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Eppie 2001 Finalist
Eppie 2001 Finalist
Fantasy/Paranormal Romance Novel

P.E.A.R.L. Finalist:
Best Futuristic
Published in 2000
Award in

Honorable Mention!
Bloody Dagger Award
at All About Murder
Honorable Mention


5 Angels! "The science fiction framework is well developed, believable, and interesting, and is combined with a love story that grows naturally within the plot. ...the well-crafted prose successfully communicates the growth of the deep feelings between Leith and J'Qhir. I highly recommend this emotionally-fulfilling novel for science fiction readers as well as romance readers." —Jean for Fallen Angel Reviews

5 Daggers! "Awesome! Incredible! Proof that love transcends any obstacle!" —Brenda Thatcher for All About Murder Reviews

5 Hearts! "The author's description of their lovemaking is masterful; erotic yet tasteful. The characters and the pacing in STARKISSED is excellent. With a whole heart I give this book five hearts. Six? No, they wouldn't let me do that. Drat." —Judy Cook for The Romance Studio

4.5 Stars! "This is an enjoyable book about love in a galactic setting. ... Not only is he a moral, dedicated leader he is also a sexy, alpha male who nevertheless listens to his heart and is willing to put love above all else. What more does a woman need? ...this is a good read." —Sam for Timeless Tales

4.5 Blue Ribbons! "STARKISSED is a fast paced story of passion and romance. It is also an exciting tale filled with plenty of thrilling action in which the villain is willing to go to any extreme to get what he wants. This, along with all the surprises found on an uninhabited planet keeps you reading to see what happens next. I have read this story many times and will probably read it many more, always finding something new to appreciate. STARKISSED by Lanette Curington is one of my favorite futuristic romance stories and is sure to be enjoyed by many." —Anita for Romance Junkies

4 Roses! "...original and compelling...a story of love, discovery and acceptance." —Carolyn for A Romance Review

4 Hearts! "...a wonderful book...a delight." —Sophie for Love Romances

4 Moons! "...a wonder book of love, one that tells a story that forever tugs at the heart, one of differences, tragedy, sacrifice and the power to over come it all." —Tina Gellar for Mystique Book Reviews

"Fans of science fiction romance and interspecies love will delight in this tale..." —Denise Powers for Sensual Romance Reviews

"Sci-fi and romance mixed together makes for an intergalactic cocktail in Starkissed. Iím drunk on the punch of action and sexual tension right off the first page. From the beginning Ms. Curington does a fantastic job of blending humans and non-humans with brief descriptions that effectively weave the futuristic world. ... Best of all, it was good old-fashioned romance..." —Gabriella Hewitt, Gabriella Hewitt blog

"Quite good! ...this was an unusual and satisfying read, and one I'll be revisiting. A solid B+ for Ms. Curington. I'll be looking to see what else she comes out with." —Devon at Is That A Stake In Your Pocket? Romance Reviews

"...takes readers on an unforgettable journey through the stars." —Sharyn McGinty In the Library Reviews

"...the story is an absorbing one and the romance exciting." —Joy Calderwood for Reviewers Choice (originally published at The Word on Romance)

"...fast paced, on the edge, futuristic romance..." —Jan Springer for Road to Romance

"...leaving you longing for the stars and begging for more..." —Sally G. Laturi of Ivy Quill Reviews

"...truly leaves her audience starkissed." —Anne Mauck for Inscriptions Magazine

"...love can conquer all, no matter what homeworld you're from." —Denise Fleischer of Gotta Write Network

"Don't miss out on this exquisite storytelling." —Kim Gaona of Kim's Reviews

"...one of the best futuristics I've ever read." —Kathy Boswell of Kathy's Faves and Raves


"I just purchased StarKissed and have read it three time within two weeks. It is totally! By accident I came across your book and it's a rarity (just the type I enjoy-'alien/human' love story). Do you plan to write another like this one? Or is there going to be a sequence to StarKissed? You went above and beyond. Thank you for the original, creativity, funny, heart warming, etcccccccc of this book. AWESOME! THANKS AGAIN." —Helen

