Here’s the back cover copy, followed by the excerpt and the ordering information:
When one killer falls for another
Profile: Highly trained in every method the assassins guild has to offer. Always goes by the book.
Profile: Rogue assassin who kills only to rid the world of hardened criminals. Hates organizations. Always does it her way.
Love becomes a matter of life and death
Misha’s mission is to get Rikki to join the guild or give up her guns. He completely underestimated the effect she would have on him…and what heat and chaos they could bring to each other…
Assassins in Love
Copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Cover and internal design © 2012 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Hands fumbling, fingers shaking, head aching, Rikki leaned one shoulder against the wall, blocking the view of the airlock controls from the corridor. Elio Testrial leaned against the wall at her feet. She hoped he looked drunk.
Things hadn’t gone as planned. Things never went as planned—she should have learned that a long time ago. But she kept thinking she’d get better with each job.
She completed each job. That was a victory, or at least, that felt like one right now.
The corridor was wide and relatively straight, like every other corridor on this stupid ship. Every floor looked like the last, which had caused problems earlier, and all were painted white, as if that was a design feature. She didn’t find it a design feature. In fact, it was a problem feature. Because any dirt showed, and blood, well, they said blood trailed for a reason. It did.
So far, though, she’d managed to avoid a blood trail. Of course, she’d thought about avoiding it, back when Testrial really was drunk. And because she thought about avoiding it, she had.
But there was no avoiding this damn airlock.
Her heart pounded, her breath came in short gasps. If she couldn’t get a deep lungful of air, her fingers would keep shaking, not that it made any difference.
Why weren’t spaceships built to a universal standard? Why couldn’t she just follow the same moves with every piece of equipment that had the same name? Instead, she had to study old specs, which were always wrong, and then she had to improvise, which was always dicey, and then she had to worry that somehow, with one little flick of a fingernail, she’d touch something which would set off an alarm, which would bring the security guards running.
High-end ships like this one always had security guards, and the damn guards always thought they were some kind of cop which, she supposed, in the vast emptiness that was space, they were.
Someone had fused the alarm to the computer control for the airlock doors, which meant that unless she could figure out a way to unfuse it, this stupid airlock was useless to her. Which meant she had to haul Testrial to yet another airlock on a different deck, one that wouldn’t be as private as this one, and it would be just her luck that the airlock controls one deck up (or one deck down) would be just as screwy as the controls on this deck.
She cursed. Next spaceport—the big kind with every damn thing in the universe plus a dozen other damn things she hadn’t even thought of—she would sign up for some kind of maintenance course, one that specialized in space cruisers, since she found herself on so many of them, or maybe even some university course in mechanics or design or systems analysis, so that she wouldn’t waste precious minutes trying to pry open something that didn’t want to get pried.
She cursed again, and then a third time for good measure, but the words weren’t helping. She poked at that little fused bit inside the control, and felt her fingernail rip, which caused her to suck in a breath—no curse words for that kind of pain, sharp and tiny, the kind that could cause her (if she were a little less cautious) to pull back and stick the offending nail inside her mouth.
She’d done that once, setting off a timer for an explosive device she’d been working on, and just managed to dive behind the blast shield (she estimated) fifteen seconds before the stupid thing blew.
So she had her little reflexes under control.
It was the big reflexes that worried her.
“Need help?” Male voice. Deep. Authoritative.
She didn’t jump. She didn’t even flinch. But she did freeze in place for a half second, which she knew was a giveaway, one of those moments little kids had when they got caught doing something wrong.
“I’m fine, thanks,” she said without turning around. No sense in letting him see her face.
“Your friend doesn’t look fine.” He had just a bit of an accent, something that told her Standard wasn’t his native language.
“He’s drunk,” she said.
“Looks dead to me,” he said.
She turned, assessing her options as she did. One knife. (People were afraid of knives, which was good. But knives were messy, hard to clean up the blood, which was bad.) Two laser pistols. (One tiny, against her ankle, hard to reach. The other on her hip, obvious, but laser blasts in a corridor—dangerous. They’d bounce off the walls, might hit her.) Fists. (Might break a bone, hands already shaking. Didn’t need the additional risk.)
Then stopped assessing when she saw him.
He wasn’t what she expected. Tall, white-blond hair, the kind that got noticed (funny, she hadn’t noticed him, but then there were two thousand passengers on this damn ship). Broad shoulders, strong bones—not a spacer then. Blue eyes with long lashes, like a girl’s almost, but he didn’t look girly, not with that aquiline nose and those high cheekbones. Thin lips twisted into a slight smile, a knowing smile, as if he understood what she was doing.
He wore gray pants and an ivory shirt without a single stain on it. No rings, no tattoos, no visible scars—and no uniform.
Not security, then. Or at least, not security that happened to be on duty.
“He’s drunk,” she said again, hoping Testrail’s face was turned slightly. She’d managed to close his eyes, but he had that pallor the newly dead sometimes acquired. Blood wasn’t flowing; it was pooling, and that leached all the color from his skin.
“So he’s drunk, and you’re messing with the airlock controls, because you want to get him, what? Some fresh air?” The man’s eyes twinkled.
He was disgustingly handsome, and he knew it. She hated men like that, and thought longingly of her knife. One slash across the cheek. That would teach him.
“Guess I’ve had a little too much to drink myself,” she said.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” the man said as he approached her.
She reached for the knife, but he caught her wrist with one hand. He smelled faintly of sandalwood, and that, for some reason, made her breath catch.
He slammed the airlock controls with his free fist. The damn alarm went off and the first of the double doors opened.
“What the hell?” she snapped.
He sighed, as if she were the dumbest person he had ever met, then let her go. She did reach for the knife as he bent at the waist and picked up Testrial with one easy move.
She knew that move wasn’t easy. She’d used an over-the-shoulder carry to get the bastard down here, after having rigged the corridor cameras to show footage from two hours before. Not that that did any good now that this asshole had set off the alarm.
