Authors: Anitra Lynn McLeod
Dedication fuels the most elusive dreams. This one is for everyone who has ever had a dream and had the fortitude to see it through.
“Reputation is a double-edged sword.”
Planet Corona, city of Borealis, 2478
Never-Fail Nash peered through a rip in the ratty motel curtains. Visual implants allowed him to see one person curled up in the lone bed. He found it odd that apprehension gripped him even after twenty years as a bounty hunter. Adrenaline surged from the moment he located his target to the moment he tossed them into a cell on his ship.
Hyperaware senses and attention to detail ensured his survival. That, and the fact he didn’t trust anybody. He didn’t become a triple-platinum Runner by being a nice guy. Or an idiot.
Slipping the illegally acquired and therefore outrageously expensive keycard into the holodoor, he passed through the deactivated field and reactivated it behind him.
The room smelled musty and stale from old smoke and sweat. All of the furniture was beat-up-dusty. Typical cheap Fringe motel with craptacular decor beyond expensive holodoors. It took a nanosecond to orient himself to the layout of the room. He approached the narrow bed.
Jynx Brennan looked way better in real life. He checked his palm unit again and shook his head. His package looked about as dangerous as a hangnail.
Looks could be deceiving.
Razor-sharp, his enhanced gaze scanned the body below the threadbare covers. Despite x-ray and infrared, all he could see was a wicked dream personified. The blankets clung to a voluptuous female form, leaving no place to hide a weapon.
Except between her legs.
He frowned and took a step back.
His last package flashed in his head. Scary Mary had looked like a wayward kitten, but she’d turned out to be the most dangerous criminal he’d ever captured. Scary Mary almost shattered his balls, then attempted to amputate his finger with her teeth. Jynx Brennan looked twenty times more harmless.
Won’t be fooled again.
Favoring his injured finger, Foster readied his Shantun stunner, flipped on the light and hauled his alluring package out of bed.
Groggy, sleep deprived and suddenly vertical, Jynx struggled to awareness. Cold metal settling against the back of her head brought her instantly awake, but terror held her immobile.
“Hands in the air or I blow your head off.”
The voice behind her, clearly male, rumbled with authority, uncompromising yet oddly seductive. She trembled as she lifted her hands. With a no-nonsense grumble, he pulled her wrists down behind her back and then slapped on a pair of plastimetal cuffs.
“For a medic, you’ve given the IWOG a good run for their money.” He checked her restraints by yanking them hard.
She yelped. Her whole body hurt in ways she’d never known. Three weeks of little food and less sleep blurred her mind.
“Please, let me go.” She tried to turn her head, but he wouldn’t let her.
He grunted as he slipped shackles on her ankles.
“I’m not the local law’s problem, am I?” She paused. “Processing me will take up a large percentage of your budget, especially if you must transport me off-world.” How far had reports of her gotten? What had he heard? Silence stretched past her words, driving her to desperation. “I’m not
problem, am I?”
Still he said nothing.
She couldn’t help herself. She spoke again, knowing her quavering voice gave away her growing fear. “Wouldn’t it be easier for you and your government to just let me go?” Not a chance the OuterWorld Alliance Group, WAG, wanted anything to do with a fugitive of the InnerWorld Government.
The man behind her uttered a bored sigh.
Just when she opened her mouth to say more, he snarled, “I’ve never lost a package, Sweets. Why in the Void would I start with you?”
Adrenaline surged when he called her a package, not a prisoner. “You’re a Runner!”
He spun her around.
Her heart skipped a beat when she saw his face.
Expecting a grizzled monster, she found instead a man about her own age with sandy blond hair and wicked azure eyes. Definitely not the local law. The Runner looked like any boy-next-door grown up. Way grown up. Into a very big man. He didn’t look like a monster, but then again, neither did Roberts, the one who’d orchestrated her capture.
“Roberts will kill me,” she blurted.
“That’s your problem.” He nodded and winked. “I’m strictly the delivery man.”
