Sci-fi Romance

Trey: Son of Tallav
An Earthbound Christmas
A Touch of Greed

Trey: Son of Tallav

She’s the opposite he can’t resist.

Trey Johannsen’s preference is to stick to managing a private club on Beta Tau. It’s dark. It’s sexy. The cries of pleasure, the thud of a flogger, and the mingled scents of arousal and fear are evidence he’s damn good at it.

So when his boss insists Trey’s perfect for assisting a new hire to develop a cabaret, Trey is nonplussed. How the hell do you make burlesque accurately represent the lifestyle? Then he meets her, and instant attraction has him imagining peeling her clothes off, tying her to a bed, and sinking into her until she can take no more.

He’s determined to make her his own despite differences that could thrust them into bitter conflict.

A lust-inducing man isn’t on Patsy O’Shaughnessy’s shopping list. Her commitment to refuse his overtures, they’ll be coworkers after all, slides into oblivion. She’s got a lot on her plate, but dessert never hurt a girl. Especially when the dessert is built like a Celtic warrior of old, lacking only the kilt and sword.

This is the 4th and final book in the Sons of Tallav series.

Publisher: Hot Sauce Publishing

Chapter 1

It hadn’t occurred to Trey that LS Quantum and Beta Tau were two sides of the same coin. Sure, LS Quantum was a spaceship, and Beta Tau was a planet. But he’d read the LS Quantum’s brochures, and in every other respect they were the same large, climate-controlled settings designed to provide trendsetting pleasure venues to paying customers and entertainment for all ages and palates, including his own kinky tastes.


The insight came when a middle-aged woman eased alongside him, brushing her shoulder against his and asking if he was headed to the LS Quantum and if so, where his cabin was located on the ship. Her skimpy halter, skintight slacks, and the bright pink hair she was sporting did nothing to enhance her appeal. This was Beta Tau all over. The glare he aimed at her didn’t force her to step back. Good gods! I’d be at Quantum’s shuttle service gate if Patsy O’Shaughnessy hadn’t insisted on meeting me here. He scanned the customers of the bland space station lounge. No. Still on my own.

An expert at fending off tourists on Beta Tau, he’d offer to take them to the club, tie them up, and use a bullwhip on them. Most scurried away. He handed anyone who accepted his proposition over to staff at the club. Bondage was part of his personal kink, but he preferred to use a flogger. The whip was the specialty of the Whip Hand’s owner, Randolph Meryon, Trey’s boss.

The neon-haired tourist ran a finger down his upper arm. “Maybe we could get together on board? I’ve heard bald men are really good in bed.”

When he dropped his gaze to where she’d touched him, the woman tittered. Eyes narrowed, he leveled his full focus on her. “Sure. If you’re into knife play, I might be able accommodate you. I’d have to ask my girlfriend. She’s the one who does the cutting.” He followed his words with a feral grin.

The tourist turned pale. “No thanks.” She scuttled back to her friends who’d been watching the exchange. Wide-eyed, they left the lounge, several looking back over their shoulders to get another glance at him.

With a grimace, he settled in to wait. This wasn’t a vacation, and he wasn’t a tourist. Nor was he on his way to Quantum, away from his normal haunts on Beta Tau, to indulge in BDSM. No, he had undertaken this two-week-long trek in his capacity as the Whip Hand’s private club manager. Rand had hired a young woman to open and run a new venue on Beta Tau based on the Cosmic Cabaret, one of the famous attractions on LS Quantum. After getting firsthand experience of the cabaret’s shows, Trey was to provide his BDSM expertise to tailor O’Shaughnessy’s plans.

Crazy idea. At least I didn’t have to travel economy class and spend my nights in a sleep tube. Rand had paid for a cabin that, although small, had allowed Trey to escape most human interaction for the two weeks he’d been aboard the space liner, sleeping, reading, meditating, and sleeping some more. Perhaps his reintroduction into the hum and clatter of humanity after his break had him on edge.

No perhaps about it. He was ready to bellow at the entire spaceport to shut up. Life would be so much better if half the population were fitted with ball gags.

