Entering Ankhar’s lounge, Ray had trouble believing the swank nightclub existed in the same solar system as The Needle, much less the same planet.
But as it did, and in deference to the upscale setting, he’d ditched the hungry spacer look for black suit and crisp white shirt—sans tie—and even chose the onyx hilted dagger for his sleeve.
Still, as he wove his way through the rich and fabulous, he felt underdressed
“You’re new here.”
Ray tore his eyes from an Eiolan, who may have been wearing nothing more than paint, to where one of the hostesses wandering the club had joined him.
“How can you tell?” he asked the petite blonde, who was sliding her hand through his arm.
She shot him a smile filled with promises. “I’ve been working at Ankhar long enough to recognize that new-player smell.”
“I’m not really what you’d call a player,” Ray said, taking a mental step back—not easy, when the woman’s mere presence had sent his hormones into a cyclone. “Gambling’s not my thing.” As he spoke, he continued on his original route.
“That’s not the kind of play I meant,” she said. “But I think you know that,” she added as they reached the stairs to the saloon bar. She trailed her fingers over his sleeve as she eased away, “My name is Lyselle, in case you’re in the mood for company, later.”
“Good to know,” Ray said, then held his breath and counted to twenty as she slid back into the crowds. On the job, he reminded himself, aiming for the corner of the bar, which provided the best view of the lounge.
It was a view that included all kinds of VIPs, from the idle rich to up and coming holo vid stars to that most terrifying of all celebrities, the influencers.
There were VIPs of a less renowned variety mixed in—gun runners, smugglers, flesh peddlers, and drug lords—basically, the kind of people Ray was paid to know.
Or, rather, paid to know, briefly.
“What’s your pleasure, gorgeous?”
At the question, Ray turned to see the bartender had arrived.
Petite, purple-haired, with an accent that placed her as a native of the Su-Li colony back in Sol Sector. She also had an infectious grin, that Ray returned.
“Any chance you stock Wallace Blue?” he asked as she set down a cocktail napkin.
“Closest I can give you is Sterling Black Label. And you know it’s spendy?”
“You get what you pay for.” Ray shrugged and produced his money-clipped ‘show roll,' peeling off a 50-spot. “Three fingers, neat, and keep the change.”
“You got it, sweetness.” Without a blink for the wad of cash, the bartender plucked the bill and headed back to fetch the top-shelf scotch.
While his drink was poured, Ray turned his attention back to the lower lounge to see a tall woman moving through the dancers like a water moccasin.
And following right behind her were both Sims Al-Kar and Gavin Booth—the two men he’d come to Ócala to find.
And slung between the two was a limp—drunk or unconscious Ray couldn’t tell—man that Ray recognized from his late night data dive as one ISM Deputy Marshal Harry Finn.
AKA, not-Victor Razz.
“Three fingers, neat.” The bartender set the lowball glass on its coaster. “Friends of yours?” she asked as Ray tracked the progress of Gavin, Sims, and the barely stirring Harry to the stairs.
“No,” he replied, forcing himself to turn his attention back to the bar, taking a slow sip of his scotch before jerking his chin in Harry’s direction. “So what’s the drang? Did the guy maybe grab one of the hostesses’ ass?”
“Don’t know. Don’t care. Not my drang.” The bartender tapped the bar top beside Ray’s glass, even as another customer plopped onto a stool at the bar’s other end.
“Yeah. Hit me again,” he told her, turning to see the party had reached the top of the steps.
Ray could almost hear his Control growling that Finn was not his responsibility.
Maybe not, Ray countered the imaginary boss, but Sims and Gavin are.
“One scotch, three fingers, neat.” The bartender came to a halt as Ray tossed a 20-credit note on the bar and pushed off from his stool.
“Hold that for me,” he told her. “I’ll be back.”
“I hope so,” she said as he headed out of the saloon. “But if I don’t, well—it was nice knowing you.”
Ray had to grin, even as he scoped the lounge, quickly determining that any attempt to pull Finn’s ass out of the sling would be very public and, possibly, suicidal.
He wove through the dancing crowds, winced as an enthusiastic Xhavant elbowed him in the ribs, and watched as the woman who’d joined Sims and Gavin opened one of the doors lining the mezzanine, then stepped while Harry was steered-slash-dragged into a private room.
Private, even three to one, Ray could work with.
With a tight smile, he started up the stairs.
“May I be of assistance?”
The voice from behind would have been enough to stop him—low, musical, and soothing as water in a deep stream.
But when he turned to face the voice’s owner—hells—no healthy, breathing male would have ignored.
From the jeweled pins in her deep brown curls to the bronze-painted toes peeking from the metallic sheath of her gown, she walked, as some poet once said, in beauty, like the night.
“You won’t be able to get in through the door,” she continued, laying a hand on the stair’s bannister, where the bronze cuff she wore, the same shade as her gown, glinted under the lights. “It has a passcode and a bio-lock.”
He met her startlingly blue gaze. “What makes you think I want to get in that door?”
“Jessyn Breeshandra.” As she spoke, her hand rose from the bannister to rest over her heart. Some form of greeting, he figured. “And I think you want to get in that door because I believe you mean to help Harry Finn.” She flicked her eyes over his shoulder, towards the door at the top of the stairs, which told him she knew more about his intentions than she should.
“You’d be right,” he admitted, deciding that the truth, or a version of the truth, would best serve him now. “Ray Slater, jammer by trade. Finn hired me as his bodyguard which means I’m contractually obligated to keep him from being hauled off by a pair of bruisers.”
“Bodyguard?” She tilted her head, and he felt more than saw the frisson of amusement running beneath the urgency. “Interesting.”
“Because Mr. Finn struck me as being very self-sufficient.” And here she stepped up to his level. Not so close as to be touching him, but close enough he could feel the warmth shimmering off her skin, and for him to inhale the soft, spicy scent she wore. “I can help you help him.” Her breath brushed at his jaw.
Breathe… “Again, why?”
Music pulsed, bodies flowed along the dance floor, an ocean of movement, while Ray and Jessyn remained in place, eyes locked on one another, the epitome of alone in a crowded room.
“I’m not sure,” she said at last. “But I will help you. Just not that way,” she said, indicating green door at the top of the stairs. “You have no reason to trust me,” she continued, “but on the honor of my House, I swear to you no serious harm will come to Mr. Finn while he is inside this building.”
None of which precluded Sims or, worse, Gavin, from taking Finn outside, but—and Ray couldn’t have explained it if his life depended on it—one look into Jessyn’s eyes and he knew, without a doubt, she spoke the truth. “Okay. But if not my way, how?”
“We have some time,” she began. “Perhaps we should go somewhere less conspicuous, so we may talk?” As she spoke, her hand dropped from her heart to rest on the back of his wrist, and the jolt that hit him must have struck her as well, given the slight catch in her breath and the widening of her eyes.
I’ll follow you into the third ring of Hell, he thought. “Lead the way,” he said.
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