Shielder Series, Book Two
Injured in a bar fight and then stranded on a hellhole planet when her ship is stolen, smuggler Moriah Cameron finds herself at the mercy of arrogant Sabin Travers. She manages to elude him, but quickly realizes she has no good option to get off the planet, so she stows away on Sabin’s ship. Sabin discovers her just as she stumbles upon a secret that could affect hundreds of lives—a hidden Shielder colony. Forced to take Moriah captive to protect that secret, he decides to take her Elysia to have her memory altered.
Instead of being grateful that he didn’t shut her up permanently, Moriah is infuriated about being delayed from picking up a crucial shipment. In return, Sabin resents the disruption this defiant and ungrateful woman creates in his life.
Having a strong aversion to domineering men like Sabin, Moriah manages to steal his ship and escape—after dumping him, drugged and naked, at a Pleasure Dome. Her freedom is short lived when Sabin catches up with her. He finds a way to make her pay, and she has no choice but to go along.
As they battle wills and wits across the quadrant, Moriah is shocked by her growing attraction to Sabin. When she discovers Sabin is also a shadower, all bets are off. She eludes him once more and heads to a dangerous but lucrative delivery. Things go wrong at the drop, and only Sabin’s major sacrifice can save her. But ultimately, it is love, acceptance, and healing that save them both.
He’d always figured he would end up in hell. He just hadn’t planned on arriving there while he was still breathing.
Well, he had been wrong—once or twice—before. Dreary and rank smelling, Giza’s was a hellhole all right. Hazy lighting combined with narcotic-laden smoke created a murky mist, shrouding those present in anonymity. The dimness was probably for the better, Sabin thought, scowling as he stepped in some unidentifiable muck on the floor. Too bad the poor lighting couldn’t mute the drunken bellows of the miscreants of the universe who congregated here, or the stench assaulting his nose.
If he didn’t need the solace of some good Elysian liquor, he’d have killed the time watching Radd repair his ship. Just the thought of that cursed ship was enough to propel him toward the bar for a refill. What a day! Galen had eluded him again—a reward of a thousand miterons blown to blazing hells. Then his ship had developed a problem with the stardrive, and he’d barely made it to Calt. Thankfully, he’d finally been able to commission a new ship, which would be ready within the next lunar cycle.
He set his mug on the counter. “Hey, Thorne, give me a refill.”
A small, gnomelike man scurried along the inside of the bar. His bald head, overly large for his body, bobbed up and down. “S-sure thing, M-Mr. Travers.” Ducking an empty glass heaved at him by a soused Antek and ignoring the raucous laughter from the rest of the drunks, Thorne poured more golden Elysian elixir into Sabin’s mug. He deftly snatched the miteron Sabin tossed him before scooting back to his safe niche near an exit.
So this was the nucleus of his existence, Sabin thought sardonically. Endless hours spent among the dregs of humanity. He had no real home, nor anyone to go home to, for that matter. Never would. It was simpler that way, he reminded himself.
“Here’s to the carefree life,” he muttered.
As he lifted the drink to his lips, a flash of color at the end of the bar caught his eye. A woman leaned in at the counter, clasping a drink between slender fingers. Her hair had drawn his attention; hair a rich bronze color reflecting myriad highlights, even in the dim interior of Giza’s. It was gathered into a sleek twist on top of her head, revealing a graceful neck.
Her profile didn’t appear too bad either, although he couldn’t see the lines clearly at this distance. The tawny cape she wore hid her figure. She emanated an elegance not seen among the worn-out females who routinely serviced the degenerates frequenting this soulless planet.
She was as out of place in this den of iniquity as a baby kerani in a pit of Oderan sand vipers. And she would last about as long. Sabin felt drawn to her, despite the fact that he usually avoided entanglements with women, preferring the uninvolved physical release he could find at the Pleasure Domes. This wouldn’t be anything more than an offer to see the lady safely out of this hellhole, he told himself, striding to the end of the bar.
