No Remedy (Bounty, #2)
This title is #2 of the Bounty series.
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For months, Mace Simms has been seeking an antidote for the poison killing her mentor. Her only hope is Alec Roiten, a brilliant scientist hiding on a backwater planet. Posing as a research assistant, Mace offers the elusive genius all the help she can, ignoring the explosive chemistry between them. Soon they’re close to a cure.
But then Alec’s former love Byron shows up, attempting to claim a bounty on Alec’s head, and all that careful research gets left behind when they’re forced to flee. And when Byron realizes the tip-off about Alec was a ruse by his rivals to lure him out into the open to kill him, the bounty hunt turns into a three-person scramble for survival.
Byron wants his old lover back, Alec is consumed by a haunting secret about the poison he’s desperate to defeat, and Mace is caught between them. But she’s beginning to think that’s exactly where she belongs as the three are drawn together in their race against death.
Publisher's note: This title is an edited second edition, previously published in 2011.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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Mace Simms tugged uncomfortably on her lab coat before slipping into the console chair to initiate the latest in her series of tests. Gods, please let it work this time. Her fingernails bit into the flesh of her palms as the scanner whirled up to full power, pulling the sample into its innards.
It had taken Mace the better part of three months to become familiar with the procedures Alec insisted she use in his lab. It was only when she could complete them to his satisfaction that he left her alone for more than five minutes at a time. Gods, he was so stubborn. The last thing she wanted was him hanging over her shoulder, questioning her every move.
The computer hummed pleasantly as it ran the latest chemical analysis of their continued attempts at an antidote for the ryana poison. Gritting her teeth, Mace tried to ignore the persistent memory of her most recent communication with her brother, Gar. She couldn’t bear to recall the look of worry coloring his normally impassive face. Gar’s husband, Faolan—Mace’s captain, mentor, friend—had taken a turn for the worse in recent months. Ryana poison was now attacking his nervous system, turning him from a vivacious man who laughed with everyone into a shell of his former self. They’d hoped for ten years of good health before the poison got to this stage—they’d barely gotten three.
The computer beeped mournfully, announcing the end of its analysis. Huffing out a breath and shoving her short hair behind her ears, Mace triggered the readout and mentally rattled off the one and only prayer she knew. Numbers and compounds filled the screen, revealing a complex chemical breakdown of the interaction results. She leaned forward, pressing her fingertip to the screen as she followed the lines of text, trying to work out exactly what it meant. It was close—the compound had torn down the poison’s structure, but also destroyed the surrounding cells.
“Shit.” She fell back into her seat with a groan, pressing the heels of her hands to her eyes. This will kill Faolan faster than the poison.
“That doesn’t sound good.”
Mace turned her head and watched Alec stride into the room. She shivered as he scratched the back of his neck; her eyes were drawn to the flex of muscles across his arms and chest, barely concealed by his black, short-sleeved shirt. Gods, he was a temptation she hadn’t anticipated when she’d set out to find Faolan’s cure. Having lived on a ship full of men since she was twelve years old, she had learned to control her impulses long before now.
There was something about Alec, though. He wasn’t loud and boisterous like the pirates on Faolan’s ship, the Belle Kurve. Alec had a quiet strength about him, making him more of a mystery to her than any other person she’d met. And while she wished he would relax enough to let her past the walls he’d erected, she enjoyed the flashes of his sarcastic humor. Slowly he was starting to trust her, even if he still refused to talk about his past.
Honestly, who was she to criticize him for keeping secrets?
Crossing her arms, she snorted. “Oh, it worked. It ripped the infected cells to shreds . . . along with the uninfected ones.”
Alec stood behind her chair, leaning forward until the back of her head pressed against his chest. She glanced up in time to watch him slide his glasses up the bridge of his nose, wondering again why he hadn’t undergone the operation to repair his corneas. He had the resources and credits available to have it done legally. Hell, he could probably perform the bloody operation on himself if he were so inclined.
Mace looked back at the screen as Alec reached ahead to advance the report. He seemed completely oblivious to how much of his body was pressed against hers. Hell, most of the time he didn’t show any awareness of her except as another functional piece of equipment in his lab. She wasn’t used to being ignored or blending into the background. That was more her brother’s style.
Gar had been the best and most infamous operative in the Bounty Hunters’ Guild. If he was on the trail of a mark, nobody would know it until he was right on top of them—and then it was too late to do anything but give the hell up. Mace had some of those instincts too. On the other hand, Faolan had taught her the benefits of seizing life by the throat and living it to its full extent, which usually meant being the center of attention.
