Excerpt for Rescuing Prince Charming by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Rescuing Prince Charming


by

Edward Hoornaert

http://eahoornaert.com/



Dusty Johnson, a self-styled ordinary, everyday woman, responds with extraordinary heroism when saboteurs try to bomb the prototype of Earth's first starship. Although she yearns to return to anonymity, that moment of courage propels her ever deeper into dangers that tear the scabs off her dark secrets—and thrust her into the arms of the unattainable man of her dreams.

Reese Eaglesbrood, an alien prince, yearns to restore his tattered reputation by guiding the starship project to completion, but his fascination with the unassuming heroine threatens to undermine his fragile authority. Shunning Dusty is necessary, yet unthinkable—and when the saboteurs strike again, she is his only ally against Earth's most elusive enemies.



Copyright December, 2017 by Edward Hoornaert


All rights reserved


This novel is a work of fiction.

Names, characters, places and incidents are either

the product of the author's imagination, or, if real, used fictitiously.


This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


Editing and cover design by Danielle Fine: http://www.daniellefine.com/


ISBN: 9781370661985




The map of the future






CHAPTER ONE


Time: Four years from tomorrow.

Place: A top-secret, underground facility on a Pacific Northwest island that doesn’t exist…yet.


Dusty Johnson really didn’t want to do this.

She took a deep breath, trying without success to dispel the dread clogging her belly. Some women daydreamed of rescuing princes from dragons. Not her.

Yet here she was, all alone, creeping through the dark guts of the half-built starship, searching for a time bomb about to explode. If the siren ordering evacuation of the research facility had summoned the expected herd of guards, she would’ve offered advice then fled with the rest of the staff. Having come this far, though, she couldn't leave without branding herself a coward in her own eyes.

And so Dusty wove her way timidly around machinery that smelled of oil and ozone. Nothing was neat and tidy down here; in a prototype, speed and ingenuity trumped meticulous design. Everything was makeshift, a giant kludge sprawling through three-thousand cubic yards. That meant a lot of places for saboteurs to hide a bomb, but only two where technicians wouldn’t discover it in the course of a workday.

The first hiding place was a niche behind the backup life support nexus. Staring into its shadows, she paused. A heroine wouldn’t hesitate, but an ordinary, everyday woman would think twice about squeezing into a dirty cranny while wearing a new, cream-colored chambray skirt with filigree trim.

Maybe she should just walk away.

Or run.

But there was no one else around to save the ship, and reaching the stars was her dream…

Imagining she was watching a movie heroine who’d never had a second thought in her life, Dusty slipped between a girder and the grease-streaked life support housing. When her skirt survived unscathed, she felt an instant’s relief—

Until she spied a cheap plastic lunch kit. Oh, God. The bomb?

Blood thumped in her ears. Hoping it wasn’t the last thing she ever did, she opened the lid with shaky hands.

Two empty wrappers smelled of fish and chips. No bomb.

She jerked her hand away and pressed it to her chest as though to keep her heart from leaping out to freedom. She’d been plenty brave. She could, in good conscience, leave. Right?

“No,” she moaned.

To reach the second hiding place, she zigzagged to the very back of the mechanical deck and climbed a ladder to the top of Lontreau Engine number one. The alien-designed engine would hop the ship instantaneously across the galaxy—if everything worked perfectly. Its metal casing, as big as a room, hummed and vibrated as though filled with demons impatient to claw her soul to perdition.

Ducking her head because of the low ceiling, she headed toward the engine’s far end. Unexpectedly large equipment had turned a passage into a tunnel just big enough to crawl through; the tunnel led to a closet-sized opening walled with massive wire harnesses. That was where she’d plant a bomb, if she were a saboteur.

She rounded a bank of gauges and saw the tunnel. But a man—or rather, a man’s legs—filled it like a cork in a champagne bottle. Apparently one guard valued duty over death.

Her legs wobbled with relief. “Am I ever glad to see you.”

The tunnel muffled a baritone yelp of surprise. Then: “Take my pants off.”

Dusty blinked. “As pickup lines go, that one’s really bad.”

“An American female,” the guard groaned. “Spirits save me.”

“A Kwadran male with an attitude problem. God save me.”

“My pants are hooked on something, and I can’t reach back to remove them. Pull them down, and hurry. That’s an order.”

“You’re ordering me to strip you?” If she laughed, she’d tumble head-first into hysteria. She held herself to a nervous chuckle, instead.

“I am in no mood for American truculence,” he said impatiently. “I’m staring at an Adidas shoe box jammed between wire harnesses.”

Her chuckle died a gasping death. “The bomb?”

“Pull down my pants!”

“Yes, darling.”

She couldn’t reach in cleanly—not enough room—so she slid her palms up his legs and hips. His pants were velvety twag cotton, an alien fabric from the alternate Earth. She’d never touched a Kwadran this intimately before. Never wanted to. Hoped never to do so, ever again.

She reached his waist, bent her fingers into claws, and pulled. He edged forward. Between the two of them, his slacks edged downward.

“Leave my underpants on, klootch.”

“I’m a respectable woman, not a klootch.” Hysterical laughter threatened to return. “This is an awkward reach, and we haven’t even been introduced.”

Although she knew all three-hundred-and-ten scientists, technicians, and support staff sequestered in this isolated cavern, his voice wasn’t familiar. This confirmed the rumor that the project was changing leaders, and if the new boss belonged to a different clan, he’d bring his own clan’s security people. That was how the aliens’ alternate Earth worked; it didn’t matter how good you were at your job, only what clan you belonged to.

This guy must be a bomb disposal expert. Who else, besides her, would be fool enough to search for a bomb set to go off in a few minutes?

Grunting, she dragged the pants down to his knees. She tried not to notice that he had great muscle tone and that his butt was wow-level firm.

“After this,” she said, panting, “you’ll have to make an honest woman of me.”

“You are dishonest?”

“I didn’t mean—” Despite the sexy body, this jerk typified alien arrogance. Lack of humor, too. “Look, do you want me to free you or not?”

“The rest I can do myself.”

Creeping forward, he left his slacks behind. A jagged shard of metal had snared them, an inexcusable design flaw even for a prototype. Unreasonable deadlines might literally be the death of them all.

