Galactic Flirt is the short story that inspired the romantic soft science fiction novel, "Exonerated," so I used it in place of a prologue in the book.
Linda L. Rigsbee, Author
Willow felt no shame about having used her womanly wiles to get on Spaceship Lyra. She was a journalist and a beautiful woman. Sometimes flirting was the easiest way to get a story. She certainly felt no guilt about flirting with the Ruler of Bergen. They had both enjoyed the chase, even though he didn’t want to catch her – or any other woman. That was good, because she didn’t want to be caught – not by him or any other man. She did have rules, though. She never flirted with engaged or married men. She wasn’t vain, but she was practical. She had been blessed with a good brain, beauty and charm. Why use only one of those attributes?
She did regret starting the rumor that she was looking for her own Mascot to take back to planet Oriel. Her friends had thought it was funny. For six months on an Oriel spaceship headed for planet Purlieu, she had thought it was funny.
The Mascots had been created by Fontalo – a corporation on Oriel. Scientists had combined the DNA of natives from planet Arcane with animals. The intent of their creation had been to assist in the colonization of planet Purlieu. Mascots were stronger, smarter, lived longer and, in many ways, were superior to the colonists. Fontalo had created them illegally, but, after weeks of contact with them while waiting for the Lyra to arrive, she had to agree that what Fontalo created was pretty fantastic.
She hadn’t been sent to Purlieu for a story on Fontalo – that was ancient history. They hadn’t sent her for a story on the relatively new ruler of Bergen either. The current Mascot had been ruling the colony of Bergen for almost four years now, so that wasn’t big news either. The big news The Guardian wanted her to cover had been the festival Bergen gave for the return of troops that had been training on Spaceship Lyra and its base on planet Arcane.
The festival itself had been nothing to write home about, but the lifestyle of Purlieu colonists had intrigued her. Oriel had been trying to eliminate pollution for decades. To her, that was the real story on Purlieu. She had gathered information for another article while she waited for the Lyra. After she had completed her assignment on the festival, she had sent it to The Guardian – along with a request to go after an even bigger story – planet Arcane. She hadn’t been the first journalist to set foot on Purlieu, but she would be the first on Arcane. Only Mascots were allowed there unless they had permission from the Sentinels and the Primaz – the natives of Arcane. That whole situation sounded crazy enough to make a good story. Her boss had agreed. The Sentinels were the result of other Fontalo experiments with human and animal genes. As if all that wasn’t enough; Arcane had living dinosaurs. Purlieu had hesitantly accepted an Oriel Journalist, but Arcane had been a challenge.
The Ruler of Bergen had introduced her to the Supreme Spaceship Commander, Donte. That brief encounter had placed her on the Lyra so she could talk to the commander of the Lyra. Adriaan had been easy to convince, but he had to clear it through the Supreme Commander. He had managed to get her clearance – with conditions.
One of those conditions sat across the table from her, sipping a hot drink. She was to go nowhere without the Mascot trooper. Like all Mascots, Adan was good looking. He had soft chocolate brown eyes and wavy black hair. He was tall and lean, with an athletic build. He looked to be about 45, but he said he was 215 years old. Mascots had improved immune systems and they might live as long as 400 years. They had no facial hair except their eyebrows.
So far, this tall, dark and handsome trooper had been impervious to her charms. She wouldn’t be completely honest if she claimed that didn’t injure her pride – just a smidgen. During the five-week journey to Arcane, she had abandoned flirting with him. It was no fun anyway when the recipient didn’t reciprocate. Adan was the most stoic man she had ever met. His lack of interest in her was maddening and intriguing by turns.
At the moment, they were waiting for an airship to the Arcane base. Among other things, Adan was a pilot. He stood and turned his attention to the stocky man approaching them. She listened as Adriaan addressed Adan.
“You have permission to escort Miss Marshall anywhere she wants to visit on Arcane.” His gaze turned stern when he shifted his attention to her. “Remember, Adan will determine when it is time to leave. It would be wise to listen to him. He has experience that is important to your survival.”