“You’re no delivery man.” Jynx made her breathless words part observation and part plea. He was huge. Not only tall but wide as a door. Rippling muscles were barely confined by a pale blue strex shirt that matched his faded motton jeans. He also wore a frightening array of weapons around a wide black leather belt, slung low, drawing attention to the fact he was a very big man in many ways. His eyes did not match the rest of him, nor did that boyish, biting grin.
“I could pay you.” Barely were the words out of her mouth when he rolled his eyes and laughed.
“You couldn’t even afford a decent room.” He glanced around the ratty room he’d found her in.
She followed his gaze.
A single dim bulb dangled from a wire in the center of the stained ceiling above them. Against the tightly shut, threadbare drapes, the bulb cast a meager pool of light on tattered wallpaper and filthy carpets. A kindness, really, as the dim light helped to hide the stains on the carpet, bed and walls. Sadly, it glaringly illuminated the stains on the ceiling, whose origins were better left uncontemplated. The only modern amenity was the holodoor, and clearly, that had not kept him at bay. Renting the tacky room had taken the last of her script. She thought she’d be safe for at least one night. Just one night of sleep.
“I could match what Roberts is paying you.”
He laughed again with a softer roll of his intense azure eyes. “You couldn’t even get yourself off-world.” Silky hair fell into his eyes when he shook his head. He brushed the seductive strands away with an impatient swipe of his hand.
She opened her mouth, but he spoke again before she could say anything.
“Save it, Sweets.” He winked. “I’ve heard it all.” He lowered his hand to his gun. “You’re dead in the Void. Whatever you had in the bank is frozen. Your bonafides are locked. You don’t exist but for me.”
“Who are you?”
He bowed without taking his eyes off her face. “Foster Nash, at your service.”
Heaven help her, she knew that name. “Never-Fail Nash.”
He nodded, saying nothing, his hand on his gun.
Jynx not only knew him but feared him. “You are one of only six triple-platinum Runners in the universe.”
He nodded again and offered her a smile so menacing she gulped.
Before her stood a living legend from a thousand IWOG tales. He
delivered his package. He had a reputation for being ruthless, brutal and vicious. Her heart sank. Even if she had the money in her hand and offered it to him on a platinum platter, he wouldn’t take it. Never-Fail Nash would deliver her or die trying.
Recovering her composure, she injected disdain into her tone. “At my service? No. Roberts owns you.”
He smirked as if he were proud to be a hired thug. “Roberts paid high. That’s why you’re valuable to me.” Casually, he shoved her shoulder.
Shackled hand and foot, she spun and hit the bed face-first. Dust surrounded her with the stale stench of frantic sex. She shifted to her back.
He flipped her facedown again with a yank to her waist. He made a quick circuit of her entire body, touching everywhere lightly, professionally. He rolled her over and did her front with the same detached coolness.
“No weapon?” His eyebrows drew a dark line across his brow.
“Disappointed or surprised?” Jynx sat up with all the dignity she could manage.
“A little of both.”
“I am not a common criminal, Mr. Nash.” She scowled. “I am a doctor.”
“Roberts told me.” He failed to look impressed.
“I don’t think you have the right person. If you’d—”
He pushed her down, flipped her over and pressed her right thumb against a smooth bit of plastic.
Jynx didn’t have to see what he pressed her thumb to. All her life she’d hit such panels going in and out of the hospital.
“You are thirty-four-year-old Jynx Brennan, epidemiologist for the InnerWorld Government. IWOG military class E. No living relatives. No living associates. Five seven, one-thirty, blonde, violet.”
He flipped her over and frowned. Inspecting her hair by sifting the strands through his calloused fingers, he shook his head. “Interesting dye job.”
“I thought so.” She’d cried when she’d hacked her waist-length hair to her shoulders and used her brown mascara as a temporary dye to make her roots appear dark brown against the natural light blonde.
“It’s been done.” A sly grin slid across his face. He bit the smirk off with his upper teeth. “I guess I could always confirm by checking the color of your hair south.”
