Mine to Keep
ES Siren series #5
Momentum Books, 25 November 2014
Spring, 2202. Sydney, Australia.
Aussies weren't a bad lot, mused Sandy, but they couldn't sing for shit. Every drunk in the pub was bellowing along with the karaoke machine. God only knew what the tune was, but they'd killed it deader than the fishes floating in the harbor. A night in the Siren's brig would do them the world of good - not that she had the authority to put them there. That was a crying shame in her opinion, but they were civilians, not her people.
Hooking a boot heel over the bar rail, she leaned back to tally the prospects. Oh, yeah, she was restless tonight, all keyed up and burning to cut loose. By god, she was due a celebration! Her grin kicked up a notch. Twenty years of sweat and dedication, but she'd done it. Master Sergeant Sanderson. Ah, it was sweet. Master Sergeant. Finally. She rolled her shoulders, enjoying the easy flex of strong, supple muscle, and savoring the sense of achievement fizzing through every cell in her compact body.
All she needed was- Her mouth thinned as her gaze moved from man to man, quickly assessing them: falling-down drunk; already taken; lard ass; obviously gay; just a kid; passed out on the floor. Dammit, Sydney was a bust. She might be ready to roll, but she had her standards.
The stentorian chorus was loud enough to drown out the rumble of the air scrubbers, though it wasn't as if the stupid things were much use. The fog inside the building was only marginally more breathable than the smog outside. No wonder slum-dwellers got chem-lung-especially the kids.
Here's to you, Sis. Sorry, honey. I'm so sorry. With a shrug, Sandy lifted her bottle and drank deep, the beer slipping thin and bitter down her throat. Poor Sis. There'd been nothing left of her by the end, just a small bony face, and the bright blood that flecked her lips and chin with every racking cough. But there wasn't a fucking thing she could do for her little sister, not then, when they'd been slum kids, and not now, when she'd got her promotion and a berth on the Siren, heading for the stars.
Well hell. Blessed be those who had the lung tissue to make any kind of noise. She drank another toast, this time to the healthy and tone-deaf.
Ah! Her attention sharpened. Broad shoulders, shaved head, trim waist. But when the man strode across the floor to a raucous group in the corner, his military carriage was unmistakable despite the civvies he wore. Sandy frowned. Nope, not another soldier. No way. Sure, she had an itch to scratch, but tonight she felt like something - someone - different. Irritated, she looked away, this time out the big windows that overlooked the street.
In the courtyard of a restaurant two doors down, black pants stretched tight over a taut, rounded ass. Sandy blinked. The man had left his chair and bent over to retrieve something from the floor behind a potted palm. He stretched and wriggled as he reached.
God have mercy.
She let out a hasty breath, resisting the urge to fan herself. Would the face match?
Mr Nice Ass straightened, but didn't turn, damn it. He wasn't a big man, but lithe and well put together, with thick dark hair and good shoulders. With a quiet comment, he handed something small - it looked like a data chip - to a well- dressed woman in her fifties. She and her male partner were obviously his dinner companions. Nice Ass seated himself opposite them and raised his glass in what was clearly a toast. The upmarket couple smiled broadly, leaned forward, and clinked.
Sandy grinned fiercely. If she was lucky, tonight would be good, very good. If she wasn't, well, hell, she could still enjoy the show. The couple facing her were Tower elite, out for a night of slumming, she'd bet her stripes on it. And she had a funny feeling about Mr Nice Ass .
The setting was perfect-the trio might as well have been spotlight on a stage, placed there purely for her entertainment. The restaurant was trying hard. Small tables were set among potted palms so sprightly they had to be fake. There were napkins and waiters-the works. Ritzy.
The pub was on the highest point of a gentle slope. If she lifted her gaze above the rooftops, she could see the fallen arch of the Harbour Bridge, looming out of the smog like an enormous broken tooth. Sydneysiders continued to use it, putting convenience above safety. How long before the bridge simply folded in the middle and sank beneath the filthy water? Not long, surely? But foot traffic streamed across it at all hours, even the occasional heavy freight hauler. Aussies were mad, everyone said so.