Here he was, per Ms. O’Shaughnessy’s request, and she was not to be found. He eyeballed the entrance, considering whether he should head over to the gate to wait for his shuttle, when a shock of color came flying into the lounge. The slender woman, dressed in a bright, grass-green sleeveless blouse and short skirt, skidded to a halt. Splashed across her face was a wide grin as brilliant as the lime green that tipped the ends of her copper hair. She was looking straight at him. This must be Patsy O’Shaughnessy. With a wave she headed for him.

“Hi. Sorry I’m late. Ya wouldn’t believe the crush of folks leavin’ Quantum today. I’m Patsy. Trey Johansson. Right? Mr. Meryon sent your picture, so I recognized ya. Although I don’t expect there’s many men that look quite like ya.”

When she paused for a breath, Trey inserted a few words into her verbal onslaught. “Yes. I am.”

“I’m excited to meet ya. And to work with ya. I have so many plans I can’t wait to share. Our shuttle back to Q—that’s LS Quantum for short—boards in about fifteen minutes. We have time for a quick drink if ya’d like, or we could head to the gate. I could use a drink. Dashin’ around.” She waved her hand in the air. “I’m so thirsty now. I’m gettin’ an orange fizzy. What would ya like?”

Pleasant expression on her face, Patsy waited for a response.

“Oh, uh. Sure, I’ll have what you’re having.”

“Be right back.” She twirled and headed toward the bar.

Wow. That accent sounded Irish. And not Tallavan faux Irish. Light complexion, freckles, copper hair, wearing green…stereotype, sure, but damn, if she wasn’t Irish, he’d eat a whole pan of fried blood pudding. Something he hadn’t tasted in a long time. Fried eggs, tomatoes, white-and-black pudding. A full Irish breakfast like his mother made better than any other cook on Tallav. He missed his folks and his mother’s cooking, but Tallav would never be his home. Even if he’d been a member of the aristocracy, he would have left the Tallavan matriarchy in the dust as he had the moment he was of age.

“Here ya go.” Patsy handed him a large disposable cup and took a long drink from her own. “Ah. That was what I needed. I had cobwebs in my throat.”

Trey tipped his cup back and swallowed three gulps of the sweet orange liquid and remembered why he never drank fizzies. The carbonation bubbled up his nose. He pinched his nostrils, squinched his eyes shut, and waited for the burn to abate.

“Got fizz up your nose, did ya? Ya should drink more slowly if ya can’t handle the sparkly. I never have a problem. My whole system’s plumbed with synthsteel.”

Was this slip of a girl offering him advice as though he were some— “My delicate feckin’ nose thanks ya for the interest in its well-bein’.”

With blue eyes aglow, she leaned toward him. “Think nothin’ of it. An féidir leat labhairt le haon Gealic chun dul leis sin blas na hÉireann?”

Sarcasm was lost on Patsy O’Shaughnessy. “It’s not an Irish accent. I’m from Tallav, which was infected with a fanatic love of all things from the Emerald Isle when the planet was founded. I never had the time to learn Gaelic, but many Tallavans do.”

“Standard it is then. We have somethin’ in common. I’m proper Irish. Erin go Bragh. ‘Tis a pity ya don’t speak Gaelic. I don't get to speak it this far from home. Oh, goodness. We need to head over to the gate. Our shuttle will be boardin’ soon.”

On the way out of the lounge, Trey dumped his fizzy in the trash receptacle. Patsy was ahead of him by a couple of strides, so he had a full view of the subtle twitch her ass made while she walked. Nice. From her employment records he had gleaned that she was thirty years old, although she looked younger. That fell within his range, five years either side of his own age, for women he would date. But Patsy O’Shaughnessy was off-limits despite her engaging effervescence. This was a business relationship. For the next two-and-a-half weeks, they’d be working together. Besides, whether she’d kissed the Blarney Stone or not, the woman could talk. By the end of a day spent with her, he’d need to escape to his own room. Plus he didn’t do vanilla. Patsy wasn’t bland, but neither did she scream kinky despite her association with Cosmic Cabaret and now Randolph and the Whip Hand.

