Lucky Strike (A Holiday Charity Novel)
Death’s a heartbeat away, but love is even closer.
Flying a traveler to Leap celebrations on the luxury planet Crestal is no problem for intrepid partners Jake and Rill, even if they have to navigate a deadly meteor shower to get there. But their fresh-faced, privileged passenger is carrying more than Leap gifts: Lian has a message to deliver, treachery and murder to avenge, and a killer close on his heels.
Lian thought he was ready for independence from his overbearing extended family, but his first solo trip off-planet has landed him in a nightmare of deadly intrigue. Though he’s devastated by betrayal, and no longer able to tell friend from foe, he’s fascinated by the gruff pilot and scorchingly handsome first mate who’ve become his reluctant rescuers.
With a dazzling fortune at stake and the fate of the United Protectorate of Planets in their hands, there’s no time for the three men to fall in love. But with their future measured in hours, crew and passenger may have just enough time to discover that three can become one, and that together they are strong enough to beat any odds.
NOTE: 20% of all proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to the It Gets Better Project. The It Gets Better Project’s mission is to communicate to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth around the world that it gets better, and to create and inspire the changes needed to make it better for them.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:dubious consent, explicit violence, non-consent
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Themes: abduction/kidnapping/hostage (actual), disability / disfigurement, family, first love, first time, holiday, hurt / comfort, illness / injury, prostitution, self-confidence, self-discovery / self-reflection, trust issues
Crestal is a circumbinary planet orbiting the suns of Rane and Aura. Originally independent, it was subsequently claimed by both solar systems after the discovery of vast deposits of kharite, the driving force behind the second human diaspora. Following a prolonged period of war, the United Protectorate claimed the planet and restored autonomy after striking a deal some have called draconian, others pragmatic. Kharite continues to be mined and sold, but at a Protectorate-regulated price, and the cost of the crystals, or more correctly the price of leap fuel, regulate the worth of the universal credits (unicreds/credits) that have become the dominant currency.
[Tourist Guide to Crestal, Vol 1]
The alley behind the bar stank of piss and rotting food. The stench was enough to stop Jake after a step or two, as his last meal threatened to revisit his mouth. As Amabale’s main city, Landon had plenty of decent bars to choose from, so why did he always finish the night in a dive? His mother would say trash called to trash, but Jake didn’t believe that. And if it were true, well, he’d made something of himself and proved her wrong. Captain of a ship, his account flush with enough unicreds to buy drinks for everyone in that fleapit—if he’d been inclined to waste his money, which he wasn’t—Jake felt justifiably proud of his achievements.
Even if he’d won his ship in a card game and buying the round would leave his account hovering close to zero.
Head swimming from too much brandy, Jake shrugged and carried on down the alley, conquering his queasiness by breathing through his mouth. It was a shortcut back to the spaceport and after six weeks on board the Mama Rose, sniffing resyked air, stale and dead, the ripe organic stink made a change at least. In other cities, a dark alley would be a risky route to take, but Landon was peaceful on the whole and this close to the port, security patrols were frequent. Given the exorbitant fees for a docking space, that was no more than fair, though the residents complained the port’s guards were overly zealous when it came to protecting visitors.
Jake didn’t care. Drunk or sober, he could look after himself and in his experience dirt-grippers always had a bone to gnaw.
As he neared the end of the alley, two figures appeared, blocking the exit and arguing loudly. Not waiting to rob him then. Too noisy for that. Curious, he moved closer, sticking to the shadows, though it meant he stepped in some dubious puddles. Rill would order him to take off his boots before opening the airlock. Or make him strip. The thought of boarding naked, watched by a tight-lipped Rill in a pissy mood made Jake grin. Easy enough to get Rill smiling again.
The taller of the two, a woman, said, “A week and you can hire the whole fucking ship to go to wherever in the sector you like, but no one’s lifting now. No one.”
“I appreciate the difficulties caused by the shower, and I don’t wish to contradict you, but if we lift now and navigate around it, we’ll be safe enough, I’d think,” a man answered, tension sharpening his words.
