Ours to Embrace: ES Siren 7
Cory Olsen propped his shoulders more comfortably against the wall, crossed his ankles and contemplated the toes of his scuffed-up flying boots.
He’d only rated Corporal Lizzie Carr—she of the big blue eyes and legs up to her armpits—as a fifty-fifty chance, so he wasn’t surprised she’d stood him up. Still, it was a damn shame. Liz didn’t know what she was missing. Not only his own undoubted talents in the sack—his lips curved in a wry grin—but a quiche made of real reconstituted egg mix, and a bottle of the best fake tequila credits could buy.
Ah well, you couldn’t win ’em all. Still smiling, Cory raised the bottle in a jaunty toast to his surroundings. The small sealed room had been hived off the Siren’s main hydroponics facility by an engineer with a romantic soul, improbable as that seemed. It wasn’t much larger than a standard cabin, but a rustling grove of orange trees in big tubs took up about half of it. A lovely little fountain splished and splashed in the corner. Real pretty, he thought, gazing around with genuine appreciation. The place was a regular love nest. The air scrubbers hummed and labored, carrying away all but the faintest trace of nutrient sludge, so it didn’t even smell too bad.
What the hell. He’d paid top price for a whole night cycle here, might as well enjoy it. The tequila hit his throat like liquid fire, the scenery blurring into a mass of green. Blinking the tears from his eyes, Cory regarded the bottle with startled respect. Jeez, he’d really scored the good stuff this time.
Slowly, he slid down the wall until he could sprawl on the artificial turf, every limb loose, the alcohol creating a pleasant glow in the pit of his stomach. Happily, he took an enormous bite out of one side of the quiche. Live fast, die young, was his motto, because that’s what shuttle pilots did. No regrets.
He chewed thoughtfully. Lizzie wasn’t any great loss, so that was okay. Truth be told, she was the last woman he wanted. Now he came to think of it, he wasn’t sure he even liked her. She had a high-pitched giggle that rasped his nerves, nothing like Bella’s low, melodious chuckle—but he’d sworn he wouldn’t think of Bella Richardson, not ever again.
Which was pretty damned ironic given that he still had a protection order for Bella—Prisoner 2844—filled out and saved on his portacomp. Once they signed, Bella would be his responsibility under ship’s law. It was a common enough arrangement between officers and prisoners, but Cory hadn’t taken it lightly. For all intents and purposes, she’d be his. God, he’d made a fool of himself! The moment he had some privacy, he’d deleted the file, but ten seconds later, he’d been scrambling to retrieve it, swearing savagely the whole time.
With a growl of disgust, he pounded a fist on his knee. Forget her, you idiot, he told himself savagely. You’ve got a whole fucking bottle of tequila and a garden to get wasted in. Be happy! Think of Liz and her mane of tawny curls. God, think of anyone, anything!
He pulled in a deep, vaguely swamp-scented breath and blew it out again. Slow and controlled, that was it. Nerves of steel—all his passengers said so. He snorted. Actually, some said he had no nerves at all. A few had screamed it into their barf bags, loud and long, as Cory and Gladys did swooping arabesques under and over the lumbering bulk of the Siren.
Ah, Gladys. Now there was a female he could dwell on, the love of his life.
Gladys—that is, Siren Shuttle 9—had been antiquated long before the convoy lifted out of Earth’s orbit, bound for the penal colony on Solitaire, but she was the first ship Cory had been able to call his own. He’d named her for his grandmother, an old lady so fierce she’d scared the crap out of him as a child.
Here’s to you, Gramma. Cory took another swig. The tequila slipped down like a rasp of hot silk. What was that subtle base note? Kerosene?
He frowned, brooding. Bella wasn’t seeing anyone else, though he knew she’d had plenty of offers. What had he done that meant she didn’t want him? What was wrong with him?
There wasn’t a woman on the Siren who measured up to Bella. Lizzie Carr was a stunner—and more his usual type—but her golden flashiness was blatant, almost offensive, compared with Bella’s quiet dignity. Bella was all honey and silk, glossy brown hair and skin like velvet. Her lower lip was plump and satiny, positively carnal. When he’d kissed her, that one glorious time, he’d exerted all the willpower he possessed, and licked it ever so gently, using just the very tip of his tongue.
Sighing, he pressed the heel of his hand against his erection. Remembering was torture, but after a few drinks, it was beyond him to resist. How many times had he relived the hitch of her breath, the way she’d swayed, then yielded and let him in? The way her head fell back on his arm and her body melted into his. He’d relished the soft weight of her supple feminine curves all down his front. Sliding a palm the length of her spine, he’d gathered her in. It had nearly killed him to keep his hands off her delectable ass, but he’d managed it.
Jesus, why had he bothered to play the gentleman? Most officers would have taken immediate advantage.
