Enjoy a free Reapers short story by Eleri Stone with a new chapter each weekday from July 7 to July 23. Don’t miss Book One of the Reapers series, Reaper’s Touch (available now), and look for Book Two, Gun Shy, on sale September 1, 2014.
The Adventures of Cassius Flynn and Molly McGuire: A Reapers Short Story
by Eleri Stone
Cassius Flynn is a smuggler. An outlaw. A scoundrel. Charming, devilishly handsome in a maverick sort of way and fiendishly clever to boot. He’s also the only man Molly McGuire has ever loved.
Molly’d left him a year ago. Stolen his airship, broken his heart, and made him look like a damn fool. Still, he’s rushed to her rescue, storming into Reaper territory to snatch her out from under the repulsive bounty hunter who brought her in.
High above the plains, up amongst the clouds in the most rarefied Scraper city of them all, a ruthless statesman has stolen everything Cassius considers important. And without Molly, without her quick hands, sharp mind, and pretty face, he doesn’t stand a chance of getting it back…
Begin reading The Adventures of Cassius Flynn and Molly McGuire
At first, Molly wasn’t sure if the noise was phantom or real—a faint rhythmic beat at the very edge of her hearing, the thup-thup-thup as soft as a moth drumming against glass. With a groan, she rolled to her side, every muscle in her body protesting the movement. She couldn’t entirely straighten her back, not even when she was lying flat, and her bruised shoulder throbbed where it was pressed to the mattress. Hell, even her eyeballs hurt.
Some of it was her doing. Last week, she’d stumbled on a ghost town given over to Reapers. Somebody had already hit the bank and mercantile store but there was still salvage to be found if you knew where to look. Wads of cash stuffed in mice-chewed mattresses. Jewelry tucked between moldy handkerchiefs in bureau drawers. She’d collected enough loot to make her saddlebags bulge before a pair of hungry Reapers scented her and she’d had to clear out.
The recent cold snap made the flesh-eaters sluggish which is why she’d gone in. Tanner was the fastest mare she’d ever owned and she’d outrun the monsters easily. Molly was still flying high from the chase when she walked into the Gravesend saloon hours later. Lu was there, an old friend, and they’d shared a few drinks. From there, her memory went foggy at the edges.
The hangover, that was on her. The rest of her aches and pains she blamed on Crenshaw and his men. Crenshaw’s boot in her ribs was what had woken her up that morning. She remembered his grinning face, lit a ghastly yellow by the rising sun. She remembered reaching for her gun and finding it missing. Being slung over the packhorse like a dead man. Twenty miles with her head hanging until it felt like a tick about to burst, hands and feet numb and burning at intervals, ribs crushed and the half-healed bullet wound in her shoulder stabbing with every jolting step.
When they got here—wherever the hell here was—Crenshaw had tossed her onto the bed and sawed through the ropes binding her ankles and wrists. He’d laughed when she cried out from the pain of blood rushing into her fingers and toes. He hadn’t raped her, though, and she didn’t know why. She’d expected that, feared it, braced herself as well as she might for the moment when one of them would come back in to rut on her.
Maybe it was the fact that she smelled like sweat and gin. Maybe they were just toying with her. She wouldn’t put that past Crenshaw. He played by the books, sticking to the very letter of his contracts, but that didn’t stop him from being a sadist at heart. He was the kind who liked his victims to be fully aware of the pain he was inflicting. He might only be waiting for her to recover her senses before he truly set to work hurting her.
Tomorrow was going to be a bitch of a day.
At present, she was chained to the bed by a length of iron fixed to the potbellied stove in the corner of the room, a collar wrapped around her neck. She could use the chamber pot without them having to mess with ropes and she could look out the window they’d left open just to taunt her. She wasn’t going anywhere, but there was the great big world right there to feel and taste and see. It was worse than a dungeon and she’d bet everything she owned that Crenshaw knew it.
There was nothing to see now, except an old maple, dark crowned against the night sky. When the wind blew, the branches swayed and the leaves flashed silver and black. The air on her cheek was summer soft and green-scented. A fine sight sweeter than the smell of the sheets she was lying on.
Thup-thup-thup. The sound came deeper now, closer, growing steadily louder until it finally resolved into something she could identify—an airship, still a ways off, coming from the direction of the mountains. A small one by the sound of it. The thief in her said cloud cutter. One of the newer models, a rich man’s toy. No room for cargo on a ship that size. Sleek and fast and practically useless for anything but rubbing people’s noses in the fact that you had money and they didn’t. It was exactly the kind of shiny temptation she’d always found impossible to resist. The kind that had landed her in this predicament in the first place.
She pondered the puzzle of it for a time, but eventually let it go. Whatever the ship was doing out here didn’t concern her. The law would come for her on horseback, not in an airship. She hadn’t done anything bad enough to merit that sort of attention. And the ship certainly didn’t belong to Crenshaw or any of his men. None of the mongrels in the room adjacent could afford a ship so fine. Most of them were lucky they had a horse.
It didn’t matter anyway. None of it mattered anymore.
Eventually, the sound from the ship faded beneath the snores of Crenshaw’s men. The breeze picked up, stirring the leaves, and making the patterned shadows on the wall sway. She found a spot on the lumpy mattress that was nearly comfortable.
She’d finally started to drift off when the sound of a boot heel hitting a loose plank on the front porch startled her awake. Blinking open bleary eyes, she had the disorienting impression that some time had passed though she could see through the window that it was still fully dark.
A shadow crossed the window outside and she stuffed her hand to her mouth to keep from crying out. It was likely only one of Crenshaw’s men returning from a piss. She had no desire to call his attention. Or anyone’s.
Tossing the pillow aside, she pushed herself to sitting, instinctively shrinking back against the headboard. The front door squealed open and there was a brief exchange of male voices. No alarm was raised. She was still frowning, trying to figure out what was going on, when the key turned in the lock. The door swung wide and a man stepped inside. A big hulking shadow in the dark.
Not Crenshaw. Too tall to be Crenshaw.
Her fingers curled into the blankets but she forced herself to remain steady as he walked toward the bed. Light from the window briefly outlined his legs and torso. Tall, lean, definitely male.
She lifted her chin, giving him her best glare on the chance he could see it in the dim light. The mattress sagged as he made himself at home and sat down beside her. Before she’d fully worked out how she might wrap her chain around his neck, he turned to face her and she saw who it was.
That lazy grin. Sharp eyes. Whiskey on his breath.
“I would tell you it’s good to see you again, Molly love, but that would be too great a lie even for me.”
Cassius Flynn. Smuggler. Scoundrel. The only man she’d ever loved. She’d stolen his ship nearly a year ago and still he’d come to save her.
Given the choice, she just might have picked the noose.
The thing about Cassius Flynn is that she’d never been able to resist him. Not as an impressionable young woman and not as a hardened outlaw. Her weakness for scoundrels was her most shameful character flaw and, even worse, it was a character flaw that Flynn knew all about. He was charming, devilishly handsome in a maverick sort of way and fiendishly clever to boot.
When he stretched out beside her on the bed in that dark room, a shudder of pure lust trembled down her body before he so much as touched her. When he splayed his warm hand flat on her belly, she groaned—moaned really, but who was there to judge such things? Her stomach had been fair abused that day. Anyone would think she was simply sore. Anyone but Flynn. He noted the difference. He flashed a smile and his long fingers dipped beneath the hem of her shirt.
“What the hell are you doing here?” she whispered, trying to get a read on him. The light was behind him now and his face was dark save for the glimmer of his eyes. Those she could see like they were lit by some unholy fire. The same fire that was creeping through her veins. That flamed higher when he lowered his head to brush a kiss to her cheek. His lips coasted back to her ear. Teeth nipped the lobe. His breath soft and hot spilling down her neck like a caress.
“I came here for you, Molly.”
A rescue? Her heart ached a bit at the thought. Only Cassius Flynn would be bold enough to walk right through the front door.
She turned her head and found his lips, soft and firm at the same time. The slight scratch of the whiskers he never seemed completely rid of. That small growl he always made when she opened her mouth. The heat of his body and the slow confident stroke of his tongue. Flynn. God, she’d missed him.
His hand came up to cradle her face, gentle as the moonlight, and he laid one leg lightly over hers. At any time, he could turn his body just so and settle himself between her legs. He didn’t though. He was never one to rush. He simply kissed her, sweet and tender with the promise of heat. Like stirring up coals that had nearly gone cold. She could feel that heat building inside her now and at any moment, it would flare up, just as it always did between them. This—the way they fit together—had always been pure perfection. She hadn’t left him because he’d been a poor lover. He’d been too good.
Reluctantly, she pulled away, dropping her head back to the mattress and turning her face slightly away.
He made a sound of protest, but she shook her head.
“We don’t have time for lovemaking.”
He turned then, moving over her but not pressing his weight down on her battered body. He was thoughtful for an outlaw. It was part of his charm. Persistent too.
He kissed her again and she almost fell for it. As soon as his lips touched hers, she wanted nothing more than to pull him closer, roll him onto his back and ride him until they were sated, limp and breathless. But this wasn’t the time or place.
She shoved at his shoulder. “Are you mad? There are five armed men in the next room.”
“They won’t disturb us.”
She was dumbfounded by his calm. He was cocky, sure, but he wasn’t stupid. “Did you spike the whiskey?”
She bucked him off and he rolled onto his side, burrowing his mouth through her wild hair to press his lips to the side of her neck. A smile against her skin. Goosebumps rose in its wake. “I did not.”
She moved to get up but his arm tightened around her, holding her in place. Truth be told, she didn’t fight him much. After all, she didn’t want to risk making the springs squeal and waking up Crenshaw and his crew.
“Shh. It’s all right, Molly. It’s past midnight and we’ve this nice bed.”
“I heard your ship. Let’s get the hell out of here. We can find another bed.” She frowned down at the top of his head. “Can you pick the lock on this collar?”
He didn’t answer right away as he seemed to be trying to unbutton her shirt with his teeth.
He let out a long-suffering sigh, pressed his lips to the curve of her breast and then looked up. “Who do you think set that bounty on your head?”
The blood drained from her head so quickly she saw spots. “You sent Crenshaw after me?”
“You stole my ship.”
His hand shifted slightly on her rib cage and she stiffened. “Move your hand any closer to my breast, Cassius Flynn, and you will lose it.”
“You’re not in a position to make threats.”
“If it’s the last thing I do,” she grit out.
He sighed and removed his hand from beneath her shirt. Lifted his body from hers and shifted so he sat on the edge of the bed.
“Damn right I’m angry.”
He rubbed his head, shot her a narrow-eyed look over his shoulder. “Can’t we wait and have this conversation in the morning?”
“Fine. I need your help on a job. Do it and we’re even. I’ll forget about the ship.”
“I had money in that ship too.”
He ignored her. “Do this favor for me and I’ll consider us square.”
“You sent Crenshaw after me.” She couldn’t get past it. He knew what kind of man Crenshaw was as well as she did.
Flynn’s attention fixed on her face with an intensity that was unsettling. “Did he hurt you?”
Smooth as ice, his voice. He sounded only mildly interested but she wasn’t fooled by that. Flynn liked people to think his feathers couldn’t be ruffled but she knew better. She recognized that tone and it soothed the hurt. “My bruises have bruises.”
“Did he hurt you, Molly? The contract said you weren’t to be harmed and I came as soon as he sent word. You know how he is about his contracts.”
“I know he will find a hole in a contract if he can manage it.”
“Molly.” She liked when he said her name like that, somewhere between a plea and a curse.
Sounded ruffled, he did. Good. “What’s the job?”
He thought about pushing her to answer his question. She knew it, saw by the way his shoulders eased when he decided to let it go. “It’s easy in, easy out. Won’t take more than a few days of your time.”
The back of her neck started to itch. That always meant trouble. In her line of work, you learned to trust your instincts. “What are we going after?”