The first voice was familiar. That husky rasp of a voice ruined by overindulgence in vestin dust had murmured encouraging obscenities in Jake’s ear once, though as a rule he shared his bed with men, not women. Sharla had been willing to make room for a man to rouse Jake when he’d flagged, exhausted by her demands, and the night had been memorable if only for the hangover the next day and the discovery of two tattoos, one on each ass cheek, scoring his performance.
They’d washed off, so he didn’t hold a grudge over the six out of ten she’d given him.
The man she was arguing with was a stranger, his accent putting him in the stratosphere of Crestal society. Crestal. Jake had been there once or twice and hated the place. There was no middle ground. You were rich or dirt-poor. He didn’t fit in either category.
“Safe enough breathing space and choking on blood?” Sharla demanded.
“Shields stop dust and small fragments of debris. Small.” Sharla sounded testy. Time for a wise man to shut the fuck up. “The Sentar shower is a million chunks of rock held together by a comet ten times larger than my ship.”
Someone didn’t know when to bow out of a discussion with his hide intact. “If it would help, I have access to the latest research on cometary peregrinations. I could upload it to your navcom, and I’m sure we’d find a way to make the trip safely.”
Jake moved out of the shadows, not bothering to clear his throat. Sharla would’ve seen him, recognized him, and dismissed him as a threat the moment he’d hugged the wall. The possibility of enhanced senses had lured her into trying vestin dust, and if it’d cost her more than her voice by shaving a decade or so off her life span, the senses had saved her ass more than once, so it evened out.
In Jake’s opinion, most things did if you lived long enough.
Mocking a pampered little gembaby wasn’t his idea of fun, but if the gembaby in question was bent on suicide, he felt obliged to step in, if only to save Sharla from the consequences of ripping the man’s tongue out and choking him to death with it when she got bored with his polite stubbornness.
“Peregrinations? I had them once, but the medic sold me a pill that made the itching stop.”
“Jake.” Sharla’s greeting held no warmth. “Heard you’d docked.”
“No need to make it sound like the Mama Rose is lowering the tone.” Jake gave her a bow that would’ve been courtly as hell if the brandy hadn’t made him stagger on the way back up. “Looking elegant as always.”
Not a lie. The wig she wore landside was a tall spiral of gold and silver, defying gravity, and enough resso silk swathed her lean frame to carpet the alley behind him. Sharla was dressed to party and at this time of the night, with Leap Week about to start, she was most likely on her way to somewhere discreetly expensive to pick out a bedmate.
“And you’re looking cheap. I’ll upgrade that to moderately presentable if you bring Rill by the Centarian. It’s been too long since I’ve seen the boy.”
Jake disguised a wince as a cough. Sharla’s attempts to bed Rill had ended when Rill abandoned polite hints and told her flatly he wasn’t interested, but she’d retained a fondness for him verging on maternal.
Rill didn’t take kindly to being mothered.
“I’ll be sure to pass on your invitation.”
Sharla poked at her wig, probably checking a weapon buried in there. Jake hoped it wasn’t anything with a pulse. The rumor that she kept a Drekkan lizard in her hair, packing enough venom in one flick of its tongue to turn a man blue and stiff in seconds, had to be false, but with Sharla, who knew? “It doesn’t include you, just so we’re clear.”
Now that was unmannerly. Or a lucky escape. Either way, he didn’t plan to argue, beg, or glare.
“Excuse me, sir, but I really need to arrange passage on this lady’s ship. I don’t wish to interrupt, but it’s vital I leave now.” The kid swallowed audibly and murmured, “Vital,” as if he were talking to himself.
Nice manners, but Jake judged people by their actions, not their words. Still, it was a point in the Crestallian’s favor. Jake studied him, taking in height without bulk and a stiff spring of dark hair coated in sculpting spray. The kid was no looker, not with that beak of a nose dominating his face, but it was most likely the Family Nose and worn as a badge of pride. A commoner would’ve gotten it fixed up a bit so it faded into the background. Jake had never changed his appearance, but that was because he’d been born handsome. If anyone disagreed, he took it as proof they were stupid.
For the diversion, Jake was willing to hurt the Crestallian’s feelings. He snickered, gesturing at the kid’s red-and-green pleated pants as they billowed out in the brisk breeze that’d sprung up. “Don’t know your name, kid, but sweet stars, you look a fool in those pants.”
