*Below scenes contain sexual situations and graphic language*
The door to the shower opened.
MacKay turned, stared through the twisting steam, and found herself without breath. There Boomer stood in his pajama bottoms, chest bare. Her heart raced, pounding so hard against her ribs, she feared they may fracture.
“What do you mean, don’t worry about them?” he demanded. What did she mean? She had to get the hell of here. No time for breakfast or further mistakes.
“I’m going home.” She closed her lids and tried to ignore him, hoping he’d get the hint and shut the door.
“I thought you were staying the night?”
“I have too much to do in the office tomorrow.” MacKay opened her eyes again and did her best to pack her expression full of “we had a good time, now go away.” But the longer she held his gaze, the more she wanted to stay and dig herself deeper into trouble. Worse yet, something told her he wouldn’t back down. He didn’t say anything.
As Boomer stepped into the shower, his PJ bottoms turned translucent. The thin fabric clung to his body and accentuated every muscle he possessed along with a hard cock she’d gotten more than familiar with through the night. Her stomach fluttered, and a small gasp escaped her lips.
He slid his hands along both sides of her face and backed her against the tile wall, staring at her, hunger all over his face. “I warned you, I don’t do one-night stands.” He lowered his mouth to hers.
No, she wasn’t leaving any time soon. MacKay ran her hands up his chest and around his neck. She should say no. She should push him out of the shower, get dressed, and leave. Both of them needed to forget this had even happened. And gods, he’d sounded serious about the one-night stand thing.
Perhaps she’d been mistaken, and it meant more to him. She broke the kiss and leaned back. “Boomer, I’m—”
“Pushing me away.” He leaned in and nipped her bottom lip, kissed the corner of her mouth, and stroked his thumb along her jaw. “Not going to let you.” “Boomer.” He pressed his lips to her ear and spoke in Odroxian. She’d no clue what he said, but each word jolted through her body. Her heart slammed against her ribs, racing. The man would undo her.
“Please. This isn’t a good idea.”
“What isn’t a good idea? Letting go? Living? Loving? Feeling something for someone? The harder you push, the more I want to melt the slush moving through your veins and take away the pain I see all over your face. You’ve been too long inside the iron fortress you’ve erected. I’m going to knock those walls down and show you it’s okay to let someone in.”
“I can’t.” But even as she said it, the walls he promised to knock down cracked. Her heart swelled, and breathing seemed impossible.
“I don’t believe it. Because, when we made love, I saw a woman who could. Open up, Alice. Let me in.”
“Don’t call me—” He leaned in and kissed her silent. MacKay surrendered her soul. She couldn’t deny the feelings growing inside her. She wanted him to knock down her walls, hold her, make her feel human again. She couldn’t fight the need or the hunger. Her hands slipped to his waistband and tugged the tie free. She pushed the fabric off his hips, and the water-laden pajama bottoms dropped to the tile.
Happy trail: That sexy little strip of hair running from a man’s belly button to his—towel. Jenna stared at the fluffy white barrier blocking her view from traveling any farther south. She’d enjoyed the scenic route, visually devoured the hard ridges of his six-pack abs and the way the water trickled over his flesh while it took the path of least resistance. She shouldn’t stare. It was inappropriate to ogle the higher-ranking beefcake, but she couldn’t stop. What woman in her right mind would be able to?
He cleared his throat, and Jenna remembered her mission. She looked up. “Captain Rivers….” Gods he could stop a stampede with his stare. Jenna dropped her focus to something safer and began to examine the decking under his feet. Hard metal, gray. Nothing special.
“Sir, I….” She swallowed, and her gaze drifted up, stopping on his midsection. He watched her, she could feel it, but Jenna couldn’t manage to bring her eyes up to his, no matter how hard she tried. So, she stared at his naked stomach, dying a little from embarrassment with each passing second.
