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Authors: Kaitlin Maitland

Daggertail

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DaggertailKaitlin MaitlandDaggertailCopyright © December 2009 by Kaitlin MaitlandAll rights reserved. This copy is intended for the purchaser of this e-book ONLY. No part of this e-book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without prior written permission from Loose Id LLC. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author's rights. Purchase only authorized editions.eISBN 978-1-60737-498-5

Editor: Morgan Fayne

Cover Artist: Marci Gass

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Loose Id LLC

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This e-book is a work of fiction. While reference might be made to actual historical events or existing locations, the names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.WarningThis e-book contains sexually explicit scenes and adult language and may be considered offensive to some readers. Loose Id LLC’s e-books are for sale to adults ONLY, as defined by the laws of the country in which you made your purchase. Please store your files wisely, where they cannot be accessed by under-aged readers.* * * * *DISCLAIMER: Please do not try any new sexual practice, especially those that might be found in our BDSM/fetish titles without the guidance of an experienced practitioner. Neither Loose Id LLC nor its authors will be responsible for any loss, harm, injury or death resulting from use of the information contained in any of its titles.About this TitleGenre:Futuristic/Science Fiction

Sold into slavery after her family was brutally murdered, Tavish has spent all her life in a seedy brothel. Arousal is a commodity to be bought and sold, and falling in love always comes with a price tag attached. Those were the rules, until her world collides with a Bondsman named Xave.

Xavier Kovuchenko has made a career of tracking the deadliest criminals all over the known universe. His cold, methodical style leaves no room for relationships. But when Xave's latest job lands him with Tavish for a partner, everything changes. His solitary existence is suddenly full to bursting with the hottest sex he's ever experienced and an insatiable lust that goes both ways.

Tavish is a walking contradiction, hot and cold and driving Xave crazy. But when their pasts collide and the dust settles, both will have to decide if they can let go and move on. After all, sometimes you have to grab the dagger by the tail and hang on for the ride.

Publisher's Note:This book contains explicit sexual content, graphic language, and situations that some readers may find objectionable: Anal play.

Chapter OnePlanet Janus 5Lexicon SystemYear 2115The scene inside Fat Louie's froze. Vintage techno blared in the background. The two women onstage stood still and silent like half-naked statues, silver G-strings glittering, hands gripping the poles worn smooth by a hundred dancers who'd come before. High, round breasts, tipped with dusky pink nipples, heaved as the dancers struggled not to gasp aloud in shock. Gold credits peppered the stage, gleaming in the hot, white lights, but nobody reached down to swipe them up. All eyes were fixed on the doorway.

The man shifted to widen his stance, making himself look even larger and more intimidating. “I'm sorry, did I stutter? I'm looking for Vincent Mendez.”

Fat Louie's was a brothel like any other. The working girls saw johns in every size, shape, and color. They sold their charms to the highest bidder whether he was an Alliance loyalist or a rebel sympathizer. But the man standing so calmly in the doorway was neither.

Everything about him screamed raw power. But the way he patiently scanned the room with his eerie, pale blue eyes told Tavish this man could do strategy as well as brute force.

He stood tall, at least six feet. She would've bet an entire night's credits that he weighed in at around 275 pounds of solid muscle. His dark pants hugged his narrow hips, giving her a good idea of just how firm his buttocks would look in the flesh. The drape of his long, dark coat emphasized the wide expanse of his shoulders. His skin appeared to be naturally olive toned; no doubt his ancestors descended from Earth's exploding human population. His thick, dark brown hair would have hung to his shoulders had he not tucked it behind his ears. But any hint of warmth that his physical appearance offered hid behind icy eyes.

The room began to stir. The murmur began low, and several moments passed before Tavish heard the wordsStone Cold Bondsmenwhispered in hushed tones.

Her heart leaped in her chest.

“Go away, lawman,” someone growled.

Murmurs of agreement erupted around the room.

Tavish wondered if the big man really expected help from anyone inside the brothel. Fat Louie's catered to sleazebags with money, but nobody catered to bondsmen.

A network of stages made up the central area of Louie's low-slung main room. Old-fashioned billiard tables sprawled in one corner, the latest holo-gaming units in another. A bar stretched the length of one long wall. At the far end of the sleek, alloy structure, Tavish could just see the top of Vincent Mendez's balding head.