The man flinched as if being insulted came as a shock, then glanced down, confirming his lack of a functioning survival instinct. Jake was an unknown quantity, Sharla hostile, and the kid should’ve stepped back so he could keep both of them in view. In a fight, a slip like that could’ve robbed him of a future or at best made it a painful one. If Jake had been the kind of man who stamped on bugs for the squish—which he wasn’t—he could’ve shoved his blade deep into flesh, twisted the hilt, and robbed the kid with his anguished screams providing background music. Jake’s knife had a synth-steel metal blade, old-fashioned but reliable, and it felt right in his hand. A woman had offered him the latest plasteel vibroblade earlier for an eye-watering amount of creds, and he’d turned her down without hesitation. They tore a body up, sure, but the cheap knockoffs—and the one in the bar most certainly wasn’t a genuine Nexon—vibrated so fast the user often dropped it.
He’d heard of that happening to a man who lost the top of his foot when it landed, then his fingers when he grabbed it by the blade to shut it off. Probably true. People were idiots.
“Really? They’re the latest fashion. Over thirty thousand pairs have been sold in this city alone in the last month. Everyone’s wearing them.” The Crestallian wrinkled his eyebrows, shaped by a styling wand into a precise, thin curve, his bemusement as plain as his embarrassment. “But you don’t seem like a man interested in clothes, so why comment on mine?”
Valid point, even if it’d been phrased in a way a man could take exception to if he was so inclined, followed as it was by Sharla’s derisive snort of laughter. The boy needed to watch his words or hire a bodyguard. By now a sensible man would’ve been babbling apologies for wearing something Jake didn’t like, and promising to burn them at the first opportunity. Men like that lived longer.
Of course, that was men who’d seen him in a fight, and so far the boy had only seen him insulted by Sharla and too drunk to stand without wobbling. He wasn’t making the best first impression.
Jake sketched a dismissive gesture. “Forget I spoke. They’re divine. Transcendent. And they don’t make you look like a man who shit himself repeatedly, I swear it.”
The Crestallian gave him an uncertain glance, as if at a loss to understand why Jake wasn’t rushing out to buy a pair of his own now he knew they were fashionable, before focusing his attention on Sharla. Yeah, in a bar fight, he’d be the first body hitting the floor, no doubt about it. Jake rolled his eyes and leaned against the wall. He was tired. Let Sharla educate the boy. Might be entertaining, and if it got sticky, she’d need someone to give her an alibi. Wouldn’t hurt to get her smiling at him for once. Hell, he wasn’t sure why she’d stopped. He’d asked around and gotten vague references to a business matter, but that made no sense at all. The Mama Rose ferried small parties around the system and sometimes cargo. Jake offered adequate, not fancy, accommodations and food. The Centarian was bigger, more luxurious, and faster. They weren’t in competition.
“Please say you’ll give me passage to Crestal.” The man lowered his voice as if that gave his words more urgency. Or maybe he was dropping a hint that the conversation was none of Jake’s business.
Jake grinned. He recognized hints. Didn’t mean he had to say “hello” and “how are you?” to them.
“You need to learn how to wait, Mr. Paradine.” Sharla didn’t trouble to lower her voice. “Don’t tell me it’s a matter of life and death either. It’d be my life and death. I won’t do it. I don’t need your money. Credits don’t buy you ice water in hell, and if that’s where I’m heading, I’d prefer to postpone the trip for as long as possible.” She jerked a thumb heavy with rings at Jake. “Ask him for a ride. The system knows Jake Slant will give anyone a seat in his ship for a price. Even a child-murdering piece of shit desperate to get off-world and escape justice.”
“O’Neill?” Jake demanded, pushing away from the wall, anger clearing his head as a few things clicked into place. “That’s why you turned on me? He shipped out with a new name and face. How the fuck was I supposed to recognize him? And I spaced him as soon as word reached me.”
It hadn’t been pleasant. O’Neill had denied everything, then threatened them, then pleaded. With an execution order playing out in sound and visual on the screen in the corner of the room—giving Jake, as captain, full authority to dispense justice and a bounty for a verified death—Jake hadn’t hesitated.
