Racing Hearts (Shadow Quest 4.5), page 1
(A Shadow Quest Short)
Copyright © 2013 by Kiersten Fay
All rights reserved.
This book is a work of fiction. All of the characters, names, and events portrayed in this novel are products of the author’s imagination.
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Priya stepped onto the solid metal platform of the dismal spaceport. Musty, reused air flooded her lungs, along with the scent of rust and sweat. Gripping her luggage handle in one fist, she thanked the transport ship’s steward before striding forward in search of her next destination.
As she wound through a crowd of roughnecks, she noticed a pattern of stains on the dark-green bulkhead to her left, probably from a recent brawl. A good one by the looks of it.
The domed ceiling provided a murky view of space. She squinted past the thick film of grime to see another ship pulling in where hers had just departed. A few more ships were lined up behind it, waiting to unload passengers.
A masculine voice sounded from behind. “Do you need a guide, sweetie?”
She rolled her eyes and turned around, keeping her right side angled away from him. Usually, that was the side she wore her pulsar gun, but according to the rules of this particular establishment, she was not allowed to keep a weapon on her immediate person. She could, however, stow it in her bag for easy access.
In place of her security work belt she’d tied a stylish strip of fabric over her brown tunic dress with burgundy stripes that matched her hair.
The man lowered his eyes to her bare legs and black knee-high boots with obvious interest. His features weren’t terrible, but he wouldn’t win any beauty contests. His nose had clearly been broken more than once. His dark hair was a mess. And when he peered back up at her face, he grinned, revealing a full set of crooked teeth.
Schooling her features, she replied, “I’m looking for a ship—”
“I got a ship,” he interrupted with innuendo buried in the layers of his voice.
An entourage of onlookers chortled. With their matching stained uniform and equally unkempt hair, they had the appearance of grunt workers.
“A tiny one, no doubt,” she countered and then smirked when his mouth fell into a petulant frown.
His friends guffawed and one slapped him on the back. These weren’t bad men, just products of a hard life and a serious lack of civilized influence. Not that she was any better. She’d practically been raised in places like this.
“The craft I seek is about to be entered in Phase Nine. I’ve been petitioned to join the crew.”
The laughing cut off and a round of brows shot up. Their surprise was natural, not because she was a woman entering the most dangerous competition in the known universe.
No. Even the most hardened of men would have received incredulous looks. Few who enter Phase Nine would live to see its finish. The race had few rules and spanned vast distances of space. A ship without a good crew wouldn’t be expected to last long at all.
Ah, but she wasn’t joining just any crew. She would be captained by a man who had not only run the race before, but had won it. And she fully intended to be with him when he did it again.
Silently, two of the men pointed toward a corridor while the others continued to gape.
She nodded in thanks and headed toward direction they’d indicated.
After a few steps, the first man called out, “Pray, tell me your name, beautiful lady, so I can cheer for you.”
Not bothering to look back, she replied with a wave of her hand, “You’ll just have to watch the show.” It was the thing people loved most about Phase Nine. Strategically placed cameras throughout the race would provide entertainment to over thirty planets and countless space cities. Every fifty years, it became a universal obsession. People quit jobs just to watch.
The wide passageway was crowded with people trying to get through, and she had to push her way into the crowd. After getting knocked around by a few careless shoulders, she found herself in a much larger room where vendors offered supplies to a slew of stationed ships. She counted fifteen. The high ceilings permitted them to be flown to loading dock at the far end.
The pungent odor of oil seeped into her nostrils. Many of the ships were in a state of disarray as workers rushed to make them ready for the long flight to come.
To her right, people lined up to register for the competition. Anyone had the privilege to enter and nearly every planet encouraged participation. It was the few activates that brought both the allied and disjointed sects together.
A lift vehicle rumbled by, honking as people made a path. Over the chaos, she spotted the appreciable, dark-brown hair of her soon to be captain, Aidan. It had been cut short since she’d last seen him. He stood with a small group of men next the open hatch of a ship. She assumed the craft would be her new home for the duration of the race.
She could hardly contain her excitement as she crossed the great room. A few months ago, Aidan had surprised her by showing up at Uli Rings, where, until recently, she’d had a nice, cushy job as head of security. The massive space city was a popular tourist destination, made up of three giant rings that spun to simulate gravity. She’d hoped to take him out for a drink and catch up, maybe offer him a job, but he hadn’t had the time.
Then a few weeks ago she’d received a transmission from Aidan to get her ass to the North Star spaceport and prepare for Phase Nine.
She’d sat back in her expensive office chair, stunned to the core. An hour later she was shoving clothes into a large duffel bag with the tags still attached.
When Aidan caught sight of her, he rushed forward to clasp her in a bone-crushing hug. His massive arms held her up as though she were light as a pea. “Priya! Thanks for coming.”
