse.
Then he’d been gone, and no one would say where. The guilt of that, of him being alone when he needed her had lay in her heart every day since.
“Aren’t you glad to know he’s alive?” Kenner asked softly.
“I knew it when we got the credits.” Never in the years since he’d disappeared did they hear anything. But a year after he’d gone, the first packet arrived. A little bit. Signed with an A at the bottom.
Over the years there’d been more courier packets. The amount of credits had grown. Always signed with an A at the bottom. Each packet had arrived, and each time she’d hoped there would be more than that scrawled A. And each time she’d been disappointed by that lack.
“That put food on the table in the hard times. Kept us warm in the cold months.” Kenner’s mouth flattened briefly.
“I’m not denying that.” In a way, she was sure it was why he still affected her the way he had. That was the only explanation for the way he still made her weak in the knees.
He came out of the bathing room, his hair bound at the base of his neck, exposing the beauty of his face. The facial hair had been a surprise. The scruff of it suited him. The pale sand colored clothing he wore was good for extended periods in the Wastelands or out in the open away from encampments, water and shade. It also suited his skin tone.
He was tall. That much she’d remembered. Only her memories had rendered him smaller. This man, this hard muscle and sinew was a machine. He moved with far more grace than he’d had as a boy. Most definitely with more control. He prowled through their living room, setting out little pieces of equipment. Dampeners to block eavesdropping. But when he reached the shelves where Taryn’s stone carvings sat, he paused, the ghost of a smile on his face. He simply looked at them, picking each one up, examining it closely before putting it back.
All she could do was sit there and stare at him.
If he’d asked for her forgiveness on his knees, it wouldn’t have touched her more than that smile.
The three of them watched him as he turned and noticed them with a small start.
“Sit down,” Piper said, deciding to be less vexed with him. “Kava is fresh and warm.”
He did, with that nod of his head for a thank-you.
This Andrei made her nervous on some level. Not frightened, but wary. This quiet man wasn’t much like the fiery, sometimes-stoic person he’d been as a boy and young man. Wherever he’d been, whatever he’d done, this Andrei was a man who didn’t make rash mistakes.
What had happened to him?
“I need your help.” He sipped the dark, sweet liquid and perked up a little in response. He hadn’t realized how dry he’d been until he nearly drained the mug in three swallows. But Piper must have known; she pushed a bowl of sliced fruit his way.
“How? What?” Kenner spoke, Andrei knew, on everyone’s behalf.
“I’m going to tell you something most people don’t know. It’s a dangerous something. You need to understand that before I go any further. Helping me will expose you to danger. I’ll do my best to protect you all.” He paused when his fingertips brushed Piper’s when she pushed the refilled mug back toward him.
“And though I know it’s not necessary to even ask, I will anyway. I’m asking for your word that what I say won’t be repeated.”
Piper swallowed hard. While they processed what he’d said, Andrei took the opportunity to study her while pretending not to. He’d never forgotten the color of her skin, milky kava. Or her eyes. Deepest of dark brown with a hint of amber at the iris. They’d been the first thing he’d noticed about her. So innocent-looking, but she’d been the best pickpocket of their group. Fearless, especially in the defense of her family.
He’d been family at one time, which is why he was there about to tell these three a Federation secret. He didn’t want to involve them, but things were getting worse by the moment. He had no choice; they were his best hope.
It was Piper who spoke then. “You know you only have to ask. Tell us what this is about, and we can plan to make it right.”
Warmth banked in his belly.
“Make sure no one can get in. The dampeners will thwart eavesdropping.”
“No one will enter.”
“The Imperium is close to developing a device designed to collapse portals. We have evidence to suggest at least one important element of this device comes from Asphodel, or through Asphodel.”
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