"It is a wonderful futuristic novel with plenty of action and the most loving reluctant couple that you could imagine." —Mireya

"I just finished your STARKISSED.......Very good! ....I don't know if it's the time we live in with our technology growing by leaps and bounds (next jump is space) or the natural attraction of someone/something different but I do enjoy steamy/erotic stories bringing two seemingly different creatures together and finding out that we aren't all that different in our ability to love, protect and cherish...." —Pat McMahon, NC

"I loved Starkissed. You know what I liked the most? That it was a tender love story... You did it beautifully in this one." —MamaZ (Patricia Haley-Ramirez)


by Lanette Curington

She's human, he's not...

Leith McClure reluctantly takes over the family shipping business due to her father's illness. She is shocked to find her father has been trading with the Zi. When a trusted friend's betrayal leaves Leith and the Warrior of Zi marooned on a deserted planet, they must learn to overcome their differences to survive...and to explore their mutual attraction.

Published by Silver Heart Books

Starkissed is a full-length novel, approx. 80,000 words or 270 pages.

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Excerpt from Starkissed
©Lanette Curington
All rights reserved.

Chapter One

Arreis aka Trader World
March 2308 TST (Terran Standard Time)

A tankard of pale green Hykaisian ale smashed into the wall as Leith McClure stepped into the dimly lit tavern. A few drops splashed onto her leather survival jacket. She started to wipe them away with her bare hand, but the droplets bubbled and ate tiny holes in the sleeve of her favorite jacket.

"Don't touch it, Leith!" Steve Hancock warned. "That stuff is acidic to anybody except Hykaisites."

"So I noticed," she murmured, watching the liquor ruin the black jacket that had been a Christmas present from her parents three Terran Standard years ago.

Two bodies sailed through the air a meter in front of them and crashed into a table in the center of the smoky room. The triangular table, reinforced to take the abuse, remained on its three legs. The two Peridots saved their drinks by holding them to the side. They shoved the bodies to the floor and continued their conversation between snorts.

The victory bellow of a rogue Hykaisite drowned out all other noises as a Numerian dancer drifted by, its holographic costume of interwoven light beams leaving a vapor trail behind. It halted in front of Steve, fondled his crotch, and whispered in his ear. He smiled and laughed but shook his head. The Numerian floated to Leith and raised its hand. Leith caught the Numerian's wrist before it could touch her breast and answered no with a quick jerk of her head. The Numerian floated away.

The rogue Hykaisite ended his bellow with a coarse growl and beat his chest five times. Just as he settled down, an argument broke out in the corner where a group of Danid Hybrids played Martian poker.

"Explain to me again why we have to meet the buyer here," Leith shouted to be heard.

Steve laughed. "Lighten up, Leith. Arreis is the hot spot of the galaxy. It's not a member of the Galactic Alliance, so anything goes." His laughter died, and he looked at her with eyes half-closed--a look he often used when coming on to her. "If you'd let me, I could show you more interesting places than this."

"Not in this dimension," she said and crossed her arms. She felt as if she wore less than the Numerian by the way Steve looked at her.

Steve moved in closer, his face only centimeters from hers. The look dropped from his face, replaced with the red flush of fury. "Someday you'll regret saying no to me. And the day will come sooner than you think!"

Leith shook her head. She was tired of his lame come-ons and sexual innuendo, and that look that was not appealing to her at all. "Why don't you call the Numerian? It might be impressed, but I'm not."

Steve's face twisted into a sneer. "At least the Numerian has a sexuality."

A twinge of uneasiness slipped up her spine. Steve became hostile at the first hint of a negative response to his advances. He knew the business better than she, but he wasn't worth the aggravation.

Leith didn't like Arreis, more commonly known as Trader World, and its dens of iniquity. She was out of her element. She glanced at her Terran Standard watch, another gift from her parents. This one was meant to ease the transition from full-time student to running McClure Shipping. If she was back on Earth right now, she would be enjoying a lecture by a favorite instructor. The university--classes, lectures, and studying--was her world.