Dusty pointed her flashlight to help him see, and was rewarded with tight buttocks in typical Kwadran underwear, resembling a thong. She turned her flashlight aside a moment later than she should have.

And then regretted it. She’d never have such a chance again—might never have a chance to do anything—so what did it matter if she peeked?

But when she looked again, the tunnel was empty. He’d reached the closet-sized room at the other end. After a moment he shouted, “I have the box.”

Figuring she was small enough to avoid the depantsing shard, Dusty crawled into the tunnel. She bunched his pants around the sharp metal to pad the tip.

“Removing the lid,” he said.

She squirmed to the end of the tunnel and poked her head into the closet. Harsh shadows from his flashlight moved like snapping wolves as he turned to her. “Are you insane?” he demanded. “Or the saboteur?”

“Yes and no, respectively. Is that the bomb?”

“I think so.”

“You think so? What kind of bomb disposal expert are you?”

Shaking his head, he stared at the box and scowled. “Expert?”

“Oh, God.” Dusty’s eyes went wide. “You don’t know bomb disposal, yet you removed the lid? That could’ve set it off, you stupid idiot.” She’d done the same thing when she opened the lunch-pail lid, but that was different…somehow. “Give it to me.”

He shined the flashlight her way and looked up for the first time. “It is too dangerous.”

“Like I’m so far away it won’t kill me? Since you can’t disarm it, I’ll have to carry it to someone who can. Hurry.”

He took a deep breath and held out the shoebox. “This goes against my sense of chivalry.”

“Screw chivalry.” She reached for the box—but he pulled it away from her grasp.

“I’ll have you know I’m a gentleman.”

“And the School for Chivalrous Gentlemen taught you that Take off my pants is a polite greeting?”

“Is Please take this bomb, with my compliments an improvement?” He gave a tight-lipped sigh. “I don’t like handing this to a woman.”

But he did it anyway. Holding the box reassured her…for a moment. Just an everyday shoebox, heavier than most, but just a shoebox. “Maybe you aren’t as dumb as you look.”

In truth, she hadn’t paid enough attention to know if he looked like a genius or a dunce. A bomb-disposal pro would be trained to handle terror yet remain polite, but she was just an unadventurous tech writer holding death in her hands. That was the best excuse for rudeness she’d ever had, but still… “Look, I apologize for—”

“Get moving!”

Mindful of the metal shard, she wriggled backward. Despite the cool air, sweat ran down her temples and tickled between her breasts. “I’m out of the tunnel. How much longer now until the message warned that the bomb”—a bomb she held in her hands, and she was very attached to her hands—“is supposed to explode?”

“Seven minutes, eighteen seconds.”

She wasn’t surprised at the precision of his answer. Kwadrans—aboriginal Americans hailing from the future of an alternate Earth—had tiny computers-slash-thought-activated-radios implanted under their collarbones. One of these days, she wanted an implant for herself, if she lived that long…which was more doubtful now than yesterday. Getting out of the ship would take a while, leaving almost no time for real bomb disposal experts to work. But that wasn’t her problem.

Uh…yes, it was.

She retraced her steps to the ladder leading off the Lontreau engine then cradled the bomb in one arm until she reached the bottom of the ladder. The Kwadran was right behind her, shining his flashlight to help her see.

He jumped down the last four rungs. “Hand it over.”

From the front, Kwadran shorts left little to the imagination. Which was a stupid thing to think about at a time like this.

“Give it, you stubborn American. You move too slowly.”

“Carefully,” she corrected. “I move carefully.”

“No time for careful.” He seized the box, hugged it in the crook of his arm like a running back, and raced away.

“You’ll kill us both, you moron.” She followed as he dodged around a tall air filtration casing. He was taking a different route through the machinery than she had. Was it faster or slower? No time even to speculate. With a reckless burst of speed, she caught up to him.

“You’re fast,” he said as he vaulted over an insulated sewer pipe and rounded the purifier complex.

“Track team at The University of Arizona. But I’m surprised”—she slowed to climb over the warm sewer pipe—“to hear a Kwadran admit an American can do anything well.”

He glanced back at her. She wished he wouldn’t do that. If he ran into something, the bomb might explode almost in her face. It wasn’t a world-class face, but her head would look bloody awful without it.

Reaching an open stretch, he sprinted. “You dislike Kwadrans?”

“Stuff a sock in it and run.”

Too late, she realized she should’ve denied her disdain for the aliens. Even though he was just a security flunky who’d skipped bomb disposal class, her careless admission might go on her record—and if the Kwadrans started investigating, they might discover her secret. She’d get kicked off the project before they’d finished thanking her for saving the starship.

If she saved the starship. They’d reached a dead end, closed in by walls of machinery.

She forced out words sharp with anger and fear. “You should’ve let me lead. I know this ship.”

“Then you know that if we squeeze through here…” As he wedged himself between the primary and secondary Astrogation Analyzers, his words echoed then died away.

She hated that he was right even more than she was thrilled he was right. Scowling, she followed him to an open space lit by flashing red and yellow LEDs on a recycling meter. The lights were like the eyes of the devil, but she kept moving.

“This is the fifth sabotage attempt in the last few months.” She was almost panting. Too much time spent behind a desk.

“Third,” he corrected.

“Fifth.”

“You know more about this than Security?” He stopped abruptly and shone his flashlight at her face as though interrogating her. His voice was all Kwadran, curt and accusing. “How?”

Temporarily blinded, she banged her elbow against a sharp edge, sending a spear of pain down her ulnar nerve. She rubbed her crazy bone. “The gossip mill down here is the most efficient communication device ever concocted by mankind.”

She was about to bark at him to keep moving, but he’d already turned to weave his way through the machinery. Either he accepted her explanation or he was smart enough to defer the interrogation until later.

They dodged left, right, then left again, and she couldn’t see more than eight or ten feet in any direction. She was lost. Hopefully, he wasn’t. His implant might help him retrace his steps. “My way would’ve been faster,” she muttered.

