Winner of a 2014 Golden Crown Literary Society “Goldie” in Science Fiction/Fantasy!
Out now from Carina Press!
Colonial Mining Authority agent Natalia Hallowell doesn’t always play by the rules, but she wouldn’t compromise a case either. Put on administrative leave under a cloud of accusation, with no support from her boss, Natalia seeks a little anonymous companionship at her favorite bar. But she’s surprised when the woman who catches her fancy starts buying her drinks.
Desperate, Genevieve “Gennie” Caine had no choice but to seduce, drug and tie Natalia to the bed to get her attention. With the Reyes Corporation after something she has, Gennie needs Natalia to open an investigation and distract them long enough for her to get off Nevarro.
Natalia doesn’t trust Gennie—despite the growing attraction between them—but the corporation’s suspiciously high profits convince her that they must be hiding something. But she has no idea just how deep the deceptions run….
Senior Colonial Mining Authority agent Natalia Hallowell slammed both palms on her supervisor’s desk and leaned toward him, arms stiff. She pressed her fingertips into the surface until they turned white. “That’s three months of undercover work you’re throwing out.” Garces raised an eyebrow at her. Natalia suppressed a growl and added the obligatory, “Sir.”
He flicked a glance at her chest before meeting her eyes again. She’d worn a high-collared sweater and loose trousers, her usual office attire, so there was nothing for him to see.
What an ass.
Garces leaned back in his leather chair, the material of his black-and-gold uniform stretching across his chest, and spread his hands in a “what can I tell you?” gesture that made her want to punch him.
Insubordination was one thing; assault made the Nevarro CMA brass uncomfortable. It was probably best to leave her pulser holstered at her hip too.
“Illegal search and seizure, Hallowell.”
Heat surged up Natalia’s neck and into her face. Between the red coloring she knew stained her cheeks and the strands of hair that had come loose from the bun, she probably looked skitzie. She certainly felt that way at the moment. Sure, she’d had to skirt the edges of legal searches now and again—what agent hadn’t?—but not this time. She’d been meticulous in her preparations for catching Hirahm Brothers Services skimming credits off supply contracts. At least she’d thought she’d covered everything. The investigation had ensnared not only the elder Hirahm brother but a couple of the government’s own lower-level contract developers as well. “Illegal? How?”
“Hirahm claims there’s no evidence that would merit a search, and you were never given open access to his office, SI or records.” Garces laced his fingers together on the desk. His look of frustration seemed to mirror her own, but something gleamed in the supervisor’s dark eyes. The corner of his mouth twitched with contempt. Not for the situation, she realized, but for Natalia herself.
What the hell?
“Bullshit.” She straightened, curling her hands into fists at her sides. “Sir. I followed procedure in gaining his confidence. He brought me into his office himself that night, too drunk to do more than cop a feel then pass out.”
She’d done worse with targets in the past and had been relieved when Hirahm had dropped into his chair and started snoring. He’d stunk of too much alcohol and the smoke of synthetic tobacco. With him safely unconscious, she’d accessed his system interface and copied the data necessary to bring charges, using codes and passwords she’d gleaned from Hirahm when he worked outside the office. She’d watched the man more closely than he had realized and utilized a comm app that analyzed hand movement and reflections. Had she somehow triggered a security alert to Hirahm?
Garces shrugged, as if having one of his agents accused of sloppy procedure was commonplace. “That’s not what his solicitors are saying. Their take is that you convinced him to bring you up then drugged his drink to make him open files before he passed out. Until this gets straightened out in Legal, the surveillance vids are all we have to go on. Everything you retrieved from his computer is inadmissible.”
The heat of anger seeped out of her body, replaced by a spine-stiffening chill of rage. “The vid doesn’t show enough without the corroborating evidence from Hirahm’s SI files. The CMA subcontractor and the Hirahm man on it are alumni of the same university and claim they’ve known each other for years. Nothing in their exchange is specific to the charges. He’ll never get convicted.” She folded her arms. “I don’t agree with Legal.”
“You don’t have to agree.” He narrowed his gaze at her. “If Legal says it’s not gonna fly, it’s not gonna fly. I agree with them, and that’s what matters, as far as you’re concerned.”
She purposely glanced down, pretending to study her gray trousers and boots, classic posturing to show submission. Not that she felt anything approaching submissiveness with Garces, even if he was her boss. He had a problem with her, for some reason she couldn’t fathom. They didn’t have the most congenial relationship, but it leaned more toward cool and civil than hostile. As long as she did her job, he left her alone. What had she done recently to warrant this particular brand of scorn? If Garces had issues with his agents or their actions, he was quick to let them know. This felt different. A disturbing tingle danced along the nape of her neck. Natalia dug her fingers into her sides to keep herself from saying or doing something she might later regret. The pain cleared her head of visions of leaping across the desk to pummel the man.
