The Water Crystal

The Water Crystal

Self-published Re-issue | October 1, 2012

Read an Excerpt

Order ebook: Kindle | Nook | Smashwords

Together, in a world thirsting for drinkable water, Angelo and Bianca make fire…

When Bianca Robinson steals a special crystal, Angelo, a Guardian of the Order, tracks down and arrests the thief. However, Angelo suspects that Bianca isn’t a criminal, but merely a woman ready to do anything to right a wrong.

Bianca has grown jaded in her fight for survival, but every brush of Angelo’s hand on her body breaks down her barriers. He alone seems to have enough heat to melt the coldness within her. He makes her want a man’s touch for the first time in many years and awakens every carnal and dark erotic yearning within her.

Angelo knows that Bianca is forbidden to him, but she tempts him like no other woman. She inspires him to act out every one of his sensual desires. Angelo will break every rule in order to have her…and to keep her.

This stand alone full-length futuristic novel has a plot with plenty of meat, as well as a sexy romance.

“The chemistry between Angelo and Bianca is sizzling hot and, at the same time, very sensual and romantic. Their conflict is an amazing vehicle for this story, and it will keep the reader firmly engaged. Bast has a very creative mind and has aptly demonstrated this in her latest effort.” —FOUR STARS, RT Book Reviews

“As the story builds, the passion that flares between Angelo and Bianca is the epitome of erotic romance. Their scenes blend outstanding sexual heat with a welling of emotion. Combine their developing relationship with the action that surrounds the crystal and this is one story that delivers from start to finish!” —FIVE STARS, Fallen Angel Reviews

Excerpt

Chapter One

Earth 2075

Bianca sat on the floor of the crumbling building where she’d taken shelter. Her solar-powered lantern cast a dim light, bathing the bleached walls of the room in an eerie glow. Old rusted pipes, which at one time actually transported water, protruded from the ceiling. A bolt of lightning illuminated the broken-out windows and thunder boomed. Rain pelted the roof and leaked in through the cracks in the walls.

She tipped her canteen back and caught the last drops of purified water on her tongue. Closing her eyes, she savored the liquid, and then let the canteen drop to the side. That was the last of the water and soon she’d run out of sector credits. On the border of Sector Thirty, at the last water vendor before the Wastes, she would buy one more canteen full and a bath. That would take care of the rest of her credits and would have to last her until she made it home to Sector Twenty-Nine.

A bead of perspiration trickled down her temple, and she wiped it with the back of her hand. She stood and walked to one of the broken windows to catch a breeze, carefully staying away from the green-tinged rain that fell through it. It was one of life’s little ironies…to be completely surrounded by water and unable to consume any. Thunder boomed again, and the wind gusted from the opposite direction, blowing rain onto her T-shirt and pants before she could jump away.

“Shit!” Her voice shattered the silence of the room and startled her. She had to change her clothes now. The freysis could not be allowed to stay against her skin for any extended period of time. Yesterday she’d been caught in the rain briefly, before she’d been able to find decent shelter. Her freysis level was probably pretty high right now. She couldn’t afford any more exposure. The hydrologic cycle had spread the bacteria everywhere. It even fell from the clouds.

Cursing herself for her negligence, she crossed the room, shedding clothing along the way. She pulled a spare pair of pants and a long-sleeved, baggy shirt from her sack and shrugged them on.

The master crystal, the booty from her break-in at the Water Company that afternoon, was secreted in a small black velvet sack. She found it and looped the bag’s string around her neck, letting it hang heavy between her breasts. The only thing driving her now was the need to get the crystal back home to Melvin. He wanted to reverse the freysis poisoning, and the crystal played a key role.

Bianca spread her clothing out on the floor. Water activated the freysis, but the bacteria were harmless when dry. She laid down on her bedroll, making sure her pistol was within easy reach. The Guardians from the Water Company would never find her now that she’d traveled past the border of the Center. However, that didn’t mean she was out of danger.

She closed her eyes and listened to the relentless pounding of the rain on the roof. Rain was how her twin sister Calina had killed herself. She’d gone out into the gardens at the Water Company one afternoon when it was pouring and had let the freysis soak her. She’d stayed out there until the bacteria had poisoned her blood.