He tossed Testrial into the airlock itself, then reached inside and triggered the outer door. He barely got his hand back into the corridor before the inner door closed, protecting them from the vacuum of space.
“What the hell?” she asked again.
The man gave her a withering glance. “He was dead, you were going to toss him out, and then you were going to go about your business as if nothing happened. I just helped you along a little.”
“And now every security agent on the ship will come down here,” she snapped.
“Yeah,” he said. “But it won’t be a problem.”
“It won’t be a problem?” she asked.
But he already had his arm tightly around her shoulder, and he dragged her forward. The movement felt familiar, as if someone had done this to her before.
Except no one had ever done this to her before.
“C’mon,” he said. “Stagger a little.”
“What?” she asked, letting him pull her along. Her hand was still on her knife, but she didn’t close her fist around the hilt. Not yet.
“Do you know any drinking songs?” he asked.
“Know any… what?”
“Stagger,” he said, and she did without much effort, since he was half-carrying her, not allowing her feet to find a rhythm.
They stepped onto the between-decks platform, which she loathed because it was open, not a true elevator at all, and he said, “Down,” and the stupid thing jerked before it went down, and suddenly she was on corridor cameras.
“Do you know any drinking songs?” he asked again.
“No,” she said, ready with an answer this time. “I don’t drink.”
“No wonder you lack creativity,” he said, and added, “Stop,” as they passed their third deck. He dragged her down the corridor to the airlock, and slammed it with his fist.
Another alarm went off as the inner door opened, and he reached inside, triggering the outer door.
“What the hell are you doing?” she asked again.
“Is that the only question you know?” he asked.
“Just answer me,” she said as he turned her around and headed back toward the between-decks platform.
“Weren’t you ever a teenager?” he asked.
“Of course I was,” she said.
“Then you should know what I’m doing,” he said.
“Well color me clueless,” she said, “because I don’t.”
His eyebrows went up as he looked at her. “Color you clueless? What kind of phrase is that?”
“The kind of phrase you say when someone won’t tell you what the hell they’re doing.”
“Watch and learn, babe,” he said. “Watch and learn.”
He took them to the platform again, and as it lurched downward, he pulled her toward him using just his arm and the hand clutching her shoulder. A practiced move, and a strong one, considering how much resistance she was putting up.
He held her in a viselike grip, and then, before she could move away, kissed her. She was so startled, she didn’t pull back.
At least, that was what she told herself when he did let go and she realized that her lips were bruised, her hand had fallen away from the hilt of her knife, her heart was pounding rapidly.
That was a hell of a kiss, short but—good God, had she ever been kissed like that? Mouth to mouth, open, warm but not sloppy, his tongue sampling hers and hers, traitor that it was, responding.
“Yum,” he said, as if she had been particularly tasty, and then he grinned. He was unbelievably handsome when he smiled, and she didn’t like that either, but before her addled brain figured out what to do, he added, “Stop,” as they reached one of the lowest decks.
He propelled her forward with that mighty arm of his, and she tripped stepping from the platform into the corridor, which was a good thing, since a male passenger stood near the platform, looking confused.
The passenger, middle-aged, overweight, tired, like most everyone else on week three of an interstellar cruise, peered at them.
The man beside her grinned, said, “Is this the way to the lounge?” and then kept going.
The male passenger said, “What lounge?” but they were already too far away to answer him.
They reached yet another airlock and the handsome man still holding her hit the controls with his fist, setting off yet another alarm and doing his little trick with the doors.
This time he kept going straight, swaying a little, knocking her off balance.
“Too bad you don’t know any drinking songs,” he said. “But then, you don’t smell like booze. Enhancer, maybe? Too many mood elevators? No, that doesn’t work. You’re not smiling.”
They rounded a corner, and came face to face with three terrified security guards, standing in three-point formation, laser rifles drawn.
“Stop!” one of them, a man as middle-aged and heavyset as that passenger, yelled. He didn’t sound nearly as in control as Rikki’s companion had when he told the platforms to stop. In fact this guy, this so-called guard, sounded dangerously close to panicking.
Rikki stopped, but the man didn’t and neither did his arm, so he nearly shoved her forward, but she’d faced laser rifles before, and had even been shot with one, and she’d never forget how the stupid thing burned, and she wasn’t going to get shot again.
“Ah, jeez, Rik,” the man said, and she jolted. The bastard knew her name. Not the name she was using on this cruise. Her real name. “Let’s go.”
“I said stop,” the guard repeated.
“You,” the man said, turning to the guard, and slurring his words just slightly, “are too tense. C’mon with us. We’re heading to the lounge.”
“What lounge?” the female guard asked. Not only was she the sole female, but she was the only one in what Rikki would consider regulation shape. Trim, sharp, but terrified too. Her rifle vibrated, probably because she wasn’t bracing it right.
“I dunno what lounge,” the man holding Rikki said. “The closest lounge.”
He grinned as if he had discovered some kind of prize, and if she didn’t know better, she would’ve thought he was on something.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” the third guard said. “Is that what this is all about?”
“I dunno,” the man said, “but you sure got a lotta doors leading to nothing around here. Where’s the damn lounge? I paid good money to have a lounge on each floor and I been to—what, hon? Three floors? Four—”
He looked at Rikki as he said that and pinched the nerve on her outer arm at the same time. She squeaked and hopped just a little as he continued.
“—and we ain’t found no damn lounge anywhere. I wanna drink. I wanna enhancer. I wanna burger. Real meat. You got real meat on this crappy ship?”
The first security guard sighed, then lowered his rifle. The other man did the same, but the woman didn’t.
“Oh for God’s sake,” the female security guard said to the guard in front. “You gonna let them get away with this just because they’re drunk?”
“I’m not drunk,” Rikki said, and the man pulled her close again so that she had to put a hand against his waist to steady herself.
He tried to kiss her again, but she moved her face away. “She’s not drunk,” he said rather grumpily, “because we can’t find the damn lounge.”
