This book is about two extremely hot guys. Oo-la-la! Here’s her first chapter, just to give you a sample:
Check out the hottest guys in the hottest romance I’ve seen this month!
Proximity sensors blared and red warning lights flashed madly, disrupting the everyday routine on the bridge of the starship Brizo. Captain Zen Ahbramez looked up from the comm screen he’d been perusing. “Report, Mengs.”
Already in action, his Gulrian navigator’s long, agile fingers flew over the command keys at his station. “There’s a slow moving ship crossing our projected course. Unless we change speed or course we’re going to collide.”
Familiar tension readied Zen’s mind and body for action. He took a deep breath of recycled air. The customary hints of metal and machinery registered against his sensitive palate, a barely there but recognizable taste. “Distance?” he asked, redirecting his gaze to the forward view screen.
“Half a parsec, more or less.”
“As usual, Mengs, your pinpoint accuracy is underwhelming.”
The intricately carved wood beads in Mengs’ short braids clacked as his chair swiveled. He fixed his orange-eyed gaze on the captain. “Yeah well, you get the good stuff when it counts. You know me, I don’t like to show off, and it’s not like you have to make an instant decision.”
Chuckles accompanied the navigator’s observation. Zen rolled his eyes and returned the grins directed at him by two of the other three crew members present on the bridge.
“Serk,” Zen said, his gaze turning toward his second in command, “Run a scan on that ship.”
“Already in progress.” As usual, the Adarian had anticipated Zen’s order. His fingers — retractable claws currently hidden — were finessing the control keys for every bit of information as his almond-shaped, emerald-green eyes remained glued to the monitor that scrolled info at its operator’s command. “It seems we have a… Captain, that ship is a Dukati shuttle craft.”
With the ship’s identity revealed, the jovial mood on the bridge vanished and every person present went from relaxed to battle ready. The Dukati were a warrior race known for their random and ruthless raids against anyone not strong enough to defend themselves. Zen was hit by a sting of anticipation laced with hostility. He was more than willing to engage in conflict should the Dukati choose to initiate it, but caution warred with aggression to keep his hatred for them in check. For the sake of his crew it would be better to avoid trouble.
“Shields up. Scanners at max. Harren, report any subspace chatter,” Zen ordered his communications specialist. “Serk, any other ships in the area and how many on the shuttle?”
“No other ships currently in range of our scanners. One life sign on the shuttle and they don’t appear to be doing too well.”
“Life signs are weak. The life-support system is failing.”
“Give me a thorough scan on the shuttle right down to the last nut and bolt. On the passenger too. If there’s so much as a hair out of place I want to know about it. As fast as you can, Serk.”
“On it, Captain.”
“Mengs, take us out of warp. Clay, I want everyone armed. We’re on red alert, people.”
“Aye, Captain.” Clay Delgato, in charge of ship’s security, turned to a panel near his station and keyed in the code which opened it. A whisper of sound accompanied the slide of the door as it revealed sleek black scorch pistols and the sturdy, woven belts that would carry them. He went quickly from crew member to crew member passing one set each to Zen and the others.
Serk, who was still engaged with his scans, held his arms out, giving Clay, his mate, room to fasten the belt at his waist. Green eyes met brown and a quick smile was exchanged before Serk made his report. “Captain, the scanners are finding no anomalies. The shuttle and its passenger appear to be clean and from what the biosensors are telling me, the passenger is not Dukati.”
“That’s fortunate. A Dukati I’d just as soon launch out an airlock no matter what shape he’s in. All right gentlemen, it seems we have a rescue to enact. Mengs, I want a tractor beam on that ship. Haul it into the hangar bay. Clay, you’re with me. Harren, tell Doc and Jacks to meet us in the hangar bay. Serk, you have the bridge and keep an eye on the long range scanners. I don’t want any unexpected guests crashing our party.”
Various voices called out, “Aye, Captain,” as Zen prepared to leave the bridge.
With Clay at his side he strode to a set of double doors that slid open to reveal a small chamber. As soon as the men entered the brightly lit cubicle, the doors slid shut behind them and they were scanned by the internal sensors of the bioporter.
“Hangar bay,” Zen called out.
“Hangar bay,” repeated a digitally synthesized yet lyrical voice.