His gaze dropped to her hips.
Jynx wished her spring lilac dress, once crisply laundered and pretty, didn’t cling so closely to her thighs. He looked like he might just yank her skirt up in the line of duty.
Lifting only his gaze, his eyes settled on hers. “I like the contacts too.”
She had the gray-blue contacts in her purse by pure coincidence. Apparently, such feeble attempts hadn’t fooled him for a moment. Even in her wildest nightmares, she never thought Roberts would send a Runner after her. Certainly not the notorious Foster Nash.
“You don’t look like a monster,” Jynx said softly. “You don’t look anything like the monster IWOG tales hold you to.”
“I could say the same of you.” Nash tucked his scanner back to his belt.
Indignant, she defended, “I don’t know what Roberts told you, but I’m not a monster. I didn’t create the Tyaa plague.”
He laughed. “Sweets, you can talk at me until you’re blue in the face. It won’t help.”
“If you’d only listen.”
“No, you listen.”
She caught a whiff of spicy aftershave when he sat on the bed beside her, his weight moving her closer to him. When he leaned over into her face, she caught a hint of bubblegum on his breath.
“I don’t care what Roberts said. Truth or not. All I care about is my contract.”
He paused, then stood, adjusting his equipment-riddled belt. He made a point of readjusting his bulge. He did so deliberately, proximately. Foster Nash settled his massive body with a detached coolness she’d never seen.
“Whatever the deal is, it’s between you and Roberts. I’m just the delivery man. But I’ll tell you this—you talk at me too much, and I’ll gag you.”
He dipped low and flipped her over his shoulder.
“Please don’t do this.” She burst into tears of fear and frustration.
“Tears won’t work either.” With a mocking gesture, he patted her butt. “I’m a ruthless bastard. Got it? I do my job, get my script and move on.”
Doom gripped her with a relentless fist. He didn’t care that she was falsely accused. All he cared about was his reputation. Her money could not buy him, nor could the truth. Never-Fail Nash would meet the terms of his contract, or die trying.
Foster leaned back from the main console, stretched his arms over his head and groaned. What he wouldn’t give for a solid eight hours of sleep. Not that finding Jynx Brennan had taxed his considerable skills. But damn, he hurt.
He checked his finger and thought of his last package. When he’d been forced to gag her foul mouth, Scary Mary had chomped his right index finger. The wound had looked bad two weeks ago, but it looked a hell of a lot worse now. He shook his head. Another woman, like Laura, his ex-girlfriend. He began to think none of them could be trusted.
Using his unbitten middle finger, he tapped up the audvid to the cell where he’d left his current package. Jynx slept curled up on the top of the bunk. Her short-hacked blonde hair fell across her tear-streaked face, making her seem broken, vulnerable and very pretty. She’d clean up something spectacular.
“You’ll want to do her when you see her,” Roberts had insisted with gleaming eyes.
Foster shook his head. “All I do is deliver for the agreed-upon price.”
Nonetheless, Roberts put the bonus clause in the contract. Roberts wanted Foster to play Jynx Brennan. Roberts wanted him to bed her for sport and earn some extra credits. As pretty as Jynx was, and despite his thoroughly disreputable reputation, that wasn’t one of his contractible skills. He didn’t bed for bonus. That’s why he generally didn’t apprehend females—the temptation was too great.
Foster set his ship, the
, on autopilot, then made his way to the galley. Tossing a premade dinner into the micro, he set the table and ate without tasting. He didn’t need a cook. He liked his solitude. He enjoyed not having to worry about anyone but himself.
Sometimes, when he didn’t have a package onboard, he talked to himself. On those days, he admitted to being lonely, and he thought about getting a dog, but he promptly dropped the idea. He’d have to disable the autofires all over the ship, and that would give any prisoner a clear advantage if they managed to escape the cells. He’d programmed the units to recognize him, but he didn’t want the hassle of reprogramming them to recognize a dog.