As he approached, sidestepping an unconscious man sprawled across the floor, she glanced up from her drink, making momentary eye contact with him. He stared into unique eyes, as golden as the Elysian liquor he’d been drinking—and as intoxicating. He felt as if he’d been poleaxed. Her face was equally striking. The angular bone structure created a perfect frame for those mesmerizing eyes, a patrician nose, and a lush mouth suggestive of decadent possibilities. Heat surged through his body.
Her gaze shifted, coolly sweeping the length of him. Then, with an indifferent shrug, she returned her attention to her drink.
Sabin seldom cared if women were interested in him or not, but he wasn’t used to being ignored. Placing his hand on the counter, he leaned toward the woman. She was tall, only a few inches shorter than his height of six feet. Her scent, sweet and musky, launched a secondary assault on his senses.
He forced his focus back to the reason he’d approached her in the first place. “Don’t you know it’s dangerous for a lone female to be in Giza’s, much less anywhere on Calt?”
She didn’t even look up. “Go jump in the Fires.”
Despite the sharpness of her words, her low voice struck an even deeper chord. Further intrigued, he took on the challenge. Shifting to lean back against the bar, he crossed his arms over his chest. “Not very original. Talk like that certainly won’t deter these lowlifes. You really should let me join you. You’ll be safe with me.”
Icy amber eyes met his. “I seriously doubt that. And I find my own company preferable to—” she paused to peruse him once again, a look of revulsion crossing her face “—riff-raff.”
Clearly, she found him about as inviting as a rabid desert krat. Sabin glanced down to his immaculate black flightsuit and boots that were shined to a high gloss. He’d showered today, and shaved, although with his heavy beard growth, his jaw no doubt sported its usual evening shadow. Still, most women found him attractive, and always had.
“I have it from very reliable sources that my company is extremely enjoyable.”
Her generous mouth curved into a sneer. “I can’t imagine why. Look, I don’t want company, I don’t want conversation. I don’t want anything from you, not even the time of day. Just stay the blazing hells away from me! Is that clear enough?”
Obviously, she wasn’t the friendly type. “Oh, yeah, lady, very clear. Be sure and tell that to some of the other characters in here. I’m sure they’ll be glad to respect your royal wishes.”
“I can take care of myself, I assure you. I certainly don’t need any help from the likes of you.”
The likes of me? Familiar feelings of unworthiness reared, but Sabin shoved them back. “Fine.” Needing that Elysian liquor more than ever, he returned to the opposite end of the bar to finish his drink in peace. After that, he’d go see about his ship. He’d find better company with the taciturn Radd than with this serpent-tongued female. This day couldn’t end soon enough.
* * * *
Moriah breathed a sigh of relief when the man strode away, an angry set to his shoulders. Males were forever hitting on her, sickening her with their crude advances. And this man emanated danger, with those inscrutable midnight eyes glowing in his chiseled face, and his long, black hair tied at the nape of his neck. Dressed entirely in black, with two huge guns and a stunner slung from his utility belt, he’d seemed shaped of darkness.
She had taken on bigger men than him, certainly, but watching the lethal grace he displayed as he stalked along the counter, the ripple of muscles beneath his flightsuit, she suspected his lean body was superbly trained. He was surely the most dangerous one here. She could handle the rest of these drunken idiots. She wouldn’t be here much longer anyway—assuming her luck didn’t get any worse.
Downing the rest of her drink, she cursed Turlock. He was an ugly, half-Antek scum, and she should never have gone in on that disastrous Ataran deal with him. She had thought she was far ahead of him. Obviously she’d been wrong, as he had helped himself to her ship while she met with Fletch. Not surprising, given she owed him five thousand miterons. That ship would be difficult, if not impossible, to replace. Ultrafast starcraft equipped with nondetectable armaments and concealed storage compartments were scarce and costly. Damn Turlock to the Fires!
Now she had to come up with five hundred miterons to purchase her passage off this viper pit. Moriah shoved aside rising panic. She had faced far more perilous situations than being stranded, without a ship, in a hellhole. All she needed was money. She scanned the dim bar, confirming the fact that she was the only female present. In her business, most of her dealings were with males, and the majority of them surrendered their money for two things: sexual gratification and gaming.
The first option was unthinkable. A shudder wracked her, and she clamped a mental lid on the dark images clamoring too close to the surface.
