Friday, April 27, 2018

First Chapter Friday - How to Steal the Pharaoh's Jewels by Cailin Briste

For your reading pleasure, the first chapter of
How to Steal the Pharaoh's Jewels.

CADE KISSED THE SIDE of Bassinae’s head. “Why do you watch these things if they scare you so much? You’re practically in my lap.”
“I like it. Besides”—she grasped his hand to pull his arm tighter—“I have you to keep me safe.”
“Always.” He gave her a squeeze. “But protective detail has made me hungry. You promised to feed me if I watched this horror vid with you.”
She slapped his thigh. “And a promise is a promise. I can make sandwiches, or we can go to Gio’s.”
“Let’s stay in. Eat on the terrace. This is the nicest day we have had so far this year.”
“Sandwiches it is.”
He followed her into the kitchen, opening the cooler door to grab a brew. “How do you find anything in this mess?”
“My apartment may be cluttered, but I know where everything is.” She took the handle from him and opened the door wider. “What do you want?”
“A beer. If there’s one hiding amid all those bottles of health drinks.”
She reached in and pulled out the beverage he’d been looking for and handed it to him, pushing him away from the cooler when he reached out to rearrange things. “Oh no you don’t. You can turn your cooler into a military barracks, not mine. Get to the terrace. I’ll bring our sandwiches out in a minute.”
“Fine. But none of those disgusting kelp chips.”
If he had seen the broad grin on her face, he would have scowled and accused her of plotting to poison him with health food. Instead he sauntered out of the kitchen toward the terrace doors, as always, comfortable with who he was. He was her best friend, one of a very short list of men she loved. Purely platonic. Romance was out of the question, but if she were looking for that kind of love, Cade Johnson was the type of man she would look for. He was her biggest supporter, the person she spent most of her time off with.
She turned with a happy sigh to plop slices of bread on the plates she’d placed on the counter. From ingredients she pulled from the cooler, she created a sandwich piled high with Cade’s favorites, to which she added a sprinkling of cruciferous vegetable powder that he would never notice. She wouldn’t have to resort to these interventions if he ate better, but he refused to eat broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, or anything he included in his nasty veggies list.
On the terrace she found him stretched out on the one chaise lounge she owned. She handed him his plate. “Hey. That’s my spot.”
“You snooze, you lose.”
“Uh-huh.” She gave him the stink eye, but he was already biting into the sandwich. “I’ll be right back.” When she returned, she scooted a chair toward the chaise, settled in with her own lunch, and propped her bare feet on his leg.
He smirked at her. “That works.”
Quiet surrounded them. The sunny balcony with its riot of flowering plants hanging in baskets and standing in clusters of pots was an inviting space to enjoy a lazy afternoon. When the weather allowed, Bassinae often ate her lunch outside, soaking up vitamin D from the sun and letting the warmth seep into her bones.
Cade finished his food before she did, following the last bite with a deep pull from his beer. He shut his eyes and would have been asleep in minutes if she hadn’t spoken.
“I’ve been thinking.”
He peered at her with one eye. “And?”
She gazed off into the distance. “I feel like I need something more in my life. I don’t know. I love my job, working with abused women at Do It Now, but it’s pretty much a routine. I’m not stretching, growing.” She returned her gaze to him. “Does that make sense?”
A furrow appeared on his forehead. “You want to find a new job? You’d have to give up your apartment here. It would be harder to meet you for lunch when I’m free.”
“No.” She nudged him with her foot. “Not a new job. It’s just...something’s missing. Maybe I should take up aikido. I don’t know. I thought you might have some ideas.”
He studied her. “A vacation. That’s what you need. Your brain’s been sending you subliminal messages ever since Jeanne and Cheyenne left on their beach trip. I’ve got time coming to me. We could go bake ourselves too.” He sliced the air with his hand. “No, we could go hiking in the BĂ©arn Mountains. The two of us. Pack in our supplies. What do you say?” He wiggled his eyebrows at her. “Fresh mountain air. Bubbling streams. A handsome companion.”
“It sounds like fun. I’d go even if you weren’t handsome.”
A triumphant grin broke across his face. “Ah-ha! The truth at last. She thinks I’m handsome.”