The front guard shook his head.
“They opened three airlocks,” the female guard said.
“They’re passengers,” the male guard hissed at her.
“Reckless ones,” the female guard said.
“What’s your room?” the guard asked.
“Um…” the man said, his hand so tight around Rikki’s upper arm that he was cutting off circulation. “B Deck, Something-something, 15A?”
“If you’re on B Deck, it would be 15B,” the female guard said.
The man extended his free hand. “’S on here,” he said, and to Rikki’s surprise, let them scan the back of his hand to get the code upscale passengers had embedded into the skin so they didn’t have to carry identification.
“B Deck,” the female guard said to the others, “Section 690, 15B.”
“Suite,” the male guard hissed again. “Expensive.”
Rikki tried not to raise her own eyebrows. She had a cabin, K Deck, without a view. Cheap.
“We’ll take you to a lounge,” the male guard said to the man holding Rikki, “but we’re going to have to fine you.”
“For taking me to a lounge?” He sounded indignant. “Jus’ tell me where to go.”
“I’d love to,” the female guard said.
“No,” the male guard said. “We’ll fine you for the airlocks.”
“Not interested in a damn airlock,” the man said. “Wanna lounge.”
The second male guard shook his head. “I need a new job,” he said softly to the woman.
“Good luck with that,” she said back to him.
“I’ve got your information,” the male guard said to the man holding Rikki. “I’ll be adding 6,000 credits to your account. Two for each airlock you opened.”
“Didn’t open no damn airlock,” the man said.
“We’ll talk about it when you’re sober,” the male guard said.
“Don’t plan to be sober any more this entire trip. Too damn dull.” The man glared at him. “You said lounge. Where’s the damn lounge?”
“This way,” the guard said, and headed off the down the corridor.
The man holding Rikki lurched after him, dragging Rikki along. She tripped again, this time because her toe caught the man’s heel. He was doing that on purpose, but she didn’t argue. She was slightly breathless from the strangeness of it all, and from the way he held her.
The other two guards followed a good distance behind, clearly arguing.
The first guard led them to an actual elevator, in the main section of the ship. Four other passengers stood inside, three women, one man, all older than Rikki, all better dressed. They eyed her as if she lowered their net worth by factors of ten.
The man holding her grinned at them. It was a silly, sloppy grin, and it made him seem harmless. “You goin’ to the lounge too?” he asked.
She realized as he continued to slur his words, all trace of that accent was gone.
The four passengers leaned against the walls and looked away, wanting nothing to do with him.
They got off on the main level, but the guard led Rikki and the man to B Deck and took them to the B-Deck-only lounge.
“It’s exclusive,” he said to the man. “Just touch the door with your fist, like you did with the airlocks.”
She stiffened. The man holding her had ID embedded in his hand. They had known who he was from the moment he hit the first airlock.
That was why she stayed below decks. Cheaper. No identification required.
He grinned at the guard and gave him a mock salute. “You need a favor, friend, I’m there for you,” he said, then slapped his palm against the door to the B Deck lounge.
The guard nodded, almost smiling himself. “You won’t say that tomorrow when you look at your accounts.”
“Hell, I got enough. Should tip you, really,” the man said.
“No, you shouldn’t.” The guard was smiling now. “Enjoy your evening, sir.”
The guard stepped back as the door slid open. The man staggered inside, pulling Rikki along. The noise startled her—conversation and music, live music, and a view. The entire wall was clear, showing the exterior of the ship, darkness, pinpoints of light, patterns she didn’t recognize.
Full tables, filled with overdressed passengers, laughing, talking, a few waving drinks. Some people at a roulette wheel to the left, others at a card table to the right, some sitting on couches, leaning against each other, listening to the music.
No one noticed as Rikki and the man holding her entered.
“Thanks,” Rikki said, starting to pull away, but he held her tighter.
“Not yet, babe,” he said as if he had the right to call her “babe.” He pulled her to the bar, slammed his fist on it as if it were an airlock control, and said, “Dos cervezas, por favor,” and the accent was back, thick and wrong. He clearly didn’t speak Spanish either, at least not like a native, so he wasn’t from Earth, not that Earthers were common this far out.
The bartender—a real person, male, wearing a blousy shirt with tight sleeves, matching pants and some kind of decorative apron—poured two amber-colored beers with an expression of distaste. The foam flowed down the side of both glasses.
Rikki fumbled for her credit slip, but the man caught her hand. “On me, sweets,” he said.
Then he grabbed his beer, still holding her, and started for a table, stopping suddenly and nearly spilling.
“You need your drink,” he said with the mock seriousness only the really drunk seemed to have.
He backed up, but didn’t turn around, so she had to move slightly to grab her beer. The glass was cool and wet beneath her fingers, the foam yeasty, like real beer, not the stuff they served below decks.
His grip on her wasn’t as strong, and she knew she could shake him off. But she wasn’t quite ready to now.
She let him lead her to an empty love seat near the clear wall. The material between her and space itself looked thin and unreliable, even though she knew it wasn’t. It made her dizzy, especially when she realized she could see herself reflected against the view.
She did look out of it, hair messed, shirt askew, pants stained along one thigh. Shadows under her eyes, hollow-cheeked, too thin by half, but muscled. Hard to miss the muscles, even with the shirt twisted.
He kept his arm around her shoulder until they reached the love seat. Then he slid his hand up to her clavicle, and shoved hard, so that she either toppled sideways or sat down.
She sat, without spilling a drop. Apparently her shaking had left her long ago.
“Do you always manhandle people you’ve just met?” she asked as he sat beside her.
His smile was different now, slightly feral, revealing a perfect row of teeth. “How do you know we just met?”
Her pulse increased. She studied him again. White-blond, blue-eyed, naturally pale skin, not the pasty stuff that came from living in space. Midthirties, maybe younger, stronger than she was, which was saying something, and—oh, yeah—he knew her name.
“What was all that?” she asked.
“Just me saving your ass,” he said.
