Jewel’s family fortune is entirely dependent on the continuation of a multitrillion-dollar business relationship—a relationship to be cemented by an arranged marriage to Kole Delling, a man Jewel has no reason to love. Desperate to secure her freedom, Jewel joins the crew of the tramp freighter, Euripides, and passes her time on the outskirts of the Fringe and in the arms of Erik Gunnarson.
Erik calls to Jewel in every way Kole doesn’t. An honest worker scratching out a living he may be a little rough around the edges but there’s no question how much he wants Jewel—in his bed, against the bulkhead or in the shower. He can’t get enough, and he’s not too frigid to admit it. With Erik at her side, Jewel finds it easy to forget the opulence of her home world and the advantages of her birth.
But an accidental discovery near an abandoned planet threatens Jewel’s newfound happiness. Driven by greed, the crew of the Euripides is taking an awful risk, one that could jeopardize not only Jewel’s freedom, but the lives of every crewmember on board—including hers.
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“Come on, Jewel. Is that all you’ve got?”
Erik Gunnarson, Executive Officer of the tramp freighter, Euripides, drove in hard with his left hand, making lightning jabs to Jewel’s cheek. She had her faceguard on but Gunnarson was a large and powerful man, nearly sixteen standard years her senior. He was also in excellent shape, packed with muscles Jewel had only recently begun to build. His blows rocked her head backward. Using his damned tyzat techniques against her again. It was a fighting style she’d never even heard of before she’d accepted a berth aboard the Euripides—grounded in kickboxing with a host of additional elements thrown in. And if that wasn’t bad enough, he’d mastered three different martial arts on top of that and knew a smattering of at least six others. He constantly changed things up against her so that she never knew what he was going to hit her with.
And that was the reason she loved to spar with Gunnarson. Back in the day when she’d had to depend on her father to find her teachers, the martial artists she’d trained with were always more afraid of hurting her than interested in teaching Jewel anything. None of them had ever understood why she might want to learn to defend herself. Wouldn’t her parents always be able to afford security for her?
She threw her arm up to block the next punch but Gunnarson anticipated her, stepping inside her defense, twisting about and tripping her over his artfully extended leg.
Jewel hit the mat hard—an experience she’d become all too familiar with lately.
Gunnarson stepped back out of reach of her feet. His blue eyes shone clearly from behind his protective mask. “Your mind isn’t focused today,” he warned her. “Are you sure you don’t want to quit now? I know we’ve got the mats reserved for another twelve minutes but really, how much punishment do you want to take?”
Jewel figured that after ten weeks serving together, the exec ought to know she wasn’t the kind of woman who quit. But if he was foolish enough to ask the question, she was perfectly willing to try to take advantage of him over it. “I guess you’re right. I don’t know what’s wrong with me today.”
She raised her slight, brown hand to Gunnarson in silent request for him to help her stand.
He came forward easily enough, standing lightly on the balls of his feet and slipped his pale fingers around hers. His muscles flexed and he began to effortlessly haul her up to her feet. It was the obvious moment for Jewel to strike back, but she hadn’t figured out how to escape the long reach of her family by doing the obvious. She let the exec finish helping her to her feet, then reached to the back of her head and unfastened her mask. Veronica 5
The moment Gunnarson lifted his hands to do the same, Jewel circled her foot around his calf and knocked him on his ass. By the time the exec realized what was happening, Jewel was sitting on top of him, thighs astride his broad chest and grinning in triumph. “Now who’s lost their focus?” she teased him.
Gunnarson finished removing his mask before answering her. He had a cute little lock of blond hair that liked to fall free across his forehead, making him look a lot younger than he was. He smiled up at her. “Who’s to say that this isn’t exactly what I wanted to happen?”
Jewel wasn’t going to let him get away with that crap. “Don’t think you can talk your way out of this. I’ve got you exactly where I want you now.”
Gunnarson’s large hands encircled her waist. “That’s very good because I like this position too.”
With a sudden twist of his arms he flipped Jewel to the side and rolled over on top of her. “Of course, I like this position even better.”
Jewel tried to roll out from under the exec, but Gunnarson was ready for her now and easily pinned her against the mat. She struggled some more with increasing futility—something he clearly enjoyed—before she finally conceded defeat. “Okay, you’ve got me. What are you going to do next?”
“How about this?” He lowered his face and surprised Jewel with a kiss.
She didn’t know what to do. After weeks of imagining this moment—even dreaming about it—he still caught her unprepared. She hadn’t really expected him to try. He was the exec after all, her superior officer. And while he didn’t know it because she’d lied about her age when she applied for this job, he was nearly old enough to be her father.
Gunnarson kissed her again, keeping her hands pinned above her head while his lips went to work on hers—nibbling, sucking, bruising them open so his tongue could thrust inside her mouth.
This time she remembered to kiss him back, thrilling in the adventure of it. In about ten seconds she’d kissed him longer then she’d ever been permitted to mess around with all of her schoolmates and the wealthy sons of her parents’ friends combined.
Gunnarson—make that Erik since they were kissing now—released her hands so he could slide his long fingers into her hair and cradle her head as they kissed. Then he rolled them over so that Jewel was suddenly on top, letting his larger body support, rather than crush hers. She knew she should probably stop them from going any further, but she was too excited to do that. Besides they only had another eight or nine minutes in this chamber. That deadline built in definite limits as to how far they could go today.
