Khurshid paused outside the Rim Bar and wrinkled her nose. Not that she had much of a choice on Station 3 if she wanted a drink, but why did fate have to send a whole phalanx of ornithoplasts here, of all places?
Adjusting her rebreather, she sidled into the area reserved for those who could afford to pay for air double-filtered and botanically purified. Or for those, like her, who could not afford to let their senses be dulled by the putrid stench of certain species.
The zero-sun lighting and neutralized scent of the closed lounge provided a brief respite from the usual station-side assault on her system. A well-programmed server-bot glided up to her and presented an array of refreshments.
A familiar aroma drifted across the room. Her hackles rose just before the deep, husky voice reached her.
She forced herself to take a deep breath before she really got upset. Damn her Sharti genes. If she got riled, she would fur over.
And damn his face, Stone Mikkelson liked it too much to leave her alone.
“Stone. What are you doing here?” Stealing away my deal again? Last time they were moored at the same station, he’d left just minutes ahead of her, and she’d lost the deal of the decade.
She didn’t believe in coincidences.
“Refueling,” he said, looking a little surprised.
“A bit out of the way for you.”
He cocked his head and examined her. “You’re angry. Why? Are you mad at me?”
She took another deep breath, trying to suppress her atavistic response. “What do you think?”
He looked really puzzled.
Khurshid stepped closer and inhaled his scent. He smelled puzzled. Some of her anger evaporated. She tried to hang on to it. It would be much too easy to go back to other feelings with Stone Mikkelson.
He shook his head. “I have no idea. We got along pretty well last time.”
The suggestive leer in his gaze almost made her smile. Stone Mikkelson knew how to amuse her. But not at the expense of a lucrative shipment of Cassanian liquor. “I lost a deal that time,” she said.
His eyes hardened to the flat brownish-grey that gave him his nickname. “I almost lost my ship,” he said. “Someone pointed out my passengers to the Yxxry hunters.”
Khurshid’s pointed ears went flat against her skull. “You know I would never do that. Not even if they were wanted murderers. I am Sharti.”
He acknowledged her ingrained, inborn code of honor with a bow.
Khurshid sighed. “All right. You had refugees on board. Even if you were the kind to betray a friend, you wouldn’t risk a helpless family for petty cash. Who then?”
He raked his fingers through his hair, too long for a space pilot, and she let herself admire the play of muscles under the skin-tight shipsuit. Yess… If he wasn’t an enemy, maybe they could reestablish their friendship. Yess… Very good, very pleasant friendship.
“I’m hungry,” he said, breaking her train of thought. “My ship-time isn’t synchronized with the station. I haven’t eaten in…” He glanced around. “Too long.”
She nodded. “A meal would be good. Even station-side food is better than what I’ve had lately.” She wrinkled her nose. The air purifiers strained against the emanations of the ornithoplasts. “But not here.”
“No. I can afford to treat us to something better.”
“Good. That missed run didn’t help me.”
Stone led them away from the greasy fumes of the cafeteria, toward the diplomatic-corps sector and the Commodore’s Hall.
Khurshid sniffed at the display of wealth, but allowed herself to be shown to a pleasant table next to a softly bubbling fountain where adapted lionfish swam in colored waters.
They were about to bite into dessert when a commotion at the entrance drew their attention.
A short, pudgy, balding male of mixed races wobbled into the Hall, surrounded by a half-dozen barely clad courtesans.
Stone’s features hardened. “Is that…”
Khurshid hissed. Her ears flattened on her skull and her lips curled back to reveal gleaming fangs. “Yesss…” She half-rose from her seat. “Florinus Willoughby.”
Stone grabbed her arm and pulled her back. “Wait. Look.”
Instead of hushing down the noisy company, the manager rushed to greet Willoughby and to usher him to the best table in the restaurant.
Khurshid sat down. “What the… This rat is wanted in half the universe for almost every crime invented…”
“I know.” Stone kept hold of Khurshid’s arm. “He sold me out to the Yxxri.”
She hissed again and felt herself furring over. “He was there.”
“I didn’t know. He was my broker.”
Khurshid glanced at Stone. She had never heard a human express so much rage in such a short sound. His hard stare and the uncompromising set of his jaw made her shiver. Yesss, his name surely fit him. “We could take him,” she said. “There’s a very nice reward.”
Stone’s smile was not pleasant. “Not in this system.”
“How’s your ship?”
“I’ve had a run of bad luck.”
He bared his teeth. Grinning like that, he looked almost like a Sharti on the prowl. It made Khurshid shiver and melt inside.
“Shidi,” he said, “what do you say we join forces?”
“What are you saying, Stone?”
“I’m proposing, Shidi. I’ve been thinking of it since our last meet-up. Don’t say you haven’t.”
“I won’t. Say.”
He leaned forward a little harder, but he still didn’t look at her. “How about we grab the fat slug, jump on my ship, and celebrate our partnership with a joint reward and a proper contract on Sharti Prime?”
Khurshid shivered and couldn’t quite suppress the purr that came from the depths of her being. Oh yesss, Stone knew her. He knew her very well. What better way to start a life partnership than with a good hunt and a good run from those who would take your prey away from you?