The second option terrified her almost as much as the first. She hated games of chance. They were games with stakes higher than mere gold or even entire ships. Sometimes it was souls that exchanged hands.
Wiping her palms down her cape, Moriah turned toward the gaming tables. She was well versed in most of the most popular ways to gamble; she’d had years of exposure. Yet, despite her competence, every time she approached a gaming table, she battled an army of demons. She’d long ago accepted that most of her life’s memories were best forgotten, but that didn’t make them go away, especially in situations like the one she now faced.
She chose a table where a new game of Fool’s Quest was starting. Players had already taken three of the seats—a renegade Antek, a Shen, and a Jaccian; a highly unlikely combination anywhere in the quadrant but Calt. But then, the long reach of the Controllers—the evil race that ruled so much of the universe—didn’t extend here. Their Antek henchmen couldn’t patrol every sector of their huge domain.
Nor could the Controllers maintain mind domination on every planet, moon, or meteorite; which was why rebel groups, such as Shielders, had managed to survive, despite Controller determination to decimate all opposition. Calt, having no natural resources, no value whatsoever, held no interest for the Controllers. Over the years, it had become a hotbed of the lowest life forms in the universe.
Moriah stopped behind the empty chair at the gaming table. She tossed her pouch of miterons on the table. “I’m in.”
The Antek grunted, his beady eyes glazed from too much drink. Good. He’d be easy to outmaneuver in the game. She angled her face away to avoid inhaling his foul odor.
“Lookee, lookee, a lady!” the Jaccian chanted in his sing-song voice. He assessed her with a cunning, lascivious gaze, then waved a tentacle for her to sit. “Join us.”
The Shen, his face shrouded by the deep hood attached to his tunic, reached out graceful, slender fingers to swoop up her pouch of miterons. He balanced them on his palm as if measuring their weight. “One hundred fifty miterons is the required wager, mistress,” he said, his voice calm and melodic.
It was a standard wager, and one that would enable her to win the entire amount she needed in one match. And Moriah fully expected to win, having chosen a game that required intelligence and strategy rather than just pure chance. She would never again allow her life to be controlled by luck. “There are one hundred and fifty miterons there,” she answered.
The Shen returned the pouch to the table. “Have a seat, mistress.”
“Sliding into the chair, she drew a deep breath, mentally pushing away her demons. She pulled out the keypad and activated it, then rapidly selected from various options of the three components—power source, armaments, strategy—she wished to employ in the game. She made her choices carefully, basing them upon her experience with the beings with whom she was gaming. She hoped these gamers were like others of their kinds.
A hologram of the three-dimensional, five-tiered battle arena appeared at the center of the table, followed by images of the players, randomly placed. During the thirty-second countdown before the game began, Moriah studied the holographic arena, and her foes’ strategies.
She had drawn fair positioning, with all three of her components on mid-levels below her. The Antek and Jaccian had chosen as she expected, and could be defeated. The Antek had gone for brute force, while the Jaccian had selected for mental control. She’d expected the Shen to go for power, but he surprised her, choosing a blend of game components that closely matched her own choices. He was the opponent to beat.
The game progressed rapidly, demanding all of Moriah’s concentration and skill. As expected, she and the Shen hurriedly dispatched the Antek and Jaccian components, turning the game into a grueling two-way battle of wits. As Giza’s patrons realized this was a truly challenging match, they gathered around the table, placing bets on the outcome and offering their own battle tactics. Moriah focused, tuning out the shouts.
At last she defeated the Shen—just barely. She sank back in her chair, some of her tension easing. Murmurs of disapproval swept through the crowd. They didn’t see many women on Calt, and the vast majority of those earned their wages on their backs, not at gaming tables. Most of the bets had been against her.
The Shen nodded in acceptance. “Well played,” was all he said, pushing back his chair. Taunts and jeers followed him as he faded into the crowd.
Moriah wasted no time collecting her opponents’ money pouches and stuffing them into her cloak pocket. The sooner out of this pit, the better. But as she turned to leave, a feeling of being watched drew her attention toward the bar.