Behind the bar, Seth, the night manager, grew restless. “You got until the count of three to get the fuck out of here.”

The bondsman lowered his gaze, examining his hand as if bored. “You want to get rid of me? Give me Mendez. I never leave without my man.”

She sucked in a breath. One look at the cool, calm exterior of the bondsman, and she knew he spoke the truth.

Seth slanted Mendez an appraising look before turning back to the bondsman. “One.”

The entire room held its breath.

“Two.”

“Three.” The bondsman lifted his icy gaze from the floor.

The scene exploded.

Two enforcers erupted from the front corners of the room and flanked the doorway. Tavish had seen them work their brutal trade on other unwelcome visitors. Her heart pounded a staccato beat in her chest. She'd never seen a bondsman in action before, but the pirates, smugglers, and lowlifes who paid her a few credits to spread her legs and pretend arousal always spoke of Warrick Stone's Stone Cold Bondsmen with something akin to awe.

Louie's enforcers were big, braw men used to a good smash and bash. The bondsman was something different altogether. Just when she was certain he would be crushed between the huge enforcers, the bondsman pivoted to one side. With a flick of his wrist, a silver, chainlike whip hissed through the air. Serrated edges winked beneath the brilliant lights and wrapped themselves around the throat of the first enforcer, flinging him headfirst into his comrade. The first man grabbed at the metal, a panicked look in his eyes as he went down in a tangle of arms and legs. The links ate into his flesh like tiny talons. The bondsman changed the arc of his arm, releasing the whip's hold on his opponent. The first enforcer rolled on the floor, hands clutching his throat, choking on his own blood. The second man remained still, with his neck twisted at an odd angle.

“I know you're in here, Mendez! You gonna hide behind a bunch of skirts?” The bondsman arched one elegant, dark brow. “Or should I say G-strings?”

His words seemed to unfreeze the remainder of Louie's patrons. The man who'd been so interested in the cost of Tavish's cunt before the bondsman's abrupt entrance shoved her away in his haste to make a quick exit. He wasn't alone. Men holo-dicing or playing cards dived away from their tables, heading for any available exit. Working girls screamed and exploded from the room like brightly colored supernovas.

The bondsman strode into the chaos, his thick-soled boots crunching on broken glass. He wielded his serrated metal whip like an avenging angel and methodically searched the men fleeing Fat Louie's.

Tavish's slight build let her duck easily out of sight beside a brocaded armchair. She was barely five feet tall in heels, and though she had nice, high breasts just the size for a big man's hands, her hips were no more than a narrow flare that eased into long, slender legs.

Peeking around the back of her armchair, she blew a few renegade strands of hair away from her face. The chignon she'd carefully arranged in front of the mirror in her boxlike room had become a messy knot. And her topaz minidress was hopelessly wrinkled from crawling around on the floor.

Movement caught her eye a moment before Mendez's balding head slunk around the back side of the bar, heading for the side door and freedom.

She leaned the other way. The bondsman wheeled about, scanning the patrons fleeing the room in twos and threes. The remaining girls still screamed at the top of their lungs and zoomed around in circles like one-winged spacecraft.

Mendez waited until the bondsman focused in the opposite direction. Scrabbling for a hold, he vaulted from the floor and ran straight toward her.

She knew Fat Louie's policy. The bondsman's actions were a massive breach in protocol. Coming after one of their clients was brazen. Louie would be furious. And helping this outsider catch his man would be suicide.

She did it anyway.

It might've been the drop-dead good looks of the big, athletic man. It could've been how he seemed to keep the damage to a bare minimum with only necessary force. It might've been the way he kept setting the other girls aside instead of running them down in his haste. Whatever the reason, she couldn't ignore the prompting in her gut telling her to help this man, no matter what it would no doubt cost her.

She curled into a ball and flung her entire body in Mendez's path. His boot caught her in the ribs as he tripped headlong over her body. Air rushed from her lungs, and stars burst before her eyes. Smothering a cry of pain, she kept her head down.

Fat Louie himself had finally hauled his fat ass out of the office, just in time to see her trip Mendez. The sound of Mendez hitting the floor made the bondsman spin on his heel.

