Caught in Amber

2014Nominee-DABWAHA

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Recently out of rehab, Sasha James is determined to keep her head down, complete her parole, and never touch amber again. The chip in her neck controls her cravings for the highly addictive drug, but also tracks her every move. Not that she goes anywhere other than work and the halfway house she calls home—a far cry from her luxurious former life as lover of the mining colony’s top drug dealer, Guy Christiansen.

Agent Nathan Sterling has no desire to see Sasha fall back into amber, but his sister has become Guy’s latest conquest and the unexpectedly attractive Sasha is the key to getting her back. So in exchange for an introduction, he offers Sasha the one thing she can’t refuse—her freedom. From the chip, her parole, and even the planet if she wants. Though he would be sorry to see her go…

Torn between her growing attraction to Nathan, fear of Guy and the allure of amber, Sasha accepts. But who will save her if Guy refuses to let her go a second time?

Excerpt from CHAPTER ONE

There he was. Again.

Sasha sipped her huskberry juice and watched the blond man reflected in the mirror behind the bar. Dressed in the somber clothing of a Revivalist, like herself, his broad shoulders filled out his long, dark coat like no other man in the room. He walked with a quiet confidence that drew the attention of more than a few people and had them moving out of his way on their own accord—definitely not in the unassuming nature of a typical Revivalist. Veering off behind her to the right, he didn’t seem to notice her as he navigated chatting patrons and servers with colorful drinks on their trays.

But she’d noticed him. Twice before tonight. The first time had been earlier this week, while Sasha had been grabbing a quick bite at a local coffee shop before work. He’d strode past her table, eyes on the counter, and placed his order without seeing her. His profile had been handsome enough in a serious, lived-in sort of way. Brooding, almost. But it was the way he carried himself—the way his shoulders narrowed to a tapered, fit waist—that had caught her eye.

He’d started to leave then turned and smiled at something the server said, and his face had changed from merely attractive to charming. The severity in his eyes softened, making him more approachable. If she’d had the nerve to do anything like approach him, that is. Sasha had only smiled in response, surprised he’d affected her at all, and hid her grin behind her cup so he wouldn’t catch her looking at him.

She’d almost felt sorry to see him go.

Then two days ago, at the PubTrans station near the halfway house where she lived, his blue eyes found hers as she boarded a train car. Their intensity took her breath for a moment before he disappeared into the crowd.

Maybe he lived in the neighborhood. Maybe she’d run into him at the market where she worked. Maybe they could have coffee together sometime. A nice, normal conversation with a nice man. A decent man.

Sasha gave herself a mental shake. Right. And the offender status chip in her neck was just for the hell of it. Seeing a stranger three times in the same week was no coincidence. Not when it came to her.

“Getcha ’nother?” Trent, the skinny old bartender, stepped in front of her, cutting off the view of the room.

Damn. She’d lost her bead on the guy.

Sasha gulped the last of her drink, shivering at the citrusy tang on her tongue. “Less ice this time.” She slid the tall glass toward Trent and tilted her head to glance in the mirror behind him. No sign of the blond man. Was that a good thing or a bad thing? “I’d like to taste the juice.”

Trent’s bushy gray eyebrows rose in proper, albeit false, indignation. “Me? Water down drinks?”

Sasha mimicked his expression. “You? Charge a credit for a credit’s worth of product?”

The barman laughed as he refreshed her glass with more of the ochre juice and less ice, she noted, as she smiled back. “Just don’t tell anyone I’m giving you the real deal. I’d go broke in a week,” he said.

“For what you charge for a whisky fizz, which I know is mostly fizz, I think you can afford to give me straight juice.”

Sasha tensed as she felt a prickle of awareness on the nape of her neck. Trent continued to smile as his gaze settled over her left shoulder.

“What’re ya drinkin’, sir?” he asked.

“I’ll have what she’s having.”

Sasha relaxed a micron and rolled her eyes. Not the most original line she’d ever heard, but she liked the sound of his low tenor. “Hope you like huskberries.”

She turned toward the newcomer and froze. The blond man.

Her heart thumped in her chest, and she resisted the impulse to scoot back on her stool.