Well, only long enough to punch O’Neill hard, but not hard enough to knock him out. When the bastard took his first sip of vacuum, Jake had wanted O’Neill to be awake to savor the taste. Tied to the inside of an airlock under the impersonal gaze of a securi-cam, he’d died with Jake and Rill watching along with the police force on the planet. The bounty had taken its own sweet time arriving; Jake, a superstitious itch warning him not to spend it on overhauling the Mama Rose, had frittered it away in a week on the closest space station, spoiling Rill and tipping lavishly. No matter how much he drank, he still saw O’Neill’s eyes popping out, mouth opening in a final, pointless scream.
“If you’d run security checks like the rest of us do, you would’ve known. But you trust your gut to tell you when someone’s dicey, don’t you, Jake? Not sure why when it’s full of shit.”
Sucking in a breath, ready to defend himself, Jake expelled it a moment later when she drove her fist into his belly. He spat out a mouthful of bile without losing the acid taste. Nasty. Though on reflection, the brandy tasted better after an hour in his stomach than when he’d drunk it.
“What’s your gut telling you now?” she asked as he rubbed away the ache. “That I don’t like you? It’s gotten one thing right after all.”
With the wig, she was six inches taller than he was, but he stood like a man who could meet her gaze squarely. Head up, shoulders back, and watching for a weak spot. His knife was warm against his forearm, waiting to slip free and bite deep. Like Sharla, he had other weapons hidden, as well as the two at the end of his arms. “Sharla, I’m not your enemy. Not yet. Don’t push me to a place where I’ve got no choice but to act the part. Not over a mistake I made and corrected as soon as I could.”
A lip painted gold and purple curled derisively. “You want to wipe it out? Make things right between us?”
Not really. “I’d settle for us never talking again and you keeping your fists to yourself.”
A drunk lurched past them, jostling Sharla and treading on Paradine’s foot. Pickpockets weren’t common these days when every transaction, no matter how small, was accomplished by a fingerprint tap; but just because people no longer kept money in their pockets, it didn’t mean those pockets were empty.
“I’m sorry,” Paradine called after the man who’d left him wincing. “My fault.”
“No, it wasn’t.” Jake took three strides and grabbed the drunk. “You. Apologize to the—to her, and give him back whatever you lifted.”
Bleary eyes gazed up at him from a puffy face. “Didn’t lift anything. You let me go or I’ll call the cops. Blocking the street so decent people can’t walk where they’ve a mind to.”
“I’ll block it with your corpse if you’ve creased this silk.” Sharla examined her sleeve, eyes narrowed.
Ignoring Paradine’s murmured protests that really, he was fine and no, nothing had been stolen, Jake patted the drunk down and found nothing but a ripe stink wafting from his clothes and an assortment of junk. On a hunch, he pushed back the sleeves of the man’s coat to check his wrists and saw the gleam of precious metal on the right one.
“This yours?” he asked Paradine. “Because it really doesn’t go with what he’s wearing.”
Clasping his wrist as if he expected to find the bracelet still there, Paradine nodded, mouth slack with surprise. “I didn’t feel him take it.”
“That’s because I didn’t! It fell off, and I picked it up.” The drunk sniffed wetly. “You can’t prove anything.”
“Yeah, you’re a fine, upstanding citizen. An example to us all.” Jake yanked the bracelet free, then sent him on his way with a shove and a kick.
Paradine took the bracelet from him with a warm smile. “That was kind of you.”
“Was it?” Jake scratched his head, then thought better of it given what he’d just touched. He wiped his hand on his jacket. “Seemed like nothing much to me, but I won’t argue. I’m a hero. Give me a medal.”
“I’ll give you or anyone else in the city far more than that for taking me home.”
“I told you.” Sharla tossed her head, making her wig sway dangerously. “No one is lifting. No one.”
Paradine didn’t look at her. His gaze was on Jake, pleading, expectant. “Please,” he said softly, making the word matter. “I could buy a ship and fly the shower solo, but I know I wouldn’t make it. You have a ship. It’s capable of making the journey in time.”
“How do you know that?”
“I know your name. That was all I needed.” Paradine raised his hand, showing Jake the inside of his wrist. Too dark to see more than a glimmer of silver under the skin, but it could only be one thing: a tektat. Jake had never seen one in person. It couldn’t be true they let the user read minds. That was a rumor spread by gullible idiots, nothing more, but they did enable access to every scrap of information out there, trivial to world-toppling, the data fed directly into the brain. Paradine would never hear an unfamiliar word—because the tektat would define and translate it instantly—never search for a forgotten fact, fail to recall a name, get lost, or find someone willing to play a game of cards with him. Dark stars and spacedust, the kid had a tektat. Did he shit gold too?