“You’re right. Shit.” Alec’s voice rumbled in his chest. “We’re closer this time, so that’s promising.”
Mace rolled her eyes. “Sure, if killing the patient is forward progress.”
“Depends on the patient. If a Sayton happens to ingest the ryana, then we’ll have an antidote ready to go.”
“Too bad ryana only seems to affect humans.”
Alec stiffened and pulled back. “Be thankful it isn’t more races.”
The loss of his contact was as unnerving as his reaction. He always withdrew whenever she tried to talk about the origins of the poison they were studying, and for the life of her, Mace couldn’t figure out why. Sliding her hands over the tops of her thighs, she turned and glanced at him.
His cropped black hair looked as though he’d been running his hands through it compulsively. He did that when he was stressed about something. He wasn’t wearing his lab coat, but as civilian or scientist, Alec always appealed to her in a way he shouldn’t.
Damn it. The last thing she needed was to get tangled up in feelings for a man she would inevitably leave when she returned to the Belle Kurve. She would use Alec to get the antidote for Faolan and then she’d get the hell off this stupid planet. She’d deal with her emotions once she knew Faolan was better.
Allowing herself a final admiring glance at his mussed appearance, she said, “Good old Rusty trying to press you for credits again?” She leaned her elbow against the top of the chair and propped her chin in her hand. “I’m surprised he hasn’t stopped playing bully yet.”
Mace didn’t know the security officer’s real name and frankly didn’t give a shit. She’d dubbed him “Rusty” based solely on the massive amounts of rust covering the UVA he drove. Planet Naveeo clearly wasn’t high on the Loyalist list of priorities when it came to new equipment. Hell, it was lucky to get the few castoffs it did, given the reputation of most of the colony’s inhabitants.
Alec’s gaze dropped to her cleavage before quickly snapping back to her face. Those little slips were the only reason she knew he was attracted to her, although he was too professional to ever make a move. And she was too guarded to let him.
But it felt . . . good.
Maybe she should let him.
“Our friend wanted me to pay extra for my not-so-new colleague. Again.” Alec smirked as he nodded his chin in her direction. “Seems it’s hard work to keep the brutes from stealing you away. I set him straight, but if he gives you any trouble, let me know. I’m not going to let him get away with this bullshit any longer.”
Mace rolled her eyes but sat up straighter. “Next time invite him over for a little sparring. I’d be more than happy to show him how little protection I need.”
“Not necessary. I showed him the imprint of your foot on my back and told him it was from a month ago.”
“Liar.” She grinned. “Though it really was a good kick.”
Alec didn’t respond. His brown gaze slipped again, this time to the side of her neck. Gods, she could almost feel it like a touch on her skin, sending a shiver through her body. He hadn’t shaved yet today, giving him an uncharacteristic ruggedness. Alec stepped closer, and Mace’s breath hitched.
“How long have you been at this?” He reached out and tapped the tip of his finger against the chair’s top. “I don’t remember seeing you come in this morning.”
She watched, transfixed, as his light tapping continued. If Alec knew how many hours she’d been working, he would no doubt try to enforce the restrictions he’d previously put in place “for her own good.” His last lecture about overworking herself still stung.
His tapping increased in speed, but the rhythm remained constant. Mace couldn’t look away as her body relaxed. Something in the back of her mind tickled. Her mouth began to move before she could stop herself.
“I didn’t go home last night.”
The words slipped from her without conscious thought. The moment she’d spoken, Alec stopped the tapping, and Mace shook off the spell she’d slipped under. The sudden fog on her brain lifted, and she glared at Alec.
Alec reached forward and caught her chin in his hand. “Mace, you promised me you weren’t going to bury yourself in this work.”
What the hell? “I didn’t mean to say that.”
“Stop trying to deflect. You’ll kill yourself if you continue at this pace. I know, because I’ve seen it happen to enough of my colleagues.”
“Why did I tell you—”
“I refuse to sit by and watch you burn yourself out.” Alec sighed as he shifted his hold and brushed his fingers against her jaw. “I’m taking you out to eat.”
She snapped her mouth shut, frowned, and pulled away from his touch. “What?”
“Come on, up.”
“Move, Mace. If you expect to keep working for me, you’ll need to learn when to take some time and unwind. Flashes of brilliance can’t happen when you’re exhausted.”
It was pointless to argue the point, and she got to her feet in defeat. “Says the man who slept here every night for two weeks straight last month.”
He snorted as he slipped an arm around her waist. “Completely different. And if I remember correctly, you gave me hell for doing that.”
“As I should have.”
“Well, consider this payment in kind.”