"But why here?" she persisted. "I know there are quieter places on Arreis. I saw several cafes and restaurants where we could meet without all the--the distractions."

A chair flew across the room and disintegrated against the broad, muscular back of the Hykaisite. He turned his shaggy head and, with a war cry, jumped from his seat to charge the brawling Hybrids.

"There he is," Steve said and nodded toward a table against the far wall. His anger had cooled, and he spoke to her more pleasantly. "Your father has always met this customer in this establishment. The Zi are fanatics for ritual and tradition."

"Zi!" Leith grabbed Steve's arm, stopping him in mid-stride. "Are you serious? The Galactic Alliance has sanctions against the Zi as well as the Crucians because of their continual state of war."

Steve shrugged. "Hey, their loss is our gain. Cameron's been dealing with the Zi for years. You'll have to take it up with him. Me, I just follow orders."

Too late now, Leith thought. Oh, why hadn't she asked Steve who they were meeting this time? Steve told her the appointment was with a valued customer, on Arreis as usual. Leith didn't want to run the company and left all the details in Steve's capable hands. When her parents said to follow Steve Hancock's advice, that he knew McClure Shipping inside and out, Leith took them at their word. She wasn't even curious enough to ask who the customer was or what cargo they carried. She never dreamed they would be trading illegally.

"That big yellow and brown fellow is the Rep. Oh yes, the Paxian is here. The Paxian is always with him," Steve commented as they waded across the room and dodged a staggering Hybrid. "The Rep is a little stuffy, and I hear they dominate their females, so he may take exception to your presence. If he refuses to deal with you, don't antagonize him. I'll handle it."

Rep was a derogatory term for the Zi who were humanoid in form but of saurian descent. Leith had never seen a Zi, not many people had. A closed and secretive society, they preferred not to mingle with off-worlders. Neither Zi nor Crux was a member of the Galactic Alliance, so very little was known about either of them and their cultures.

As Leith and Steve approached the table, the Zi and the Paxian stood.

The Zi was big, about 230 centimeters tall. High black boots with thick soles and heels added to his height. Dark gray trousers, war jacket, and gloves, tucked into a broad belt around his waist, were made of a durable wool-like fabric. For extra warmth, Leith assumed, if he remained true to his cold-blooded ancestry. A hexagonal patch of glittery gold-on-black set high on each shoulder, their symbols indecipherable to her.

Yellow and brown were too bland to describe his coloring. Tawny, Leith decided, and umber. Both colors etched over his glabrous head and hands, the only visible parts of his anatomy, as if a master artist had painted him tawny, then shaded the subtle scaling of his skin with dark umber.

Leith's gaze lingered over his elongated face, taking in the chiseled contours of chin and jaw and the arched ridges protecting the tympanic membrane on each side of his head. His brow protruded slightly, and Leith suppressed the urge to reach up and run her fingers along the crest. In the sweeping hollows created by prominent cheekbones and crested brow, exotic saurian eyes of clear amber stared back at her unblinking. She had the feeling he had studied her as meticulously as she had him.

"Where isss Cameron?" he hissed.

"My father is ill." She took a deep breath and wished she were anywhere in the universe but here. "For now, I'm handling the business."

The Paxian's sleek black feathers ruffled. He wore a voluminous cloak to protect his wings.

"I am called Corru." Most Paxians chose names that were easy to pronounce because the Pax language consisted of birdlike twitterings that most could not mimic. "This is Commander J'Qhir, the Warrior of Zi."

"Leith McClure." Before she could decide if offering her hand would be a requirement or an insult, Steve propelled her into the seat closest to the wall. He took the chair next to her as Commander J'Qhir reclaimed his. The Paxian drew heavy curtains together, enclosing the table to ensure their privacy, then sat down.

The Commander's saurian eyes had not left her. She, too, found it impossible to look away from him.

"I have alwaysss dealt only with Cameron," he said stiffly.

