He eased himself from her and she curled next to him, her head on his chest. His arm trailed down her back and pushed her closer to him. For a long time they lay intertwined and she listened to his heartbeat until she finally fell asleep.
She awoke in the night because he wanted her again. And then again. Some time in the early hours of the morning she called him a savage, but he laughed and seduced her once more with ridiculous ease.
In the morning he discovered he was late, but he stayed for breakfast. Meli served him shockingly sweet coffee in tiny cups, with a side of red arna berries still on the vine and spicy sweet bread.
He barely touched any of it. His grey eyes looked at her with warmth. He took her hand into his and kissed it.
His tenderness caught her unprepared. She was prepared for a brisk dismissal, but he didn’t seem to want to let her go. In making her strategy, she never counted on his affection or on the stirrings of absurd pleasure that affection made her feel.
“You’re making me feel self-conscious,” Meli said. “Did I finally cook something you hate?”
“Come with me.”
Meli shook her head. “I have my world. You have yours.”
A shadow of former hardness iced over his eyes. “Am I dismissed then?”
She kissed him on the lips, surprising herself with her tenderness. “I wouldn’t do well in your ivory financial tower. I will wait for you here instead. Come to me tonight.”
He pulled her in his lap. “I could persuade you to come with me.”
She smiled. “Ah, the power of sex. Perhaps, you could. But why would you, knowing I don’t want to go?”
“So I can have you to myself.”
“You can have me anyway. Tonight.”
He kissed her neck and she shivered.
“Promise me you will lock your door while I’m gone.”
“I promise.” She whispered the combination into his ear.
“At least tell me your name.”
Celino knew someone had entered his aerial the moment he closed the front door of Meli’s house. He waited until the vehicle’s door slid open and Marcus’s pale features greeted him.
“I came close to sending out a search party, my lord,” the Anglican said softly when Celino slid into the driver seat.
“You would have rescued me from one of the best nights of my life and then I would have had to kill you. I’m a savage, you know.” He guided the aerial straight up, eased it into the flow of traffic and let the autopilot take over. “What have you found out?”
“A lot and nothing. The house is registered to Meli Asole Grey.”
“It’s a false name,” Celino said. Asole and Grey were two characters from Scarlet Sails by Alexander Green. It was a ridiculously obscure old planet book. The only reason anyone would know of it would be by studying the works of the Seventh Romantic Revivalists, who considered Scarlet Sails the purest expression of romanticism. He recalled suffering through Seventh Romantic Revival somewhere between twelve and thirteen. He deeply hated it. “She has an excellent education.”
Marcus nodded. “A trace of the name produced nothing. She simply appeared out of thin air about eight years ago. She doesn’t own an aerial. She has no health card. Her bank balance is modest, never over three thousand a month. She receives regular deposits from a closed fund held at Colonial Bank. The account is rated B. Hacking their security grid to see who put it there will be long, dangerous, and expensive.”
“Do it. Does she own the house?”
“No. It’s owned by Colonial. She makes standard rate payments.”
“Buy it. Do it through Fontaine, Inc.”
Marcus hesitated. “Most likely, she is kin. She is either on the run and doesn’t want to be found or she has excised herself from her family.”
Celino frowned. The excision was rare. An excised kinsman severed all ties with their family, sometimes of his own free will, sometimes because his family judged him to be harmful to their wellbeing. An excise lost all claim to his inheritance, family profits, and protection. It was a drastic step, never taken lightly. He had threatened excision years ago to free himself and assert his dominion over the family, and he had given the matter a great deal of thought before taking the plunge.
Meli was a mystery. An enchanting mystery. He had never before had a woman who laughed in joy when he brought her to an orgasm. He wanted to do it again.
Occasionally excision was done to provide the family with deniability. Great thieves and assassins had been excised, so they could act as a shadowy arm of their families. The family reaped the rewards, while the excises alone shouldered all of the consequences. He considered that possibility, turning it over in his mind.
