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An Excerpt From: VIRTUALLY YOURS
Copyright © CAROLINE MCCALL, 2012
All Rights Reserved, Ellora’s Cave Publishing, Inc.
“Charley, can you see it? Who did you get?”
Charley watched as Misha wriggled her way through the uniformed bodies, trying to get to the holo-display. They finally had their “shadowing” assignments. For the next month, they would spend every waking hour with a senior Fleet Command officer—General Holmes’ latest initiative to mentor his final year Fleet Academy cadets before they received their first starship assignments.
Charley stood back to let the diminutive brunette get through. There were times when her height was an advantage. At five foot eleven in her bare feet, she was the tallest female in her class, in heels she was terrifying.
Ensign Steven Richards winked at her. “Hey, Tiny, looks as if you struck out.”
“Bug off, Richards. If you get your big empty head out of the way for a minute, some of us might get a look in.”
Beside her, Misha jumped up and down and squealed. “I got her. I got her.”
Charley scanned the list of names on the display. Misha had been partnered with General Leona Hallstrom, one of the few four-star generals to volunteer for the program. She wondered how the party-loving Misha would cope with the tough general. Her eyes moved down the list until she found her name. Ensign C. Maxwell—TBA. To be announced. Her heart fell. She had desperately wanted to be paired with one of the chief engineers.
It had never been her ambition to sit in the captain’s chair. She wanted to know how everything on a starship worked, to take the systems apart and put them together again. Unfortunately, not too many engineers had volunteered for the program. The good ones were all off-world with ships to run. Charley moved away from the excited crowd. Within a few days, her classmates would be gone to stay with their mentors and she would be left alone. What the hell was she going to do then?
* * * * *
“You’ve got to be joking.” Pete Olafson eyed the crop-haired general with barely concealed annoyance. “You’re asking me to nursemaid some snot-nosed cadet for the next month?”
“No, Engineer Olafson, I’m ordering you to take part in a mentoring program. Just because you haven’t been charged with hacking Central Com doesn’t mean that I don’t know about it.”
Pete sat back in his chair. Damn it, I thought I covered my tracks better than that.
“And there’s the question of a missing starship captain,” the general continued. “Do you really think that Fleet Command is happy about losing a million credits worth of tech-enhanced officer?”
Pete was about to interrupt, but thought the better of it. Telling the general that his best friend had travelled back to the twenty-first century because he was in love probably wasn’t a good idea.
The general passed him a digi-reader. “Charley Maxwell is one of the best ensigns in the class, and all yours for the next four weeks.”
Pete didn’t bother opening the file. Charley was a good name. They could be buddies. He began to cheer up. With Jake getting married and Strom gone to back to the twenty-first century, he would be alone. This might not be a bad idea after all. “Okay, General, you’ve got yourself a mentor. Send Charley around tonight. The apartment’s a bit of a mess, but I’m sure he won’t mind.”
The general almost smiled. “I’ll do that.” He stood up and offered his hand. “Glad to have you on board, Pete.”
Back at his apartment, Pete looked around him. Not too shabby, apart from the bits of equipment salvaged from various starships. He would find a use for them some day. He opened the food storage unit—two beers and a selection of pre-packaged meals. Great, that was dinner sorted. They would have to eat on the couch because the dining table was covered with design specs for the Pegasus—Fleet Command’s latest starship. He picked up a stray sock. Damn. He had forgotten about laundry. Ah, what the hell. Charley would understand. He could bunk on the couch until they got the spare room cleared out.
* * * * *
“You’ve got who, Charley?” Misha shouted into the com. In the background, Charley could hear the sound of traffic. General Hallstrom was determined to get started with the mentoring program and Misha had already moved out of the dorm.
“Chief Engineer Pete Olafson. I’ve never heard of him. Who the hell is he?”
Misha erupted with laughter. “Are they back?”
“Is who back?” What was this, twenty questions? Misha could be a pain sometimes. “Just tell me, Misha.”
“I know you were brought up off-world, Charley, but you must have heard of them. Hallstrom, Svenson and Olafson—otherwise known as the vikings. I’ll give you a big hint. Three tech-enhanced hotties.”
Misha rambled on. “Their ship was badly damaged during one mission and your guy built a new hyper-drive out of spare parts. Can you imagine?”
Charley whistled. No, she couldn’t imagine, but if she had to follow someone around for the next month, Pete Olafson was suddenly top of her list.