Leith hid her disappointment. The way his eyes penetrated hers she had expected him to say something quite different. She shrugged, trying to show she didn't care one way or another. It would be a relief not to have to deal with the Zi altogether, but she couldn't reveal that at all. "As I said, my father is ill. I'm in charge, and I have the cargo. Take it or leave it. I'm sure we can find another buyer."

She waited for him to call her bluff.

Beside her, Steve fidgeted nervously. "Now, wait a minute. We seem to have gotten off on the wrong foot here--or claw, as the case may be," he said and laughed hollowly.

The Commander blinked once and slid his eyes, void of amusement, to rest on Steve. Leith had the impression that the Commander would like nothing better than to take his "claws" and wrap them around Steve's neck for that remark.

Surreptitiously, she glanced at the Zi's hands resting tensely on the table. Remarkably human in shape and form, they couldn't really be referred to as claws. His digits were human shaped, four fingers of varying lengths and an opposable thumb, but the nails were blunt talons and tinted pale gold.

Suddenly she was aware that he was looking at her again, and she met his gaze boldly. "Do you want to go through with the deal or not? If not, there's no point in wasting our time--yours or mine."

Leith was surprised how harsh she sounded, but refused to make amends. Perhaps the Commander would take offense and call off the arrangements himself. She started to rise.

The Paxian made a chittering noise, and the Commander looked at him, nodding solemnly.

"I have no time to argue with younglingsss. The cargo isss needed by my people." He brought out a black velvet pouch and cleverly undid the complicated knot in the silver cord. He turned the pouch upside down and poured the contents on the table.

A dozen polished gems danced across the surface. Brilliant fire, red sparks radiating outward, glowed within the center of each crystalline stone. The Zi jewels!

Leith fell back into her chair. Collectors slavered over the chance to obtain one. The rich and the famous, from vid stars to royalty across the galaxy, coveted the prestige of owning one. She was no connoisseur, but even she could see the innate beauty in the stones. She held one against the dim light. It blazed brighter than a laserlight beam. She could only dream what one would look like in full sun. Carefully, she returned it to the others.

Steve, mesmerized by the sight, cleared his throat. "I see you brought the required amount."

"Yesss," Commander J'Qhir hissed. "I brought the amount ssspecified when lassst we ssspoke."

His sibilant speech had intrigued her from the moment he first spoke, but the obvious resentment in this last comment made her take her eyes away from the brilliant gems to rest upon his face. Were the slits in his amber eyes narrower than before?

The uneasiness she felt from the beginning had grown to a strange undercurrent of disturbance. Something was wrong between the Commander and Steve, but she couldn't pinpoint it. They didn't like one another, but it was more than that. If she got out of this alive, she swore she would ask more questions next time. Her premonition was so strong, she was certain none of them would survive unscathed.

The Paxian sat with slender hands folded on the table, his humanoid fingers long and graceful. He had expressed no interest in the gems, had not even looked at them when the Commander spread them out. Resembling a human more than the Zi, his eyes were round, a beautiful shade of blue, and yet they didn't seem real, as if they were glass replicas. His feathers ruffled.

"Perhaps we should proceed."

A peacekeeper. She should have known, of course, since it was the reason his world came to be called Pax in Terran Standard. She sensed the Zi Warrior trusted him, but his primary function was to act as a mediator if the meeting threatened to explode. His calming influence ensured that each side came away satisfied. Leith relaxed a little, comprehending the unlikely pairing of Zi and Paxian. Paxians were often used as peacekeepers when opposite sides were more likely to let their passions overrule common sense.

"Our carrier is docked in Bay 3," Steve said, unable to take his eyes off the gems.

"My warssship isss in Bay 24." The Commander gathered the jewels and returned them to the pouch. Deftly, he retied the cord into the intricate knot. "My crew isss ready to transssfer the cargo."

"And our crew is standing by," Steve replied.

The four stood. One of the few moments when the Commander took his eyes off Leith, he looked at the pouch clutched hard in his fist. "For my people," he murmured and, bypassing Steve's outstretched hand, gave it to Leith.

She tried to say thank you, but the words would trivialize the sacrifice of the jewels. Instead, she bowed her head briefly. His only response was his unblinking gaze.