“I don’t need saving,” she said softly.
“Oh, honey, yes you do.” He sipped the beer, made a satisfied sound and leaned back on the love seat.
“Well,” she said, and set her glass down, resisting the urge to wipe her soggy hand on her pants. “Let me thank you for the beer and the grand adventure, but—”
“No,” he said, catching her arm. “You’re not leaving.”
“Because the entire crew of this ship thinks we’re here to drink, so we’re going to drink. We’re going to get roaring drunk. We’re going to dance and laugh, and come close to screwing right here in the lounge. Someone’ll tell us to go to our room, which we’ll do, and then we’ll look mighty sick when we come out twenty-four hours later. Hungover and queasy because we forgot to take something before we decided to get drunk. Might help if you can puke on cue. Can you puke on cue?”
“Are you kidding?” she asked.
“Just hoping,” he said, and sipped his beer again. “So drink up, milady. It’s gonna be a long night.”
Long night. No kidding. Really long night. Long and strange.
She’d never been in this ship’s first-class lounge before. The glasses seemed like the real thing, but she didn’t know how there could be glass on a space cruiser, even a high-end one. The beer was exceptionally tasty, and the clothes—she’d kill for clothes like that.
Well, she wouldn’t really. She didn’t just randomly kill. She killed for work. It was a job, for heaven’s sake, but still. She’d love to dress like everyone else, the high-end stuff, natural fibers, glittery jewels worth more than the cost of her crappy room on this ship—hell, worth more than the cost of his expensive suite, if indeed, he really did have a suite and not just someone’s stolen identification chip embedded under his skin.
His lovely, lovely skin. Men shouldn’t have skin like that, smooth and pale and perfect. And if they did have skin like that, then it should blush when his mood changed and show every single emotion. And she wasn’t seeing emotions.
When she was looking, that is. She gawked like a tourist at the view—pinpoints of light, sure, but really, stars that she couldn’t see from her crappy room; windows showing just how black space really was and just how much energy this ship was using because it positively glowed, and reflected in the windows, and sent notice out to other ships—if there were other ships nearby, which she doubted—that this stupid cruiser, whose pretentious name she always forgot was right here, right now, heading somewhere special with the beautiful people on board.
Beautiful people like this man, this handsome, handsome man. Too handsome for her. She’d never been near a man this attractive before. She always shied away because they were highly visible. Women and gay men noticed them—she noticed them, and if she noticed them, then she wasn’t safe around them.
She wasn’t safe around him.
He hadn’t even told her his name, not that she’d asked, and it bothered her that he knew hers. But she didn’t ask him about that either, because he kept giving her these little signals—Drink. Drink more. More!—and she tried. But she wasn’t a drinker, even though her head was spinning, which she wanted to blame on his nearness, not on the alcohol content of that beer that he kept encouraging the stupid bartender to bring her.
She could hear herself laughing, really laughing, because everything he said was funny or it seemed funny or maybe it seemed funny among the beautiful people with the pinpoints of light and the blackness of space behind him.
Somewhere—fifteen minutes in? Twenty? Two hours?—he ordered food and told her to eat some. Burgers. Real meat. Real potatoes, fried up. Real bread. Real. Wow. And the smell of it all made her queasy.
Or maybe she already was queasy, because she was a little dizzy too, and dizzy came with queasy, right? She wasn’t sure.
“Eat something,” he said, sounding normal, sounding not drunk, that damn elusive accent back. “It’ll help the queasy.”
How did he know about the queasy? Was she green? Oh, she hoped she wasn’t green. That would go so well with her mousy brown hair (dyed rich chestnut for this job, she had to remember, she had almost forgotten how she looked—with the special-ordered bright green eye tint as well, hiding her baby browns, the only thing unusual about her). So the green would match her eyes, a thought that made her giggle and made him frown.
“Eat,” he said again, and she was going to ask him about that accent, but he took a fried potato and she watched his long fingers caress the food, and she thought about those fingers on her—how they had been on her, and even though he had held her tightly, he hadn’t hurt her, he had actually felt good. That kiss had felt good. It had tasted good—
“I mean it,” he said. “Eat.”
So she did. And he was right; it settled the queasy. She was just hungry after all. But she still felt weird and slightly out of control and wow, she wanted to take him to bed. She hadn’t felt like this in a long, long time, unable to think about anything except him. Naked. Inside her. And—
This was why she didn’t drink on the job. She was on the job. Really she was.
The thought sent a chill through her and didn’t make her sober, but made her pretend to be sober, or try to be sober or wish she was sober. His gaze changed a little, a slight frown formed on his forehead, and before she could stop him, he reached out, grabbed her hand, and pulled her onto the dance floor with the beautiful people.
She didn’t have a gown. She had stained pants and a twisted shirt and a knife on her hip for God’s sake—or did he take the knife? She wasn’t sure. She patted it, realized the shirt was over it, and he cupped her hand as if he knew what she was doing, then he pulled her close.
That sandalwood smell and something decidedly him. His body was hard and muscled, stronger than he looked, and he pressed against her, moving with the music, and she realized with surprise that he was as aroused as she was. She pushed against him, rubbing a little, and damn if she didn’t get a blush or a flush or something, just a bit of blood under that pale skin in his cheeks, making his blue eyes so bright that they seemed as powerful as the lights on the outside of the ship.
She could just eat him up, and this—this was why she never drank. Not on the job, not off the job. She hated this out-of-control feeling. Or she usually did. Right now, she was swimming in it, in the want and the lust and the desire for him.
Whatever the hell his name was.
She couldn’t sleep with a man if she didn’t know his name. She’d made that a rule after a disastrous night when she’d slept with a guy she’d been assigned to kill, and that, that had been one of the worst moments of her entire life, when she looked at him and realized—
This man, this nameless handsome man, slipped his hand down her back and into the top of her pants, his fingers just playing with the firm flesh near her hip. She wanted to shift, to move his hand downward.