“Hello, Vincent.” The bondsman's voice dripped velvet and thorns.

Tavish shivered from her place on the floor. How could a man sound so sexy and so dangerous all at the same time? Gooseflesh erupted on her skin, and her nipples began to tingle.

“Fuck off,” Mendez snarled, gaining his feet just inches away from where she still huddled. “You got no right.”

“That's for damn sure!” Fat Louie squealed, waving his chubby fist.

She hazarded a peek at her boss and wished she hadn't. His electric orange suit made him look like an enormous exotic fruit on legs. Rolls of fat jiggled beneath his chin. His bald head gleamed in the light. The jovial expression he saved for paying customers was gone, replaced with the ugly expression the girls learned to fear not long after arriving at his brothel.

She began to sweat. She hated Fat Louie; they all did. She'd only been twelve when he'd taken her virginity to “break her in properly.” He boasted that he broke in all his girls before offering them to customers, but Tavish had always seemed to fascinate him. Though the customers had never been particularly pleased with her lack of substantial hips and coltish long legs, Louie kept her around. He once promised she'd live and die in the same room he'd given her when she'd stepped off the smugglers' ship at the age of seven.

Fat Louie lumbered over to her, reached down, and grabbed her by the hair. “Stupid cunt! Whorespawn bitch! Don't think I didn't see what you did!”

She bit the inside of her lip until the taste of blood filled her mouth. Her neck ached with the thrashing, but she soon forgot it when Louie yanked the hem of her tiny dress above her buttocks.

“I'll teach you a lesson you won't soon forget!” he raged, smacking her bare ass with his cane.

Through a haze of pain and suppressed rage, Tavish saw something flicker behind the bondsman's ice blue gaze, but then he turned his attention back to Mendez.

“You got nowhere to run, Vincent.”

Mendez's gaze darted nervously around the room.

The bondsman twirled a set of electrocuffs in one hand. “Warrick wants you alive. I could personally care less. I get paid either way.”

That seemed to decide Mendez. He put his beefy shoulder into Fat Louie's bulk and shoved him aside. Fat Louie went twirling across the room like a neon Humpty Dumpty, and Mendez grabbed for her.

His arm closed over her throat, and she gasped.

“You move and she dies right here.”

The sour stench of Mendez's fear-sweat raised bile in the back of her throat. She gagged against his arm, fighting for consciousness as he held her powerless against his stout body.

“Let her go.”

The cool order cut through the encroaching blackness. She grasped at the arm across her neck, flailing uselessly.

“You care what happens to this whore, bondsman?” Mendez squeezed harder. “She's gonna die no matter what happens to me. Nobody sells out a customer. Ain't that right, Fat Louie?”

“This one's been nothing but trouble since I bought her,” Louie huffed, still trying to roll his body into a standing position.

“Her mouth is the only part worth paying for.” Mendez lowered his lips to her cheek. His tongue laved a slow line between her lips and her ear. “You remember sucking my cock dry, don't you, sweetheart?”

She retched, his foul breath making the meager contents of her stomach pitch and roll. Mendez and Fat Louie laughed in concert.

She fought harder, her heart fluttering inside her chest. She'd spent every minute of her adult life in bondage to Fat Louie. If there were snatches of memory left from a life with parents and siblings on a peaceful planet worlds away from the brothels of Janus 5, Tavish couldn't remember them. She didn't want to die. Not now, not like this.

Icy blue eyes settled on her. The big bondsman seemed suddenly undecided. The electrocuffs went back into his pack.

“Give me the girl and I'll go.”

The raucous laughter stopped. Tavish wondered if she'd heard correctly. Apparently Fat Louie and Mendez wondered the same. A few hushed mutters broke out around her, and then she found herself flying through the air.

Chapter TwoXavier Kovuchenko knew six languages, and he cursed himself for a fool in every last one of them as he left Fat Louie's with the woman draped over one shoulder and no quarry.

He could've dumped her a few streets over. In fact, he should have. But something kept him traveling in the direction of the spaceport where he'd left his ship. TheDaggertailwas prepped and waiting on the tarmac. Xave hadn't planned on sticking around to see the sights after slapping a set of electrocuffs on Mendez. He'd never been much of a tourist.