Still, he could look. He’d never been drawn to big-busted women, but a tight bottom was a delight to behold. And touch. Squeeze. Slap. He heaved a sigh. Too bad. He’d already plastered a don’t-touch sign across her miniskirted bum.

*  *  *

Trey Johansson was every bit as good-looking and well-built as Patsy expected. But she hadn’t been prepared for the sheer size of the man. He towered over her. And muscles! Her fingers wouldn’t reach around his biceps.

She’d researched Randolph Meryon’s home planet, Tallav, to prepare for her job interview. It was a surprise to learn that Trey, or Master Trey as he was called at the Whip Hand, was also from Tallav. He was a BDSM master. A tingle flittered the length of her spine. He’d been sent to gain firsthand knowledge of the Cosmic Cabaret to help her with reinterpreting it for a BDSM venue.

The name hadn’t been chosen yet. Her preference was to include cabaret. Beyond that she hadn't come up with anything catchy if Rand asked for her advice. Trey’s other task ought to assist with that. He was to teach her about BDSM. How he would approach that was the big question. Would he want to initiate her into the BDSM lifestyle or only explain the different aspects of kink and fetish? How far should she let him go if he wanted to make his lessons more real?

A quick glance over her shoulder assured her every inch of the giant with piercing deep brown eyes was following her to the shuttle gate. Oh my gosh, he’s checking out my ass. Her cheeks heated. Why oh why did she have to have pale skin that showed even the slightest blush? Why couldn’t she have been born with dark amber skin like the delectable man behind her? Pull it together, girl. It’s a guy thing. Their eyes are naturally drawn to tits and ass.

An announcement stated boarding for their shuttle flight would commence in five minutes. Inside the gate seating area, Patsy turned to face Trey. “We have a few more minutes. Shall we sit, and ya can double-check that your bags have been loaded.”

Trey pulled a hand-comm from his pants pocket, held it to his ear, and made the call to the automated baggage handling system. After assuring the comm was off, he put it away.

“Ya use a hand-comm? Ya don’t see many people that do. I’d probably lose one, so my internal comm is a true blessin’. I don’t know how people lived in the past without an EBC. All my data is there at the tip of my thoughts. I was told everyone received nanite injections to build their internal server when they were infants.”

“I’m not a fan of tech. I like to keep things simple.”

Trey Johansson was even more intriguing than she’d imagined. “So, ya don’t have an EBC. Where do ya store information? How do ya know when someone is tryin’ to contact ya? Goodness. How do ya exist without bein’ able to connect with governmental systems? Bankin’ systems? Will there be a problem boardin’?” Why hadn’t he or Mr. Meryon told her this?

“Stop.” Trey narrowed his eyes and raised his hand. “Stop. Let me answer one question at a time.” In the pause that followed, Trey raised an eyebrow.

Oh, he wants me to acknowledge him. “Yes. Understood.”

A flush of pleasure went through her when he smiled. “Good girl. I have an EBC. Every child on Tallav receives one. I use it when necessary. My work-related data is kept on servers like most of yours is. You access it through your EBC. I use a vidscreen.” He patted his pocket. “My hand-comm signals me when I have a message. It tracks callers, just like your internal comm. I don’t like cluttering my mind. It destroys inner peace.”

He dropped his chin and looked at her as though he were expecting her to say something. But for a change she kept quiet. Her thoughts were bustling with everything she had learned about this man. That good girl was patronizing but so very BDSM master–like, especially coming from a hunk of handsome with a voice like smooth dark chocolate. She’d liked it. File that away for future reference on female reactions to Doms.

Into the lapse in conversation Trey said, “My luggage is loaded.”

“Oh, good. We’re all set then.”

Silence dropped between them again. Patsy was relieved when the gate announcer gave them the go-ahead to board. Behind her, Trey placed his palm on her lower back, guiding her through the other passengers who were standing and collecting their carry-on bags. The instant his hand spanned her back, its warmth and size made the hairs on her arms rise. Please let the feckin’ man offer me hands-on BDSM lessons. She’d kill to see him naked, but it had to be his idea, his suggestion. This job was the break she’d been waiting on, and she wouldn’t botch it by coming on to a fellow employee.