He shrugged. “A small personal item I want to recover.”
Bullshit. She could call Flynn all sorts of things. Sentimental wasn’t one of them. But she was canny enough to wait until she was well away from Crenshaw before she outright refused him. She could hear the hunter and his men up and moving now in the other room with much grumbling and cursing. She’d take Flynn over Crenshaw any day.
She touched her collar. “Get this off me and you can tell me the details on the way. I need to get away from here.”
“You need a bath.” His hand curved around her neck. “And I happen to like your new jewelry.”
She swatted his hand away. “You would. Once we’re out of here, then we’ll talk.”
Flynn’s ship wasn’t nearly as fine as his old one. The Penelope Light had been a beauty, only two years old when he’d acquired it. Small and sleek. She’d had one of the new, lightweight engines that had allowed her to outrun the larger vessels that the Scrapers sent to escort the big shipments over the plains to Appalachia. Easy to maneuver too. You could fly right through the larger canyons to the south. The higher elevations had been a problem, with the ice especially, but that was a danger even for the larger ships.
Flynn’s new ship, the Luna, was a step down. Most of the rigging was new and the engine sounded prime, but she was shabby around the edges. The brass on the control board was well tarnished and the decking was a patchwork of old and new wood. Flynn caught her expression.
“She’s no Penelope Light but she’s airworthy, Molly. You’ll survive the trip.”
She threw herself into the second’s chair, the red velvet upholstery faded to pink and a little threadbare in the seat. It creaked as she spun to face him. “I had no doubt of that. If you told me you were going to fly a pig to the moon, I’d trust you to do it.”
That seemed to please and annoy him at the same time. Contrary man. He set to work going through his preflight checklist. He’d already inspected the outside of the ship and now he was checking gauges and such. The engine purred along nicely, all warmed up and ready to go. That thup-thup-thup noise from the propellers started up again when he pulled a lever and, this time, it sounded reassuring rather than ominous. She buckled herself into the chair and let her muscles relax against the cushions.
Flynn glanced over. “You can sleep if you want. The trip up will take a few hours.”
They were in the middle of nowhere right now. A day’s ride north of Gravesend surrounded by miles of land too dusty to farm. The perfect place for a man like Crenshaw but not good for much else. A few hours from here could be anyplace. “Are you going to tell me where we’re going and why?”
His mouth tightened. “Maybe I mean to see you brought to justice.”
She snorted. “Good luck finding Lady Justice, Flynn. I know for a fact that the two of you are not acquainted.”
“Not Lady Justice. Seeing you hang would do nothing for me.” He pulled another lever and they lifted off in a smooth glide. “I’m talking about outlaw justice, Molly. Eye for an eye.”
“You have a new ship.”
“I do.” He smiled at her but it wasn’t a nice smile. This was one she’d never seen on him before and it made her fingers curve around the arms of her chair. “But you owe me, nonetheless. Now’s your chance to pay up.”
He turned his attention back to the window and she frowned at his profile. Dark hair, green eyes, lashes black and spiky. Cheekbones high enough to make his eyes crinkle when he smiled. And those lips that had convinced her to do all sorts of wicked, wicked things. He wasn’t smiling now. He looked serious as shit and Flynn was never serious. An uneasy feeling settled in her gut.
“What sort of trouble have you gotten yourself into now?”
He laughed. “None yet. And in case you haven’t noticed, you’re the one in trouble here, not me.”
“Are you still working with Gideon Moore?”
“No.” The sharpness in his tone said there was a story there, but she didn’t poke at it.
She settled back in her seat. “I’m glad. I never liked him.”
“You don’t like anybody.”
“I like you.”
He winced. “Yeah, well you have a funny way of showing it.”
That was the truth. She’d done the best for him that she could. He’d see that eventually. She folded her hands over her belly, flinching when she accidentally rested them on a sore spot. Resettling until she was comfortable, she rested her head against the back of the chair and stared out the window for a while. They were headed west, slightly north, and judging by the angle of flight, he was aiming for one of the higher peaks. Her guess was Eyrion. That meant serious trouble. More than any tangle he might have gotten into with a crooked lawman like Gideon Moore.
She waited until he’d locked the steering mechanism and swiveled his chair around to face her.
“Tell me what it is you want me to steal, who we’re stealing it from and where it is now or I’m out.”
His brows rose. “You’re out? We’re already a mile up and you’re my prisoner.”
She’d given him the slip once before but it seemed cruel to mention it now. “Come on, Flynn. You can’t drag me into the mountains and expect to pull my strings like a puppet master. That would be dangerous for both of us.”
His frown made her nervous. “I’ll tell you when we get there.”
“I’ve got the time now.”
And he knew as well as she did that once they landed, anything could happen. They both had Wanted posters hanging in the telegraph’s and sheriff’s offices on Oro. If he wanted to hurt her, touching down there without a plan was just as dangerous for him as it was for her. Since it wasn’t straight revenge he was after for her stealing his ship, she wanted to know what he really wanted. She waited him out and Flynn, never one to abide a long silence, eventually folded.
“I need your help recovering a ring.”
The image that filled her mind was the gold band he’d tried to slip over her finger. Flynn was thinking it too, she could see it in his expression. The way his eyes went flat and his mouth tightened. He broke contact and rubbed his jaw, stretching his long legs out in front of him. The motion was meant to hide his reaction but she knew what she’d seen.
“A ring? One worth risking our lives over?”
“It has sentimental value. White gold with a single sapphire. It belonged to my mother and I want it back.”
That stirred her curiosity. Flynn had only mentioned his mother to her once, when he was falling-down drunk. She’d been a Scraper, married to a man Flynn didn’t like. He’d run away from home when she died. The story had been broken and slurred, all out of order so Molly’d never been sure how all the pieces fit together. What she did remember was that Flynn had loved his mother dearly and for some reason felt responsible for her death.
“Where is this ring?”
He flicked a glance to her and away. “Anson Stark’s office on Eyrion.”
She jerked upright. If the belt hadn’t held her strapped in to the chair, she would’ve been on her feet. The idiot man had gone and gotten himself involved in Scraper politics when he’d always told her that was the fastest way to getting yourself turned into Reaper bait. She stared at him gape-mouthed for a full second before sucking in a breath. “Have you lost your ever-loving mind?”
He smiled. “I owe someone a debt. You owe me. This is how we repay both.”
“Pretty honorable words coming from an outlaw.”
“Didn’t you hear? I’ve turned over a new leaf. I’m a respectable businessman now, Molly. You’re the only outlaw on this ship.”
She snapped her mouth closed. No, she hadn’t heard that. Truth be told, she’d avoided anyone who might carry gossip about Flynn for a while now. She didn’t believe he’d gone clean either.
“Whose laws are you talking about anyway? Eyrion? Ballonet? Stormking? There’s no unified government up here. Every hundred feet, you run into a new set of rules. Who can keep up?”
He smirked. “Some of them remain the same, you know. Murder. Theft.”
“How about this rule to live by? ‘Don’t screw around in Scraper politics?’ That one ring a bell?”
He shot her a sour look. Even scowling he was a handsome devil. Maybe more so when he was scowling.
“There’s a difference between making a living and being a crook.”
“You’re going to lecture me about morals?” She grinned and then winced when her cracked lip split open. “You’ve seen how the Scrapers work, Flynn. If they were really against stealing they wouldn’t be so damn good at it.”
His mouth closed tight like he was holding back words that she wanted to hear. Something about Flynn always made her want to poke at him. She didn’t like it when he held himself back, calm and collected with everyone else. She didn’t like that Flynn. She wanted the real one—ornery and when the mood took him, tender and generous too.
It was a dangerous instinct. She knew from experience that it was possible to push him too far.
“I don’t take anything the owners can’t afford.” Poke. “The law only protects the wealthy and I don’t steal from the poor.”
He snorted. “Right, a regular Robin Hood, that’s what you are.”
“Robin who?” She said it just to rile him. He did so love his old stories. His house was like a library with all the books lining the walls. She liked it when his eyes snapped like that, bright and dark as a thunderstorm. She’d always liked storms.
“You know what I mean,” he growled. “Don’t play stupid with me, Molly. I know you.”
“What do you know about me, Flynn?”
“That you’re impossible to reason with. Always searching for an angle.”
That hurt. “I’m not trying to play you. I’m just playing with you. There’s a world of difference.”
“If you say so.”
Molly finally stopped asking him questions and fell asleep somewhere over the northern edge of Oro’s territory. It was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, he didn’t have to walk a tightrope deciding how much information to give her. On the other, now that she was curled up in the chair beside him with her hand tucked beneath her chin and a sleepy smile on her face, he couldn’t stop staring at her.
The morning light wasn’t kind. It showed the bruises beneath her eyes and the big one on her cheek. Her skin was too pale, even beneath the layer of dust and sweat that coated her. She’d lost weight too. He could see that in her face. He’d felt it when she’d been pressed up against him in Crenshaw’s little hideout.
He was angry at Crenshaw, a hunter who never broke a contract and had promised that neither he nor any of his men would hurt her. Angry at himself too because he’d known Molly wouldn’t be taken without a scuffle. Angry that he cared.
She’d left him, stolen his ship, made him look like a damn fool. Didn’t take Molly to make one of him, but she did have a way of pointing it out in a way he couldn’t ignore. He’d spent most of this past year hoping to find her so he could throttle her and now he felt badly over a few scrapes and bruises? He still wanted her. That had surprised him. He hadn’t meant to climb into bed with her earlier, to touch her at all. Here he’d have fucked her in a heartbeat if she’d been amenable. Wasn’t that a pisser? He wanted to ask her why she’d run without leaving anything but a note saying she’d find a way to pay him back. Like he cared about the money. Well, actually, he did care about the money, but not nearly as much as he’d cared about her.
He turned away, checked the controls for the umpteenth time and glared at the approaching mountains. It didn’t matter why she’d run. She had. And this was a simple matter of extracting payment for what she’d stolen. She clearly didn’t have his ship still in her possession but she did have a skill set he needed—quick hands, a sharp mind and a pretty face. Beautiful really, once he got her cleaned up, rested and presentable. She’d need some powder to cover that bruise because he sure as hell wasn’t holing up with her in a hotel room while they waited for it to heal completely.
That part of him wanted to argue that point made him mutter a curse. Molly shifted slightly in the chair and resettled herself with a sigh. Like a cat. Warm and affectionate one moment, prickly and aloof the next. She didn’t need him, never had.
He loved that about her. He hated it too.
It was always a shock to go from a border town to one of the cloud cities. More so when your destination was Eyrion, the jewel of the western range. Goodbye dirt, clapboard houses and the smell of livestock. Hello glittering lights, cable cars and air so rarified it nearly hurt to breathe. And here she was dressed in her old riding clothes that hadn’t really been clean when she’d pulled them on three days ago. Most of her hair had come loose of her braids and somewhere along the way she’d lost her favorite hat.
She’d slept most of the way up, waking with a crick in her neck and a stomach clamoring for attention. Of course, she hadn’t eaten anything since Gravesend and she’d only taken a bowl of soup before she’d run into Lu and they’d spent the rest of the night drinking gin and catching up on gossip. Flynn was fastidious in his care of his ships, so it had taken another hour after the Luna was moored for him to feel she was bedded down well enough for him to walk away. His poor ship was a sorry thing compared to the others here—playthings of the wealthy, new and shiny, all polished brass and bright paint. Flynn appreciated shine as much as the next person but he’d never sacrifice speed for looks. As rough as it looked, she’d put money on his ship in a race against the others any day of the week.
He simply shrugged when she told him so and gave her that odd look again. She didn’t like it, didn’t like that she couldn’t read it. He’d always been an open book to her but not anymore. Her fault, but she had no regrets. For one thing, she had no time for that kind of sentimentality.