She threw a kelp chip at him. “Idiot.”
It slid off his arm when he flinched away from it. “Watch it, or I’ll have you charged with assault with deadly food.” He resettled himself and closed his eyes. “Think about it. It could be fun.”
Maybe, but it didn’t ring true as the solution to what ailed her. Not that she could figure out what was causing this dissonance that had infiltrated her being. She’d become a static creature, good at what she did, but with no new challenges. If only she could lie back and enjoy life the way Cade did. Sometimes she wanted to crawl into his arms and soak in his peaceful confidence.
Sipping from her bottle of green tea lemonade, she contemplated Cade. Maybe he was right and all she really needed was a vacation. Maybe, maybe, maybe. She had more maybes than answers, but she was determined to figure this out.
* * * *
THE MAIN THRUWAY TO the spaceport was snarled in gridlock, so Cade diverted the car to a slower but better regulated side street. He made this trip frequently enough that he had the route and its alternates memorized, down to the timing of the automated signals. Still he would have preferred the quicker course of an open thruway.
His conversation with Bassinae yesterday replayed in his mind. Was she really so dissatisfied with her life that she’d quit her job at Do It Now? What would that mean for her role as a member of Sebastian’s burglary team? Hell, what would it mean to no longer have his best friend and the most important woman in his life right next door? Fate couldn’t be that cruel.
And now this road was jammed two intersections ahead.
“Damn traffic!” He slapped his palm on the padded steering wheel. In the old days no one got in his way. But then he’d been wearing battle armor as a peacekeeper for the United Colonies. Nothing like fear to clear citizens from your path.
“Problem?” The deep voice resonating from the back seat was Sebastian St. Croix, Cade’s boss and the man who had taken Cade in when the military cast him on the trash heap.
“No. Intersection’s blocked ahead. I’ll go another street right. We’ll get there in plenty of time.”
“Do what you have to. You know how my mother hates to stand around and wait. If we’re not there, she’ll take a cab, and I’ll hear about it for the next two weeks.”
Cade chuckled. “I’ll try to keep you out of trouble.” Sebastian’s mother was a force of nature. Nothing stopped her from doing as she pleased except for her husband, Sebastian’s father. The man was the immovable object that, when necessary, blocked her irresistible drive forward. The only time Cade had been a witness to such a set down, his admiration for the man’s authority had grown immensely. But Gerald St. Croix was the only person alive who had that effect on his wife.
The woman refused to use shuttle flights on the planet, even though she was wealthy enough to afford them. One should never take to the air when traveling short distances. This was her dictum based in theory on energy savings. Not that there was any substantial difference in fuel cost between ground and shuttle traffic. She’d grown up on a colony planet that had suffered near-catastrophic power loss from the shoddy infrastructure installed by political crooks. To this day she insisted on saving energy when it didn’t overly hinder her pampered lifestyle. Thus, collecting her from the spaceport took an hour-long drive rather than a fifteen-minute flight.
Cade grunted his approval and noted that the route change had worked. The road ahead was less congested, so he relaxed back into his seat and picked up speed. A parking garage lined the left side of the street, with office buildings on the right. He checked the time and glanced in the rearview mirror. “Want some music?”
At that moment, a large dump truck came barreling out of an exit of the parking garage they were about to pass. Cade swung right and hit the brakes hard, hoping to lessen the inevitable impact. The screech of metal and the splintering of the car’s plasti-shell filled Cade’s ears along with a sound like the roaring thunder of thousands of wild animals stampeding toward him.
Safety foam inundated the foot wells of the car, and the air ballasts deployed. One thought struck him. No pain. And then the world winked out.
The next he knew, someone was shouting his name and agony radiated from his pelvis. The gray airbags that held him in place deflated. Before him the mangled remains of the windshield gave him a partially obstructed view of the front end of the dump truck, an irresistible force that even Gerald St. Croix couldn’t have stopped. The left side of the car was crushed and had been pushed into the passenger side, displacing Cade two-and-a-half feet to his right.
A voice sounded behind him. “Cade. We’re going to get you out of there. Hang on. They’ll have to cut you out.”
That was Sebastian. Thank the gods he’s okay. Minutes passed, but it seemed like hours before Cade heard sirens approaching.
