Ashlynne hardly slept that night. All she could think about was the whereabouts of the controller. Had Falkon found it? She started at every sound, expecting him to come bursting through the door and... what? Ravish her? Tie her up? Make her pay for the pain and humiliation she had caused him? She pulled the covers up to her chin and stared into the darkness. The bed was narrow, the mattress hard and unfamiliar. And it was quiet, so quiet. The thought had no sooner crossed her mind than she heard a horrible shriek from somewhere outside. What kind of animal made such a sound? Or had it been an animal? They hadn't seen any signs of human habitation. She shivered, remembering the cannibals they had encountered in the jungle on Tierde.
Tierde. The only home she had ever known. The seasons would be changing now. The Season of Mists had always been her favorite time of year. She had always loved the heavy rains that watered the ground, the oddly eerie greenish light of the twin moons as Riasna and Brell rose in tandem. She had been five or six the first time her mother had told her the story of the twin moons. Tears slid down her cheeks as she thought of her parents. Had they suffered much? Did they know she was safe? She would never see them again. She wished now that she had told her mother and father more often that she loved them. She thought of Magny, her best friend, her only friend, and the days and nights they had spent together, laughing and sharing secrets, planning for the future....
Her tears came faster, and she dashed them away. She would not cry! But she couldn't seem to stop. A sob rose in her throat as she wept for all she had lost: her loved ones, the security of a home, the sense of belonging, her piano, the beautiful chestnut mare her father had given her. Gone, all gone, destroyed in a moment's madness, and her childhood with it.
She took a deep breath. She had never wanted to marry Niklaus; now, he represented safety and shelter. Without him, she would truly be alone. She wondered if Commander Gasman had informed Niklaus of Falkon's escape.
She wondered if Niklaus was concerned about her, or even cared. They had never met in person; all their communications had been by mail or comport, formal, polite. He had expressed his willingness to have her for his bride, but no real enthusiasm. No doubt he viewed their upcoming marriage as a duty to be fulfilled, just as she had. Perhaps he would consider himself well rid of her.
She froze as she heard a knock at the door. There was no need to ask who it was. "What do you want?"
"Are you all right in there?"
"Yes." She sniffed. "I'm fine."
Silence stretched between them. She tensed when she heard him try the door, wondering if he would break it down.
She was still wondering when she fell asleep.
Falkon sat in the cockpit, his left leg draped over the arm of his chair.
Gazing into the darkness, he weighed his options. Returning to Daccar was risky. By now, Drade would know of his escape from Tierde. No doubt spies were already in place at his usual haunts, listening, waiting. He could go into hiding somewhere until things cooled off. Once he turned Ashlynne over to her fiance, he would have enough credits to live in style for a good long time.
He could rent a place on some out-of-the-way planet, stock it with food and drink, hire a little housekeeper who would be willing to take care of all his needs, and take a well-earned vacation.
He grunted softly, wondering what Ashlynne s fiance was like. Probably as spoiled and rich as she was. A perfect prince for a perfect princess. Well, he was welcome to her - welcome to put up with her pouts and her tantrums - to run his fingers through that gorgeous hair, kiss those pouting pink lips, run his hands over that delectable body... Damn! Maybe he should just forget about the reward and keep her for himself. He closed his eyes, imagining the two of them living on some peaceful planet raising blue corn and silver-haired kids.
Muttering an oath, he made his way to the back cabin. He wasn't a farmer, he was a fighter pilot with a score to settle, and he damn well meant to settle it. Drade had not seen the last of him, that was for damn sure.
Ashlynne woke with a start, her heart pounding as she glanced around the room. With a sigh, she realized it had all been a dream. A nightmare, really. As bad as reality was, her dream had been far worse. She had been Falkon's slave, had felt the weight of the lynazium collar around her throat, had been subject to his every whim as he dragged her from one end of the galaxy to the other. He had used her and humiliated her in every way possible, determined to pay her back in kind for every hurt and humiliation he had endured.
