Excerpt Stowaway

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Chapter 1

Who is that?

Raine’s glance at the security monitor turned into a stare. On screen a young man wearing the uniform of the ore plant’s admin section opened storage crates. He checked inside each one, made a note on a pad, and moved on to the next.

Raine knew the plant had a few admin people aboard already, but this one was different. Most of the others were women, and at first glance, Raine thought the person checking the crates must be too, because of the long dark hair. On second glance, he realized that the tall, lean body and long legs were clearly male. But his face arrested Raine’s attention most of all. Even on the monitor with the man in a dimly lit cargo container, Raine could see the fine bone structure, the dark eyes.

Beautiful.

He must have come aboard at Drexler; Raine had seen some young men there with long hair. Very different from the usual style sported by spacers. He raised his cap with one hand and rubbed the other over his crop, feeling it tickle his palm, before replacing the cap.

His paperwork forgotten, he watched the monitor. Could he hope, even for a moment, that the long-haired beauty might be interested in spending some time with him? The Dawn’s crew and the ore plant workers didn’t mix much — something he generally approved of — but he could make an exception.

A knock on the door frame made him start, and he flicked the monitor to another feed. More crates, with no mysterious handsome young men checking them. Katherine Warner, his deputy, stood in the open doorway. She couldn’t have seen the monitor from there.

“Are you going to the senior staff meeting, Boss?”

“Yes. But it’s not for another hour.”

“Okay. I’m going to take a squad down to check all the cargo is still secured after that grav fluctuation. I’ll get them started and be back here in time to cover the office.”

“Good. Thanks, Warner.”

“I’ll see you in an hour.”

She left, and Raine glanced at his security monitor, which still showed crates. He could switch back to the other feed, but Warner’s interruption had made him suddenly aware of what he was doing. Ogling the unwitting young man like some kind of voyeur. He should be ashamed. He turned the monitor off entirely. As chief of security on the Light of Dawn, he had better things to do.

Like a ton of admin. This was the best time to get it done, before the ore-plant workers came aboard and he had to deal with the trouble they always brought with them. For three more weeks, they’d have only the Dawn’s crew and a few ore-plant admin staff aboard, like…

He caught himself thinking about the long-haired man on the monitors again.

* * * * *

Kit closed the lid of a crate and scribbled down its number and contents on the pad. Dried goods. Nothing he could use, but keeping a record would make for shorter foraging trips later.

The next lid he opened revealed boxes of protein bars, and he almost let out a cheer. These he could use. He ran back a few steps, grabbed a utility cart, and piled a couple of the boxes onto it. It already held other boxes, packets, and bottles, the spoils of his expedition so far. The haul would last for some time, allowing him to stay safely in his bolt-hole.

He was glad to have the food, but all this processed stuff had started getting to him. He longed for something fresh but didn’t dare sneak into the coolers and fridges of the huge kitchens, afraid to run into the staff.

After a couple of trips out of his nest to explore and forage he’d figured the place out. This wasn’t only a cargo freighter; it also carried an onboard processing plant. It must take on raw material and process it on the way to its destination. But most of the workers for the plant weren’t aboard yet, only a few office clerks, kitchen workers, and other support staff. When Kit had found a storage crate full of the same uniforms the plant staff wore, he’d grabbed one in his size, hoping it would make him less conspicuous when sneaking around.

He’d seen other people who wore different uniforms, and he guessed they must be the ship’s crew. They usually stayed in the forward section of the ship, though some of them came to the cargo holds sometimes. Kit kept out of sight when he spotted any of them.

It would be easier when the rest of the plant workers turned up and he could lose himself in the crowd. The plant and its empty bunk rooms had space enough for hundreds of people. He’d probably be able to sit at a table in the dining room as if he belonged there and stroll into the locker room for a shower every day. He’d managed only two showers in the two weeks he’d been aboard, sneaking into a silent locker room in the middle of the ship’s night cycle. He needed another one damn soon, because he couldn’t stand himself right now.

After checking a few more crates, he decided that his well-stocked cart held as much as he could get into his hiding place. Time to get back before someone spotted him. He’d seen security cameras fixed above the doors of the cargo containers and in the ship’s corridors, but he could do nothing about them except hope the uniform worked. Hope if he walked around looking busy, ticking things off on his pad, people would assume he belonged here.