The woman on his shoulder sighed and wriggled a bit in her semiconscious state. He bit back a groan as the warm flesh of her ripe breasts bounced against his back. If that wasn't bad enough, her sweet ass rested near his face, and he picked up the unmistakable feminine scent emanating from between her legs.

She was nothing more than a slip of a girl, and a man his size would tear her in two. But his body refused to listen. His blood heated, rushing from his extremities to his groin and making his cock sit up and take notice. No doubt she'd spent her life fucking any man who ordered her to spread her legs. She didn't need a horny-as-hell bondsman trying to get up her skirt.

He wished he could say that taking the girl had been a sudden, inexplicable attack of morality, but there was more to it than that. He'd noticed her about five seconds after he'd dispatched the enforcers at the front door.

She'd been kneeling beside a thick gorilla of a man with her sleek, gold dress hiked up to reveal legs long enough to wrap all the way around his waist. Her breasts were perfect. He had the urge to palm each one, twirl her nipples between his fingers, and then take each one into his mouth. Soft tendrils of her dark red hair framed a heart-shaped face and pale complexion. And her brilliant green eyes never missed a thing.

He turned a corner and ducked into the shadows surrounding the spaceport. Xave's face drew taut when he readjusted his grip and his calloused hand met with the satin skin of her inner thigh. She was hot, damp, warm to touch, and sweet to smell. He forced himself to exhale and move his hand.

Her perspiration smelled of fear, not arousal.

The subdued metal hull of theDaggertailtook shape in front of him. He'd never been so glad to see his ship. He tripped a remote access and paused while the hatch dropped down with a welcoming hiss from the air lock.

Once aboard, he pressed his hand on the keypad to lift and lock the hatch. It was time to leave Janus 5. He'd file a flight plan and contact Warrick on the ship's comm. The trip had been a complete bust.

Or had it? He thought of the woman draped over his shoulder.

His teeth ground together in agitation. He couldn't seem to get a grip on his self-control, a worrisome thing for a guy who made his living chasing the system's worst criminals all over the known universe. He wanted to blame it on the events of the night, on losing his mark. But his common sense told him it had more to do with the soft feminine flesh so close at hand.

Entering the main cabin, he lowered his passenger onto a bank of seats that served as a couch of sorts or a bed if he happened to crash there. TheDaggertailwas more than a means of travel. It was his home away from home. With the small galley, food-processing unit, and the shower, he could live inside theDaggertailfor more than a month when planet hopping after quarry.

“Lights low,” he rumbled.

She stirred when the cabin lights came up, her eyelids fluttering but not opening.

Forcing himself to ignore the sweet set of curves lying on his makeshift bed, he slid into the captain's chair and swung around to face the control panel. He punched in a series of codes and brought the comm link online.

“Daggertailto control, requesting permission to launch.”

“Affirmative,Daggertail. Please file a flight plan with Janus 5 Control.”

“Uploading now, you should be receiving.”

“That's affirmative,Daggertail. You are clear for launch. Thank you for visiting Janus 5. Come again soon.”

Xave grimaced. “Yeah, I'll do that.”

He eased back on the controls, and theDaggertail'sthrusters kicked in, pushing the ship away from the tarmac and into air traffic. Disdaining the autolaunch feature, he shaved a few degrees off the trajectory and shot into the atmosphere. He was in no mood to linger and watch the garish display of neon lights swirling above Janus 5.

There was no sense in putting off what would most definitely be an unpleasant comm call to Warrick. He uplinked to base and waited. The blinking red light signified a successful link, and seconds later, Warrick's stoic face appeared on-screen. Clearing his throat, Xave prepared to eat shit.

“Kovuchenko to Stone.”

Warrick Stone's deep voice could only rarely be described as anything but calm. “Is the inmate secured?”

Xave sighed. “No.”

“No?”

“I had to leave him there.”

There was a pause. Behind him, Xave heard rustling.

“Our tracking system shows you've left Janus 5 airspace.”

“That's right. I'm headed back to base.”

“Should Meddac prep for your arrival?” Warrick's voice grew deceptively soft.

“I'm not wounded.”

“You did read the data on Mendez? You do know how many credits I paid the Alliance for his bond?”

“I read the data, Warrick.”

