In this story, the hero, Sterling, has just talked the heroine, Sasha, into helping him try to bring down her ex boyfriend, a dangerous drug dealer…
Sterling preceded Sasha into his room and twisted the light switch just inside the door. A single globe flickered to life overhead, threatened to go out then glowed with a harsh white glare to reveal just how crappy a room can be obtained for fifty untraceable credits a week.
Finding an unwired, relatively safe place to conduct his business required compromises to be met, breathing room being one of them. The dank little space at the end of a danker hallway wouldn’t hold more than four adults without forcing someone to stand in the doorway. He hadn’t expected to bring anyone here, least of all someone who could turn on him if she chose to. But something about Sasha James said he could trust her. He hoped he was right.
Sterling closed the door behind them, not bothering to lock it. No one else lived in the building, and leaving it unlocked might ease Sasha’s mind somewhat. He removed his coat and hung it on one of the hooks jutting from the back of the door.
Sasha wrapped her arms around herself, as if she were still standing out in the snow. Her skin looked starkly pale in the unforgiving light; he couldn’t read her expression. Did he scare her that much, or was it the situation? Probably a little of both, but it couldn’t be helped. All he could do was assure her he’d do his damnedest to keep her safe. As long as she played square with him.
“Have a seat,” he said.
Not that there was much choice in seating. A narrow cot sagged against the left-hand wall. Across from the bed was a rickety, straight-backed chair with barely space for a body to move between them.
In the corner beside the chair, a Revivalists Chapbook sat on a low, painted chest.
She took the chair and turned to face the bed, her knees together beneath her black skirt. The hem rose as she sat, revealing the shapely curve of her legs. What did the rest of her look like beneath the heavy material clothes and tights?
Sterling gave himself a mental shake. She was anxious enough. No need for him to add ogling her legs to the stress.
“Do you want me to take your coat?” He approached her as he would a wounded animal, risking the loss of an arm if he moved too fast.
“No, I’m good. Just start talking so I can get back.” She threaded a hand through the long strands of hair on top of her head.
Her eyes held steady on his as he sat across from her on the thin mattress. The bed frame creaked beneath him. Face to face, their knees nearly touched. The smallness of the room had never bothered him until now. It was impossible to ignore how tiny it was, with the two of them filling the space.
Impossible to ignore how close she was when a mere intake of breath brought her rain-and-flower scent to him.
Sterling swallowed hard and shifted backward, eliciting a rhythmic creaking from the frame. Heat rushed to his face as Sasha’s gaze dropped to the bed then quickly rose to meet his eyes. She scooted back as far as she could on the hard chair.
“I’m going to get a job that doesn’t start until after twelve-hundred. Maybe on a planet that never has winter.” Her tone was conversational, but the words were more than lamentation about being tied to the system or the relentless cold of Nevarro. They probed for affirmation, reminded him about the terms of their agreement.
Sterling nodded, confirming a promise he wasn’t completely sure he’d be able to keep. He’d pull every string he could to make it happen for her; he just couldn’t guarantee her chip would be deactivated like he’d said. His only relationship to Corrections was his friendship with Mickelson. But telling her that now would blow everything.
“I know you don’t want to be with Christiansen any longer than necessary,” he said, rubbing the side of his hand across the scar on his forehead. “The less time you’re with him, the better.”
Sasha snorted a quiet laugh. “At least we agree there.” He smiled and her cheeks pinked, but instead of glancing away she kept her gaze on him. “Where did you get that? The scar, I mean. Most people would have had it erased.”
Sterling stopped rubbing the slightly raised line and lowered his hand. “An accident, when I was a boy. Fell on my head off a cattle feeder and got stomped.” She winced, and the compassion in her eyes for the injured boy he’d been embarrassed him. He waved off her concern. “Dad refused scar treatment, saying it would teach me not to fool around near the cows, but okayed a new eye so I could still work. Impressed my friends when I made it move independent of the other.”
Sasha laughed at his childhood antics. Unguarded moments brought out a side of her Sterling liked. A side of her he’d bet hadn’t seen the light of day in a long time.