He pulled her closer and she remembered she had no idea who he was and she couldn’t take it, so she whispered that in his ear, his right ear, and he swayed with her, his hand dipped down, cupping her bottom, and as it did, his mouth moved over hers.
He tasted of beer and burgers and something so good, something she had to have, something she’d been missing her whole life. She pressed against him, wanting more, and he wanted more, she could feel it against her thighs, hard and urgent, and she slipped her hands against his flat stomach with just a trace of hair, erotic, that’s what the hair was, and she couldn’t breathe.
He was kissing her so hard she couldn’t breathe, or maybe she was kissing him that hard. It didn’t matter because she didn’t want to breathe, not ever again, not when she could lose herself in him—
God, that thought stopped her. Like ice water.
She didn’t know him. She had no idea what his name was, but he knew her, and he didn’t mind that she had killed someone, the only person she was assigned to kill on this trip, thank you very much, so she wouldn’t have to kill him, but what about the future? Or what if he was after her? She couldn’t trust anyone. That was her training. Do not trust. Do not let your guard down. Do. Not…
She tried to pull away, but he brought one hand up and placed it on the back of her head. “Not so fast,” he whispered in his not-drunk voice. “Information has a price. You buy it, one kiss at a time.”
Then he kissed her again, and she didn’t fight—she really didn’t want to fight, if she told herself the truth. He was a good kisser, the best she’d ever kissed on the job or off, and she decided it wouldn’t be a hardship to back him against the wall, peel off his clothes and take him right here in the lounge, the exclusive lounge, here on B Deck.
But, part of her brain told her—the rational, always-in-control part—that she really was drunk or at least tipsy (hell, no, drunk) and the desire to screw him brainless probably came from the alcohol. Still, he was handsome, he tasted good, he smelled good, and he was as aroused as she was, so she reached inside his shirt, and he said,
“Room. Need to go to the room.”
And the voice sounded drunk again. He’d been sober before, telling her—what? Something about information. He put his hand around her again, only this time reached inside her shirt, and tweaked her nipple and it felt damn good, and someone said something about leaving and he said they were and could they have one for the road? And the bartender gave them an amber bottle.
They staggered out into the corridor—and she really was staggering this time—and the door closed, the air cooler, smelling fresher, and she felt—oh, still dizzy, but she didn’t care—and he took her hand, pulling her along, much better this way, she thought, not being forced to move with him, but moving because she wanted to, through all the corridors down to the end of the hall and big double doors that opened as he approached into one of the largest suites she’d ever seen. The living room alone was four times the size of her room.
The doors closed, he held up a hand, and took out something—some kind of zap-it that disrupted audio—and set it down, and then said something about names.
She didn’t give a good goddamn about names, and said so, muttered “Bed,” and he laughed, taking her up a curving flight of stairs (Stairs! On a ship!) into a room with a bed the size of her first apartment, and she was the one who pulled him onto it, she was the one who tore off his clothes, and then she stopped.
He was beautiful, truly beautiful, with rippled muscles down his chest, gorgeous legs with strong muscles of a kind men didn’t have in space, the kind they got when they exercised in gravity, muscles tapering into firm ankles, and great feet, and she was only looking at his feet because his penis pointed at her, ready, waiting, slightly moist at the tip.
She took it in her hand, and he moaned and arched into her, which made her blink in surprise—why had she thought he was in control of his arousal?—and then he grabbed her shirt and ripped it off her. One movement. One quick movement, and her breasts bounced free.
His hands cupped them, his mouth drank from them. Foreplay. When was the last time a man had attempted foreplay? And she didn’t even care about it.
With one hand, she unzipped her pants, but she couldn’t slip out of them, not with one hand, and he didn’t seem to care, he was still cupping her breasts and drinking them, worshipping them, so she shoved him backward against the bed (big, soft, wow again), and then she moved down, so that his mouth couldn’t reach her any longer.
Her mouth found him. He tasted as good here as he had tasted when they kissed, maybe better, and she sucked, trying to get more of him, and that was when his hands cupped her face, tugging just a little, trying to move her away, because he was getting harder, and she knew he was going to come if she kept doing this and she didn’t care.
But he did or his brain did or something did, because even as he arched into her mouth, his fingers kept pleading stop, let’s slow down, he didn’t stop, and she didn’t want to slow down.
Her mouth was busy, but her hands weren’t. She finally managed to pull off those pants, and the moment she was free, she moved as fast as she could, head up like he wanted. She was wet and she had made him wet and she slid onto him as if they were made for each other, and they pushed into each other.
He filled her, and she hadn’t realized she had been empty. It felt so good. So damn good.
She bounced twice, and his eyelashes fluttered, a flush working its way down his chest almost to his navel, and there was no more control—or so she thought until suddenly he grabbed her, flipped her, and thrust, hard fast perfect, perfect, she kept muttering perfect, and then he kissed her and as he did, she pulsed, pulsed and pulsed and shattered—
And he came with her, holding her tight. She could feel him, every bit of him—she had never been so attune to her body in her life—and they arched into each other, and for a moment, just the briefest of moments, they had achieve something she had never thought possible, something explosive.
It had been a long, spectacular night.
Or at least it had seemed that way when she was drunk.
But the next morning she woke up sober, sprawled naked and sore on the bed of a man she didn’t know, in a room that had to cost as much as she earned in an entire year.
She remembered the bed—how could anyone forget this bed? It was the softest, warmest, most luxurious bed she had ever been in, with smooth covers, sheets that didn’t scratch, and a mattress (or something mattressy) that cradled her body.
The room itself looked familiar only in outline. She remembered the carpet because it surprised her (and scratched her bare back at one point), but she hadn’t noticed that it was the palest of blues. She remembered the windows because she saw herself reflected naked in them, and she hadn’t cared at the time.
Now she cared, and fortunately, the windows overlooked only the blackness of space. Unless a ship had pulled up right next to these windows, no one had seen her and—what the hell was his name? Jeez. She had done things with him she had never done with another human being, willingly done them (and she still tingled remembering them) and she had no idea who he was.
