There’s a black stain on the left heel of my favorite shoes.
Damn dog. If that damned Pomeranian has ruined another pair of my shoes—
I spin in the reflection of the shop windows and glare at the spot where that damn, damn dog chewed the red leather off my very expensive, very new Louboutin stilettos.
I’ll kill it. I’ll kill it and skin it and use it as a scarf. Pomeranian neck scarves will become the new rage, and I’ll make millions. Just you watch.
I storm away from my reflection, fists clenched.
I can’t kill the dog. Claude would break every bone in my body if I so much as pinched that foul little dust mop. But if it doesn’t stop destroying my shoes, I’m going to do something desperate.
The radio in my ear buzzes with static and a hushed conversation. I didn’t catch what was said, so it doesn’t matter. If they want me to do something, they’d better say it loud enough so I can hear. I’m not going to jump at their beck and call. I didn’t sign up with this crew of frickin’ losers to be their slave.
I was a slave long enough.
I step into an alley off the main drag down the center of the Aphrodite City. Conamara, the posh restaurant where the bounty head is supposedly squatting, is a few streets over, and I’m supposed to be in position across the street from the front. Sounds like the worst post in the history of crappy posts.
Don’t know what McLeod’s problem is. I’m just as good a hunter as Devon or Kale. Maybe even better.
Well, maybe not better.
Well, maybe not even comparable.
But he needs to stop giving me crap jobs backing those two dimwits up, or I’m going to take my talents somewhere else. Like I need him. Like I need any of them.
I stop at the mouth of the alley, hovering in the shadows so the sidewalk traffic doesn’t notice me. Across the street, Kale and Devon are walking into Conamara.
They stand out like big, fat, sore thumbs. Anybody who sees them will know they don’t belong. Devon with his cheesy, stupid, pretty boy grin. Kale with his—Kaleness.
He’s nothing but a jackass. Has been since the day I joined this frickin’ crew. Wish I’d never laid eyes on him. That hair. Those eyes. That fine, fine ass.
Across the street, he taps the radio receiver in his ear twice, and it echoes in my head with a resounding burst of static.
“Com check, confirmed,” Jaz says mechanically from her post somewhere out of sight.
Ice woman Jaz. Coldest bitch in the solar system.
“Com check, confirmed,” I echo and glare across the street at him. “Alive, Ravenwood! I want my cut!”
He ignores me.
Son of a bitch doesn’t even cringe. I can see him from here, and he flat out ignores me. Doesn’t even flip me off.
I hate him.
They disappear out of my sight, and I lean against the alley wall. A fluttermoth settles on the metal blocks that form the wall across from me. It flaps delicate lace wings at me twice, eyespots staring at me like Kale always does when he knows I’m full of shit.
“Fine,” I snarl, “I don’t hate him. But I wish I’d never seen him.”
The fluttermoth flaps again.
That’s a lie too. You can’t wish to unsee somebody like Kale. You see somebody like him and your whole life changes. Mine did.
I never cared about being good enough for people. I just needed to be good enough to get paid. Back on the Lady Luck, the hellhole of a kingdom my brother ran, that’s all that mattered. Getting paid. From age 10 to 25, that was the job. Strip for it. Dance for it. Deal for it. Let them do whatever they want to you for it. Just bring in the creds.
I snatch a cigarette out of the pack on my belt and light it with shaking hands. Hadn’t planned to think about that today. I left the Lady Luck on the outer rim, and it’s the last place I want to think about ever again.
But whenever I think about Kale, I think about it. And it Kale’s damned fault.
I puff out a mouthful of smoke. “It’s all his damned fault.”
The fluttermoth flaps its spotted wings.
McLeod’s crew was looking for a bounty head, and Jaz found him at my table. I wasn’t sad to see the squatter go. He’d been sitting too close, running his foot up the inside of my leg for the whole match.
I wanted nothing more than to break his nose, but that wasn’t the job. Breaking his nose would have earned me a beating. The job was dealing the cards, and if the players happened to feel me up during the game, that just meant I got a bigger tip.
Jaz pounced on him, like a tiger. The most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. He didn’t stand a chance. Jaz is one hell of a beautiful woman, but she’s not just a pretty face. She handed that son of a bitch his own ass. But he was stubborn and came at her with a blaster he wasn’t supposed to have.
Even now, I don’t know what made me do it. I grabbed the taser from the back of my table and took him down before he could touch her.
The moment he ate carpet, Jaz cuffed him. She thanked me. And I walked with her to meet her crew, and that’s when I saw him. Kale Ravenwood. Tall. Gorgeous. Free.
Not tied down at some hellhole casino on the outer rim, where the dregs of the solar system come to get their rocks off. That was my life, working game tables by day and guest beds by night. Living in fear that my brother would strap me bloody again the next time I didn’t bring in enough.
I could have stood up to him years before, but I didn’t. I never wanted to. Watching Jaz fight for herself, seeing Kale beside her, that’s what made me want my freedom.
I take another deep drag on my cigarette.
After that? Hell, that damned ship is a death trap. It’ll kill us all one day. But it’s more home than the Lady Luck ever was—and that was the only home I knew. McLeod is a bossy, loud-mouthed son of a bitch. Jaz is a cold fish, and Devon is her little boy toy. And Claude and Marty and Scraps and Ben? Screw them all.
But Kale? Damn that man.
I blow smoke out my nose.
He made me want freedom. Then, he made me want him. More than anything.
I’ll never forgive him.
The fluttermoth flaps twice at me.