As her feet met the ground again, she couldn’t help but tease, “You know, I received three more offers, besides yours. Pretty good ones too.”
“Aw, and you chose me above all others? I’m flattered,” he replied with a smirk and offered to take her heavy bag.
Glad to be rid of its weight, she handed it over. “Don’t be. I was considering not coming at all.” Lie. Although, she wouldn’t have answered any other call but his. Or have traveled so far just to risk her life.
“Tell me,” she said. “Why in the name of the gods are you entering Phase Nine under the banner of the Legura Dragon Clan? Since when does your clan mingle with theirs?” When she’d received the news, she’d been taken aback. Though their respective planets share a solar system, their cultures were quite different.
“It’s a long story,” he replied, looking frustrated. “I’ll tell you about it later.”
At his back, three men stood observing, one of which was a stranger to Priya. With a smile, she approached Asher and Zeek. Seeing them brought her back to a time when she was truly happy—when they had all worked together as mercenaries on a POS, rust bucket of a ship. Only one other face was missing from the reunion. But she knew if she saw him, her joy would turn sour.
She greeted her old crewmates with big, squeezing hugs. In turn, they messed her hair with a rough, playful palm, effectively ruining her sleek braid.
She slapped their hands away with irritation and undid the tie to run her fingers through her now-tangled locks. “In some corners of space, people get shot for that,” she chastised.
They only laughed.
“You two haven’t changed at all,” she grumbled.
He gave her a boyish grin that was accentuated by his short blond hair and stormy blue eyes.
Turning to Asher, she asked, “How about you, Ash? Any tattoos?”
She knew better. Ash’s skin was as tough as metal, with the hint of a metallic sheen. Most needles couldn’t penetrate it. His pewter, chin length hair was tough as well. As a game, he used to pluck a strand and challenge them all to try and rip it apart with their bare hands. No one had ever succeeded, but they continued to try anyway.
Asher’s hypnotic silver eyes pinned her with a dubious expression. “No tattoos, Priya. How about you?” He wiggled his brows suggestively.
“None that you’re ever going to get to see.”
Typical masculine curiosity covered both their faces. She couldn’t prevent her impish grin. The third man cleared his throat, drawing her attention. She gasped. Legura royalty?
Aidan introduced him. “This is Prince Lear of the Legura Clan. He’ll be joining us.”
Lear bowed respectfully. A black strand of his hair fell over his face as he cooed, “My lady.” Seeing her jaw locked in surprise, he added, “Now doona be intimidated by my rugged good looks.” His accent was thick and sounded nothing like Aidan’s.
She scoffed and crossed her arms. “Have you ever worked on a ship, kingy?” She recalled learning from Aidan that the Dragons had been one of the first races to enter space. Many of the known languages had branched off of theirs, and they had connections or treaties with nearly every amiable planet.
Lear cocked his head and said confidently, “I am no’ without skill. And I’m no king.”
That was obvious by the way he stood. He held himself more like a warrior than royalty.
She faced Aidan. “Is this the whole crew then?”
Aidan took on a guilty expression and ducked his head. A deep sense of foreboding dug a pit in her stomach. She’d seen that look before.
Scrubbing a hand over the back of his neck, he stumbled over his words. “Uh…well…about that—”
From within ship’s hatch, a deep voice cut in, “The craft is tight, Aidan, but needs some work.”
Recognition hit her like a slap to the face and she sank under a wave of nausea. Her heart twisted painfully, and she unconsciously brought her hand over her chest as if that would save her.
Vin emerged from the hatch wiping grease from his hands with a dirty cloth. His grey tank top was equally stained, but no matter how ragged his clothing, it could not detract from his awe-inspiring physique. He was built like a machine. And made love like one too.
She forced the thought out of her mind and struggled to keep it from reentering.
The moment Vin noticed her, he froze mid-step. His arms dropped to his sides. He seemed to deflate.
She ignored the pang that caused in her chest.
“Oh, hell no.” Priya snatched her bag from Aidan and stalked away. She didn’t quite know where she meant to go. Anywhere but here would do.
“Wait.” Aidan grabbed her by the arm. “I won’t stop you if you really want to go, but take a day or two to think about it. The entry deadline is in three days. I’d like you both on my team.”
She ripped her arm free and snapped, “You should have told me he was here.” Her hand began to sting from clenching the bag, and she forced herself to ease her hold.
“I wasn’t sure if either of you would show,” he explained. “But if I had mentioned he might be here, would you have come?”
“No,” she said honestly.
Aidan remained silent for a moment. “I’ve rented you a room. Promise me you’ll go and sleep on it.”
She ground her teeth and tightened her fist. How could Aidan ask this of her? This could end up being detrimental to the entire group.
Could she put away her past, the heartbreak, and work with Vin? She could say no, she reasoned. She could walk away right now and not look back. But, out of respect for Aidan, she would take his advice and chew it over. It was the least she could do.