She met his gaze. “Yes sir.”
His gaze softened. She liked Commander Adriaan, even though he had a reputation for being tough. She instinctively trusted him, as she did Adan, but conversations were livelier with Adriaan. How did all these good-looking Mascots remain unattached for so long?
Adan was stoic but certainly not boring. In fact, she had come to view him as a challenge. Flirting didn’t alter his dogged course, but reason did – which resulted in some interesting conversations. Adan was an intelligent gentleman.
Adriaan politely reminded her to follow the rules he had laid down for her visit to Arcane. He need not be concerned. She always followed the rules. She had built a reputation on that. It got her places she never would have been able to go without it – like Arcane.
She already had an itinerary, but first they needed to get to the base, where a guest room awaited her arrival. It would be nice to experience natural gravity again. She had endured the artificial gravity on the Pictor for over six months while traveling from Oriel to Purlieu, and then five weeks on the Lyra from Purlieu to Arcane. She was ready for some outside recreation and excitement – maybe even a little danger.
After Adriaan left them, she told Adan that she was looking forward to some fresh produce.
He nodded. “You haven’t complained about anything on this trip.”
She shrugged and quipped; “You git what you git and you don’t throw a fit.”
He lifted an inquisitive brow.
She wrinkled her nose at him. “It’s a saying they use in kindergarten on Oriel.”
He thought about it a moment. “What kind of garden is that?”
She tried to hide her amusement. “It’s pre-school.” If he didn’t know what kindergarten was, he probably didn’t know what pre-school was either.
His expression was reflective. “Before they go to school? Aren’t they with their parents?”
They were getting into a cultural conversation she probably wouldn’t have time to explain before they left for Arcane. “On Oriel, most women work. It often takes two incomes for a family to make ends meet, so the children are left at a daycare facility until they are old enough for school.”
He nodded. “Oh, I see. On Purlieu, women work too, but they take their children with them.”
She frowned. “How does that work out?”
He shrugged. “Well enough. That way they can suckle the baby longer.”
“No, I meant…. It doesn’t matter. Obviously, you do things a lot differently on Purlieu.”
He nodded again. “And on Arcane as well. We have no monetary system on Arcane.”
She stared at him. “But the troops get paid.”
“Yes, but we don’t need it on Arcane, so it accumulates in an account on Purlieu for when we return.”
At that point, someone interrupted them to say their airship was ready. Adan took her to the airship and flew her to the Base on Arcane. There, he escorted her to the room where she would be staying. It had a bed, a nightstand, a small desk and, thankfully, a bathroom with a shower. It certainly wouldn’t compare with the luxury of hotels on Oriel, but it had all the essentials. Adan left her there to unpack.
The base had one thing she had never seen at a hotel on Oriel. Of course, she had never stayed at a military base there, either. On the Arcane base, they had uniformed guards. She didn’t remember seeing guards at the guest rooms on Purlieu, although she had seen them at the celebration in Bergen. It crossed her mind that the guard was there to see she didn’t go out on her own. This was going to be an interesting project. She could hardly wait to get started in the morning.
The next morning, she got up early and dressed in jeans and a light cotton T-shirt. She dropped a small camera in her pocket and slipped the strap of her professional camera over her shoulder. Adan knocked on her door at the precise minute they had agreed upon. She would have expected nothing less from him.
She had asked to be taken to the place where Purlieu had first made contact with the natives of Arcane. He took her first to an abandoned city in a small continent. Hirina must have been something to see at one time, but now it was in a state of ruin. Tall grass grew from cracks in the paved streets. The buildings were still in remarkably good condition.
She lowered the camera and looked at Adan. “They moved the people because of the dinosaurs; is that correct? That must have been some undertaking.”
He nodded. “I still lived on Purlieu when that happened. I didn’t join the Lyra until they built a base on Arcane.”
“But you know the story.”
He nodded again. “So do you.”
She turned to a large building and clicked a shot. Yes, after spending five weeks on the Lyra, talking to the crew, she knew the story. “I hoped to get a story from someone who had witnessed it. Is that possible?”