Bianca swallowed hard against her already dry throat. Still, she couldn’t cry. She’d tried to make the tears come, but they just wouldn’t. She knew it wasn’t only from dehydration. She hardly felt anything now but anger…and numbness. Numbness was like an emotion, too, since she felt it almost constantly these days. Maybe that was a blessing.

Bianca had worn Calina’s dress and jewelry when she’d stolen the crystal. To obtain them, she’d made Calina’s quarters her first stop as soon as she’d breached the Water Company. Finch had given both expensive items to her sister, and Bianca had burned them at the first opportunity. It had been deeply satisfying, as if she were destroying Calina’s fetters.

Placing her hand over the pouch, she rubbed at the velvet material. She fisted it in her hand and squeezed her eyes shut. The crystal would to go a long way toward making things right. She’d make Finch pay for what he’d done.

* * * * *

A fine tremble ran up Angelo DiMarco’s spine. He halted his mount outside an abandoned building that read Hayworth Seed Co. on the side in faded lettering. There was nothing special about the structure. It was just one more dilapidated building in a whole ocean of them. Same broken windows. Same forced-in front door. But he could feel the heat of another person in there, radiating out and into him. A magnified presence.

“Stop,” he said quietly to Dell, the Guardian of Order who traveled with him.

Dell reined up beside him. “What is it?”

He jerked a thumb in the direction of the building. “We need to search this place. I think she’s holed up here.” They’d been tracking a thief from the Center for the past three days and it hadn’t been an easy trail. Once anyone traveled beyond the borders of the Center, it was a hardship experience. Perhaps they’d just found their fugitive and could head back home.

“How the hell do you know?” asked Dell.

Angelo didn’t answer.

“Well, how do you know?”

His jaw locked. He was unwilling to explain. Sometimes he just knew where people were, where they were going. People told him he had a sixth sense for it, but he didn’t like that explanation.

Dell stared at him for a moment, his glossy black hair falling into his angular face. He laughed once, short and bitter. “Whatever, man, you’re the captain.”

They swung down off their horses and entered the building. Darkness, along with the scents of must and humidity, enveloped them. Crumbled drywall and broken glass littered the floor beneath their feet, and old rusted pipes, which at one time had actually transported potable water, protruded from the ceiling. These days piped-in water was luxury reserved only for the extremely wealthy and those in their inner circles. Angelo motioned Dell to the right, then drew his alter-gun and ascended the stairs.

At the top was a large open room. A human-shaped bundle lay on a bedroll in the center of the floor. At one end was a toss of silvery-gold hair, the same unusual color as that of Calina, his boss’ deceased wife. His grip tightened on the handle of the alter-gun. Jackpot. The thief was Calina’s twin sister. He couldn’t see this woman’s face from where he stood, and he didn’t have a clear shot at her head. He needed to get closer to use his alter-gun, which, if flipped to its current setting, would only knock her unconscious. Aloysius Finch, his boss, had told him to take her alive.

Carefully, he removed one foot from the top stair and placed it on the floor of the room. She made no sound, no movement. He brought his other foot up and took two steps forward, hoping that below him Dell also made no noise.
She sighed in her sleep and turned over, throwing one arm wide. He froze, waiting for her to settle in again. He listened for her breathing to return to a steady pattern. When it did, he took another step. The floorboard beneath his foot squeaked. He glanced down.

Fuck. So much for stealth.

He heard a rustle and the distinctive sound of a pistol being cocked, the slide of metal on metal and a click. He looked up. She was on her knees with a gun pointed right at his heart. Jesus. He’d finally crossed paths with someone who moved faster than he did. She held a 9-mm pistol in her hand. It was an antique, but still entirely capable of ripping a path straight through his heart.

“Drop it.” She jerked her head, indicating his alter-gun. “If you move to shoot, I’ll get you first, and I use honest-to-God bullets in mine. I hear they hurt.”

He hesitated for a moment and then dropped the alter-gun to the floor with a clatter.