Her stomach clenched, rumbling with hunger. Sitting up, she slid her legs over the edge of the bed. Was he awake? Rising, she went to the door and pressed her ear to the panel. If he was still asleep, she might be able to get to the galley, grab something to eat, and return to the safety of her room without his knowing.
She listened for several moments, but heard nothing. Taking a deep breath, she unlocked the door and peered up and down the companionway.
All was still and quiet.
She eased the door open a little farther, every muscle tense as she stepped into the narrow corridor and tiptoed toward the galley.
She was reading the menu when she sensed him behind her.
"Morning, princess," he drawled.
She turned slowly to face him. The first thing she saw was the controller in his hand.
He grinned at her as he tossed it lightly from hand to hand. "Look what I found."
"Give it back to me." She held out her hand, as if she expected him to obey. "It's mine. And so are you."
He laughed. "Not anymore, princess."
She lowered her arm to her side. She hadn't really thought he would
"Get yourself something to eat," he said, "and then bring me some ham and scrambled eggs and a cup of coffee, black."
Before she could voice the protest that rose in her throat, he left the galley. "Insufferable man," she muttered.
She punched her selection into the servidor. A tray slid out a few minutes later and she carried it to the table and sat down. She ate slowly, wondering what he would do if she simply refused to do as he asked.
She rose with a sigh, feeling much put upon. What right did he have to expect her to wait on him? She stared at the servidor and then, with a grin, she selected another entree and carried it into the cockpit.
She found Falkon hunched over the console, studying a star chart.
"Here." She thrust the tray into his hands.
Falkon stared at the food on the tray. Wheatmeal and soft-cooked eggs.
And a cup of weak black ginger tea. He looked up at her, his expression grim.
"Anything else I can get for you?" she asked sweetly.
He looked at her a minute, then shook his head. "No, this is fine."
He ate it while she watched. It was all she could do not to laugh as he choked down the bland wheatmeal, grimaced as he swallowed the eggs. She hadn't really expected him to eat it. He downed the tea in two gulps.
When he was finished, he handed her the tray, muttered, "Thanks," and went back to studying the chart on the screen.
Feeling somewhat guilty for being so spiteful and childish, she carried the tray into the galley and dropped it in the bin. He had saved her life. The least she could have done was to give him a decent meal.
She stayed in the galley for a few minutes, her fingers drumming on the tabletop and then, because she was bored and lonely, she went back to the cockpit and sat down in the copilot's seat.
Falkon looked over at her and frowned. "You want something?"
Ashlynne shook her head.
"Does that hurt?" he asked, pointing at the bruise on her cheek.
"A little." She pointed at the scratches on his cheek. "Does that?"
"I've cut myself worse shaving." His fingers caressed the bruise. "I'm sorry," he said gruffly.
His gaze met hers and she felt suddenly like smiling without knowing why.
"What are you looking for?" she asked.
"Just looking." He tapped the screen. "We're here." He dragged his finger across the map. "Trellis" - he looked up and met her gaze - "and your fiance, are here."
Trellis. It was depicted as a large shimmering orange planet on the star chart. Her gaze moved over the chart. Daccar was a small blue planet; Tierde was a rich, dark green. Tierde. She wondered if she would ever see her homeland again.
"Tell me about him," Falkon said.
Ashlynne lifted one shoulder and let it fall. "He is his father's only son. He
has two sisters, both of whom are older and married. He graduated in the top five percent of his class. He has been running the family business for the past two years, and will eventually take over full control."
Falkon grunted softly as she related facts, nothing but facts. There was no affection in her voice, none of the glow or sparkle a woman in love should show.
"Are you in love with him? "No. How could I be? We've never met."
She shook her head. "I was supposed to go to Arkata this summer to meet him."
"Why would you want to marry a man you've never met?"