They reached a blessedly open stretch that allowed them to run twenty feet before swinging left. When they reached the ship’s outer wall, she suddenly knew where they were. The rope ladder leading up to the starship’s main deck was thirty yards ahead as a crow would fly. Twice that by foot. His route probably had been faster, though she wasn’t about to admit it.

“Since you know so much,” she said, “who are the saboteurs?”

“I’ll let you know when I find out.” The words were a growl. She imagined his lips curling to bare his teeth.

After she darted around the starboard entanglement inducer, she saw the ladder. Resting her hands on her knees, she caught her breath. “Well, they aren’t going to destroy my starship.”

Our starship.”

How like a Kwadran to take all the credit. But he’d reached the base of the ladder, so this was no time to argue. His legs rippled as he started to climb.

“You idiot,” she said. “Hit the switch to open the trapdoor first. And give me the bomb while you climb. I’ll hand it up to you.”

“Calling me an idiot doesn’t help, you know.” But he held the bomb out to her.

He was right, of course, but though her face flamed, she was concentrating too hard on not dropping the box to do more than mutter an incoherent reply. The box didn’t feel deadly. But then, what did death feel like, if not ordinary and everyday—a truth she’d mostly managed to avoid until now?

After he slapped the switch that opened the trapdoor, light filled the gloomy mechanical deck and provided her first good look at him above the waist. He was scowling, but the furrows on his brow merely accentuated his rugged good looks. His long, dark hair was braided. So, he was one of those aliens who flaunted their Amerind ancestry to set themselves apart from the Americans of this world. On their alternate Earth, the Kwakiutl tribe, not Europeans, ruled Vancouver Island—or Isla de Kwadra, as it had been known on their world.

He climbed halfway up the ladder. Moving with supreme caution, she held the box toward his extended hand.

“Hurry!” He grabbed the box and climbed the rope ladder like an agile monkey. The lid nearly fell off, making Dusty’s heart pole-vault her ribs.

As she followed, her mind obsessed on two things: the nearness of death and the nearness of life embodied in the expanse of his male flesh. Then his footsteps pounded overhead on the metal floor of the starship’s passageway. Dusty poked her head out of the trapdoor. “You’re going the wrong way! That leads to crew quarters.”

The open trapdoor blocked his way back, so she leaped to the right side of it and leaned her hands over the hole in the deck. “Give it to me.”

Miracle of miracles, he stretched his arms over the trapdoor to give her the bomb without argument. While he closed the trapdoor, she ran to the starship’s bridge. From there, she hurried to the open airlock and down the ramp to the melt-rock floor of the artificial cavern housing the Owikeeno Research Facility. Wiki, for short.

She ran. Behind her, the Kwadran’s footsteps banged down the metal ramp, barely loud enough to be heard over the klaxon that still screamed its warning. “Where are you heading?” he called.

He wasn’t even breathing hard. She wanted to kiss him for his bravery and his conditioning. “Only one place to head,” she said. “The terrace.” From there, she could throw the bomb into the ocean. She ran toward the only natural light in the huge cavern, where a pair of sliding glass doors led to a patio overlooking a fiord. “Time?”

“Seventy-eight seconds.”

Oh, God. It was still a long way to the doors. She tried to be a heroine and what did she get? A ticking time bomb eager to remove her appendix.

On the bright side, she couldn’t have asked for a sexier, more valiant companion on that long tunnel into the light. Rattled by fear, she’d called him arrogant, a jerk, an idiot, and a moron, but he was none of those. Well, maybe arrogant; he was, after all, Kwadran.

“Open…the door,” she panted.

He grunted with the effort of speeding up to pass her. His buttocks flexed with each step. When he reached the sliding doors, he yanked the handle.

Nothing happened. Except, of course, that a few more seconds ticked off the bomb’s timer. And her life.




CHAPTER TWO


“Open it,” Dusty shouted.

The Kwadran pulled the door again. It remained closed.

She started to give the bomb to him but he was already grabbing it from her. If the door was locked, she was dead, because she didn’t have a key. But if it was only latched and he wasn’t familiar with this Earth’s sliding glass doors—

Dusty lifted the latch and pulled. The door opened, blasting her with brisk November air smelling of ocean and evergreens. She stepped back to let him pass, and though it would’ve been safer to get as far away as possible, she followed him outside.

“Toss it over the—”

But their minds were in perfect sync; he was already charging toward the railing. He hurled the bomb over the side with the grace and power of a javelin thrower.

Huffing, Dusty grabbed the cold, metal railing and looked down. Three long steel posts reached forty yards down to the steep and rocky forest below. If the bomb landed near a post, the blast would bring down the terrace with her on it. But did she run? Nope.

She leaned over the railing and put an arm on the back of her amazing companion. Although she didn’t know his name, there was no one she’d rather stand shoulder-to-shoulder with, facing oblivion, panting in unison, poised on the knife’s edge separating death from life.

“God,” she panted, “you have a…a great arm.”

He said nothing, and she was too busy watching the bomb to notice his reaction. Stupid to just stand there, yet she watched the bomb fall as though in slow motion. The lid floated away, wafting back and forth like a cardboard leaf.

The box arched beyond the pylons and the forest toward the ocean. Being a fiord, the bottom dropped off as steeply as the mountainside, so the box should be well submerged when it went off. She never could’ve thrown it so far.

The box hit the water with an insignificant splash. She waited.

Nothing.

That was all? This whole blood-pumping thing was a hoax?

But just as disappointment threatened to chill her, the dark waters of the Pacific erupted as though a school of huge sea monsters had farted simultaneously. Dusty jerked closer to the stranger. He was warm and alive and his courage took her breath away. Being held by him seemed the most natural thing in the world.

The explosion’s noise, when it reached her a millisecond later, was anticlimactic. If this were a movie, special effects people would’ve added a louder bang and more fireworks. Movie explosions were impressive, not realistic.

“We make a great anti-sabotage team,” she squealed. “They ought to make us an anti-sabotage squad or something.”

“Even though I am...how did you put it? A stupid idiot?” His chuckle took the sting from his words. This easygoing playfulness was something else to like about him. “One of those arrogant Kwadrans you dislike? With an attitude problem, too.”

