“The fruit distributors were more prepared than we thought,” Leroy told the captain.
They had all arrived safely back at the ship, where the mechanic immediately began dismantling the robot. Jax had already initiated takeoff, per the captain’s orders, and now Colin, Capri, and Brody stood in the loading bay, masks off, waiting to hear how much trouble they were in.
“There’s no recording chip, so I’m sure it was a direct feed. I’ll get the bot hooked up to a reader and tell you what alerts were sent, their times, how long it recorded…” He trailed off, distracted with examining the pieces of the dog.
Capri noticed that while his brow was furrowed with concern, the mechanic’s voice was breathless. As if he could feel her eyes on him, he looked up suddenly. His cheeks flushed, and he grinned sheepishly. She’d always been good at reading men, but more than that, she was getting to know him as a person. The kinds of things he liked and didn’t like. The kinds of things that excited him—like getting his hands on this machine.
The exchange didn’t go unnoticed by Brody, who scowled, but Capri focused on the captain.
“They’ll know who it was, won’t they?” she asked “Gypsy Lass is the only ship that took off around the time of the theft. The officials will know exactly who they’re looking for.”
“We bribed the guard, covered the ship’s name, and used false documents,” Colin explained as if it were routine procedure. Maybe it was. “The only thing they’ll be able to say for sure is that there were two people involved, one male and one female. He only got footage of you and Shots, and you had masks. There’s nothing to worry about.”
Capri accepted his answer, but her stomach was still in knots—not for herself, she realized with surprise. She had the backing of King Ekon; she was here against her will. She could get out of this easily. It was them she was worried about.
Colin must have noticed her agitation because he grasped her arm briefly, forcing her to meet his gaze and grounding her. “Good job.”
She felt a sense of accomplishment at his words, and not just because he was proud of her, but because she was proud of herself. She had done well, and she’d done it to please no one but herself. In the process, she’d learned that when push came to shove, she could, in fact, pull the trigger. She wouldn’t just turn tail and run—at least not right away.
Given the right tools and some practice, she might be able to protect herself, to survive on her own.
Did she want that?
“We’ll land on Tycho around 1:00 tomorrow afternoon,” Colin announced, “and we should all get a nice little bundle out of it.
All of the things Capri knew about the rebel planets were bad. There were so many sectors because the rebels had continued to rebel against each other long after the U.N. had pulled out. She knew that, even to this day, brawls and battles over territories raged on. Borders were constantly changing.
But how much did she know, really, and how much did she think she knew? Much of what she’d heard had been cautionary tales told to children and probably some government propaganda. She’d never been to Tycho or Ptolemy herself, and she didn’t want to feel ignorant again.
“What’s it like?” she asked.
“It don’t matter,” Brody said. “You ain’t goin’ off-ship again.”
Capri glared at him. She didn’t intend to go off-ship again, but his words made her want to do just that. He always got a rise out of her.
“It’s mostly grassland and desert,” the captain said as if Brody hadn’t spoken. “We’ll be landing in a patch of prairie. Brody and I’ll make the exchange. Leroy’ll drive. We won’t need you for it.”
Leroy glanced up from the floor, screwdriver poised over the Guard Dog in front of him.
“And after Tycho, you’ll take me back to Mars,” she said.
“Two more stops, both on Tycho, and then we’ll take you back to Mars,” he agreed.
Capri should have felt happier about going back. But on this small ship, with four men and nothing familiar, she’d never felt freer. It would hurt to give that up.
Colin left to update Jax in the cockpit. Capri left, too. With the mission at an end, exhaustion took over. She went back to Brody’s room. She tugged off her boots, climbed into the top bunk, and rubbed her feet. She settled in and began to drift off. Someone knocked on the door.
She waited to see if Brody would come in. Who else would it be? He’d probably need a shower and a change of clothes. But the door didn’t open. She muttered a curse under her breath and climbed down. On any other day, he had no problem giving a courtesy knock and barging in. She banged the button on the control panel with her fist—and found Leroy there.