“Then don't throw away my money,Xavier.”

Xave would've said more, but the girl chose that moment to sit bolt upright and scoot as far away from him as possible.

“Where are we?”

He swung his chair around to face her. Unfortunately, his adjusted position gave Warrick a full view of the new passenger aboard theDaggertail.

“What is that?” Warrick sounded as though he were inquiring about a particularly distasteful insect.

“Thatis the reason I didn't bag Mendez.”

A pause and then, “I'll notify Doc of your situation. Meddac will be prepped for your arrival.”

“Thanks.”

“And Xave?”

“Yeah?”

“I hope this isn't going to become a habit.”

He didn't bother to comment. Warrick knew he wouldn't give up on Mendez. The slimy little weasel would surface on some other planet, and Xave would be waiting.

The screen went blank as he terminated the link. He sighed, stabbing fingers into his thick brown hair and tucking it behind his ears before turning to face the latest wrinkle in his life.

“You got a name?” he asked.

“Tavish.”

He lifted his eyebrows expectantly, waiting for the rest.

“Just Tavish.”

She was definitely a looker. Even with black circles around her bright green eyes, hollow cheeks, and tangled hair, she was a kick in the libido he just didn't have time for.

“Xavier Kovuchenko.”

She tilted her head, causing a wave of dark red hair to drape across her thin shoulder. “Xave?”

“To my friends.”

She stiffened at the implication, and Xave wished he'd kept his mouth shut.

“You should've left me there, Mr. Kovuchenko.”

He sighed. “I know.”

“So why didn't you?”

“Why did you throw yourself in front of Mendez?”

She inhaled deeply and lifted her gaze high enough to look at his shirt. “He was escaping.”

“I knew that.”

“I was only trying to help.”

“Well, I didn't need any.”

“You're awfully crabby considering I tried to do you a favor.”

“Yeah, that worked really well, didn't it?”

She shrugged, nibbling her full lower lip. “It worked for me. I'm alive and away from Louie's.”

He couldn't tear his eyes away from her mouth. She had the most kissable lips, full and rosy pink. Her expression told him she knew as much.

She twisted her hands in her lap. “I could always give you a freebie, you know, to say thanks?”

Something inside him recoiled at the thought. Not the thought of her beneath him. It was pure torture to imagine her with her back arched, breasts thrust upward, her nipples between his teeth, and her husky voice begging him to sink his shaft into her pussy. But the thought of her spreading her legs and pretending to care left him cold inside.

“Sorry, I try to keep my standards a little higher than that.”

She stiffened again.

Xave realized that she'd taken his words exactly as they'd sounded. He couldn't seem to get his foot out of his mouth.

“So where are we going, since we've obviously left Janus 5?”

He spun around in his chair, giving her his back. He couldn't stand the piercing green eyes any longer. “Back to Hyperion 4. I'll refuel and resupply at the base before heading back out to find Mendez.”

“Are there brothels on Hyperion 4?”

“A few.” He slanted her a curious gaze. “Is there somewhere I can drop you once I've resupplied? Do you have family nearby?”

She shook her head. “No family. Cyborgs wiped out our colony when I was seven, and I was sold to the slavers. That's how I wound up at Louie's.”

“You've been at Fat Louie's since you were seven?” He knew his voice sounded rough; the answering expression on her face told him that much. But it wasn't shock or disgust tying his tongue in knots. It was anger.

“The younger girls live in a dormitory out back until they're twelve.”

“You became a working girl at twelve?”

Her green eyes turned hard as jewel chips. “Survival by any means necessary, Mr. Kovuchenko. Surely that's something you can grasp?”

He clenched his teeth and turned away, feigning attention to the electronic displays on the panel in front of him. His insides roiled with anger. Breached at the age of twelve, she'd essentially been raped every day of her life. Her strength beggared his ability to describe it, much less understand it.

Tavish.

His blood boiled, shooting adrenaline into every cell of his body and forcing him to fight for control. He seethed at the thought of some stranger like Mendez pressing her legs apart, kneeling, entering her, claiming her, touching something that belonged to him!

Grinding his teeth together, Xave forced his brain to think rationally. She wasn't his. She'd never be his, no matter what his instincts claimed. Besides, common sense told him she'd rather eat shit and die than belong to a man like him, who managed to insult her every time he opened his mouth.