"Uh, let me have them, Leith. I have the security belt," Steve said eagerly. Too eagerly, it seemed to Leith. Reluctantly, she handed them over. Next time, she vowed, she would wear the security belt. The jewels would be safe. An ear-piercing alarm would sound if the belt was stolen. If forced open without the code, incapacitating electrical charges would be the thief's reward.

Grinning smugly, Steve placed the pouch inside the cavity and keyed in the code. Ashamed of Steve's eagerness to obtain the gems, Leith couldn't meet Commander J'Qhir's eyes. Didn't Steve know how difficult it was for the Commander to relinquish them? Or was it that Steve just didn't care? Only the need for the cargo outweighed the value of the jewels to the Zi.

Disgusted with herself for not asking what the cargo was, Leith could only assume they carried weapons. What else would a technologically inferior society at war need? She had heard all the stories of how the Zi were out to conquer the Crucians and rape and plunder the lush world of Crux. Their own world was hot and dry, little more than sand and rock, and they were running out of resources. The Crucians tried to compromise by sharing their bounty, but the Zi wanted it all.

Why had her parents agreed to trade with them? Supplying weapons to the Zi was a serious offense. If caught, they would all go to prison for life, if not face execution. What could they have been thinking? If she returned to Earth, she would have a long talk with her mother...

Her sympathy dissipated. The Zi Warrior deserved whatever befell him, but she didn't. Oh, she knew pleading ignorance would not save her. She'd hang along with the rest of them. It wasn't fair she found herself in this predicament. However, it was her fault for not asking questions.

"It will take a few hours to transfer the cargo," Steve said as they prepared to leave. "Would you like a tour of the carrier? It's the latest design, Galaxian class, and the newest addition to the McClure fleet."

What had possessed Steve to make the offer and prolong contact with the Zi? Leith was anxious to conclude this unpleasant business and return to Earth.

The Commander's response was even more puzzling. "Yesss, I would like to compare it to my warssship."

"Corru, would you care to join us?" Steve extended the invitation.

The Paxian shook his head, feathers ruffling. "Thank you, no. I have another appointment this evening."

Halfway across the room, Steve stopped suddenly and Leith almost bumped into him. He glanced toward the farthest corner where a group of four or five humans gathered around a large table.

"What was that about?" she asked, raising her voice to be heard above a Biian harp someone played too loudly.

Startled, Steve whirled on her. "Nothing. I, uh, thought I saw someone I knew, but I was wrong."

They waited while the Peridots crawled through the door, then stepped outside. After the smoky, smelly interior of the bar, Leith drew in several deep breaths of crisp, clean air. She felt as if she hadn't taken a breath for hours.

Corru took his leave of them, grasping arms with J'Qhir and shaking hands with Leith. He disappeared into a dark alley. Steve led the way to the spaceport, walking ahead a few steps. With his long legs, the Commander could have outdistanced them both, but he matched his stride to Leith's. He stayed so close beside her their jackets occasionally brushed.

The few humans who came into contact with a Zi reported experiencing an innate aversion to the them. Because of their saurian eyes, she supposed. The vertically slitted pupils surrounded by amber were distinctly different from human eyes. But Leith felt no repulsion when she looked at the Commander. What should repulse her was his warrior status, the Zi trying to conquer the Crucians, and this particular Zi involving her parents in illegal trading. That should make her furious.

Yet, there was something about this quiet, dignified male that contradicted all of these thoughts. She couldn't feel repulsion or fury toward him no matter how hard she tried or what reason she could think of to justify such feelings.

She felt something else and refused to identify it.

Leith frowned into the dark night, illuminated only by a sky full of stars and the pale double moons hanging overhead. They had only a few more hours, and then Commander J'Qhir, Zi Warrior, would be out of her life for good. She wouldn't have to wrestle with her conscience any longer.

* * * * * * * * * *

J'Qhir trod slowly beside the human female, the sa`aloh. He had expected to meet with Cameron as usual. He had often spoken with Hancock to make arrangements, but Cameron would be present when the time came to make the exchange.