“Donte, Rianne and Saar were the first Lyra people to land in Hirina. Saar died from wounds received during the Opus mission. Donte is tied up with a mission, but you could probably talk to Rianne about it. She’s the Lyra representative.”
Probably not. Rianne had just lost a baby, which probably explained why Adriaan had warned her to stay away from Donte and his family.
Their next stop was the Mesa where the first troops had landed and made camp. It was surrounded by tall grass that moved in swirling motions with the wind. Adan landed the airship in a clearing near some trees and they got out to look around. She drew a deep breath of fresh air.
“What a beautiful place. I think I could live here!”
His eyes expressed humor. “I don’t think you’d like being isolated like that.”
She shrugged. “I don’t think of it as isolation – maybe solitude.” She winked at him. “Of course, I wouldn’t have to be alone.”
He blushed and looked so alarmed that she had to laugh. “Aren’t there supposed to be dinosaurs around here? I haven’t seen any indication yet.”
He nodded at the tall grass. “I’m sure they know we’re here. They are out there in the grass – waiting.” His eyes held a touch of humor. “If I dangled you over the edge of the mesa at the end of a long rope, I feel certain it would give you an opportunity for a close look at one.”
She laughed again. “I’ll pass on that idea. Thanks all the same.” She moved toward the edge and studied the grass. “Other than that, do you have any ideas - safe ones?”
He nodded. “Stay farther back from the edge. It could crumble.”
She stepped back and gave him a sour look. “I meant about seeing a dinosaur.”
He looked out over the sea of grass. “I think we would need some help doing that. I would need one of the Primaz to detect them. It isn’t safe to fly low over the grass without knowing where they are.”
“How do the Primaz help with that?”
“They can sense them.”
She closed her eyes and tried to sense the presence of a dinosaur. Either she didn’t have that ability or there were none. Adan apparently knew there were.
“Can you sense them?”
He shook his head. “Only a few Mascots can. I’m not one of them.”
His medallion beeped and he tapped it. He listened to a conversation in a language she didn’t understand, but she did recognize Adriaan’s voice. Adan tapped his medallion again to shut it off and motioned to her. “Come on. We need to go back. There is a problem at the base.”
She had no idea why that would affect them, but Adriaan had said she should follow his instructions, so she wasn’t going to protest or otherwise make a nuisance of herself. Adan dropped her off at the base and took off in his airship.
She went to her room, showered and sat down with her computer to record her day. She titled her article “Live Dinosaurs on Arcane.” She worked on it for a couple hours and then got ready for bed. She had a good draft. Hopefully she would have more information tomorrow, as well as some photographs.
The next morning, she was ready and Adan arrived at her door at the same time as the previous morning. This time, he had a nice-looking young man with him. Adan introduced her to Baliz, their guide. The Primaz had no larynx, so Baliz conversed with Adan using sign language. It would be better if she learned their language, but she wouldn’t be there that long. She trusted Adan to translate when it was necessary.
Adan wasted no time getting them into the airship and off the ground. When they reached the mesa, he turned a screen on and they were able to see the area below the airship. She held her breath as she watched the screen. She was going to see a dinosaur! She frowned, glancing up at Adan. “But how am I going to get a picture of it?” She gave him a wry smile. “I don’t want to dangle on a rope from the airship, either.”
His eyes expressed humor, but the rest of his face resisted. Did he ever break into a full grin? He contemplated the screen for a moment. “I hadn’t thought about that part.” He glanced up at her. “I suppose a picture of the screen wouldn’t be enough.”
She hadn’t told him she wanted to take a picture. She had told him she wanted to see a dinosaur. She needed to be more specific. Now she had wasted his time, as well as that of Baliz - and the fuel.
Motion out of the corner of her eye drew her attention to Baliz as he signed to Adan. Adan nodded. “He says that he can take us to an area near the river where we can land and walk along a bluff trail. We might see some dinosaurs from there.”
She gave him an eager nod. “That would be great. I’m sorry for wasting your time.”