He fought for control of his thoughts. This girl—he forced himself to think of her as such—had suffered too much for him to push himself on her in any way.

“Are you hungry?” he asked, once he could trust his voice.

“Maybe a little.”

She looked as if she hadn't eaten a decent meal in years. He stood up and crossed the cabin to the food-processing unit.

“You don't have to go to any trouble, Mr. Kovuchenko.”

“It's the least I can do.”

She had no response to that. Xave wondered if she agreed.

The contrary machine managed to spit out something that resembled thin stew with chunks that might have been either meat or vegetable at one time. He handed her the bowl and spoon with a hunk of dry bread.

“Sorry. You'll get something a lot better once we reach the base. Lola will just be going off duty, but I'm sure I can convince her to fix you a bite to eat.”

Tavish shoved a spoonful of stew into her mouth. “As long as you don't try to convince her with your charm.”

Xave blinked in surprise. So the little mouse had some sass in her after all. Interesting.

Chapter ThreeTavish was a whore. She'd known others over the years who preferred other terms—call girls, working girls, escorts—but the facts never changed, no matter what you called them. She sold her body to get by. She'd long ago gotten over it. The snide comments or disdainful looks tossed her way when Louie let her snatch a few moments of fresh air on the front steps of the brothel no longer stung. The way men used her to gain vengeance on a hundred other women who'd done them wrong didn't matter. That was life.

Never in twenty years of living at Fat Louie's had she been ashamed of her past or what she'd become. Until now.

Xavier Kovuchenko had seemed so irritated that he'd been forced to bring her along. She hadn't asked him to step in and play rescuer; that'd been his call. Offering a freebie seemed like an obvious solution. She didn't do that very often; she hated giving something for nothing. But the offer had popped out of her mouth, and once it'd been given, she hadn't wanted to take it back.

She'dwantedhim to say yes.

Of the hundreds of men who'd spread her legs and pressed their cocks into her cunt, Tavish wanted Xavier Kovuchenko.

But he didn't want her. After all, he “set his standards higher than that.” Much higher than a common whore like Tavish.

So why the hell couldn't she make her body hate him as much as her wounded pride did? Every damn time the man moved, she found her eyes glued to the slide and play of the muscles beneath his clothes. He'd discarded the long coat and wore a sleeveless black shirt made out of clingy fabric that caressed every dip and groove on his body. And Xavier Kovuchenko had a lot of them.

Tavish should have been long past the inclination to be breathless over a man's physique. Arousal was a commodity to be bought and sold. It wasn't supposed to be a tangible, uncontrollable urge.

What a poor time to disprove that theory.

“Daggertailto Control, initiating landing sequence.”

Her stomach leaped as the ship changed speed, banked, and went in a new direction. The strange weightless sensation that persisted despite the artificial gravity made her faintly nauseous. She hadn't traveled since she was a child, since the bloody massacre that had left her orphaned and homeless. She could only remember snippets of that time, of the survivors being rounded up like livestock by a band of rogue cyborgs. She had been sold to the slavers only to be dropped at Louie's like a load of space trash. Now, after surviving so many years, she had wound up rescued by a man who seemed almost as coldhearted as those rogue cyborgs.

So his friends called him Xave…the smug bastard.

She sighed and let her restless eyes settle on him. A shiver chased up and down her spine as she watched his big, capable hands at the controls. That inexplicable thrill zipped through her system again. She couldn't rip her gaze away. Even with something else to distract her, it would've been hard to ignore the charismatic field that seemed to surround him. With nothing else but her motion sickness to occupy her, Tavish couldn't help herself.

His pale eyes narrowed, focusing on the approaching spaceport. The ship shuddered as the planet's winds buffeted them from all sides. Xave cursed beneath his breath, leveling out the nose and increasing the thrusters.

She ran the tip of her tongue over her dry lips. So methodical, every move calculated, planned, executed without flaw. Did he take that iron-willed self-control to bed? Did he plan all his seductions? Was every touch, every lick, and every kiss he placed on a woman's anatomy mapped out beforehand? Or did he slip the leash and let his instincts take over?

Heat trickled through her body, exciting nerves she'd thought long dead.

