Authors: Melissa Schroeder
To my Twitter peeps, for the hours of fun and camaraderie that makes up the great romance community. Thanks for the support and the laughs.
No book is ever written by the author alone. There is always a huge support system to keep us sane. Or I guess somewhat sane. Being completely sane would probably not make me a very good writer. Ha!
First, I must always thank my ever-suffering editor, Heidi Moore. You are a diamond of the first water, woman. To Samhain for always being a top-notch publisher and to the staff for always putting in 150%. To Brandy Walker, for constantly listening to my complaining about the move to Alabama and all things military. Also, thanks to Kris Cook, who understands the entire ADD thing like no one else can.
As always, I wouldn’t be the woman I was without the family behind me. Babe, you and the girls mean the world to me. Thank you for always believing in me.
The northern Arcadian wind whipped through Lou Campbell’s hair as she loaded her weapon and prepared for the unexpected. The sweet scent of gypsum blossoms tickled her nose, signifying the arrival of the second spring to the outer planet. She ignored it the best she could and concentrated on her mission, her last retrieval. Thank the Maker it wasn’t a kill.
She wanted this bastard so badly she could taste it. One more job and she’d have enough credits to return home to Earth. Closing her eyes, she pushed away the joy that one thought brought. She didn’t need to lose her edge. No thinking about tomorrows, Campbell. Concentrate on today, the mission, the man.
Placing her gun in the holster on her hip, Lou surveyed her surroundings, her gaze taking in every dark corner and suspicious character. Her nerves jumped and adrenalin coursed through her. Plaiting her long tresses to keep them from being used as a weapon, she planned for the job.
The bar would be crowded, and she didn’t want trouble. She’d already added a few more weapons to her arsenal, all hidden beneath her clothing, including her stunner. Going into a situation like this with only one weapon was a rookie mistake. She knew that most of the patrons wouldn’t think twice about slitting your throat over drinks, but if they were worried one of their own was being arrested, they might turn even nastier. She’d have to come up with a diversion, a way to get Dawson out of there with little fanfare.
Stepping off the curb, she approached the bar where her informant said Dawson was likely to be. She paused, allowing for a hover bike to speed past and then continued across the old-fashioned cobblestones. Arcadia reveled living in the past. Buildings resembled Earth one hundred years earlier, their own type of polluting crude was used for energy, and they loved decadence, in any form. From drugs to sex to food, they had it all here. If there was a sin, it was probably bought and sold on the streets. The Alliance of planets was happy to allow the residents of Arcadia to pursue their wicked vices as long as they stayed put on their own planet.
She needed to scope out the place, see who was with Dawson, what weapons he carried. From the hologram she’d seen of him, he was a big one. She still felt a little guilty that once she’d found the image that she didn’t contact Jared. But she didn’t even want to chance their communication being hacked. Dawson’s bounty was definitely something that attracted a lot of attention. Since Jared ran one of the top retrieval agencies in the sector, everyone had to know he would send out agents.
Lou pushed those thoughts aside and put her mind back on business. Even though she was trained, there were a few men who could overpower her. If she wasn’t careful, Dawson could do it, and she would be stuck in this miserable quadrant for another five years once the government took away her credits. It was her damn luck that they had just passed a law to limit the number of years you could horde credits.
As she drew closer, a man opened the door for her to enter. The tinny music poured out onto the street along with a fair amount of reefer smoke. Shit. She always ended up with a horrible headache when she was in the vicinity of the drug. Arcadia was ignored by the Universal Drug Agency and was allowed free range. Sort of like their own little red-light district at the edge of hell. Other planets seemed to think if they kept it here, they wouldn’t have to worry about it seeping into their districts.
Her heartbeat jumped up a notch as she stepped over the threshold. It was always like this. Fear, anticipation and excitement all rolled into one huge ball. Taking a deep breath, she ordered her body to calm down, to gain control. Even so, her palms dampened and adrenaline flowed through her veins. Since the time she started hunting ten years earlier, she’d always had this reaction.
She knew a lot of Jared’s workers got off on it. They loved the thrill, lived for the kick of adrenaline that came with each job. She hated it as much as she hated the work. But it was a means to an end, and this last detail allowed her to have some sort of pride in what she did. That had not always been the case.
The usual unsavory characters crowded the bar. Even in the dim light she could make out the life forms at the tables. Every cutthroat on this side of the quadrant was probably present. Her stomach roiled when she smelled the stench of the smoke mixed with the smell of sour alcohol. She eased onto a free barstool that was against the wall.
“What’s your poison, doll?”
She glanced out of the corner of her eye and then dropped her gaze. Barely visible over the counter, the bartender studied her with some interest, not enough to bother her though. He was a male Eredite, an android. Shorter than the typical human male, he also sported pink eyes. They were used in all sorts of jobs like bartending since they hadn’t been approved for more intricate work. They weren’t overly bright, but they were known as hard workers.
“I’ll take a geyser water.”
He nodded, filled a glass, and set it on the bar in front of her. “Seven credits.”
She held out her credit reader, allowed him scan it, and then tucked it away again. He hobbled off and she returned her full attention to the room. Her eyes had finally adjusted to the smoke and the dim lighting.
The band, she noted, was a hodgepodge of creatures, some identifiable, some completely unknown to her. That wasn’t abnormal for Arcadia. One good thing about a dive like this, she knew most customers kept to themselves. Almost everyone had something or someone to hide from, and drawing attention to themselves wasn’t in their best interests. The only interchanges were the waitresses or the occasional whore. Keeping a low profile and getting Dawson out under his own will would make her life easier. No one would note him leaving with a woman for the night. Handcuffing him in front of everyone could lead to interference.