What an uncomfortable predicament. She’d been ordered to find the explosives ordnance officer, and find him she had. For the last fifteen minutes, Jenna had searched the ship, from the galley to the indoor gym. The Gold Digger’s head had been her last stop, and her timing couldn’t have been worse. Tyson Rivers, the ordnance officer, had stepped out of the cleansing unit as she’d entered.
And she’d run head on into him.
No wonder he hadn’t been answering the com.
The edge of the towel rode just under his hips, dipping where he’d tucked it in. Jenna bit her lip. “Sir, I’ve been sent—”
“I’m up here.” A deep voice invaded her wet daydream.
Jenna sighed. She could listen to him all day.
Oh gods! She blinked. Up where? Her brain connected the verbal dots. What he’d said sank into the mushy gray matter between her ears, sending a jolt of horror rocketing through her body. Heat rushed to her face, and she lifted her chin to address the subject of every naughty dream she’d had on the ship since she’d boarded, and found herself without a coherent thing to say. Jenna opened her mouth, and all that came out was silence. What would be the appropriate thing to say in this situation?
“Do you have a reason to be here, or do you make a habit of hanging out in the male showers?”
Sam. Any other Sam would be male and not a big pain in the ass. When Captain Jayson Rivers requested a mechanic, the Trios Mechanic’s Union told him they’d send the best. So naturally he hadn’t expected a redheaded solar storm—a one-woman, wrecking force with freckles sprinkled over a cute little button nose. A woman who diligently worked at dismantling his ship, making his much needed shower impossible.
“Fuck!” She flung a part from under the boiler. It rolled across the deck and hit the toe of his boot.
Fuck? Did her eloquent choice of words mean he wasn’t getting his shower today? Time and patience weren’t on the agenda. He’d long since run out of both. “Is there a problem?” Jayson clamped his teeth to keep from growling.
“Working as fast as I can, sir,” her sweet voice called from under several tons of rugged metal.
Deceptive, her voice. The woman underneath might look compliant, but he’d quickly discovered the opposite five minutes after she’d stepped her pretty ass onboard his ship and handed him her bags like he was some kind of valet on a pleasure cruiser. Bossy, yes. On her own schedule—most definitely. Stubborn—yeah. Opinionated—when didn’t she have one? Bendable, flexible, compliant—hell no.
Hmm, hmmm, hm, hm….
And not gifted with musical talent.
Jayson braced for the inevitable. He knew what came next. She’d start to sing. Then the howling would commence, followed by several hours of strangled versions of what used to be some of his favorite songs. He’d endured enough. The woman had put him to the test for last two hours, and he wouldn’t abide another minute.
The boiler room dropped into blessed silence. He sighed deep and leaned back against the iron monster, which, if she’d done her job, would have heated the water for the cleansing unit. Instead, if one jumped inside to wash up, they were hit with icy blasts of mist, and though mist didn’t sound like a big thing, when the temperature sat close to freezing, you didn’t want it anywhere near your naked skin.
With his ballistics officer and personal assistant away on their honeymoon, it didn’t take Jayson long to sink up to his pits in ordnance and Jenna’s administrative shit, doing the work of three people. Dealing with Tyson’s bomb inventory turned out to be a dirty job, and by the end of the week, he couldn’t stand his stench anymore. A good scrubbing was in order. Except he didn’t have any hot water.
The simple technology Sam tried to fix had existed for hundreds of years. Primitive, but most the time it ran, and in the past, if it went down, it only required a kick or two to bring it back online. The heating system had basic engineering behind it. The boiler captured cold air and extracted heat from it. Since the inside of the ship had live bodies, and the crew generated more heat than space, no matter how cold the air outside the ship, the interior would always be warmer. In addition, as long as the technology functioned normally, the boiler could extract the warmth and multiply it.
Then, if the piece of shit worked like it should, it would continue to recycle the air, drawing heat from it until the water in the boiler turned scalding hot. Man created the heat, the machine harvested it—simple enough technology.
So why couldn’t she get the blasted thing to run? Jayson resisted abusing it more, not sure the toe of his boot could handle it, but damn, any time now would be good. He’d lived with the smell of his own funk and ice-cold sponge baths for four days now. He refused to go another day. Hence the reason he didn’t want to leave engine room, or at least that’s what he told himself.