Curiosity burned away some of the buzz from the brandy. Tektat owners didn’t wander the streets begging for a ride from every passing stranger. They had entourages, private cruisers, bodyguards surrounding them. They were protected, safe. Paradine was a walking target.
Split-second decisions had saved Jake’s life in the past and gotten him into trouble just as often. He made another now, based on that curiosity and a reluctance to wipe the hope from Paradine’s dark eyes.
“You’re looking for a ride? I’ll get you to Crestal. It’ll cost you, but I’ll get you there.”
Surprise, disbelief . . . but they only lasted a moment. The emotion that remained was relief, with the man swaying as if caught in a high wind, before steadying himself. Not drunk. Tired, maybe? Jake dismissed the question as irrelevant. Paradine didn’t look sick and that was all that mattered.
Sharla snorted. “You’re a fool. And if you risk Rill’s neck to make me look foolish, you’re proving what I already knew: you don’t love him the way you claim. Never thought you did. You’re not capable of loving anything but yourself.”
With a snarl, Jake rounded on her. “Rill means as much to me as my ship, and she means everything. I won’t risk either of them. Your business with this man is done and you and me, we’re done too, so put one foot ahead of the other and don’t stop until you walk off the edge of the fucking planet.”
She compressed her lips until they formed a tight, straight line, then relaxed them, murmuring, “When I get to hell, if they put you anywhere near me, I’ll save them the trouble of assigning a demon to torture you by volunteering for the job.”
With a contemptuous pat to his cheek that came close to being a slap, and a cursory nod to Paradine, she stalked away, the folds of her silk robe wrapping around her long legs. Jake watched until she was out of sight, then sighed. Being at odds with anyone didn’t make him happy, but sometimes it was inevitable.
“I’ll buy your ship, if you like. That way any damage it sustains will be for me to deal with,” Paradine said, diverting Jake’s attention to him.
“No one owns the Mama Rose but me,” Jake growled. The idea of losing her made his belly lurch worse than the brandy or the punch. “She’s berthed in the northern quadrant, sector three, slot nine. Be there in the morning with your gear, and we’ll—”
“I have to leave tonight, and my gear is in storage at the port.” Paradine shrugged, absently rubbing the tektat interface on his wrist. “I don’t have much.”
“If it fits in your cabin, it’s covered in the ticket. If it needs storing, you pay extra.” He was regretting his promise already.
“That seems fair.” Paradine’s gaze was unfocused, attention mostly on the voice in his head by the look of it.
“Don’t care how it seems,” Jake told him with a snap of his fingers to bring Paradine out of his trance. “That’s the way it is.”
Paradine pursed his lips. “You really spaced a man?”
More than one, but let’s not scare you. “Really did.”
“Interesting.” The hesitation before the word robbed it of any sincerity. Or maybe Paradine was a freak who found men prepared to inflict violent death worthy of attention.
Paradine . . . Why did he know that name? Through the headache pounding its way out of his skull, he groped for the link, but he didn’t have a tektat feeding him data.
He pushed the question aside. “Yeah, I’m a fascinating man. Now if you can walk in those pants, prove it. My head’s aching and the cure’s lying in bed wondering why a ten-minute stroll from the bar is taking me thirty.”
Flicking at his sleeve, where a bug had dared to land, Paradine yawned. It wasn’t an affectation but a jaw-cracking gape. The man looked exhausted now he’d gotten his way, as if anxiety had been all that was keeping him awake. “When he realizes my fee will compensate for the credits you lost on your last two runs plus a profit of nine hundred and sixty-four credits after expenses, he’ll probably excuse your lateness. We’ll be leaving tonight, yes?”