At the table below, Nice Ass was talking a blue streak, sketching something in the air with his right hand. But under the table, the fingers of his left were clenched in a fist, the only evidence of tension in his body.
Sandy's distance vision was excellent. The corrective operation was one of the things she'd bought with her first real pay, along with a martial arts sensei to teach her all the ways a small female could fight - and win. She had no problem recognizing the other woman's predatory expression as she leaned forward to catch Nice Ass's hand in hers. Sandy's eyes narrowed.
She had to see his face!
She drained the last of her beer, slammed the bottle down, and headed over to the windows. A beefy man with a beer in one paw and a frothy pink concoction in the other sidled along the bar toward her, grinning hopefully. "Hey, blondie, look what I-"
She brushed past without breaking stride. "Not now, friend. I'm busy."
Grabbing a stool, she hopped up and peered out. Perfect!
When a waiter approached, Nice Ass turned his head. Sandy's breath caught.
Damn! Too young.
She slumped, absurdly disappointed.
She wasn't an ageist, but she had her limits, and cradle robbing was one of them. She braced her elbows on the window sill and rested her chin in her hands, brooding as she watched.
Mr Nice Ass had attractive mobile features, a face that showed every thought passing through his pretty head. Right now, he was thrilled about something, but more than a little overawed. His generous mouth trembled on the brink of a boyish grin and his deep brown eyes glittered. He was clean-shaven, olive skin nicely flushed over high cheekbones. The dark red fabric of his nicely tailored shirt flattered him outrageously. He couldn't have been more than twenty-five. Goddammit!
The older couple rose and Nice Ass leaped to his feet, draping the woman's coat over her shoulders with charming deference. They all shook hands. Nice Ass hesitated a moment, then leaned in to give the woman a shy peck on the cheek. When she moved right in, pressing her lips to his for a long moment, he blushed.
His back to Sandy, he stood and watched them all the way to the sleek ground vehicle waiting on the street. As it purred away into the smoggy night, he blew out a long breath, his whole body relaxing. Then he turned, grinning, and fell back into his chair. Lounging in an elegant sprawl, he lifted a hand to summon the waiter.
Sandy stared. What the--?
This was a different man, a man who'd removed a mask. He was still flushed, still excited and smiling, but now it was triumph, not pleasure, that curved his mouth. His face had gone hard, the pretty brown eyes filled with grim purpose. Something delicious fluttered in Sandy's stomach. Forget the handsome puppy - this man was a full grown wolf.
She was off-duty, fancy free, but tomorrow she'd be back on the Siren, sorting out her new command. Why not indulge herself? Down there waited a night of mystery and adventure, all wrapped up in a dangerous, attractive package. The man's youth and innocence had dropped away with the mask. The change added a good ten years, so she'd still be older, but not enough to trouble her conscience. Mr Nice Ass was plenty old enough to take care of himself.
Decision made, she swung out the door and into the street. By the time she reached the restaurant, her quarry was deep in thought, contemplating the heavy-bottomed glass he held. He had beautiful hands, she noted with pleasure, an artist's hands, with long fingers and well-kept nails. She waved the hovering waiter aside and made directly for his table.
"Mind if I sit here?"
His head jerked up. She got a quick, comprehensive glance, head to heels. His chocolate eyes warmed. "Sure," he said after an electric moment. "Make yourself at home." He pushed the other chair toward her with a casual foot.
They stared at each other. He cocked his head to one side, the smile growing. "Very nice," he said with genuine appreciation. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"I saw you with your friends." She pointed to the pub. "From up there."
Immediately, his expression shuttered. Taking his time, he twisted to look back over his shoulder. "Really," he said evenly. "And what, exactly, did you see?"
"A man with a reason to celebrate."
"What makes you think that?"
Being on the other side of an interrogation was a novel experience. And that's clearly what this was - an interrogation.
Behind the puppy charm lurked a wolf's bite. Sandy's pulse rate picked up. She suppressed a grin.