It finally sank in, all the way to the deepest marrow of her bones, that she wasn’t going to die, really and truly, and in that instant an orgasmic realization flooded her soul: she’d never had so much fun in her whole life as in the last ten minutes. With a joyous laugh, she pressed her cheek against his warm, hard biceps. “You’re an idiot with interesting pickup lines, which makes all the difference. Provided you don’t mind that I’m the daughter of a plumber.”

“Let me see.” He wrapped both arms around her waist. “No, I find I don’t mind.”

His body pressed hers with delicious warmth and intimacy. Under any other circumstance, she would’ve objected. Maybe slapped him. But this wasn’t the real world; it was reality on steroids, a riotous and astonishing moment outside of time, and his fierce embrace was perfect. She buried her cheek in the soft, clean-smelling twag of his shirt.

“It’s over,” he said.

Funny, it seemed more like a beginning. Even funnier: she’d never been so close to death, yet never felt so alive, so connected to another human being.

He hugged her tighter. “Over!”

His elation fueled hers. She burst into laughter and hopped up and down in his embrace.

“We did it,” he whooped.

“No, no, you did it. That was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

“Hah to that! Without you, that bomb blows apart my face. You were amazing.”

“Without you, that bomb blows up in my arms, because I could never have thrown it as far as you did.”

“Without you,” he said, “I’d still have my pants on.”

“Uh, yeah. I bet you’re cold.” She planted her palms on his buttocks. “Yep, you’re cold.”

He reciprocated by grabbing her bottom. “And you, my brave lady, are hot.”

He made no attempt to hide his erection. Instead of being repelled, she pressed her abdomen against him. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but…we’ve got to do something about this.”

She hadn’t consciously decided to have sex. Her body had decided for her, and it didn’t want to waste a micro-second of this intoxicating euphoria. Dusty Johnson, who always planned three steps ahead, was living in the moment. And glorying in it.

“Inside.” She grabbed his hand and tugged him toward the sliding door. “Hurry, before you freeze to death. And before everyone returns and catches you like this.”

As she stepped into Wiki’s warmth, the warning klaxon died, leaving silence echoing through the huge grotto. She’d never seen it so empty, which reinforced the dreamlike sense that this moment was different from all others and couldn’t be judged by normal standards. Laughing, she twisted in his arms and strained to look up at his face. It was a great face, an interesting blend of Native American and Asian genes. It was a hero’s face. Her hero.

The nearest privacy lay deeper in the cave, where the workers’ offices and residences were, but they’d never make it before Security returned. Wasting this euphoria seemed like a tragedy.

“Come,” he said.

“Great idea,” she murmured, even though she didn’t do double entendres. Well, not usually. She was a technical writer, a woman who chose words that could be interpreted only one way.

Offices lined this side of the cavern. He turned left and opened the first door.

“Not there,” she said. “That’s Countess Cho’s office.” When he pulled her to the door, she resisted. “Maybe you don’t know your way around yet, but Cho is the head of this project. She’s a stuck-up Kwadran countess, and she won’t like it one bit if—”

He cut her off by dragging her inside. The door’s click as it shut made her jump. The empty room hunkered in shadows that washed out all color and turned his body into a large and very masculine silhouette.

“We shouldn’t be in here,” she whispered. “I tell you, this is Countess Cho’s office.”

“Cho has been removed as the head of the project.”

“I’ve heard that rumor, but she still may be around to finish packing. Even if she’s gone, this is the office of whoever’s taking her place. The big boss.”

“Does being in here make you feel naughty?”

She glanced around and shook her head. “It makes me feel I should straighten up the mess.”

Cardboard boxes lay everywhere—atop the huge desk, on the wall-to-ceiling bookshelves, on the floor. Countess Cho’s old wheelchair sat near the window, overturned and missing a wheel. The countess was really leaving—and good riddance, because today’s bomb threat was just the newest sabotage on her watch.

“We should go,” Dusty whispered. “We’ll get into trouble.”

“You, the heroine? If you kicked the Kwadran prince’s stomach, he’d still kiss you on all four cheeks and give you a medal.”

Dusty’s chest and neck grew warm. Blushes always started there before turning her cheeks apple red. “We can’t hide in here forever. What are we going to do?”

He said nothing, just stared with an intense, masculine gaze. Oh, yeah; they would finish what they’d come here to do. Perfect. Celebrating with quickie sex—it would have to be quick or they’d get caught—would be wildly indiscreet, of course.

Ever since joining the team to build this Earth’s first interstellar craft, she’d been celibate; all her energies were focused on helping humans reach the stars. And she didn’t like Kwadrans. She had secret reasons to hate them, in fact, but she was honest enough to admit that most of them she worked with were all right. She didn’t even know this man’s name. She’d never done anything like this. Never been tempted to.

Never risked her life to dispose of a bomb, either. Never felt such a profound and instant connection to a man.

But in the big boss’s office?

Well…yes. There was something to be said for wild and naughty.

Within limits, of course. “Your shots are up to date?” she asked. Kwadran medicine had conquered venereal diseases; she was on the pill; and the possibility of safe sex without the awkwardness of a condom was an extra inducement.

“Of course.”

“In that case, you can’t stand around in your underwear.” She grabbed the flimsy garment and yanked it down. Nice. Very nice. “There, much better.”

“Agreed.” He reached for her while asking, “What’s your name?”

“No names.” When he cocked his head toward her, she lowered her voice. “Let’s keep this mysterious. Don’t tell me your name. Nothing about you, nothing about me, just two bodies in the dark. Okay?”

“But—”

“If I get to know you, I’ll start thinking too much.” Wiki was so small she might run into him every day from now on, but to do this, she had to turn off her brain. Thinking and analyzing were her main strengths—but also her main weaknesses. “Okay?”

He rolled his eyes, but chuckled and nodded.

“Good.” She took a deep breath, then reached under her skirt to remove her underpants. They joined his on the floor.

He stepped toward her. She held up her palm to stop him before he reached her. “This is a one-time deal, and we don’t tell anyone. One and done, then nevermore, quoth the raven.”

He cocked his head to one side. “Raven?”

“Edgar Allen Poe, but never mind. I have a reputation to uphold. Trust me, this place is gossipy. So…this is just between us?”