Hmmm, hummmn, hum, hummmmmm.
Jayson growled. Pretty soon she’d be in concert. He clamped his hands over his ears and not a second too soon.
“Baby, ooooh babbbbbeeee…oooooooooo babeeeeeeeeeeyyyyyyy.”
Didn’t she ever lose her voice?
Jayson cringed as the last high note shot up his spine—pretty damn sure it hit about five octaves too high on the musical scale. At least, if he remembered his songs correctly, it did—but he could be wrong.
Jayson tipped his head side to side, cracking his neck. Before the tall redhead had arrived on his ship, he hadn’t thought anyone could sing that bad, the kind of awful which cracked glass, made dogs howl and small children cry. Hell, it could bring a grown man to tears.
“Come over hereeeeeeeeee! Woooo, woooo hooooo.”
And then he’d met her. “Gods damn it, Rose! Enough.”
“Oooo, oooo, ooooo, oh.”
But she didn’t seem to hear him, or maybe she’d rendered herself deaf? Jayson looked down. Her boots poked out from under the heating system, and her toes tapped in cadence with whatever song she butchered and he tried his hardest to ignore. Attached to the boots was a pair of incredible long legs and a body which shouldn’t belong to a grease monkey. Ever since he saw those stilts, all he could think about was how they’d feel wrapped around him while he pounded into her.
“Did you want something, sir?” That sweet voice again. Yeah, she’d heard him all right.
“Work faster.” He shifted on his feet, trying to focus on something other than the bane of his existence and forbidden fruit. A captain didn’t touch his subordinates. He didn’t dream about them night and day, no matter how bad they sang, and he sure as hell didn’t get hard every time they passed him in the corridor and gave him a smile.
“Do you want me to work faster, or do you want it done right, sir?”
“I want to get into the cleansing unit sometime this week, and since this is the end of the week, today.”
“I’m not stopping you, sir.”
“I’m not taking a cold shower.” Though her suggestion did have merit, and the longer he stood there staring at her bare legs, the more sense it made.
Lesson one—don’t piss off your controller. Trouble staggered up from where Avery had thrown her, certain her backside would be black and blue in the morning. Rage burned through her, generated by Avery. It promised they’d have an intense workout—a very intense workout—and Avery had only just started.
“I said focus.”
She had the overwhelming urge to stick her tongue out, but the juvenile act would certainly be rewarded with another trip to the hard decking. She put her fists up. “I was focusing.”
“Stop that. I’m sick of you being in my head. For once, talk like a normal person.”
“I told you to use telepathy, and we’re not normal. Were linked and expected to use our link, and it means we train for it.”
“You fucking piss me off.” The band tightened around her head, dropping her to her knees and wrenching the rebellion right out of her.
“Don’t bring your filth to my temple,” he growled.
“Ease up.” Trouble placed a hand to her forehead and rubbed. “Please. I was kidding.” The pressure released. Avery had this thing about bodies and temples, and it hadn’t taken her long to learn he worshipped his. The man didn’t eat anything unhealthy, he exercised several times a day, and he didn’t like cursing. He wasn’t religious—or at least she hadn’t seen him practice any kind of faith. There were just some things he couldn’t abide, and cursing, she’d discovered, topped the list. She’d give anything to know the story behind his distaste of colorful language. A killer with manners—who’d have known?
“I told you, I don’t have a sense of humor.”
“I thought you said to use telepathy?” Trouble couldn’t help goading him. She’d take her digs when she could, but not without cost. Sometimes she counted it a major score—other times, she should have left well enough alone. This time, she felt lucky, or perhaps his anger fueled her recklessness.
“I’m running out of patience, Devoe. When I start talking, it’s time for you to shut up and focus.”