She could’ve killed him last night. He’d gone to her confident in his ability to defend himself, but he hadn’t counted on how absorbing she could be. She occupied his attention completely. He had fallen asleep holding her. He slept well too, what little of it he had done last night.
It was highly unlikely that an assassin would possess none of the enhancements customary to her profession.
“Keep digging,” he said. He would do some research himself. Tonight.
Celino spent the next night with her. And the next.
On the third morning he surrendered to his fate and cleared his schedule for the rest of the week. He hadn’t taken a vacation in five years.
They spent a lazy day together. He snooped through her reader. He thought she had excellent taste until, predictably, he found Scarlet Sails.
“It’s an abominable book,” he told her.
She smiled. “I like it.”
He opened his mouth to argue but she put her fingers on his lips. “I don’t require you to like it. Only to accept that I’m different from you.”
Later, after they made love in her bed, and she lay next to him, her head resting on his biceps, she said, “Tell me about your lovers.”
“They were many and unremarkable,” he said. “None of them were like you.”
“How am I different?”
“If I lie, will you know?”
“Perhaps, that’s your answer.”
Her knuckles punched his ribs and he laughed.
“Men don’t speak of things like this.”
She turned on her elbow and put her head on his chest. “Tell me.”
“You set me on fire,” he told her. “While you poured me that soup in the kitchen, I had to fight not to lunge across the table and kiss your mouth. But I’ve felt that way before, sometimes with women who were merely passing acquaintances. I feel comfortable with you. I know it sounds pedestrian, yet it makes you priceless to me. Being with you is effortless.”
“Is that so?” she asked softly.
“You’re so like me. Sharp, smart, and practical. And so unlike me. I’m a cold ruthless bastard and you are warm and happy. And soft.” He trailed his hands down the curve of her breast. “And lovely.” He teased her nipple. “Enchanting. Alluring…”
“You don’t say…”
He kissed her and whispered into her ear. “And all mine.”
“Not all,” she told him and left the bed.
“What of your lovers?” he asked her later when they sat in the garden sipping pink wine he had brought. “How many did you have before me?”
“I’ve had a few.”
“How do you know?”
“More than zero is too many.”
“Tell me about them.”
“There were two. The first was a much older man. I was twenty-one and he was almost forty. I had chosen him very carefully. He was very kind and he was going off planet in a few days. I wanted my first time to be special and worry free.”
“It was pleasant. He was skilled, but I was self-conscious and we lacked passion.”
“What about the other man?”
“He was a wanted criminal. I thought he was a dashing rogue.” She sipped her wine. “We were together for almost a year. You know a part of me. He also knew a part of me, the part I no longer want to be.”
A sharp spike of jealousy pierced Celino’s chest.
“Your eyes are frosting over,” she noted.
“What part of you did he know that I don’t?”
“The part I will keep to myself for now. You don’t need to worry, Celino. The man is dead. He proved himself to be just what I thought he was—a rogue—and his greed got him killed.”
She sat there, frowning.
“What’s bothering you?” he asked.
“You.” She glanced at him. “You make me feel happy. I like being with you.”
“Why does that worry you?”
“I’m afraid I might disappear.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You will.” She nodded. “One day.”
He would uncover all her secrets, sooner or later, he promised himself. He only needed patience and time.
They made love in every corner of the house. They spoke of books and ate the food she made. She surprised him with a keen understanding of finances and he amazed her with his knowledge of dahlias. He secretly ordered a necklace of blood onyx that cost more than the latest luxury aerial. He had it delivered to the house, but she refused to take it. He cooked for her instead and she was delighted.
He had never met a woman so rich, in her warmth, in her mind, in her vitality. And she had given all of herself to him. He felt blessed.
His bliss lasted for three days. On the fourth, the terra plant in Ogavia exploded.
Meli stood before the screen.
“I will be back in twenty-four hours,” he had said. “Wait for me. Please.”
She could still feel his good-bye on her lips.
This was it. This was her chance and she wouldn’t get another. Her instincts told her that once he returned, he would mount a full assault to bring her into his life completely and she was no longer sure she could resist. She was in love with Celino Carvanna.