"Our parents arranged it, of course," she replied. "Isn't that how things are done on Daccar?"
Falkon shook his head. "No." He thought of Maiya, of the first time he had seen her. It had been at a dance his last year at the Academy. Maiya had been dancing with Drade, laughing at something he said. One look, and Falkon had known she would be his. He had cut in on Drade, and spent the rest of the night with Maiya. He had wooed her with the same single- mindedness with which he fought a battle, refusing to consider defeat. They had been married a week later. And a week after that, he had left her the first time. They had been married for five years and in all that time, she had never complained of the long separations. She had maintained their home, made him welcome when he returned, put up a brave front when another war took him away. Maiya... "Falkon?"
He looked up, seeming startled to find her there. "What?"
"What were you thinking about?" she asked.
Ashlynne sat back in the chair and looked out the window of the cockpit.
Whatever he'd been thinking of, it had not been a happy thought. She felt a twinge of regret that he wouldn't confide in her, and then wondered why she cared. All she wanted was to go to Trellis and get on with her life.
"How soon are we leaving here?" she asked.
"A day or two."
"Why can't we leave now?"
"I need some downtime."
"R and R. You know, rest?" He laughed softly. "Maybe you don't know.
When have you ever worked?"
"It's not my fault your life has been so horrible," she retorted.
"No, I guess not."
She glared at him. "You're probably glad all this happened, aren't you? Glad that the mine was destroyed, that my parents were murdered..."
"Everything I ever knew is gone." She looked at him, her eyes filling with tears. "But you don't care, do you? You don't care about anything but yourself!"
Jumping up, she ran out of the cockpit. A moment later, a light flickered
on the control panel, indicating that she had opened the hatch.
Falkon swore. Surely she wouldn't be foolish enough to go outside alone.
Even as the thought crossed his mind, he saw her walking into the jungle, following the route they had taken the day before. He knew somehow that she was going to look for the unicorn. He checked the exterior temperature gauge. At least she had a good day for it, he mused, warm and clear.
Ashlynne pushed her way through the jungle, her vision blurred by tears.
And to think she was starting to like him! She must have been out of her mind. He was nothing but a coarse, crass, vulgar man who didn't care about anything or anyone but himself. How had she ever thought otherwise? Blinking back her tears, she walked toward the sound of the waterfall.
There had been a break in the foliage yesterday. She stopped and looked around. Where was it? She ducked under a tree branch, pushed through the greenery, and found herself at the edge of the river. The tranquil water shimmered with all the colors of the rainbow.
Dropping to her knees, she put her hand in the water. It was warm to the touch, soothing, inviting. A nice long soak was just what she needed.
After a quick look around, she undressed and slid into the water, sighing as it enveloped her. It was effervescent, she thought, almost alive, as if dozens of tiny fingers were running over her skin, soothing away her fears, easing her tension.
She waded deeper, enchanted by the feel of the frothy water on her skin.
Time lost all meaning as she floated there, her eyes closed, her mind empty of everything except the touch of the water and the warmth of the sun on her face.
Peace. Contentment. A stillness broken only by the chirping of a bird, and... A loud splash.
Ashlynne's eyes flew open, her first thought that Falkon had followed her.
But it wasn't Falkon. It was a very large catlike creature with thick brown- and-black-striped fur and large slanted yellow eyes, and it was swimming rapidly toward her from the opposite bank.
With a cry, she scrambled out of the water, gasping in pain as her toe struck a rock. She glanced over her shoulder. The cat had almost reached the shore now.
What to do? What to do? Panic engulfed her and she began to run, hoping she could find a place to hide. A growl sounded behind her, adding wings to her feet. She flew through the underbrush, oblivious to the spiky fronds that scratched her arms and legs and caught at her hair. Why had she left the safety of the ship? She ran blindly, afraid to stop, afraid to look back for fear she would find the cat at her heels.
She screamed when she slammed into something hard and unyielding.