On board, they found their seats and were settling in when a group of ladies, one with neon-pink hair, passed them. Each one stared at Trey and then Patsy as they hugged the far side of the aisle as closely as possible and scooted by. The woman in back nudged her companion to hurry when Patsy smiled at them.

Trey grunted. Patsy turned to look at him. He had a smirk on his face.

“Do ya know them? They looked like they’d seen a ghost and were runnin’ for water.”


He continued to grin, but Patsy didn't see what was funny. His next statement didn't clear things up.

“They must not favor green.”

“Afraid of green. That’s not after bein’ a real phobia.”

“It is. Prasinophobia. Fear of the color green.”

“That’s a funny thing to know. You’re not afraid of green, are ya?”

“Would I be sitting here if I were?” He pointedly trailed his gaze over her. “One of the classes at the Opio Institute where I worked covered the use of fear by sadists. You can make someone fear any color if you condition them to it.”

The Opio Institute. That was the sex school where he’d trained dominants and submissives. “Doesn’t sound like fun to me.”

Trey chuckled. “I didn’t figure you for a sadist.”

“Er.” The man had a way of throwing her off stride.

“It wouldn’t be fun for me either. But fear of color can be used by a sexual sadist to get a satisfying response from his play partner.”

“Remind me to stay away from sexual sadists.”

Another chuckle. “It’s going to be difficult avoiding your new boss.”

Patsy blushed and furrowed her brow. “I forgot he’s one of those.”

Trey’s expression became enigmatic. “Don’t worry. You’d have to play with him to experience that side of his personality.”

Sweet mother Mary. I’ll not head that direction. “I’ll be dead and my ashes scattered before that happens.”

Heated intensity bloomed in Trey’s gaze. “Good.”

Oh Lord, I’m in for it now.


An Earthbound Christmas

Book Cover: An Earthbound Christmas

Fate arranges the chance meeting of two strangers in need of a little kindness on Christmas Eve. Celebrity Davon Weider, with his navy-blue eyes and muscular physique, can fill the starring role in any woman’s fantasy. But Jasline, a spaceport mech, is more impressed by his five jump speed records. This will be a Christmas neither will forget.

Publisher: Hot Sauce Publishing

Jasline wiped a blob of viscous goop from her cheek. The stink of XD-800 filled her nostrils. At least none landed in her hair… this time. She knew only too well how devilishly difficult it was to remove the lubricant from her thick golden-brown curls. She’d taken the precaution to tie every strand back and secure the ponytail beneath a cap before attempting to free the injectors on the jammed cargo lift. Success had come at the cost of one of her nicer navy-blue jumpsuits. Nicer being relative and dependent on the number of stains layered one upon the other on the durable canvas garment. Maybe with some Brite-N-Clean, she could get the worst of the ugly, dark, sludgy brown out.


She pressed her hands against her lower back and stretched her spine before bending over to pile her tools into her redi-kit. It seemed she’d have extra free time this Christmas Eve. The boss had said she could quit as soon as she got the cargo lift functioning. Medical supplies needed for the plague on Benis Prime were waiting to be loaded, and the stevedores went straight to work once she cleared the maintenance hold. They’d want to get done and head home to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with their families.

The past two Christmases, she’d signed up for on-call status and stayed at the spaceport. This year it was time to pull her head out of the sand and stop avoiding the holiday. After all, it couldn't be lonelier at home than it had been hanging out with the misfits and losers at the deserted spaceport with its fake winter snow scenes. Christmas dinner was waiting to be picked up at the local grocery store, Pack-It-In. Three bottles of wine were in her parents’ wine chiller, and a bottle of top quality vodka was in the freezer. This Christmas, she would eat and drink herself happy.

Silence met her ears instead of the usual bang of metal doors and the clamor of conversation when she entered the employee locker room. No waiting for a shower. The door of her locker popped open once she’d placed her finger on the security tab. She slung her redi-kit onto the top shelf and pulled her laundry bag out of the bottom. After pulling off her boots and unbuckling her belt, she yanked at the collar of her coverall, releasing the sticktites that kept it sealed all the way to her crotch. She shrugged out of the arms and pulled each leg out of the rank garment, careful to avoid getting any more XD-800 on her skin. With her gear stashed, she secured the door.