Though just under 200 centis tall, he seemed to loom over her even when he was an arm’s length away. Beads of water glinted in his cropped hair and spots of melted snow dotted his broad shoulders. A thin scar ran across his forehead, making it appear he was in deep concentration. Or frowning. His blue eyes bore into hers; there was no hint of the softness she’d seen at the coffee shop.

Sasha studied him for just a moment, boldly meeting his gaze. He hadn’t smoothed out the crinkles around his eyes with nano treatments, hadn’t bothered to get the scar erased. The imperfections made him more genuine, more substantial than the people she used to run with.

Not surprising if he was a Revivalist—the religious movement known for its belief in simplicity above technology. But was he? He carried himself with a confidence she’d seen in few men in or out of the movement. Which left…what? What could he possibly want with her?

“No ice.” He slid an anonymous, green five-credit chit across the bar.

Trent poured the juice and moved off when someone called for a beer.

“You’re following me,” Sasha said, silently daring him to deny it. “Why?”

What had she done to catch this man’s attention? She had no one to contend with but herself, and liked it that way.

He sipped the drink, his mouth pursing, and broke eye contact with her as he set the glass down on the bar again. “I’d rather not go into it here, Miss James.”

Apprehension shimmered up her spine, stiffening it as her chin rose. Any notion of interest fled. That was not the response she’d expected from him. Something along the lines of, “I saw you at the market and thought you were cute,” would have been preferable. Easier to play along with. And less disturbing.

Did she know him?

Music thumped into her skull from the speakers around the room as she racked her brain, but she couldn’t place the man prior to seeing him this week. No surprise in that, though. Before returning to the civilized world, her brain hadn’t exactly been functioning properly.

Correction: her brain hadn’t functioned properly before rehab. If it had, she wouldn’t have been caught, tried and convicted.

“We aren’t going into anything anywhere,” she said. “Why are you following me, and how do you know my name?”

Her whereabouts were far from secret, but it wasn’t like she posted them on every street corner. Especially not in this neighborhood. She was in the system, now and forever, but that didn’t explain his knowing her.

Unless he was part of the system. Shit.

“You’re a lawman, aren’t you?” The offender status chip embedded in the left side of her neck seemed to tingle. Why was a lawman following her? And poorly, if he’d allowed her to see him. Or had that been intentional?

She’d been on her best, boring behavior for the past eight months, checking in at the parole kiosk each week and submitting a urine sample, as per the conditions of her release from the Nevarro Correctional Rehabilitation Center.

“My name is Nathan Sterling.” He held her attention with his pale blue eyes and ignored the question. “I need your help.”

Sasha snorted a laugh, hoping she sounded undaunted and relaxed. She had no reason to fear this guy. She hadn’t done anything wrong. “Unless you’re looking for a discount at the market where I work, I think you’ve got the wrong girl, Mr. Sterling.”

“That could come in handy,” he said, smiling. He did have a nice smile, even for a lawman. “But I’m looking for something else.”

She arched her right eyebrow. “Try the Water District, two blocks over. Plenty of women, or men, willing to give you ‘something else.’”

Sterling shook his head; the smile melted. “Not looking for that either. I need to contact Guy Christiansen.”

Sasha’s entire body went cold. Guy Christiansen. She’d rather have a Bidarki puma chew on her leg than be associated with him ever again. Better yet, send Guy to the untamed planet twenty light years away and have the puma chew on his leg.

If Sterling wanted to meet Guy, there was no way she wanted to know Sterling.

Turning toward the bar, she raised the huskberry juice to her lips, wishing now she’d had Trent splash a little vodka into the glass. It amazed her that her hands weren’t shaking, because she felt as if she were on the steep down-phase of an amber slide, complete with nausea.

Amber and Guy. Guy and amber. The two went together like death and decay.

But amber without Guy? That wasn’t nearly so bad an idea.

Don’t. Her hands jerked at the self-inflicted mental slap, and juice sloshed onto the bar. Not now. Not ever again, remember? You promised.

“I can’t help you,” she said as the liquid trickled across the wood.

 

Text Copyright © 2013 by Cathy Pegau

Cover Art Copyright © 2013 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited

Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A. Cover art used by arrangement with Harlequin Enterprises Limited. All rights reserved. ® and ™ are trademarks owned by Harlequin Enterprises Limited or its affiliated companies, used under license.

 

 

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