For the rest of the day and most of the next, Capri clung to Leroy. She used tools. She even cut her finger and scraped a knuckle. She laughed. A lot.
Leroy had to fix a loose switch in the cockpit at one point, which meant she got to spend extra time with Jax. She didn’t dare ask if she could touch his controls, but she was still able to watch and learn a little.
For a full twenty-four hours, for the first time in fourteen years, the name ‘Ekon’ wasn’t uttered. She was not reminded that she was one of his beauties. She didn’t have to be escorted by a guard or an attendant nearly everywhere she went. She couldn’t consider what she was wearing, even if she wanted to. She was just one more person. It was freeing—and frightening.
Often, her thoughts drifted to Briony, Lady Agatha, and the palace. Had anyone else died? Colin could tell her numbers but not faces. She’d soon be back to find out, and she was anxious to. She felt torn. Here, she could do whatever she wanted, within reason. She was making a friend naturally, with no preconceived notions, expectations, or pressure. She hadn’t felt this kind of friendship since Briony wormed her way into her heart and certainly never with a man.
Leroy still looked at her the way anyone looked at beautiful things. She was a lady of Mars, after all. Men and women would have looked at her that way even if she was raised as she should have been, with her mother, father, and brother.
Her kidnappers had been the first to prove it.
She was eating lunch. For once, it was quiet. Leroy’s mouth was full of food. The thoughts of her family crept up on her, and she paused mid-bite. She hadn’t thought of them clearly in a long time. Her heart hurt so suddenly and so fiercely that it took her breath away.
As she’d told Brody, there would be no going back. The trajectory of her life was far too different now. They’d likely finished their grieving, and she wouldn’t know how to function in that small apartment with people who were strangers any more than she knew how to function here.
If they still lived there at all.
“I told you the tamales were hot,” Leroy said around a mouthful of spicy food.
Capri blinked back tears with a laugh, glad for the excuse. Brody, who had appeared to “grab a brew and some grub” didn’t seem fooled.
He was looking at her the same way he always looked at her—brown eyes intense, lips in a tight line—as if it was her fault she was there, taking up his space. He’d come in to his room that morning for a change of clothes and a shower. Whenever they were close, there was tension. She hated it and was held by it. She comforted herself with the reminder that soon enough she’d be back in her proper place, and he wouldn’t matter anymore.
Jax’s voice sounded over the intercom. “Entering atmosphere on New Earth. Twenty minutes to landing.”
Brody downed the last of his beer and tossed the bottle down the recycling chute. Then he left. Leroy stood, too, and stretched.
“I’m with the captain to get some parts and meet a client. Jax’ll be here refueling the ship if you need anything.”
Capri hadn’t realized how much she’d been relying on Leroy’s good humor and optimism. The thought of being without it, even for a few hours, was jarring. She’d only have her own thoughts and the cold of the ship. But she smiled reassuringly.
Then, as the room cleared, she remembered again that she wasn’t a prisoner. Why couldn’t she go off ship? The idea was exciting and terrifying. She could get a few basic necessities, another change of clothes. She jumped up and went to the loading bay.
Brody had a reader in his hand and was rummaging through lock boxes, taking notes in abhorrent handwriting that could only make sense to him. He glanced at her.
“Your boyfriend’s over there.” He jerked his head towards the motorcycles.
“I’m looking for the captain, thank you.”
“You’re gettin’ around, aren’t you?” he rumbled, examining the scope on a particularly frightening rifle.
The comment irritated her, but she didn’t rise to the bait. Just then, Colin came through the door, fitting a linker into his ear. He stopped beside them to grab some extra ammo for a handgun.
Capri wondered just how many guns were hidden on the ship.
“Captain,” she said, addressing him in a confident voice.
It was the way Jax or Leroy might request a moment of his time. He looked at her with mild curiosity. “Yes?”
“I’d like to go off ship.”
He raised an eyebrow and glanced at Brody, who looked at her as if she’d lost her mind.
“What for?” Colin asked.
“All of my things are back on Mars.”
She gave Brody a pointed look, and he snorted. “You want to replace them with what money? You been earnin’ some on the side?”
His eyes slid to Leroy, then back to her. She narrowed her gaze. “Considerin’ you kidnapped me I figured it wouldn’t be asking too much for a small loan.” She mimicked his dialect, and he frowned. “I’ll pay you back when we get to Mars. With interest, if you like.”