Alec towered over Mace as he guided her toward the exit. The last of her argument slipped away. Warmth from his body bled through the thin material of his shirt and her body soaked it in. His tactile nature reminded her so much of Faolan. The pirate captain needed physical contact as a reminder that the ones he loved were still present—still safe. Mace wondered what motivated Alec’s need for touch.
“I’ve been told,” Alec whispered against her ear as they stepped out into the heat of the twin suns, “that Dail has come up with a new concoction he claims tastes exactly like Hydraxian ale. I suggest we go get a couple of mugs and a plate of narn. Both of us can relax for a change.”
Mace let Alec lead her through the square comprising the colony center, ignoring her natural impulses to pull away from his protective stance and show him she was more than capable of looking after herself. Despite their occasional sparring rounds, she had managed to maintain her cover as a relatively harmless scientist. As far as Alec was concerned, Mace’s sharp tongue was her deadliest weapon.
Besides, the bounty on Mace’s head was too big to risk drawing attention to herself.
“Drinks and narn. Sounds good to me.” She leaned a bit closer as they approached the bar. “But you can keep the ale. I swear Dail slipped something into mine the last time.”
Laughter greeted them as the door slid open, revealing darkness and the stench of unwashed bodies. Mace cringed but kept moving forward until she found an empty booth to the side of the room. The surface of the seat was pitted and sticky with a residue she thought it best not to examine too closely. If it weren’t for the fact this was the best place in the settlement to get food, she’d never have set foot in here twice.
Alec dropped into the seat opposite her, and with a quick push of his glasses, leaned across the table. “No arguments. We eat, drink, and then I’m escorting you back to your apartment so you can get some rest.”
The look of absolute seriousness immediately reminded Mace of her brother, how Gar would get when trying to convince Faolan to lie down or take his medication. Despite her deception, she appreciated Alec’s genuine concern. It was touching. Screw that, it was downright sexy.
Rolling her eyes, she leaned back and crossed her arms. “Are you going to tuck me in too?”
They’d done this dance before without it going anywhere. Alec was too much of a gentleman to be anything but the proper boss, but Mace had spent too many years as one of a very few women in a ship full of men to not instigate a little flirting. It wasn’t natural to avoid risqué banter.
Although with Alec it was different. She knew he wouldn’t take her up on it. He was safe.
This time, though, something flashed in his eyes. “Is that an invitation?”
Mace tucked the hair that had fallen forward behind her ear again, cocking her head. “Does it matter?”
“Yes.” His voice sounded rough.
“You’ve never agreed before.” She caught herself fidgeting and quickly sat on her hands. “Why would this time be different?”
“You weren’t serious before.”
She wasn’t serious now. Was she?
“Alec! You bastard.”
Mace’s gaze snapped to Dail as the short Cybrax waddled in their direction.
She smiled at Alec’s sigh and silently thanked the obnoxious bar owner for saving her from confronting her rising attraction to Alec. Now wasn’t the time to give in to her lust. She was still too far away from getting her hands on a cure.
“Dail, I thought you were off-world.” Alec seemed amused enough to almost sound friendly.
The Cybrax made a high-pitched squeak that Mace recognized as his equivalent of a snort. “Is that why I find you gracing my establishment?” Dail reached over and lifted Mace’s hand to his lips. “And you brought your beautiful assistant as well. I am truly honored.”
Slimy lips smeared across her skin, sending a shiver of disgust through her. “I’ve been told you have new ale,” she managed to say with a smile. “The temptation was too much for me to resist.”
Dail let loose another squeak. “You need to improve your dissembling abilities, my dear. You’ve far too honest a face for anyone to believe your lies.”
Mace found it hard not to laugh. Instead she simply shrugged and gave him a small smile. “What can I say? My parents raised me to always tell the truth.”
Never mind that both her parents had been murdered and she’d been taught to lie by the best pirate in the sector.
Alec growled softly as he liberated Mace’s hand from Dail. “If you think you can tear yourself away from molesting my assistant, we could stand to have some food and drink. But if you can’t provide us with any, we can try over at Dominars.” Alec smirked.
Mace’s skin tingled as he methodically rubbed her pulse point with his thumb. She knew she should move away. She was finding it increasingly hard to resist his pull.
Alec looked back to Mace as Dail shouted out an order to one of the waitresses. Lifting an eyebrow, he increased the pressure of the contact but slowed the pace. He was waiting for her to respond, withdraw her hand, make a snarky comment, or one of the other million things she normally did to keep him at bay.
“You’ve never agreed before.”
“You weren’t serious before.”