Gray towels, once white, lay in a double pile on a table by the shower entrance. Jasline selected the largest and fluffiest of the lot, slung it on the hook outside the first shower cubicle, and turned the water on, waiting until it was nearly scalding hot before stepping inside. A jab on the soap dispenser produced one drop. Dang it. She’d have to use shampoo or switch to another stall. Shampoo it is.

Palm filled with a generous squirt, she slathered her body, skimming her breasts and scrubbing between her legs. Not that it mattered. She hadn’t been with a man in…eighteen months. That time had been a disaster. The cretin she’d met in a blue-collar bar had taken her outside to the alley, fucked her against the wall, and left her with a Thanks, babe right after.

Water slipped into her nose when she snorted at her maudlin thoughts. As long as she remained a grease monkey, her chances of attracting a decent male were near zero. She’d overheard her neighbor trying to set her up with a friend. Amazingly the man hadn’t jumped at the chance to go out on a date with a woman described as sturdy, decent, and a good conversationalist. That last had been a kindly-meant fabrication. She wasn’t a talker. Something would have to change, but it wasn’t likely that it would be her.

Bent over, she twisted the excess water from her hair, watching it run down the drain. She rubbed her hair dry quickly because the locker room was never warm enough. Goosebumps covered her, and by the time she wrapped the towel around herself, her nipples budded tight. She pulled on the clothes she’d worn to work earlier in the day, including a bright red tunic, meant to put her in the Christmas spirit. She let her golden-brown curls fall to her shoulders rather than attempting to restrain them.

Her father had called her hair her glory. It was the one semi-perfect thing about her. The color matched the California-girl tan she earned baking in the sun. Her inner cat found it hard to resist a patch of sunshine. The stain on her cheek marred the effect, but it did sort of match the green eyes staring back at her from the mirror on the inside of her locker. She scowled at herself. Christmas was making her foolish.

She shouldered the laundry bag and slapped the locker closed. A gang of stevedores jostled their way past her, all smiles, laughter, and rude jests. That was quick. But it looked like the whole crew had stayed to support the two the job required, assuring everyone an early end to their day. They had families to rush home to.

At least this concourse wasn’t overrun with the chaos of the large liners heading off with thousands of passengers for the Christmas in Orbit cruises which had become popular over the last few years. Small private ships berthed here, like the medical ship she’d been working on. It was quiet save for a tall, dark-headed man shouting into the hand-held comm pressed tight to his ear.

“I’m coming over.” His fingers fisted, and his face darkened.

It was Davon Weider. The sexiest jump pilot, well, anywhere.

“I’ll fight you on this. You won’t stop me—” He pulled the hand-held away and glared at it. “Shite!” Then he threw the communicator along the concourse, leaned his long athletic body against the wall, and slid to slump on the floor, head resting on the arm on his bent knee.

Jasline bit her lip. This was Davon Weider, the military hero who had broken the jump speed record five times and had movies made from his exploits. The man was golden. Everything he touched went platinum. Even his shit probably smelled like roses. The playboy of every girl’s fantasies, he’d broken thousands of hearts when he’d finally settled down with the perfect woman, Tanya Thoreau. Supermodel-good-looking, rich, and with the acting chops to win an Academy Award. Her star shone as bright as Davon’s.

So why did he look like life had just dumped a crushing load of defeat on him? And why should she care?

Her stride slowed. No, I shouldn’t interfere. He has people for this. The instant she decided to walk past him, he raised his head, looking straight at her. Hurt and anger shone from the depths of his dark blue eyes, overlaid by a sadness that seemed to cling to every cell in his body.

She stopped dead in her tracks. Pain thudded in the place in her heart where she nurtured her own hurt, betrayal, and isolation. And she couldn’t walk past him. Instead she slid to sit beside him, palms resting on her bent knees and…nothing. No words came. She stared straight ahead, doing the only thing she knew to do, sharing this moment with him, showing him he wasn’t alone.


