Yours to Desire
ES Siren series #3
Momentum Books, 28 August 2014
If he didn't move his ass, he'd be late for the damn basket-weaving class.
Con took the narrow access steps two at a time, one hand skimming the alloy bulkhead for balance. Despite his haste, he landed lightly, the treads singing a soft metal song beneath his feet. It wasn't his way to be noisy. Folding his portacomp, he shoved it in the pocket of his fatigues and strode down the corridor. The doors were identical save for their numbers. On the left, D143, D149, then D154 on the right. He frowned. Somebody couldn't count.
Pausing outside D155, he checked his watch. Dead on time. From within came the murmur of conversation, then a single voice - a husky alto - rose above the others. "Shall we begin?" it said in the cultured accent of the elite.
She was punctual, he'd give her that, the thieving bitch. His mouth twisted. Scratch that - the alleged thieving bitch. Mustn't condemn the princess without a fair trial. He'd bet his hard-won stripes her wealthy family had brought every kind of pressure to bear, up to and including blackmail, bribery, and intimidation, all to get this worthless, pampered woman away from the dying Earth. Scientists were a dime a dozen among the elite. She couldn't have been the only one available - just the best connected. As home shrank to a blue-green marble in the viewports, Con wondered if the real price of her escape had dawned on her. Did she know she'd almost certainly never see her birth world again? None of them would.
By god, he wanted it to be her.
Wiping all expression from his face, he shoved the door open and strode in.
A single, comprehensive glance and Con had the personnel in the room summed up. The tall woman at the front, holding a cloth-wrapped bundle, had to be Lily Kwan - Doctor Lily Byrne Kwan, xeno-botanist, biochemist, and all round geek. A dozen or so people sat at battered tables, a mixture of soldiers and civilians. The general air was one of barely concealed boredom, so it was a good guess they'd been arbitrarily assigned to Kwan's Basket-weaving Academy by some evil genius in HR. At the back, two enlisted men lounged against the wall. The tall skinny one was busily excavating an ear with his forefinger, while his stockier companion scowled at the four prisoners slumped at the nearest table. Their yellow outfits created a startling splash of color against beige plastic and scuffed metal. The Siren was no beauty, that was for sure.
"Ah .?" Lily Kwan gazed at him enquiringly over half-moon spectacles. Her eyes were oddly pale against her warm olive skin. "Good afternoon. Can I help you?"
"I'm here for the class."
Her brow creasing, Kwan glanced down at the list on her portacomp. She'd scraped her hair back, but an ebony strand escaped to flop across her cheek. She ignored it. "That's strange, I thought I had everyone."
"Late addition," Con said blandly. Turning his head, he flicked a razor glance at the guards. They straightened so quickly he thought he heard their spines snap. Lazy bastards.
"Of course." Kwan peered at his name tags. "You're welcome, ah, Sergeant Madison." She laid the bundle she carried on the desk as tenderly as if it were a newborn. It squelched.
Was it wet?
Still considering him, Kwan pulled a stained rag from her pocket and wiped her hands. Funny, with her background, it should have been a fancy, lace-trimmed handkerchief. Con attempted a pleasant smile, though the two guards - now standing rigidly to attention and staring straight ahead - rather spoiled the effect.
"Are you sure you're in the right room?" Her dark brows rose behind the glasses as she took him in. "This is basket-weaving."
Con knew what he looked like. Big and dark and mean, all male. The gang tatt on his neck didn't help. Fine, fine. He could make nice if he had to. With a conscious effort, he stopped himself from looming.
"You never know, might come in handy. And it's Master Sergeant." He watched her out of the corner of his eye. "Connor Madison, Ship's Quartermaster."
Not a flicker, but what had he expected? By all accounts, the woman had a brilliant mind, cool and incisive.
"Oh," she said. "Well, then. Welcome." She indicated the empty table nearest the front. "Please, be seated, and we'll begin."
Sit with his back exposed? He couldn't do it. Brushing past her, Con planted himself at a table on one side of the room. From there, he had a nice solid bulkhead behind him, not to mention an excellent view of the instructor and the class. Stretching his legs, he retrieved his portacomp and hooked an arm over the back of his chair. Now, Doc, let's see if you're as goddamn clever as you think you are.