And the least Aidan could do was provide free room and board for her to do it in.
Without facing him, she slowly nodded. “I’ll think about it.”
From behind, came Vin’s low and—damn it—sexy voice. “Priya, can we talk?”
“Screw off, Vin. You’re good at that.” Quick strides led her back the way she came.
“Run away!” he retorted. “You’re good at that!”
With a swift motion, Vin whipped his damp rag at Aidan. It hit his shoulder with a splat before flopping to the floor.
Aidan avoided Vin’s gaze as he darted into the ship.
Vin followed, letting his outrage escape through his voice. “You sent for her!”
Unperturbed, Aidan replied, “I did.” He continued down the hall, coming to stop in the lounge.
“Were you ever going to tell me?”
Taking a seat at the cheap metal table, Aidan replied with a mocking grin. “I just did.”
Vin threw his hands in the air. “No, you didn’t. I just found out.” And he had stood there like an idiot as he had gazed upon the woman he’d once loved. Did she have to be as beautiful as he remembered? He always liked to picture her haggard and broken with regret, like him.
What he saw instead was a sexy-as-hell redhead with the luscious curves he used to know by heart.
He ran his hands through his brown hair, wishing he’d gotten it cut. “You could have given me a heads up! She got to look all…” He gestured incoherently with his hands. “While I look like a bum.”
“What? You would have put on a suit and tie?”
“I would have put on a clean shirt, you son of a bitch.”
Aidan grew serious. “I wanted a winning team. And that means both of you.”
Zeek and Ash entered, claiming seats as if he and Aidan were putting on a show.
Aidan ignored them. “What was that fight about anyway?”
“Like I can remember,” Vin lied.
Zeek lifted a finger in the air. “You bought her a tool kit for her birthday.”
Through clenched teeth, Vin said, “Thanks for the reminder.”
“As I recall it was a set you’d had your eye on for a while.”
Lear appeared in the doorway with his arms crossed and an amused expression in place. “I’m guessing she did no’ appreciate the gesture.”
Vin scrubbed a hand down his face, not noticing the oil stains covering his fingers until afterward. “I don’t need a play-by-play,” he replied snidely.
They didn’t know the half of it. Priya had always been an easygoing chick. He could have easily fixed it. If only he’d turned right—into that flowery gift shop.
Instead, his anger had directed him left, straight into a gentlemen’s club.
“Go talk to her,” Aidan suggested.
“Is that wise?” Lear asked warily. “If these two have a history, it could affect their performances.”
Vin spoke directly to Aidan. “Tell your prince to keep his opinion to himself or I’ll shove it down his—”
“Enough,” Aidan admonished. “She’s the best gun hand I’ve ever seen. We need her. You will talk to her. You will convince her to join us. And we will all act professional. Got it?”
Everyone gave reluctant nods.
“And just so we’re all clear, Lear is not my prince.”
Ash retorted, “In my culture, when you offer vows of allegiance to a royal family, you become their subject.”
Amusement danced in Lear’s eyes, and he gestured toward Ash with one hand as if he’d made a good point.
“I only vowed to run Ph
Zeek chimed in. “And to do that you had to join the Legura Clan…ergo.”
“Shut up, all of you.” Aidan stood. “I need a drink.”
“Me too,” Vin said. “Let me clean up and I’ll join you.”
Zeek jumped to his feet. “Why don’t we all go? It should add depth to this riveting conversation. Plus Chastity is dancing tonight.” He rubbed his hands together.
“Lear, you stay here and guard the ship,” Aidan ordered.
Lear nodded, uncaring.
In the bar, Vin and the crew claimed a table near a stage full of barely-dressed dancers who were keeping step to a poorly choreographed number.
A waitress took their drink orders. When she returned, Vin spotted Priya, and his heart stuttered. She faced away from them, perched on a stool. A quick survey of the drink in her hand told him she was going heavy tonight. Usually she sipped those theme-cup drinks with matching straw and umbrella. He always gave her shit for that, but secretly considered it adorable.
Tonight, she drank something hard on ice. Could it be she’d been just as thrown by their meeting as he had been?
Or perhaps she had changed. Maybe she was a different person now, with different tastes and different preferences in men…in bed.
Gods, he hoped not.
He missed the noises she made when he nuzzled her just right. Remembering made him stiffen and he had to adjust himself.
She swiveled in her seat, and he quickly turned away. When his gaze met the gyrating ladies on stage, he nervously shifted again, finding himself looking straight at Aidan, who studied him with a keen eye.
Vin stifled a growl of irritation, and scowled.
With the smallest movement, Aidan gestured his chin toward Priya.
How could Aidan expect him to confront her? And here of all places? The location was different, but still reminiscent of the last time he’d laid eyes on her. Only this time, there wasn’t some drunk, flirtatious working girl running fingers over his shoulders and whispering in his ear.