“The police and emergency services are here. It’s going to be all right, Cade.”
How the fuck did this happen? Who in their right mind would drive a dump truck at that speed out of a parking garage onto a street?
“Sir? Can you hear me, sir?” A uniformed man’s head and shoulders appeared outside the shattered front window.
“Yes,” Cade croaked.
“I’m going to stabilize your neck with a collar and cover you while we break the side window and remove the roof of the vehicle.” The man pushed his way farther into the car. He slipped the collar around Cade’s neck and secured it, asking, “Where do you hurt?”
“Can you tell me what happened?”
“Yeah.” Cade mumbled the brief details.
“Okay. We’re ready to remove the car’s roof. I’m going to place a blanket over you and then a shield. I’ll be right here with you.” Cade felt the emergency tech take hold of his hand. “It’s going to be noisy. If you need us to stop for any reason, squeeze my hand. Got that?”
“Got it. Squeeze your hand. Just get it done. It hurts like hell.”
“Pain meds have to wait for a full eval. But as soon as possible we’ll get you feeling better.”
“I know the drill.” Did he ever. Battle armor didn’t prevent everything, and even when it worked, the human inside could get battered and bruised.
“Here comes the blanket.” With the cover and then the flexible plastic shield in place, Cade’s world narrowed further. Claustrophobia enveloped him. He began to pant and grew dizzy.
The emergency med tech’s response was muffled but audible. “You’re all right. Breathe in slowly through your nose and out through your mouth.”
Cade heard the tinkle of falling plasti-glass. His fist clenched, he followed the tech’s instructions and the light-headedness passed. Gods. I’m such a limp dick. Hell of a thing for a former special-forces operative to get his nuts handed to him over. Can’t take having a blanket covering your head.
Shouting voices intermingled with a whirring sound and then a high, metallic screech, a pause, and then more screaming synthsteel. The pain in his pelvis became white-hot when something jarred the vehicle. He gritted his teeth as a wave of nausea hit him. His eyelids squeezed shut, he counted seconds. When he reached one hundred forty-eight, light struck his lids, and he opened his eyes.
A long, slender nozzle came into view, releasing a mist on top of the solidified foam that held him in place from the knees down. The foam melted away. He moved his right foot; the other refused to budge. He immediately regretted the action when pain sliced through his torso, down his legs, and up his spine. He struggled to endure the blinding agony, hanging on, waiting for it to ease while he remained frozen, panting in short, staccato breaths. It’s a broken pelvis at the very least. Internal bleeding if it’s bad. Hell, it feels like my whole left side is crushed. He fought the urge to push his way out of the car. I could be bleeding out. If they don’t hurry, I could die.
The men working over him issued orders for placement of the backboard and the plan for extracting him. Their voices slowly faded into the background as cold gripped him. Stay awake. Don’t pass out. Don’t die. But his body ignored him.
One last image passed through his mind before consciousness winked away: Bassinae.
* * * *
BASSINAE WATCHED THE sixteen women working in pairs before her move in slow motion through the technique she had just taught them. They were of varying sizes, shapes, and ages, but they all had one thing in common. They had been abused and sought shelter at Do It Now. Bassinae’s part of the program was to help them get in shape and teach them how to defend themselves.
The hour for her basic self-defense class was up. “That’s all for today ladies. Good effort, everyone. We’ll continue to work on that last technique in our next session. Tomorrow is a rest-and-absorb day. Spend time mentally working through each movement of your body for what we’ve covered so far.”
The women broke ranks, talking as they made their way out of the exercise room, offering Bassinae a wave or a nod as they left. She released her thin dreads to fall around her shoulders from the tie holding them off her face. An incoming comm flashed a telltale signal in her mind. She answered the call.
“Hey, it’s Bassinae.”
“There’s been an accident.” Even though her voice was thick with emotion, Darcelle St. Croix was easy to recognize.
“Who? What—”
“Cade was driving Sebastian to collect his mother at the spaceport. They were hit by a truck.”
Oh my gods. From her head, down her arms and torso to her feet, adrenaline sent a cascade of sensation as every nerve in her body rang out alarm bells.
“Sebastian is okay, but Cade was badly hurt. They had to cut him out of the car.”