His eyes were dark, and his full lips were turned down in a frown. She almost mistook him for Jax, but there was a schoolboy pout around his mouth that just didn’t suit his twin.
“Don’t leave,” he said.
The mechanic’s uncharacteristic intensity took Capri off guard.
“I have to,” she said, trying to sound gentle despite her surprise and exhaustion. “You know this isn’t where I belong.”
She hoped he’d let it go. She felt panicked, grasping for control. This could ruin everything between them.
“You could,” he insisted. “Especially if you were…involved with one of the crewmembers. The captain would let you stay. He likes you.”
“But I’m not involved with anyone.”
Leroy kept his eyes on hers. She waited for the hurt, the anger, the end of their friendship. Instead, he kissed her.
She was used to accepting kisses. At first, it didn’t even cross her mind to pull away. He gripped her waist with one hand and rested the other against the doorframe for support. There was something appealing about it, something sweet. He was tender and familiar. She imagined it was what her first kiss might have been like if she’d been allowed to grow up in her family’s comfortable little apartment on New Earth.
But she hadn’t been, and pretending that she and the good-natured mechanic could live happily ever after was a fantasy that would break both their hearts.
She eased out of the kiss and forced herself to look him in the eye, to face the disappointment. It was there. He knew.
“I’m sorry,” Capri murmured, tears pricking her eyes.
Then she did look down, but he lifted her chin gently. He shook his head and gave her a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“I have to go check on that dog. See you at breakfast?”
Capri nodded and tried to smile back. Maybe their friendship could recover.
He turned to go and almost ran smack into Brody. They’d both been so caught up in the moment they hadn’t noticed his approach.
“Shots,” the mechanic said by way of greeting and farewell, trying to sound casual as he stepped around the larger man to get back to the loading bay.
Brody didn’t spare him a glance. His eyes were on Capri. She returned the glare.
“Guess you really are gettin’ around,” he said.
Her cheeks flushed, and anger sparked in her veins. “It’s not like that,” she said. “And even if it was, it’s none of your business. You had your chance. Twice.”
“So you go runnin’ to the ship idiot.”
“Leroy is a friend, who doesn’t keep reminding me that I’m only good for one thing.”
Broody snorted and moved closer, forcing her back against the doorframe. “But you are only good for one thing.”
Something snapped. Capri had reached her limit of being disrespected and cornered, and she slapped him—hard. He hadn’t been expecting it, and his head snapped to the side. He slowly turned back to look at her, wiping blood from his lip.
She’d never seen him look so menacing. She swallowed but stood her ground. He clenched his fists and then released them. He shook his head, and a small smile touched his lips. It was somehow more intimidating than the anger.
“If this is what they saw fit to curse me with, they did a hell of a job.” Then he looked straight at her, to make sure his words hit home. “I shoulda never gone in for that auction. I shoulda never brought you on this goddamn ship.”
She held his gaze as he vented, but her defiance was beginning to falter. She couldn’t hold out much longer. He leaned in close.
“I should have just let that privileged prick have you that night.”
He might as well have hit her. Capri almost wished he had. She knew he was talking about Sullivan, but he couldn’t mean it. She took a shaky breath and clenched her teeth hard. She needed him to leave. She didn’t know how long she could hold off the sob dammed in her belly. She couldn’t let him know he’d made her cry. It was what he wanted.
“What do you mean, ‘privileged’?” she asked, wanting to be sure she fully understood the insult. “Just because he’s from New Earth?”
“Because he’s Marianne’s cousin. That’s why he was put where he was. And maybe fuckin’ with the merchandise is just another perk that comes with bein’ related to the king’s favorite whore.”
He gave her one last smile, turned, and stalked off. Capri slammed her fist down on the keypad and closed herself in the room, tears flooding down her face before it latched.
He was just like the rest of them. Only crueler.
The nightmares would be back tonight.