As if realizing she’d let him see too much, she sobered, her features closing to him once again. She cleared her throat. “What do you need me to do?”
Mentally, Sterling shook his head at her wariness. Damn Christiansen for what he’d done to her. “Introduce me as a potential amber dealer, someone who can expand his distribution in a new direction.”
The muscles in her jaw tensed. “What better way to get close to him than be the same kind of low-life bastard he is, right?”
“Exactly. I’ll be a guard you met at rehab, someone who works the system as well as works for it.”
“That’ll sound true enough,” she said with a wry grin.
Sterling ran his hand over his damp hair. “Yeah, as frustrating as that is in real life, it works to our advantage.”
“So you’ll be a guard-cum-drug dealer at the rehab center.” She shrugged and shook her head, dismissing the set-up. “Those are a demi-cred a dozen. He’ll never bite on that.”
“Not at the rehab center. I’ll propose dealing at one of the correctional mines.”
Not to say there wasn’t drug use in the correctional mines, but it was underexploited territory for amber dealers because of the high security of the facilities. There’d been a shake-up at Exeter Mining a few months before, when the company had flouted CMA practice standards and the development of their revolutionary K-73 filters hit a lethal snag.
The scandal had been brought to a head by the unlikeliest of people—Liv Braxton, a corporate blackmailer who fell in love with Exeter’s VP of research, Zia Talbot. Sterling had more than enough evidence to slam Exeter for its unethical, deadly research, and the fallout prompted a flurry of increased safety measures, tighter regulations and harsher penalties. Exeter’s disgrace now brought the CMA running for the slightest infraction, both in government-run correctional mines and in the private sector.
Illegal ventures were difficult to pull off, but not impossible. If he could convince Christiansen selling amber in the correctional mines was doable, he might be able to forge a relationship with the drug dealer and get close enough to Kylie to get her out. Sterling’s position at the agency gave him plenty of inside information and some room to maneuver between departments, allowing him to create a scenario he hoped Christiansen wouldn’t be able to resist.
He also hoped his superiors would understand, as his wasn’t a sanctioned operation. Easier to ask for forgiveness for stepping on Justice Department toes than for permission. Maybe. And if he lost his job or became an inmate himself over his plan? Well, that was a risk he was more than willing to take.
The CMA and Justice Department weren’t his only worries. If Christiansen discovered he wasn’t who he claimed to be, it would likely get him killed and possibly put Kylie and Sasha in danger. He was used to the challenges of undercover work. Involving civilians was another matter.
Sasha stared at him, doubt clear on her face. “Do you really think you can pull that off?”
“We just have to make Christiansen think I can.” He grinned at her, but she didn’t seem to share his confidence. His smile faltered. “Without you, he probably wouldn’t see me at all. With you, maybe I can get close enough, get inside fast enough to get Kylie out of there.”
A sadness darkened her eyes. “If she sees you first, if she learns you’re there to get her, she’ll hide. Or tell Guy. You know that, don’t you?”
Her words and expression spoke of experience, making him wince. Had Sasha hidden from her family when they tried to retrieve her from Christiansen’s hold? Had they given up on her? Was that why there was no record of them ever coming to visit her at the NCRC? No record of a comm call or message in the last five years?
He couldn’t imagine abandoning his sister like that, but would she spurn him and their family for the drug? If she were caught in amber, Kylie wouldn’t care about him, wouldn’t care if Christiansen threw him out or maybe even killed him. The idea of his own little sister turning on him made Sterling shake with pain and anger. He knew amber did strange things to users, and he prayed he could get Kylie out before she sank that far.
“I know. For some reason, Kylie’s PR position doesn’t allow her to travel away from his compound very often. When she does, it’s with Christiansen or a bunch of other people.” Or was it her position with the bastard himself that kept her locked away behind the gate and walls? Either way, Sterling knew it was risky to infiltrate the drug dealer’s world, but he had no choice. “That’s why I need you to get me an in. If I can get past Christiansen, I can try to find her on my own. As long as I see her before she sees me, I have a good chance of getting her out.”