They regarded each other warily. More than the pistol she leveled at him took him aback. Now he understood why everyone who’d come into contact with Bianca Robinson on her little flight to Out-Center had remembered her. She wasn’t easily forgotten. He’d seen a picture of her twin, Calina, but this woman had a far more feral kind of beauty. Her hair hung past her shoulders in a tumble of gold and shades of silver-blonde. It framed a face with exquisitely molded features and clear blue-green eyes. Her skin was tawny and her hair tousled. She looked like a wild thing with the face of an angel. Women like her were as rare as pure well water these days. No, you never forgot one. Right now, that pretty face was set in hard lines of determination. He didn’t doubt she’d use the gun.

He took a step forward before he realized he’d done it. “Look, I won’t hurt—”

Before he even finished his sentence, she squeezed off a shot. It whizzed past his head, making his ears ring. The smell of sulfur and hot metal filled the air. “Whoa! I’m not going to hurt—”

“I meant to miss that time. I won’t mean to miss next time.”

Dell pounded up the stairs, drawn by the sound of gunfire.

She trained her weapon in Dell’s direction. He came off the top step, his alter-gun aimed at her head. She fired. The bullet grazed his shoulder and embedded itself in the wall behind him.

She tried to fire again, and the gun clicked, empty. Dell leveled his alter-gun at her, a smile of anticipation on his face. She dropped and rolled, obscuring Dell’s aim.

Angelo brought his alter-gun up and searched out the woman’s crown, but she moved too fast. She rolled onto her feet and went for the window. He took a couple of shots in desperation. Christ. They were three stories up and the only thing to cushion her fall were the jagged concrete ruins of the street below.

“No!” The word ripped from his throat as he watched his quarry dive out. Angelo ran to the window with Dell fast behind him.

Another narrow roof stretched about four feet below the window she’d dove out of. It was completely hidden until you came right up to it. Jesus…had she even known it was there? The woman pounded across the roof now, headed straight for the window of an adjoining building. Leveling his alter-gun, he trained it on his moving target and squeezed the trigger. He hit his mark and she went down.

He scrambled out the window with Dell behind him and approached her. She lay facedown where she’d fallen in a jumbled heap of oversized gray shirt. It made her look small and innocent. But the word innocent definitely had nothing to do with this woman.

“Sleeping like a baby,” said Dell. He knelt down and flipped her to her back. He whistled low. “If it’s possible for this one to be better-looking than her twin, she is.”

Angelo wasn’t listening to Dell. His attention was riveted on the woman’s forehead, where blood welled and made a crimson trail down the side of her face. He knelt and took her chin in his fingers, tilting her face in his direction to get a better look at the injury. “Dell, do you have a canteen on you?”

Dell unhooked the water canteen from his belt and handed it over. Angelo uncorked it and wet the edge of his shirt.

“Hey, that’s the last of my pure-water,” Dell protested.

Angelo quelled his companion’s words with a stormy look and drew the dampened part of his shirt over the gash on her forehead, wiping the blood away. The wound wasn’t too bad, but she’d have a hell of a headache when she woke up.

He spotted the velvet sack around her throat and felt the contents—the stolen crystal. He broke the sack’s string and put it in his pocket.

Angelo slid his arms beneath her and lifted. She felt light and warm against him. “Let’s get inside and bandage her head. I smell more rain on the way.”

* * * * *

Bianca woke to the sound of rain. Blasted rain. Blasted, undrinkable, murdering rain.

The second thing she noted was that her head pounded out a staccato rhythm in time to the rain hitting the roof. She groaned, brought her hand to her forehead and touched material. Someone had wound it around her head.

“Take it easy.”

A low, rumbling voice met her ears. It wasn’t Dell. She knew his voice.

She risked a glance and saw the brown-eyed man sitting beside her. He didn’t look at her. He was too busy loading her bullets into the cartridge of her gun. She watched his actions covetously.

Earlier, when he’d surprised her, she hadn’t recognized him. She thought she knew all the guardians in the Water Company’s employ, but she didn’t know this one. When she’d seen him before, for the briefest of moments, she’d thought maybe he wasn’t working for Finch at all. He wore a dark blue, short-sleeved shirt and a pair of tan pants, not the uniform of a guardian.

He had a powerful build, and he looked threatening because of it, but there was something that offset his physical appearance in those chocolate-brown eyes, a kind of deep, unbelievable kindness. It was disconcerting to her. How could someone who worked for Aloysius Finch be kind?