A Touch of Greed

The worry stone in Max’s pocket is getting a workout. If it’s not the latest shenanigans of his burglary crew, it’s the bombshell that just exploded in his personal life. Seventeen years after walking out on him, Marianna is back, and she has revelations that will upend his plans for peace and quiet.

The team is salivating to take advantage of her position on an archeological space dig. The backer, an illegal antiquities collector, has long eluded them. Their timeline moves up when they discover that Marianna is the mogul’s chosen fall guy.

Emotionally satisfying with a twist that will leave you shaking your head, Touch of Greed is a fast-paced read you won’t put down.

Publisher: Hot Sauce Publishing

Max dragged a hand down his face, the bristles of his freshly trimmed mustache poking him. Life had become entirely too rowdy. Which was saying something when you considered he was a longtime employee of Sebastian St. Croix, keeping track of the man’s personal business and assisting him in purloining previously stolen artworks, relics, and antiquities. A few experiences along the way had been harrowing. None as deadly as last night’s face-off with a missile. And yet it was today’s meeting that had him rolling the smooth chunk of orbicular jasper in his pocket between his fingers and thumb. He didn’t normally fidget, much less pace. But here he was marking a path between tall fluted columns reminiscent of an Old Earth Greek temple outside the Shaded Garden as he awaited a person he’d never expected to meet again.


She hadn’t said why she wanted to see him, only that it was important and needed to be face-to-face. That was five days ago. The ship she’d taken from Bontol had arrived on planet this morning. She’d messaged him with the location of a restaurant in the quaint suburb of New Arras and a schedule. And here he was, looking like, as Cade had put it, he had a date or a date in court: stylish black suit, crisp open-collared white shirt, primped, polished and waiting on a woman. The one woman he’d ever truly loved. The woman who had crushed his heart seventeen years ago.

Time had been kind to him. A touch of gray at his temples and in his beard were the only hints he was older than the forty he looked. In fact he was forty-seven. Fit. No paunch. Still in his prime.

Why should it matter? He had no wish to renew a relationship that had left him bruised and furious. But he was also well past the mind-set that would enjoy rubbing his undiminished good looks in the face of an old lover. Still he couldn’t deny he wanted her to desire him again, as if that would somehow assuage an ancient heartbreak. More likely to assuage his vanity. Prove casting him off had been a big mistake, one she was here to rectify.

No. Don’t fool yourself. If that were true, it would have happened long ago.

He compelled himself to lean against a column, arms crossed over his chest, the image of a man relaxed and self-assured. She was five minutes late, and if her habits remained predictable, he had five more to wait. And then he saw her, walking toward him in that way she had, almost gliding. The sheath she wore, a vivid coral red, showed off her long legs and the svelte figure she’d managed to maintain over the passing years. The breeze blew her dark hair across her cheek, and she brushed it aside. Their gazes caught, and he fell into her smoky brown eyes as he had the first time they’d met.

Before she reached him, he straightened, his hands falling to his sides, but he made no movement in her direction.

The barest of creases was visible between her brows. Her eyes searched his. Her mouth twitched once, but she didn’t smile. “Max.”

“Marianna.” He forced her name out through a throat grown tight.

They stared at one another as though caught in a spell, before she pressed her lips together and sighed. “Shall we go inside?”

He gestured for her to proceed him and followed her into the restaurant. Water arched from a wall fountain, cascading before a mosaic depiction of dolphins frolicking in the sea. The mural stretched all the way to the high ceiling. The blue, pink, and pale green colors of the walls, artwork, and furnishings gave the place a sense of light airiness, as though they’d been transported to a bistro near a warm ocean inlet. It was the perfect setting for Marianna’s beauty.

Once they settled at a table and had ordered, silence again descended over them like a thick cloud. Customers carried on conversations around them, cutlery clattering amid occasional bursts of laughter, but it was as though he and Marianna were inhabiting their own private universe.

“You look well. Life has been good to you?” It wasn’t a question as much as a statement. Her expression gave nothing away about her inner thoughts.

“Why are you here, Marianna?”