She looked up to meet his gaze. “I’ll review my report and the operations records again to see if I can come up with something Legal can use.”
“Go ahead,” he said with another dismissive shrug, “but on your own time. The director has already made it clear we’re going to back off for now then take a go at Hirahm from another angle.”
Which was often CMA-speak for “We’ll get to it when we get to it.” Natalia hated leaving a job in limbo. Get in, get it done and put the bad guys away was how she liked to operate.
“I’m all for that. What does she have in mind?”
Garces shook his head. “Not you. Your in with Hirahm has been compromised. You’re off the case.”
Natalia stared at him, blinking, momentarily unable to sort the flurry of questions into a coherent thought. Off the case? In all her twelve years as an agent, not once had she been pulled from a case. “But—”
He held up a hand, palm out. “Decision’s been made.” Garces stood and smoothed his uniform tunic. “I’m late for the Colonial Council meeting. Take it up with the director if you have a problem with it.”
If she had a problem with it? She sure as hell had a problem with it. Effectively dismissed, Natalia turned on her heel and stalked to the door.
Son of a bitch bastard—
“But I wouldn’t bother,” Garces continued as she levered the door open. “You know how Director Matthews hates to be second-guessed.”
Natalia squeezed the handle, her entire body shaking. She spun around, accusations of his torpedoing her case on her lips, until their eyes met. Garces wasn’t quite enjoying the ding to her career—it affected him too—but he wasn’t sorry either.
“Let it go, Hallowell.” The words were more advice than menace, though that was there too. “You have plenty on your docket. Hirahm isn’t that important.”
No, in the grand scheme of things the Hirahm case wasn’t all that important. But something made it important enough for Garces, and perhaps the director, to shove it under the proverbial rug. Was it the government clerks who’d been swept up with Hirahm? They were too low-level for Garces and Matthews to give a rat’s ass. It didn’t make sense. None of this made sense.
Natalia managed a sneering, “Yes, sir,” before leaving the office.
The slam of the door behind her sent the exact message she wanted to give Garces. Whatever was going on with him and the Hirahm case, she wasn’t about to let it go. Natalia returned to her cramped office to retrieve her coat. After engaging the door lock with her code and palm print, she headed to the elevator, her boots making no sound on the noise-reducing industrial carpet. A slap of the call button on the wall sent a sting up her arm. Screw Garces. There might be something more going on, but right now she just wanted to get as far away from him as possible.
The elevator door opened onto the utilitarian car. Empty. Good. She wouldn’t have to make polite small talk with another agent or CMA employee. Natalia entered and pressed her palm to the black box near the door.
“Good afternoon, Agent Hallowell. Floor, please.” The elevator’s automated system spoke in a soothing, feminine tone that had been approved by some test group somewhere.
“Employee parking,” Natalia said, feeling anything but soothed as she leaned against the back wall, arms crossed over her chest. “Don’t stop on other floors. System override code NH11717.”
The override was only supposed to be used in emergencies, but screw the anal policy-makers upstairs too.
“Vocal analysis and code approved, Agent. Be aware the conduit to employee parking is under repair,” the elevator said. “Please exit at the lobby and access employee parking via the service elevator or street.”
Damn the void. The advantage of going directly to the employee garage was bypassing the public security check in the lobby. It was faster, requiring only a quick ID and retina/iris scan for approved personnel, and maintained an agent’s anonymity during undercover operations.
Before she could get torqued about the inconvenience, a better idea struck her. No, going home was not on her agenda just yet.
“Fine. The lobby then.”
“Yes, Agent Hallowell.”
The doors closed, and Natalia rode down the thirty-seven floors, fuming at Garces, the director, the repair crew and the crap-ass system that allowed them to make her job one thousand times more difficult than it already was. Natalia rubbed her palms over her cheeks and raked her fingers through her hair, dislodging the bun at her nape. She yanked the hair clip free and shoved it in her coat pocket. Her body language training and instincts said there was something going on with Garces. But what? General pissiness at her? The world? A bad cup of coffee that morning?
She took in a long breath and released it on a slow ten-count as the elevator doors slid open onto the public area of the CMA building. Whatever the problem was, she was too close to it at the moment to think clearly.
“Evening, Agent.” One of the young guards manning the nearby scanning station greeted her with a smile. He held a metal tray in both hands. “How are you today?”
Natalia started to tell him exactly how she was but caught herself. He wasn’t the problem. No need to be a bitch. She managed a small smile in return. “Fine, thanks. How are you, Brodsky?” She glanced at the other guard. “Lassiter?”
Lassiter nodded to her from behind his podium.
Brodsky beamed. “Doing well, ma’am. Please walk through at your convenience.”