Unprepared for the sa`aloh youngling, he had been rude. He had broken one of the major tenets of The Zi Warrior: Be prepared for anything and all things; do not allow the unexpected to overcome. He had allowed the unexpected presence of the sa`aloh to jeopardize his mission.

He should, of course, report himself to the Council of Elders, but he was too old and had been the Zi Warrior too long to put himself at the mercy of the Council over a minor transgression. The mission would be completed to everyone's satisfaction, which was the important thing. He had recovered his senses enough to accept the sa`aloh and her price.

Of course, Cameron had nothing to do with the cost increase. J'Qhir could accept inexperience as an excuse, but not greed. Yet, he had seen no greed in her wide blue eyes as she held the jewel to the light. He saw reverence and the comprehension of how precious the jewels were to his people. Hancock was as avaricious as a Crucian, and J'Qhir expected no less from him. But the sa`aloh...she had to know of the increase and approve.

He tried to summon disgust for her and the price she demanded, but he could not find it. He glanced at her. His eyes were made for the night, and he could see nearly as well then as during the day. Deep brown hair cascaded down her back, shimmering in the double moonlight. Ivory skin glowed starkly against the dark colors of her clothing. He caught a whiff of her scent. By the sands, it was familiar but he could not place it.

His vha'seh tightened. How long had it been since his body had responded to a sa`aloh? Too long. The war and the demands of his position weighed heavily upon him so that he'd had no time or inclination to seek another lifemate after the death of T`hirz.

Now, his inclination was increasing of its own volition.

"Commander, will you return to Zi tonight?" Her harmonious voice broke their comfortable, yet unbearable silence.

"Yesss," he hissed curtly, not knowing why.

She said nothing more, obviously stung by his discourteous manner. He could not blame her. He raised his eyes to the stars. He did not know how to conduct himself with this human sa`aloh.

He had spoken to few sa`aloh'az in his life. His mother, long dead, had rarely spoken after he reached adulthood. Even before he reached maturity, she had little say in the upbringing of her male offspring. She was a perfect Zi sa`aloh in all ways. She knew her place and kept any opinions, if she had any, to herself.

So also had been T`hirz, his lifemate. His binding with T`hirz had been arranged by his father. The daughter of a Council Elder, he had never seen her before the arrangement had been made. She never spoke in his presence until the ceremony and, afterwards, she spoke only when spoken to. She had never expressed curiosity about what he did, whom he saw, or where he went. He found no fault with T`hirz' response. Was it not the expected behavior of a lifemate?

They had been bound for less than a season, their physical matings brief and painful. Then, before he ever knew if the seed he planted would bear, she sickened and died.

Shortly thereafter, his father died as well. Enshrouded in sorrow, he suddenly found himself appointed the Warrior in his father's place. A dutiful son, he could not refuse the honored position any more than he could have rejected his arranged lifemate.

The appointment came in the middle of the Second War with the Crucians. By the time it had come to an end, any thoughts of finding another lifemate were long forgotten. He had decided it was unfair to subject anyone else to the all-consuming life of the Warrior. Besides, those sa`aloh'az he had known, who would have made perfectly acceptable lifemates, were all bound to others. He would have had to settle for another arrangement and--with all due respect to his father--this he would not do. Thus, he resigned himself to a solitary existence.

A circle of bright lights indicated they neared the spaceport. Hancock led them inside the circle, across the landing pad to the first row of bays. In Bay 3, the triangular ship rose like a monolith against the night sky, its quicksilver hull gleaming in the light.

"This is the Catherine McClure, named for Leith's mother," Hancock told him. "It's the latest model of the Galaxian class and the newest addition to the McClure fleet. The landing struts are made of titanium-jettite alloy and guaranteed to withstand more than one thousand times the weight of the ship."

J'Qhir watched as Hancock keyed in a code on his remote control pad. A ladder descended from the side of the ship while a door raised. They ascended the ladder with Hancock leading the way. J'Qhir climbed behind the sa`aloh and found himself eye-level with an intriguing part of her anatomy. Loose-fitting trousers and the bulky jacket left most everything to the imagination, but with each step up, one hip bent and revealed a plump curve on either side. So different from the straight planes of a Zi sa`aloh. He tightened even more.