She glanced down, gazing at her lap where Max knew from past habit she was fisting and stretching her fingers. “There…there is someone…”

Her accent, with its slightly rolled r’s and descending cadence, washed over him, eliciting the same visceral response it always had. He waited, the ache in his chest expanding, for her to find the words she needed to tell him.

Her eyes were shimmering with tears when at last she brought her gaze up to meet his. She held her lips tight, unsuccessfully attempting to keep them from trembling.

Was she in some kind of trouble? What could be happening in her life that she believed he was the person she should turn to? He leaned forward. “Tell me. Whatever it is, we’ll deal with it.”

“You have a daughter.” She blinked, and a tear escaped to trail down her cheek.

For a moment Max’s brain froze. His gaze dropped to the table, his vision unfocused. He replayed her words in his mind, once to assure himself he’d heard correctly and a second time as the reality of their meaning slammed home.

He flicked his gaze up to glower at her.

She pulled back as though his stare had physical force to it. “You’re angry.”

Before he could respond, the waiter came with their meals. Max acknowledged the man, thanking him with a false smile while tapping the index finger of his left hand against the tablecloth.

A daughter! How the hell could he have a daughter? Marianna had not been pregnant when she left. He knew for a fact she’d had her birth control vaccine two months prior to their split. A baby was impossible. And even if it were true, why would she wait seventeen years to tell him? Surely the point when she needed help would have been when the child was young. Did she want a payout now? Was she trying to shake him down for money? That wasn’t the Marianna he remembered.

Once the waiter removed the wineglasses they wouldn’t be using and headed into the kitchen, Max took a deep breath and deliberately relaxed his taut muscles. It seemed he didn’t have to fear the dredging up of old emotions and desires. They could stay packed and sealed in the box he’d constructed for them in his heart almost two decades ago. Any thought of reconciling was sliced to pieces by the razor’s edge of a new betrayal.

“Explain how that’s even possible.”

She dipped her chin in a quick nod. “It shouldn’t have been, but my birth control failed.”

He canted his head to the side.

Her eyes widened, and she lifted her hand in a placating gesture. “I know. It’s impossible, but the vaccine I received was one of 144 a tech stole and replaced with saline. Apparently there’s a black market for the stuff. Something to do with slavers and cults where men marry young teenagers.” She waved her finger in the air. “The important point is, I was unprotected the two months we were together. And I became pregnant.”

He turned from her to gaze at a second fountain in the center of the room, locking on to the water flowing from an urn tipped in the hands of a pudgy marble cherub. A child. He’d abandoned any notion that he would have children of his own. First came the wife, and after Marianna there had been no one her equal to fill that role in his life.

He’d always been close to Sebastian since he’d been assigned to protect him when the boy was six years old. That relationship had evolved, but Sebastian hadn’t needed a father. Max had been more an older cousin. It was true he was Uncle Max to Cheyenne, the daughter of Sebastian’s sister, Jeanne. A blessing, but not the same as having a little girl of his own to welcome from the moment of her birth. And now Marianna was telling him he’d had such a child, but she’d denied him sixteen years of parenting that would have created an inseparable bond between them. It tore at him, unleashing a pain that made him want to raise his fists and roar his agony at the universe. Instead he mentally counted at a slow, steady pace and focused on the water spilling from the urn, allowing it to soothe him, to wash away the worst of his emotional reaction.

Still unable to look at her, he finally spoke. “All right. Let’s say I believe what you said. Why the hell didn’t you tell me? Why did you leave, knowing you bore my child?” He turned to face her once again. “My child, Marianna. Not just yours. Mine. Is that the real reason you left? You made it clear that your career was more important to you. That I didn’t fit into your life. But a baby…that would tie me to you for the long term. Did you really want to be rid of me that badly?”

“No.” Her eyes widened. “I didn’t know about the baby when I left. I didn’t realize I was pregnant until a couple of months later. It was so unexpected I didn’t recognize the signs. I wanted to tell you, but you’d left by then, escorting Sebastian on his grand tour. The baby would be a few months old when you returned, so I decided to wait.”