And earlier, that warm gaze had made her miss the shot she’d taken at his head. Now, eyeing her gun, she really wished her aim had been better.

She caught herself trying to catch his gaze again and shook herself out of it, telling herself not to be a fool. Most of the kindness in this world had disappeared with drinkable rainwater. Anyway, she’d lay money it was his shot that had taken her down and gashed her head open. The bastard.

Her hand made its way to her chest. The crystal was gone. Something resembling despair settled in the pit of her stomach. It couldn’t have been despair, though. She didn’t feel things like that anymore. Hell, she didn’t feel much of anything anymore. Still, the loss of the crystal was devastating. She’d just taken it three days ago. It had been her biggest, most difficult acquisition ever, and by far the most important.

She dropped her hand to her lap. “You got what you came for. Why don’t you leave me alone now?”

“’Cause Mr. Finch wants the thief as well as his stolen property,” Dell said from across the room.

Of course he does. Of course he wanted her when she was the spitting image of Calina. Bianca slowly pushed herself into a sitting position, wincing at the pain that shot through her head and shoulders.

She eyed the rangy, black-haired man. He stood across the room, leaning against the wall. Dull anger rose within her, made a coppery taste in her mouth. “Dell,” she acknowledged in a flat, expressionless voice. His shoulder was bandaged where her bullet had grazed him. Satisfaction made the edges of her mouth curl up.

“How do you know who I am?” asked Dell.

Bianca laughed. “Dell, if Calina knew you, so do I. Oh, yes, I know you.” She smiled and winked at him. “I know you only too well, darlin’.”

Dell had the good grace to look nervous for a moment. He pushed off the wall, then leaned carelessly back against it and pulled a mask of cool arrogance over his face. A slow smile spread across his mouth. “Well, I may have known Calina, but I don’t know you.” He walked toward her. “Maybe we should remedy that.”

Bianca stiffened.

The brown-eyed man sprang to his feet. “Back off, Dell.” He leveled her pistol at Dell’s chest and cocked it. Bianca noted with interest that he’d chosen her pistol and not his alter-gun, which wouldn’t inflict damage if set properly.

Dell didn’t move. He just stared at the brown-eyed man. Bianca thought they looked like a couple of wolves with their hackles raised.

Dell threw up his hands. “All right, all right! No need to get all serious on me. I was just kidding around, Angelo.”

“Right,” muttered the man called Angelo. “I know your reputation. You will keep the Covenant of the Order, Dell, and you most definitely will keep the Guardian’s Code when you’re working with me.”

Angelo drew the cartridge from the pistol and expelled the bullet from the chamber before replacing it. He slipped the pistol back into his waistband, nestling it at the small of his back. Bianca noted exactly where. She had to. She needed to get it from him somehow. The seriousness of the situation was not lost on her. Her firepower, not to mention the damn crystal, had been taken from her. She was a prisoner of two guardians and on her way to the Water Company in short order.

None of these things could be allowed.

“Dell, why don’t you go downstairs and amuse yourself for a while,” said Angelo.

A slow smile bloomed on Dell’s mouth. “Well, if you wanted some privacy, you just had to say so.”

“Get the fuck downstairs now,” said Angelo through gritted teeth.

“Whatever you say,” he muttered. “You’re the captain.” With an insolent swagger, he made for the stairs.

Angelo knelt and dug around in his pack. He pulled out a nutro-wafer and a canteen of water and handed them to her. “My name is Angelo DiMarco. I’m a—”

“Guardian of Order. Finch’s muscle,” Bianca said with a tired sigh. “I know.” She placed the wafer on her tongue. Most lived on Sector-provided nutro-wafers. Those lucky enough to have jobs and credits could buy meat and vegetables from one of the few vendors that had livestock that were raised freysis-free, and grew produce on purified water only. Nutro-wafers had the taste and consistency of a piece of burlap, but had all the vitamins, minerals, carbs and protein to keep her alive. She washed it down with the water and closed her eyes as the cool liquid ran down her dry throat.

Once, before the Kirans had poisoned Earth’s water with the freysis bacteria, good food had been plentiful and it had been safe to dance outside in the rain.

