The woman he can’t forget…a betrayal that must be forgiven.
The Fringe, Book 4
Duster Jennings loves his job as master-of-arms on Windmere, the only independent planet in the galaxy. Except he has no life. Not since his dream of a large, loving family was ripped to shreds by Diane Black. The woman who abandoned him.
Desperate to move on, Duster pays a fortune to board a courtesan ship and hire a “stripper”—a specialist in erasing unwanted memories. Except when he wakes up, his memories are intact, his money is gone…and the woman he vowed to forget is holding him captive.
When Diane Black discovers her mysterious client is Duster, she’s overjoyed to learn he’s still alive—and unsure what to do with him now. Seven years ago her mission was to kill him. Instead she fell in love. If the network finds out she let him go, it won’t be just her and Duster’s necks in the noose.
Duster’s fury knows no bounds…and damn it, neither does the lust that still burns for her. But when their ship is attacked, survival means trusting each other with their backs—even if they can no longer trust their hearts.
Product WarningsContains a knife-wielding hero overcoming a crackleseed addiction, a heroine with a secret skill and a more secret past, bitter betrayals, burning lusts, and bulging canvas trousers.
Copyright © 2012 Anitra Lynn McLeod
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Diane peered down at her sleeping client.
Out of the trillions of people in the Void, the one man she thought she’d never see again landed in her ship to have painful memories stripped away. He wanted to go back to a specific day, a fateful day, and remove it from his mind forever.
Diane stroked his face with trembling fingers. Sensitive tips traced the thick shadow of his beard, then marveled at the smooth plush of his lips. Duster didn’t respond. He couldn’t. Duster would be incommunicado for the next twelve hours.
She leaned close to smell the leather and canvas of him. Most people wore self-cleaning fabrics of strex or enotex, but Duster had said he hated the way they felt against his skin. Natural or nothing, he’d said with a grin that made her vote for nothing. And where most people slathered themselves in a chemical soup of personal products, Duster preferred simple soap and water. A deep breath of his scent refreshed a hundred erotic memories she’d worked desperately to submerge.
Succumbing to long-denied cravings, she put her lips against his, but his drug-slackened mouth didn’t come close to her fantasies. She pulled back.
He’d been both willing and eager to pay the hefty 1Mil-per-year fee to be stripped, but she’d put the job off time and again. Seven years was an eternity. Stripping a mind so deeply would cost her dearly, which was why she was alone with him in the ship. To do her work, she needed absolute privacy, not only so she could mentally and physically connect to her client but so that she could recover afterward. Seven years of memories would leave her drained for days. Tenacious, her mysterious client had jumped through hoops to sway her. After a year of negotiations, she’d accepted and signed the contract.
“I had no idea my desperate client was you.” Diane trailed her fingers through his dusty blond hair. Buzzed short, the strands tumbled through her fingers with barely a whisper. In the past, his hair had been long and shaggy, tangling up in her fingers, allowing her leverage to pull him ever closer in a frenzy of passion.
“I have a feeling you came to have meeting me removed from your mind.” Regret, sharp and shameful, caused tears to blur her gaze. When she wiped them away, she spied a platinum ring on his finger.
Moving back, she pressed her palm against her chest, feeling the chain-bound ring that hung between her breasts. With a trembling hand, she lifted his arm. After pulling the chain out from the folds of her diaphanous gown, she compared the two rings.
She lowered his hand to the table.
Clutching her ring, she left the room, locking the heavy metal door from the outside. She strode to the bridge as fast as she could in her decorative high heels. The fashionable yet delicate gem-encrusted shoes would probably disintegrate under her if she stomped. She yanked the useless fluffs off after she threw herself into the pilot seat. Her fingers flew over the keypad as she activated every defense system on her ship.
Her hand hovered over the panic switch. If she flipped it, members of Network Thirteen would come out to the ship. Diane couldn’t turn Duster in. Maybe not just yet. Maybe not at all. She simply didn’t know enough about him to make that decision. Seven years ago, he’d been a slaver, but she had no idea what he was now.
Duster still had twelve hours before he came out of the anesthesia. Ironically this would have been her grand finale for Network Thirteen. She was determined to change her identity and start working as a stripper on her own, far away from the unrelenting press of their thumb. After seven years, she had the money to do what she’d always longed for, but now that Duster reentered her life, he threw all her plans out the window. Since he’d wanted seven years stripped, she figured she had three days to strip him with four days for each of them to recover. At best she had a week with Duster before her network would come looking, suspicious that she hadn’t returned him.
“A week to do what? Discover just how much he hates me?”
Diane touched the ring on the chain around her neck. She didn’t wear it on her hand like he did, because she couldn’t let the women of Network Thirteen see a wedding ring. But not a day had gone by in the last seven years where she didn’t touch her ring and think of the only man she’d ever loved. Duster Jennings. A slaver.
Just seeing the mate to her ring on his finger filled her with confused terror. He must have still care for her to wear it, or he had vowed to hunt her down and kill her. She didn’t know. She couldn’t read him, his memories, unless he allowed her to. She had to touch him to do her work, and he had to be in the proper situation for her healing touch to be effective.
As a stripper, she would put him into a hypnotic alpha state with drugs so his mind would open to her. Duster had been in such a state when he’d been loaded on her ship. Once she realized who her mysterious client was, she’d panicked and hit a button that automatically injected him to the point he rested in a chemically induced coma. Diane could safely induce such a state in him for only a few more hours, which would extend the twelve-hour lead time she had, but any longer than sixteen hours might cause irreversible brain damage.
What would she do with him after that? She couldn’t strip him. She couldn’t return him to Dahank, the planet she picked him up on. She couldn’t keep him. As pleasing as the prospect of keeping him her prisoner was, she couldn’t. He’d never let her do what she wanted to do with him. Given their history, he’d go out of his way to kill her, and she honestly couldn’t blame him.
Pressing her thumb and forefinger to the bridge of her nose, she squeezed hard as she considered her limited options. If she kept him in the stripping room and drugged him lightly, he wouldn’t be able to escape. And she could touch him all she wanted. But she couldn’t keep him there forever.
“We haven’t seen each other in seven years. You want seven years stripped. We once had seven days together. I have seven days to decide what to do with you.” Diane sighed. “Seven seems to be our number.”
She turned her mind back to when she’d been a slave and Duster had been her master. Within a week, she made Duster her slave. Encouraging him to mate with her turned him against everything and everyone he believed in. Linking them as mates made them strive toward a common goal—survival for themselves and their potential children. After using her feminine wiles to compel a commitment from him, she’d dumped him off in the Void without a breath of explanation. And she certainly didn’t want to give him one now.
“Eventually, I’ll have to release him. But where? And how?”
Diane studied Duster over the audvid. He hadn’t moved. Anticipation at seeing his mossy-green eyes open filled her with both longing and fear. She wanted to see lust in his gaze but dreaded seeing only burning hatred reflected back.
“How could he ever forgive me for betraying him?”