Confidence was key. Last time he’d ventured out, he’d walked past two young women wearing the same uniform as his borrowed one. Heart pounding, mouth dry, certain they’d challenge him, he nevertheless managed to smile at them. After they passed, he heard what distinctly sounded like whispers and a giggle. If they were checking anything out, it was his ass. His looks helped, as usual, his face and body distracting people. They were so glad Kit was here they forgot to question if he should be.

Deep inside the cargo container, far away from the door and its camera, he stopped, knelt down by a wall panel, and pushed it up and across. It loosened. Some of the wall panels came off, to allow access for repairs, he guessed. The tricky part was getting them back on from the inside. Working fast, he transferred his stolen supplies into the cramped space behind the bulkhead. Once he’d emptied the cart, he locked it to a bracket on the wall. Good thing they had those. He didn’t know what the hell had happened a few hours ago, but the gravity had cut out for several seconds, and he’d woken up a meter off the floor, in time to fully appreciate the fall when the gravity kicked back in.

He could crawl in after his supplies and get some more sleep, he supposed. But he’d slept too much since coming aboard, catching up on all the sleep he’d missed in his life, between working late and partying. Sleeping meant he didn’t have to think about any of it — the lies they’d told about him. The trumped-up charges he couldn’t beat, didn’t have the money to even fight. About Jeff. Damn, he’d thought about him. Don’t think about him, he ordered himself. Don’t think about the fact you’re stowing away on a cargo freighter already a gazillion miles from home and heading who knows where. Don’t think about the fact that if they catch you, it’s back to jail, where your good looks aren’t going to be any help. Quite the opposite.

Don’t think about it.

Every time he went to sleep, he hoped he’d wake up to find this was all a nightmare. Maybe it was. One more sleep, one more wake-up, and he’d be home.

No. That wouldn’t happen. And he’d slept enough. He had something more urgent on his mind. He replaced the panel and set out to steal a shower.

* * * * *

There he was again, walking along a corridor. Raine almost didn’t spot him, because he’d tucked his long hair up under a cap. Why do that? It’s too beautiful to hide.

He had to find out the man’s name. Perfectly reasonable to check his identity. Just a security check. He watched the monitors until he got what he wanted. Full-face view, straight on.

“Freeze,” he ordered the computer. “Back two seconds.” There. A perfect shot of the face. “Zoom in. Enhance.” What color were his eyes? Impossible to tell. “Computer, match face against ore-plant admin personnel database. Male. Currently aboard.”

The computer ran the comparisons and came back with its result.

No match.

Raine clicked his tongue. The face recognition wasn’t perfect, so he decided to trust his eyes. He brought up the ID pictures of all the male ore-plant admin staff already aboard and scrolled through them. His interest as the security chief began to overwhelm his personal interest in the mystery man. He had to confirm the man’s identity, for his peace of mind.

He reached the last picture without finding anyone who matched.

What the hell? Or rather who the hell?

The man couldn’t be one of the Light of Dawn’s crew, or he’d be wearing their uniform, and Raine would know him. He brought up a contact on screen and made a call to the ore plant’s admin office. A woman answered.

“Hello. This is Chief Raine from the ship’s security office. Could you please tell me if you’ve had anyone taking inventory in your food stores container today?”

“No, Mr. Raine. We finished all our stocktaking several days ago.”

Raine’s mouth went dry. Nevertheless, he kept his voice level when he thanked her and ended the call. He stood, grabbing his gloves from the desk.

“Warner!” Was she back yet? Yes. She appeared at the door in seconds.

“Sir?”

“We have a stowaway.”

* * * * *

Kit peeked around a corner. All clear. He was close to the locker rooms and aching to get under the stream of hot water until he felt clean and normal again.

Okay, go for it. He stepped into the corridor. He’d put on the cap that went with the uniform, hoping the peak would help hide his face when he passed security cameras or any people.

Like this guy. Shit. He wore the uniform of the ship’s crew. He’d come around the corner at the opposite end of the corridor, and he was heading straight for Kit. Looking for Kit?

Kit came up on a side corridor to the right and ducked into it without a moment’s thought. He should have taken the moment. He’d turned into a dead end. No — an elevator stood at the end of the short corridor. Kit ran to it and whacked the call button a good one. Footsteps came closer, turned into the short corridor. Shit. Shit. Shit. Open, damn you! Open the damn doors.

The doors slid open, and Kit dived inside. Close! Come on! Oh, there’s a button for that. He hit it. The doors began to close.

“Computer, hold the elevator.” The loud and bossy voice would be registered on the system — unlike Kit’s. The doors slid open.