Seemingly oblivious to the silent dance before him, Dail turned back and squeaked again. “Hard to find good help out here on the fringe. I assume you’ll want the same thing you always eat. Shalaya will bring your order soon enough.”
“Thanks, Dail.” Alec finally released Mace and leaned back in the chair. “Just make sure it isn’t drugged this time. I’d hate to have to slip a diarrheic into your water supply again.”
“You bastard! That was you?”
“They’ll never be able to trace it back to me. It was due to a sudden bout of spoiled food resulting from improper storage. My tests will confirm this, naturally.” Alec tapped his finger against his lips.
Mace giggled at the look of horror on the Cybrax’s face. “Know thy enemy, Dail.”
“Shalaya! Hold that order.” Dail scurried away, shouting orders in his native language.
Alec’s grin told Mace how much he’d enjoyed his little rebellion. She relished these brief moments where she saw the flashes of the man he must have been before coming to Naveeo. She didn’t think Alec was necessarily in exile, but people didn’t choose to live in a dung hole like this voluntarily. Something must have happened to have brought him here.
Tucking her hair behind her ear once again, Mace leaned closer. “Did you really put something in the water?”
“Would you think any less of me if I had?”
“Not at all.” Licking her lips, she dipped her head closer. “In fact, I might have to give you a proper thank-you.”
“Then I most certainly did. Twice the dose of what Dail reported, in fact.” Alec reached forward to brush her forearm where it rested on the table. “So, about that thank-you.”
Biting her lower lip, she slid her arm so it pressed against his. Lust flared low in her gut, making her pussy clench and her breath hitch. It had been so long since she’d been with a man, even longer since she’d been with someone who could satisfy her particular needs. She pulled away enough to break the contact, reduce the temptation. Mace could speculate all she liked about what Alec would be like in bed, but she couldn’t risk finding out.
She kept her voice low. “Alec, while I’ve known you for a few months now, I can’t say I know much about you.”
“Not much to say.” Alec traced a pattern on the skin of her arm. “Just trying to help people where I can.”
“Without taking anything in return?” She cocked an eyebrow. “I know this will sound jaded, but people don’t do the types of things you do without wanting something back.”
“I’m a selfless kind of guy.”
“While I’m not arguing your point, I also know there’s more to it than that.”
Alec lifted his hand but didn’t quite pull away. She could tell from his expression that he was fighting some sort of internal battle. “I don’t think you would like me very much if you heard the full story.”
“Everyone has secrets.”
Mace wasn’t sure how to respond. She somehow knew the words she chose would shape their relationship going forward. “Yes, even me. I’ve always said it’s not the secret itself so much as how we choose to live with its consequences.”
Before Alec could respond, the front door was pushed open and light flooded the bar. Silence spread across the room as everyone took in the newcomers—three men, dressed head to toe in brown drax leather. The hairs on the back of Mace’s neck stood up.
Bounty hunters. Shit.
Turning to face Alec, she tried coming up with an excuse to leave. She was shocked to see a flash of panic on his face, followed by bleak determination. Why the hell would he care that bounty hunters had just walked into the bar? Many of the colony’s inhabitants weren’t high-class citizens, and any of them could have bounties on their heads. Unless Alec’s secret went deeper than she could imagine, there wasn’t any reason for him to panic.
Me, on the other hand . . .
Alec grabbed her hand and squeezed hard. “Mind if we get out of here?”
Her pirate instincts roared back to her in a heartbeat, despite having lived the life of a meek researcher these past few months. She was particularly good at avoiding bounty hunters. Reaching out to snag two mugs of ale from the passing waitress, she thrust one into Alec’s grip.
“Follow my lead,” she whispered, then slugged back half the mug.
“Mace, what the hell?”
Standing up quickly, she made sure to throw in an exaggerated wobble as she laughed. Strategically keeping her back to the trio, she slammed the mug down on the table and started to sing.
“Oh, carna, the things you do to meeeeee.” She pulled Alec’s arm, urging him to his feet. “Oh, carna, you can never leave me beeeeeee.”
“Mace,” he hissed.
Get up, she mouthed, stumbling backward to bump into the table behind her. The action allowed her to turn her head and get a glimpse of the hunters. Her little drunken act seemed to be of no interest to them, just as she had hoped. For an intelligent man, Alec’s lack of understanding was frustrating as hell.
She grabbed his hand and twirled in a drunken circle in an abysmal attempt at a dance spin. “Take me home, carna. Take meeeee home.”
Not wanting to push her luck, she tugged Alec with her, leading him toward the toilets and the back door. She tripped over her feet, sending Alec’s body crashing into hers as they stumbled into the dark hallway. Ignoring the feel of his thighs against her ass and the warmth of his chest seeping through her thin shirt, Mace bit back a groan and forced herself to continue on.