The black-clad man leaned nonchalantly against the counter. His dark gaze locked with hers and an odd fission of awareness sizzled between them. He raised his drink in a mocking salute.
He was an arrogant, obnoxious man who obviously expected every female to swoon at his feet. She whirled and strode toward the entrance. A loud bellow and a jerk on her cloak brought her to a halt. She turned to face the Antek she’d just defeated at Fool’s Quest.
His face and snout were blotched red from too much liquor, and drool oozed from his mouth. “No female beats me,” he growled. “You cheat.”
She tried unsuccessfully to yank her cloak free. “Let me go.”
He snarled, showing razor-sharp teeth. “You cheat, female. Give back the money.”
Moriah employed a quick chop of her hand to the Antek’s arm. She followed with a solid kick to his solar plexus. Staggering back, the creature smashed into a table. He slid to the floor, too drunk to get up. The patrons cheered, hoping for more. No one could expect help here, only bloodlust.
Disgusted, she turned back toward the entry. She’d only gone a meter when a tentacle wrapped around her waist and spun her around. She found herself face to chest with the seven-foot Jaccian. “Lady, lady! Cheat, cheat!” he sing-songed.
Great, just great. Jaccians were even stupider than Anteks. And tougher.
“Get your hands off me, alien!” Moriah snarled, shoving hard against the creature’s chest and kicking one spindly leg from under it.
He crashed to his knees as she reached for her gun. He snapped out a second tentacle to stop her, but her weapon was already drawn. A volley of shots amputated the tentacles in a spray of slime. She was free.
She spun to dash for the entry, but more tentacles wrapped around her, squeezing tightly. Caught off guard, she dropped her gun. How could the Jaccian have recovered so quickly? “No do that,” sing-songed a different voice. By the Abyss! Two of them! She could readily handle one, but not two. She kicked and thrashed, battling for breath as the tentacles tightened even more.
“Let me go!” she gasped, crunching her boot heel into her assailant’s shin. He jerked, his hold loosening momentarily. Sucking air into her lungs, she rammed her elbow into his abdomen. He squealed, and she slid free of two of his tentacles.
The first Jaccian staggered to his feet, waving his two remaining tentacles. He ripped off her cape. Moriah aimed a high kick at his midriff, and he stumbled back again.
“Need some help?”
She looked up to see the black-clad man standing two meters away. While most of Giza’s patrons were busy betting on the outcome of the fight, he wanted to play hero. She could just guess what he’d expect in payment.
“I already told you to stay away from me,” she snarled, wrestling with a tentacle. “I can take care of myself.”
The first Jaccian approached again. The man cocked his head. “Appears to me you’re outmatched.”
She didn’t need this distraction. Twisting sideways, trying to free herself, she gasped, “I can . . . handle . . . this. Go away.”
“Think I’ll hang around, just in case.”
Obnoxious and obstinate. “If you really want to help, get me my gun.” Moriah heaved herself backward, crashing the second Jaccian into a table. He grunted. She jolted forward and bumped the creature again.
One more time, and she’d be— The first Jaccian lunged against her, pinning her between him and his cohort. “Money and weapons good,” he chanted, ripping at the seam of her flightsuit. “Having woman good, too.”
Black, insidious fear flooded through her, robbing her of coherent thought. “Let me go!” she yelled, frantically slugging at her assailant.
The Jaccian dug the jagged edge of his tentacle into her shoulder. She felt blood welling. Another tentacle wrapped around her breast and the familiar terror threatened to overcome her. A scraping noise drew her back from the edge of hysteria. Looking down, she saw her gun sliding toward her feet.
Her gaze shot to the dark-haired man. Even through the panicked, nightmarish haze, she noted the shift in his bearing. His eyes glittered dangerously as his hands moved to rest on his guns. “Let the lady go.” Steel edged his voice.
The Jaccian in front of her let loose a string of obscenities. “Female is mine,” he insisted shrilly. “I keep.”
“Let her go. Now.”
“No!” the Jaccian screeched. “I mate with her!”
“Final warning. Release her.”
“You die!” shrilled the Jaccian, jerking her toward him and drawing his weapon.