Thinking about it still drove him batshit crazy. He couldn’t believe how deep he’d gone, how quickly he’d lost himself. He’d been fathoms deep, drowning, and it was just a kiss, for fuck’s sake. But Bella was—
An itch he couldn’t scratch, grit in his gears. He growled a curse.
It had been so good, he’d let himself sink, let himself trust, but right at the crucial moment, she’d gasped and shoved him away, so hard he’d stumbled and damn near landed on his ass.
“No!” she’d said. “No, I can’t.”
She’d clenched her fists, her pretty tits heaving under the yellow shirt, and pulled in three measured breaths. His brain spinning, Cory watched her slam up her shields.
“But you were,” he pointed out—quite reasonably, he thought, under the circumstances.
Her big brown eyes had narrowed as she drew herself up to a full five foot three. In an expressionless voice, she’d said, “I can’t afford the entanglement, and neither can you. I apologize. I should not have misled you, Lieutenant Olsen.”
“You didn’t.” He reached out a hand, let it drop. “Bella …”
“I’m sorry.” Her gaze flat and hard, she’d looked him in the eye. “This is over.” She shrugged. “Easy come, easy go. You’ll forget me soon enough.”
Then she’d turned and walked over to the guard, who’d been lounging discreetly, just out of earshot. “Take me back to the cells, please.”
The bug, a solid woman with a buzzcut, had glanced at Cory. “Sir?”
He’d waved a hand. “Go ahead.” He was already numb, but he’d spun on his heel, heading for the bar and blessed oblivion.
Cory Olsen didn’t go where he wasn’t wanted. Plenty of stars in space. He could do better than Prisoner 2844.
Scowling, he wrenched his thoughts in another direction. He should get another Heisenberg valve for Gladys, one of the small, coiled ones. The old one was showing wear, nothing to panic about, but careless pilots died young, and he had a bad feeling about that valve. No wonder Gladys was cranky, poor old thing—crankier than Bella, goddamnit, and that was saying something. There were Heisenberg valves in the ship’s stores—he’d seen the crate. Unfortunately, they were used in all kinds of jump engines, which made them precious. He’d have to weasel one out of the Siren’s quartermaster. Cory licked crumbs from his fingers, considering ways and means. Con Madison, the quartermaster, was a tough bastard, and by all reports, incorruptible. Perhaps he should start with 141, the prisoner in charge of inventory. The man had a reputation as a Mr. Fix-It.
Might work. His jaw cracking on a yawn, Cory regarded the debris around him with sleepy surprise. There was nothing left of the quiche but a grease spot littered with a few lonely crumbs. He squinted at the bottle. Half empty. Huh. How had that happened so fast?
Cory pulled his shirt off, rolled it into a ball and shoved it under his head. With a luxurious sigh, he stretched out full length on the bright green turf. Somewhere far below, giant pumps labored, the behemoth heart of the ship. His eyelids fluttering down, Cory let the rhythm soothe his battered soul. A faint whiff of orange blossom drifted past his nose.
Giving up, he allowed his lips to curve in a reminiscent smile. Bella’s hair had smelled like orange blossom, though how she managed it, living in a cell in D zone, he couldn’t imagine. Prisoner 2844. For the hundredth, thousandth time, he wondered what crime she’d committed. Still, she didn’t wear a white uniform, so at least she hadn’t killed anyone. He didn’t care about the rest.
She was such a complicated little bundle. No taller than his shoulder—and he was only medium height—and as prim as a … as a schoolteacher. She was a contradiction, Bella Richardson. Her curvy, petite body was purely made for sin, but the fire in her eyes said keep out!
Cory blinked up at the pipes in the ceiling. Fire. Not indifference—fire. Slowly, he sat up. He was arrogant about flying, but there were plenty of good reasons for that. He didn’t think he was conceited about women. With the steady, ponderous attention of the more than somewhat pickled, he went back over the whole scene in his mind, every word, every gesture. Second by second, he relived the deep drugging sweetness of her mouth, her frantic grip on his shoulders, the shy but determined flicks of her tongue.
No, it wasn’t his imagination, it wasn’t wishful thinking. He might have been pretty far gone in that kiss, but he hadn’t been alone. Bella had felt the … connection, or whatever the hell it was. On some level, she cared about him, she really did.
Oh yeah! He pumped a fist.
He hadn’t got to be a shuttle pilot by giving up at the first hurdle. Natural talent was all very well, but persistence was just as important. People wrote him off as a crazy flyboy, but he was a hell of a lot more than that.
The expression on her piquant little face was still clear in his memory. She’d given him his marching orders all right, but the spark was still there … Entanglement? What did she mean, entanglement? He’d have to find out.