Kwan cleared her throat. "Basket-weaving is an ancient art," she began. "Indigenous people have used plant materials from prehistoric times to store food and other items. Unfortunately, the depredations of the centuries have robbed us of a great of deal of evidence for ."
Depredations? Who used a word like depredations on a convict transport bound for the outer reaches of space? Hopefully, Unity colony was still out there, waiting for them on Solitaire. If it wasn't, if it had gone under, they were comprehensively fucked, all five thousand of them-not to mention the people on the other two ships. His lips took on an ironic curve. Gone to hell in a great big woven handbasket.
". different materials," Kwan droned on in that soft, precise voice. Carefully, she unfolded the cloth from her bundle, revealing clumps of grass and twigs. "Here we have a sample of a reed found commonly on Solitaire." She held up a bunch of flat, bluish weeds. A trickle ran under the sleeve of the white coat she wore over a green shirt and camo pants. She swiped at it absently. "It's easy to cultivate anywhere, even onboard the ship, if we can provide sufficient water, whereas this variety of Earth flax ."
People were frowning, a couple of the older women leaning forward so they could hear. The stocky guard yawned hugely, not bothering to cover his mouth, then shot Con a guilty glance. The doctor noticed, ducked her head, and forged on. Con studied her from beneath his lashes. Perspiration shone on her brow, while a slow tide of pink inched up her long neck to stain her cheeks. The words came faster and faster, a patter that fell into the silence like little stones. She wasn't stupid, she knew she'd lost them. She could lecture all right, but she couldn't teach for shit.
Somewhere around soaking bark strips to make them malleable, he tuned out again. As the Siren's senior non-commissioned officer, he had one of the highest security clearances on the ship. With a few taps on the portacomp, he retrieved her record. It didn't tell him much more than the last time he'd looked, but it helped to have the subject - the suspect, that was - in view.
Given her glittering array of degrees, Lily Kwan was younger than he'd expected, only thirty. Fast-tracked from school to college, and from there to a mountain top in Switzerland, to work in the air-cleansed comfort of one of the few remaining research institutes. It didn't take a genius to work out that she must be one of the Kwans, the strongest of the five great clans, because an education like hers reeked of privilege and power. Leeches gorged with the blood of the dying Earth, the families had grown fat and greedy on the misery of others. Doctor Lily owed everything to her honored ancestor, great-grandmother Kwan, several times removed. The old woman's ruthlessness had been legendary.
When he looked up, the doctor was on the other side of the room, fiddling with a three-foot ribbon of some green stuff. The middle-aged tech seated at the table looked stupefied, though he revived enough to sneak a peek down the front of her shirt when she leaned forward. The goat.
On his portacomp, Con flipped to the genocode. Yeah, there it was, a direct line of descent from the old madam, the genetic material predominantly East Asian. And a healthy dollop of Celt, way back. Hmm. He pulled up the personal details. Mother deceased - only six months ago - father still living. Kwan was unmarried. He'd bet there was a story there. No offspring.
He blanked the screen with a quick jab of his thumb. "Sorry. What?"
Lily Kwan plonked a bilious green plastic circle on the table in front of him. "A base for your basket." Determinedly, she pushed the glasses back up her long nose. "I've pre-punched it," she said, pointing to the holes around the perimeter.
Con stared. Though her hands were narrow and graceful, with long, slender fingers, they were filthy, as if she'd been finger-painting with camouflage colors. Two knuckles sported blisters.
How would the clever doctor react under pressure?
Without haste, Con reached out, gripped her right wrist and turned her hand palm up. The skin was marred with nicks and cuts, some healed, some not. "What happened to your hands?"
"Nothing." Under his thumb, her pulse fluttered. "Just doing my job," she said, her lips tightly compressed.
When she took a step back, he held on, gently, but firmly. "Explain."
The downlights shone directly on her face. From behind the glasses, furious almond eyes met his. They were a stormy gray, not the brown he'd expected.
Con's lips curved, very slightly. Ah, now they were getting somewhere. The peasant had transgressed and the princess was pissed. It warmed his heart, truly it did.
"I work in a lab, all right? I do experiments." She tugged, to no avail. Her cheeks had gone a dull red.
Lounging back in his chair, Con released her, taking his own sweet time. "I see."