Only his eyes smiled. “You aren’t wasting my time.” He glanced back at Baliz. “He says you aren’t wasting his time. He’s enjoying just being with the pretty lady.” His eyes expressed humor again. “I guess I don’t count.”
Baliz looked at Adan and grinned. He didn’t sign. Apparently, he was accustomed to Adan’s dry humor. She wasn’t – yet. She’d better hurry. The Oriel ship from Planet Opus would arrive in only four weeks to take her home.
Their next stop was on a level area high above a canyon with a river running through it. The scenery was magnificent. Baliz led them down a trail that curved around the bluff. An outcropping took them directly over the river. There he stopped; his attention focused on the forest directly below them. She stepped closer to look over the edge and Adan grabbed her arm.
“Careful,” he said in a quiet voice.
She had always found the rush of blood caused by height exhilarating. Still, she didn’t want to fall. If she had been alone, she would have been less confident. She shouldn’t put that burden on the two men.
As she stepped back, two animals that looked like antelope came out of the forest. They looked around cautiously before approaching the water.
She glanced up at Adan. “It’s so…pristine!”
He didn’t respond. His attention was on Baliz. When she glanced at him, he was alert. Something else was out there. She lifted her camera and adjusted the focus on the antelope. She had snapped two pictures when something suddenly dashed into the viewer and grabbed an antelope by its long neck. She switched to video as a dinosaur dragged one antelope into the forest. The other antelope ran away – probably to become food another day.
She looked up at Adan. “Wow! And I got pictures of it!”
He nodded. “That was one of the smaller ones.”
“It looked like some kind of megapnosaurus except the ones on Oriel weren’t that big – as far as we know.”
Baliz led them further down the trail. It was going to be a challenging climb back up, but the view was worth it. She stopped at another outcropping over the river to take more pictures. She was so absorbed that she barely noticed when Adan approached her. When he touched her arm, she gave a startled jerk. That was all it took. Her foot slipped off a stone and she lost her balance. She screamed as her feet plunged over the edge.
Adan’s hand tightened on her arm, jerking her back onto the trail. She moved back and leaned against the cliff, her heart hammering in her chest. Her trembling fingers unintentionally released the camera and Adan caught it. He lifted the cord from her neck and put it around his. Then he took her hands in his and gently massaged them. “You’re all right. We should probably go back.”
When she didn’t respond, he looked at Baliz. “I’m glad I caught her before she contaminated the river.”
Willow caught her breath and looked up to find Baliz grinning at Adan. She straightened her clothes and gave Adan a sour look. “I can never be sure you’re joking.”
He had saved her life and likely felt guilty about letting her get in that predicament in the first place. If she had fallen, he would have been in trouble with Adriaan. Adan had expressed his anxiety in humor and she had retaliated by expressing her fear in criticism. She sighed. “I’m sorry. Thank you for catching me, and I apologize for getting so close to the edge. I got caught up in taking pictures.”
He didn’t respond. Maybe he was one of those people embarrassed by apologies and praise. Only he knew what he was thinking – and maybe Baliz.
She followed Adan to the first overhang, where Baliz took the lead. She panted her way up the steep path single file between the two men until Adan finally stopped for a rest. He didn't appear to be tired, but she was gasping and perspiring from every pore. When her breathing slowed, He grabbed her and threw her over his shoulder like a sack of feed. She was too tired to protest as he carried her the rest of the way to the top. There he stood her on her feet. She gave him a chagrined smile. “Thank you. I’m sorry I made that necessary.”
He grimaced. “Will you stop apologizing?”
“I’m s… I’ll try not to be such a burden.”
Adan insisted that she rest the next day, which was fine because she had a lot of work to do on her computer. She spent the morning getting an article ready with the pictures. She connected with the Lyra so she could send it to Phoebe, her sister and editor at The Guardian. She checked her mail and found a message from Phoebe.
“Adan sounds like a dream. Does he have a younger brother? Ha ha!”