Mmm. Cory reached down to give himself a consoling rub. His dreams were free and clear. In his dreams, Bella’s passion matched his. In his dreams, she gifted him with those sweet plump breasts, the delectable dip of her navel, the dark curls between her soft thighs. Even better, she gave him her joy, her trust and her most private thoughts. She was fierce and beautiful—and all his.
In his dreams.
At the far end of the Siren’s hydroponics facility, Bella was head down over an empty tank, scrubbing, when a heavy hand slid over the curve of her buttock and squeezed hard. With a startled cry, she shot up and whirled around—only to find herself pinned between a swelling paunch and the side of the tank.
Stokes, the guard in charge of the work detail, grinned down at her, his florid face shiny with sweat. He pressed closer, breathing through his mouth. “God, you’ve got a peach of an ass.”
Bella slapped both hands on his chest and shoved. “Get off!”
But he only leaned in harder, scowling. “Too good for me, huh?”
Bella bared her teeth. She hadn’t lost her temper in years—tantrums were a luxury she couldn’t afford. Lives depended on her self control—specifically, her life, and her mother’s. If only Stokes wasn’t such a feeble excuse for a human being. The man had no idea what she could do, how hard she’d worked on hand-to-hand.
The temptation to lash out was almost unbearable, but she had to wriggle out of this without revealing her Gaia training. The authorities must never know that she and her mother had been full members of the local Gaia cell—because that would mean an automatic life sentence, rather than a mere seven years.
One chance. She’d give Stokes one more chance. She didn’t struggle. Instead, she held his gaze, keeping herself still with sheer willpower. She should just grit her teeth and submit, as too many of the female prisoners did, but honestly? She really would rather die.
“Listen to me,” she said, spacing out the words. Automatically, she blocked the hand wandering toward her breast. “You’re already on report for deserting your post when the micrometeoroids hit. Do you want to make it worse? Because I will yell my head off, I guarantee it.”
Stokes thrust his face into hers. “You stuck-up bitch. The rest of the work detail’s down in the lab.” He skimmed a finger down her arm, making her skin crawl. “We’re all alone, little peach, so be nice to me.”
“Stokes,” she said grimly. “I’m warning you, I’ve had the week from hell.” Helpfully, her brain supplied a vivid image of Flight Lieutenant Cory Olsen, confusion and injured pride clear on his handsome face. Not one to hide his feelings, Cory. Why, oh why, did he have to be so appealing?
She glowered up at the guard, her heart thumping a furious tattoo. More to the point, why had this moronic heap of flab decided to assault her?
Because he was a pea-brained bully and he thought he had her cornered, away from the others. Rape. She suppressed a shudder. She’d bet he’d got away with it before—probably using the magna-cuffs. She risked a glance downward. He was rubbing his crotch, the creep. She had a few more seconds.
“You a lezzie, is that it?”
“Does it matter?” she asked, suddenly weary. “I don’t want you. Got it?”
Stokes let out a choked roar. Moving faster than she’d thought possible, he reached for his utility belt and the switch for the magna-cuffs. With his other hand, he grabbed Bella’s throat, squeezing until her vision darkened. Once he activated the godrotted cuffs, she’d be at his mercy, pinned to the tank.
In a desperate gamble, Bella jabbed upward with the heel of her hand. She’d been trained to kill, but only in an emergency, and this wasn’t one, not really, not by the standards of the Gaia Movement. But she had to get those fat fingers off her throat before she passed out. Fortunately, Stokes was a lot taller than she was. Her blow caught him squarely on the Adam’s apple.
Choking, he reared back and his grip loosened. Bella sucked in a sobbing breath.
With grim relish, she brought her knee up and into his unprotected balls.
Stokes gave a strangled scream, folded into himself and fell backward, collecting a metal crate of algae specimens on the way down. The noise was deafening, crashing and smashing and glass fragments tinkling inside the box.
Bella leaned against the tank, wheezing. Stokes lay very still, though she could see the rise and fall of his chest. This was very, very not good. In fact, it was an absolute disaster. Nausea twisted in her belly. Goddamn Stokes and his stupid libido.
“What the—?” said a male voice. “Bella?”
She whirled around.
Cory Olsen stood shirtless, framed in a doorway she hadn’t noticed before. Her brain spinning, she thought he looked like something out of a porn vid, all golden skin over taut muscle and tight nipples, and the lightest dusting of dark blond hair arrowing down to—
She shook herself out of her distraction.
He took a step forward, blinking. Then he looked from Bella to the fallen guard. “Stokes,” he said flatly. “I see.” There was a world of comprehension in his tone. “Are you all right?”
“Think so,” she croaked, massaging her throat. “What are you doing here?” And why are you half-naked? Who are you with?
But Cory was staring at Stokes. The guard’s lower half was buried under clumps of brown and red slimy stuff. “He doesn’t look too good.” He bent to press two fingers against the flabby jowls. “Out for the count, I’d say. What did you do to him?”