Kylie’s life, and the lives of who knew how many women who followed her, might depend on it. He knew Sasha realized it as well, but fear of Christiansen lurked in her eyes.
“He won’t believe me,” she said, shaking her head. “I’ll mess up.”
“No, you won’t. You’ll be fine.” She had to pave the way for him or he was back at square one. “Christiansen’ll be wary of you coming back into his life, but if you can convince him you’re trying to make peace, it’ll work.”
“Guy’s no fool. After the way I talked to him last time we were in the same room, he’ll expect I’m up to something.”
Her eyes narrowed and she cocked her head. “And you’ll counter that how? With a note from my parole agent attesting to the sincerity of my backslide?”
“You’ll tell him what he wants to hear, Sasha.” He shifted on the bed, their knees less than a hand-span apart as he leaned closer. The flowery scent of her shampoo reminded him just how close they were. And how much closer they could be with the slightest shift of his body. “What he needs to hear from you.”
“That you were wrong to leave him.” She stiffened but said nothing, maybe too incensed to speak, so he continued. “You were wrong—you couldn’t make it on the outside without him. Your stint at the NCRC told you that much and more, and now you want to make it up to him.”
“And if he doesn’t believe me?” Her voice was quiet with worry. The soft puffs of her breath he felt on his cheek made his gut quiver.
Swallowing hard, Sterling shrugged and sat back, feigning a casual manner he didn’t feel in the least. “Your part is done, and I try something else.”
“That’s it? I can walk away?” She sounded doubtful.
“Your Level Two status stays. I swear to that.”
“But if I can get you in, you’ll get the chip deactivated.”
He nodded, unable to speak the lie. If he left any room for doubt, she would never agree to work with him.
Sterling cleared his throat and swallowed the lump that nearly choked him. His job often had him bending the truth, if not outright lying. Why was it so difficult this time? His original plan to make her a simple deal of parole status upgrade had become a promise for something he wasn’t sure he could keep, and he felt guilty for lying to her.
“If Guy throws me out first thing,” she said, “I’m no worse off than I am now. Except he remembers I’m alive.”
“Trust me, he remembers now.”
Fear darkened her face and Sasha dropped her gaze to her feet. She took two deep breaths, as if gathering her strength. When she looked at him again, the fear was tempered by something else. Determination? Anger? Disgust? “And if he believes me? If he believes I want to work with him, to…be with him?”
Her voice was low, a rough whisper of dread. They both knew what going back to Christiansen, going back into that world, could do to her. Could she resist the opportunity to return to that lifestyle, even if it negated every struggle she’d been through for the past eight years?
Sterling surrounded one of her hands with both of his. Her skin, cool at first, warmed quickly. He thought she’d pull away, but instead her fist relaxed. He felt the heat of her palm against his fingers as he slid his hand into hers. They fit well together, and he couldn’t help stroking the back of her fingers with his thumb. Her eyes widened, the dark pupils expanding to leave a ring of stormy gray iris.
“I promise to keep you safe. I won’t let him hurt you. We’ll get you away from him. Data wipe, relocation. Whatever you need.”
“You can’t make that promise,” she said, her voice still no louder than a whisper. “I know what he’s capable of. Those pictures…” She shuddered but held his gaze, challenging him. “What do you have to protect me and your sister from that?”
The answer was easy and came to him without hesitation. He emphasized the words by tightening his grip on her hands. She grasped his harder, as if knowing what was to come. “My life. I’ll protect you with my life.”
Doubt flickered then receded from her eyes. She trusted that he’d protect her. Trusted that he’d help her get her life back. No matter what happened, if he and Sasha lived through this, he was going to get the chip deactivated for her.
“Okay,” she said softly.
Left hand still in hers, Sterling raised his right hand, cupped her jaw and brushed the pad of his thumb across her cheek.
Sasha didn’t move.
Relief and gratitude thickened his voice. “Thank you,” he said.
She closed her eyes, brows drawn together. For the briefest moment, she pressed her cheek against his palm. Warmth seeped into his skin, and Sterling stifled a groan. He could lean forward and kiss her. How would she taste? What would her mouth—her body—feel like against his?
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