Likely Phoebe was being sarcastic because her information on Adan had been so brief. In any case, both sentences caused her to stop and think about it. She hadn’t consciously thought of Adan as anything but a guide. Subconsciously, she had noticed how attractive he was. She wouldn’t describe him as a dream, but he certainly had an attractive personality. He never complained, and even though his response wasn’t always personable, he was always professional. He never admonished her for not following his suggestions. In fact, his orders were always conveyed as suggestions.
The second sentence actually shocked her. She knew nothing about Adan. Did he have siblings, and were his parents still alive? He had saved her life today. He deserved recognition in her articles, but she had referred to him merely as her guide.
She brought up the files on the articles she had sent and read them again. She had given Adan credit – and he did sound like a dream. Phoebe’s question about a younger brother indicated she thought Adan was unavailable. She hadn’t mentioned his marital status, so Phoebe was probably hinting at a relationship she had with him. Of course, there was no relationship.
She had noted Adan’s age in the article, but she had included no pictures of him. No pictures and no information. Why not?
She shrugged and exited the file. “He’s a private person,” she answered her unspoken question out loud.
During the evening meal she asked Adan about his family – and discovered another article. Adan’s father and three brothers had died after receiving the concoction Fontalo had given them to stop the unexpected population growth of Mascots. His mother had died before he joined the Lyra and his only sister had recently died in an accident. Good grief! No wonder he was so cool toward her. He probably blamed Oriel for his losses.
“I’m sorry…” She hesitated. No apology could excuse what Fontalo had done. “I had no idea.”
He shrugged. “That was a long time ago.”
About eighty years ago, but there was no time limit on grief. “It shouldn’t have happened.”
He met her gaze. “No, it shouldn’t have, but it did and nothing can change it now.”
“I know, but people should be told. I haven’t given you credit.”
He shook his head. “I’m thankful for that. I wasn’t the only one who suffered such a loss. What would be the point of bringing it up again? Fontalo already went to court over it and paid restitution. Instead of being a creation lab, the Lyra is now a rescue ship. We can’t right a wrong; we can only move forward.”
“That’s a positive outlook. Could I quote you on it?”
He gave her a wry smile. “If you’re going to document the quote, the credit goes to the Supreme Commander of the Lyra.”
He obviously didn’t want the personal attention, but… “Noted, but I still think this should be brought to Oriel’s attention. You can’t just sweep things under the rug. Keeping it in people’s minds prevents it from happening again – hopefully.”
He said nothing more about it, but his silence made her wonder if it stayed on his mind. Later he told her that they would be using a different mode of transportation tomorrow. They were going to visit New Hirina and then ride “equines” in an area east of that colony. She was looking forward to meeting the Sentinels. She wanted some pictures to go with an article. Her horsemanship wasn’t the greatest, but hopefully she could stay on the horse so Adan didn’t have to rescue her again.
When Willow met the Sentinels the next day, she was shocked speechless. This was the story that Oriel had left out of their history books. They knew that Fontalo had created the Mascots and Sentinels and then abandoned them. They had seen pictures of the Mascots, but nothing had prepared her for these people. Oribe must have been over seven feet tall. His nose and mouth were extended from his face. The contamination with cat genes was obvious. Others were like goats and lizards. They had deformed bodies, but when they spoke, it was as humans.
Oribe offered a hand, his amber cat eyes searching hers. “It is good to meet you. I had heard that Oriel sent a…journalist.”
She shook his hairy hand and stammered her way out of silence. “I…have heard of the Sentinels. I was…I’ve been looking forward to meeting you…since I, we left Purlieu.”
Oribe put his other hand over hers. “It is a surprise, yes?”
She smiled up at him. “Yes, and an honor. We have no pictures…could I rectify that situation?”
He made a purring sound as he released her hand. “No one has asked to take my picture before. I frighten most people.” He paused a moment, still looking into her eyes. “I believe I shocked you, but you are not afraid.”
Bodhi, the leader who resembled a lizard, chuckled. “You try to scare everyone, Oribe.”
Oribe nodded. “This is true.”
Later, as Adan prepared her mount for the ride, he looked at her. “I think Oribe didn’t know what to think about you. No one has ever flirted with him before.”