Absolute darkness engulfed them and for a split second Zen wrestled with the surge of adrenaline that sometimes spilled through his veins and made his heart beat faster when being transported. The sensation of being struck blind was disconcerting until tiny whirling streams of light twinkled, blazed, then gradually faded. With only the tiniest sensation of having been moved, Zen’s vision returned unimpeded. He and Clay stepped out of the bioport chamber and into the safety zone sealed behind a set of thick, metal-framed glass doors.
The hangar bay held two six-passenger shuttles neatly parked in their designated places beside four hover cycles. Other than a small work area for the ship’s engineer, the rest was open space. Caution lights flashed as the hangar bay doors slowly opened.
A rainbow swirl of colors indicated the presence of the atmospheric membrane which prevented everything in the hangar bay from being sucked out into space. As the Dukati shuttlecraft moved forward, the membrane yielded to the pressure, but rather than break, it melded itself to the small ship and clung to its every contour. The ship eased through and was brought to a halt, settling in its new berth near one of the Brizo’s shuttlecraft.
When the hangar bay doors were again secure, the safety zone doors automatically opened and Zen and Clay headed toward the shuttle. A chime informed them of an incoming transport. Both men paused and looked back as the bioport’s interior doors slid open. A tall man and a slim woman stepped out. Without a word, Clay handed each of them a holstered scorch pistol.
“Dukati shuttlecraft. Latest design too. We salvaging this baby?” Meral Jackson, ship’s engineer, asked as she belted on her weapon. Her hazel eyes twinkled with good-natured avarice. “I’d love to get my hands on her.”
“Why does something so innocuous sound so lewd coming out of your mouth?” Doc’s thin lips were pinched in a grimace as one eyebrow rose.
Jackson grinned. “Can I help it if I admire a shapely hull?”
“Shouldn’t you concentrate on getting the hatch open? Serk’s last report gives the passenger approximately seventeen minutes before the oxygen runs out.”
“Seventeen minutes? Piece of cake. I’ll have it open in less than two.”
Doc’s snort of disbelief brought a speculative gleam to Jackson’s eyes. “Wanna bet?”
“Five greens at the next poker game.”
“A hundred and twenty-five credits?”
“You in or out?”
Doc aimed a squinty-eyed scowl at Jackson. “In.”
“Time me.” Jackson turned her attention to the shuttle and dug into her tool pouch, which was perpetually attached to her by a cross-body strap.
Directing a look of sympathy toward the ship’s main medical practitioner, Zen shook his head. “I’m pretty sure you’ve been suckered, Doc.”
As Zen watched, Jackson found whatever she’d been looking for and set to work. Muscles flexed under the smooth tanned skin of her bare arms as she punched a series of keys on the flat, rectangular unit she held in her hand. A slight turn of her head brought her profile into relief and set a few glimmers of light chasing through the strands of her blonde pixie-cut.
Having learned at her father’s knee from the time she was old enough to pick up a sonic wrench, Jackson knew her way around a multitude of ship types and systems. Zen had little doubt the shuttlecraft door would give her any trouble.
From the small unit she held in her hand, a continual series of chirps issued as a cycle of colored light beams played over the closed shuttle hatch. As the seconds passed, one by one each beam turned green.
“Twenty seconds,” Doc warned.
“No worries. It’s… done!” Jackson’s announcement was triumphant as the hatch slowly lifted. Stepping back, she made way as the steps began to lower.
“Damn,” Doc cursed softly. “Don’t you have anything better to do than practice breaking and entering?”
“For your information, nothing broke and no, I don’t. As ship’s engineer I see to it the Brizo performs like a Xanasian courtesan being paid double. Smooth and compliant.”
“A girl’s gotta have her fun.” Jackson’s unabashed wink brought a quick grin to Zen’s lips and snort of amusement from Clay.
All four of them quickly sobered as the now fully opened hatch ceased all movement. Zen motioned Jackson and Doc back. Weapons drawn, he and Clay approached the yawning hatch. Touching the small, round and flat metal disc attached to his collar, Zen voiced a soft question. “Serk, any change in the scans?”
“None, Captain. All readings remain within normal parameters. The passenger hasn’t moved. Nothing on long range scanners.”
The shuttle’s inner lights were dim, the interior shadowed, with no sign of the passenger. About to take a step forward, a quick negative motion from Clay stopped Zen in his tracks. Zen gave way and allowed his security officer to precede him. Clay went aft where the last scan placed the shuttle’s passenger. As soon as Clay stepped within the murky interior of the shuttle, Zen lost sight of him.