Jake sucked in an outraged breath, then released it. Paradine was a client. Didn’t mean shit once they were in space with Jake’s word the last, final, and only word, but while their feet were on dirt and the ticket money only theoretically in his pocket, it might be wise to be tactful. Polite even. “One, stay out of my fucking accounts. They’re private and so are my passengers. Two, do it again and I’ll rip your arm off and we’ll see if the tektat still works. If it does, I’ll beat you around the head with your arm until it doesn’t. Three . . . tonight? Hmm.” Jake considered it. The Mama Rose had been refueled, overhauled, and restocked with food. Plotting a route would take a few hours with the complication of the shower and his fuzzy head, but with Rill checking his work, and some luck, they should avoid flying into a rock.
“I didn’t mean to pry.” Paradine reached out tentatively, then pulled his hand back when Jake glared at him. “It’s a matter of open record. You can add twenty percent to my fee to compensate for the rush.”
“Happy to relieve you of any credits you won’t miss, but something tells me this voyage is going to end up costing me more than it costs you.”
Paradine stared at him as if he were space-crazy. Not the first time he’d seen that look in someone’s eyes, and it wouldn’t be the last. When Rill opened the airlock for them thirty minutes later and got an eyeful of Paradine and his luggage, there it was again.
Forestalling any questions, Jake pushed past Rill, taking a moment to appreciate the whiff of fresh air. Rill had flushed out the system, replacing ship atmo with planet air. The swamps surrounding Landon had been drained a century ago and turned into farmland, but there was still a faint, organic tang to every breath taken in the city, as if the silty water had sunk deep into the earth.
“He’s a passenger. He’s paying more than usual.” Jake tried to work out the fee. An extra twenty percent, then there was the storage fee, because with three gravtrunks as big as their owner and two smaller ones floating beside them, Paradine was going to need to store his belongings outside his cabin if he wanted to use the bed. Traveling light clearly meant something else on Crestal. Plus danger money and a charge for the early launch . . . “Let’s call it double the usual rate to Crestal. Should cover it.”
Rill cleared his throat. Not to draw Paradine’s attention. The man was already staring at him, lips parted, eyes wide, drinking in the perfect face and body. Rill had that effect on most people. “Double?”
“I’ll pay you half now,” Paradine said with commendable promptness, “the balance when we land. In fact, if you check your account, you’ll see the credits are already there.”
“We can get you to Crestal.” Rill’s husky voice still did wicked things to Jake after six years of being with the man every which way two bodies could fit. “Settle in. No rush. We can’t lift until the shower passes.”
“About that,” Jake said before Paradine started to deduct zeroes from his bill for even mentioning a delay. “We’re lifting tonight. Show Paradine to his cabin and then meet me in the control room.”
He didn’t expect an argument. Not in front of a passenger. Once they were alone, it would be different. Rill paid public lip service to the idea that a captain’s word was law, and in an emergency, he was as quick to obey as the situation demanded, but day-to-day, the two of them formed a partnership more than a chain of command.
Explaining to Rill he’d made a rash decision to risk the ship and their lives for a fee they didn’t need wouldn’t be difficult. Rill knew him. He wouldn’t be surprised by how events had unfolded.
Convincing Rill to honor the contract would be the tricky part. If Rill walked off the Mama Rose to save his skin, no one would blame him and he’d have a line forming to offer him a berth on another ship, with Sharla at the head. And Jake couldn’t tell Rill that if he left, they were done. He’d have Rill back anytime, and Rill knew it.
He was playing a crappy hand with all his cards facing up and his last credit in the pot. Jake shrugged as he slapped the lockpad to the control room. Nothing new about that.
Nova: 1. a star that dramatically increases its light output and then fades away
- a genetically engineered human, produced to client specifications in laboratory conditions using donated ova and sperm [slang: orig. derogatory now common usage. See also: designer baby]
[Galactiva Dictionary, nineteenth edition]
“So is there anyone else on the crew or is it just the two of you?” Paradine asked, poking the mattress on his bed as if he’d never seen one without comfort settings before. Rill and Jake’s bed was luxurious enough, customized to their requirements—soft for Rill, firm for Jake—and temperature controlled, but passengers got the basics. Pampering them led to raised expectations.
Questions about the ship made Rill wary. He decided to visit the hold and search Paradine’s gravtrunks for weapons before meeting up with Jake. Couldn’t hurt. “Why? Looking for a job?”
Paradine hunched his shoulders. “No. Just curious. It’s a big ship for two to handle. The minimum crew recommended for a ship rated for twelve passengers is four.”