They walked silently to the Provincial, a well-kept but inexpensive inn just a hop, skip and a jump away from Devil’s Alley. Respectable, but barely so. Smoke-stained satin-papered walls and tarnished brass doorknobs gave it an air of downtrodden gentility. It suited Flynn who was welcomed like a long lost son by the middle-aged woman behind the desk.
Mae escorted them up to their rooms personally. If her hand had lingered on Flynn’s arm a moment longer, Molly would have intervened. She kept her hands to herself. Flynn wasn’t hers any longer. She didn’t care who he’d tupped while they’d been apart. Even shockingly old widows who should know better than to paw at their guests in public.
Molly raised her brows when Flynn closed the door and then turned to lean his back against it.
“Friend of yours?” she asked politely.
“A good one. She won’t tell anyone we’re here.”
“I hope not.” Molly flopped down into the dainty chair beside the window. “I saw the wad of cash you slipped her.”
Flynn walked toward her, pausing at the window to stare out over the front street. A small balcony outside with a bench to take the air if they wished.
“Can we get out that way?”
“There’s a trellis on the side sturdy enough to scurry down if you have to get out quick.” He pointed behind her. “If you go up and over the roof, there are stairs off the back from the second floor down into the back alley. Two sets of stairs inside. The one we came up and a narrow one that leads down into the kitchen. Door’s at the other end of the hall to the left.”
Thorough, she’d always liked that about him.
“Did Lu have anything to do with this?”
He raised his brows. “Lucille? Haven’t seen her for an age. Was she with you when Crenshaw caught up with you?” She nodded. “I’m surprised she didn’t put a bullet in him.”
Her muscles eased a bit. She liked Lu and she didn’t have a lot of friends. She’d hate to have to hurt one. “She was dead-drunk last I saw her. I wondered…didn’t know if it was coincidence that Crenshaw nabbed me that morning or if she’d stabbed me in the back too.”
“That’s not really her style.”
“It’s not your style to take a contract out on a person,” she pointed out. “Didn’t stop you from doing it.”
“First time for everything.” He nodded toward a door. “There’s a bath in there. A change of clothes for you in my bags. I’m going to check on a few things but I’ll be back within an hour.”
He touched his hand to his temple in a halfhearted salute and was gone before she climbed to her feet. It wasn’t until she was soaking in the big porcelain tub with lavender-scented bubbles tickling her breasts that she even considered running.
Instead, she wrung out a washcloth and placed it over her eyes as she settled back, letting the steaming hot water lap up to her shoulders.
She’d wait. Hear Flynn out first. She owed him that much.
Flynn sat in the Broken Anvil, sipping at a glass of watered whiskey and watching for his contact. There was a mirror hanging behind the bar that gave him a good view of the small saloon. Dark, dingy. The walls seemed to have somehow turned black with soot. The shaded gas lamps—four of them in total, set near the corners—did little to relieve the darkness. Just as well really. Beyond a few rough tables and narrow benches, didn’t look like there was much worth seeing.
It was a slow night, there were less than a dozen men scattered about the small room, most of them looked to be working men, stopped in for a few drinks before heading home. Possibly the only workingmen on Eyrion, which was full to overflowing with pompous, soft-palmed politicians representing the seven sister cities on the western range. This time of year, most of them had cleared out for home. The Council wouldn’t reconvene for another month. Which is why he was here. Stark should be gone too. That’s the information he had. His contact would be along shortly to confirm it. Confirm too that the safe hadn’t been emptied before Stark had left for the break.
Flynn didn’t know why he’d lied to Molly. Well, he did. She didn’t need to know exactly why she was breaking into Stark’s office. She’d clear the small safe so they could sort through it later. If she thought he wanted nothing more than to lift some jewelry, then she couldn’t tell anyone what he was really after.
This was business, after all, and she’d already betrayed him once. It would be stupid of him to trust her now. Still, it felt wrong lying to her. But that was the idiot fool in him that wasn’t ready to let go, even now. The wisest course, the safest for all involved, was to stick to the plan.
He nursed another glass of cheap whiskey, watching the door, for the next hour. It had begun to rain. Slow, fat drops turning into a downpour within just a few minutes. His contact was past late and he didn’t dare leave Molly alone any longer. Mae was keeping an eye on the doors for him and would send word if she tried to run. The mounting storm meant she wouldn’t be able to fly tonight, but still. If Molly decided to give him the slip, there was no stopping her. It would have been wiser to tie her up but he hadn’t the heart for it. He didn’t think she’d try to run.
Tossing a few coins on the sticky wood of the bar top to pay his tab, he shoved his hat on his head and turned for the door.
Despite being an outlaw, Molly was an honorable sort. She paid her debts and she knew she owed him a big one. She’d want to settle that and this was an easy thing.
Passing through the streets of Eyrion, he kept to the west side of the street so the shops and houses blocked the worst of the wind and rain. Unlike on the plains, most of the homes up here were built of stone and several stories high. This was the poor part of town where the servants working the mansions lived and shopped. Even so, gas lamps burned every couple dozen feet and even in the rain, the maintenance crews were out shoveling the shit off the roads.
He’d grown up here. Well, not here. Across town. But it still seemed like a strange place to him. He’d lived too long away from it. He’d learned too much about how normal people lived for him to ever walk down these streets again, see the shine of all of it, without wondering who it cost.
A silent streak of lightning cut through the sky, illuminating purple clouds and the jagged edge of the mountain. Seconds later thunder shuddered through him, shaking the ground beneath his feet. He stopped.
The Provincial was just across the way. The light from the lamppost at the corner gleamed off the puddles in the road, made the rain dripping from Mae’s clogged gutters sparkle. The small balcony outside his room was entirely in shadow but he could have sworn he’d seen movement. There…outside the window. Someone was there.
The ground seemed to slip again although he couldn’t blame this one on the storm. Anger surged through him, then fear. That wasn’t Molly trying to escape. It was someone trying to break in. And Molly was in there, tired and beaten, probably sound asleep by now.
The damp air seemed to thicken in his lungs at the thought of her as defenseless. Heart hammering in his chest, he began to run, hoping he’d make it in time.
Molly heard the door open and started to smile before it occurred to her that the creak had come from the wrong direction. She was hearing it through a closed door, granted. It was muffled and sometimes sounds carried strangely in a strange place but she wasn’t betting her life on it. The noise had come from the balcony. And as odd as Flynn could sometimes be, he generally used the front door.
She climbed from the bath as smoothly as she was able, wincing at the splash that followed her out. She didn’t have a robe and it would take too long to pull on her clothes. It was one room. Even if whoever it was out there was searching for something in particular, it wouldn’t take the thief long to toss the place.
She picked up her gun first, a neat little Smith & Wesson revolver she’d kept nestled in her boot. She moved behind the door, where it wouldn’t hit her if he slammed it open. And then she reached for a towel to wrap around her. A trick to do that, holding a gun. She hadn’t quite managed it when the main door to the suite opened and Flynn called out her name.
She’d reached for the doorknob before she thought it through and the floor shuddered beneath her feet. Flynn shouted. There was a thump against the wall and the sound of shattering glass. She threw open the door and braced her shoulder to the frame as she raised her gun and looked out.
Two men—Flynn and a slender man dressed in dark clothes. Flynn was in the process of tackling the smaller man and they were headed straight for her.
She couldn’t shoot. Not without risking Flynn and she wouldn’t do that. A flurry of bodies, the heavy thud of landed punches and Flynn was straddling the man.
She stepped forward, moving to help him but her foot landed in a damn puddle and slid right out from under her. She recovered quickly enough, regaining her balance but losing her towel in the process. And of course, Flynn looked up right then. His crooked smile faded into an awestruck expression that might have been flattering under other circumstances. Their thief took the opportunity to knock Flynn aside before rolling to his feet and running for the balcony.
She shot him in the calf. Little risk of him bleeding out there, though it would hurt like a bitch. And he did squeal like a stuck pig, dropping to the carpet and clutching his injured leg to his chest. Flynn bent to check the man for weapons and she wrapped the towel around her body again, tightly this time. Flynn cursed roundly and she hesitated before retreating to the bathing room.
“Is everything all right? You’ve got him?”
Flynn glanced up. “I know him.”
She reached out to steady herself against the wall. “You what?”
“My contact didn’t show at the saloon. Apparently, he thought to meet me here.” A knock sounded at the door, followed by the soft query of Mae’s voice. Flynn jerked his chin toward the bathroom. “Go get dressed. She’ll help me get the bullet out. We’ll decide our next move then.”
She nodded and turned on her heel, closing the door behind her, placing the gun on the vanity and sinking with shaking knees onto the stool that sat before it. She’d dress, she would. She’d be okay in a moment she just needed a second or two to pull herself together. Flynn had everything under control for now.
“This is your contact?”
Mae had come and gone. She was likely downstairs reassuring her guests that the sound of the fight had been nothing more than a plumbing issue, now resolved.
Molly had dressed, sadly, and stood looking down at the sorry lump of outlaw sitting on the floor. His back was propped against the chest at the end of the bed as Flynn tied off the bandage on his leg. Ben turned green and looked like he might puke again. Flynn handed him the porcelain basin and backed away.
“This is Ben,” he said, working to keep his voice steady. “Ben, Molly. What the hell were you thinking, sneaking in here like that? You could have gotten yourself killed.”
Ben looked at his leg, clutched the bowl to his chest. He swallowed hard and looked up. “The bullet?”
“Removed it when you passed out. The alcohol should keep it from becoming infected but I’d see a doctor sooner than later. Mrs. Hoffman, not that quack on Main.”
“You owe me double for this.”
Molly snorted. Flynn wiped the blood from his hands with a rag and tossed it onto the ruined carpet. He’d owe Mae for the damned rug too.
“I didn’t shoot you,” he pointed out.
“Your woman did.”
Flynn couldn’t help but smile at that. “She’s not mine. She’s working for me just like you are. And you snuck into her room while she was bathing. You’re lucky she aimed for your leg.”
Ben scowled. “Lucky. That’s what you call this?”
With Molly holding the gun, yes. She was capable of hitting a fly off a fence post at twenty yards. Ben was damned lucky even if he didn’t seem to fully appreciate it.
“What information do you have for me?”
“The money first.”
Flynn grabbed his leather satchel from beside the door and placed it on the bed. Someone had been through it. The money was still there but the cord was loose. “You tried collecting the payment yourself.”
Ben craned his neck to look at him. “I didn’t. I didn’t have the chance. You came barreling through the door on my heels.”
Flynn looked at Molly. She stared back and then shrugged with a dip of a shoulder. What did he expect? He knew what she was. Counting out the money, he dropped it into Ben’s lap and began to repack his belongings. “A bonus for your trouble. And you can have the room for the night.”
“It won’t cover the time I lose until this heals.”
“I don’t pay people for their mistakes.”
Ben face screwed up in a frown. “Maybe I don’t have your information.”
“Maybe I take my money back, call the law and have you arrested.”
“Fine.” Ben scowled. “You’re not going to like it.”
Probably why he’d tried to steal the money rather than collect it honestly. Flynn didn’t go back on his promises but Ben apparently didn’t share the same set of scruples. A besetting flaw, that. Expecting people to play fair. You’d think he’d be well past hoping.
He helped Ben into bed and turned off the lights. Grabbed the key Mae had left on the small table beside the door. Molly waited for him in the hallway, quiet as he closed Ben’s door and unlocked the smaller room across the hall. It wasn’t nearly as fine as the honeymoon suite Mae had originally placed them in but it didn’t stink of blood and gunpowder. Damn Ben.
He threw the key on the table and turned to Molly. “Sorry about that.”
“Not your fault, really. Reliable help is hard to find, especially up here.” She paced to the middle of the room and turned around. “There’s only one bed.”