“You are our prisoner,” he continued. “We’re taking you back to the Water Company for the crime of theft,—” he hesitated, “—and impersonation of Calina Robinson.”

She laughed at the last charge and he ignored her.

“Mr. Aloysius Finch will decide your fate when we arrive.”

She could only imagine what that would be. “How did you track me, Angelo?”

“I have a knack for it.”

Bianca raised her gaze and her eyebrow. “A knack for it? You found me four days’ journey out from the Water Company. You tracked me through the goddamn cement jungle of Sector Thirty. I had a million places to hide. You tracked me even though I zigged and I zagged and I left no trail. I’d say you have far more than a knack for it. Your tracking skill is damn near preternatural. Come on, how’d you do it?”

“We got a couple of lucky breaks. People remembered they’d seen you.”

“I’ve come into contact with exactly three people since I left the Center. You couldn’t have found me that way.”

A muscle in his jaw twitched and he averted his gaze. This seemingly innocent subject angered him. That was most interesting. “Then believe I have more than a knack for it and drop it,” he answered in a gruff voice.
She threw her hands up in a gesture of surrender. “Whatever you say. You’re the one with all the guns. Consider the subject dropped.” For now, at least. “So, you’re working for Finch, huh?”

“I was recently summoned to the Water Company. I kept the peace in Sector Thirty-One before that. I haven’t been working for Mr. Finch for very long.”

Bianca almost laughed. Kept the peace? She wondered if this man realized he worked for the most bloodthirsty and destructive creature to walk planet Earth since the Kirans contaminated the water. He probably didn’t. Aloysius Finch was practically a god to most people in this area. He was the man with the life-giving water, in a world where water was all around and none of it could be consumed.

She took a long, appraising look at her captor. This man was a breed she’d never encountered before, a strange animal. He seemed to have some kind of twisted, misplaced sense of honor. This man was nothing like Dell. No, Angelo seemed to be one of the rare few who actually believed there was an order that merited guarding. Poor, silly man.

Suddenly, she didn’t know if she wanted to smack him upside the head for his wide-eyed naïve view of the world or cover him with her body and consume every last fiber of his being. She could use a little of what he was in her life.

One thing was for sure. She’d never met a man like him and that made him unpredictable. She didn’t like that. Overall, this man could be a good thing for her or a very bad thing.

But there was one thing that made all men predictable.

Bianca wondered where his limits lay in that regard and how fast and hard she could push them. She thought about the pistol tucked into his waistband and the different ways she could get her hands on it.

As a general rule, Bianca didn’t like men, and she sure as hell didn’t like sex. She’d had it once…if you could call it that. She wasn’t sure you could when she’d never consented to it. All Bianca knew was that it hurt—both inside and out.

Despite that unpleasant experience, she’d learned that the promise of sex could get a man to do pretty much anything she wanted him to do. It was like magic. You showed some leg, maybe a little more, and bingo, you got what you wanted. It could be a dangerous business, though. The perilous line lay in the offering of it without actually having to fulfill the promise. Despite that danger, and regardless of whether or not she liked to use them that way, her face and body had become necessary tools for her survival. In this ravaged world, you used every advantage or you died.

She could protect herself. Melvin had taught her self-defense, and she never hesitated to use it. But since Calina had died, Bianca had lost the urge to protect herself at all. It didn’t matter what happened since her heart was missing. Without her heart and with her soul twisted up so badly, really, who cared?

Despite her dislike for men, this one fascinated her and made her libido twitch just a little with mild interest. He was as good-looking as they came, broad shoulders, muscled chest and narrow waist. Yeah, he probably made the hearts of most females go pitter-patter. He probably didn’t have any trouble at all filling his bed. That would make him confident, maybe even a little arrogant, and would make what she was about to do even easier.

She got to her feet slowly, gritting her teeth at the pain in her head. Sizing him up like a hunter examines its prey, she advanced on him, head cocked to the side, smile playing about her lips. Strong arms met broad shoulders and below that was a smooth, muscled expanse of chest tapering to a narrow waist. His dark-brown hair was tousled; a glossy hank of it had fallen over a dark eye.