Her spine snapped straight. "Which do you want? Bamboo or reed?"
"Neither." He gave her a calm smile. "I'll just watch the others for now."
The blood beat beneath the golden skin of her throat.
"Fine." Scooping up the green circle, she whirled around and headed for the sulky prisoners.
Con stared. Had he thought their yellow shirts were the only bright notes in the room? A glossy dark braid, almost as thick as his wrist, hung down Kwan's back, bouncing with the energy of her stride. Threaded through it was a scarlet ribbon.
Years ago, he'd slouched against a pock-marked wall and watched one of the gang sluts plaiting her baby sister's hair, both of them tired and skinny, open sores around their mouths. Memory was a strange beast. He could still see the blue satin in those thin, deft fingers - a startling flash of peacock in a dirt-colored world. What had the girl paid for that small strip of something pretty? Impatiently, Con shook his head, his thumb creeping up to brush the tattoo on his neck. Past is past. Hell, another life, another time.
Kwan bent over the prisoners' table, doling out basket bases, still talking in that funny low, deep voice. The plait swayed with her movements like a bell-rope begging to be rung. If he tugged the ribbon loose, let the glossy strands unravel, her hair would cover her ass. Speaking of which .
Con took a leisurely survey of the good doctor's rear. Nice, what he could see of it - pert, rather than lush. The gang toughs would have sneered and called her a long bitch. She was tall - the top of her head would come to his chin, he judged - with long, slender limbs, a long straight nose, long-lidded eyes concealed by a forest of dark lashes. For god's sake, he could snap the woman in half without raising a sweat. He tapped an irritated forefinger on his portacomp. Con liked females who gave as good as they got, women with meat on their bones who'd meet him more than halfway, in bed and out of it.
Now she was working with one of the older female techs, nimble fingers manipulating the reeds into patterns, talking, talking. When the woman made a pleasant comment and took over the task, Kwan stood back, smiling. But her lips barely curved, as if she didn't dare trust herself with too much pleasure. He couldn't imagine her laughing. Hell, he couldn't imagine her in the throes of any kind of passion. It just didn't . compute.
Intelligence, self-discipline, iron-fisted control. Kwan certainly wasn't the only one on the Siren with those particular qualities, but when you tossed in the scientific qualifications and access to a fully equipped lab, the doctor was in a class of her own. She had the know-how, the equipment, and the sheer class to shrug off suspicion. There were other leads, true, but Christ, he liked her for it.
He needed to talk to the military police - to Sandy - asap. Not that he intended to be left out of the bust. No way, not with the thieving bastards laughing at him behind his back. He'd been a quartermaster virtually all his life, right from the gang days. Even as a kid, he'd managed miracles, scrounging, improvising, bartering. It was what he did. No one - no one - stole stores from Con Madison and lived to tell the tale.
With some difficulty, he suppressed a growl. He glared down at the pharmaceutical specifications he'd brought up on screen. It took the right ingredients and the right processes to cook up the aphrodisiac rape drug commonly known as sexmeth. He hadn't been to Switzerland like Kwan. His college campus had been the broken concrete canyons of greater Chicago, his frat house a dark warren off an abandoned subway tunnel. A gang rat's education wasn't much, but military training had plugged the gaps well enough for him to work out the basics. He flipped back to the manifests he'd spent the last twenty-four hours checking and cross-checking. The two small freeze pods of genetically engineered mushcali he could understand, even the antibiotic capsules and morphine derivatives, but why steal soyroom spores? What did she - they - need dried fungus for?
He caught a sidelong flash of the doctor's light eyes as she removed the spectacles and polished them with her handy rag. Strange. Yeah, very . strange. There was something .
Still thinking, Con scrolled back to Kwan's record. Genocode, medical information, personal history. What had he missed? Blood pressure, lungs, muscle tone, reflexes-she was an impressively healthy specimen. Contraceptive implant with preventatives for disease, check. She wouldn't be spawning little drug runners anytime soon.
Con's lips tucked up at the corners. Daddy Kwan had paid for corneal surgery to correct myopia when his daughter was but a slip of a girl. So why the glasses? What did the good doctor have to hide?
He had a quarry - now to hunt her down. Luxuriously, he stretched his long legs under the table. Took him right back to the bad old days.
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© 2014 Denise Rossetti
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