“Agreed.” He rumbled out a chuckle that was the epitome of virility. “I also wish to bury my old reputation and start an unblemished one.”

“Good. Great.” Dusty wondered what his old reputation was, but that was for another day. No, they wouldn’t have another day. This moment was it…if she could stop thinking. Unbuttoning her blouse, she looked around the littered room. “Uh, where should we—”

He interrupted her with an embrace. His hug, though too short, reawakened her elation, so she returned it eagerly.

“That’s better, brave lady.”

He was right. Don’t study the room, close the blinds, move boxes around, etc. He smiled and stretched out on the floor at her feet. He held out his arms…and a third appendage, as well. Her belly quivered with desire, but also with an electrical sense of power. She’d never been so thoroughly herself, never so capable of achieving whatever she chose.

Which included bossing one of the overbearing Kwadrans. Delicious thought.

She knelt beside her hero and pinned his arms at his side. Shocked by her own boldness, she hesitated, giving him the chance to glare or growl or at least frown in a fearsome display of dominance.

Instead, he bared his teeth in a joyous grin that invited her to do with him whatever she wished. His eyes danced.

With zeal as astonishing as the fact that she, of all people, had become a heroine, Dusty planted her knees astride his hips. When she touched his penis, he closed his eyes and hissed as he sucked him air. She laughed with delight, knowing her mastery of this bold hero was complete.





CHAPTER THREE


“I never knew,” Dusty purred, a delicious time later.

They lay on their sides, facing each other. He was naked; she almost so. As his finger circled her nipple, he looked at her body. She liked that. Liked him. He wasn’t deceitful or mysterious or even arrogant.

Well yes, he was mysterious, but in a good way. And yeah, probably arrogant, as well.

“What didn’t you know?”

Dusty shook her head, reluctant to analyze. All day every day, she analyzed and sought shades of meaning in technical documents, but right now she just wanted to feel, not think.

The best part of their joining, even better than when he’d let her control him, had been when he rolled atop her and took total command. Aside from groans and gasps, he hadn’t uttered a word, but he raised her hands over her head and held them there as though to say he’d let her have her fun, but he was too mighty to rule for long. His self-confident humility, followed by a display of masterful testosterone, was a combination she hadn’t realized was the key to unlocking the ultimate in bone-deep fulfillment. It was as though he knew that, although she gloried in the uncharacteristic sense of power her heroism had given, she would eventually scorn a submissive lover.

“You are content?” he asked.

“Sinfully so.” From beyond the door came the drone of distant voices. She sighed, sat up, and fastened her bra. “But.”

“But, indeed. The cavern must be crawling with activity. Messages on my implant clamor for a response. I fear someone will check that this room harbors no saboteurs.”

“I just want to say that I…” She had to say it, had to thank him, because there’d be no tomorrow for them. “I never knew sex could be a religious experience.”

His smile was lazy and proud. He stood and held out his hand to help her up. “You have never before had sex with a priest?”

“You’re no priest.” When he didn’t answer immediately, her eyes grew wide and her lip trembled. “Are you?”

“No. My apologies. My attempts at humor always sink like unfunny bricks.”

Voices came closer to the door, so she resumed buttoning her blouse. “Have you seen my underpants?” She squeezed her face into a grimace. “Ugh! I can’t believe I asked that of a man I just met.”

When he hopped on one foot to put on his own underwear, her mouth went dry. He transcended mere maleness and approached a work of art. Ordinary women like her never had a chance with heroic Greek gods like him…except today, when magic had intervened to give her a blissful peek at life-beyond-the-ordinary.

Muffled voices jolted her out of a daydream. She finished buttoning her blouse, but missed a buttonhole and had to start over. She was riding a roller coaster of emotions, and now it swooped in a new direction. The threat of getting caught mushroomed in her belly like indigestion after an extra-large pepperoni pizza.

She thrust her blouse hem into her skirt. Almost decent. Running a hand through her hair, she wished for a mirror.

No, no time for a mirror. She had to sneak away, preferably while invisible. Her hair was a mess; he lacked pants; her underwear was missing. Soon the real world would discover their unrestrained celebration of life, and to others, it would seem sordid. How could anyone else possibly understand how right it had been? She shouldn’t care what people thought of her, but she did.

“My panties,” she wailed. Scrambling to her knees, she jerked her gaze this way and that. “Did you hide them? Where are they?”

Someone knocked. Dusty went rigid. She stared at the door as though it was a ticking bomb.

But her hero came to her rescue, bursting into a confident barrage of Shanoog. It sounded like a cat fight, with clicks and guttural growls—a language thugs should speak, not Earth’s most scientifically advanced people. Shanoog always stuck her that way, and not even her hero could change that.

The guy outside the door answered, sounding respectful or at least patient. He didn’t smash down the door.

“This way.” Her hero—her lover—steered her toward a tall bookcase. He felt along one side of it then slapped something. He clenched his jaw and slapped it again, harder.

The bookcase creaked. Dusty hopped back as the whole thing swung out from the wall. Aside from that first creak, it didn’t make a single noise. Say what you would about Kwadrans—and she probably had, during late-night bitch sessions—but their technology was marvelous.

“A secret passage?” Their machinery could compress and reshape solid rock—she’d love to know exactly how they managed that miracle—so a secret passage would be no big deal to them. She would’ve expected it, if her mind ran to deception and subterfuge.

“Unless you would prefer to meet everyone with your hair in disarray?”

And breezes wafting where no decent breeze should dare. “A secret passage sounds perfect.” Nonetheless, she hesitated. “Thank you for trying to take care of me.”

He ran his hand along her shoulder to the back of her neck, but lowered it when another knock drummed on the office door. “It has been a thrilling experience, my brave mystery woman, but now swim away on fast, fluttering fins.”

Dusty chuckled. Kwadrans loved fishy and canoey sayings that harkened back to an aboriginal era centuries in their past.

A secret passage should have stone walls, cobwebs, and torches burning in wall sconces. Maybe a skull or two. This one was sufficiently gloomy and the air smelled stale, but its plasterboard walls were a cheerful canary and its taupe carpet bore the marks of recent vacuuming.