Cade. Gods, no. No no no. “How bad?” She sank her teeth into her lip hard enough to draw blood.
“I don’t know for sure, but Sebastian called to tell me. Max is taking me, and I thought you would want to come.” Leave it to Darcelle to be matter-of-fact during a crisis.
For a moment Bassinae was dizzy, unable to think straight, but one thing was certain, nothing would keep her from being there for Cade at the hospital. She was going to have to focus like Darcelle, not let thoughts of the worst defeat her. “I do. I want to come. I’m at Do It Now, but I’m finished for the day. I’ll meet you in the garage. Bye.”
She looked down at her clothes, tight leggings and a cropped, sleeveless workout top. No time to change. She dashed to the staff break room, grabbed her jacket and messenger bag, and hurried to the elevator that would take her from this secret floor of Sebastian St. Croix’s high-rise. Darcelle and Max would come from the penthouse.
The guard stationed by the elevator, Percy, looked grim but gave her a brief commiserating nod. The doors opened at once for a change when she placed her hand on the security panel. Inside she drummed her fingers against her thighs, waiting to drop the sixty-seven stories to the garage level, worrying her lip with her teeth. Cade was tough, former Special Forces, but still... hit by a truck. She’d only known him a few years. He served Sebastian as his bodyguard, driver, and handyman. Not that Cade was good with household projects. No, his kind of handy had more to do with getting things done that skirted the law. Like the ninjas of old, you never saw Cade coming unless he wanted you to. Sebastian had adopted them both into his personal cadre of repossession experts, thieves who stole from thieves.
The backs of her eyes prickled with tears, but she would not cry. In the years since she’d worked at Do It Now, she’d grown stronger. This was no time to fall apart. Cade needed her. Cade, who had been bristly and defensive much of his first year, as though he was compelled to prove himself, to wipe away the taint of his past. But like the mouse who’d pulled the thorn from the lion’s paw, she never had to deal with his swipes. Perhaps he’d recognized another wounded soul, but it was more likely that she always returned his roars with her own brand of sweet sunshine. He liked to call her Miss Mary Sunshine. She’d tamed him, and they’d become good friends.
The elevator dropped her in the foyer of the garage. A second bulky security guard, one Bassinae had seen on duty at Do It Now, stood keeping watch, his back against the wall where he could view the entire garage level through the floor-to-ceiling windows that separated the foyer from the parking pads.
“Hi, Dave.”
Why is security here too? This isn’t normal. “Has there been a threat to Do It Now?”
He directed his somber gaze at her. “No, ma’am. Security has been beefed up because of the accident.” He returned to scanning the garage.
“Oh.” Before she could follow with another question, the elevator pinged. Darcelle emerged with Max following her. Her billows of red-brown curls had been tamed into a tight bun, and she wore casual slacks and a sweater. She and Max both bore taut expressions. Max had been with Sebastian since he was a boy. He claimed the gray at his temples and in his short beard were Sebastian’s fault.
His words terse, Max said, “We’re taking the armored rover.” He and Darcelle rushed out the swinging door and toward the row of vehicles parked on the right, opposite the service bays.
Bassinae trotted beside Darcelle. “Why the armored rover? For that matter, why the extra security for an accident? Is there a threat?”
A muscle flexed in Darcelle’s jaw. “Maybe. We don’t know. There are suspicious aspects to the crash.”
Bassinae’s mind reeled. Suspicious aspects? Is someone trying to kill Sebastian? She climbed into the back seat of the vehicle and leaned forward. “Why don’t you believe it was just an accident?”
“Strap in.” The order came from Max as he backed the rover out of its space and headed toward the garage’s main exit, where another security guard was in place.
Her hands trembled as she fought with the locking mechanism. Had someone discovered Sebastian’s side business? Did one of the people he’d stolen from discover who was behind the theft? A few of his victims had strong connections to the crime syndicates on planet and even in the Federation.
“There was no one driving the truck that hit them,” Darcelle said over her shoulder.
“Maybe the driver ran off.”
Darcelle’s voice was harsh. “No. Sebastian looked straight into the cab. No one was driving or even in the vehicle. It was on auto-drive. Someone or something had to jimmy with the programming to cause that accident.”
