A few murky hours after being carted to an elevator, Ray surfaced from a sea of troubled dreams to a welcome scent.
“Scotch,” he murmured, lips curving up in a smile.
And not just any scotch, but Wallace Blue Label.
He opened his eyes, sat up, and turned to find a tray holding the open bottle of liquor, a carafe of water, and two glasses on a bedside table.
The expanse of bed between Ray and that table was covered in smooth sheets and surrounded by a mountain of thick jewel-toned pillows.
Surrounding the bed were soft peach walls hung with tapestries. There was a curl up and read chair in one corner, some floor pillows in another, and a selection of greenery on various shelves. A small water fountain that appeared to be carved from stone provided a soothing background music to the quiet scene.
Ray had to admit, he felt out of place.
He also felt a bit chilly and looked down to find that his ruined clothing had been changed out for a pair of loose trousers with a drawstring at the waist.
At some point he seemed to have been bathed, and best of all, all the bruises and burns had been treated, so he only felt the mildest of aches.
Which, all things considered, called for a celebration.
“Come here, you,” he said, sliding over the sheets to take possession of the scotch.
He poured himself a generous portion and knocked it back by half. “Just what the doctor ordered.”
“I think the doctor would order you to rest.”
He looked to his left and discovered Jessyn leaning in the open door of what looked to be the bathroom, her hair hanging loose in a tumble of damp curls.
She was also, he noted, wearing one of his jackets and his St. Christopher medal.
And that was all she wore.
Against all reason, Ray began to feel overdressed.
“Then again,” Jessyn continued, her head tilting to study him, “the doctor would not have been experiencing your cravings for the past few hours. You are quite fond of that brand of scotch.” On which quizzical statement she crossed to the left side of the bed and stood, fingers toying with the jacket’s top button as she studied him.
Was he supposed to say something? “Umm . . .”
“May I join you?” she asked, saving him from his own inarticulate mumblings.
Is this a trick question? “I would be—”
“Please,” she cut him off and held up a hand, “do not say you would be honored.”
Curious, he set down the glass. “Why not?”
“Because honor is cold, almost as cold as duty.” As she spoke, she undid the jacket’s top button. “When you touch me . . .” she undid the second button “. . . I do not wish it to be cold, or dutiful.”
“And what do you wish?” he asked, pleased his voice was still working.
“I wish it to be us.” And as Ray watched, his pulse beating a violent tattoo at his throat, she freed the third—and last—button and let the blazer slide from her shoulders, bringing her wardrobe down to the St. Chris medal.
Yup, he thought, definitely overdressed.
* * *
Jessyn’s muscles felt as soft as the wax of a Moon Candle at the break of day.
The man at her side draped an arm over her, drawing her close. His breath tickled her cheek, and she snuggled in, at one with his pleasure.
The sensation was not new to her.
She was what she was, and pleasuring a bedmate was the least of a Nhaiad’s skills.
And yet, what she experienced with—and from—Ray Slater was also utterly different.
Not only because he too had skills (and such skills), but also because beneath and around the sensual act of love twined something else.
Even as they rose, Jessyn shied from the thoughts and what they might mean to one such as herself, who knew more than any other Rasalkan the price of attachment to an offilan.
“You’re thinking,” Ray murmured, nuzzling her shoulder.
The merest touch sent ripples coursing through her, and she turned to face him.
“I am,” she agreed, pressing her lips over his heart to cover the tripping of her own. “I am thinking a man as adept as yourself might give lessons to his brethren.”
“You know, that kinda talk could swell a man’s ego to the size of a star system.” As he spoke, Ray toyed with the Saint Christopher medal she still wore. “And given I’m pretty sure you’d be teaching a master class yourself, maybe I should be thanking you for the tutorial.”
“Thanks are for when someone brings you a cup of coffee,” she said. “Which, I might add, tasted awful even as I craved it.” She pushed herself up. “What we share is shared, unconditionally.”
“Shared,” Ray echoed, then shifted, pulling her down and around so he covered her with his body. The move was so swift she gasped, but though she said nothing, he perceived her enjoyment of the sudden reversal.
Except, why did he know that?
“Change of subject,” he said, trying to focus. “What I’m feeling right now . . . what you said about the coffee . . . shit, how you found me . . .” He petered out, uncertain what, precisely, he was trying to say.
And she . . . she just watched, as if waiting for the credit to drop.
“You and I,” he ventured at last, “I think we’ve,” he paused again, grasping for a word to fit a sensation he’d never experienced. “We’ve linked, somehow.”
He felt her response before her head dipped in the faintest nod.
“I wasn’t sure of it at first,” she confessed. “What we experienced when we first touched in Ankhar was powerful. Still, it wasn’t until after you and Harry were taken, when I took hold of this . . .” she placed a hand over Ray’s medal, where it gleamed bright against the gilded brown of her skin, “and felt what Gavin was doing to you that I knew for certain what had happened.”
“My medal?” he asked automatically, then froze as the impact of what she’d said struck home. “You felt that? The shocks? Jessyn,” he dropped his forehead to hers. “I’m sorry. God, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have—”
“Shouldn’t have what?” she asked, cutting him off and waiting for him to raise his head again so their eyes could meet. “It wasn’t you at fault. And do not be sorry your medallion showed me the way to you. If it hadn’t, we would not be here now.” She combed her fingers through his hair, a gesture of comfort. “It was worth the pain, to have you safe.”
“Safe,” he echoed, knowing it for a temporary situation at best. Nothing in his life, in the deal he’d made to have a life, would allow for anything more.