The second they were far enough down the hall to be hidden in shadow, she stopped moving. She pressed her hand to Alec’s mouth when he tried to speak, pushing him backward until he was against the wall. From this vantage point, she could look out into the bar without being noticed.
A minute passed, and she thought their luck would hold out. Of course, Dail’s high-pitched squeak echoed above the normal bar noise and disabused her of that notion. Shit. Of course the slimy little Cybrax would turn her over in a heartbeat if he knew how large a bounty she currently wore around her neck.
Mace ignored how hot Alec looked with her hand gagging him. “We need to get out of here.”
He nodded, cautiously reaching up to pull her hand from his mouth. “I’m pretty sure Dail keeps this door locked.”
“Not a problem.” She grinned as she patted Alec’s cheek. “I have a bit of experience in that area.”
“Why do I get the feeling you haven’t told me everything about your work history?”
“It wasn’t relevant at the time, but let’s say my credentials are a bit more robust than I let on. Come on.”
She dropped to her knees in front of the door panel, quickly prying it open with the knife she kept tucked into her boot. She could feel Alec watching every flick of her hands as she rewired the controls. A few taps on the keys and the door slid silently open.
“I’d appreciate an updated résumé when we get back to your place.”
Looking up at him in surprise, she stood, not bothering to cover her handiwork. “Why my place?” Gods, it’ll be the first place they check.
Alec wrapped his fingers around her biceps and pulled her out the door. “Trust me when I say they are after me. I’ll get you safely to your apartment, and then I’ll disappear.”
Why the hell are bounty hunters after Alec? “Even if that were true, if you think I’m going to let you scurry off into the sunset without an explanation, you’re insane.”
“Later. Just move.”
She gritted her teeth against her annoyance as he yanked her out the door. She hated playing the hapless Loyalist woman with no skills to defend herself. She hadn’t been raised to believe the government was there to protect and keep her safe. She knew firsthand how little the corrupt men in power would do to help those in their care.
Alec wasn’t a man like that, but she still . . .
The colony was on the fringe of society, full of colonists who were trying to evade the law for one reason or another; the sudden appearance of bounty hunters seemed to have scared off the crowd in the square outside the bar. Mace felt too exposed in the empty, open space, and Alec seemed of the same mind. Keeping their heads down, they skirted the perimeter until they reached one of the cross alleys.
Alec released her arm and laced his hand with hers as they increased their pace. Mace’s living quarters were in one of the newer buildings near the outskirts of the colony. She had specifically chosen it in the event she needed to make a quick escape. At the rate her day was going, that would be sooner rather than later.
She wasn’t sure if it was her paranoia kicking in, but as they rounded the corner, her building’s front door in sight, a prickle of awareness raised every tiny hair on her skin. Someone was watching. She jerked her hand free from Alec, sidestepping his attempt to hold her back as she jogged ahead. The security scanner was cool under her palm, the flash of light bright in the rapidly approaching evening.
“I shouldn’t come in.” Alec’s voice sounded tight. “I’ll put you in more danger.”
“The only danger you’re in right now is of me killing you if you think about leaving without giving me some answers first.”
The door clicked open, giving Mace room to yank Alec in behind her. Neither of them spoke until they were safely on the other side of her apartment door.
Alec went immediately to the window, looking out the one-way glass. “I don’t think anyone followed us.”
“It won’t take those hunters long to figure out where we went.”
“I’m sorry you got mixed up in this.” Scrubbing a hand down his face, he turned to lean against the wall. “I didn’t think they’d find me.”
“What the hell is going on?” She marched to the safe where she kept her weapon hidden. “Why would bounty hunters come after a scientist?”
The low whine of a blaster being activated filled the momentary pause. Shit, she’d made a rookie mistake: not checking the room for intruders the moment she got in. Not wanting to distract herself by looking at Alec, she turned her head toward the origin of the noise.
Standing in the doorway to her bedchamber was a tall man dressed head to toe in black. His eyes were hidden behind a fitted pair of radiation goggles. He’d shaved his head down to stubble. His attention was fixed completely on Alec, who stared back as if he were seeing a ghost.
“The lady has asked an excellent question.” The stranger had a gravelly voice, as if he were suffering the aftereffects of shouting for hours. He lifted the blaster an inch higher, his aim fixed somewhere near the middle of Alec’s chest. “One I’d like an answer to myself.”
It was obvious the bounty hunter didn’t consider her a threat. She might have enough time before he realized his mistake to get her own blaster free of the safe. She was about to make her move when Alec stepped forward away from the wall. She couldn’t tear her eyes from him.