Bassinae fell back against her seat. Auto-drive trucks had multiple fail-safes that kept them moving at a snail’s pace. There should have been no way for Cade to miss seeing one coming at them. Her heart rate sped up, and the trembling washed into other parts of her body. Damn it. No. She gritted her teeth and fisted her hands. I will not have a panic attack. Cade is going to be just fine.
The hours that followed were a nightmare of pacing and waiting. Halfway through surgery a nurse came out to give them an update.
Although they all surrounded him, the nurse directed his information to Sebastian. “Mr. Johnson was suffering from a high volume of blood loss when he arrived in the trauma center. He was perilously close to organ failure, but the paramedics got him to us in time. They’d already placed him in a pelvic wrap, and that probably saved his life.”
Bassinae jammed her freezing fingers into her armpits, dropped her chin to her chest, and squeezed her eyes shut, trying to catch her breath while the nurse continued.
“The doctors have stopped the bleeding and transfused him with a combination of synthetic blood and circulatory healing nanites.”
Sebastian interrupted. “Will they complete the repair during this surgery?”
“Yes, sir. The trauma surgeons are currently making repairs to the patient’s bowel and bladder. Then the orthopedic surgeon will realign and bond his broken pelvic bones. A previous injury makes it a little more complicated, but the doctor says Mr. Johnson should recuperate well.”
That statement brought Bassinae’s full attention to the nurse. She brushed away the tear trickling down her cheek.
“How much longer will it take?”
The question had been on the tip of Bassinae’s own tongue before Sebastian spoke.
“We should have him in recovery in two hours. Once he’s settled, I’ll let you know. The surgeons will be out to speak with you after that.” The nurse looked straight at Bassinae. “He’s going to be fine.”
Max put his arm around her and drew her back to the waiting-room seats. She laid her head on his shoulder, more tears streaming down her face.
Three hours later after Cade was awake in recovery and the surgeons had filled in the surgery details for them and answered their questions, Bassinae could finally see for herself that Cade was okay.
He lay with his eyes closed, paler than she’d ever seen him. There was a bruise on his cheek and more on his left arm. Quietly she slipped next to the bed and slid her hand into his. His eyelids fluttered open, and he smiled weakly at her. “Miss Mary. Where’s that smile of yours? I don’t look that bad, do I?”
“You look wonderful.” She blinked back more tears.
His fingers stirred, stroking her palm. “You said you needed a new challenge. Your wish is my command. You can whip me into shape again.”
She scowled at him. “This is not what I meant. You nearly died, you know.”
“Not me. I’d never leave you like that.”
Her eyes narrowed. “See that you don’t.”
He gave her an imploring look. “Give me a kiss. I need some sugar.”
She bent to place a quick peck on his mouth but lingered over the warm sweetness of his lips.
When she pulled away, he gazed at her, his eyes dreamy. “That’s all the medicine I need.”
For a second it seemed like the world shifted under her feet. In a voice she hoped didn’t sound as falsely cheerful to Cade as it did to her own ears, she said, “You’ll have to work hard if you expect to get more of that.”
Darcelle poked her head in the door. “Knock, knock. Alone time is over.”
Standing to one side, Bassinae watched as the others joked and commiserated with Cade. It was just a friendly kiss. Something best friends share to show their affection for one another. Then Cade’s gaze focused on her with an intensity she’d didn’t recognize coming from him. She touched her fingertips to her lips, and he smiled.
* * * *
 “You can stop babying me.” Vanity made Cade want to slap the long brown fingers of the woman walking beside him off his arm, but he restrained himself because he also loved the sensations her touch brought him. Still, he didn’t like the implication that he was an invalid. He endured instead. After all, this was Miss Mary Sunshine, and if he removed her hand, she’d start another pep talk. He couldn’t stand another happy, happy, everything’s-coming-up-roses lecture.
“I don’t want you to fall. So get over yourself.” This statement was delivered with one of Bassinae’s patented brilliant smiles.
As if. I’m not that bad off. But when she looked at him like that, he was a goner. Since the accident the sunlight that Bassinae routinely distributed in liberal doses to everyone around her had affected him in strange ways. For example, even though he’d been pissy, he couldn’t stop the grin that flashed onto his face or the words that tumbled from his lips. “You know you love me when I growl.”