If he thought to use her body for a shield, he was sadly mistaken. Moriah made herself go limp. Falling back against the one behind her, she wrestled the first Jaccian against his partner. The tentacles loosened enough for her to slide down prickly legs to the relative safety of the floor. She grabbed her gun.
Weapon fire filled the room. She managed to shoot a tentacle and weapon from one Jaccian. Slime splattered the top of her head. Before she could move, a heavy weight collapsed on her, slamming her back against the floor. More slime oozed over her face and chest. She tried to claw her way free of the heavy Jaccians—or what was left of them.
She heard a thud, and the suffocating weight eased. Then the weight was gone completely, as a strong hand clasped hers and pulled her to her feet. Chest heaving, legs wobbling, Moriah stared at the carnage around her.
There was a fire near the end of the room, where a stray bullet had hit a fueled generator, and Thorne was climbing over the bar with an extinguisher. Smoke clogged the room and drifted around the black-clad man standing there. He had blood on his upper arm, but it appeared to be a surface wound. He’d survive.
He looked at her and shrugged. “Fortunately, they had poor aim.”
It galled her that she’d needed his help to extricate herself. “If you’re expecting some sort of reward, you can forget it,” she snapped, heart still pounding. “In fact, you should be thanking me. They missed disintegrating you only because of my quick action. Which, by the way, probably saved my life as well, since you showed no reluctance about firing with me trapped between those two cretins. You could have hit me!”
His eyes narrowing, he slid his guns back into their holsters. “Maybe I should have. It would have simplified things considerably.” He probed his wounded arm and winced.
“I didn’t ask you to get involved. All I needed was my gun. I had the situation under control. You didn’t have to get hurt.”
His eyes sparked with anger. “Oh, right. You were only pinned between two seven-foot Jaccians, had three tentacles wrapped around you, no weapons, and your clothing being torn off. You didn’t need any help. Pardon my interference, but I love getting laser burns. I live for them.”
Opening her mouth to retort, Moriah inhaled smoke and went into a paroxysm of coughing. A wave of dizziness washed over her. She grabbed a table for support.
“Hey, you okay?”
“Yes,” she choked out, just as her legs buckled.
He caught her before she hit the ground, his arms encircling her and pulling her flush against his hard body. “Sure you are.”
Alarm resurfaced, lending strength to her legs. She’d sworn no man would ever hold her like this again. “I told you I’m fine. Let go of me!” More coughing interrupted her protest.
He eased her onto a chair. “Take shallow breaths.”
She gasped and wheezed, her eyes stinging. The man seemed unaffected by the smoke from the smoldering generator. He retrieved her cape from where the Jaccian had thrown it. Prying her gun from her hand, he shoved it through his belt. Then he tossed the cape around her.
“You need some air. Let’s get out of here.” Taking her arm, he pulled her out of the chair and to the entry. All those who had gathered to watch the action stepped back, giving them a wide berth. Hoots and lewd suggestions followed them to the exit.
Shivering violently, Moriah stumbled after the man. She didn’t know if her physical reaction was shock from the narrow escape, or from the ugly memories that surfaced every time a man touched her.
Outside, the humid, stale air offered little relief to her burning lungs. Twin full moons illuminated the barren surroundings and the litter scattered on the hard-packed sand.
“Ugh. There’s nothing worse than Jaccian slime.” The man helped himself to the edge of Moriah’s cape to wipe his flightsuit.
“Hey! That’s mine.” She snatched the cape away, but he immediately retrieved it and raised it to her face.
Strangely lightheaded, she made no protest as he wiped the ooze from her cheeks and chin with surprising gentleness. It felt so good, she closed her eyes, swaying a little, forgetting for a moment that a man was touching her. Until his ministrations moved to the front of her flightsuit, jolting her to full alert.
She smacked his arm away. “Stop that!”
“Just trying to help.” He flashed a devilish grin, and her heart missed a beat. The moonlight illuminated a face most women would call devastating: high cheekbones, deep-set black eyes, an arrogant nose, a sensual mouth. The shadow of a beard only served to emphasize a stubborn jaw, to enhance his overwhelming masculinity.
He was just the type of man Moriah found the most threatening.