She frowned. “I wasn’t flirting with him.”
He lowered the stirrup and tested the saddle. “Weren’t you?”
She thought back over their conversation. She certainly hadn’t intentionally flirted with him. Was it possible that she had flirted so long that she didn’t even realize when she was flirting?
When she didn’t answer, Adan studied her face. “I think maybe you flirt when you feel uncomfortable.”
“I wasn’t flirting,” she said without conviction.
He shrugged. “My mistake.”
Adan might not be sure she had flirted with Oribe, but he knew she had flirted with him. He stepped back and motioned for her to mount the horse. She stepped forward and looked up at him.
“I never flirt with married men.”
He lifted a brow. “Do you ask if they are married first?”
She met his gaze. “No. I’ll rephrase that. I never knowingly flirt with a married man.”
Humor flooded his eyes for a moment. “Why did you flirt with me?”
Heat surged up her neck and spilled onto her cheeks. “To get what I wanted.”
“What was that?” The humor had left his eyes.
She sighed. “Something you provided without my asking – cooperation.”
“Did you flirt with Adriaan?”
She lifted her chin. “Why do you care who I flirted with?”
She couldn’t believe they were having this conversation. They shouldn’t be. She wasn’t sure if he was simply trying to verify his information or if he was romantically interested in her until his gaze lowered to her lips. He made no move to claim them, but she was certain it was on his mind.
“Go ahead,” she said in a tone that clearly said “don’t even think about it.”
He stepped back. “I’m sure you can manage this on your own.”
She turned and mounted, making haste when he reached out as if he might help her up. If he touched her backside, she was going to slap his face. He didn’t.
Adan mounted his horse and, when she looked at Baliz, he was grinning again. He wiped the grin off his face when he saw her moody expression.
She wasn’t angry with Adan. She was angry with herself for acting in a way that made him think she wanted that kind of attention. She had been thinking of him, not only as a guide, but as an old man who would have no romantic interest in her.
Truthfully, she had been a little disappointed when he didn’t respond to her flirting. Perhaps his sense of duty was the cause instead of disinterest.
It didn’t matter. In a few weeks she’d be leaving Arcane, never to see him again. The ache after that thought surprised her. When she finally dared look at him, she found him completely focused on the land. He was a trooper first and he remembered his purpose, even if she had forgotten hers.
They rode into a wide valley flanked by sharp up-thrusts of rock. Baliz kicked his mount into a lope and rode out ahead of them. Adan rode close to her, his attention on the rock formations, the short-grass country ahead of them, and sometimes behind them. Nothing was going to sneak up on them.
As they neared the rock formations on their right, Baliz stopped. He studied the rocks ahead of them and finally turned, signing to Adan. Adan motioned her to stop. She obeyed immediately. Her mouth went dry and sweat popped out on her forehead. Baliz was there to detect dinosaurs, wasn’t he – or was that only the first day?
Adan tapped his medallion and spoke to someone. Why didn’t he speak a language she could understand? He turned his horse back toward her and suddenly Baliz turned his horse toward them. He kicked it into a run. Adan looked at her. “Get out of here!”
She had never ridden a horse at a full gallop before, but if Adan was ordering her to get out of there, she sure wasn’t going to argue with him. She had barely turned her horse back toward the colony when a horrendous scream shattered the silence around them. Her horse reared and she slid off the back, hitting the ground with enough force to knock the wind out of her. The horse took off running for a safer place.
Adan struggled to get his horse under control as whatever it was screamed again. He dismounted and told her to lie still. She wanted to run, but she couldn’t get her breath.
Baliz brought his horse to a halt beside them and reached down for her. She was still struggling to catch her breath. Adan gave Baliz a desperate look and he dismounted, kneeling beside her. Adan pulled her forward and slapped her on the back. Maybe it was the slap or maybe her body finally responded to her will. Either way, she finally gasped a lung full of air. Lights were flickering in her eyes as she tried to stand. The beast screamed again and the other horse ran away. They were alone in the middle of a valley with no cover and a huge dinosaur was racing toward them!