He ran a hand through his hair. There’d only been one bed in the other room too and she hadn’t made a fuss about it. Of course, she might have expected him to sleep on the settee. There wasn’t one here. No room, not even for him to stretch out on the bare floor. While he was still considering how to answer, Molly began to undo the buttons to her dress. She was wearing the simple maid’s outfit he’d purchased for her to blend in with the Stark servants. A prim navy blue, the neckline tailored just a touch lower than was proper. It displayed her phenomenal cleavage to perfection.
Her nimble fingers worked at the gown and he forgot how to breathe. She smiled as if she sensed his reaction, her sweet mouth turning up at the corners like a portrait of temptation. She’d always been able to play him like a fiddle.
As the front of her gown began to slip from her breasts, she turned. Her narrow back was still completely covered by the dark cloth. The tie hugged her waist, keeping everything in place. She looked at him over her shoulder. “Help me with this? I think it’s knotted.”
Nothing with Molly was ever as straightforward as it seemed. It had taken him a long time to get over her and it wouldn’t do to fall back into old habits. He wasn’t ready to forgive her. He’d asked her to marry him and she’d taken off like her hair was on fire, with his ship. Now, here she was undressing for him like none of it had happened. The most frustrating thing was that it didn’t feel like anything had really changed, not between them. She was still the same impossible Molly and, despite everything she’d done, he still wanted her more than any other woman he’d ever met.
He stepped forward, eyes fixed on the pale skin of her shoulders. Long red curls a decadent splash of color against the plain blue wool. She smelled of the flowery bath soap Mae kept in her fancy rooms. Nothing he’d ever smelled on Molly before but it suited her just fine. She should always smell of lilac and roses, be wrapped up in silk, sleep on soft sheets.
The sash came loose with one tug and the gown pooled around her hips. Not waiting to see what he’d do, she pushed it down her slender thighs and leaned against him.
And the rest was inevitable really. He wasn’t walking away. There’d never been a chance of that happening. Molly well knew it.
He wrapped an arm around her waist and pressed his mouth to the side of her neck. “I missed you, Molly.”
A shudder ran through her as Flynn pressed his open mouth to her neck. That spot…he’d always known her most sensitive spots, knew exactly how to touch her, how fast, how hard. He was the best lover she’d ever had. She’d hoped he’d missed her a little bit. Okay. Maybe a lot. She wasn’t above that, but it made her sad too. Made her question everything even knowing she’d done the right thing. He still wanted to change her. She’d known that as soon as she’d peeked in his bag and saw the clothes he’d picked out for her. Lace-trimmed garters and the satiny drawers. He didn’t see her. He’d always only seen what he’d wanted to see. She wasn’t a lady and never would be. Didn’t want to be.
Still, Flynn’s hard chest against her back felt right as rain, so perfect it brought a sheen of tears to her eyes. She blinked them back before turning to wrap her arms around his neck. Then, his mouth was on hers. Soft at first. A sweet tentative brush of his lips followed by the gentle probe of his tongue, slick and certain, skipping over her teeth to delve inside. He was still dressed. The rough texture of the embroidery on his vest abraded her nipples and they drew into tight points. He skimmed his palms down her back to cup her ass. She’d left the drawers in the bag.
He groaned into her mouth and started to walk them toward the bed. Nearly tripping over the tangle of her gown, he gripped her legs and lifted, taking her weight easily as she wrapped herself around him. He was stronger than he looked. Lean but well put together. The muscle he had was rock solid.
She was wearing the garters he’d picked out and the silk stockings too. She should have left those in the bag. It was almost cruel to give him hope but she knew it was a particular weakness. The way he worked his fingertips under the garters and the way his kiss became harder made that small concession worth it. Despite what he might think, she did like to please him. And she was capable of compromise.
He dropped her onto the mattress and followed her down, his weight pressing her into the feather-stuffed bedding. His hands bracketed her face as he kissed her deeply. His hips moved forward, pressing his erection against her. She gripped his hips, holding him back before reaching to unfasten his pants. She wanted to feel and see all of him. Trace his tattoos with her tongue. Taste every last inch of the body she’d once known as well as her own.
Flynn traced the line of her jaw with the tip of his tongue and lowered his head with a groan when she finally was able to wrap her hand around his cock. Hot. The skin was so hot there, startlingly soft over a rock-hard core. She dropped her head back onto the mattress and caught her lip between her teeth as she closed her eyes.
She squeezed him gently, pulling her hand toward the crown and then sweeping her thumb over the head. With a shudder, Flynn began to move again, pulling back just enough to shove his trousers from his hips. Yes, his clothes must come off. When she reached to undo the buttons of his vest, he caught her hands and pinned them beside her head.
“If you keep touching me like that, this will be over before it’s started.”
She smiled. “Is that a new problem of yours?”
He nipped at her chin. “Vixen. You’ve always done this to me and I’m out of practice where you’re concerned. I can’t be held accountable.”
Bracing himself on one arm, he slipped inside her, just the very tip stretching her open, testing her slickness with a gentle prod. She blushed at his brief smile. She was ready for him and he’d barely touched her. It was almost embarrassing how ready she was.
Rather than drive forward, he stayed where he was, bending his head to kiss her softly on the lips. Her jaw. He traced a line down her neck to her collarbone. Gentle, teasing kisses that made her want to squirm. Had her back arching, her hips moving to receive him. She felt him smile against the upper curve of her breast.
“Always so impatient. Just feel this, Molly. Tell me it doesn’t feel right. Perfect.”
It felt so right. It wouldn’t feel perfect until he was inside her.
“You’re not quite there yet,” she said. “Maybe you’ve forgotten how this works?”
A huff of laughter fanned across her skin before his mouth closed over her nipple. He sucked lightly and then moved to press a disappointingly chaste kiss to the peak of her other breast. She arched her back and he sucked her neglected nipple into his mouth and circled it with his tongue.
“I remember how it works,” he said. “I remember exactly how to work you. Now?”
He pressed deeper, deliberately slow, letting her feel every thick inch of him. The stretch was nearly uncomfortable. It had been a while. She bit her lip, her hands curling to fists with the desire to pull him closer. His grip only tightened. Flynn liked to think he was in control. Usually, she liked to allow him the illusion.
Still barely halfway in, he smiled. “Better?”
“Let go of my hands. I want to touch you too, Flynn. It’s not fair. You still have your clothes on.”
He was still wearing his shirt though she’d managed to free the top buttons. She could see the edge of his tattoo. The very tip of the raven’s wing that touched his collarbone. He adjusted the spread of his legs, forcing her thighs wider and she arched her back, angling her hips to welcome him deeper. She groaned, closing her eyes to savor the sensation. Closing her eyes against the smug look on his face. He withdrew again, nearly completely, lingered over her breasts for a moment before returning to her. Teasing her. She’d be pissed if it didn’t feel so damn good. And the infuriating man knew it. He knew her, inside and out. Every last bit.
Finally, he released her wrists to wrap an arm beneath her hips. He angled her up and then pushed fully inside her, withdrew immediately and then filled her again, harder, moving in a single smooth thrust that shifted her back on the bed.
She reached for him and this time he let her pull him down, closer. She kissed him with all the pent-up feelings she couldn’t possibly put into words. She wrapped her thighs around his hips and used that leverage to set the pace. Flynn moved with her, against her, inside her.
He bent his head, lips parted just above her collarbone. The heat of his breath fanned across her skin. The soft strands of his short hair tickled her cheek.
Small things she shouldn’t have even noticed but she did. She wanted to notice everything. Remember it. The scent of him. Open skies and engine grease, the slight tang of whiskey on his breath. The way the bones of his hips felt against her thighs. The slide of her silk stockings along the back of his calf. And the thick length of his cock filling her, driving the tension rising in her body higher and higher.
She could feel the tension in him too. In the arms braced on either side of her rib cage. The stutter in his thrusts. As if he wanted to hold back but was just as incapable of patience as she was right now. She didn’t want that anyway. Sometimes she liked Flynn to be controlled. He had an inventive mind and liked to play games in bed. But this wasn’t play, not for either of them. No point in pretending it was. Not play. Not love. Just plain need.
He kissed her, skimmed his mouth along her jaw and buried his face in the side of her neck again. His body was coiled tight as a torsion spring, but his pace slowed, his breathing harsh as hers. He always slowed when he was close to coming. It excited her. Hard to resist pushing him harder now. She wanted that, to feel him give himself over completely. He wasn’t quite there yet but he was close.
He felt harder, bigger, and she could feel every movement. She wished for more of him and slipped her fingertips under his shirt. Hot skin. Smooth and taut. She pressed her palms against his flexing muscles, felt his chest expand as he drew in a deep breath and let it out on a harsh exhalation. He turned his head and kissed her neck. When she felt his teeth graze her throat, she came apart. That light stinging touch pushed her right over the edge. He drew out the moment, slowing his thrusts even further, because he always seemed to know exactly what she needed.
Her body tightened and she couldn’t do more than hold on to him, her nails digging into his back to pull him closer, and feel her body spasm around him as ripples of pure pleasure flowed through her body. Flynn’s arm pulled her hips higher and his thrusts turned hard and fast. But she wasn’t quite ready for it to be over.
This might be her last chance. Hooking her foot around his thigh, she twisted her body to turn him. He paused as though he’d fight her for control but then rolled back onto the bed, letting her straddle him. He was panting and the heat in his eyes practically scorched her skin as he raked his gaze down her body. He palmed her breasts as she leaned forward to adjust the angle and then lowered herself fully onto him. His gorgeous green eyes hooded and his lips parted. His fingers flexed and she felt her nipples tighten against his palms.
She rode him slowly, unfastening the line of buttons down his vest and shirt and pushing the fabric aside. The tattoo was inked in black. A raven marking him as a pilot. The wingtip set at the edge of his neck and curved down past his collarbone, covering most of the right side of his chest. Flynn didn’t have a lot of hair on his body, a light drift between his pectoral muscles and a line from his navel to his cock. She let out a shaky breath. Beautiful, that’s what he was.
His hands skimmed down her sides to her hips as she leaned forward to scatter kisses along his collarbone and chest. When she came to his nipple, she caught it between her teeth and applied the gentlest of pressure. He dropped his head back and arched his neck. She couldn’t help but taste him there too. The knot of his Adam’s apple and the dip at the base of his throat.
He pressed a hand low on her spine, firm. Holding her in place as he rocked into her. His other hand slipped beneath the weight of her hair, caught there and tugged, forcing her head back. He pushed himself higher onto the pillows and kissed her neck.
“I want to feel you come again, Mol.”
She started to shake her head but his hand in her hair prevented it. “Yes. It’s there. Right there. All I need to do is coax it out of you.”
“It’s your turn.”
“That’s right, it is my turn and I’m telling you this is what I want—you coming around me again. I want to feel the pull of it. Don’t worry, I’ll follow you down.” His hand left her back to move between their bodies, fingers seeking until he found her clit. He tugged more sharply at her hair, his mouth working down toward the tops of her breast. “You’re beautiful.”
His voice was ragged.
“You’re close.” If he kept working her like this, she’d end frustrated. Better to stop while she was ahead.
“Not as close as you.”
He bent his head to clamp his mouth over her nipple and her body shuddered. “Feel that? Right fucking there. Give it up. You owe me, Molly.”
She did owe him, that was true. But she didn’t see how this would pay him back for anything. She moved, resting her hands on his chest, moving her hips to try to regain some control. She wanted to feel him come, that release. Wanted to watch him. See him throw back his head and lift his hips. Wanted to feel his body shake beneath her.
“No.” He rolled with her again, this time looming above her and spreading her thighs wide, wedging his knees under her body. “Grab hold of the post. Both hands.”
Another shiver washed over her but she did as he asked. The very corners of his mouth turned up, but it was a fleeting smile. Quick and tight. He barely thrust at all now though he was hard as a rock and deep inside her. He withdrew slowly and pressed back inside. His thumb moving in lazy circles on the hood of her clit. Light pressure, so light on her sensitized parts. Swollen and wet and throbbing in time with those lazy thrusts. She groaned as he filled her. “See that? Beautiful.”