“You are still troubled,” she murmured.
“Not by you.” He ran his own fingers through the tangled curls of her hair this time.
“No,” she agreed, “but by this sharing we are experiencing, by the way our tu—our living energies—have connected.”
Tu. Ray ran the word over in his brain—chi to some ancient Terrans, the soul to the church that had raised him. But—the endless catechisms of his youth aside, did he believe such a thing existed?
And even if he’d had one to begin with, Ray had lately begun to wonder if a man in his line of work could lose his soul.
How many had he killed since taking this job?
Still fewer, he figured, then had died on Verdanti Prime.
And at which point, the internal interrogation continued, had he started using the loss of his battalion as a yardstick?
Even as he suppressed the habitual ache that accompanied memories of Verdanti, he saw an echo of that wound in Jessyn’s eyes.
“What happened?” she asked. “What hurt you so?”
“Long story,” he said, settling down so Jessyn could nestle at his side. “And an ugly one.”
“The better to tell it, then,” she determined, “that it not remain in the dark, spreading like a fungus.”
“There’s an image,” he muttered, but—and perhaps because of—their connection, he couldn’t deny her.
Nor, he realized, did he want to.
“It starts with a battle that turned into a massacre on a planet called Verdanti Prime.”
“I have not heard of it.”
“Most haven’t,” he said. “It’s not one of the ConFed Marines’ proudest moments, so they didn’t broadcast it.”
“Tell me,” she said.
So, he told her.
And she listened as he laid out the disaster of Verdanti Prime, from the first drop to the unexpected challenge of the Kydor mercenaries dug in and the armchair Colonel safe in orbit, ordering his own troops into the mouth of the beast without anything related to a strategy. “It was suicide by mercenary,” Ray said, stroking Jessyn’s arm. “But that wasn’t enough, not for Colonel Rikert.”
Jessyn’s soft hiss echoed Ray’s bone deep hatred of the man. “What did he do?”
“He panicked,” Ray explained. “Called an airstrike down on his own troops—including my company,” he explained, images of the Third Battalion taking fire from the enemy and their own forces flickering once again to life. “Over four hundred ConFed soldiers died in that air strike,” he said, “and most of that number is on Rikert, who walked away clean.”
Or mostly clean, given that, after the fact, Ray had beaten him near to bloody death.
So, Rikert had gotten away mostly clean.
Ray had ended up facing a court martial.
“That is not right,” Jessyn said as Ray’s story wound around to his sentencing to Danseker. “This Rikert person should have been held accountable.”
“Should have,” Ray agreed, toying with her hair. “But money and power cover a lot of sins,” he said, his voice rough as the old, old hatred roiling under his skin.
Rather than hide from Ray’s burning anger, Jessyn embraced it, opening herself to his rage, his needs, and even as her eyes burned with his hatred, he followed her lead.
As one, their bodies battled through the grief and pain and bone-deep anger Ray carried until, at long last, they dropped together into a still, quiet pool of solace.
A temporary solace, Jessyn understood, but she offered it completely, and as completely accepted his rage into herself.
As she accepted him.
All of him.
And Mother help her, because whatever she felt, she still had a job to do.
* * *
This time, once the passion had spent itself, Ray felt less replete than guilty.
“Stop that,” Jessyn said, slapping him on the shoulder.
“Stop what?” he asked. “Being concerned?”
“Being the . . . Oh, what is it? Knight in shining armaments?”
“Close enough,” Ray decided.
“Well, don’t be that,” she said, with one more halfhearted thwap.
“Fine, I won’t be that.” He then added a soft, “Never have been.”
“So you think,” she said with a sigh, and against his side relaxed further.
For a time they lay, staring at the ceiling which, Ray now noticed, was painted with stars, but he couldn’t recognize the constellations.
“I owe you a truth, in exchange for yours,” Jessyn said.
“I have not yet answered your question from the alley, right before you fainted—”
“Passed out. I . . . passed out.”
“As you say,” she agreed, though he was pretty sure he could feel her smile. “Anyway, to answer your question, yes. I did use a Jedi mind trick on those shubos in the alley.”
“Yeah?” Now he turned to her, saw her eyes closed, her lips turned up in a smile. “And how does a nice Rasalkan girl manage a fictional Terran movie trope?”
“It started a long time ago . . .”
“In a galaxy—ow!” He laughed as her elbow drove into his ribs and then listened to Jessyn tell him her truth, one that included a mother who loved a particular vid from Old Hollywood. “Even though we both agreed the cast was very imbalanced, in comparison to Earth’s population.”
“But the Force,” Ray said, trying to work the math, “wasn’t that telepathy, or telekinesis? And you said you’re an empath, and. . . .” He sputtered to a halt as he remembered the Force wasn’t real.
“You would be surprised what we are capable of,” she replied, her eyes opening. “And not all ’paths are the same. There are more shades of ability than there are of eye color.”
“Like the Jedi mind trick,” he said.
“Like the Jedi mind trick,” she agreed.
His left hand rose to toy with her hair, fingers tangling in the curls. “I’m guessing that vid made quite an impression on you.”
“Mmm,” she hummed the affirmation. “Enough I spent years in the Nhaiad Academy, practicing. Only one other person, two now that I have told you, knows I can do it.”
Here her head tipped left and her clear blue eyes met his so he would understand the gift she offered him.
He only wished he could offer her more in return.
But whatever might be going on with this woman—this amazing woman—he still had a job to do.
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