He grunted and went back to counting bullets.
“Fine,” Colin agreed. “Shots is going to the market district. Stay with him. Bring linkers.”
Capri gave a short nod. Brody zipped the empty backpack shut. The sound drew Capri’s attention. It was old, worn, and dirty. But what caught her eye was the large brown stain that disappeared from the gray trim into the black fabric. She knew what it was. The same kind of stains marred the pretty party dress stuffed under Brody’s bed.
Was it his blood or someone else’s? She thought she knew the answer. She met his gaze. His brown eyes were dark, almost black, and his jaw was set. She saw his body almost as if it was for the first time—big, brawny muscles taut beneath the thick fabric of a jumpsuit.
She forgot sometimes exactly what he was capable of. Shots. He had the nickname for a reason. She was the only one who called him Brody, but he’d never corrected her.
Maybe he preferred it when she did forget.
“See somethin’ you like?” he asked as her eyes roamed, even though he knew full well that wasn’t where her mind was.
She looked back up into his face. He was waiting for her to get scared. But she still remembered the man who had saved her when she was young and the reason she was here at all. He might forget about him sometimes, but she couldn’t. He was unpredictable and angry. Still, at some point, she’d decided to trust him.
“Let me know when you’re ready,” she said.
She glanced toward Leroy. He was finished speaking with the captain, so she did go over to him, to soak in the last few drops of his pleasant company before they parted ways.
The ship landed with no more of a jolt than when an elevator came to a stop, a testament to Jax’s skill.
“Wait in the room,” Brody told Capri. “Come back in ten minutes.”
A guard would come on board to check papers, and he could do an inspection if he saw fit. He wanted her to stay out of sight.
Capri was still suspicious.“You won’t leave without me?”
“Would I hear the end of it?”
She did as he said but timed it so that she was back in the loading bay at exactly the ten-minute mark. Colin and Leroy were just leaving on motorcycles, the noise of them loud and abrasive. She glanced at the last bike and wondered if she would be expected to ride it. Part of her was afraid. She’d never been on anything like it. But the thrill of excitement ran through her, too.
“Sorry girlie,” Brody rumbled as he came up behind her. “We ain’t wastin’ fuel when what we need’s just a couple miles out.”
Capri shot him a glare. “I’m fine with walking.”
Brody handed her a ring loaded with the loan she’d asked for. “Don’t lose it,” he told her. “And don’t try to spend more than a hundred.”
“I’m not a child,” Capri said. “Don’t patronize me.”
Brody snorted. “You’re forgettin’ I know a few things about how you were kept. You’ve never been proper shoppin’ in your life.”
Capri bit back a retort. As much as she wanted to wipe that smug look off his face, he was right. She knew the basics, of course, but being in a crowded store, the smell, the people…she wasn’t fully prepared.
Then again, she hadn’t been prepared for a lot of things, and she’d gotten through them just fine.
She followed Brody off the ship and stopped. The differences between an artificial environment and a real one hit her hard. The cool breeze. The weight of humidity. The warmth of the sun. Everything on Mars was perfectly controlled. Except for the menagerie in the middle of the kingdom and the garden in the palace, there was no wildlife.
A bird of prey cried above her, and the screech startled her. She jerked her head up to look.
Clouds. It had been fourteen years since she’d seen real clouds. A blue sky. The pollen in the air and the packed dirt beneath her feet were alien and familiar at once. She took a deep breath and coughed. Brody had secured the loading bay and waited now, still and watching. She managed to shake the shock of it and looked at him with reluctance. Her cheeks burned. She was sure he’d have something to say. How she was unfit to even go off ship. How she was under Ekon’s thumb. How he regretted taking her from the palace.
Right now, in her current frame of mind, she knew that it would hurt her. The longer she was away from Mars, the more susceptible she became to fear and confusion. She didn’t like it.
To her surprise, the look in his eyes was something like pity, but it was a hard pity that didn’t make her feel like less, and it was soft for him.
“Ready?” he asked, handing her a linker.
He put one in his ear, and she followed suit. She didn’t know how to use it, but she didn’t want to tell him that. His kind moods were short-lived, and she was sure he wouldn’t hold back his smug comments a second time.
She nodded. “Keep up,” he said.