Before she stepped into the tunnel, she turned to the best lover she’d ever had and grabbed his shirt to keep him from leaving. She wanted to ask how he knew about the passage. Wanted to ask when she could see him again, how long he’d be stationed at Wiki, where his quarters were, if he was married. Especially that.

But she settled for one question. “What’s your name?”

His dark eyes widened, as though surprised she would break her own rule. “Reese.”

“No last name?”

He paused. Then shook his head emphatically.

“I’m Dusty Johnson.” She chuckled. “Unlike some people, my last name’s no big secret.”

She rose onto tiptoes to kiss his cheek. Before he could respond—leave-taking could take years, if she let it—she hurried into the secret passage. As the bookcase swung shut, lights came on.

She sighed and hugged her elbows. Who was she kidding? She had to see this guy again. Soon. She might not like him when he wasn’t saving her world, but if she did—wow. And if she didn’t, well…friends with benefits? Or maybe just sex, no talking allowed?

Commonsense waved its arms and leaped up and down, screaming that she was risking bitter disillusionment, but for once she had no patience for commonsense. “Reese,” she whispered. Then again, slowly and sensuously: “Reese.”

She ambled down the secret passage, trailing her fingertips along the wall. What a day. What a terrifying, terrific day.


****


Ignoring knocks that grew increasingly frantic, Reese opened one of the boxes scattered on the floor. Then another and another, until he found one he wanted. He pulled out a pair of wrinkled dress slacks and put them on. He settled his face into an everyday expression before heading to the door.

But he spotted something under the desk. Something pink and feminine: Dusty’s underwear. He picked it up and grinned, remembering.

The guard pounded again as though insisting that Reese had no time, not even a nanosecond, for thoughts of underpants and ecstasy. He thrust the garment into his pocket and opened the door to real life.

A guard and Duke Insook of the Makah Clan stood in the doorway. The duke’s scowling face was usually the bronze hue of a proud Kwadran, but now it was downright crimson. With the flat of his palm, he shoved Reese aside and strode into the office, waving for the guard to leave.

“Young man,” he roared, “don’t you ever—”

Frowning, Insook stopped. He looked around, turned on the lights, and looked around some more. “This place is a mess. It was supposed to have been straightened up for the transition. I guess Cho didn’t want to help the new regime in any way.” His throat moved a tiny bit, indicating that he was dictating a note to his implant about getting the room cleaned up, and probably another complaint about Countess Cho’s team.

While he waited for Insook to reprimand him, Reese stuffed his hands into his pockets and touched Dusty’s pants. Emotions he hadn’t had time to process flooded back. Anger and frustration as he was snagged in the tunnel, facing a bomb. Irritation that it was an American who’d found him. Elation as they raced to the patio. Then bliss.

But he hadn’t felt fear until now, as the enormity of the risks smashed through his machismo like a battering ram. Six months ago it had scarcely mattered whether he lived or died, but because the success of the starship project was crucial to Kwadra’s future, he’d cared about it in an abstract way. After today, though, it was personal. He’d do whatever it took to defeat the saboteurs and launch the starship to the stars.

Insook interrupted this reverie by kicking a box aside with full force. “Where was I?”

“‘Young man, don’t you ever,’” Reese supplied cheerfully.

“Ah, yes.” Insook’s frown narrowed his eyes, making them almost disappear under his bushy, white eyebrows. “Don’t you ever do that again, young man.”

“Do what? Save the project from destruction?”

“You’re lucky you did, or I’d—”

Fighting a grin, Reese snapped to attention and saluted the duke. “Permission to report on the successful removal of a sabotage bomb, sir!”

“Oh, cut that out.” Insook was the least formal duke imaginable. That came, he claimed, from not inheriting the title until his sixtieth birthday. Before that, he’d been a distant fifth in the succession, the overweight black sheep of his clan’s nobility, the one so crude he ate with his mouth open and burped while others were talking. Many fell for Insook’s yokel act, but that was a dangerous mistake.

Reese focused his gaze on Insook’s cheekbones; only ignorant Americans would stare a duke in the eyes. “Did you know that this is the fifth sabotage attempt and not the third, as Cho’s reports led us to believe?”

“I was studying the Security logs when the cultus warning klaxon went off, and it was clear right away that her formal reports cared less for accuracy than for making her look good. But how do you know?”

Reese leaned closer and lowered his voice to a whisper. “Wiki’s gossip is mankind’s most efficient communication device.”

“Are you making fun of me, lad?” Insook frowned, which made his eyes almost disappear. “Start at the beginning, and be damned quick about it.”

“When I arrived here a couple hours early,” Reese said, “I discovered that Cho’s security team had been given a different deadline than ours. They’d already left, except for one corporal. When the threatening message came in, the corporal guided me to a computer that predicted the most effective hiding place for a bomb. While everyone was evacuating, I proceeded to that location—”

“Which was bloody damned stupid for a man like you.”

Reese ignored him. “A worker named Dusty had already found the bomb. She threw it into Chunlith Fiord, where it lessened the jellyfish population by several hundred. She’s the hero.”

“That would be Desdemona Johnson, lead technical writer. I watched her from outside on the security cameras, carrying the bomb away from the ship. You did nothing, I suppose, except urge her to greater speed by prancing in front of her.”

Reese smiled, remembering. Then he sighed. His brother would approve of giving a lady all the credit and his approval meant more than anything—but he would not approve of bedding said lady while saboteurs lurked and schemed.

With the back of his thumb, Reese touched his pocket. When would he learn not to mess with American females? One more screw-up and he’d never get a meaningful assignment again, yet within hours of his first day, he’d rutted on the floor with a woman who, for all he knew, might be a saboteur. Plant a bomb then ‘risk her life’ retrieving it, so as to place herself above all blame—that was one interpretation of her actions. He didn’t believe that interpretation for an instant, but the forces working against this project were subtle and strong.

“I helped her,” Reese admitted.

“You carried the bomb while wearing no pants. I saw everything from when you exited the ship. Did you not realize that the most hush-hush project on Earth would be riddled with closed circuit television?”

Reese blinked. His gaze dipped to the spot on the floor where he and Dusty had—

“Don’t worry,” Insook growled, “there are no cameras in this office. And don’t tell me you didn’t think of that when you hauled her in here.”