Despite the fact that she was a known agent and would have normally used the unmanned garage access, Natalia was required to go through the same procedures as anyone off the street if she passed through the lobby. She unclipped the holster from her belt. The bio-code in the grip read her print and took a swipe of DNA for instant analysis, allowing her to remove the pulser. She detached the power pack before setting the pieces and her comm on the tray.
“Um, pockets, Agent Hallowell?” Brodsky’s cheeks pinked, perhaps embarrassed he had to remind her of procedure.
Natalia emptied her coat and trouser pockets of a few colorful cred chits and a pair of leather gloves then placed them on the tray. Anything an agent carried on their person was usually preapproved and coded to be allowed to pass. Which meant Natalia could have insisted on going through the public scanner without emptying her pockets, but why give Brodsky and Lassiter a hassle?
Brodsky slid the tray into a white rectangular box beside the arched net matrix of the body scanner. Natalia passed under the security framework. A soft hum filled the air. Lassiter and Brodsky watched their screens until she and her belongings were cleared, assured she wasn’t smuggling information out.
She reclaimed her items from the tray. The power pack went back into the butt of her pulse pistol, and she secured the weapon in the holster at her hip, covering it with her long coat. In no mood to talk to anyone from the CMA, she flicked off her comm then dropped it into her coat pocket.
She was in no mood to deal with anything but a glass of whisky. A couple of drinks and some anonymous company was what she needed. The soles of her boots rang on the tiled floor as she strode across the lobby to the main entrance. She shoved open the revolving door, overriding the electronic detectors that had sensed her approach and begun the perfect speed of revolution. Straining her muscles against the resistance of the metal and plasti-glass felt good, especially if she pretended the door was Garces.
Out on the street in front of the Pandalus office of CMA headquarters, Natalia cinched the tie of her coat tighter and stopped to take a head-clearing breath. Wind that had rushed down the slopes of the distant mountain range funneled between mega scrapers, blowing frigid air and grit along the walkway. Summer on Nevarro’s North Continent felt a lot like its winter.
It wasn’t snowing yet, and no one seemed to be in a hurry to get indoors. Ground cars hissed past on the wet street as air cars cruised high overhead, their speed deceptively lethargic compared to the vehicles on the street. Lighted signs flashed adverts for everything from bubbly drinks to new, smaller comms to eateries. Natalia maneuvered around slower foot traffic and followed a familiar path to her favorite after-work bar.
* * *
The sign for The Hotel Carmen came into view, and Natalia sighed in relief as well as self-reproach. She visited The Carmen more often than she should, especially in the last few weeks. A drink after work was one thing. Several drinks several evenings in a row and one-nighters that rarely lasted until morning more than twice a week was not good.
She could blame Garces all she wanted, but it would be better for her to find another way to cope with him and the stress of work. Just not today. She stepped inside and took a deep breath of the mingled scents of wood polish, fruity alcohol and warm bodies. Six or eight people sat at the bar, and small groups occupied a few tables to the right. Reba, the bartender, looked up when she entered.
Natalia held up two fingers then gestured to the left. Reba waved acknowledgement and handed a tall glass of black beer to a man. Soft lighting and dark paneling made the bar seem cool and dim, but it was a good twenty degrees warmer than outside. Natalia slipped her coat off and headed to a larger seating and dancing area to the left. She sat at a table for two with her back to the wall, facing the door. Reba approached, tray in hand.
“Rough day?” She set down the whiskies. Two centimeters of amber liquid gently sloshed in each squat glass.
“Like you wouldn’t believe.” Natalia took out her comm. She approved the cost of the drinks and a generous tip to be deducted from her personal account. “Thanks.”
Reba glanced at the comm on her tray and gave a wide grin. “Thank you,” she said then returned to the bar.
As usual, the first whisky went down fast, burning despite the high quality of the liquor. Natalia closed her eyes, the heat filling her sinuses, throat and chest as it made a path to her stomach. Only after it settled there did the delicate oak and floral essence hit her palate. Some would say gulping fine whisky was a sin, but she needed the kick.
Opening her eyes, Natalia lifted the second glass and sipped, tasting the mellow undertones this time. A few regulars sat at the bar, ignoring her as she ignored them. The door opened, and a tall, stunning woman with windblown, golden-brown hair walked in. She was about Natalia’s age, somewhere in her mid-thirties unless she’d had cosmetic nanos implanted. Her worn leather coat stopped at curvy hips; dark trousers covered long legs. She slid her hand along the closure of her jacket as she shut the door. The jacket slipped down her arms, and she caught it before it hit the floor. Her snug green sweater hugged generous breasts and a trim waist. Natalia gave a soft moan of appreciation.
The woman scanned the front area of the bar, taking it in, not as if she were looking for a particular person. She swept long bangs back off her forehead. Her gaze traveled to the section where Natalia sat. Their eyes met, and Natalia smiled. The woman smiled back then took a seat at the bar, her profile toward Natalia.