Trouble dropped to her side. “All right, I get it. I need to be a good little girl or you’re going to spank my a—”
“Don’t say it.” He pointed at her. The intensity in his eyes reminded her of a caged predator at a zoo, daring someone to remove the barrier. Trouble clamped her mouth shut, knowing if she pushed it any further, she’d have a miserable day. Avery would make sure she paid for her attitude with one bitch of a migraine, and it wouldn’t be the only reward for her misbehavior. And oh, the many ways he could make her pay. Who thought EOD training would include long-distance running, which he claimed would build her endurance, enabling her to work on planets with a weak atmosphere or strong gravity. And then there was the martial arts, bruised backsides, and bloody lips and noses. Avery took it to the extreme and gave her the same treatment her enemy would—or so he claimed, since EOD was considered a primary target for anyone who didn’t want their bomb disarmed. And her favorite new skill—telepathy, designed to make her insane.
“It won’t make you insane if you learn how to use it, and the only way you’re going to learn, is to use it.”
“Oh, you read thoughts, too. Swell. How come I didn’t see it in the Welcome to Hell brochure?”
“I don’t have to read your thoughts when you project them at me. Conversation—over. Focus.”
“Aye, sir.” Crushing pressure filled her head, and she rolled to her hands and knees, using all her willpower to avoid crying out. Okay, she shouldn’t have pushed. Sometimes her mouth—brain—ran away from her.
Trouble stood and braced her hands on her knees, doing her best to catch her breath.
“Put up your guard.” Back to verbal commands.
Fantastic. What was it he’d said? When he started talking, it was time for her to shut up and do what he told her? Prick. She lifted her chin and glared at the bane of her existence. He caught her with a roundhouse kick to her jaw, sending her flying back to the hard floor with a loud oomph. Trouble blinked and stared at the ceiling, stunned, with little stars circling her head. The room did the wave, and she blinked again, bringing it back into focus. Ouch. She reached up and rubbed her jaw. Another bruise to go with the three dozen he’d already given her. Good thing she already had purple skin. Bastard.
She turned her head, and Avery lay flat on his back, staring at the ceiling as she had been, also rubbing his jaw. Not without cost. Every lesson was a lesson for Avery, too. Trouble smiled. Served him right. Maybe she should punch herself in the lip.
“How’d that feel, big guy?”
“Wonderful.” He drew his knees to his chest and snapped to his feet. Avery cocked his head from side to side, cracking his neck. To look at him, one wouldn’t even know he’d been down and stunned moments before.
“Can we give it a break and practice basket weaving or something?”
She did as ordered but took her time getting there. “I hate you.”
“Okay. Now put some of it into your attack and quit being a sissy.”
“First, tell me why we have to be linked if it makes us so vulnerable?”
He smiled and shook his head. “Don’t you get it? It’s the League’s way of ensuring our cooperation. You’re linked to me because of your crime—running. I’m linked to you because of my crime—mutiny. They designed our punishment to fit the offense. You can’t run no matter how bad you want, and if I don’t keep you alive and under control, the orders handed down to me, I die. So suck it up, princess, and put your guard up. This is going to hurt me as much as it does you.”
This would be the only excuse the League needed to finish off the Rebels and bring their form of peace back to the galaxy. They always had a ship sitting outside every safe harbor, in this case, four, waiting for someone to slip up and give them a chance to take into custody any they considered revolutionaries.
The League restricted all traffic to and from the planet the metal was harvested from. What she’d hauled into Trios Port space was the last shipment smuggled out before the Regulators sealed the planet off tighter than a miser’s asshole. They didn’t want it out in the galaxy and were determined to take it upon themselves to police space. Both because of an embargo against the government of the mined planet for humanoid rights violations, and the unstable nature of the byproduct left after smelting, which could be used to create planet-crushing weapons and fuel for smugglers. Part of her believed the League wanted to keep the energy source for themselves. Who wouldn’t? With it, they could control most of the galaxy.