Her gaze traveled over the crowd. Miscreants. There probably wasn’t a decent creature in attendance—including herself. She continued to study the gathering until her attention snagged on a corner booth.
Slouched against the seat, a man sat appearing as not to have a care in the world. But his eyes, stone cold gray, examined the room with the same wariness she felt. His dark hair was cut short and two days worth of stubble littered his jaw. The clothes he wore resembled her own—dark, fitted, nothing pretty. His shirt stretched over muscles, outlining the contours, emphasizing his broad shoulders and muscular chest. Her pulse jumped.
“That one’s trouble, doll.”
She slid the bartender a look but said nothing as she resumed watching her prey. He sat with two females, human, one white, one Asian, both whores from the looks of them. Inwardly, she cringed. Women were always unpredictable, especially in situations like this. They may only be bought for the night, but it wouldn’t matter. And if they hadn’t been paid, it could be deadly. Whores always liked to get paid. She should know.
When she finally looked at his face again, their gazes locked. For just a second, maybe two, she forgot to breathe. Heat tingled down her spine and, dammit, her nipples hardened. Even as far away as she was, she could see the challenge in his gaze, his demeanor. Without breaking eye contact, she grabbed her glass and took a long sip. He broke first to watch her hand place the glass back on the bar. When he looked at her again, his lips curved slightly. Heat flared within her, her hormones bouncing to attention.
Even with the surge of arousal pumping through her, she felt the rise of adrenaline, the surge of sickening excitement. She touched her weapon in its holster and then slid from the bar stool to move in for the kill.
Sam Dawson watched the blonde as she approached his table and tried not to show his reaction. Reid and Denton were here for cover, but he didn’t think either contract agent would be happy if they knew he was sporting a boner hard enough to lift the table. He didn’t want it going in a report. And these two would do it just to fuck with him.
Not that there would be a report. For some reason, he seemed to have lost his contact at Zenich Industries, the security firm he worked for. No one had picked up his transmissions for the last week. Considering his assignment had been flagged as covert with an immediate suspense, Sam thought it more than a little worrisome he hadn’t heard from them.
Shifting his weight from one hip to another, he winced when his pants drew tight over his crotch. His dick throbbed against the fabric.
Shit. He didn’t need to get itchy over a mean-looking woman. She looked like she was packing enough heat to take down half the bar. With a body like that, and the weapon she was carrying, she had to be trouble. Sam should know better. Women like her could get an agent killed.
Damn if that didn’t interest him even more.
What the hell was it about her? Usually, he didn’t pay attention to women who looked like trouble. It had to be all that hair. He was a sucker for long hair, especially that shade of honey blonde. The way she had it pulled back, he couldn’t tell exactly how long it was. He was guessing all the way to her ass. Which, he was sure, was full, round and just the right size for him to cup as he lifted her against him to sink his cock into her tight, hot…
“Something wrong, Dawson?”
Glancing at Reid, he smiled, hopefully masking his interest in the other woman. “No, darlin’. Just a little…hot in here.”
She smiled knowingly and glanced at the blonde approaching the table. He followed her gaze and his dick twitched when he made eye contact with the woman again. She stepped past a rough-looking mercenary without a second glance. Most women would have detoured five leagues out of his way. She didn’t even pay attention to the appraising look the man had sent her. It wasn’t that she didn’t know, because she looked to be a woman who knew what was happening around her. She just didn’t give a damn.
Stopping in front of their table, she smiled. A curve of the lips and blood rushed to his groin. His pants drew tighter over his cock, and moving only aggravated his condition, the material rubbing against the sensitive skin. “Can I help you?”
Her smile widened and her light brown eyes twinkled. His cock jerked.
“I’m not sure you can. You seem to be a bit occupied at the moment.” Her gaze encompassed the two women. “I don’t like playing second fiddle, or taking someone’s leftovers.”
Her voice barely reached him over the sound of the offbeat music and murmurs of conversation of those surrounding them, but he could still hear the seductive purr, the invitation. All remaining good sense drained as his dick hardened further. He was trying to come up with a reasonable answer when she turned to leave. Panic had him almost jumping over the table. Sam beat back the fear and took a deep breath, hoping for a steady voice.
“Now, darlin’, there’s no reason to be so hasty.”
She looked back over her shoulder. As she did, her braid moved to the side, giving him an unobstructed view of her black-clad ass.
Jesus. Full, round…enough for him to grab a hold of just as he had thought. He motioned for the other women to leave, which they did, but not before they both gave him a look of irritation. He knew he’d pay for this one in the morning.
Once they were gone, the blonde turned around and stood there not saying a word.
“Going to join me?” He motioned to the booth.
She shook her head. Wisps of hair that had escaped moved with the motion of her head, making Sam want to twist one around his finger to see how soft it was.
“The plans I have wouldn’t be fit for public viewing.” Smiling, she cocked an eyebrow. The hum of arousal strengthened in him. Sam always liked a smartass woman. “Unless you’re into that sort of thing?”
He licked his lips as every ounce of moisture dried in his mouth.
He slid out of the booth, the action causing another painful swipe of the fabric against his erection. She’d started walking toward the door without a backward glance. Within two steps he was by her side. Sliding his arm around her waist, he pulled her against him, staking his claim. She stiffened for a moment and he was sure she was about to object. A second later, she relaxed and he let go of a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. She had approached him, but it didn’t mean she liked to be claimed in this public way.