Four days after they’d finally left Philos safely, they were no closer to Federation territory. He’d had to put them on super-slow and off the basic path transports, crisscrossing back and forth to keep from attracting too much attention. It was tedious progress; he itched to get her back, to be assured she was safe. He had to run like hells before he did something monumentally stupid like fucking her.
Carina Fardelle and her big, sexy eyes, her constant questions and the way she was strong and so fragile all at once. She’d relentlessly thrust herself into his space whenever she could. He realized she’d begun to understand her effect on him, but there were times when she charmed him. Some little thing she’d do or say would leave him disarmed and pleased all at once.
She looked beautiful. Even as she was supposed to be some riffraff, ranging around looking for work, she looked gorgeous doing it.
Damn it. She’d trimmed her hair this time. But whatever she’d done had left it curly instead of straight. It took all his strength not to touch it.
Instead, he worked on keeping his gaze sharp for their contacts and pretended she didn’t make him want to stop and sniff her like a lovesick fool. That level of concentration kept his mind actively engaged on keeping them out of trouble and not on the way she’d brushed against him earlier that morning, trying to tiptoe up and kiss him. And especially not thinking about how close he came to letting her.
He bit back a groan and redoubled his efforts to be on the lookout for trouble.
They’d arrived in Frontera and had easily made it through the checkpoint. They’d heard a rumor that the troops had been diverted to another transport that was set to arrive shortly after theirs had. He hoped that luck would continue to be with them.
Rife with thugs, the criminal element of the portal city in Frontera had been the reason many transports refused to stop for fear of losing cargo. Since his cargo was feminine, on the run from a monster and beautiful, he would have to kill anyone who thought of stealing her.
“You need to stick closer to me,” he said but realized he’d sort of growled it. Infuriatingly, she turned and smiled his way, that knowing feminine smile, and he wondered where she’d gotten that from.Did virgins have that look yet? He made a mistake with her, he realized, in making an incorrect assumption that having her maidenhead in place meant she was naÃ¯ve about sex. She was not. He needed to remember that.
Better yet, he didn’t need to remember it at all. He didn’t need to think about it in any way.
She’d begun to lose some of her fear, growing bolder in many ways. She settled into herself in some way, taking up being Carina with a sort of wholehearted enthusiasm. Though annoying at times, she was generally a pleasure to be around, even when he didn’t need to be thinking about any of this at all.
“I’m within reach, Neil. You know I’m always happy to have you touch me.” She broke into his thoughts. “Where is our conveyance?”
She put her hand through his arm. Instead of telling everyone she was his sister as instructed, she’d told people they were married and had taken every opportunity to touch him and act like a wife.
In short, he was nearly insane with wanting her, and she had no intention of letting him forget it. His mother had a word for what Carina was becoming with him—saucy.
“Don’t start with me, woman.” He tried to be light with her, but something wasn’t right. He didn’t like the feel of the streets here. He felt far too exposed and wanted to get her away and safe. “Perhaps we should get back to the guesthouse. I can come out later to see if they’ve arrived.” He steered her away from a group of undesirables who’d just materialized and most likely were the source of his agitation.
He sent them a look over his shoulder as he escorted her back around the edge of the marketplace and toward the guesthouse they
were staying in.
“It’s getting rather warm out here anyway.” She continued to hold his arm as they walked, and he continued to like it, even though he knew how stupid it was when he could not have her.
He tensed up, keeping a watch on three men who’d walked from an alleyway just ahead. The group he’d avoided a few streets over.
Four more appeared, followed by one last man, and they all headed straight for them. Sound died away as the street emptied. At least he could get rid of some of his pent-up energy with a fight. Daniel felt a moment of pity for these probably illiterate morons who chose the wrong mark.
“They’re coming for us,” she murmured.
“Stay behind me. Use that weapon if you have to; don’t you dare hesitate.” He stepped ahead, putting her behind him.
“Looks like you two are a bit heavy with gear.” A mouth filled with few teeth made an ugly gash of delight on the thug’s face.
Daniel knew the look in the man’s eyes, knew they meant to rob him and harm Carina. Neither would be allowed.
He rolled his head on his shoulders, steadying for what was to come. “You should heed my warning and keep moving. You’re not going to be pleased with the outcome if you bring a fight my way.” Daniel didn’t speak very loudly, but the one in charge heard just fine.
Whether or not he took the warning was something else entirely.
The snick and gleam of a blade triggered Daniel’s sense of calm.
His body relaxed as he focused. White noise rushed through his ears as a blade handle fit into his palm.
“Look here, boys, he thinks he can take us all on.”
Daniel sighed and began to move. Nothing he did when he fought ever took conscious thought; his body, his refl exes simply took over and did the job. A step forward, a lunge with one arm and a step back.
One of the men hit the pavement, blood spilling from a nonlethal but debilitating slice. The scent of copper hit the air, spicing up the stench of open-pit sewers and garbage.
“Well now, looks like I was right to think I could take you all.” He tipped his chin at the groaning, semiconscious man bleeding at his feet. “There’s one less now. The odds keep getting better.”
It was wrong, she knew, very very wrong of her to be excited and titillated by the way Daniel carried himself just then. Even worse to have her heart speed when with two movements so fast and smooth she barely noticed, there was pain, blood and debilitating injury.
She didn’t care. He was masterful, and it moved her. He protected her because it was his job, yes. But at the same time, she knew it was more for him. Whatever that meant, she wasn’t sure. But being protected by such a scary, fierce man was so sexy she couldn’t find it within herself to feel guilty about it.
“You think you’re smart? Pulling that?” The other man—the one who could have used a bar of soap and some water, the sour stink of his body wafted to her, roiling her stomach as she began to breathe through her mouth—jerked his head, and the others rushed toward her and Daniel.
The intensity of the event brought her images, sounds, scents, but no real concrete impression of anything specific.
Daniel’s hair gleamed as he moved with such a grace of economy she could do little more than stare. Small movements sent men falling to the side, blood darkening clothing and the dirt beneath their feet.
Her own blade rested in her hand, at the ready if anyone got past Daniel, which appeared to be an impossibility as body after body slumped. She watched, not really alarmed, as two men flanked Daniel and one rushed past him to her.
All the years of training came back to her, and she rested her weight on her heels, slicing out and up as she blocked the blow. Or thought she did until Daniel, grim-faced and satisfied, turned with a savage grin.
“You did a fine job. Now let’s get off the street before the authorities arrive.” He reached for her and stopped, grabbing her tunic, pushing it aside to reveal her torso and a bleeding slit in her skin. “Why didn’t you tell me?” He paled, picking her up over her protests, striding back to the safe house without another word.