“Answer the question, Alec.” The man thumbed the energy setting up a notch. “Why the hell did a bounty order come in to the guild to bring you in dead?”
“My gods.” Alec staggered two steps closer to the stranger, a look of pained remorse fixed firmly on his face. “Byron?”
The man nodded and smirked. “Miss me?”
It was as if the last ten years of Alec’s life had suddenly evaporated. Byron couldn’t be here, not after Alec had been so careful to cover his trail. Gods, he’d managed to stay five steps ahead of his ex-lover for so long, he had started to believe this day would never come.
Wrong again, Roiten.
He’d gotten complacent since Mace’s arrival. And now, if Byron was here, it meant the Loyalist brutes wouldn’t be far behind. Gods help him if he’d spent the past seven years on his own, only to fail before finding an antidote for the last of his mistakes. It would be worse if Mace or Byron got killed in the crossfire. Byron knew he was taking that risk, though; if he died, Alec would find a way to resurrect him, just for the chance to kill him again. Stupid bounty hunter.
But Mace was an innocent in this mess. He needed to get her out of here, especially now that he was an even bigger target.
Byron’s aim didn’t waver, though he flexed his fingers around the grip of his blaster. “You ran from the Loyalists. Why? And why do they want you out of the way now? What have you done?”
Alec clenched his teeth together. He wasn’t going to give in, not when he was so close to his goal. “Get out of here, hunter.”
“Hunter? Hunter? Now isn’t that charming?” Byron narrowed his gaze as a muscle twitched in his jaw. “Not happening. Not without you in tow at least.”
“Alec.” Alec jerked at the sound of Mace’s voice, turning toward her as she spoke to him. “You didn’t tell me company was coming. Kind of rude, you know.”
She was still crouched low in front of her safe, but her gaze was locked on Byron. Shit, stupid ass. He’d put her in danger without even trying. Knowing Byron, if Mace so much as flinched in the wrong direction, he’d shoot her in her leg to make a point.
“You don’t worry about a thing, sweetie.” Byron’s easy drawl sent a shudder through Alec. Gods, he’d missed the sound of that low timbre. “I’m just an old friend catching up with our boy. I’ll take the good doctor here, and we’ll get out of your hair. You stay there and keep looking pretty.”
The damn asshole hadn’t changed from the last time Alec had seen him. Blue eyes so light they looked silver peeked from behind Byron’s goggles. The familiar steel was in his stance, even as he shot a glance full of unspoken questions Alec’s way. Questions Alec had no intention of answering. Not here at least. How the hell had Byron found him? The high-pitched whine of another blaster powering up made Alec twist to follow the sound.
Mace was on her feet, a short-barreled weapon pointed half a foot from Byron’s head. “Well, pardon me if I can’t agree to that.”
Gods, he hadn’t seen her move, she’d been so fast.
“Mace, what are you doing?” He swallowed hard, inching closer to her.
Byron turned, finally paying proper attention to her. His aim stayed fixed on Alec, meaning he would catch the brunt of Byron’s attack when it came. That’s good at least.
“She appears to be trying to save your sorry ass, Alec. And holding a piece of equipment she shouldn’t have access to. That’s guild issue.”
“Oh, you’d be surprised what I have access to.” Mace cocked an eyebrow. “Now there are several ways this can play out. Few of them work out in your favor . . . Byron, is it?”
“Yes, sweetie.” Byron cocked his head, letting his gaze travel down Mace’s body. “Proper attack stance. Well-developed forearms and thighs. I bet you have a nice ass too. Seems you’re not a typical lab strat. Alec, I see you still have a type. Young, pretty, and dangerous.”
“Fuck off, Byron. Leave Mace out of this.”
“It doesn’t appear she is interested in being left out of the party.” Byron chuckled. “So either you’re an ex-hunter or know someone who is. Could be a pirate, I guess. Easier to steal what you need rather than earn it.”
Mace thumbed up the blaster’s power. “You’re going to slowly disengage your weapon.”
“Not going to answer me?”
“Then you’ll hold it out from your body by your finger so I can retrieve it. If you try to stop me, I’ll kill you. Understand?”
Alec ignored the way his chest tightened at the thought of Byron dying. It hurt as much as the idea that Mace was capable of blasting a hole in his ex-lover’s chest. He’d known there was more to her than she had let on. A green researcher on her first assignment didn’t show the level of skepticism or tacit determination she had from the moment of her arrival. Even Alec had carried a sheen of wide-eyed optimism on his first case, and he was from one of the nastiest planets in the sector. Seeing Mace now, the way she held the weapon and the unwavering resolve on her face, Alec knew there was so much more to her story than he’d suspected.