Yes, he was strong, much stronger than she was. He’d be hard to handle if she couldn’t control him, but she could defend herself even against a man such as this. If she played her cards right, she was still the hunter and he was the still the prey. In any case, Bianca sensed that he would never hurt her, never force her to do anything she didn’t want to do, no matter how mercilessly she teased him.

And she fully intended to tease him.

Maybe she could tease him right into losing his composure. Maybe she could get him to let his guard down…maybe even enough to get her gun back.

Apparently wary of her intentions, he backed away from her as she approached. She hesitated. He’d hold a loaded gun on his partner without blinking, but he shied from an unarmed woman. That was curious.

She took a few more steps toward him. He backed up and his head connected with a pipe that protruded from the ceiling with a painful-sounding thunk. She stopped in the middle of the room, her smile fading. Man, this was discouraging. He wasn’t going to be an easy one. Where was the confidence of an outrageously good-looking man at whose feet likely swooned dozens of women a day? Frustrated, she put a hand to her hip and cocked her head to the side. Apparently, the regular, direct approach just wasn’t going to work. She quickly tried to think of ways to get him to touch her.

Remembering the pistol had no bullet in its chamber, she feigned a near faint, putting her fingertips to her temple and teetering on unsteady legs. When she collapsed, she had no doubt he would catch her…and he did. Strong arms wrapped around her midsection and held her in midair. She used her legs to pitch herself into him while he was off-balance. He fell backward, and she went with him. She ended up right in his lap. One of his hands splayed back behind him, the other wrapped tight around her waist.

Oh, it couldn’t be more perfect.

She wound an arm around his neck and pressed her breasts against his chest. “Thank you,” she whispered, looking up at him through the veil of her lashes.

Every muscle in his body went rigid. Every single one. She smiled slowly and nestled her ass down on his highly impressive erection. God, all men were predictable when it came to their response to a woman. She sighed a little and shifted her rear in his lap again and felt his body answer her swiftly. Under her hands and against her breasts, she felt his breathing and heart rate quicken. She spread her hand flat against his chest and then slid it slowly down over the solid muscle, feeling his left nipple under the material of his shirt. Biting her lip as hard as she could without drawing blood, she tried to be immune to the feel of him. She drew her hand toward his back…toward her pistol.

His eyes were on her lips, she noted with amusement. Thank God he wasn’t immune to her. She wet them, letting him see her tongue steal out for the briefest of moments. Then she tipped her face toward his, lightly rubbing her mouth against his. Simultaneously, her fingertips brushed the butt of the gun.

Just as she grabbed for it, he pushed her off his lap and onto the floor. She landed with a thump and he got to his feet, taking the shiny steel glint of the pistol tucked in his waistband, and any hope she had of escape, away from her.

“I don’t kiss thieves,” he said.

Well, at least he didn’t realize what she’d really been trying to do. She cradled her head in her hands. Her reply was clipped. “Yeah, you just work for them.”

“What do you mean?”

She sighed. She couldn’t really blame him. She hadn’t known what a monster the Water Baron was either until her sister had died. After all, it was through Finch’s generosity that there were pure-baths available throughout Sector Thirty. Finch even gave free water to the poor and downtrodden masses from time to time. Everyone thought he was really great guy.

“I know you probably won’t believe me, Angelo, but Finch is a sinister man. He’s greedy and vicious. He took my sister when she was just sixteen and kept her a prisoner until she…um…escaped.”

“I thought Calina was Finch’s wife.”

She made a snorting sound. “Yeah, she was. She was forced to be his wife.”

“Hold on now. You broke into the Water Company with no problem and stole a damned Kiran crystal right out from under Mr. Finch’s nose. If your sister had been kept there against her will, why didn’t you just go break her out?”

“I didn’t know she was there until she died. I didn’t know anything that had happened to her until that exact moment.”

Angelo looked at her in disbelief. “What are you talking about?”

Good question, she thought. Too bad the answer was so unbelievable that she’d lose all her credibility with him. What was she thinking? She didn’t have any credibility with him.