He wasn’t in bed next to her. He was standing near the bathroom door, knee bent, one bare foot against the wall, and a smile on his face. He wore brown pants that clung to his magnificent legs, a half-buttoned, billowy white shirt, showing those abs that rippled all the way down.
With his clothes on, he looked slight, which was deceptive. He wasn’t slight at all. He wasn’t slight anywhere, particularly in the places (place) it counted.
At least he was as handsome as she remembered. Those high cheekbones, that perfect nose, those startling blue eyes. And the white-blond hair? It was his natural color. She had found that natural color nested between his legs, and she had found that unbelievably erotic too.
She still did, which disturbed her. Because as crummy as her head felt, she shouldn’t find anything erotic. She had clearly had too much to drink last night. He made things worse by holding up a glass of something foamy, which reminded her of the beer and made her stomach lurch.
“Misha,” he said.
“What?” The word came out mushy. God, how much had she had to drink? Her mouth tasted like dirty socks.
“My name,” he said. “It’s Misha. I figured you earned that much.”
Earned it. She didn’t like the idea of earned, as if she’d paid for it with sex. A lot of sex. Damn. How many times had they—
“And yes, we met,” he said, “but I doubt you remember.”
It was as if they were having a conversation she didn’t remember either. Her head hurt, and she brought a hand to her eyes. They felt gummy and sore. Everything was sore. And she had bruises on her wrist. Had he done that?
“Here,” he said, and handed her the foamy liquid. “Drink it fast and try not to taste it.”
She glanced at him through her splayed fingers. He looked serious, and younger than she remembered. Hadn’t she thought him midthirties? His body was midthirties—flat abdomen, visible muscles, and at least half a dozen scars—but his face was maybe fifteen, at least at the moment. He had shadows under his eyes, and his mouth turned downward, as if a frown were his natural expression.
The sadness caught her—if indeed it was sadness and not something else. That, and the scars. She had been so involved (involved, what a euphemism) that she hadn’t even noticed. How could she have missed all those scars?
She had no idea who he was. Misha? She didn’t remember a Misha, even though he said they had met before.
She shouldn’t take the drink from him. God knew what was in it. But if he were going to hurt her, he would have done it last night, while she slept.
Jeez, she’d trusted him more than anyone in recent memory. She had slept with him, actually slept, her guard all the way down. He could have done anything to her. He could have killed her or kidnapped her (although, in all fairness, where could he have taken her on this ship?) or given her to the authorities. He could have had his way with her—in ways she would never have agreed to, not in the way that she had.
She sat up, the sheet falling away. Her skin had finger marks, bruises, love bites, scratches. She remembered each one, so she hadn’t been that drunk. Just the thought of his teeth grazing the tender skin above her breast made her shiver.
He leaned forward, handing her the glass as if he didn’t want their fingers to touch. A bit of the stuff overflowed onto her hand, warm and foamy. Her stomach lurched again, so she took the glass from him and downed the stuff.
It tasted like carbonated bile with a touch of dog hair, but she managed to swallow it all without getting sick.
Her stomach settled the minute the crap touched it, and slowly her headache eased.
“What was that?” she asked.
“A couple of alcohol antidotes mixed with an emergency scrubber that I always carry,” he said. “Works, even if it tastes like day-old vomit.”
She grimaced, then wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. She no longer felt hungover, although she did feel wrung out.
“What happened last night?” she asked.
He smiled and looked pointedly at her breasts. “If you don’t remember—”
“I mean…” she said, not wanting him to continue. She wasn’t sure if she was embarrassed or not. She certainly hadn’t been herself. At least, any kind of self she recognized. She’d been insatiable.
She’d never been insatiable in her entire life.
She cleared her throat. “What were you doing? Following me?”
“Of course I was following you,” he said.
She sat rigidly, her fingers still cupped around the glass. Her heart rate increased.
She hadn’t even seen him follow her. She hadn’t noticed him at all on this ship, and given her physical response to him last night (this morning too, dammit), she should have noticed him from the moment she had come on board.
Her mouth had gone dry.
He hovered close to her. He had bite marks, too, and scratches and bruises, as well as the mark of her teeth on the very pale skin of his neck.
She had given as good as she had gotten, at least.
“Who trained you?” he asked.
Whatever she had expected him to ask, it hadn’t been that. She licked her bottom lip, and noted with some satisfaction, that his eyes tracked the movement.
“Why do you care?” she asked. She’d been responding to his question on training, but she could have been asking about herself. Why had he cared about her?
His gaze dropped to her naked breasts. He visibly swallowed, then moved back to the wall.
Suddenly she understood the distance. He still wanted to touch her.
“Your training,” he said, his voice flat.
She would have thought him completely in control if it weren’t for his eyes. They moved toward her breasts, then her stomach, and her hips, buried under the covers. Then, as if he had to use the force of his own will, his gaze moved up to meet hers.
His expression stayed flat, as if he didn’t care.
But she was paid to observe people, and she could see him. Of course, he could see her. Her nipples were hard, and she couldn’t blame the temperature in the room. It was balmy in here, much warmer than her room down on K deck had ever been.
She needed to get out of here. He was making her nervous, and she had no idea what he was about.
So she gave him her sultriest smile. “My training?” She stroked her breasts as if she had just noticed they were bare. Her fingers lingered on her nipples, then she shifted slightly, so the covers fell away from her hips and pooled between her legs.
His gaze dropped, and she had to work to keep her smile from growing.
Then his gaze rose again.
“Not that kind of training,” he said in the same flat voice.
“Oh?” she asked, sliding out of bed. She crossed the distance between them in just a few seconds, and as she did, she slid her hand down the front of his pants. He was hard and hot, just like he had been the night before. “My mistake.”
He put his hands on her shoulders, as if he was trying to hold her back. He was trembling. For one moment, he didn’t move, and then he pulled her toward him.