"You closed some sort of deal, drank a toast, parted on excellent terms."
His eyes narrowed, though the smile lingered on his mouth. "You're quite the observer. Cop?"
"Army," she said honestly. If the prospect of a cop made him this wary, she wasn't going to spoil her chances by telling him she was Military Police. It didn't matter anyway, not for one night.
"Ah." He beckoned the waiter. "Let me buy you a drink." Pointing at his tumbler, he held up two fingers.
"Thanks." She held out a hand. "Alanna Sanderson. Call me Sandy, everyone does."
His grip was warm and firm. "Alanna." This time the smile reached his eyes. "Pretty name."
She couldn't help but snort. "Not really me."
Again, that tilt of the head. "Oh, I don't know," he murmured, long lashes fluttering. He enfolded her hand in both of his.
Smooth, very smooth.
"And you?" she prompted.
It wasn't his real name, she was almost certain. "Peter? That's all?"
"Stanton," he said without missing a beat.
And she was Mother Teresa.
Sandy turned her hand in his, drifted a finger over the calluses on his palm. "What sort of training do you do?"
"Much the same as you, I imagine." Bringing their joined hands to his mouth, he touched his lips to her knuckles, feather light. A jolt of sensation hit Sandy in the solar plexus. Before she could catch her breath, he transferred his attention to the rough patch at the base of her thumb.
"Stun gun?" He kissed the spot, his lips soft and warm, his breath hot.
Thoughtfully, she studied his bent head. A thick dark wave fell artlessly over his forehead. "Could be."
He glanced up. The amusement in his chocolate eyes invited her to share, to be complicit in her own seduction. "I'm on the right track then. Which makes these others--" With a fingertip, he traced the marks that were the legacy of the short staff and the wooden sword, the bokken. "Let's see - karate?"
Sandy laughed, a little startled by the strength of her response, the depth of her pleasure. "Mixed martial arts. A little of whatever works, but mainly aikido. I like the discipline."
She had to admit, she was enjoying the hell out of this, out of him. God only knew what he really was, but lord, he was going to be the most fun she'd had in three years, since her unit had been called in for the gang clean-up in Chicago. It had been a brutal roller-coaster of an operation, and incredibly dangerous, but she'd never felt more alive.
Without fuss, she freed her hands and met his gaze. "What about you?"
He shrugged. "It's a dog-eat-dog world. I can look after myself." Well, that had the ring of truth.
She'd bet a year's pay he was armed, but he wasn't wearing a holster - not under such a closely tailored shirt. Most likely he had a knife somewhere, or a small weapon in his boot.
Before she could follow up, the waiter arrived with their drinks. At the sight of the bill, Peter produced a portacomp in a case that was either real leather or an excellent imitation.
Cynically, Sandy wondered if he was hoping she'd stop him, offer to pay for her own or - even better - both of them. Then she took her first sip and nearly choked. "Holy shit!" She stared into the depths of the amber fluid, savoring the smooth, peaty bite. "Is this whiskey?" Jesus, her mouth was busy with an orgasm all of its own.
Peter finished the transaction on his portacomp and dismissed the waiter. Leaning back, he cradled his glass. "Yeah, the real thing. You like?" He favored her with a twinkle so blatantly, unrepentantly charming, he must have practiced in a mirror.
"Are you kidding?" Cautiously, she took another sip, rolled it over her tongue. This was nothing - nothing - like the rotgut her father had used to drink himself to death, though he'd called it whiskey. "I've never had anything like it. Didn't think it existed." She closed her eyes. "Oh. My. God."
On a master sergeant's pay scale, the nip of heaven in her glass had to be worth three months' wages. Sandy shot a sidelong glance at the waiter, half-expecting a scene when the transfer bounced, but the man continued folding napkins, unperturbed.
Her brows rose. Peter was either loaded or he'd just committed a felony. In any case, he was mighty slick.
"So," she said. "You must be elite. Which Family?"
He shrugged. "That was a long time ago."