Ssss, he should not react at all to the physical attributes of any sa`aloh, Zi or otherwise, but these curves tantalized him. Why in the name of the rock did this human sa`aloh make him think of rhi`ina`a more in the past hour than he had in the past decade? It was a relief when he stepped through the doorway and his line of sight was now above her instead of upon her. Hancock led them to the command sector. He spoke into the comm to let the crew know they should begin unloading the cargo.

"I need to alert my crew to prepare for the transssfer," J'Qhir said. When Hancock nodded, J'Qhir keyed in the frequency and quietly spoke in his own language.

"Oh, uh, Leith, would you mind conducting the tour. We were having trouble with an anti-grav skid earlier. I need to check it out with the crew."

"Of course. I'd be happy to show the ship to the Commander."

"Thanks. I'll let you know what I find out."

Hancock disappeared down the corridor leading to the back of the ship. Alone with the sa`aloh, her familiar scent played havoc with his senses. He stood as still as a stone trying to keep himself in check.

"Command Central, of course," she said, hand outspread, pointing to each console in turn. "Navigation, communication-- I suppose you know all this. Our technology is a little different from yours, but basically it's all the same."

Ssss, the implications of that statement made him tighten more. She could have no idea of where his thoughts led, but her round eyes widened a bit and she quickly led him down the corridor.

"The galley. We have to carry freeze-dried food now, but the Artilians are doing marvelous things with the replication process. This is the Liquidator. Using waste products, any beverage can be replicated as long as the specifications are logged into the computer banks. Would you care for something, Commander?"

"Water, thank you," he said.

She punched in a code, and they waited while the processor completed the operation. The doors slid open, and she handed him the container of water. She punched in another code, and this time a cup of brown liquid appeared.

"Terran coffee. Have you ever tried it, Commander?"

He shook his head.

"Would you like to try a sip? I like mine sweet with extra cream." She held out the cup to him.

He took it, his fingers brushing hers. Steam rose from the liquid.

"Careful, it's hot."

He turned the cup up to his lips and took a small sip. The sweetness was sickening to him and he frowned, handing the cup back to her. She laughed. "Perhaps you should try it without the cream and sugar. It might be more to your liking."

He gulped the water to wash away the taste and followed her to another section.

"This is Med One. We are equipped with the latest in diagnostic equipment so we don't need a doctor on board. The computer banks are uploaded with every conceivable injury and illness that can befall a human being and its treatment or cure. A robot surgeon handles the more complicated procedures. Xeno-biology programs will be available soon."

He had finished the water, but didn't know what to do with the container. Smiling, she took it from him and tossed both into a waste chute. Then she led him farther down the corridor.

"The hold and engineering are at the end of the corridor. These doors along here lead to the crew's quarters."

He stopped beside her when she came to a halt in front of one of the doors.

"This is my cabin. Would you care to see it?"

He nodded. She placed her hand on the identipad, and the door slid open. Inside, the lights were dim.

"Lights nine," she said, and the lights brightened considerably.

Soft grey carpet covered the floor. Sofa and chairs were grouped in one corner, dining table and chairs in another. He watched her walk across the carpet to one side of the spacious bed. A silver comforter, puffed and soft, covered the bed.

"This room is obscenely luxurious compared to the crew's quarters. My father designed it particularly for my mother. He's been trying to talk her into making trips with him again, as they used to do when all they owned was one clunker of a ship and started McClure Shipping." She pushed a button on a comm pad. In the wall above the bed, panels slid apart to reveal a huge oval window. She pushed another button, and the lights went out. The starscape dominated the darkened room.

"In space, the scene is breathtaking," she murmured.

"I know," he said quietly and walked to the other side of the bed.

She laughed. "Of course you do. I was born on Earth, and I've spent most of my life there. By choice. I've traveled in space more in the past two months than I have in my entire life. I'm afraid it's still new to me. I hope the magic never wears off."

