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Excerpt from

Ransomed by Kashatok

Joy dodged a six-legged yanipa-nimayu bulling its way through the crowd and halted to allow an armed rakwiji to cross to a nearby cantina. Ahead, above the throng, a beat-up sign pointed toward slip A21P. A posungi reeking of cirripi weed brushed against her, facial tentacles waving, and she gripped her satchel tighter, wary of pickpockets. Her time volunteering with Syndicorp’s emergency services division had exposed her to some rough men, but nothing like the throng pressing around her now. Hoping things improved once she was on board the ship, she kept her head up and strode forward with purpose. Sometimes just appearing to look like you knew what you were doing was enough to deter trouble.

She reached the docking corridor connecting the station to the ship, expecting a guard or someone to greet her. The entrance was wide open and vacant. Interesting. Kashatok was obviously very confident with his reputation. She’d done a few minutes of preliminary research before heading over and learned that he and his crew specialized in hijacking entire ships, scrapping them, and selling out the parts. As the new shuttle mechanic, she’d likely soon be doing the same. She’d hoped to get more background on the big, copper-skinned alien who was to be her captain—she’d never encountered a man like him before—but there were surprisingly few records on him.

Well, that would change with this exposé. Squeezing her left eye, she took a few still shots of the open entry. She could add some narrative later.

She stepped into the docking corridor, her heart hammering. The captain’s rule about no women on board had almost made her change her mind. But after asking around in the cantina, she’d learned more about the crewman she was replacing. He’d brought a woman on board, and Kashatok’d set the woman free, ejecting only his offending crew member into space. The other woman probably hadn’t known the rule, but Joy had been warned. What would happen if she was discovered? Would he space-lock her? Her stomach churned. Maybe she should turn around. It wasn’t too late. No one had seen her.

A tug on her pant leg drew her attention from the dimly lit cargo bay ahead. Something scurried up the folds of her cargo pants, little claws digging through the fabric to prick her skin. She let out a squeak, stiffening as a set of dark eyes stopped within inches of hers, staring up from its hold on her chest.

The captain’s pet.

She regained her balance and stared back, hardly daring to breathe. Just because it was adorable didn’t mean it was friendly. The face had a row of small horns set between its eyes and its feathery-looking ears fluttered. Was it just allowed to run free? At least she didn’t see any exposed teeth.

Nose wriggling, it sniffed her, long, furry tail flicking back and forth. The flattened end curved up over its shoulder toward her, revealing octopus-like suction cups on the underside. She laughed nervously as the fuzzy tip stroked her jawline. She’d never been allowed to have a pet, but her friends had owned species of varying friendliness. Keeping her fingers curled inward in case the thing decided to bite, she ran her knuckles along its lavender-furred shoulder. “Hello, little fellow. What’s your name?”

The creature made a little “jweek jweek” sound and closed its eyes.

She opened her hand and stroked the feather-soft fur. “Is your master aboard?”

In answer, it clambered the rest of the way up her chest and settled on her shoulder, long tail wrapping gently around her throat. It closed its eyes and settled down as if to sleep.

“Okay, then.” Strangely fortified by the greeting, she continued into the cargo bay. A beat-up CrossX Spacer Elite sat to one side of a dimly lit, industrial-gray area. She breathed deeply, relieved she’d taken a few minutes to download Syndicorp’s specs for the shuttle. Her accessibility to the galactic web after she was on board was uncertain, and she needed to look like she knew what she was doing. Against the far wall, two open airlocks provided her no guidance.

“There you are.” A deep voice made her spin, and she collided with a broad chest smelling of sweet rum and ginger. Her gaze roamed upward from the silver-banded dark beard bisecting the captain’s chest to his firm but sensuous mouth. She wasn’t used to feeling so short. His hair, pulled into a top-knot, exposed silver earrings, and one strand had come loose to hang between his intense, obsidian eyes. Had he been waiting for her? An unfamiliar yet exciting thrill fluttered in the pit of her stomach.

“Come here, Jhikik.” He plucked the little creature from her shoulder, taking no more notice of her than if she’d been a tree.

He was looking for his pet, not waiting for her. The strange feeling in her stomach subsided. She adjusted her satchel. “What kind of animal is that?”

He settled the creature on his own shoulder where it chittered loudly. “Netorpok.”

“I’ve never heard of it.”

“Endangered species.” He adjusted its tail around his neck as if it was choking him. “Banned on most worlds.”

“Oh.” Joy tried to be nonchalant, but there could be another story here. Some exotic pets were banned because their intelligence made them more like slaves than pets. “Is he sentient?”

Kashatok shook his head and rubbed two knuckles along the creature’s forehead on either side of its horns. “Though sometimes I wonder.”

His gaze shifted to her for the first time since she’d bumped into him. Her breath caught. She’d never been particularly attracted to bad boys, but this pirate’s attention made her quiver low in her belly. “Um, where should I put my stuff?”

A muscle in the side of the captain’s jaw twitched and his copper skin darkened with a slightly blue-green tinge. He took a long drink from the bottle in his other hand. “Bunk room’s down that corridor behind you.”

Bunk room? Joy’s throat grew tight. Passing for a guy would become exponentially more difficult if she was sharing quarters with a bunch of other men. What if they took communal showers or something? She hadn’t thought this through very well. “I don’t get my own quarters?”

“You could.” The first mate’s voice startled her from behind. She jumped, nearly stepping on Kashatok’s toes. “A private room’ll cost you your share, though.” Aleknagik leaned against the corridor exit, arms crossed over his chest.

Relief flooded her. Little did they know she didn’t need the money. In fact, she’d pay extra for a private room if it wouldn’t blow her cover. But she was supposed to be a greedy pirate here, so she pretended to pause and consider. “My entire share?”

“Actually, two shares.” Kashatok’s voice at her back held a note of warning.

She swallowed, feeling trapped between the two men. “But I only get one share.”

“Exactly.” Kashatok glowered over the top of her head at his first mate. “Aleknagik shouldn’t get your hopes up.”

Aleknagik pushed himself off the wall and took a step closer. He was just as big and copper-skinned as the captain, although instead of keeping his hair pulled up into a queue, he’d braided it into several rows along his scalp, leaving the back portion as wildly unkempt as the vast beard covering his chest. ”Syndicorp’s breathing down our necks, captain. We don’t have time to find a new mechanic.”

Joy clutched her satchel tightly against her chest. They needed a mechanic, and that gave her leverage; a real pirate would probably ask for more at this moment. Calming her breathing so she could speak, she squeaked out, “I want three shares.”

Kashatok lifted an eyebrow, and she swore she saw a smile lurking at the corner of his mouth. “Don’t push your luck, kid.” He took another long drink, then once again pierced her with his dark eyes. “One share, and you can sleep in a storeroom by yourself. Fair enough?”

Wondering what he’d look like if he really smiled, Joy nodded. She’d pushed enough to appear genuine, and she’d gotten what she really needed to make it to the next port without blowing her cover.

Kashatok spun without another word and strode down the nearest corridor, surprisingly steady for someone who’d just consumed almost half a bottle of rum.

“This way,” Aleknagik said, walking toward the opposite corridor.

Joy jogged after him, glancing over her shoulder toward the corridor the captain had taken. Before she left this ship, she was going to get the captain to smile for the camera. He was going to make a fabulous centerpiece for her exposé.

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