“All right, you asked for it.” She laughed. It was short and bitter-sounding to her own ears. “Since Calina and I were twins we shared things, you know?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“No. I don’t mean dolls and stuff. I mean we shared a mental link.” She glanced up at him to see how he was absorbing the information. He looked down at her with an expression of rapt attention. “One day, she, Melvin and I were—”

“Melvin? Who’s Melvin?”

She scowled at the interruption. “Never mind. Not pertinent to the story. Anyway, Melvin, Calina and I came into Sector Thirty for supplies. Calina became separated from us. The next thing we knew, a hovercraft was speeding away and Calina was nowhere to be found. I lost my heart that day.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, well, it happens. You can lose your wallet, you can lose your mind and sometimes you can even lose your heart. The deal is, I still was able to communicate emotionally with Calina from time to time. I knew when she was happy, sad or terrified, but I never knew where she was or what had happened to her. Then, on the day she died…I saw it all. I saw everything. I saw her walk into the garden in the rain. I felt the freysis seeping into her skin and blood as though it was me.” Her voice trembled and she swallowed hard.

She paused and glanced up at Angelo to gauge the expression on his face. Stone. Stoic.

“Go on,” he said.

“When she finally died, when her soul finally left her body, I became bombarded with images, emotions and the knowledge she’d gained throughout her life. It was like she passed through me, and all her memories clung to me. Right before she died she felt so calm, so happy…see, because she knew she was free. When she finally left, I went numb, and let’s face it, I’ve been that way ever since.”

“Jesus.”

“Yes.” Bianca drew a shaky breath. “So that’s how I know all about Aloysius Finch and even about Dell. Trust me, they aren’t nice people.”

“Why didn’t your sister go the Guardians of Order to protest her imprisonment?”

She frowned. She honestly didn’t know why and it had perplexed her for some time. Her sister had been a calm, peace-loving child, light to her own dark, but even Calina would’ve fought Finch. She had no memories of Calina fighting and it was still a mystery to her. “I don’t know,” she said with an air of defeat.

“Hmmm… I hope you realize how hard a story that is to swallow.”

“Yeah, I do.” She laughed. “I almost don’t believe it myself.”

He smiled. “It’s especially hard to believe coming from the little con artist that just tried to seduce her gun right out from under me.”

She closed her eyes briefly. Damn.

“So I guess you don’t want to hear how bad Finch really is?” she asked.

“No, I think the time is over for bedtime stories. It’s time to sleep now.”

“Sleep? I slept all day long.”

“Well, it’s time for Dell and me to sleep, then. It’s time for you to stay put and be quiet.”

She spotted a spent shell casing on the floor and picked it up. She rolled it back and forth between her fingers wistfully.

Angelo walked over to his pack, knelt and rummaged through it. He came up with an old, rusty pair of handcuffs.

She flicked the casing to the floor and shook her head. “Oh, no. I’m not wearing those things. Those cuffs are so old they’re liable to give me tetanus or something.”

“They’re not going to give you tetanus.”

“How do you know?”

“Look, it’s either the cuffs, or I’ll use the alter-gun on you again and delta you out for the night.”

Bianca instantly raised both her wrists to him. She hated that alter-gun.

Angelo slapped the handcuffs on one of her wrists and yanked on them gently, forcing her to stand. He led her over to a long pipe that protruded from the wall and cuffed her to it. After carefully checking her bedroll, she guessed for weapons, he gathered it up and laid it on the floor beside her.

“Sit,” he ordered.

She sat down on the bedroll and he knelt in front of her. As he unraveled the bandage around her head, she could feel his breath warm against her cheek.

He threw the material to the side and examined her wound. “The bleeding stopped. It should be better by morning.” He drew a thumb across her forehead, under the gash, with a gentleness that seemed at odds with his physical strength.

She closed her eyes and enjoyed the feel of his touch. Funny enough, it wasn’t even an act. She really did enjoy it. Maybe she was trying to absorb some of his goodness.

He removed his hand and she opened her eyes. His gaze was strange and intent, tinged with curiosity. She held that gaze for a few moments, but it was too intense, and she looked away.

Trying to make her tone light, she said, “You could always reconsider your rule against kissing thieves and—”

He grunted, rose, and headed toward his own bedroll. “Get some rest, angel-face. We travel at morning’s first light.”

Great.