He liked to push her to the edge, further than she thought she could go. That had always excited her. Scared her sometimes too. Not that she was afraid he’d ever go too far, but the feelings he stirred up were so intense that she didn’t always know what to do with them all.
As if he sensed her uncertainty, Flynn gripped her hip, pulling her more firmly against him. The pressure of his fingers against her clit increased and the muscles in her thighs tightened as her legs instinctively sought to close. He was having none of that. He held her spread open. His gaze raked her chest, her belly, to focus on where they were joined. He clenched his jaw and a blush heated her skin. He was watching as he slid inside her. He’d never let her hide anything. Had always demanded she give over everything.
She did. She didn’t really have a choice, did she? Her fingers clenched around the post and she arched her back, closing her eyes against Flynn’s smug smile. This time the pleasure was slower to wash over her, almost reluctant, but it was deeper because of it. Rolling through in great waves. And Flynn stopped holding himself back. He leaned forward, planting his hands to either side of her rib cage, and pounded into her. She had to let go of the post to hold on to him, wrap him up as his body shook and the pleasure finally took him too.
She kissed his shoulder and then his neck. He shivered. His breath harsh, every inhalation a caress against her sensitive nipples. She moved her legs to tangle with his, not quite ready to give him up. Once he caught his breath, he rolled to the side, throwing an arm over his head and resting the other on her thigh.
After a moment, he turned his head. “I missed you, Molly.”
His smile was easy, unguarded for the first time in such a very long time. His dark hair was tousled and the shadow of a beard touched his jaw. His green eyes fairly sparkled. How could she not smile back at him when he was like this? The man she’d fallen in love with. “I missed you too, Flynn.”
The truth. She’d missed him too damn much. No matter how she tried to cut him out from under her skin, it simply couldn’t be done. And how the hell was she supposed to walk away this time?
She opened her eyes and stared at the patterned sunlight moving on the ceiling for a long moment before recalling where she was. She’d slept in a lot of different inns lately. She was used to waking up feeling slightly disoriented. Flynn was lying beside her with an arm flung over her waist. His lips were slightly parted and his expression was more relaxed than she’d ever seen it. She rolled to face him fully. His arm fell away and his face scrunched up like he had an itch but he didn’t open his eyes.
They’d made love twice more last night, once in a fury that had ended with Flynn’s back on the floor with the sheets tangled around his legs. Once so slow and sweet, it might have been a dream. He’d said things to her, she’d said things that needed to stay in that dream place. And as the sun came up, she resolved to leave them there.
She and Flynn had made each other a lot of promises over the years. All of them dreams.
Curling up against him, she rested her head against his shoulder and placed her palm over his heart.
She felt him come awake, the way his breathing changed and his muscles tightened, long before he pressed a kiss to the top of her head and said, “It’s time we got going.”
She didn’t move right away. She didn’t even know exactly what it was he wanted her to do. And once they rose from this bed, everything would change between them.
“Won’t you tell me what I’m really doing here first?”
“You’re paying me back. The ring, remember?”
“White gold and a sapphire. You wouldn’t drag me up here just for a ring.”
He sighed and cupped the back of her head. His fingers drifted through her hair. “I told you it belonged to my mother. I have nothing else left of her.”
His tone didn’t invite further questions. She knew he was from one of the wealthy families on Eyrion. Couldn’t get higher than that. But he was tight-lipped about it. Whether he’d turned his back on them or been tossed out, she didn’t know. What she did know is that no one had ever come looking for him. And that Flynn didn’t like to be reminded of it. She pressed her cheek to his chest and closed her eyes, listening to his heartbeat.
“Tell me about your plan then. This ring is in Stark’s office, that’s not anyplace I can just stroll into.”
“You’re a maid. The housekeeper is expecting you to report for duty in the kitchens this morning. I have a map and the combination to the safe.”
He had put a lot of preparation into this. “Slip in and slip out. And if I’m caught?”
“You can talk your way out of anything, Mol.” His fingers drifted through her hair. “He likes redheads.”
“You could dye your hair.”
“He likes breasts too and he knows who I am. You’re exactly his type. He won’t be able to resist you once we get you cleaned up.”
“All sorts of men can resist me, Flynn.”
“Trust me on this.”
“Heard that one before.”
The muscle beneath her cheek tightened briefly. It was the only sign that she’d struck a nerve. His voice was calm, reasonable. “I didn’t betray you.”
“You sent Crenshaw after me.”
“He didn’t hurt you, did he? And that was only after you stabbed me in the back.”
There was more to the story but she didn’t think he wanted to hear that right now. Didn’t think it would make a difference to him why she’d run, only that she had. He wasn’t ever going to trust her again, but she’d known that when she left. She’d made her bed where Flynn was concerned. So long as he was willing to lie in it with her now and again, it wasn’t really such an awful bed, was it?
“I needed the money.”
“I hope you spent it well.”
His voice was flat but his hands were gentle as he untangled himself from her. Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, he sat up. But instead of leaving, he stared out the window at the gray dawn for a time before turning his head to look down at her. She cringed inside, knowing what was coming even before he spoke. Flynn had the liveliest eyes she’d ever seen. They could laugh, spark or cut holes in a person. She’d never seen them look so dead.
“Why did you leave me, Molly?”
It was a rainy morning and the light made him look tired. Emphasized the faint lines at the corners of his eyes especially now that he wasn’t smiling. She could tell him why she’d needed the money and he might even understand it. Might possibly even forgive her for taking the ship. They both knew it wouldn’t really matter in the end.
And he saw right through her.
“You’re right.” He stood up and pulled up his trousers to fasten them. “It doesn’t make a damned bit of difference.”
His back was to her. She couldn’t see his face but she knew him. Knew him well enough to read the tension in the set of his shoulders and in his quick, tight movements.
“Get dressed,” he said, walking toward his bag. “We have about an hour before we have to leave.”
She was dressed as a maid in plain navy with a white ruffle at the bodice. The detail drew the eye to her bosom as Flynn had surely intended. Not for his own pleasure, but as a distraction for another man. That’s what she had to remind herself as she entered the room and he glanced up from where he sat beside the window.
His gaze caught and held. She felt her skin warm at the raw hunger in his eyes. Every inch of skin he’d touched last night held the memory of his hands and mouth and when he looked at her like that, she could feel him still.
“Why aren’t you wearing the corset?”
He stared at her breasts as he asked the question. She looked down, saw that everything was in place and shrugged like the question didn’t sting. “I don’t like wearing corsets. Too tight. Can’t run if you need to.”
“I can see how that would be a problem for someone in your line of work.” He bent and grabbed for his boot. “Put it on. All of the women up here wear them. It’ll seem strange if you don’t. You’re trying to blend in.”
“Oh really?” She smoothed her hands over her curves. “Because I thought I was trying to stand out. Dazzle Stark with my charms so he doesn’t see what my hands are up to. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
He rolled his eyes. “I don’t want you to dazzle him too much.”
She leaned her shoulder against the door jamb and arched her brows. “Besides, my body’s just fine the way it is. Don’t you like the way I look?”
It was cruel. She knew it was cruel, but it was also fun, poking at him. He muttered something under his breath and stood, walking toward her. He must have seen the sparkle in her eye because instead of arguing with her, he grabbed her hand and yanked her closer. Close enough for her to feel the heat of him.
“You always were difficult.”
“Oh, no.” She shook her head slowly. “You are the difficult one, Cassius Flynn.”
Cradling her jaw, he angled her head up. A smile flirted at the corners of his mouth. “Cassius. We’re finally on a first name basis now, are we?”
“Don’t let it go to your head.”
He bent to take her mouth in a gentle kiss. His fingers barely brushed her skin as he traced the edge of her bodice. His lips, he made sure she felt. Sweet kisses. Tender ones.
He lingered at the side of her neck. He knew it was a particularly weak spot for her. Just like she knew exactly what his aim was. But she wasn’t going anywhere. It was as if her feet were rooted to the spot. No, that wasn’t it either. It was as if her legs had turned to taffy, warm and pliant. When he turned her around, she nearly lost her balance and had to reach back to hold on to his thighs to steady herself. So rapt was she by the light warm pressure of his mouth that she barely noticed as he unfastened the row of buttons. Barely.
He brushed his lips across her shoulder blade. Briefly, she felt his tongue trace along the curve of her spine. The gown slipped lower.
“Always your servant, Mol,” he whispered against her neck.
She was a heartbeat away from dragging him back to bed when he wrapped the corset around her torso. The cold, stiff thing locked around her ribs and forced the breath from her body as he began to fasten it.
She stood scowling at the wall, her body jerking as he tugged it tight. When he was done, he lifted her hair aside and licked the spot just beneath her ear. She shivered and then rubbed at the spot as if she could erase the sensation. Every bit of pleasure Flynn offered came with a price tag. Good to remember that too.
Unperturbed by the dirty look she shot him, Flynn finished getting dressed, pulling up his suspenders before reaching for his vest. His clothes were fancy. A silk vest embroidered with tiny perfect stitches. The jacket was soft wool that had been perfectly tailored to suit his slender body. He’d always appreciated fine clothing, Flynn. Although he was perfectly comfortable in the clothes of a laborer too. Perfectly comfortable in whatever skin he was wearing which made him so damned good at his job.
When he was done, he looked her over once more and grinned. “It’s a pity you don’t like the corset, Mol. It certainly likes you.”
The heat in his eyes warmed her skin and for a second she couldn’t catch her breath.
“It’s too damned tight.” She hated wearing a corset. Always made her feel trapped, just like her relationship with Flynn. He was always seducing her into these sorts of things.
She wandered the room, making sure he hadn’t missed anything. Also, to see if there wasn’t some small memento she might take with her to remember him by. Last night was worth remembering. He hadn’t brought much. His pocketknife sat on the table beside the bed along with a handful of scattered coins. There was a pretty blue-and-white vase filled with small white roses. She picked one of the flowers and used Flynn’s knife to trim the stem. She wouldn’t take his knife. That she set back down on the table, but the rose she tucked it into the braid behind her ear. Maybe it would bring her luck.
“It’s out of character. Too frivolous for a maid. Too cheap for a woman who looks like you. It will only draw attention.”
A woman like her.
“Well, I’m keeping it.” She took a step back as he reached to take it. “It may seem tacky to you but I like it.”
A slight frown formed between his eyes.
“Why do you so badly want me to be someone else?”
“I don’t want you to be anybody else. You’re wearing a costume, just for today.” He shrugged. “Keep the flower if it’s important to you.”
She moved to the window to peer out at the dreary day as he sat on the rumpled bed to pull on his boots. “You never told me much about your mother. I knew she married a Scraper up here and that you left as soon as you learned how to fly. I had no idea the Scraper was Anson Stark.”
A gentle prod. She’d back off if he didn’t wish to speak of it. He didn’t say anything as he continued to dress. It started to rain, a drizzle. She’d given up on the question of Flynn’s mother when he spoke.
“She wouldn’t leave him.” His voice was rough. “She had a life here. Friends. The house. I always thought she was a coward but maybe for her all of that was worth living with a monster.”
She turned and leaned her hip against the arm of the chair. “He beat her?”
“Never laid a hand on her.”
There were other ways to hurt a person, she knew that. But there was something in Flynn’s expression—in his lack of expression—that sent her off in a different direction. He’d been a child when his mother remarried, she knew that. Not more than eight. Another man’s son. So far as she knew Stark didn’t have any children of his own. “Did he lay a hand on you?”
Flynn didn’t acknowledge her statement with so much as a glance. Instead, he turned his wrist to slip on his cuff links. When he had trouble with the other hand and she moved to help him, he finally looked up. She didn’t like the look in his eyes. Not fury, but a quiet anger. A deep one.