Yet another person he’d been fooled by.
He didn’t like to think he was gullible, but he did have a blind spot for certain people. A plea said in a particular way and Alec knew he could be swayed. It was that element of desperation he hated to see reflected in another person. He needed to help them.
His gaze bounced between Mace and Byron as he stepped forward. As inappropriate as it was, his heart was beating faster at the whole situation—and not solely because of fear. It might have been the power struggle between the three of them, a dynamic he had come to associate so strongly with sex that he was conditioned to react with arousal. Or it might have been that he’d had so few relationships since he’d left Byron, so little time for sex at all. His cock twitched at the memory of the things they’d done. And Mace? Gods, so many fantasies threatened to pop to life, his body shook from the strain of holding them back.
He’d wanted her from the moment she’d walked into his life. He’d never stopped wanting Byron. But it was hardly the time to ponder his sex life.
“Byron, I think you should listen to her.” He inched forward. “You won’t get any answers if you’re dead. I know how much you hate not knowing what’s going on.”
Byron snorted. “Death does put a kink in my information-gathering technique.” On the word kink his gaze flicked toward Alec.
Mace cocked an eyebrow and nodded toward Byron. “You know what I need you to do, then.”
For a moment, Alec didn’t think Byron would listen. The stubborn bastard always liked to do things the hard way and refused to take orders from others. It went against his nature. So when Byron let the weight of the blaster swing down, hooking his finger around the trigger to hold it out from his body, relief swept through him. Apparently, no one was dying today.
Mace adjusted her stance, taking a half step backward. “On second thought, keep holding it like that and drop to your knees. Put your free hand behind your head.”
Alec wanted to groan at the grin on Byron’s face.
“Ah, sweetheart, if I’d known you were into that kind of game, this evening could have started on a far more pleasant note.” Byron sank to his knees, winking as he braced his hand against his neck. “I should warn you, I’m normally the one giving the commands.”
“Any other time, I might be tempted to take you up on the offer.” Mace’s cool grin sent a shiver through Alec. “For now I’ll have to settle for you placing the blaster on the floor and pushing it toward me.”
As Byron followed her directions, Mace reached behind her back, tossing a set of electro-cuffs to Alec. The metal was cool in his hands . . . and the shape was so familiar he nearly whimpered as all the inappropriate thoughts surged back into his mind.
“Alec, secure his hands behind his back.”
“I’ll listen when I know he’s secure and your life isn’t in danger anymore. So shut up and do what I tell you to.”
“Yeah, Alec, do what the lady says,” Byron taunted. “I know how much you love to follow orders.”
Ignoring him as best he could, Alec skirted around to his back to yank Byron’s hands down and fix the heavy electro-cuffs on properly. He couldn’t stop from swaying close to his former lover, taking in the scent of sweat and leather as he jerked on the metal.
“All done,” he whispered against Byron’s ear.
The small act of rebellion felt good. He had been beneath Byron more times than he could count. He’d succumbed to the other man’s will so often he’d forgotten he had a mind of his own. Hell, surviving their reunion without ending up naked was a miracle, enough to make his blood sing through his veins.
His feelings for Byron had always been confused, but their parting had complicated matters to the point that Alec didn’t know his own heart any longer. Gods, he had never thought he’d be in this position again.
Byron turned his head so Alec’s nose brushed his cheek. “Don’t think we’re done here. We need to talk.”
“You’re not in a position to be giving orders.”
“I’m always in a position to give orders. It was one of the things you loved about me.”
A hand tugged Alec back. His gaze locked onto Mace’s as he turned.
“You need to step away.” She gave him a gentle squeeze. “I want to make sure he’s been secured properly so we can talk.”
Byron’s breath hitched, but he didn’t comment. Gods, Alec wanted nothing more than to forget everything and convince Byron to come to bed with him. Hell, if he could get Mace to come as well, he could cross a major fantasy off his list.
He kept his back to the pair of them, instead looking out the window. He already knew the questions Mace would ask Byron, as much as he knew what the answers would be. His carefully constructed world was about to come crashing down around him, and surprisingly he wasn’t as upset as he should have been.
“You’re a bounty hunter.” Mace’s voice was strong and confident. “You mentioned the guild. Are you with them or freelance?”
Byron’s silence filled the room, making Alec want to turn back and shout at him, demanding an answer. He curled his fingers around the edge of the table in front of him and locked his gaze on the people on the street outside.