His accent was a pure Aussie drawl, but beneath the flattened vowels lurked the cultured tones of the Tower elite. Sandy racked her brains. The Kwans had interests in Australia, but so did the Girandellis and the Steinbergs. Peter certainly wasn't a Kwan, but beyond that--? She had no way of telling.
"Think of me as a black sheep." His smile was rueful. "They do. I get by fine without them."
The smile became a frown. "You're very direct."
Sandy grinned. "Yeah, I am. No sense in pussy-footing around."
"I'm a broker, a go-between."
"You wheel and you deal. Is that how it goes?"
For a split-second, the wolf looked out of his eyes. "Something like that." He repossessed himself of her hand. "But I'm boring. Tell me about you, Alanna."
"Sandy." What the hell. She let him see the pride, the excitement. "I just made master sergeant. Only found out day before yesterday."
"Hey!" He lifted his glass to her, beaming. "Congratulations."
She took a sip, rolled the whiskey reverently over her tongue. "I'm thrilled. And tomorrow I join my new command on the Siren."
"The Siren? Isn't that one of the Earth Ships going to Solitaire?"
She nodded. "We'll spend this month getting outfitted, but after that--" She shifted in her seat, suppressing the urge to get up and dance. "--the adventure begins."
He looked grave. "They say there's every chance you'll be stranded there, light years away."
"Yeah, it's awesome."
"There's nothing here for me, nothing and no one. Earth's a shit-heap, but Solitaire's brand new, all squeaky clean."
"I can't imagine it." Peter grimaced. "God, I'd die. Earth's home for me." His gesture encompassed the street, the broken bridge, and the murky water. "Sydney's a blowsy old girl, but she's my city."
"I haven't been here before."
He emptied his glass. "Seen the sights?"
Sandy shook her head. "I've only got a twenty-four hour furlough."
"Well then." He rose, all lean, dark grace. "Drink up and let me show you. Unless ."
He drew her to her feet and into his arms. Jeez, he had some moves. Bending his head, he nuzzled her cheek, drifted his mouth to hers. "Unless you'd rather not waste time."
His breath was whiskey-scented and warm. When the tip of his tongue crept out, sleek and knowing, to slide across her lower lip, a sizzle shot down Sandy's spine, making her toes curl in her boots. Then it ricocheted up. He might as well have slid a hand between her thighs and cupped her. She gasped.
"Where are you staying?" he murmured, running a leisurely palm from the nape of her neck to the swell of her ass.
Sandy jerked back, eyes narrowed. "What's wrong with your place?"
"You wouldn't like it there," he said, not at all discomposed.
When he grinned, his whole face lit up, and she had to brace her knees to keep from clutching at him like a green girl. Irritated with her own weakness, she glared.
"Tough lady." He kissed the tip of her nose. "Is that your sergeant's face?"
He gave a theatrical shiver. "Should I be scared?"
She couldn't help but laugh a little. "God, you're good." Going up on tiptoes, she gripped a fistful of shirt. "I'm a twenty-year veteran, Peter." She gave him a quick shake. "You betcha sweet ass I'm tough. You don't want to know how tough."
His lips tucked up at the corners. "Is that a warning?"
"I guess it is." She was pleased to discover she only had to look up a few inches to meet his eyes. Most men loomed over her. "Do you care?"
"Nah, not at all," he said, all Aussie now. "Nothin' like a challenge."
She studied him. "I want you," she said. "I wanted you from the moment I laid eyes on you, but don't think I'm an easy mark.
He gave a wry smile. "Duly noted. Kick-arse blond, icy blue eyes, not an easy mark." He brushed his knuckles along her jawline. "How many different ways do you know to kill me?"
"With or without a weapon?"
Peter chuckled, but for the first time, his gaze slid away from hers. "Shouldn't have asked," he said under his breath.
He slid an arm around her waist. "Okay, Sergeant Kick-arse, what'll be? Do you get to see the sights - or do I?"
Sandy stepped away and grabbed his hand. Pleasantly conscious of the blood fizzing in her veins, she towed him toward the door. "Show me Sydney first?"
"Ah," he said. "Foreplay on a power bike. I can do that."
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