Copyright Delilah Devlin, 2003. All Rights Reserved, Ellora's Cave Publishing, Inc.
Despite the meager light offered by the single crude fixture above the bar, Drago Chavez knew the creature in the dark, hooded cloak was a woman.
He first spied her when she elbowed her way through the crowd. She wore a long mantle, no doubt to disguise her figure. Instead, the flowing cloth clung to the enticing curve of her hips as she settled onto a barstool.
His curiosity aroused by her bold action, Drago withdrew to a murky corner where the sweet smoke from hatta pipes shrouded the occupants. The better to watch, while he remained unobserved.
He'd heard a ship full of escaped convicts, women from the Dominion prison, the New Attica, had arrived in Arturia's port city of Aghora. The women could be seen walking on the starship's dock, closely guarded by the pirate crew of the Intrepid. He had heard of none venturing beyond the end of the dock. And the fearsome reputation of the Intrepid's captain, Adamarik Zingh, kept Aghora's curious from approaching them.
Drago suspected he was staring at one of the escaped cons now. Only a woman tasting forbidden freedom would be so foolish as to wander into this tavern alone. The Pirate's Cove was a magnet for pirates and petty criminals who made their connections and targeted their next victims within its walls.
The woman was lucky she'd made it this far down the docks. Procurers for the brothels had circled like sharks around the Intrepid for days, waiting for a foolish woman to step beyond the boundary of Captain Zingh's protection. Drago hadn't been one of them, but seeing as the woman courted disaster anyway, he hunkered down in the shadows to see whether an opportunity would arise.
This woman was either fearless or incredibly na?ve.
And as far as he could tell, broad-shouldered with wide-hips. The sturdy sort of woman Arturian men prized as breeders. If she possessed any beauty whatsoever, she'd earn a trader a pretty dinar at Aghora's monthly auction the next day.
She ordered ale. Although pitched low, her voice drew the attention of several men standing nearby. While there were whores aplenty inside the bar, every one of them blended with the d?cor?shabby, tawdry, over-used. This one's voice was youthful, hesitant, but at the same time, sultry.
Drago recognized several of the men closing around the woman who appeared oblivious to the interest she stirred. They were a dangerous lot?belligerent and stupid. Leaning toward Kaspar, he whispered, "Find Gilbert and have him bring the hovercar around. And make sure he's armed."
His assistant nodded and left the bar.
Drago decided to make his interest known to the crowd surrounding the woman and approached the bar. He clamped a hand to the shoulder of the man sitting next to her and slipped a dagger between their bodies.
The man's eyes widened when his flesh was pricked, and he gave up his seat immediately. "Didn't know this was yer seat, Chavez."
With a warning glare to the others, Drago slid onto the stool. Angry muttering sounded behind him, but he knew the men were leaderless at the moment. Not one of them would have the balls to take him on.
From the corner of his eye, he watched the woman raise her glass. When her head tilted back, light penetrated the folds of the hood, illuminating her features. He heard gasps from the men around him, and knew they'd been struck, as he was, by the beauty revealed.
Her hair was the color of Arturia's desert dunes, golden and rippling, and it complimented skin as pale and lustrous as an Earth pearl.
To hell with the local sale. If the rest of her was as enticing, she'd bring a fortune at the Hazar's auction?and he'd finally have his foot in the door of the more lucrative market?an opportunity that had eluded him since arriving on Arturia.
Leaning close, he said, "You're attracting attention. This isn't a safe place for a woman alone."
Her shoulders stiffened. "I'm exactly where I want to be, and I can take care of myself." She turned on her stool to face him. Regardless of the deep shadow cast by the hood, Drago was near enough now to discern her full lips pursed in a tight frown. "Besides, you're the only person who's bothered me so far."
"All right. So you have business here. What's your price?"
Her eyes narrowed to slits. "Beyond your dreams."
He deliberately swept his gaze down the front of her cloak and then shrugged. "If you've nothing to sell, what are you doing here?"
"I'm looking for transport to New Australia. I'm seeking employment in the minefields." She hesitated, her gaze searched his face. "I'll work for my passage."
Drago shook his head. "I wouldn't say that too loudly around here?you might just get your wish."
"Did I ask for your opinion?"
"Finish your drink. We're leaving."
"Huh!" She snorted. "You and who else are going to make me?"
"Hey," said one of the men, a tall fellow with yellowed teeth and a scraggly beard. "Sounds like the lady don't want nothin' to do with you."
Drago stood, straightening until he looked the man in the eye.
Yellow Teeth glanced over his shoulder to his buddies, but they all looked the other way. When he faced Drago again, he muttered, "Must be a lover's quarrel. Sorry ?bout that, mate."