Tektat junkie. Always ready with a fact or figure fed into their skull by a machine. Rill wouldn’t take the implant if he were offered it for free. Not that it was likely.
“We manage fine. Settle in. If you want something—”
Paradine raised his hand, turning it to show the silver lines etched across his inner wrist, carved into fragile skin. Kissing and licking that sensitive spot, thirsty for attention, was one of Rill’s favorite ways to get an appreciative moan from Jake. The thought of finding cold metal against his lips didn’t appeal. “I can link into your comm system and—”
Jake’s reaction to that intrusion would be something to see. Rill shook his head. “Open your door and yell. We’ll hear you. And keep your fingers out of the ship’s systems unless you want to send us spiraling into the nearest star. The Mama Rose doesn’t take well to strangers prying into her secrets. Neither do the captain and I.”
“I’ll bear that in mind.” Paradine studied him, something Rill was too used to for the interest to be irritating or flattering, then dropped his gaze, color rising in his face. Probably not all that was rising, but Rill didn’t bother checking for a visible erection. No point when it wasn’t his job to reduce the swelling. Not anymore.
He knew what the next question would be. Curiosity wasn’t a crime, but Rill didn’t see why he couldn’t reclassify it when it came to his origins. He was a nova. A face and body like his, perfect, an insult to the average humans around him, was rarely achieved by a random shuffle of the genetic deck. His maker had cheated. Why did people ask with the answer in front of them?
“Aunt Helen told me she wasn’t sure if it was worse when people asked about it or when they didn’t, but she hated the staring.” Paradine’s gaze flicked up, hungry, admiring, before he looked away. “I’m trying not to, but you’re very beautiful. Forgive my rudeness.”
Rill’s throat constricted to the point where swallowing became an effort. No one had ever apologized to him for staring. Ever. They’d laughed it off, or become angry at their body’s involuntary response and taken it out on him, but an apology was new. The pressure of his emotions built, resentment and gratitude filling his head with a roar he silenced by pulling up a happy memory, the way a therapist had taught him. He’d paid for the knowledge by allowing the man to hurt him in a way that left marks. It’d gotten him into trouble with the pleasure house owner, but it’d been worth it. Now, he recalled Jake welcoming him on board that first time, offering the Mama Rose as a haven. That would do. He ground out a terse, mostly sincere, “Forgiven,” and saw relief wash the concern from Paradine’s face.
“Thank you.” Paradine held out his hand, palm up, curling his fingers closed, then spreading them wide, the universal sign for a debt owed.
“Forgiving me so quickly.” Paradine met his gaze, but naturally now, the way Jake looked at him, as if a spell had been broken. “I appreciate it.”
Aggravation fading, Rill gestured at Paradine’s pants, hiding his envy. “Love them, but they’re last year’s colors.”
“No. Last year, they would’ve been cherry and mint. These are dark rose and lime.”
“Sorry. It’s hard to tell in this light. They’re by Jacob D., right? No one does pleats like him. I’m a fan.”
Paradine smiled ruefully. “Your captain isn’t. I think he’d prefer it if I dropped them in the resyk.”
“You and Jake talked fashion?” Rill asked, trying and failing to picture that particular conversation without a grin rising.
Color stained Paradine’s face. “In a way. He said they made me look like I’d—that they were too baggy.”
“Turn around,” Rill demanded, avidly taking in every detail when Paradine spun slowly on his heel. “They don’t.”
Paradine gave him a pleased, shy smile. “Thank you. Maybe when we arrive at Crestal you’d like to see Jacob’s workroom? He’s based in Crestal City, and I could introduce you.”
Recalled to his duties by the reminder of their destination, Rill shook his head. “Yeah, I don’t think there’ll be time for that, but thanks. I’d better go. Jake needs me.”
He stepped back into the narrow corridor and let the door slide shut between them before Paradine could answer.
Paradine seemed as harmless as a kitten, but Rill didn’t skip the search. He knew better than most that looks could deceive and fooling people was easy as breathing. A lock sealed each gravtrunk, but Rill dragged them one by one to a scanplate set into the floor and took a peek inside the easy way. Nothing to worry about. The two handguns tucked into a corner of the largest trunk were so low on charge t