“I’m not really after the ring. Or at least, not just the ring. I want it, hate that Stark has any piece of her, but I wouldn’t risk you to get it back. I know he keeps it in his safe box with other important papers. You’re going to nick those too.”
Her eyes narrowed. “What kind of papers?”
“Incriminating papers about the business interests he doesn’t want anyone knowing about.”
“And that’s what we’re after.”
“Everyone thinks he’s an honest merchant, a philanthropist and a good man. But he’s not. I want to shut him down.”
“How are these papers going to help you do that?”
“I have a buyer lined up already. Stark screwed with the wrong people. Him and his friends… They think they’re immune from repercussions. That they can take whatever they want from people who aren’t strong enough to hold on to it.”
“And you think you’re the one to stop them?”
Flynn shook his head. “I can’t take on Stark, not toe-to-toe, but I know who can. It’s a bonus that they’re willing to pay good money for the information.”
“You’re starting a war.”
“War’s already started, Molly. I’m just picking a side.”
Fear is a funny thing. A flutter in your belly. The way your skin feels hot and cold at the same time. The pattering beat of your heart. If you think about, it really doesn’t feel any different from excitement. And if you choose to think of it as excitement, well, sometimes you can fool even yourself.
Everyone expects a girl to be nervous on her first day of work so she didn’t even have to try and hide that part. And by the time the old housekeeper had decided to rest her feet and waved her off toward the stairs with orders to empty the trash receptacles in the private rooms, Molly actually was starting to feel excited instead of just scared.
It was working. Easy as pie, just as Flynn had said it would be.
She trailed a hand on the slickly polished wood of the banister as she made her way up the carpeted stairs.
Light from the high arched windows danced on her skirts. The view was phenomenal. Eyrion was on the highest peak of the pinnacle city. A true cloud city and this house had been built to take advantage of that, on the edge of a sheer cliff. To her right was an entire wall of glass with thin strips of stone and wood used sparingly to hold everything in place. The drop was dizzying. Even on a gray day like today with fog obscuring much of the view it was a sight. She’d love to see it on a clear day, or better yet, at night.
Which was a stupid wish. If she was still here after nightfall, it would mean something had gone horribly wrong. She wanted to be on her way home before lunch. She turned left when she came to the top of the stairs and walked down a wide corridor. There were doors to either side, placed every dozen or so feet. Large rooms, thick doors, all of them closed. From the map Flynn had given her, she knew Stark’s office adjoined his sleeping room. She was to make the bed and leave the office alone. The housekeeper had told her the door was locked in any case, as Stark had left for a meeting at the capital. Flynn had known that too. He’d known Stark’s entire schedule down to the second. Thanks to Ben.
She smiled at a passing servant who merely raised her brows and turned up her nose. Slowing her steps until that one had reached the stairs, she entered the bedroom.
“Hello?” She called out softly, to be on the safe side, but no one answered her. Nothing but the tap-tap-tap of rain hitting the window on the opposite wall. She could only see a bare sliver of light from the window. All but one of the heavy curtains was drawn.
When there was no answer, she passed swiftly through the suite, checking the bathing and dressing rooms. She pressed her ear to the office door for several minutes but heard nothing but matching silence.
Once assured she was clear, she slipped the tightly wrapped pouch of tools from her garter and set to work. The lock turning sounded loud in the still room and she hesitated, poised to run. There’d always been a chance that the office was occupied. Stark was supposed to have been away from Eyrion. Ben had come to tell them that he was remaining through the break but would be gone all day today. That didn’t mean he hadn’t left a secretary behind.
When nothing stirred on the opposite side of the door, she took a deep breath and pushed through. No one. It was a single room, large and well lit with floor-to-ceiling bookcases on one wall and a row of windows and a pair of glass-fronted doors on the outer wall, looking out over a wide stone balcony. It faced the same direction she’d seen from the staircase. Some of the fog had lifted and while the glass was still wet, the sun was just starting to break through the clouds.
It was a glorious sight and she’d have loved to linger over it but this was the tricky part of the plan. Most disastrous if she was to be caught out now. She had to hurry. Running to the bookshelf, she fell to her knees. Right, two up from the bottom…Catechism of the Holy Council of Trent. That was the one. She pulled it forward, releasing the latch that held the panel above it in place.
Flynn knew the combination—said he knew the combination. But she didn’t really trust that until she entered it in and pulled the lever. The heavy iron door swung smoothly open. It was such a small safe, only the height of a single shelf. Barely a foot wide and barely a foot deep. Not so much of a treasure chest as a treasure cubby.
There was a larger safe in the corner and the file cabinets beneath the desk were nearly as secure locked up as they were. But clearly this was the important one. How many people would know about this? Stupid, stupid man. There was nothing simple or straightforward about this job. Stark would know as soon as he opened this safe who it was that’d robbed him. For a second, she was sorely tempted to close it all up and tiptoe back the way she’d come.
She didn’t know a lot about Anson Stark, just rumors and conjecture. She knew enough to know he wasn’t a kind or forgiving man. Flynn. It would have been simpler to clean out the safe and shove his bloody head in there as recompense. Save everyone a good amount of time and frustration. Instead, she pulled the ledger out, searched through a small box until she found the ring he’d described and was just starting to pack everything back up when she heard voices.
The door muffled the sound and it was impossible to tell how close they were. Definitely male, though, and headed her way. Briefly, she considered hiding under the desk. Discarded the idea when the knob began to turn. Caught red-handed. There was only one option left. Cursing under her breath, she surged to her feet. When the door began to swing slowly open, she ran for the balcony.
It had been a mistake to involve Molly. The plan was logically sound but potentially lethal. He’d known that going in. He’d survived this long because he wasn’t a gambler. Practical in a world that idolized risk-takers. Levelheaded in a world where having a short fuse was proof you had a dick. Not that he didn’t like a little excitement but he knew the difference between a good risk and one that got you dead. He didn’t cross that line. Ever. Except where Molly was concerned. Lines didn’t exist for him where Molly was concerned. For her, he’d throw himself into danger again and again. He didn’t count the cost because Molly was worth taking a risk for every time.
So when he saw her leap off that balcony into a pathetically straggly pile of bushes, his heart lurched into his throat and it didn’t drop back down again until her head popped up. She immediately started running. A rocky, open field between him and her. A man stood on the balcony, lifting a revolver. The guards didn’t give the grounds crew time to take cover and one of them was hit as he dove for a wheelbarrow only five steps from Molly. Flynn’s mind figured the odds before he could blink. Any fool could see she didn’t stand much of a chance.
Did he cut line and take off like any self-preserving outlaw would have done? No. The brass spyglass dropped from his hands to the deck with a clatter and he lunged for the controls to get in closer. Flew his firetrap of a ship toward the field of bullets. And it wasn’t until he was halfway there that his brain kicked in again and he angled his approach so he came in from the direction of Stark’s personal ships. They shot at his ship, they were destroying their own.
They still fired at Molly though she was nearly out of range. He could see the flash of each shot from the wall. Molly ran, one hand fisted in her skirts holding them out of the way, the other clutching something that sparkled like sunlight on water even on the dreary day.
Despite everything, Flynn began to laugh.
A bullet pinged against an iron piling, kicking sparks. Someone in black livery ran down the wall waving his arms and the shooting stopped. They’d figure the ships would be more valuable than anything Molly might have lifted from Stark’s office. Maybe they hadn’t noticed the empty safe yet.
Besides, Stark had the fastest fleet on Eyrion. Once they got a good look at his ship, they’d be able to track him down. Or they would if he didn’t have a few tricks up his sleeve. Still didn’t have much time.
He pulled a lever to release the hatch and drop the stairs. Molly clamored on board and Flynn took off, peeling away from the cliff and dropping fast, before the men on the walls could get a clean shot at them. For the next several minutes all of his attention was on getting them the hell out of there.
She pulled the leather packet containing the ledgers and papers out from the waistband of her skirts. She was alive. She was alive and she wasn’t bleeding anywhere. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes were sparkling bright as the diamond necklace still clutched in her fist. Flynn scowled first at the papers and then at her.
“What the hell happened?”
“Stark came back early.” She dropped into her chair. “Guess he doesn’t like red hair as much as you thought.”
The moon had set and it was very dark, just a scattering of stars ahead and black clouds behind. Lightning still flickered occasionally from the direction of Eyrion but they’d already outrun the worst of the storm. It was clear to the east and dawn was only a few hours off. The good news was they’d seen no sign of pursuit. Flynn glanced her way.
“Why did you take the necklace?”
She lifted it with her finger. It dangled there, catching starlight. “It’s shiny. How much do you think it’s worth?”
“It’s not worth my head,” he answered. “Or yours.”
She smiled. “Our heads are already on the block, Flynn. But then, you knew that going in, didn’t you?”
He shrugged as he turned away. “It would look bad if he kills me. That’s more protection than you might imagine in Eyrion.”
“A man like Anson Stark won’t let that stop him. Maybe he won’t drag you into the public square and put a bullet in your head. But you and I both know there are all sorts of ways to make a man dead if you’ve a mind to.”
Fool man grinned. “You’re not volunteering for the job, are you, Mol?”
“I might.” She let the necklace drop. It slithered into a graceful pile into the basket between them. “How much can I get for it?”
He looked back out the window. “You won’t find a buyer here and it’s too rich for Appalachia or even Canada. You’ll have to look to Europe or China and that’ll eat some of the profit. Ten thousand after all’s said and done. That’s on the conservative side.”
Ten thousand. That would keep her afloat for years. Flynn sounded awfully calm about it. But from where he’d come from, talking about that much money was probably commonplace. “You know anyone I can trust to fence it?”
“Do you trust me?”
“Of course I do.” It was the truth, God help her. She watched his reflection in the glass, memorizing it. His hair was dark as a shadow. Strong nose, sharp eyes. His lips held just a hint of a smile, even as he went about his routine work. If all went well, they’d reach Baxter by sunrise and then they’d part ways.
His expression changed when he looked up. The blood drained from his face and all of his attention fixed on a point out the starboard window.
She swiveled around and spotted the trouble right away. The shape of the black spot against the clouds was unmistakable. A ship, big. One of the gunships with more horsepower than a herd of mustangs.
Flynn hauled back on a lever and she felt the rumble of the engine as it changed gears. “I didn’t think they’d risk the storm.”
He wouldn’t have risked the storm if there had been any other choice. Cautious for an outlaw, at least where his ship was concerned. She used to like to tease him about it.
He glanced out the window again and shook his head. “We’re not going to outrun it.”
“We could drop here. It’s too dark for them to risk maneuvering through the mountains in that tub.”
The ship was gaining quickly. They had maybe a half hour before it would be close enough to fire.
Flynn scowled. “Too dark for us to risk it. You see those lights down there?”
She looked where he pointed, down through a porthole cut in the starboard hull. She’d noticed the lights. She knew what they were too, even though she’d rarely flown through the mountains at night. Lighthouses that served as guideposts for the pilots, kept them from flying into the rock. She didn’t understand why it was a concern. She frowned at Flynn.
“They’re armed with cannons. We drop any lower and we’ll be in range. Stark will have sent word to the keepers to fire on sight. We’re the only ones stupid enough to be flying in this weather.”
She stared at the lights below. There were big gaps between them, miles and miles of space they might be able to weave through looking for somewhere to land. Flynn wasn’t a gambling man, she knew that. He was downright conservative for a smuggler. And while he liked to say that was why he was still alive, she’d always thought skill and cunning had more to do with it than caution. She wasn’t afraid of anything.
“We can do it, Flynn. You’re the best pilot I know.”
He made a soft scoffing sound. “I can’t dodge cannonfire, Mol. Nobody’s that good.”
“It’s worth a chance.”