She cocked an eyebrow at him. “I love you when you’re not acting like a wounded lion better.”
An ache not associated with his injury flooded his chest. Love? She loved him like a brother. During the days he’d spent in the hospital with her at his side, it had grown more and more clear to him that he didn’t want her to remain in the sister category of his affections. Darcelle? Yes. She was the epitome of the bratty younger sibling out to prove she could best her big brother.
But Bassinae, she was special. She’d been there at every single one of his physical therapy sessions, helping and encouraging him, brightening his days with that brilliant smile of hers. The touch of her hands on his body had been glorious, even when she’d worked on painfully cramped muscles. He’d found himself hanging on to her for support whether he needed to or not.
She was damn pretty. Not an ounce of fat on her dancer’s body. And stamina. She could compete with anyone from his military unit on endurance, both physical and emotional. She’d been through hell and back, yet she was a bundle of encouragement and positive thinking. All true before the accident, before near death had clarified matters for him. She’d said she felt like she needed something more in her life. Fuck if he didn’t too. Her.
And here she was once again devoting her spare time to getting him back on his feet. Something he needed to happen yesterday instead of sometime in the future.
His chance to truly be there for Sebastian had come, and he was out of the fight. But not for long. If he knew one thing about Bassinae, she would drive him hard enough to gain ground without overdoing and relapsing. She’d been his friend ever since he’d arrived emotionally battered to take up the post of Sebastian’s personal bodyguard. A job that had seemed more make-work than real until Sebastian brought him in on his criminal activities. If someone was aiming for Sebastian, the need for security now became paramount. And here he was, scuffing his way down the hall that his apartment opened onto.
“Have they figured out who was behind the accident?”
Bassinae scowled. “No. Max looked into the trucking company and the individuals responsible for maintaining and operating the truck, but he found no clear connections to Sebastian. The CEO himself apologized and is running his own internal investigation and cooperating with the police. But it looks like they’re going to rule it an accident. For now, Sebastian is waiting to see if someone tries again before standing down the extra security.”
“Fuck.” He brushed a hand through his hair.
Bassinae gave him a pinch. “Language, bub.”
“Ow!” He flinched away from her.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to hurt the poor pussy cat.” She giggled, taking the sting out of the taunt. “When we get back to your place, you need a shower. And then maybe I can do something about that shaggy mane of yours. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it this long.”
He allowed her attempt to distract him to succeed. “You like it longer?” His dark blonde curls fell in a cascade around his shoulders when he shook them out and eyed her.
She studied him. “You could pull it into a man bun now. Are you keeping the beard?”
They reached the end of the corridor and turned. Rubbing his fingers over his chin, he shrugged. “I don’t know. Does it look good?”
“It has potential.”
She grinned and prodded him with her palm to the small of his back. “Now you’re grasping for compliments. Come on. Walk faster.”
Cade picked up speed. “I want to hit the gym. Doc said I could start resistance training today.”
“Okay, after lunch, but I expect you to spend time in the pool, too. And tomorrow, a short run. The repair nanites have healed your pelvic fracture. All we need to do is reboot your physical conditioning.”
He agreed with a grunt. “Yeah. I’m with you. I have to get back up to speed. No more lying around.”
Bassinae laughed. “You’ve only been home two days. And you haven’t been lounging in front of the vidscreen.” She patted his arm when he huffed his frustration. “You’ll get there.”
“Not soon enough.” He slid his fingers along the side of his head, tangling them in his hair and yanking before dropping his arm. “Sebastian is in trouble. I need to have his back.”
She pulled to a halt and blocked his way, gripping his elbow. “Stop worrying. Security has been increased in the building, and Max is accompanying Sebastian everywhere, along with another guard as the driver.”
His eyes closed, Cade heaved a sigh. “I know.” He lifted his eyelids to find her deep brown gaze searching his face. “I know. But it’s my job, and I owe Sebastian.”
The next instant he was engulfed in her tight embrace. “You’re a good man, Cade Johnson, but you’re not a superhero. Sebastian will be fine until you’re ready to resume your duties.”
