Copyright © 2012 Robyn Bachar
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
“Help me, please!”
The cry shattered the quiet of Talena’s workroom. She fumbled with the delicate gold wire she had been wrapping around the stem of the rose and knocked the entire sculpture onto the floor. It shattered into several pieces and delicate metal shards crunched beneath the soles of her shoes as she hurried toward the speaker. He nearly crushed her as he fell through the doorway. Talena fumbled to catch him but he slumped to the ground.
“Sir? Are you hurt?” she asked. Her voice was high and thin, but she fought to remain calm. Passengers sometimes celebrated a bit too much on their cruise and stumbled into her shop, though it seemed extreme to be drunk before the ship even left port. Perhaps he was the sort who hated space travel, and was drunk long before he arrived on Aquantia.
Talena knelt next to him and rolled him onto his back. The stench of blood assaulted her, and she recoiled at the sight of his indigo skin—a male Cy’ren. Red eyes stared back at her, glazed with pain, as Talena peered at the lean lines of his face. Shoulder-length black hair—rare for a Cy’ren, who tended toward shades of white and silver—framed a face she didn’t recognize. She made a point to know all of the males who served aboard the ship, so she could avoid them. She had to, in her condition. Talena hadn’t been alone with a male in the long months since the phase started.
“Help me,” he repeated, his voice strained.
“Are you hurt?” she asked. Despite the scent, she didn’t see any blood or obvious wounds. The injury must be concealed beneath his long black coat. “I’ll call the medical bay—”
He hissed with pain as he reached into his coat, and Talena pulled the garment aside to get a better look. Her pulse jumped and she snatched her hand away as she spotted a concealed shoulder holster and laser pistol. She tore her attention from the weapon and focused on the dark stain spreading from a wound torn in his side, matting the fabric to his skin. Talena swore under her breath. He’d lost a great deal of blood. No wonder he collapsed.
“I’m calling the med bay.”
“No.” Snatching her forearm, he stopped her from getting to her feet. “No doctors. No feds.”
“You’re a runner?” Talena asked, and he nodded. She swore again, louder this time. He was an escaped slave. Talena was fortunate to have been freed as a child, and she was well aware of the penalties for aiding a runner. “Had to pick my shop, didn’t you?” she muttered.
“Sorry.” He cracked a weak smile in apology. “Please, help me. I have important data. I need to get it off this ship.”
For a moment she considered listening to the practical voice in her head that instructed her to call ship security and let them cart the male away. It was sensible…but she couldn’t hand one of her own people over to the slavers. There were enough Cy’ren all too willing to do so. If she hadn’t been rescued by her adopted father, she could well be in his position. Owner’s marks marched in a column of black ink down the left side of his throat and disappeared beneath his shirt. She didn’t think it possible for one Cy’ren to have been bought and sold so many times. How awful…
“I have a med kit. I’ll get it,” she said. “But I need to lock the front doors first. I’ll be right back.”
“Thank you.” He nodded again and let go of her arm.
Talena rose and hurried into the salesroom of her shop. Stylized metallic birds and flowers glinted on their display pedestals like little clockwork gardens. The room was empty at this hour with the majority of the passengers enjoying their evening meal in the restaurants of the ship’s dining quarter. Talena’s business was always light at the beginning of a cruise, because passengers tended to wait until the last minute to pick up one of her pieces as a souvenir of their trip. At the moment the Trident was still docked at Nathanis Station, receiving the last of her passengers and supplies before leaving to cruise the nearby coral reefs. Aquantia was famous for its spectacular reefs.
Pausing by the double doors, she peered out into the courtyard. Sunlight filtered through the seawater covering the enormous domed viewport above, sending ribbons of light dancing about. A few passengers milled nearby, but no one seemed alarmed or suspicious. Perhaps the male hadn’t been followed—but if he was a runner, someone would be looking to reclaim him. Talena’s hand trembled as she punched in the security code on the access panel next to the doors. The locks engaged, and the glass in the doors and the display window frosted over and became opaque, signifying that the store was closed.