“Me?” she cried, incensed. “More like what he—”
“Bella?” Footsteps at the far end of the facility. “What was that noise?” Oh hell. Mom.
“I’m okay,” she called back.
One set of footsteps was joined by others. The shouted questions grew louder.
“Bella, honey? Where are you?”
“Go!” Frantically, Bella waved her arms at Cory. “Get back to wherever you came from.”
His brow creased. “Why?”
For heaven’s sake, the man looked as relaxed as if he’d just rolled out of bed. “Because you can’t get mixed up in this.”
The frown deepened. “This? What is this anyway?”
“Not good. Cory—” She grabbed his arm, his flesh smooth and warm and firm against her palm. “—you’re an officer. The others can’t find you here, especially not … um, like that.” She waved a hand at the tousled hair the color of burnt honey, his bare chest. “You’ll get entangled.” And an entanglement might lead to Gaia, and a life sentence her mom wouldn’t survive.
He refused to budge. “You sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine, the others will help me. Promise me you’ll keep out of this! Please!”
“Okay, I swear I’ll be good.” Cory looked deep into her eyes. “You can owe me.” A swift peck on the cheek and he vanished into the mysterious room, the door closing behind him with a soft hiss.
The rest of the work detail thundered around the vertical growing tubes and came to an abrupt halt at Stokes’s feet, staring. No prizes for guessing what had happened. The man was notorious. Five voices rose in an incomprehensible babble.
Mona surged forward to seize Bella by the shoulders. “Did he hurt you?” She shot a venomous glance at the limp body on the floor. “The filthy bug, I’ll kill him, I swear.”
Gently, Bella disengaged herself from her mother’s crushing hug. “I’m okay. He, um, tripped.”
Mona said nothing, but she reached for Bella’s hand.
“Christ!” Tally breathed. “He dead?” He hopped from foot to foot, fingers twitching, his seamed face alight.
Carefully avoiding the debris, Espinoza bent to roll the body over. The arms followed, flopping. Stokes gave a strange gurgling groan, reminiscent of a stuffed-up sewerage pipe.
“No such luck,” Espinoza said, coming to his feet. He looked directly at Bella, his dark eyes flat. “You’re in a world of hurt now, girl.”
Bella swallowed. “I know, but I couldn’t—I couldn’t let—”
“Not necessarily,” someone said coolly. Nadia Kajewski stepped out from behind Tally. Mona’s grip tightened, almost crushing the bones in Bella’s hand.
People tended to overlook Nadia. It wasn’t because she was small or self-effacing, she was just so … ordinary. Average height, mid-fifties, soft brown hair streaked with gray. Though she rarely spoke, she had a nice voice with no particular accent, and a pleasant manner. She could have passed as anything—from a school teacher, to a frumpy mom, to a society matron from an elite family. In essence, Nadia—Prisoner 2866—was a nonentity. She’d been on the fringes of the Gaia Movement—Bella had heard her speak in meetings a time or two—but no one gave her much credence. In fact, she was so weirdly extreme in her views, people laughed at her. In the end, the central committee had lost patience and expelled her. She gave Bella the creeps. Nonetheless, it didn’t appear that she’d committed a crime serious enough to warrant transportation, so she must have been caught up in a routine sweep. Bella found the woman beyond her comprehension.
Nadia turned her pale blue eyes to Bella. “Excellent timing,” she said approvingly, “even if it was unintended.”
Bella blinked. “I don’t understand.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw the mysterious door ease open a fraction of an inch. Hell, no! Putting her free hand behind her back, she waggled her fingers in a frantic semaphore message.
“No reason you should.” With a ladylike grunt, Nadia lowered herself to her knees by Stokes’s shoulder and peered into his face. “He’ll be coming round in a minute. Here, Tally, take this.” Working swiftly, she stripped off the guard’s utility belt and handed it over.
Espinoza drew in a hissing breath. “What are you doing?”
“What’s necessary.” Slipping one of her own buttons, Nadia reached inside her shirt without any sign of embarrassment, giving everyone a glimpse of ample curves encased in a prison-issue brassiere. She withdrew a small, slim object. In the artificial light, Bella caught a silver flash.
Beside her, Mona’s whole body jerked. “Nadia, no. Don’t—”
Stokes moaned, his head rolling from side to side.
“Quiet. I’m concentrating.” Nadia lifted the guard’s chin in her left hand, leaned over and drew her closed fist across his throat.
His thick flesh parted cleanly behind the tiny blade, opening in a wide, liquid gash. His eyes flew open and he gargled, body arching, the bright crimson of his life’s blood pumping onto the floor, flooding the clumps of algae and soaking into the fabric of his shirt. His legs spasmed and his big feet scrabbled as if he were trying to flee.
With a little huff of effort, Nadia got to her feet. “Pity about the shirt,” she said into the silence. “Would have been handy later.”