By: Melissa Landers

Before he could tell her to keep it, she spun on her heel and took off toward the common room. The clang of her boots on the stairs soon followed.

Ignoring the heaviness in his gut, Kane left his old room and kicked the door shut. His brain understood this distance was long overdue. Now he needed the rest of him to get the message.

Even if Cassia hadn’t known Vega was a brand-new terraform, the silence would have clued her in. Planets in solar systems like these were settled by the poor—refugees from the overcrowded slums of Earth who wanted a fresh start and plenty of room to grow their families. Not the kind of people who could afford to import sparrows or bullfrogs. Settlers brought only useful stock with them. If you couldn’t ride it, wear it, or eat it, you weren’t likely to find it in the outer realm.

Shielding her eyes from the sun, she stood at the base of the ship’s cargo ramp and gazed past a verdant field to the budding town in the distance, where a dozen prefabricated buildings lined a single paved street. The saltbox structures looked the same on all these fringe settlements, like they’d been ordered from a clearance catalog.

They probably had been.

“Let’s get on with it,” Kane called from inside the cargo hold. “The sooner we make this delivery, the sooner we can go.”

“Fine by me,” Doran agreed.

Cassia’s jaw tightened. She’d heard about the trip to Gage Spaulding’s underground mansion, but no one had bothered to invite her. Not that she cared. She didn’t want to spend her shore leave with Kane anyway.

Still facing away, she told them, “Let’s make a deal. You guys stack the crates, and then you can leave. I’ll see the pallet to town and collect payment.”

“But don’t you need the shuttle for that?” Solara asked.

“No. The warehouse is sending a hovercraft to tow everything in. I’ll ride with them and walk back here when I’m done. It’s not far.”

There was a long beat of silence. Then Kane said, “I don’t know. Maybe we should stay together.”

For some strange reason, his words caused a sharp ache in the spot directly behind Cassia’s breastbone. She whirled on him, seeing nothing but a blond blur through the moisture welling in her eyes. She didn’t know what had possessed her, but she’d roll naked in a thorn bush before letting Kane see her cry.

“It’s just a cargo drop,” she snapped, charging into the hold and skirting around him. “I don’t need you for that.” As she continued up the stairs, she called over her shoulder, “I don’t need you for anything.”

An hour later, she was sitting on the edge of a wheeled pallet, watching the Banshee’s shuttle fade into the atmosphere. Once the shuttle vanished from sight, she sighed and rested her head against a crate of grain as a wheezing hovercraft towed her across the field toward Main Street.

“Sure you don’t want to ride up here?” shouted the hovercraft pilot, a smiling boy who filled out his coveralls with the broad shoulders of a grown man. There was a hint of mischief in his eyes, the kind that promised a good time with no strings attached. But she wasn’t in the mood for company.

“No thanks.”

Once they reached the warehouse, Cassia hopped down and went in search of the foreman, who pointed her in the direction of the finance officer. A few electronic signatures later, full payment was transferred to the Banshee’s account, and Cassia found herself with twenty-four hours of shore leave on her hands—usually a good problem to have. This time she didn’t know what to do with herself.

She turned her gaze to the open warehouse doorway, where the hovercraft pilot caught her eye. He stood outside, tipping his head toward the heart of town in an unspoken invitation. When she didn’t answer, he said, “Have a drink with me.” He held up both hands. “I promise I’ll keep these to myself…unless you beg me to reconsider.”

She laughed, but she still wasn’t interested. “You seem nice, but—”

“I heard the pub just got a shipment of hellberry wine.”

Her brows jumped. “From Pesirus?”

“Yep. The real deal.”

That was it. He’d found the chink in her armor. There was nothing in the galaxy Cassia loved more than hellberry wine. Everyone on the Banshee knew she lived for their yearly delivery to Pesirus, the only place where hellberries grew. The wine was spicy and sweet, served warm with a shot of cane syrup that made her feel like she was bathing in bliss.

“All right,” she decided, jogging outside to meet him. “But only one glass. Any more and I’ll wind up naked in the town churchyard.” She knew from experience.