The kiss was rough. She leaned into it, letting her breasts rub against his naked chest. His hands still held her shoulders, fingers tightening. She slid her thumb along his penis and he groaned against her mouth.
Finally he pushed her back just enough to separate their mouths. She kept moving her thumb, though, and his cheeks flushed.
“No,” he said, his voice as rough as that kiss. “No. I’ll die if I don’t eat something.”
“Ah,” she said, leaning into him. “Mais c’est la petite mort.”
“No,” he said. “I mean a real death.”
Then his flush grew darker. He seemed surprised at himself, as if he hadn’t expected to reveal his knowledge of yet another language.
Or maybe he was just surprised at the way his voice shook.
She continued to move her thumb. His whole body vibrated. She could feel it. With her free hand, she unbuckled him, and then she slid onto him.
He half closed his eyes, made a sound of surrender, and grabbed her buttocks, lifting her so that he could thrust. She wrapped her arms around his neck, pulled him as close as she could, and kissed him, moving her mouth to the rhythm of their bodies, surprising herself. She had thought she was done with this—too sore, too tired, too achy.
And not drunk.
But he felt good, the movement perfect (that word again) and she tilted her head back, let him devour her neck, let him slide in and out of her, until his legs buckled. He sank to the floor, bringing her with him, and as he did, she could feel him pulsating inside her.
His eyes had rolled back for just a moment, then they opened all the way, and she saw unguarded surprise. And a vulnerability she hadn’t expected. And maybe just a bit of fear.
“See?” she said. “Just a little death.”
“It wasn’t little,” he said. “It wasn’t little at all.”
What the hell was the matter with him? He had never reacted to a woman like this, not once in his life. Oh, he’d slept with them, and he’d enjoyed them, but he never got so aroused with just a touch, or if he was honest, just a look.
He had to get away from her.
Mikael Yurinovich Orlinski, Misha to his friends, put his hands on her shoulders and held her in place as he separated himself from her. Slipping out of her warm body felt like a loss, and he lowered his eyelids for just a moment, so that she would not see the emotion.
He couldn’t hide it from her, any more than he could hide her effect on him. He wanted to. He had never lost control like this, not once in his adult life.
He stood, knees still shaking from their inability to hold him a few minutes ago, and he looked down on her.
Her cheeks were flushed, her long hair mussed, her lips swollen because of him. She looked like she’d been thoroughly fucked, which she had, only it hadn’t felt like fucking.
It had felt more personal than that.
His heart raced. He was still wearing his shirt, but nothing else. He didn’t reach for his pants—that would be an admission of a loss of control. Instead, he grabbed the clothes package from the bedside table. He thrust the package toward her, and was momentarily gratified to see her confusion.
“What’s that?” Her voice was husky and it sent a wave of desire through him. If he didn’t know better, he would have thought someone slipped an aphrodisiac into his food in the last twenty-four hours.
But even the most powerful aphrodisiac wouldn’t have done this. Oh, he’d have screwed her and she’d have responded, but by morning, they would have repelled each other. That was the first and best sign of outside-induced lust. First the incredible attraction, and then the almost sickening moment when they looked at each other and realized they loathed each other. They wouldn’t have done either normally, but it seemed that aphrodisiacs created two reactions: first the lust, then the loathing.
He felt no loathing. In fact, he wanted her again, even though his body was spent. He doubted he could do anything right now.
Even though he had doubted that about twenty minutes ago, and then he had responded to that thumb gently caressing him as if he were nineteen years old and able to rebound with a single thought.
Which he was doing now. He could feel himself hardening, again.
Fortunately, she hadn’t noticed. She was still looking at his hand. He wanted to take that clothes package and put it in front of him, hiding his growing arousal.
But he didn’t.
Instead, he said, “Clothes for you.”
He was amazed he could sound so calm. He sounded disinterested. If he was dressed, he could have convinced her of his disinterest, although he had tried that before and it hadn’t worked.
“My clothes are over there,” she said, waving her hand toward the window.
He shook his head. “I sent them into the ship’s disposal. Your pants were stained.”
He didn’t add, It looked like blood, even though it did.
“So?” she said.
“So, no need to incriminate yourself.”
“I’m not,” she snapped, grabbing the package from his hand. “It seems like you’re doing a good enough job for me.”
Then she got up, and walked to the bathroom. He watched her. Not a roll of fat on her. Her body was all muscle, but not like his. Feminine muscle, covered by firm flesh that had felt so good under his hands.
She slammed the bathroom door shut, and then he heard the shower turn on. She didn’t say a word about the water, although he half-expected her to. Only luxury suites had unlimited water for bathing.
He wanted to go in there and get in the shower with her, to slide soap over that perfectly formed body—
He shook his head. He wasn’t going to do that. Instead, he grabbed a different set of clothes for himself, and walked to the other side of the suite to the other bathroom. He pulled off his shirt and its rich scent of her, and dropped it on the floor. He turned on the second shower, knowing he would be charged double water usage, and not caring. He stepped inside the heat, and scrubbed her off him as best he could.
It was just an attraction, combined with too much to drink, and the fact that she was more energetic than he expected. He had expected her to fight him, not jump him. If she had fought him—
He still would have found it arousing.
He leaned his forehead against the tiled shower wall and let the water fall on his back. He hadn’t planned for this. He was good because he was calm and he wasn’t vulnerable and he was always in control.
You have passion, his mother used to say. If you harness it, you can use it. If you let it consume you, it will destroy you.
He shook that thought from his mind. His mother, cold and frightening, often looked at him like he was some subspecies of bug. His mother, who had trained him, registered him, and somehow kept him alive in all those early years.
She would have laughed at this. She would have said, How like your father you are. He had passion as well. But she wouldn’t have said that with affection or even a momentary pang of loss. She would have said it as the fact it was, and nothing more.
Misha got out of the shower and stood on the drying platform, letting the hot air touch him where Rikki had touched him not half an hour ago. He hadn’t expected her to be so beautiful. Or so passionate.