Misha giggled. “I can just hear those little wheels turning inside that blonde head of yours. Don’t get too excited, hon. Pete Olafson has a reputation for being one of the toughest, crankiest techies in Fleet Command.”
On that less than cheerful note, Misha disconnected the com. Charley wandered back to the dorm. There wasn’t much to pack. She had never owned any more than she could carry in a kit bag. It was one of the habits she had picked up while travelling with her parents from one planet to another. She reached into the locker and took out the last of her perfume pills. The guys teased her unmercifully about them. With her height and build, they didn’t expect her to have any girly habits. Good old Charley, she was just one of the boys.
“Hey, Tiny, someone called Pete left a com earlier. He says he’ll meet you at the spaceport bar tonight.”
A burst of raucous laughter came from the other side of the dorm. “Tiny’s got a date. Tiny’s got a date.”
Her short, explicit response shut them up. Just because she didn’t date her classmates didn’t mean that she didn’t date, but it had been a while. Charley stared into her kit bag. What the hell was she going to wear?
* * * * *
Pete sat in the spaceport bar watching as the cadets arrived. It felt a lot longer than ten years since he had sat in a classroom. Since then, he had travelled to several galaxies, and these kids were only starting out. It made him feel old. He eyed the noisy crowd, wondering which one of them was Charley. The cadets had a couple of beers each and left, he obviously wasn’t with them.
Pete watched idly as two men hit on a stunning blonde sitting at the other end of the bar. She rebuffed them gently at first, but as the evening wore on, their advances became more overt. The blonde ignored the drinks they sent over to her and sipped on a soda. The spaceport bar wasn’t a great place to be waiting for someone, especially if you looked like that. Pete guessed that she was tall. Her ash blonde hair hung just below her shoulders and she tucked it back behind her ears. The girl had gray eyes, really unusual. She looked like an ice queen.
One of the men sidled drunkenly up to the blonde and tried to put his arm around her. When she slapped his hand away, he apologized and returned to his friend. They exchanged furtive glances and the dark-haired one gave the other a sly grin. He wasn’t that drunk and he had just slipped something into her drink. Pete took off his jacket and dropped it over his stool. Flashing an apologetic glance at the barman, he moved toward them. “What did you put in her drink?”
The dark-haired man swiveled on his stool and looked Pete up and down. “Get lost. We’re just having a little fun.”
As he turned away, Pete gripped his hand and squeezed. His titanium implants gave him an unfair advantage in situations like this, but this time he had no qualms about using it. The man let out a roar of pain as he felt his fingers being crushed. His friend reached for a bottle.
“Oh, I wouldn’t,” Pete snapped. “Unless you like the idea of helping him pee, your friend may want his hand back. Now I’m going to ask you again. What did you put in the lady’s drink?”
The beer bottle was reluctantly returned to the bar and the dark-haired man winced again as Pete tightened his grip. “Nothing bad, I swear, just a little Joyz.”
Pete felt like breaking his other hand. Joyz was associated with euphoria and loss of inhibitions. It was legal and less addictive than alcohol, but it wasn’t something you slipped a lady in a bar. Pete squeezed again until he felt another bone pop. That was definitely going to hurt, but not as much as he wanted it to.
“If I see you around here again, I will break the other one. Do you understand?” Pete gave his hand a final squeeze before releasing him. The only place they were going tonight was a medi-station.
Pete glanced down the bar. The soda glass was empty and the blonde was gone. As he raced toward the exit, his eye caught sight of something tucked under the stool where she’d been sitting—a Fleet Academy kit bag. Blondie was a cadet, and now she was wandering around the spaceport drugged up to the eyeballs.
He grabbed his jacket, tossed the kit bag to the barman and followed her. The corridor was empty. Pete sped toward the main concourse. Outside, the place was buzzing with people heading to clubs or going home after a night out. Pete’s eyes scanned the crowd. Nothing. How could someone like her just disappear? He heard a roar of laughter from beside the fountain and hurried over. Blondie was dancing in the water. “Get out of there, will you?” he shouted.
Blondie had the kind of smile that could stop a guy’s heart and his was about to explode any minute. The water had made her white tunic almost transparent and he could see a lacy bra underneath.
She leaned down and splashed the water in his direction. “Why don’t you come in? The water is lovely.”
“I will, darlin,” a passing serviceman shouted, and his friends roared with laughter.
Pete watched as she twirled around with her hands over her head. There was nothing for it, he would have to go and get her. Muttering under his breath, Pete stepped into the water. There was nothing lovely about it. The water was icy. He had to get Blondie out before she froze. He caught her around the waist and she leaned dizzily against him.