Ah well, maybe she is waiting for someone.
Several more patrons entered, giving Natalia a few more subjects to absently watch while she sipped and pushed the mess with Garces as far out of her mind as she could. A couple in the corner argued quietly, tense faces and abrupt hand gestures broadcasting their disagreement as loudly as a shouting match. She turned away, allowing them what little privacy they could have in a crowded bar, and focused on the smiling, laughing customers. Who might be looking for the type of company she desired tonight? Something—someone—to keep her mind off the job for a couple of hours?
Dance music suddenly blasted out of the concealed speakers. People made their way to the open center of the floor and started gyrating. Watching the couples, threesomes and foursomes swaying together, sometimes kissing or stroking, separating then finding new partners, mystified Natalia.
Casual sex was one thing, but she wasn’t one to share once she was in a longer relationship. Her ex, Sophie, had said it was her jealousy and need for control that kept Natalia from enjoying more inspired encounters. Natalia had argued it was more a matter of focusing on that one person. Sophie certainly hadn’t complained about Natalia’s single-mindedness when they were together.
Reba wove through the bodies, tray held high, and set another whisky on the table. Natalia peered up at her, one eyebrow cocked. She hadn’t ordered a third but had been considering it. “You reading customers’ minds all of a sudden?”
The younger woman smiled. “Nah. This one’s from an admirer.”
The brunette in the green sweater stepped from behind Reba. Her brown eyes found Natalia’s, and Natalia stifled a sharp breath; she was even more striking up close.
“My name’s Gennie,” the woman said, her voice as mellow as the whisky in the glass. “Mind if I join you?”
* * *
Natalia stood behind Gennie at the hotel room door while the other woman fished her key card from her jacket pocket. She ran her hands over the brunette’s hips and brought their bodies together while nuzzling the back of her neck. The floral aroma of her silky hair filled Natalia’s senses.
Gennie turned her head and brushed her lips across Natalia’s, breaking contact before Natalia could deepen the kiss. “You’re making it very difficult for me to open the door.”
Natalia slipped her hands under Gennie’s sweater and caressed her way up the flat stomach to the undersides of her breasts, controlling the urge to go further. “Sorry.”
She grinned. “Liar.”
The lock mechanism beeped, and Gennie levered the handle. Natalia guided her through, shutting the door behind them. Hands back on the other woman’s waist, she turned Gennie around and pressed her against the wall, body to body, mouth on mouth. They were almost the same height, their breasts creating delicious friction as they moved together. Gennie’s full lips parted, their tongues twined. She tasted of whisky and heat, and Natalia wanted more.
Gennie moaned into Natalia’s mouth as she ran her hands along Natalia’s arms. She pushed the long coat off Natalia’s shoulders, and the garment dropped to the floor with a soft thud. For half a second, Natalia thought about the pulser holstered at her hip. The piece and holster were bio-coded, so there was no fear of Gennie getting the weapon out, let alone using it against her. Would the pulser scare the woman? Turn her on?
Gennie trailed her fingernails along the front waistband of Natalia’s trousers then up under her sweater. She caressed Natalia’s side with one hand, moving higher with each stroke until she reached Natalia’s breasts, her palm hot. The other hand stayed at Natalia’s back, fingertips tracing a tantalizing figure-eight pattern that dipped below her waistband.
Natalia’s heart rate kicked up, and her breathing increased. An electric zing shot from her nipples to her groin. She kissed Gennie’s neck, taking in her sweet, musky scent as she nudged the green sweater up. She cupped Gennie’s bare breasts and circled the taut nipples with her thumbs.
Gennie arched her back, pressing her hips against Natalia’s. She took the gold stud in Gennie’s earlobe between her lips and tugged, smiling when Gennie sucked in a breath.
Natalia gently bit then kissed the side of her neck, her cheek, her lips. “You taste and feel amazing.”
“You too,” Gennie said, “but…”
Natalia felt a hesitancy shimmer through the woman. Was she having second thoughts about inviting a stranger to her room? But then Gennie deepened the kiss, belying that notion. Still kissing, Natalia guided her toward the bed across the room. A little apprehension could be as erotic as confidence.
A sharp pain surged across Natalia’s lower back. Instinctively, she pushed away from Gennie, blinking at sudden blurry vision. Her legs wobbled, and she stumbled in an effort to brace herself against the wall.
“I’m sorry,” Gennie said, her voice sounding like it was coming through layers of cotton wool.
“What the hell did you do to me?” The words formed in Natalia’s brain but came out a mumbled mess. Then there was nothing.
(You KNOW you want to know what happens next ; )
Cover image © 2013 Harlequin Enterprises Text © 2013 Catherine Pegau