Baliz stepped between her and the charging dinosaur. Adan took a stand in front of them both. A tiny laser weapon was the only thing he had to protect them. He calmly lifted it and waited for the beast to get closer.
She lifted her camera and began recording. There wasn’t much else she could do anyway. The dinosaur suddenly stopped and eyed Adan. Did it fear him? Adan didn’t move. Maybe it couldn’t see him.
An airship suddenly shot over them and a laser beam hit the dinosaur, felling it in its tracks. Within seconds, there were other airships – and a shuttle. Adan returned the weapon to his pocket and turned to them. She shut off the camera and lowered it.
“I got it all!”
He leaned down without comment and lifted her in his arms. He proceeded to carry her to the shuttle.
“I can walk,” she said, struggling in his arms.
He dumped her inside the shuttle. “Take her back to the base hospital.” He turned away without another word and strode to an airship. Baliz trotted after him.
A trooper shut the shuttle door and helped her into a seat. Why did everyone think she couldn’t take care of herself?
When they reached the airfield at the base, one of the troops escorted her to the hospital inside the base building and left her. After an examination that verified she had not been harmed, she went to her room. There she showered, dressed and grabbed her computer. When she downloaded the camera to the computer, she sat in horrified silence watching what she had recorded.
She marveled at Adan’s composure. He was unflappable. Adan had saved her life and that of Baliz as well. She saw nothing to indicate why he was angry with her. Maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he was merely concerned. Hadn’t he sent her to the hospital?
She opened a program and began an article to go with the video. She had typed less than a paragraph when her hands started shaking so badly that she couldn’t continue. Great timing. Now she was going to fall apart. What she needed was a hot drink. She closed the computer. The article could wait.
She went to the dining area to get a hot drink and was sitting there with her hands around the cup when it all finally caught up with her. Tears burned her eyes and her chest convulsed with a sob. She didn’t have time to get back to her room, so she folded her arms on the table and placed her forehead on them. She sobbed as quietly as she could until a warm hand rested on her arm. She looked up to find Adan standing over her with a concerned expression.
She stood and reached for him. “I’m sorry.”
He folded her into his arms. “Shhh. It’s all over now. There was only one dinosaur and no one was hurt. Everything will be fine.”
He held her until she got her emotions under control and released her when she stepped back. He handed her a handkerchief and she put it to use. He had ordered someone to take her somewhere safe; expecting to find more dinosaurs.
“Why did it stop?” She probably should have explained she meant the dinosaur, but he shrugged.
“He probably saw that camera pointed at him and froze.”
She wiped her eyes again and giggled. “You’re crazy – and wonderful. You stood there with that tiny little weapon against a monster. You didn’t even act like you were afraid.”
He met her gaze. “I assure you that the tiny weapon would have been a better defense than that camera. What were you thinking?”
She shrugged one shoulder. “I don’t know. I remember thinking I couldn’t do anything else.” She looked at the handkerchief. “Why is it so big?”
His gaze dropped to the handkerchief and then lifted to her eyes. “Sometimes we have to use them for bandages in an emergency." His eyes flashed humor. "Sometimes we have to use them for noses – rarely both at the same time, though.”
The idea of blowing her nose on it and then putting it on a wound struck her funny and she giggled again. She was probably a bit giddy after that scare. She started to hand it back to him and caught herself.
He shook his head; humor still lurking in his eyes. “No thank you. I’ll get a fresh one.”
She giggled again. “I’d better get back to my room. Thanks…for everything.”
When he didn’t respond, she turned and walked away. As she reached the exit door, she sensed his attention and turned. As she met his gaze, her heart felt like it skipped a beat. At the moment, there was nothing stoic about him. Surely, she was reading this wrong.
She gave him a flirtatious smile and was rewarded by a brief smile. He looked away and shook his head at her antics.
For the next two weeks, they explored together without incident. She enjoyed his company more than anyone she knew. On the fourth week, Adan took her back to the Lyra to wait for the Oriel Spaceship. Something had happened on Arcane, but no one would tell her what. She had her articles to write, and they answered questions regarding those without hesitation.