Taking a deep breath, she clenched her hands to stop the shaking. It wasn’t fear but the flood of phase hormones that shivered through her. Her heart pounded like the frantic beat blasted at one of the ship’s dance clubs. Talena had spent the past few months avoiding male Cy’ren, and now one had fallen into her workshop. If she didn’t fight the urges, the phase would overwhelm her, demanding that she take the male as her mate, no matter how inappropriate the situation was. With another calming breath Talena squared her shoulders and steeled her resolve. She’d resisted for months, a few more moments could be managed. Besides, the last thing she wanted was to take on a runner as a mate—to take on any mate for that matter.
When she returned to the workroom, she shut the door behind her, and then grabbed a med kit from a storage cabinet. “What did this?” she asked.
He grimaced. “Got shot.”
“I’m really not equipped to deal with a laser wound.”
“It’s fine. Just a graze.”
Talena frowned as she examined the injury. She had fired a pistol before, but only during practice at a shooting range. “If this is a graze, I’d hate to see what a full-on wound is like.”
“Wouldn’t have made it this far.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
A horizontal slash cut through the flesh above his right hip. The edges of the wound were burned and blackened, as was the cloth of his shirt, and she thought she spotted a hole burned through the back of his black coat. Blood oozed from the center, dark and sluggish. Cy’ren were fast healers, and judging from the amount of blood staining his clothes, the injury had been worse at first.
“This might need sutures, and I don’t have any,” she warned him.
“I heal too fast for sutures. Bandage is fine.”
She rolled her eyes—males were too stubborn for their own good. Opening the kit, she removed a bottle of antibiotic spray.
“Painkillers?” he asked, raising a brow.
“No. I thought this was only a graze?” Talena replied. The male snorted a pained laugh. She shook the bottle once and sprayed a fine mist over the wound, cleaning it.
“I’m Dack. What’s your name?” he asked.
She paused before answering, but she supposed it couldn’t hurt. “Talena.”
“What’s your full name?”
Talena scowled down at him. “None of your business. You should still see a medic when—where are you going to go? You can’t stay here,” she said, slightly horrified at the idea.
“I have a ship.”
“Oh, good.” She would patch him up, send him off to his ship, clean up her workshop, and never think on it again. The sooner she was rid of him, the better. Thankfully his attention was on his injuries, the scarf around her neck hid her lack of mating marks, and the stench of blood might drown out the phase pheromones. For now. Males always noticed the scent. It was why she kept as far away from the other Cy’ren on the ship as possible.
Talena concentrated on her task, ignoring the weight of Dack’s red gaze upon her as she worked, his blood dark against her lavender skin. She cleaned the wound and the skin around the edges to give the pressure bandage a chance to form a proper seal.
The store’s door chime sounded as Talena finished sealing the bandage, and she jumped.
“Don’t answer it,” Dack ordered. He struggled to prop himself up, looking as though he intended to get to his feet, and she placed a hand against his chest. Something low in her belly clenched at the contact, and she swallowed past a sudden tightness in her throat.
“Be still. The bandage needs proper time to bond to your skin, or you’ll tear it.”
The chime sounded again, and Talena sighed. “It’s probably only a customer. I can chase them off.” She closed the med kit and began to stand, but he caught her arm again and held her in place. “You think I’m going to turn you in?” she asked indignantly.
“If I was going to, I wouldn’t have helped you at all. Now let go.” Dack’s grip loosened, and she tugged her arm away. “That’s better,” she said. “Stay here.”
The door chimed again as Talena hurried to the workroom’s sink and quickly washed the blood from her hands. She tossed the stained apron over the back of her chair and closed the door behind her. Talena paused at the front counter and picked up her data board, hugging it to her chest like a shield. She unlocked the doors and pasted an expression of polite interest on her face as she opened it.
A human male stood on the other side, radiating displeasure. Though her stomach sank, she decided to play it safe.