“This is Control,Daggertail. Dock on the tarmac beside Bay A-14.”

The static words on the comm snapped Tavish back to reality. She tossed her hair over her shoulder and straightened her spine. It didn't matter what she wondered. Xavier Kovuchenko set his standards too high for the likes of her.

The ship bumped lightly against the sides of the bay before long robotic arms reached out to cradle the idling spacecraft. By craning her head to one side, she could see the process of refueling and resupplying theDaggertailhad already begun. Xave apparently didn't plan to stick around long. No doubt he intended to dump her on the doorstep of the nearest brothel and head back to Janus 5 for Mendez.

Different day, different planet, same old shit.

She sighed, trying to smooth the worst of the wrinkles from her skimpy topaz dress. Unfortunately, Louie didn't splurge for the more expensive fabric that kept its shape with minimal effort. After all, whores didn't make money with their clothes on.

“You ready?”

His gruff voice grated on her nerves. Parts of her wanted to respond, to pick up her head and offer him the dazzling smile she saved for her favorite customers. The rest of her wanted to curl into a tiny ball and be forgotten.

“Warrick has Meddac on standby.”

“Why Meddac? I don'thaveanything.” She hazarded a look upward through her eyelashes.

Xave's expression softened. “Mendez got you pretty hard with his boots. I think someone ought to have a look at your ribs.”

“Oh.”

He looked as though he wanted to say something more. The muscles in his jaw leaped around as he ground his teeth together to keep from speaking.

She stood face-to-face with him, mere inches separating their bodies. He gave off heat like a blast furnace. Her nose twitched. He smelled strange, different from any other male she'd been in contact with. It wasn't unpleasant, far from it. A heavy sensation began building deep inside her body, culminating at a point between her legs and blooming into a damp, slick heat that consumed her pussy.

“We should go,” he said.

Tavish found the courage to lift her eyes. The sight of him so close almost knocked the breath from her lungs. “I'm ready whenever.”

A tiny grin kicked up one corner of his mouth. “You're standing in front of the hatch release.”

One tightly muscled arm reached past her, brushing her shoulder on its way to the red handle just behind her. He tripped the switch. The air lock hissed as the hatch opened, then lowered slowly to form a ramp to the tarmac below.

Her nipples hardened. It took her a second to process that thought. She wasn't cold. The body heat rolling in waves from Xave shimmered over her skin. She had to fight the urge to reach up and palm her breasts, to pinch her nipples to relieve the stinging awareness harbored there.

The ice in Xave's pale blue eyes melted a fraction, and his gaze dropped to the tiny peaks bulging from the thin fabric of her dress. He leaned imperceptibly closer, inhaling deeply; then he exhaled in one long, sexy breath.

Tavish licked her lips again, enjoying the crashing waves of sensation sweeping her body. She'd never experienced this kind of magnetic force. It was as if Xavier Kovuchenko had a gravitational pull she couldn't escape.

Had their faces been that close only seconds ago? The air he exhaled whispered across her cheek. Kissing had never been something Tavish enjoyed, but she'd never been faced with a man like Xave before. Closing the last inch between them, she pressed her open mouth to his.

It started sweet but turned carnal in the blink of an eye. Hesitant at first, Tavish surrendered when Xave's tongue swept inside her mouth to mate with hers. He was hard and hot and male, both sweet and demanding as passion exploded between them.

Xave growled. The sound lifted the fine hair at the back of her neck and released a rush of cream between her legs that would've had her panting had her mouth not been otherwise engaged.

His big hands slid down her back, cupping her buttocks and hauling her up against the length of his body. She bucked her hips against him, shocked at the thrill she got from the feel of his rock-hard erection cupped in the V of her pelvic bone.

Her hands gripped his unforgiving forearms and skimmed up to his shoulders to lock behind his neck. She tangled her fingers in his coarse, dark hair.

Xave was tall. With her hands wrapped about his neck, she stretched the full length of his hard, muscular body. Her every curve meshed perfectly against his stark angles. Her breasts mashed against the contours of his chest. The friction ripped a low moan from her throat.

The sound seemed to inflame him. His mouth became hotter, more insistent, driving into hers with a new intensity, each kiss hotter and more insistent than the last. He ground his body against hers in a primal rhythm she desperately tried to match.