To get caught in League space with even one ounce of the substance would ensure twenty to life. Anything more and you were walking the proverbial plank, not to mention that the Rebels who took harbor on the planet to which you traveled would no longer be safe. Nobody wanted the unrefined metal or fuel byproduct on their world, or the people responsible for it. Ava had informed them she’d only do it once. She didn’t like moving the dangerous element around the chessboard and had only agreed because she owed friends a favor.
The skin of the Avira, her vessel, consisted of a little over fifty tons of the material. Add all that up and a backward ride, blind through a wormhole, looked pretty damned good.
She glanced down at the screen. A delay would help while she disengaged the rear engines and put the front thrusters online, but Uncle Theo was right, she needed to open the link. So she’d drag out the conversation until she had the engines fully engaged.
Ava lowered the zipper on her top, released her braid, and did a quick finger comb of the dark tresses she’d inherited from her Rebel father. One deep breath and she initiated the link. Ava gasped. “Oh damn.” The man on the screen before her fit her every fantasy and nightmare. Nice to look at with his earthy-brown hair, square jaw, and intense green eyes, but Ava knew appearances could be deceiving. Handsome or not, the man before her was dangerous, more trouble than she needed and the sooner she got out of his line of sight, the better.
“Your ship is out of compliance with regulation three-two-three of the Galactic Trade Agreement.” And he had to quote the damned regs in his smoking League uniform, giving her a visual feast of the forbidden, tempting her to throw her hands up and let him arrest her. Gods, it had been a long time since she’d seen a man like that. “And League regulation one-two-one.”
She blinked and snapped back to reality. “How’s that?” Ava disconnected the rear engines and flipped the control to the bow. She didn’t need to ask. She only did it to buy a little buy more time. Ava knew why she’d drawn the Regulator’s attention, but if she could delay a couple minutes, the Avira’s engines would be powered up, and they’d be gone before he could fire his cannons. “We’re not carrying anything in our hold that’s illegal. The ship is empty and headed for port for routine maintenance.” And to drop off an illegal load of ore. “We’re also not registered under League jurisdiction and therefore not subject to your Galactic Trade Agreement. Until you have the permission of the Trios Port government, you’ve no authority to detain us. Stand down and let us pass, Captain.”
What she’d said was a complete mind-fuck, and he knew it. The first clue, the Avira’s matte black paint job with a lack of registration, and it sure as the gods’ pit wasn’t because they were a Terran relief ship, the only vessel allowed to frequent space without registration. One glance at her and proved they weren’t on a mission of humanity, spreading love and peace, making amends for the destruction of their world.
Shaved heads and flagellation just weren’t her thing.
Neither was getting blown into space dust.
The paint covered any identifying mark, registering the Avira as a legally licensed freighter. Even if it didn’t, they were flying in League space, which gave him the right to search and seize. The League had an agreement with the Trios Port government, to protect their interests, more to a point, keep the port clear of criminals and those who would use the planet as an outpost for smuggling activities. The Avira might as well have been flying a Jolly Roger for all the laws they broke.
“Cut your engines and prepare your ship to be boarded.”
Yeah, like I’ll let that happen.
There were a lot of problems with that, the biggest being her uncle, catching a ride home. He’d retired a year ago and had gotten out of the family business. The League didn’t care. They were still jonesing to execute him for multiple crimes. She’d already lost her mother and father to the League’s hands—no way would she lose her uncle.
The engine-ready light on her panel illuminated, and she smiled. “Not that I wouldn’t like you to board,” she said as she eyed him with sincere appreciation. “I’ve got a sick grandmother at home and a basket of goodies to bring to her. Can I take a rain check on that, muffin?”
His expression didn’t change. Typical League officer. A regular by-the-regulation-never-break-or-stretch-the-rules kind of guy. So serious. In some areas of the galaxy, her looks got her out of a lot of trouble, but not here and not with him. What a waste of a dropped zipper. He hadn’t appeared to even take a peek. Maybe a little more incentive? She leaned forward giving him a great cleavage shot.
“Cut your engines and prepare to be boarded. We need to inspect your goodies.”
Ava sat back, crossed her arms, and raised a brow. “Isn’t that third date stuff?”