“Are you here for Lady Azure’s order?” she asked. “I’m afraid it won’t be ready for a few days.” The woman was a repeat customer who had sent her servant to order two dozen of Talena’s signature clockwork rose sculptures as soon as she’d come aboard.
“No. I’m looking for someone.” His voice was a low, surly growl, and she suppressed a shudder.
“Are they interested in my art? I can reopen if you wish. I’m always happy to meet with new potential buyers.”
“No.” The man scowled. He was unattractive, even by human standards, and a long, jagged scar ran from his hairline down the side of his face to his jaw. Squinting, he peered past her into the shop, and Talena froze as icy fear raced through her veins. Were there any damning signs of Dack’s presence? A trail of blood, perhaps? Had he knocked over any of her displays?
“The ship’s computer is able to locate registered passengers. If you speak with security, I’m sure they can help you find whoever you’re looking for,” Talena suggested.
“I’m tracking a Cy’ren runner.”
She hugged the data board tighter. “My paperwork is all in order, sir. It’s readily available through the ship’s crew database. I have no current slave marks.” To prove her point she tugged aside the bright paisley scarf around her neck, revealing only one brand marring her throat. Talena had been born a slave, and she would always bear the crest of her former owner inked into her skin.
The man snorted. “A male Cy’ren runner.”
“I don’t associate with males. They’re not trustworthy.” Talena stood straighter, doing her best to appear aloof instead of afraid.
“At least we’re agreed on that.” He glared past her again, but then took a step back. “If you encounter any suspicious Cy’ren, call security immediately and tell them to alert Jack Malenson. That’s me. And don’t try to stop the runner yourself. He’s armed and dangerous.”
“Of course.” Talena nodded dutifully, though she assumed humans found most Cy’ren worthy of suspicion.
Malenson left without another word, and relief flooded Talena as she locked the shop again. When she returned to the workroom, she frowned at the empty, blood-smeared spot on the floor where Dack had been. The whine of a pistol being held to her head made her jump, and the data board clattered to the floor as she held her hands up.
“Who was it?” he asked.
“He said his name was Jack Malenson.”
Dack cursed, and Talena flinched. She glanced in his direction. One hand held the gun, and the other supported him as he leaned against the wall. He looked pained, and she didn’t feel sorry for him.
“Is that bad?” she asked.
“He works for the Eppes.”
“Who?” she asked, morbidly curious.
“One of the biggest slaver groups. Did you say anything about me?”
“No,” Talena replied. “I think the fact that you’re not dead or in restraints at the moment should support that. Though I’m beginning to regret my decision if this is your idea of gratitude.”
“I’m not at my best today. Thank you.” Dack lowered his pistol and holstered it. “What’d he say?”
“He was looking for a runner. I said I hadn’t seen one. Now, if you’re well enough to threaten me, you must be well enough to leave.”
“There a back door to this place?”
“Yes. It accesses the crew corridors, but you can’t use those. You don’t have authorization.”
Dack snorted, smirking. “I don’t need authorization.”
“The doors won’t open without it,” she countered. “The bioscanners require an authorized user’s palm. It scans the veins or bloodflow, something like that. You’ll have to use the front door.” Talena turned and pointed toward the storefront. “Please leave.”
“Do you have authorization?” He tilted his head to the side as he regarded her, and Talena scowled.
“Yes. But I can’t help you. I’ve already done too much.” Talena folded her arms across her chest. A trickle of sweat slipped between her shoulder blades and trailed down her back, her skin flushed as though burned by a fever, but it wasn’t due to sickness or faulty temperature controls. She prayed he didn’t notice.
“I go out those doors and I’ll be caught for sure. Do you know what they’ll do to me?”
She flinched, her resolve faltering as she glanced away. “Well…you should have thought of that before you ran. Do you know what they’ll do to me if I’m caught aiding you?”
“Then come with me.”
“With you? Where?”