His own foray into the ship was accomplished without incident and he turned to the fore and the ship’s controls. Each space along the way was examined, between and under seats in case something had remained undetected. Every unoccupied space was clear and the shuttle quiet as a tomb.
Reaching the ship’s control’s Zen gave them a quick once over. Except for the blinking lights indicating the failing life support system, everything else seemed in order.
Zen touched his communications disc. “You find our guest?”
“Yeah. Can you bring up the lights? We need Doc in here on the double and he’s gonna need ‘em.”
Zen called Doc and Jackson in and adjusted the lighting while waiting for Jackson to join him at the controls. “Do a thorough exam on all systems, Jacks,” Zen ordered when she appeared. “Make sure this thing can’t be traced. Something doesn’t seem right here. Why would the life support fail? This shuttle’s so new the paint’s barely dried.”
“I’m on it, Zen.” Jackson seated herself at the controls and began running ship diagnostics.
Leaving Jackson to her work, Zen made his way back to Clay and Doc. The closer he came, the more pungent the scent. The coppery tang assaulting his heightened sense of smell weighed heavy on the still air. Doc was squatting near a body, his med scanner beeping and flashing in a way Zen could tell bode ill. Side-stepping Clay, Zen was able to take in the full picture. He drew in a sharp breath. What once had been a vision was now covered in blood and lay still as death on the deck.
The shuttle’s passenger was male. In contrast to the obsidian darkness of his softly curling hair, his skin was bone white. Sweat dampened bangs adhered to forehead and stuck there. His full lips were slightly parted and his finely chiseled, androgynous features were slack. His almost too-delicate-to-be-male appearance was emphasized by his current condition.
He wore a pair of near-diaphanous pants that hugged his body from the waist down like a second skin. Other than a pair of wide, embossed silver bracelets that encircled his wrists, his upper body was nude. The man lay on his stomach, his back clearly visible, the damage done to it horrendous. Thin strips of skin had been peeled away leaving raw open wounds that had bled profusely before clotting. Rusty spatters of blood had soaked into his pants, as well as the matted curls that touched the back of his neck.
Shock, fury and the raw reminder of a familial tragedy pummeled Zen in equal measure at the sight of such torture being visited on someone who appeared to be little more than a helpless captive. His hatred of the Dukati — something that was branded into his very soul — twisted within him.
“Son of a Bactrian bitch.” Zen cursed not only the savage act so blatantly displayed on the young man’s back, but also at the reminder of what that selfsame act had cost him. “They used a fucking flayer on him. Doc?”
“He’s hanging on, but we need to get him to the med bay now. Not that I think he’d wake up, but just in case I’ve attached a nerve blocker, so let’s hurry. I can’t leave it in place very long without causing nerve damage, but it’s that or nothing.” Doc indicated the flat, square metal chip now sealed to a patch of uninjured skin on the man’s shoulder. “I can’t administer any drugs until I get this mess cleaned up and have a better idea of what I’m dealing with. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, be damn careful how you handle him. If you can avoid it, don’t touch his back.”
“We need a stretcher,” Clay said.
“No time. Grab a blanket from the supply locker. We’ll slide him on it and carry him to the bioporter,” Zen answered. He touched his communications disc. “Serk, send Kyle to med bay and have him transport down here on the double with a gurney, then resume course and get us the hell out of here. The Dukati may come looking for their missing shuttle.”
“Right away, Captain.”
When Clay returned with the blanket, Zen helped him lay it out and as carefully as possible the two of them maneuvered the injured man onto it. With each of them grabbing two corners of their makeshift stretcher, they shuffled out of the shuttle in time to hear the bioporter’s alert chime sound. The door slid open.
Zen noted with approval Kyle’s prompt arrival and the way he hurried to meet them. Kyle helped Doc settle their patient on the gurney and took charge of wheeling him back into the bioporter.
“You two wait here,” Doc ordered as he followed Kyle and the gurney into the bioport chamber. “I’m taking him up lift mode. The last thing he needs right now is to have his innards scrambled.”
Taking a last glance at the injured young man’s pale, still face, Zen stepped back. “All right, Doc. Go.”
* * *
An hour later Zen was seated at the conference table in an area just off the bridge that served as everything from meeting room to casino when the weekly poker game was in session. He listened attentively as Jackson filled him in on the shuttle situation.