“Ahem.”

The voice from the tarmac below theDaggertailsounded female—and amused.

Xave pulled away so quickly, Tavish was left kissing air. She'd have fallen on her face had he not reached out to steady her.

“Warrick sent me to see what was keeping you two. Said some feminine intuition might come in handy.”

A hot red flush spread over Tavish's skin. The voice belonged to a strikingly beautiful woman, whose curvaceous body leaned lightly, arms crossed, against a piece of machinery. Her ebony braid reached her waist, and brilliant cobalt eyes watched her with far more understanding than Tavish was comfortable with.

Xave snorted. “Tavish, Lola. Lola, Tavish.”

Tavish swallowed around the lump that had formed in her throat. She'd never in her life been more aware of how trashy she looked. She could only imagine what kind of conclusions this picture-perfect woman had drawn.

Lola rolled her eyes. “Nice intro, Xave. Didn't your mama teach you any manners?”

He grunted and turned to gather his gear.

“Welcome, Tavish,” Lola said. “I'm in charge of babysitting the bondsmen. I feed them, change their nappies, make sure they eat their vegetables…”

Xave growled something unintelligible without looking up.

Tavish managed a nod, trying to straighten her appearance as discreetly as possible.

“You could probably use some food.” One side of Lola's mouth quirked upward. “And maybe a fresh change of clothes? I can't imagine Xave let you have time to pack a bag or anything.”

Tavish cleared her throat. “Thank you.”

Lola motioned her down the ramp. “C'mon then, follow me.”

Xave continued to rummage about the cabin of theDaggertail, not even sparing her a glance. Deep down, Tavish had known their acquaintance would be short, but now it was obviously over, and a brief sense of internal panic descended. Xave might not think much of her, but he was the only one she knew outside of Fat Louie's.

Tavish tossed one last hopeful look over her shoulder. Unfortunately, he was either consumed by his work or ignoring her on purpose. Squashing down her disappointment, she carefully navigated the ramp in her awkward, strappy heels.

Lola tilted her head to one side. She kept looking at both Tavish and Xave in turns, a strange expression creasing the smooth skin between her arched eyebrows.

“Keep that stare of yours to yourself, Lola,” Xave growled. “And mind your own business for once.”

Lola's cobalt eyes narrowed, and she shot a frown at Xave's broad back. “C'mon, Tavish. I'll drop you at Meddac while I find you some fresh clothing.”

“I really don't need any medical attention.”

“Warrick insists, which pretty much means you've got no choice.”

Resigned, Tavish left Xave and theDaggertailbehind to follow Lola through an air lock into a massive, sprawling structure.

“Don't fall behind, honey. The place is one big maze with no prize in the middle.”

Tavish wrapped her arms around her body. The corridors of the Stone Cold Bondsmen's base were freezing and dimly lit, though clean and free of the usual clutter she was used to seeing inside Fat Louie's. She lost track of how many twists and turns Lola made before she stopped in front of a wide, double-paneled doorway.

“I'll just let Doc know we've arrived.” Lola pressed a red button beside the door.

Tavish yelped in surprise when the image of a woman dressed in a vintage nurse's uniform popped up in front of the door.

“S'okay,” Lola said. “It's just Doc. Warrick's a big fan of programming his holos in outdated Earth fashions. This one's from the early part of the twentieth century. He swears it was a sexy look, but I can't see how stiff white skirts and ugly shoes could possibly be attractive. So I figure it's all part of his questionable sense of humor.”

Tavish felt silly, but she couldn't shake the edgy feeling that her life had changed right before her eyes.

Of course it had changed. Had she ever thought to leave Fat Louie's in anything other than a funeral transport? Yet here she was on another planet after being hijacked by some strange bondsman who seemed to have scruples. Who'd have ever thought? Certainly not Tavish.

“Doc is our holographic doctor,” Lola said. “She'll run a few scans and treat whatever pops up while I find you fresh clothes and get you some breakfast.”

Tavish knew what a holographic doctor was, and she knew Lola was just trying to help her relax. But the fact that Tavish felt like a lost child wasn't Lola's fault.

It's Xave's fault. He's the one who picked me up out of one life and dumped me into another.

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