Reese let out a deep breath. Dusty had a reputation to protect, and her bravery shouldn’t be rewarded with embarrassment or scandal. The same could be said for him, perhaps, but no one thought highly of him to begin with.

The duke peered under the desk. “Is Miss Johnson hiding because she isn’t dressed? Americans and their overactive modesty.”

Before Reese could answer, a gentle ping warned him that his implant’s inbox was overloaded, with over a hundred messages in the last half hour. Insook must have even more messages, because he held up a palm for Reese to wait a moment.

“It’s the king,” Insook said in a hushed voice. Even though implants were voice only, he straightened into as much of a military posture as he ever managed. His throat muscles rippled as he subvocalized responses.

Reese looked through some construction plans littering the countess’s desk. Leaving them in the open was yet another breach of the project’s security.

Kwadra Island had landed on this backward Earth with the schematics for unimaginable technologies from the future, but insufficient wealth to build those gadgets. For one thing, their alternate Earth’s environmental collapse had depleted disposable wealth. For another, the entire population, all one million people, had pooled their wealth to pay for the massive Lontreau engines that had hopped Kwadra Island to this alternate Earth.

His brother claimed to understand the science of leaping from one reality to another, but Reese understood only that many threads of reality existed. This Earth and their home Earth had shared a history until 1800, when the two threads diverged onto different paths. That much he understood. But by the Salmon Spirit, how could a large island—known as Vancouver Island on this Earth—move from one thread to another? And why was this Earth only in the twenty-first century, hundreds of years behind the home thread? Almost none of this made sense, even when his brother had tried to explain.

Imagine we’re a race of people living on a desktop, his brother had said, aware of only two dimensions. If something fell off the table, it’d seem to vanish from the world. If a feather floated onto the table, we’d think it appeared out of nowhere. That’s what happened with Kwadra Island. We appeared on this Earth a few years ago, out of nowhere.

But your hypothetical feather fell through the air, Reese had responded. What did we fall through when we hopped here from our old Earth?

Instead of answering, his brother had pointed to page after page of equations—meaning he didn’t know, either.

Their new neighbors in North America were eager to bankroll Kwadra’s schematics. The United States, which paid the most, had set the priority: an interstellar starship. Along with Canadians and Mexicans, American technicians like Dusty helped the project and learned valuable twenty-third century technology. If the prototype worked, Kwadra’s status as a superpower, instead of just a tourist destination with delusions of grandeur, was assured. If it failed, or if saboteurs succeeded, Kwadra was unlikely to get another massive infusion of capital.

The starship was his people’s future. He would not let them down this time…and the surest way to do that was to figure out what his wise big brother would do.

Like magic, the question clarified Reese’s thoughts. For starters, he’d continue to downplay his role in the bomb’s removal. The old Reese would’ve basked in today’s heroism and considered his job over, but he must grow up and become a dependable team player. He would give Dusty the glory, because it was, unfortunately, the only thing he could ever give her.

Insook cleared his throat as he finished his implant’s message and came back to the world around him. “The king is pleased.”

“Thanks to Dusty.”

“Where is she, by the way? Did you send her out the secret passageway?”

“I thought it best.”

“At least you did something right.”

“Aside from saving the starship, you mean.”

“Slime and fish turds—we expect you to save the ship. No one doubts your courage, lad. Your judgment and perseverance, though? Can you see this project through to completion? Tell me that.”

Reese flexed his right hand into a fist, though he kept it at his side. Punching a duke wouldn’t be smart, no matter how good it’d feel, and it would be a poor substitute for punching the people who planted the bomb.

The duke glared from under those imposing eyebrows as he wagged his index finger near Reese’s nose. “With your past, you must not only see that this ship reaches the stars, but that your reputation remains clean. Your destiny is in my hands, and if you have even a guppy’s intelligence, you’ll remember that.”

“I’m not a schoolboy, you know.”

Insook harrumphed, but lowered his hand to his side. Looking around the room again, he shook his head. “Damnably messy in here. Reese, I don’t want you to put yourself into the shark’s maw again. And don’t repeat whatever you did in here with Desdemona Johnson, either. You need to conquer your reputation as a philanderer, not confirm it.”

“Miss Johnson has no desire for an ongoing affair.”

“Aha! So you did splash the orca’s tail with her.”

“A gentleman never tells.”

Insook folded his arms and shook his head. “Now you’re a gentleman again?”

“Wasn’t I always?”

Insook’s frown softened. “No, lad, I’m afraid not.”

Reese felt as though he was having his guts pulled out, inch by inch. Composure had been drummed into his skull from a young age, though, so he let none of his distress show. Instead, he drew himself rigid and tall, folded his arms over his chest, and stared at Insook like a gentleman affronted.

The duke pulled back and blinked in surprise.

“I vow on the anger burning in my heart,” Reese said in a forceful voice that matched his posture, “that I’ll find every last one of the saboteurs. I’ll see to it they’re punished. I’ll fulfill my duties as honorably as possible. I’ll remain at my post until we launch the prototype. Are you happy now, old man?”

The duke’s throat bobbed as he swallowed. Then a grin split his craggy face. “Damned convincing, Reese. Your brother would be proud. However, you left one important matter out of your vow: Miss Johnson. Do you also vow to shun an affair with her in the future?”




CHAPTER FOUR


The secret passage meandered for an eighth of a mile before ending in a prosaic door that could’ve come from Dusty’s home in Tucson. That meant it was new, installed since Kwadra suddenly appeared off the coast of Washington State. Was the tunnel new, too? Why did project leaders feel the need for a secret exit? She always wondered about details like that.

She put her ear to it the door. She expected nothing, but instead heard footsteps and the murmur of many voices. What sort of secret tunnel opened into Grand Central Station? What good did it do her to sneak out of Countess Cho’s office, only to land in a crowd of busybody Wiki folk who’d demand to know what she’d been doing?

The door was locked, but it was a standard in-the-knob lock, and when she turned the knob, it unlocked. Then she paused. She would’ve preferred to sneak out unobserved, but that seemed unlikely.