“It had the expected tracking beacon that could be activated by any Dukati vessel looking for it,” Jacks said, “but there was also a backup designed to kick in and send out an immediate signal if the regular beacon was tampered with. Both are now disabled. We don’t have to worry about the Dukati on our tail with absolute proof we’ve got their shuttle. Not to mention that poor kid in the med bay. How’s he doin’?”
“Doc’s got him stabilized,” Zen answered. “He’s still working on him.”
Zen’s eyes met Jack’s and noted the concern in hers. “I’m fine. Why do you –”
“You know perfectly well why I’m asking. Don’t be an ass, Zen.”
“I may be the captain of this ship, but I have just as much right to be an ass as anyone else on board.” Zen tried a smile, but gave it up under the pressure of Jack’s unwavering stare. He sobered and sighed. “It stirred the bad memories, but like I said, I’m fine. Thanks for asking. Now what else did you find? I can see there’s something you’re just dying to tell me. Spill it.”
“It’s the reason the life support failed. There was a clever little bug inserted into the ship’s system. It initiated the failure and began to erase itself at the same rate the life support degraded. Once the life support died, all traces of the bug would disappear. Damn clever piece of programming. Anyone finding the shuttle after total life support failure would never be able to figure out what went wrong.”
“They’d put it down to some sort of pilot error.”
“So someone tortures our passenger not quite enough to have him die outright, throws him in a rigged shuttle and sets him loose where life support failure would finish the job. Why would they do that?”
“Maybe they didn’t dare kill him outright. They wanted to make it look like he escaped, but needed to make sure he didn’t survive. If I had to guess, I’d say he was under someone’s protection and that person got careless. You know it’s said the Dukati sometimes make pets of some of their captives.”
Zen nodded. Those stories had already given him hope and nightmares in equal measure. The very idea that his little brother and sister might yet be alive, but under those conditions, rattled him to the core. A thousand times it came to mind that they’d be better off dead. Yet Zen couldn’t bring himself to wish it, and each time he wondered if it was selfishness for wanting them to be alive or cowardice for being afraid to let them go.
He pushed those thoughts away. “Rumor has it only high level Dukati are allowed the privilege of claiming pets. Whoever did this wanted to be able to say he didn’t die by their hand, but rather by the shuttle’s malfunctioning life support. Of course we won’t know for certain until we can talk to our unexpected passenger, holies heal him.”
“Actually, that’s my job, and getting answers out of him won’t be happening for a while,” Doc said as he entered the room and took a seat. “I have an update on my patient.”
Zen acknowledged Doc with a nod then returned his attention to Jackson. “We need to dispose of that shuttle in a way it can’t be traced to us. Any ideas?”
Jack’s smile was beatific. “I know a guy who’ll make her disappear like she never existed. No questions asked, and the parts’ll be scattered to half a dozen systems before we hit Ilsan for our cargo drop.”
“The drop off won’t take us off course?”
“Nope. He runs a mobile shop, if you get my drift.”
“Make it happen. I’ll leave the financial negotiations up to you. Equal shares for everyone, including our passenger.”
“Yes!” Jacks bounced up out of her chair and practically skipped out of the room.
“You’ve made her day. There were stacks of credits dancing in her eyes.”
Zen chuckled. “What have you got for me?”
“He’s stable. His physiology is similar enough to ours that he can accept transfusions with no problem. I’m pushing fluids and antibiotics. He’s developed a fever, but that’s not unexpected. The injuries to his back… they’ll heal. Sluget gel will alleviate most of the scarring, but not all if it. Some of the wounds were pretty deep. Whoever did this is a vicious son of a bitch.”
“Agreed. Anything else?”
Doc’s expression confirmed what Zen had already assumed. “Previous scarring on his back and buttocks. Not recent and very thin stripes. Not from a flayer. Some sort of switch if I had to guess. There’s been sexual abuse. Again, some older scarring. I’ve taken steps to minimize all damage, recent and old, as much as possible. His body will be fine. No lack of feeling or hindrance of function. As to his emotional and mental state, I can’t speak. He hasn’t woken at all.”
Zen nodded. “All right, Doc. Keep me informed.”
With Doc’s departure Zen was left with his thoughts. He found them bouncing between his missing siblings and the young man now recovering in med bay.