He stared at her for a long time. His expression was closed to her. She’d always been able to read him easily but this trip, it was like he’d built a wall to keep her out. Slowly, he shook his head. “Blaze of glory, that’s what you want, isn’t it?”
“It’s better than the alternative. If they catch us, we’ll hang anyway.”
He looked down at his hands on the controls. “Stark is unlikely to let me hang. He wouldn’t want the scandal.”
She’d been kicked once by a mule when she was ten. It had hurt less than hearing Flynn say he might give her up. “That’s no protection for me. You can’t just hand me over to him.”
His hands tightened but his expression remained infuriatingly cool. “There might still be a way out of this.”
She pointed toward the porthole. “There is a way out.”
His jaw firmed. “There is a stupid way to die.” He looked at her, green eyes dark and solemn. “My mother used to say quitting is losing without honor.”
“Then we don’t quit.”
He pulled the lever and throttled back the engine. “I’m not.”
Flynn had asked her if she trusted him and she did, but there were degrees of trust. There was the uneasy trust that your partner wasn’t going to stab you in the back and there was the kind of trust that said no matter how dark the night was, the sun was still going to rise in the morning. She’d have said her trust in Flynn was a sunrise kind of trust, but as she stepped onto Anson Stark’s ship, the niggle of doubt at the back of her mind grew teeth.
Flynn’s stepfather was handsome in that way some older men got. Distinguished in his fine wool coat. His black hair was peppered with gray and deep lines carved his forehead. His eyes were sharp as a knife though. There was intelligence there along with a big dose of arrogance. But she didn’t see any sign of the brutality Flynn had hinted at.
He seemed too cold for that. But people were tricky that way. She might be seeing the black ice covering a deep and murky pond. She didn’t doubt that Flynn was telling her the truth about that. Something had made him run. People didn’t leave the safety and comfort of Eyrion unless they had a damn good reason to do so.
Stark didn’t waste any time getting down to business. He stepped forward as soon as Flynn boarded, his men adjusting the angle of their guns to accommodate for his movement. At least a dozen rifles were aimed at her and Flynn which nearly made her smile. Were they worried the pair of them were going to storm a ship this size? There had to be at least fifty crewmen to run it. Let alone Stark’s personal guards.
“Cassius,” Stark snapped. “I warned you that if you attempted to interfere with my business again that I would see you hanged.”
She couldn’t help but flinch and Flynn touched her arm in warning. “Come now, Father. Think of the scandal. Your own son.”
Stark’s eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly. “You think it’s not a scandal as it stands now? My friends and business associates know who you are and what you do.”
“And they pay well for my services. So long as they turn a blind eye, so can you. Stringing me up in front of the Council is another story, isn’t it? You won’t publicly disgrace the family name.”
“Flynn isn’t my name,” Stark said smoothly. “It was my wife’s maiden name and the name of her bastard child.”
“The child you legally adopted. Deny the connection all you want, the court will sentence a Stark, not a Flynn. Not even you can prevent that once you turn me in.”
Anson Stark smiled. A small, secret smile that chilled the blood in her veins even before that icy gaze briefly flicked her way. “Who says I have any intention of turning you in? I could drop you over the side and there’s not a single person aboard this ship who would object.”
“Word would get out.”
Stark brows rose. “That I disposed of a problem? No one would blame me.”
“Not blame. They’d shake their heads and talk about how unfortunate it is that the head of the great Stark family can no longer hold on to the reins. That if he can’t control his own son, how can he be trusted to control anything at all?”
Stark took a step forward and Molly was hard pressed to hold her ground. His eyes sparked fire and there was a tension in his body that screamed at her to run. And he wasn’t even coming for her. He was after Flynn. “You’ve timed your little rebellion well, I’ll give you that. It would be an embarrassment to me to have you executed, publicly or privately, at the moment. But it is a fine line, Cassius. I honor your mother’s memory by staying my hand.”
“Why?” Flynn scoffed. “My mother never stopped you before.”
Stark’s visage darkened. “The moment you are more trouble to me alive than dead, I will gladly kill you myself.”
Flynn glanced down at her and smiled bitterly. “Family is grand, ain’t it, Mol? You’re lucky that you were able to cut ties to yours so easily.”
Yeah, lucky. That’s what she was. She elbowed Flynn in the gut. If there was a chance that Stark was truly going to let them go, she didn’t want Flynn to screw it up over old grudges. Anson Stark was an ass, she got that. She truly did. But he was the ass who presently held their lives in his cloven hooves.
And his men hadn’t lowered their guns yet.
“The girl stays.”
Molly nearly choked on her spit. Behind her Flynn went very still. The hand on her shoulder felt like a rock. “She’s coming with me. You have no quarrel with her. She was paying off a debt to me, nothing more.”
Stark’s expression didn’t change but there was something in the gleam of his eyes that told her how much he was enjoying this. The sick bastard. “Then she ought to be more careful to whom she becomes indebted, shouldn’t she?” His head tipped slightly to the side, considering. “Of course, it is an error she won’t have the opportunity to learn from. Pity, that.”
His tone suggested it was anything but. She shrugged Flynn’s hand from her shoulder and took a step in Stark’s direction, stopped when every gun followed the movement. “You’re going to let him go and charge me with the theft?”
“Fraud, theft, destruction of property.” Stark smiled. “The injury my gardener suffered trying to get out of the way when you ran. All of it.” His gaze lifted to Flynn. “And I’ll have my property back. That’s the price for you walking away.”
She swung around to glare at Flynn. They should have taken their chances with the mountain. Flynn wasn’t happy but he didn’t seem surprised either. Jaw set and eyes spitting fire, he refused to meet her gaze and she knew before he spoke exactly what he was going to say.
“It’s a deal.”
He didn’t even look at her.
Stark barked a laugh. “He’s as fickle as his mother. You didn’t know what you were dealing with, did you?”
She knew Flynn well enough to know he damn well wasn’t going to abandon her with his crazy stepfather. But what his plan was here, she had no idea. She stood there in shock, watching as Flynn handed the bag containing the jewelry and ledgers over to Stark. Flynn waited for him to check that it was all there and then turned to leave as soon as Stark nodded his head. When she took a step to follow, Stark caught her arm.
“I don’t think so, little thief. I have plans for you.”
Flynn paused and slowly turned. His hands were balled into fists and for a heartbeat, she worried he might do something stupid. There were still guns aimed at his head. It would have been better to take their chances jumping from the ship than to attack Stark while he was surrounded by his men. But she didn’t need to worry. Flynn ignored his father and smiled at her with the lazy grin that had made her fall for him in the first place.
“Didn’t think you’d want to say goodbye to me after all this.”
She didn’t want to say goodbye. She wanted to leave with him, but barring that, she at least needed a word. Summoning up a flood of tears, she turned to Stark. “Please, let me speak with him…just a moment to say our farewells.”
Stark was a Scraper, used to dealing with sniveling, fainting, soft women. She was betting the tears might throw him off and his sneer told her she was right. She didn’t care what he thought. Let him believe she was the biggest fool in the whole world. Maybe she was. Some of those tears were real.
He nodded but didn’t step far enough away to offer any privacy. Flynn leaned down, his eyes intent. He was trying to communicate something with that look but damned if she knew what it was.
“Don’t leave me here.”
“I have no choice, Molly. You heard what he said.”
“What I heard is he wants you dead.”
A flicker of regret crossed Flynn’s features before they hardened once again. “He’ll settle for hurting me.”
“Hurting me won’t hurt you. I stole your ship. Tell him about that, why don’t you?”
“It wouldn’t matter. He saw me lift you off the back lawn in the middle of a firefight today. He knows I care. I said he was evil, not stupid.”
“Then what’s the plan?”
He winced. “Haven’t quite figured that one out yet.”
He leaned in and kissed her, cutting off her words. Cupping the back of her neck, he nipped at her lips until she opened for him. Then, he kissed her so thoroughly that her knees started to go weak before she came to her senses and pushed him away. She didn’t want a kiss from him now. She wanted a plan.
“What the hell was that?”
He swiped his thumb across her cheek, drying her fake tears. “I don’t want you to worry. I’ll think of something, I promise. Just…don’t do anything rash.”
She and Flynn had different ideas about risky. She knew they couldn’t very well run for his ship or they’d both die. But she couldn’t think of any other option and they were out of time.
Stark, who’d been studying the approaching storm, suddenly turned and nodded at someone in the cockpit. A moment later the sound of the engine changed.
“Time’s up,” Stark said to Flynn. “If you want off, go now. I’m setting your ship free in two minutes whether you’re on it or not.”
Flynn brushed his lips to her cheek. “Be ready.”
He would figure something out, he always did. Unless he meant to leave her behind. Then she was well and truly screwed. It took tremendous effort not to cling to him, not to lunge after him as he walked away and jumped the short distance to his ship. He didn’t even hesitate as he ducked inside, leaving her behind. Alone with his vile stepfather and a crew full of Scraper sheep who wouldn’t question a single one of his orders.
The crew began the process of decoupling the ships and Stark nodded for his men to take her. Tearing her eyes from Flynn’s shabby little ship, she allowed the men to lead her away. What choice did she have?
Her legs felt heavy and stiff. She nearly tripped as they ushered her down the stairs. Two levels and she was shoved into a small cell. A closet. Deep in the belly of the ship. When she pressed her hand to the wall, she could feel the vibration of the engine against her palm. She had to be right next to the engine room. This wasn’t a holding cell. It was a storage room and if she didn’t miss her guess…she popped the panel on the wall, exposing a tangle of wire and tubing. Grinning, she set to work.
Of course Molly would know that he didn’t intend to abandon her to his stepfather. That bastard wasn’t going to turn her over to the authorities. He’d tuck her away somewhere on one of his private properties far away from the prying eyes on Eyrion and then he’d take his anger at Flynn out on Molly’s body. No way in hell was Flynn about to let that happen.
Molly should know that. But he’d seen the look in her eyes when he’d kissed her goodbye. Both the accusation there and the fear she’d been trying to hide. The tears hadn’t been real, they were for Stark’s benefit. He’d never once seen Molly cry. The fear was genuine though. He’d bet money on it.
She should know better.
They’d been partners for more than a year before she’d taken off the last time. She’d left him. He’d never let her down. Not once.
Adjusting the controls, he peeled away from the larger ship, dropping low through the cloudbank and slowing to let the larger ship pull ahead of him. Stark’s ship was an ostentatious beast. It maneuvered for shit and had more blind spots than a bat. Stark would likely have spotters out to keep an eye on him but it wouldn’t be hard to escape notice. His ship was modified to blend in with sky and cloud. The sun would be coming up soon, creating all sorts of convenient glares and shadows. And all he had to know was where Stark was taking her.
He wasn’t going to raid the ship but he wasn’t letting it out of his sight either.
He’d never gotten airsick but he felt it now. Stomach sliding around. Throat tight and his mouth dry as a rock. His fingers ached from gripping the controls too tightly and he forced himself to relax his hold. Losing his shit wasn’t going to do Molly any good. But that feeling that had risen up inside him when Stark said he was keeping Molly…powerless. Just as powerless as when he was a child standing before Stark’s desk awaiting his punishment.
It was true what he’d told Molly about Anson Stark never laying a hand on him. He’d always preferred to use his riding crop. He’d put it on the desk, first. Long and slender. Made of the finest leather.
When Anson was courting Flynn’s mother, he’d bought a horse, a young gelding the perfect size for a boy. Flynn had been ecstatic. Stark saw to his riding lessons himself and Flynn had come to adore the wealthy gentleman who wanted to marry his mother. The riding crop had been a gift from Flynn’s mother to Stark the Christmas before they were wed.
And they’d been happy for years. Until after two brutal miscarriages, the doctors told Stark that his wife would be unable to bear him a child. The news made Stark bitter. He turned that anger first on his useless wife and then on her child…the heir that was not the child of his blood.