When the voices and footsteps lessened a bit, she eased the door open a crack and peered out. A short cul-de-sac led to a bigger tunnel, filled with people shuffling past. The staff was returning to the grotto after the evacuation.

Among them was a woman in a vibrant and undoubtedly expensive scarf. Only Capricorn Lane would wear anything so flamboyant. Cappy, a tech writer specializing in the equivalences between Kwadran and American materials, shared an office with Dusty. Their four officemates walked beside Cappy. Proximity had made them friends, or at least what passed for friends in Wiki’s claustrophobic, paranoid atmosphere. The Kwadrans insisted the staff live together in underground seclusion—no TV, Internet, or weekends off—and their autocratic management style had turned the place into a stressed-out powder keg.

As Dusty blended into the crowd, a familiar heaviness settled over her. Gone was the risk-taking heroine making love on the floor to a stranger who’d seized her fancy. In her place was a cautious and sedate technical writer, one of the most anonymous of technical professions.

Michelle Takahashi spotted Dusty and gave a smile that seemed to involve every muscle in her body. She approached everyone with a puppy’s eagerness. She was okay, as long as you didn’t assume you were her particular friend. “Guys, it’s Dusty. Where were you?”

“We looked for you everywhere,” said Oolican Martin, a Kwadran named after a fish from the alternate Earth. “We feared you’d gotten trapped inside when they shut down the grotto.”

“Well, uh.” Dusty gave an awkward shrug. “Sort of.”

“Did you see what happened?” Michelle asked. “Was this a false alarm or the real thing?”

Ollie Martin put his arm around Dusty’s waist—a mere weight, unlike Reese’s magical touch. “Ignore her and tell everything to me, instead.”

Everything? Even the sex?

No way. Michelle would feed Wiki’s insatiable gossip machine. Ollie used to be a friend, but he’d turned weird, as though being sequestered underground had gotten to him. No, Dusty wouldn’t say a word about the glorious sex, no matter how much she yearned to shout Reese’s name from the rooftops.

She could tell them about the bomb, of course, but she kind of enjoyed having a secret. A person had so few secrets down here. Her role was bound to come out eventually, and then people would reassess her as more than just a meek, reserved writer. But she shrugged that worry aside, crossed her elbows over her chest, and smiled.

“My high school ran fire drills faster than this,” Cappy complained as the crowd stalled.

“I shall entertain you while we wait,” said Armand Sanchez, another officemate. “Have you heard that plans for a restaurant on the moon have been scuttled?”

“Why?” asked Dusty, because a joke gave her the excuse to keep her sweet secret a little longer.

“Because the place had no atmosphere.”

“I don’t get it,” Cappy said. If the joke had involved clothes or jewelry, she would’ve been the first to laugh.

Kris Roche, another officemate, groaned. Michelle offered to explain the joke. No one asked Dusty anything, and her secretive smile remained in place when they reached the vastness of the grotto.

Back on the other Earth, climate change and environmental decay had forced Kwadrans to live in underground cities. On arriving on this Earth, though, they had rushed up to the sunshine like children released from school for the summer. Their underground cities lay empty and abandoned—except for this one, which had been turned into a secret research-and-development project. Kwadran engineers had ‘melted’ additional rock to raise the glass-smooth ceiling in the grotto area to accommodate the starship. They’d melted holes to the outside, too, like the sliding glass door and the windows in Countess Cho’s office…that exquisite, romantic office.

Instead of returning to work, people milled around in clumps to hear what had caused the evacuation. Dusty breathed in a tang of excited uncertainty. She heard it in people’s voices, too. Aside from drills, Wiki had never been evacuated. But Fraidy Cat, as staffers called the prototype starship, was unharmed, so no one seemed worried. They were curious, instead, and lighthearted, as though an unexpected holiday had been declared.

She gazed up at the ship. Looking like a house with gizmos attached, the squat, ungainly vehicle dominated this seven-story-high section of the cavern. An ugly vehicle to carry mankind’s grandest dreams, rather like a house decorated with Lego and Tinker toys by a classroom of hyperactive kindergarteners on amphetamines. There were no wings, because instead of flying, the ship would ‘hop’ from one alternate reality to another, much like Kwadra Island had ‘hopped’ to this Earth. The island had ‘landed’ a couple hundred miles south of its twin, Vancouver Island, and the starship’s hops would move it to orbit another star.

Fraidy Cat would eventually hop back to this alternate, but Kwadra would never return to its home. It was stuck here forever. Maps of the west coast now looked bizarre, with two large, identical islands.

Not wanting to talk, Dusty wrapped her arms around her chest and wandered through the crowd, nodding occasionally to people, though she paid them little attention. Her insides still quivered from the thrill of the bomb disposal and the après-adventure sex. Surprising how hard it was to squish her heroine self back into its cramped, everyday body. Her mind said back to the job. Her heart spoke louder, proclaiming that things had to be different now.

She stopped to talk to a chemist from Phoenix, the only other Arizonan on the project, but when the woman wondered aloud what had happened, Dusty just shrugged and strolled away. Was Reese in the crowd? She didn’t see him, and she wasn’t at all sure how she felt about that.

Probably for the best, though. For one thing, she wasn’t a sophisticate who could face a strange lover with equanimity. Her red face would give her away.

For another, what if their incredible chemistry stemmed merely from the unusual situation? Reese might be just an ordinary guy who’d risen to the challenge of extraordinary circumstances, like her. Face it, no man was as brave, wonderful, and sexy as he’d seemed—but the disillusionment would be cruel.

She meandered toward the ship’s far side, where there were fewer people. Extroverts like Michelle needed people to recharge her mental batteries. Dusty needed quiet and solitude. Observing from a distance like this was how she dealt with life.

The grotto felt different now, because she was different. In some otherwise forgotten science fiction novel, she’d read that life presented a series of unannounced tests, and it was how you performed on the tests that mattered. She'd passed, big time.

A smile warmed her face. She’d aced the x-rated test with Reese, too.

Hearing a commotion, she walked around the ship to see what was going on. A Kwadran, fat but vigorous, stood on the ramp to the ship’s starboard hold. With shaggy hair, full beard, and thick eyebrows, he reminded her of the dwarf from The Lord of the Rings movies.


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