Needing to put some space between them, she stumbled away and headed toward the settlement, ignoring the shakiness in her legs and the throbbing in her shoulder. The footfalls behind her told her this man wouldn’t be so easily brushed off.
“Wrong way, lady.” He took her arm again and turned her toward the landing strip. “Where’s your ship? You should get off Calt—now.”
“I have business to take care of first.”
“Haven’t you learned? There are a lot safer places than Calt to support a gambling habit. Unless offering that luscious body of yours to any lusting male is your business. Even that would be safer elsewhere.”
Outrage and disgust shot through her. “You sleazy scourge of the universe!” She raised her arm to strike him, only to find her wrist caught in the magnasteel vise of his hand.
“Temper, temper,” he chided. “Is that any way to thank a man who risked his life saving your honor?”
She wondered if he was ever serious. Jerking her arm free, she snapped, “All right then, you overgrown desert krat. Thank you! Now, as I said, I have unfinished business. Then I’ll be all too glad to leave.”
“Care to share what that business is? Perhaps I can help.”
She wanted to tell him she’d never accept assistance from him—or any other man—except that she just had. But that was as far as it went. “Arius could go nova, and I wouldn’t need any more help from you.”
All playfulness vanished from his face, and a glittering determination filled his eyes. “Then forget it. Calt is far too dangerous for you to hang around, especially since most of the beings at Giza’s just lost a lot of money betting against you. You’re leaving now, if I have to strap you into your ship and set the pilot for automatic.”
Oh! She’d love to shoot that overbearing expression off his face. One small problem—he had possession of her weapon. “Give me back my gun.”
“You really don’t believe in saying please, do you? Someone needs to teach you some manners.”
“I don’t need you or anyone else to tell me what to do. Go burn in the Abyss.”
Moving like a striking serpent, he grabbed her and pulled her against him, so close, she felt every millimeter of his unyielding body, felt the heat emanating from him. He was fast—she’d give him that. Furious, she squirmed against him, and he inhaled sharply. She stilled immediately, alarmed by the physical evidence of his reaction to her.
“I will see you off this planet,” he insisted, clamping her legs inside his own.
“I’ll see you in hell first!”
“Sweetheart, we’re already there.” He framed her face with his hands, his thumb wiping away another patch of slime. “You know, you clean up pretty good. You need to work on the attitude, though.”
“Men like you don’t bring out my best side.” A wave of dizziness swept over her, and she clutched the front of his flightsuit for support.
Desire flared in his dark eyes, sparking an odd rush through her veins. He must have sensed her reaction, because his expression turned predatory. “I wonder if you taste as good as you look,” he murmured.
Before she could react, he lowered his mouth to hers. Her body felt sluggish, like she’d been drugged, but her senses went into overdrive, making her acutely aware of the rock hard pressure of his legs hemming her in. Of the searing solidity of his body pressed against her; the startling feel of his lips molding to hers, taking confident possession. Of the heady taste of liquor as his tongue invaded her mouth.
Her thoughts scattered like marbles in a vortex, leaving her oddly disoriented. For one mad moment, she almost savored the unique experience, the comfort and security of this man’s embrace . . . the absurd feeling of finding a haven.
Then the black talons of horror and revulsion descended. Panic surged, and adrenaline pounded through her body. Another wave of dizziness sent her reeling. She tried to push away, but her legs collapsed.
Darkness engulfed her. . . .
“Catherine Spangler’s Shadower delivers another riveting glimpse into exotic other worlds. Imaginative . . . sensual . . . a must read!” ~ Kathy Baker, 1999 RWA Bookseller of the Year, Waldenbooks
**FOUR STARS** “Excitement and enjoyment from the very first page. Ms. Spangler delivers a depth of character and strong conflicts. A fun read!” ~ Romantic Times
“A richly textured futuristic novel . . . and an absolutely wonderful read. Readers will delight in Shadower.” ~ The Midwest Book Review
“Another wonderful story by Ms. Spangler. Once again her characters triumph over the nasty hand dealt to them, overcoming hatred, loss, and abuse to find love. I highly recommend this tale.” ~Leslie Tramposch, Paranormal Romance Reviews