Flynn hadn’t understood it at the time. Why his mother turned quiet and tearful. Why the man he’d accepted as a father became colder with each visit. The change hadn’t happened all at once. The miscarriages. The laudanum addiction that followed. His mother’s lingering illness. Stark had experienced some business failures as well during that time which certainly hadn’t helped.
Flynn remembered feeling bewildered and alone. Utterly unable to please anyone. He’d spent a lot of time in the stables, riding, hanging out with the mechanics as they worked on the ships in Stark’s fleet. The stable master had been kind to him. His daughter was the only other child in the household. Flynn felt a kinship to her even if she was only a toddler and a girl at that. She was the closest thing he’d had to a friend. And Stark spent a lot of time away from the house. When he returned, the first item of household business he’d attend to was the progress of his heir.
If the tutor gave a bad report—as the nasty old man invariably did—then Flynn would be beaten. No way to avoid it. He was a poor student who chafed at being made to sit down in a closed room for hours at a stretch. Since he clearly was a bright child, Stark decided it was insolence not inability causing him to do poorly. He tried. He did try to learn his lessons. At first, he tried. After his mother died, he gave up trying to please Stark. When he was old enough to run, he did.
To this day he remembered the smell of Stark’s office. Wood polish. Leather. The slice of the crop against his skin. And the humiliation of failure. Of being held down. Of knowing what was coming and being completely unable to escape it. Powerless.
Stark was older now. He’d seemed almost frail compared to how enormous Flynn had once thought him to be. But he still had the power to make Flynn helpless. Sick and scared. And now he’d pulled Molly into the game too.
He pounded the corner of the chair with his fist. He was the one who’d put Molly in this game, not Stark. He was the reason she was there, paying for his transgressions.
The rising sun spilled over the horizon catching the top of Stark’s ship and causing the inflated skin to glow. The golden light slid lower, glinting off metal and glass. Flynn dropped farther back. The clouds were beginning to thin and break up. They wouldn’t provide him cover for much longer. Not in the daylight. But he had a pretty good idea of where Stark was headed now. He had a hunting lodge near here. A modest twenty-room place he used to host house parties when the Council gathered on Eyrion.
He cursed when the gunship slowed and eased back until he was barely drifting forward. It didn’t make sense for them to stop unless they’d spotted him. They sure as hell weren’t preparing to descend, not here. Not in Oro territory so near the plains. There weren’t even any border towns down there.
He reached for the spyglass and had barely raised it when he saw something drop from the deck. His stomach fell with it and he nearly bobbled the glass. His skin was cold, his body heavy. The object they’d thrown from the ship was falling too damn fast for him to focus on it. Flashes of light sparked from the deck. That wasn’t reflected light. That was gunfire. And that could only mean one thing.
Heart hammering against the walls of his chest, Flynn dropped the glass and shoved the lever hard forward. It only slowed moderately when he saw the parachute unfurl below him. She’d waited until she was well away from the ship before pulling the cord and that meant a hard landing, especially with the way the wind was dragging her toward the rocky southern slope.
If it was Molly. They might have noticed him following and tossed something or someone over as a decoy. It was possible as soon as he dropped to investigate, Stark would leave him behind.
The gunship was sitting there like a log in water, drifting on the current. Trusting his instincts, Flynn swooped in low and followed the parachute down.
Molly was standing there waving at him when he approached. She’d already cut herself from the chute. She’d tossed a few rocks on it to keep it from blowing and catching in his propellers and then she’d climbed up onto a ledge where he could pick her up without having to touch down. He cruised up to it like a boat approaching a dock. He hit the button that released the door and she clambered aboard, all flushed and gleeful.
His hands were still shaking and there was a cold line of sweat trickling down his spine. She was grinning, ear to ear. He pulled away from the rock while she secured the door. And she came to him, wrapping her hands around his neck and giving him a playful squeeze before dropping a kiss to his lips and taking her seat.
“Did you see that?” She asked brightly and his hands tightened on the controls.
“As if I could have missed it.” He’d thought she was dead. Either dead and tossed from the ship or shot in the air. Lost to a suicidal jump.
She blew out a breath and laughed. “Let’s get out of here, Flynn. Head for Baxter, will you?”
He craned his neck around to check the gunship. Still sitting there in the same spot. “We’ll need to go west through Oro to lose them first.”
“They’re not going to follow.”
He raised his brows at her. His heart still wasn’t beating right. “Why aren’t they going to follow?”
She grinned. “Catastrophic engine failure.”
“How do you know that?”
“I crossed the fuel and coolant lines. They put me in a storage closet right next to the engine room.” Her grin faded a bit. “Don’t look at me like that. I managed to grab your packet of papers before I bailed.”
She reached under her shirt and pulled out the thick leather packet she’d stolen from Stark’s safe on Eyrion. His stomach did that weird lurching thing again and he swallowed to hold it down.
She shook her head. “It was sitting right there on Stark’s desk when I was looking for a parachute. The crew was busy trying to figure out what was wrong with the ship and I made a run for the deck.”
There’d still been armed guards. He’d seen the flash of gunfire when she dropped.
“I’m sorry about your mother’s ring. I didn’t see it.”
He held up his hand. Sapphire glittering on his pinkie. “You’re not the only one with quick hands. You shouldn’t have risked it, Molly.”
Any of it. But the words lacked force. He was the one who’d put her at risk in the first place. For exactly this reason. She was so damned good at what she did. And it drove him fucking crazy. She leaned back in her chair. She sighed a happy sort of sigh and tipped back her head.
“So you’re really Stark’s son then?”
“Stepson,” he corrected automatically. “Why would I have made that up?”
She shrugged. “An honest to goodness top of the heap Scraper boy. I always knew there was something extra unsavory about you.”
“I’m nothing like him, Molly. You should know that. Nothing at all. I wasn’t going to leave you up there. You know that, right?”
She nodded but looked away. Not before he saw the flash of doubt in her eyes. “I knew you’d still be around. That’s why I risked the jump.”
He looked back at the controls, didn’t really see them. “You just about gave me a heart attack.”
She grinned at him, not remotely repentant. “It was a terror.”
“We always were together, weren’t we?”
It was very strange to have Flynn sitting at her table. She’d won this little shack in a poker game from a miner who was ready to abandon it anyway. It was a roof and a bed and she was hardly ever here anyway so it didn’t matter that there were mice in the attic and nothing but a lonely tin of beans in the pantry.
The bed was made. She’d at least done that before she’d left the last time. Though it would probably be wise to shake out all the blankets before she climbed into it.
“Nice place,” he said politely, pouring a dram of whiskey into the glass she’d set before him. He looked like he needed it.
“If I didn’t already know what a good liar you are, that would have convinced me. I can’t believe you said that with a straight face.”
His eyes flicked up and the corner of his mouth lifted. He shrugged. “I’ve seen worse.”
He’d grown up on Eyrion. That enormous curving stairway inside his childhood home. Floor-to-ceiling glass looking out over the mountains. Crystal chandeliers tinkling like fairy music every time the front door opened.
“You’re welcome to stay for a while if you’d like.”
He stopped pouring for a moment before topping off the glass and setting the bottle aside. “Thank you for that. It’s a shame we lost that necklace.”
She shrugged. “Fortunes come and go. I’ll find another. To be honest, I don’t know what I’d do with that much money. Seems to me it could only be an anchor.”
He stood up, taking his glass with him, and walked over to look out the open door. Not much of a view. Nothing but scrub grass and a scummy pond at the bottom of the hill. She knew what he was doing. He was only awkward around her when he was trying to figure a way to say goodbye. He already had one foot out the door.
“I’ll pay you back for the ship,” she said. “For Penelope Light. I always meant to pay you back for your share.”
He turned around and set his shoulder to the doorframe. “We’re square now, remember?”
“I have most of it.”
He frowned like he didn’t understand her. Distracted. His mind was already somewhere else.
“The money,” she said. “I’ve been saving every cent.”
“Where’d you get that much money?”
She smiled. “Doing what I do best.”
“Turning my hair gray?”
“You don’t have a gray hair on your head.”
He downed the rest of his whiskey and set the glass on the table. “Why did you take it? I wasn’t going to ask but I need to know now.”
“My sister. She sent me a telegram that she was finally quitting Michael. She’d already left Stormking, scared shitless that he was on her trail. I couldn’t wait for you to get back and I needed the money to see her settled somewhere he couldn’t find her, fast.”
“You didn’t think I’d understand that?”
“You always said she wasn’t my responsibility.”
He sighed. “I didn’t mean it that way. Not that you shouldn’t help your kin if you were able. You blamed yourself for leaving when you barely got out yourself. What were you supposed to do with a kid? It wasn’t your fault that your father was an asshole and it’s not your fault that Leah married another asshole to escape the first.”
They both knew it was a lousy excuse, but he didn’t call her on it. It was all about the ring and they both knew it. She’d refused to take it and he’d been angry, hurt. She’d panicked. Leah had given her a way out.
“I’m an aunt now.”
He didn’t ask where she’d hidden Leah. She was grateful for that. She might just have told him if he had and it would have been one more thing to tie them together. Another way for him to track her down once this was done.
She swallowed past the lump in her throat. “I’m sorry,” she said softly, meaning it. “You were fond of that ship.”
“I was more fond of you.”
She stood, forcing him to step back. “I’ll go get you your money.”
He called her name when she pushed past him but she was out the door before he could catch up. It took her a good twenty minutes to dig up the sealed metal box she’d buried behind the shed and by the time she returned to the house, she had herself under control.
So long as he didn’t look at her like that again, warm and tender and hopeful, she’d be able to make it out of this in one piece. Locked doors were nothing. Flynn smiled at her once and she was ready to offer up her wrists for a pair of shackles. They’d both hate each other if she let him have his way.
She kicked through the door, avoiding his gaze, and dropped the box on the table before turning and heading again for the door.
“I have to wash my hands.” She paused and looked back. “Go ahead. Count it.”
He pushed the box away. “I don’t need to count it. I told you we’re square.”
“Count it anyway, Flynn. There’s a ship-worth in there. I need you to know it.”
Flynn watched Molly turn away. Her trim figure briefly outlined by sunlight. At some point during the ride here, she’d pulled back her hair in a long single braid that tapped the base of her spine when she walked. He wanted to wrap his fist around it and hold her to him. Molly would probably cut him if he tried. He’d only ever been able to push her so far. And that was too far for Molly.
She’d let him tie her down a time or two during sex but any hint that he truly meant to cage her and she would bolt. His hands curled into fists on the table. He didn’t want to keep her in a cage. He wanted her by his side. He wanted her to be safe and well cared for. Was that really such a god-awful thing?
With a growl, he pulled the box across the table and flipped open the lid. It took him a second to believe what his eyes were showing him and then he lurched to his feet, overturning his chair as he ran for the door.
He heard the engines fire up at the same time. There was money in the box, probably every cent she’d earned over the past year just like she’d said. Not enough to pay him for a ship. And she wasn’t paying him for the Penelope Light anyway. She hadn’t been arguing with him when he told her they were square on that one. She was paying him for the Luna.
The leather packet of papers and ledgers from Stark’s office were in that box. His mother’s ring and the diamond necklace, worth a fortune even on the black market. He’d be able to buy two ships if he wanted, brand-new and decked out exactly as he pleased.
Which was a good thing because Molly was stealing the only one he currently owned.
He threw himself off the porch and hit the ground at a run. Ahead of him, the Luna was already lifting off, stirring up dust in a choking swirling wave. Swearing and coughing, he stopped and watched her go.
This wasn’t over. He wasn’t going to wait a year this time to find her again. He’d have to walk into town and hitch a ride over to Stormking. He’d clear his accounts and find something he could fly there. No way was he taking the time to unload the necklace on the European market. She had a head start until he got his hands on a ship. And then he was tracking her down.