Thankfully Mace wasn’t deterred by Byron’s stubborn refusal to cooperate. “I have connections inside the guild, so it won’t take me any time to find out exactly who you are.”
This time Byron chuckled. “I figured you did.”
“Then there’s no point in holding back.”
“Sweetheart, there is always a point. I’ll learn as much about you as you learn about me during this little interrogation.”
“While that may be true, I’m currently the one with the blaster and the key to your electro-cuffs. So let’s start again. Why is the guild after Alec?”
“I think that’s a question for your boy.”
“I asked you.” Mace leaned closer to Byron, who didn’t react to her apparent attempt to loom over him in a menacing way. Even on his knees, Byron was nearly as tall as Mace.
Alec turned, leaning his weight against the table. “When did the bounty come through?” He didn’t really want to ask Byron anything, but he had to know how much time they had before more hunters came.
For once, the cocky expression on Byron’s face slipped. Mace might not have recognized the look as one of concern, but Alec did. Byron’s chin dipped down toward his chest as he let out a soft huff.
“Orders came across my desk three months ago. You did well, Alec. I wasn’t sure I was ever going to be able to find you in time.”
Alec couldn’t keep from rolling his eyes. “Like you would have bothered if there weren’t credits involved.”
Byron jerked forward and only stopped when Mace pressed the muzzle of the blaster against his temple.
“I bothered, you jackass!” Byron growled up at Alec, settling back again. “I searched for you after your little disappearing act. I couldn’t pick up your trail after the Centarin outpost. Guess you were paying attention during my bitching sessions. But you must have gotten sloppy recently, making my job a hell of a lot easier. Really? Alec Randall? Too close to your real name, Roiten.”
“Guess so.” Alec ignored the sudden tightening of his throat. Byron had looked for him. Alec honestly hadn’t thought he would.
“Enough!” Mace leaned against the wall. “Three months isn’t a long time. How big is the bounty?”
Byron grimaced, turning to Mace. “Five million.”
“Big enough for me to worry. I delayed the information getting out as long as possible so I could try to locate you first.” Byron jerked on the bindings. “Not that I’m much good to you trussed up like this. Let me go, Alec, so we can talk.”
Alec shook his head. “No. What do they want me for?” He knew the real reason, but while he assumed the Loyalist government was behind the bounty, they weren’t going to be stupid enough to broadcast their true motivation.
Byron narrowed his gaze on Alec. “Multiple murders of Loyalist officials. I’d ask if you did it, but I made discreet inquiries at the facility after you left and there was never any murders. So they lied to hide the real reason.”
Alec was across the room, Byron’s neck between his hands. He wanted to shout at him to leave well enough alone, to let them find him, to go away and save himself rather than condemning them both. But he could only glare into Byron’s face. His heart ached for how things could have been. If he hadn’t learned the truth. If he hadn’t realized just how bad . . .
“I could have helped you,” Byron managed to squeeze out. “You didn’t give me a chance.”
“I had my reasons.” Alec pushed Byron away, letting the other man suck in a gulp of air. “You shouldn’t have come after me.”
Mace stepped forward and smashed the butt of her blaster against the back of Byron’s head. Alec watched his ex-lover’s eyes roll up into his head before he fell unconscious to the floor.
“What the hell are you doing?” He straightened as Mace stepped over Byron’s prone body. “He’s not the only one who’ll be looking for me.”
“Exactly. We need to get out of here as quickly as possible. Sorry, but we won’t have time to go back to your apartment. We’ll have to pick up whatever you’ll need once we get out of this system. Might take a while to find an outpost, but I have a few contacts.”
Mace disappeared for a few minutes, banging around loudly in the next room. Alec couldn’t move. Byron was here, despite the efforts Alec had taken to keep him away. Protect him. A sickening realization settled in the pit of his stomach—maybe things could have been different had Alec stayed. But trusting Byron would have meant putting him in danger, something Alec had no intention of doing then or now.
Mace returned with a large black bag slung over her shoulder. “We’ll be able to use the back streets to get to the lowlands. I have my ship stashed there.” She’d thrown on a pair of black pants and a dark-blue leather vest, and held a strange stone necklace in her hand. She no longer appeared to be the meek assistant he’d come to know over the recent months.
In fact, she looked a lot like Byron.
“Wait.” He shook his head. “You have a ship?”
She cocked an eyebrow. “You didn’t think I walked here, did you?
The story is intriguing, the characters are believable, and the suspense is fun! . . . Pick up book one as well. You will not be disappointed.
I am wholeheartedly recommending this book, and this series.
[Q]uick and fun, striking all the expected beats and never too slow to be satisfying.