Or so right.
He had noticed her beauty when he had noticed her, that first night as the ship left port. She wore a slight black dress that clung to her large breasts and narrow waist. He could have done without the chestnut hair and the emerald green eyes, although he knew why she changed them. He preferred the light brown hair she had had as a girl, and the way that her brown eyes matched exactly.
He had noticed that much about her back then, thinking she would be a striking woman someday, in that idle way that people did when they observed something from afar. She had been too young to notice as anything but a particularly pretty child. He had been twenty, obsessed with girls his own age and women much older. She had been twelve and serious and so damaged that it made his heart break, even then. He hadn’t even thought then that she would someday become a woman, let alone a woman who could make him lose his precious control with a single touch.
He had to stop thinking like that. He made himself take a deep breath and clear his mind, using old techniques, things he had learned in his teens when his passions, as his mother called them, threatened to destroy them both. She had found him training so that he could learn control, because she had realized early on that she couldn’t give him that herself.
Some of his passion had been directed at his mother. He had grown to hate her within a few short weeks of their meeting, and the hatred had become a live thing. Misha had hated his mother more than anyone else ever—except, of course, for the man who had murdered his father. That man had been the first person Misha had ever killed, and the only death that had actually felt good.
Misha pulled on his clothes, willing them to be his armor against the woman in his suite. He had to think of her as the problem she was, not as the first person who had ever made him crave her.
And the only way he could do that was to forbid those thoughts.
He felt like he had a bit of control as he pulled open the bathroom door. He walked down the stairs to the suite’s main living area with its two couches, three entertainment units, full dining table, and comfortable chairs. Then he saw her, sneaking to the front door.
He reached her as she grabbed the lock. His fingers closed around her wrist, and he wanted to pull her against him again, kiss her until she was senseless.
Instead, he clutched that wrist against his chest in a hold that if he put a slightly different amount of torque on it, might actually break a bone.
It didn’t hurt her, but she knew what he was doing. She looked up at him with those beautifully shaped eyes. The green was too bright. He wanted to tell her to remove it, to look like she used to.
Hell, he wanted to feather her face with kisses, make her moan the way she had made him moan.
Instead, he said, “Where are you going?”
“I’m going to get us breakfast,” she lied.
He nodded, deciding to play along. “No need. I ordered some a while ago.”
Her face shifted. He couldn’t tell if she knew he was playing her or not. He kept a hand on her wrist, but loosened his grip, and led her to the large table.
When he got there, he tapped the top. The food he had ordered before she woke up slid through the system into the release window beneath the table. The smell of coffee and fresh baked bread filled the room.
Using just her wrist, he eased her into an upholstered chair. She looked gorgeous in the clothes he had gotten for her. The pale pink blouse was open, showing just a little cleavage. The tan pants fit snugly, leaving nothing to his imagination—not that he needed to imagine.
His heart started racing. He made himself focus on the food instead.
He grabbed it out of the automatic delivery tray, and set plate after plate on the table. Then he lifted off the covers, revealing steaming eggs and real bacon, and fruit so fresh that it made his mouth water. The entire platter of pastries alone could have fed the two of them for a week.
She was staring at the pastries as if she had never seen anything like them. Maybe she hadn’t. She seemed to be doing everything on the cheap and apparently had for some time.
“You think of everything,” she said. “Clothes, food…”
Her voice trailed off, but they both knew what she had left off.
“The clothes look good.” He had ordered those as well through the ship’s boutiques, and had them sent through the same system that sent the food. At the luxury level, he paid for any kind of service he wanted. He didn’t have to leave the suite for the entire trip if that suited him, which it did not. But he was taking advantage of that this morning.
She ran her hands along the blouse. She stopped at her breasts, again, knowing that aroused him. She was trying to distract him so—what? she could bolt out that door?—and it was working. Indeed, the slight movement made him think that the color of her nipples matched the blouse. He wondered if that was what made him order it.
He made himself look away.
“We made it clear last night that we were going to spend the next twenty-four hours with each other,” he said. “It hasn’t been sixteen yet.”
She shrugged. “People get sick of each other. I’m sure the staff here knows that.”
He moved to the other side of the table. “I’m sure they do. But we have to keep up our little charade just a bit longer, so they don’t notice what you did last night.”
She raised her eyes to him. Her hands fell to the table top. Her expression was flat now. “If they notice, it’ll be because of you. I set the cameras so that they looped. No one would have realized I even opened the airlock if you had given me just a few more minutes.”
He shook his head. This was why she was getting into trouble. She thought short-term, not long-term.
“They would notice,” he said. “Not on the trip, but shortly thereafter. You didn’t think this through—”
“The schematics were different—”
“Not that,” he said. “The consequences.”
“No consequences,” she said. “I would be gone before they realized he was missing.”
“That’s not how it’s done,” he said.
She frowned. “Not how what’s done?”
“The job,” he said. “The key isn’t to let them slowly realize that something had gone wrong. The key is to make the death seem natural.”
She looked at him. “Who are you?”
He had already told her, but he did so again. “My name is Misha.”
He paused for just a moment, wondering why it was so important she know his real name, why he hoped she remembered him. Before she woke up, he had planned to tell her the name he traveled under in this sector, but when her eyes opened, he had blurted his real name. His heart name. The name only people who cared for him used.
She hadn’t understood him, which should have given him a reprieve, but some part of him wanted to hear that husky voice of hers murmur his name as if it meant something to her.
“Misha,” she said, frowning. Was she trying to place the name or had she finally figured out who he was? “You said that when I woke up.”
He felt an odd surge of disappointment. “Yes, I did.”
“And you know who I am,” she said.
“Of course I do,” he said. “Since I’m the one who hired you.”
Here’s how you can order the rest of the book. You can preorder from Amazon or Barnes & Noble–or get it in B&N’s brick-and-mortar stores when the book comes out. Your local independent bookstore will have it as well.