“Anywhere,” he replied. “The galaxy’s a big place.” Dack grinned, and for a moment—a short moment—she found the expression charming and the offer tempting. It would be such a great relief to give in, to let her body have its way and let her mind rest. He was handsome…must be the pheromones, she mused. It was a bad sign, for if they were affecting her, they were likely affecting him as well. She needed to be rid of him soon.
“I can get you to your ship, but that’s all.” Talena sighed, feeling like an idiot for agreeing to help him. At least she was an idiot with a clear conscience.
Dack motioned toward the back of the workshop. “Lead on.”
“Fine. This way,” she directed.
Standing next to the store’s rear door, she punched in the access code and it slid open. Much to her relief, the authorities were not waiting on the other side, and the corridor was empty. The docking area was several decks beneath them. Usually she only traveled between her cabin and the shop, with occasional trips to the crew mess hall when she felt a desire for company and conversation. Talena was the sole free female Cy’ren on the Trident. The human crew avoided her, and she didn’t have much contact with her own kind. With any luck, this would be her last contact with a male for a very long time, or at least until her phase wore off. It had to end at some point.
The crew corridors were narrow, and Dack followed close behind her. Too close, in her opinion. When they reached the first security door, she pressed her palm against the reader. Her heart raced as the scanner glowed—what if Malenson had suspected her of aiding Dack? Would the door stay locked and trap them? After an agonizing moment the light blinked green and the door whooshed open.
“Nice and easy,” Dack commented, his voice low.
“What would you have done if I didn’t agree to help you?” she asked.
“Gone out the front door. Probably killed a few security people if they got between me and my ship.”
Talena flinched. He seemed so casual about the idea, she wondered if he had killed many people, and she fought back the urge to ask.
They hurried through the corridors and down to the docking deck. Crew members passed them, but due to the busy dinner hour most were too wrapped up in their own concerns to notice anyone else. Talena’s palms grew slick with sweat—either from fear or pheromones, probably both—and she furtively wiped them against the skirt of her work dress. Dack exuded an aura of calm, looking as though nothing was out of the ordinary. He moved without pain, and that was impressive, for the wound in his side must be agonizing.
When they reached the docking level, Talena hesitated at the door leading into the terminal. “This is as far as I can take you.”
“Come with me.” Dack placed a hand on her shoulder, and she shied away as though the contact burned.
Tempting, far too tempting. She licked her lips as she resisted the sudden desire to kiss him, stepped back and bumped into the wall behind her. “No. I’m happy here. At least I was, until you showed up. Now go.”
“Don’t you want to be free?”
Talena frowned. He thought she was still a slave? “But I—” she began, but was interrupted by the flare of a laser bolt exploding near them.
“The door,” Dack shouted as he drew his weapon and returned fire.
Talena slapped her palm against the scanner as a volley of bolts hit the walls around them. The door opened and Dack grabbed her arm and hauled her with him as he charged through it. More shots followed as they rushed into the arrival area, and crew and passengers scattered. The door shut and Dack blasted the scanner, jamming the lock and keeping the security team from following.
They hurried on into the terminal and more shots zinged their way, this time from ahead of them. Dack skidded to a halt next to an arrival counter and ducked behind it, pulling Talena down with him.
“Let go of me,” she demanded.
Dack peered around the corner of the counter and jerked back as a bolt scored the floor near him. “Malenson’s between us and my ship.”
“That’s your problem. Let go!”
“I can’t leave you here. They’ll arrest you.”
“You put a gun to my head. I think they’ll understand.”
The computer screen on the counter above them exploded, raining pieces of plastic over them. Dack grimaced. “The Eppes aren’t real understanding.”
Panic gripped Talena, and she struggled to breathe past the fear. He could be right—she didn’t know about this mysterious Eppes group, but the authorities might not care if she was coerced. She’d helped a runner, and now she was as guilty as he was.
“Stay behind me. I’ll clear the path, you get the door. Ready?” he asked.
No, she thought, but she nodded. Better to get it over with before she fainted from terror.