Fuck. His heart seemed to shift, and then it accelerated, drumming a faster beat that matched the heat speeding through his body. The press of the soft mounds of her breasts against his chest, the light scent of the oil she used on her hair, and the suppleness of her frame beneath his palms, all combined to ignite a heady desire to fuse himself to her, to make her his. But this was Bassinae. He peeled himself from her grasp, looking away, hoping to the gods she hadn’t noticed his burgeoning arousal, and muttered, “Yeah.”
She patted his arm. “Come on.”
He glanced sideways, trying to determine if she’d detected his far from brotherly reaction to her hug. But she seemed unfazed. Good. If he wanted to be with Bassinae, he’d have to find a way through the wall she’d erected around her life. He’d learned early on that she didn’t engage in casual sex, and she never intended to become involved with a man again. Ever.
That hadn’t been a problem until the accident. Maybe he’d knocked a screw loose, because the woman he’d always seen as a friend, had now been placed on his list for something more. Not that he’d actually had a list. When he’d joined Sebastian’s crew, he hadn’t been in a mood to take up romantically with any woman, let alone Bassinae. Yeah, when he’d first been introduced to her, he had wanted to explore every inch of her body, make her lose control, and discover what expression she wore when he brought her to climax. But he’d leashed that beast. He’d been warned. Bassinae had been badly hurt, and he didn’t add to any woman’s pain. As their friendship grew, he’d stopped thinking of her in that way.
But now... everything had changed. Being with her was the highlight of these long, tedious days of recovery. She was the first woman he’d ever been able to relax completely with. She accepted him, believed in him, and made him feel like the man he was before that last horrendous week on Undoa Prime.
He didn’t want to have sex with her. No, he wanted to make love to her. And that was different. She wasn’t a slot B for his tab A. If he could, he would ensure that her life was filled with goodness and joy, protecting her, standing by her, and... Fuck! He clenched the hair on the top of his head with his fist. No way was he going to use the l-word. Not even think it. Whatever he was feeling, he had to keep it from Bassinae until he figured out how to induce the stubborn female to recognize that he wasn’t like her former boyfriend. That men weren’t naturally given to abusing their girlfriends. That a Special Forces commando trained to kill, maim, and destroy would never, ever harm the woman he loved.
“Buck up. Things aren’t that bad.” She grabbed his hand and pulled him into his apartment, shoving him toward the bathroom. “Now go get clean. You’re getting aromatic, and I don’t want to smell you while I trim your hair.”
The twitch her ass made when she walked away from him brought his cock back to full attention. He groaned, stepped inside, closed the door behind him, and leaned against it, knocking his head against the wood. How the hell was he going to be around Bassinae sporting a nonstop erection? He’d dropped weight, so his pants were roomier, but with a cock the size of his they might not be big enough to hide the true nature of his affection for her. If not, he’d have to invest in something baggy. Meanwhile, there was one certain way of taming a hard-on.
He set the shower to hot, stripped, and climbed under the pelting water. The massage setting of the showerhead was his favorite, but he switched to soft rain. A hand planted on the cool tile above his head, he leaned into the spray, letting it soak his hair and drizzle heat down his back. He sighed, wanting Bassinae so bad he could almost taste her. But until he did, he would never experience the flavor of sunshine. Or the sensation of her gliding around his cock while he whispered dirty words in her ear.
Fuck all. The dispenser plopped a generous dollop of soap into his hand. After smearing it over his erection, he fisted it, pulling in long strokes from root to tip. A manly pine-forest scent wafted up to his nose, nothing like the flowery aroma that trailed after Bassinae. His Bassinae. The woman he needed beyond anything, needed to strip, to explore with his mouth and teeth, and to discover all the shades of brown that colored her delectable skin. She would open to him, tender and responsive. The heat generated by their give-and-take would fuse them, make them one, and he would find the home he’d always longed for, hidden in the depths of her heart.
“Bassinae.” Her name slipped from his lips, part worship, part plea. Lightning speared through him, bursting through his balls and up his cock. A strangled cry ripped from his throat. His cum spattered the shower wall to drip in milky tears under the gentle fall of water. Physically he was sated, but that other ache, the longing, hadn’t subsided with his release. What the hell am I going to do?

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