“No!” Kit slapped the button again in desperation. The doors stayed stubbornly open. The man started to run, and Kit had no place to go. He considered making a break for it and trying to shove past him. But the guy was big, broad-shouldered. Kit would never get past him in the narrow corridor. Too late to try. Kit flattened himself against the wall of the elevator car as the man burst into it and snapped out a command.

“Computer, section ten. Security override, no stops.”

The doors closed, and the elevator moved off. The man turned to Kit.

“Now, who the hell are you?”

Brown eyes, squinted half shut, glared at Kit from under the peak of a dark blue cap. The face, more tanned than most spacers Kit had seen, was that of a man in his thirties, and not bad-looking at all. But Kit didn’t have the time to think of such things. The other man seemed to fill the elevator car, and Kit stayed leaning back against the wall, making himself smaller, afraid of provoking the man. He looked strong as a horse. The damn size of one too.

“What’s your name?”

Kit glanced down instinctively. He’d picked up a name badge discarded on a bench when he’d sneaked into the locker rooms a few days ago to take a shower. The other man wore one too, though of a different design. His read Raine 3rdM, whatever the hell that meant.

“Raine” shook his head at Kit’s giveaway glance down. Naturally. Most people didn’t need to read their name off a badge. Kit tried his luck nonetheless.

“Uh, John Willis.” The badge he wore read J Willis. He took a guess.

Raine pulled out a Link and pointed it to scan the badge, making Kit flinch back. Without a word, he held up the device to show the face of a man, with the name James Willis underneath. He was a dark-skinned, moon-faced man with an extra chin or two, making Kit glad he’d only filched James Willis’s badge and not his whole uniform.

“Ah, I lost some weight.”

“And pigment?”

No answer would serve, so Kit stayed silent.

“I’m chief of security of the Light of Dawn,” Raine said. “I’m arresting you for boarding this ship without authorization. Turn around and put your hands on the wall, please.”

His tone had softened from when he’d first burst into the elevator. He’d clearly decided Kit wasn’t a threat, which made Kit bristle. Okay, so this guy could probably snap him in two, but Kit wasn’t harmless, he could…

“Turn around.” Some of the snap came back.

He could turn around and assume the position — that’s what he could do. He turned to face the wall, laying his hands flat on it. His heart thudded in his ears, and he started breathing fast. Caught. Fucking caught. Screwed.

“Are you carrying any weapons?” Raine asked.

“No.” Which was stupid. He could have picked something up. A kitchen knife. Anything. And he’d do what? Stab Raine to death? Ridiculous.

“Warner,” Raine said, speaking on the comms, Kit realized. “I’ve got him in an elevator car, and we’re on our way to section ten. Send a squad to meet us there.”

“Right, Boss,” a woman’s voice replied. Kit glanced back at Raine but got a scowl that made him turn away again quickly.

“Stand still,” Raine ordered. He wore gloves, leather ones, and took them off before he began to pat Kit down. As he ran his large hands over Kit’s body, Kit’s stomach knotted with instinctive fear. Raine didn’t do anything to hurt him, but he could feel the strength in those hands. They swept down his legs — nothing hidden there, the pants he wore too tight-fitting to conceal much. They swept up again, brushed Kit’s ass, making him sigh. Kit might be scared, but those big strong hands touching his ass could only feel good. Raine paused but then moved again and checked the pants pockets, quickly sweeping his fingers around, close to…

“Sorry,” Raine said softly.

Oh, don’t be. The apology and the slight hoarseness of his voice could mean one of two things. Either embarrassment about rummaging around so close to another man’s goodies — or it meant Kit had the start of a plan. He forced the fear to the back of his mind, tried to relax. Wait for his moment.

Raine was thorough. He turned up the collar of Kit’s stolen jacket, then whipped the cap from his head. Aware that it made him memorable around here, surrounded by crop-haired spacers, Kit had pulled his hair up under the cap. It fell down, sweeping over his shoulders and back.

Raine’s breathing changed. Kit heard it speed up, and he smiled. The hair always worked. A glance back and he was sure. Raine had desire written all over his face. Lust burned in his eyes.

Kit turned, right into Raine’s arms, and knew instantly what he wanted. Knew he was lost in a moment when everything else had faded away. No elevator, no space freighter, just them, their bodies responding to each other’s heat. He pressed himself forward, straining against Raine’s body.

Kissing him.


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