The day before the Oriel ship arrived, she saw Adan coming out of Adriaan’s office. She had given her feelings for him a lot of thought. They would never see each other again, but she wanted him to know how she felt. They were alone in the corridor, so it was probably the best time.
She smiled up at him. “In my ignorance, I joked about bringing back a Mascot of my own. It’s rather Ironic. The galactic flirt finally fell in love and she can’t have him.”
Adan stood there, tall and handsome, looking down at her with that maddeningly stoic expression.
She sighed. “Oriel is where I belong. I was raised there; my family is there – and my job. I know; I can’t have everything I want, but…I wish Oriel had an Adan.”
He didn’t look like he felt uncomfortable – or disinterested, for that matter. He looked like he was giving it some deep thought – which was what she probably should be doing instead of spilling her guts to him.
She turned. “I’ll see you in the morning. I’m tired.”
She left him there and went to her room. He didn’t stop her. He hadn’t said a thing. That hurt her more deeply than she would have suspected. She didn’t want a tearful goodbye. She didn’t want to finally kiss him and then leave. It was best this way and he knew it. It would probably be easier if he had said he felt nothing for her – and she could believe it. He had always been professional, but it was there in his eyes. They connected in a way she had never connected with anyone.
The next morning, when the Oriel ship arrived, she packed her things and took the shuttle they sent. She put her things in her room and went to the dining area for a coffee. She hadn’t had any coffee since the ship had left her in Purlieu, months ago. She needed coffee. Adan hadn’t even said goodbye. Her eyes burned with unshed tears. She wasn’t going to cry over him, but she wasn’t looking forward to the seven months it would take to get to Oriel, either.
After her coffee, she decided to check with the Captain. As she approached the entrance from the bay, a familiar figure entered and shook hands with the Captain. Adan! He had decided to say goodbye after all.
When he glanced up and saw her, he said something to the captain and strode toward her. When he stopped in front of her, his dark gaze scoured her face and landed on her bloodshot eyes.
“You thought I wasn’t going to say goodbye.”
She nodded as tears burned her eyes again. That probably summed it up better than anything she wanted to disclose. “I didn’t want to say goodbye, but I’m glad you came, anyway.”
He looked uncertain. “I’m not here to say goodbye.”
She frowned. “Then what?”
“I thought…If you still want me. If you ever did want me…I know you don’t want to leave your family, and…I’ve never seen Oriel. I might like it.”
She stared at him, unable to believe what she thought he was saying.
He looked uncomfortable. “Of course, if you were only joking….”
When he started to turn away, she came out of her stupor and grabbed his arm. “No! I mean, yes! I never thought…of course I still want you. Are you serious…about going to Oriel – to stay?”
He nodded, obviously not convinced by her answer.
“I want you Adan. I love you. I just never imagined you would leave Arcane or that you wanted me the way I want you. You never said….”
He took her in his arms. “I’ve never known a galactic flirt before. I didn’t know what to think or say – or do.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled his lips down to hers. After a breathless kiss, she leaned back in his arms and looked up at him. “This is going to be the shortest trip ever.”
He gazed down at her with a perplexed expression. “Why?”
“Because time flies when you’re having fun, and I always have fun when I’m with you.”
His eyes filled with humor. “If that’s what you call fun, we may be in trouble.”
She wrinkled her nose at him. “You know what I mean.”
He pulled her back into his arms. “I hope I do.” He kissed her. “I never realized how brave you were to make this trip until I thought about going to Oriel. I know so little about it.” He met her gaze. “I only know I love you, and we work well together.”
It would be much more difficult for him. She had been sent on an assignment. She had known all along that she would return to Oriel. Adan would be leaving everything he knew for an uncertain life on a planet he had never seen. He would need her to help him adjust. Helping him would be no easy task, but…what an adventure they were beginning together! The stoic trooper and the galactic flirt. It was time to stop flirting. She was no longer free. She smiled to herself as she hugged him again. She was bringing back her own Mascot, and it was no joke.