"Ashlynne! What the hell!"
"Falkon! Thank God."
He was about to ask her what she was doing running naked through the jungle when the big cat leapt into view. Thrusting Ashlynne behind him, Falkon yanked the gun from his waistband and fired.
The blast struck the cat full in the chest, killing it instantly.
Falkon turned to Ashlynne. Her eyes looked huge in her pale face. "You damn fool. What were you thinking, coming out here alone?"
She stared up at him, too frightened by what had happened to speak.
He shook his head. She was shivering badly. Nerves, he thought.
"Don't do that again," he said quietly. He wiped a streak of blood from her cheek with his thumb.
"I-" She let out a long shuddering sigh. "If... if you hadn't followed me..." A huge tear rolled down her cheek and he brushed it away.
"Try not to think about it." He glanced at the cat. If he'd arrived a few minutes later, he would have been too late. The thought of her being attacked, ripped to shreds by those long black claws, twisted his gut in knots. She could have been killed, and it would have been his fault.
He swore softly as he shoved the gun into his pocket, then drew her into his arms and held her close. "Shh. It's all right now," he said. One hand drifted down her back. Her skin was soft and warm, so warm. Lifting her into his arms, he carried her back to where she'd left her clothing.
Ashlynne buried her face in his shoulder, embarrassed by her nudity, by the fact that she had behaved so stupidly. If Falkon hadn't come after her, she would be lying dead back there, torn to pieces by a wild animal. The thought drove everything else from her mind.
"Don't think about it," he repeated, his breath warm against her cheek.
She was aware of his hands on her body, rough, callused hands that held her gently.
Her arms tightened around him. Thank the Maker for Falkon. He might be a mercenary and a renegade, but he was the strongest, bravest man she had ever known.
When they reached the river, he put her down. She would have turned away, but he caught her by the arm, his gaze moving over her.
Only then was she aware of the numerous cuts and scratches she had sustained in her wild flight. Fright had numbed the pain. Falkon's shirt front was stained with her blood.
He jerked his chin toward the river. "Go and rinse the blood off."
She wasn't anxious to go back into the river, but it offered her a way to cover her nudity and she waded into the water, her gaze darting up and down the bank. If there was one cat, there might be another. She sighed as the water closed over her. It felt wonderful, its warmth soothing, easing her pain.
She might have stayed in there the rest of the day if Falkon hadn't called for her to come out.
Knowing it was useless to refuse, she waded out of the water. Heat scorched her cheeks as he removed his shirt and began using it as a towel to dry her off.
"I can do it," she said.
With a nod, he thrust his shirt into her hands and turned his back, knowing that her image had been forever burned in his brain, from her full, pink-tipped breasts to her long, slender legs. Burned was the perfect word, he mused, because he was on fire for her. He stared at the water lapping gently against the shore. Stripping off his boots and breeches, he plunged in, hoping a cold swim would cool him off.
But even that was denied him. The water was warm. Nevertheless, it soothed him, easing the last bit of fear he had experienced when he saw the cat chasing her, taking the edge off the ache in his loins.
He swam for several minutes, then floated in the middle of the river, regarding Ashlynne through half-closed eyes.
She hadn't wasted any time getting dressed, and now she sat on the riverbank, scrubbing the blood from his shirt. She spread it out on a rock to dry, then ran her fingers through her hair. She looked like an angel sitting there, he thought, her skirt spread around her, the sun shining in her hair.
She looked up as he swam toward the shore. A flush rose in her cheeks as he stood up, and then, at the last minute, she turned her back to him.
He was grinning when he stepped out of the water. He pulled on his breeches and boots, then slung his damp shirt over one shoulder.
Ashlynne refused to meet his gaze on the walk back to the ship, and he wondered which bothered her more, the close call she'd had with the cat, the fact that he had seen her naked, or regret because she hadn't had the nerve to satisfy her curiosity.