Kole Delling’s image invaded her mind—dark where Erik was blond and even taller and more muscular—but Jewel pushed his visage out again. She wasn’t going to let Kole spoil this moment with Erik.
A bulge began to grow between Jewel and Erik’s bodies, distracting her from the thoughts of Kole. Once, when Jewel was still in school, Knum Ezbet had gotten hard while he danced with her, but her chaperones had quickly stepped in and separated them. Dirty dancing might be permissible for all the other girls, but Jewel had always been made to understand that a different set of rules applied to her. She’d been engaged to be married since she was six standard months old. The continuation of a multitrillion-dollar business relationship depended on her staying pure for her future husband. So her chaperones had intervened before things could get too exciting and screw up Mama and Papa’s fortune. But her parents’ minders weren’t around anymore and Jewel was free to do exactly what she wanted.
Erik’s fingers slipped out of her hair and down to her shoulder where he hesitated a moment before gliding lower, onto her gi. Jewel’s heart stuttered, missing a beat as his thumb brushed the upper slope of her breast. Then it dipped lower, tracing her curves through the white fabric before spiraling upward to find her nipple. He wiggled it back and forth, encouraging it to grow hard. His mouth left her lips to kiss the surgically enhanced cleft in her chin—another improvement her parents had insisted upon.
Jewel realized her eyes were closed as she lay perched passively above Erik, wondering what he would do to her next. His fingers were light and dexterous like a thief’s but strong and forceful like an ancient warrior’s. In very little time he had her nipple fully engorged and straining against her shirt.
He rolled the two of them over again so that Jewel’s back was on the mat and Erik was positioned above her. His lips moved down to her neck where his tongue flicked out to taste her pulse. Jewel’s whole body began to tremble. Heat rose in her cheeks and neck, not to mention lower in her loins. She knew that she should stop him, but they only had a few more minutes before they lost the room. How much further would Erik try to go? How much further did she want him to go?
Erik drifted farther south and the universe abruptly turned inside out.
Jewel cried out in pain as a feeling of intense nausea racked her stomach. Evidently Erik felt the same sensation for he shouted something incoherent while he violently twisted away from her. The contents of her stomach wrenched violently up her throat to spew out across the exercise room. The pain was as intense as the vomit was revolting. The muscles in Jewel’s abdomen cramped impossibly tight, bending her double as she forcefully regurgitated again.
Out of the corner of her eye, Jewel saw Erik fighting to move. Like her, he was vomiting all over the floor. Yet that didn’t incapacitate him as it did her. Somehow he started moving, crawling toward the wall.
Jewel couldn’t move like that, but she managed to force herself to speak between projectile heaves. “What’s…happening?”
Erik forced three words of explanation out of his throat in the brief moments between the efforts by his stomach to propel his intestines up his esophagus. “Slide…space…translation!”
Jewel’s already rapidly beating heart shot into overdrive. How could something like this happen?
The Euripides was only fifteen days slide out of Thimble—what the hell could cause them to break slide early and shift back into normal space?
She vomited again, expelling mostly bile in her body’s continued efforts to rid itself of even the lining of her stomach. Then, as abruptly as it had begun, the pain eased, leaving only the overwhelming sense of nausea and the foulest of tastes and smells behind it. As quickly as it appeared, the crippling tension drained out of Jewel’s body and she collapsed against the mat like a marionette dropped by her puppeteer. She landed in a pool of her own vomit, but she was too dizzy and exhausted to move to a clean spot.
Over by the wall, Erik somehow forced his way up to the com unit. He was a strong man, but acting now was more a measure of character and willpower than it was of physical muscle. She didn’t understand how he was doing it, but his actions inspired her.
“Bridge,” Erik said in an abbreviated address that violated basic shipboard protocols. “Stars, Captain! What just happened?”
Jewel didn’t want to move, but she couldn’t appear weak in front of Erik. Gritting her teeth against a wave of vertigo, she forced herself upright. She simply refused to appear less strong and capable than he. She wanted his respect as much as his love.
Once seated on her ass, she put out a hand to steady herself. Her whole body shuddered with queasy uncertainty and utter exhaustion—a textbook reaction to enduring slide space translations without the proper drugs in her system.
“Bridge!” Erik repeated, snarling the words in anger and probably fear. Was the bridge crew still alive up there? “Answer me!”
“This is…Everson, Mr. Gunnarson,” a shaky female voice finally answered. “You’d better—”
Everson paused as the sounds of renewed retching filled the speaker. “Sorry…about that. You’d better get up here right away. The Captain’s unconscious and it’s…it’s a real mess, Sir. We’re in a real mess.”
“On my way,” the exec responded before switching off the unit. He leaned back against the wall, resting a moment, trying to catch his breath while Jewel struggled to get her feet beneath her. “Nice of her to tell us that last bit, wasn’t it?” he asked. There was no glint of humor in his eyes, but Jewel still thought he was trying to make a joke. “I’d have never guessed that we’re in a mess right now.”
Jewel finally managed to stand. Her legs were shaky. Perhaps she was pushing too hard and too fast, but she was stubborn and proud and she had no intention of looking weak beside Erik. She didn’t think he’d like a weak woman. She knew she wouldn’t respect a weak man.
The Exec took a deep breath and pushed himself off the wall. “I’ve got to get going. Would you like to come with me? I’m sure I could use your help.”
Jewel nodded, then braced herself as the simple action triggered another wave of vertigo.
“Good,” he said. “Let’s go.”
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