“Don’t you just love it here?”
Her hair brushed against his face, like strands of pale silk. “It’s wonderful, but why don’t we go someplace else?”
“Will there be music?” Blondie started to sway. “I love music.”
“Sure, whatever you want, sweetheart.” Pete bent down and swung her up in his arms. To the delighted applause of the spectators, he carried her out of the fountain.
Blondie tucked her head under his chin. “You know what? You’re nice. I like you.”
Pete grinned. “I like you too, but I’m damned if I know what to do with you.”
He set her down at the edge of the fountain. There was no point in going back to bar, it would be closed by now. “What’s your name, sweetheart?”
“Guess.” Blondie giggled.
Pete pulled off his jacket and draped it around her shoulders. He was going to get no sense from her for hours. If he brought her back to the Academy in this state, she would be put on report. There was nothing for it. He would have to take her home with him. “Okay, Guess, why don’t you come home with me and you can sleep it off.”
She held his hand as they walked back to the bike. His leather jacket looked kind of cute on her. At least it covered her breasts, which were distracting to say the least.
“Wow, a Tezron 509 air-bike.” She stroked the chrome lovingly.
Pete was impressed. He didn’t know many girls who knew anything about vintage bikes. He had rebuilt this one himself and it had taken him almost three years to track down all the parts. Pulling the spare helmet from the carrier, he placed it on her head. “Hold on tight.”
He revved the engine and the bike moved forward. Blondie’s arms wrapped around his waist and she rested her chin on his shoulder. Pete could hear her delighted laughter as they sped along the main highway and out toward the coast.
The thing he missed most about Earth was the sound of the sea. The slow ebb and flow of the waves and the soft sigh of the water as it hit the waiting sands. He had never been on a planet that was so full of water. If he left the windows of his apartment open at night, the sound of the sea would lull him to sleep. It was almost as comforting as the hyper-drive of a ship.
Blondie perked up again when they reached his apartment. She didn’t seem to mind the mess and settled down beside him on the couch. Her tunic was still damp and she shivered.
“Let’s get you something dry to wear.”
Pete went to his bedroom and picked out a black tunic. It should fit her. When he returned, Blondie had found his personal com and she was swaying slowly to the music.
“You promised me a dance.”
“No, I promised you music.” He thought that he wanted to sit down, but his feet moved toward her. “I don’t dance.”
“Ever?” she asked. Cool gray eyes held his gaze. “Not even for me?”
Oh yes, he would dance for her. He would dance naked on the roof of Fleet Command if she asked him to. “Well, maybe just one.”
Blondie stepped into his arms. Face-to-face, they were almost the same height. He wouldn’t have to bend his head to kiss her. Pete didn’t know why that idea popped into his head. He should be discussing engineering protocols with his new apprentice. Not holding a beautiful stranger close, not burying his face in the sweet scent of her blonde hair and not sliding his hands under the damp folds of her tunic to feel the warm skin beneath.
“Kiss me,” she whispered. Her voice was half invitation, half plea. His mouth grazed tentatively at the edge of hers, sipping on her upper lip, nipping eagerly along the edge of her full lower one.
“Don’t tease.” She pouted.
She pressed her mouth against his in a languorous caress. Her tongue slid inside his mouth, gently exploring. When Blondie stroked the back of his neck and threaded her fingers through his hair, Pete felt his blood racing. God, this was torture. He drew away, shaking. He hadn’t saved her from a couple of creeps just to take advantage of her. “I think it’s time we got you into bed.”
Her breathless entreaty unnerved him. If she didn’t stop talking like that, he was going to forget all of his good intentions. He was going to hate himself in the morning. In fact, his recently awakened libido was going to hate him long before then. Pete steered her toward the bedroom. He nodded toward his en suite. “Bathroom is that way.”
He wanted to rip off his clothes and follow her to bed. Instead, he kissed her chastely on the forehead. “See you in the morning, Guess.”
Pete closed the door firmly behind her and wandered out to the balcony, taking several deep breaths of tangy sea air. Home was usually an untidy space. Somewhere he could work on the projects he didn’t have time for while he was running a starship. Home wasn’t sleeping on a couch while a beautiful woman lay alone in his bed. The spare room was a mess and he had no idea where the bed stuff was. He grabbed a glass of water from the kitchen and settled down to read the latest tech journals. There was no way he could sleep while she was lying in the next room. Even with a wall between them, Blondie was driving him crazy. It was going to be a long night.