"It doesss not."

"Good. I always want to feel this way when I look at the stars."

She smiled, square teeth shining iridescently against the softer sheen of pale skin, and he tightened yet again. Each time he thought he had himself under control, she would say or do something or the light would fall on her in a way that he found indescribably pleasing.

In the name of the rock, why couldn't he get his mind off of rhi`ina`a for one moment? He was no better than a youngling who had yet to experience it for the first time!

"Commander, would you like to see the hold now?"

"Yesss," he said, and his voice sounded huskier to his own hearing. "That would be a good idea."

He moved to the foot of the bed, watching her as she did the same. As she drew near, the light from the window brightened considerably. They both turned as the double moons came into view, the larger pursuing the smaller across the night sky. Time passed in breathless anticipation as the chase continued across the expanse of window. At last, the larger moon overtook the other, and the two blended into one.

Rhi`ina`a in the sky. Even the celestial bodies conspired to drive him mad.

"My God," she whispered hoarsely as she stared at the conjunction.

Her round eyes were as big as moons, her lips moist and slightly parted. He did not think she invoked her God as a prayer. He thought--and he admitted it might be wishful thinking--she looked ready for rhi`ina`a.

He cleared his throat. "Perhapsss we ssshould visssit the hold now."

She nodded her head vigorously and turned back to the remarkable sight in the window. "Yes, Commander, I think we should."

Both of them hesitated as if neither wanted to make the first move. He felt the vibration first then the starscape moved, the moons quickly disappearing from view. He thought he suffered some kind of seizure, a result of long abstinence and the sudden influx of stimuli, but then he recognized it for what it was. Liftoff.

She was falling. As he reached out to help her he felt the enormous weight of an increase in gravity. He hadn't felt that kind of pressure since he was a youngling, flying the ancient warships that had no gravity sensors.

He fought the pressure, but it was too great. If he didn't give in, muscles would stretch and bones might break. He let himself fall forward, to the bed, and found himself atop the sa`aloh. She made a small oof sound.

The pressure did not increase any further or he would have crushed her.

"What's...happening?" Her words slurred, and she had difficulty getting them out.

"Do I hurt you?"

She shook her head, one quick jerk to the side. "If you could...move a little...so I can...breathe."

He couldn't lift himself at all, and only with tremendous effort could he shift his upper body a little to the side, off her chest.

"Better," she said. "This shouldn't be happening. We should have felt some vibration, but the gravity sensors should have kicked in."

"The quessstion isss, why did we lift off at all?"

"I don't know. Have we been--hijacked? The gravity increase--to incapacitate--us?"

"That isss a logical conclusssion," he agreed. "There isss alwaysss that danger on Arreisss."

The side of his head pressed into the puffed comforter beside hers, his mouth close to her ear. His arm lay across her chest, but its weight was not enough to harm her. Part of his upper body lay upon hers, her arm beneath him, her hand in a most inconvenient place. She tried to rise, to pull free of the pressure, a natural reaction to one unaccustomed to the weight of a higher gravity. Her hand's movement did nothing for his sanity, and if she did not stop, he would not be able to hold it in at all.

"Relax, sa`aloh. You cannot essscape the presssure. Fighting it will only harm you," he advised. Her movements ceased, and he exhaled his relief.

His lower body ran along the length of hers, their lower legs off the bed completely. He felt the tension at the back of his knees, as if the pressure tried to bend them in a way the joints never intended. The mounting strain could not overrule what her moving hand had wrought or what she had unwittingly done to him all evening.

He was in danger from an unknown source, and all he could think of was her, spread beneath him, her body radiating a heat to rival that of the Bh'rin'gha Desert. Cold-blooded by nature, he always found himself drawn to heat, and humans were the most warm-blooded creatures of all.

He heard the doors open with a whoosh, but no one entered. He turned his head, straining his neck muscles, to see who held them captive. Out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed--

"Well, well, what have we here," Steve Hancock said and laughed dryly. "You'd better watch it, Rep. That woman is cold enough to freeze hell over."

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