Knowing the crowd would get uglier by the minute, Drago reached for the woman's arm and yanked her to her feet. When she swung, he grabbed her fist and pulled her close, his face only inches from hers. "Don't press your luck. If these men get any drunker, you'll be the evening's entertainment. So, unless you want to be spread-eagle on the bar, you'd better come with me."
She blinked, wide-eyed. "Did the captain send you after me?"
Without missing a beat, Drago nodded. "He asked me to keep an eye out for you."
The woman snorted. "I'm surprised he even noticed I left."
"How could he not? You're a beautiful woman."
"He has eyes only for Evena, now. And she's not likely to share him with me again. Not after what happened to Aurelia."
Not knowing who Evena or Aurelia were, Drago murmured, "You feel responsibility for Aurelia?"
Her expression turned grim. "Of course I do." Her voice grew brittle. "It was my duty to keep an eye on the high security cell block. She died while one of your pirate friends had me up against a wall."
While Drago digested this bit of information, he kept an eye on the door of the tavern. When Kaspar slipped back inside the doorway, he gave Drago a small nod.
Good. Everything was in place. Now, all he had to do was convince the woman to leave with him.
"I don't remember seeing you aboard the ship."
He detected a note of suspicion and wished he could discern more of her darkly shadowed features. "Finish your ale. Our neighbors are becoming more curious about you by the minute. I don't want to have to fight my way out of here."
"A bit on the nervous side, are you?" She straightened and fisted her hands. "I can handle myself in a brawl. Perhaps, I should escort you."
Drago smiled. The woman had a smart mouth and a bravado way out of proportion for her gender. Her courage was misplaced, but amused him just the same. "I'll let you lead the way."
"Fine." She reached for the glass, drained it, and then slapped it on the counter. "Don't let me disturb you any further. I don't need a babysitter. I can make it back on my own." She turned on her heels and strode out the door.
Nodding to Kaspar to watch their backs, Drago followed her outside.
Drago kept pace with the woman's long strides, passing warehouses and the ramshackle offices lining the street opposite the docks. The acrid aroma of engine fuel masked the less savory smells emanating from the alleys.
"Are you one of Captain Zingh's women?" Drago said, hoping to divert her attention from her surroundings.
"No." The single word was clipped.
"You sound bitter."
"I'm a woman. You'd think I'd know better than to believe that just because a man finds his bliss inside me, his heart will follow."
"Are you in love with him?"
"No. But I had hoped for some small measure of his esteem. Instead, I'm a pariah."
Drago wondered where the car was. Had Gilbert ducked into an alley to take a piss? "Perhaps you imagine it."
"No. I see the way the other women look at me. I failed in my primary duty to protect a fellow inmate."
"You made a mistake."
"I let Aurelia slip past the security gate. I wasn't watching the goddamned monitor. If I had..." She drew in a deep breath but didn't continue.
"Sounds like this woman was someplace she had no business being."
"I had responsibility for the security of that cell block. I failed." She dropped her chin. "I just never seem to learn."
"How was it your fault?"
She glanced toward him for the first time. "Look, drop it. You weren't there in the high security block when it happened. You can't know."
The cargo ship Intrepid loomed in the distance. Its large black hull glistened in the late afternoon sun.
A figure darted out from an alley. Drago recognized Kaspar as he raised a blanket to toss over the woman's head.
She dropped him like a stone with one well-aimed kick to his groin.
Kaspar rolled on the ground, cursing and clutching his genitals.
Drago winced in empathy and reached down to grab the cover.
"Bloody bastard." She straddled Kaspar's body and pounded her fists against his face. "Don't just stand there," she threw over her shoulder.
Drago sighed, and then stepped behind her and dropped the blanket over her head.
She reared up, fighting to free her arms from entanglement and butted against his chin.
Drago tasted the copper of blood. "Easy, now." He tightened his arms around her struggling body. "I won't harm you."
"Bastard," she cried, her words muffled by the fabric. "Let me go. Captain Zingh will kill you for this."
"I thought you said he didn't have any interest in you. What makes you think he'll come to your aid?"
"Because I'm a woman, and he's a bloody gentleman."
"Well, sweet girl, you're mine for now. Best get used to it."
"When hell freezes over." She wriggled partway free and drove her elbow into his stomach.
"Damned monkey! Be still, you'll only hurt yourself."
"You think I should make this easy for you?"
Drago wrapped his arms more firmly around her and squeezed tighter. "Kaspar, get up. Gil's bringing the hovercar around."
The woman continued to struggle, kicking at his shins.
"Easy, girl. We aren't going to harm you."
"Forget Captain Zingh! I'm going to kill you."