“Why would you do that?” He brought his knuckles to his temple, looking down at the pasta growing cold on his plate. “I don’t understand.” He dropped his hand and stared at her. “I loved you. I would have come back immediately. Hell, you know I wanted you to join us. I’ve never comprehended how you could throw away everything we had created, the love I thought you felt as much as I did, to move off planet for a position at a minor university.”

“It wasn’t minor. It was tenured.” She shook her head. “But that’s not the point. You chose Sebastian over me. I didn’t want you to come back for the baby. I wanted to be first in your life.” Her shoulders lowered. “After she was born, everything changed. Call it maternal instinct, but I realized I was being selfish. I tried to reach you.” She threw her hands up in the air. “You were supposed to be gone for one year. How was I to know you’d extend it another two years and take yourself off to locales where you were impossible to contact?”

“I see.” He grimaced. “It was all my fault for believing you when you’d said it was time for us to go our separate ways. I should somehow have remained available to you. You scraped my heart with a cheese grater when you left, but I should have ignored the pain and continued to hope that we would be together. I remember the ultimatum you gave me like it was yesterday: go with you or go with Sebastian. I begged you to wait for me. I offered to pay the expenses for you to join us during your vacation time. I promised to vid comm you every day. Why couldn’t you just tell me you’d wait for me?”

She bristled at him. “Because I was stupid. Is that what you want to hear? I hated your relationship with Sebastian. I was jealous. You treated him like family. I’d been raised to believe that a person’s heart was limited in capacity. It could love only one person at a time. That’s how my parents explained their lack of interest in me.”

Her voice broke, and she paused to look away for a moment to collect herself before returning her gaze to Max. “I was wrong. I forced you to choose because I couldn’t believe you really loved me if you loved him. I crushed my own heart.”

Sebastian stared at her. He’d known she was jealous of Sebastian, and he’d done everything he could to resolve the tension between Marianna and the boy. But Sebastian hadn’t made that easy. He’d teased her, fought plans to include her, and generally acted like a prick when she was around.

But the boy was eighteen and Marianna was twenty-five. His lips prssed tight, Max fought the retort that filled his mind. He’d expected her to be the one to behave with greater maturity. All his attempts to explain that after the trip he could move to Bontol to be with her had been rebuffed. As was his request that she understand his desire to see Sebastian into manhood. But her focus had been so rigidly set on “me or him.” It was a struggle to keep his gaze settled on her.

“Lina changed me.” Another tear slid down Marianna’s cheek. “I discovered that there was room in my heart to love you and her, each fully and ferociously.”

Max looked past her, pinching his lips. “It’s been seventeen years. Surely you could have found the time to inform me I had a daughter. You haven’t even told me her name.”


He rolled it over in his mind, whispering, “Carolina.”

Marianna’s lips thinned, her brow wrinkling. “Carolina Joana Walker.”

Walker? His stomach went hard. Taking several slow, deep breaths, he resisted the urge to bellow at her, recognizing that she was about to deliver another gut punch. She poked with a fork at the salad she’d ordered, jerky stabs that failed to spear a bite.

“Why Walker?”

The pointless movement of the fork ceased, and her knuckles went white on the handle. She stared at her plate for a hesitant moment before lifting her gaze to him. “I married John Walker when Carolina was a year and a half old. Eventually he adopted her.”

For the first time in a very long while Max wanted to hit something, to vent the emotions raging through him on an inanimate object. A lifetime’s worth of patience and control, gained by dealing with Sebastian’s wild escapades and scrapes, bled away, deserting him when he needed them most.

Marianna. His Marianna had turned to another man. Taken his daughter from him and given her to someone else, a stranger to him. His fist crashed down on the table.

She flinched. “I couldn’t reach you. My savings were gone, and I couldn’t support us. My job paid well enough for one person, but I hadn’t planned on a child when I accepted the position. And you were supposed to come back.” Her voice had become plaintive.

“You were off somewhere in the cosmos having a marvelous time with Sebastian, and I was barely putting food on our table. John Walker was a kind man, and he loved Carolina. What was I to say when he asked me to marry him? What was I to say? ‘No, I’d rather starve’? I’d already spent so many credits on trans-galactic calls that never reached you. I couldn’t afford another. What was I to do? Tell me. Tell me what I should have done.”

He blanched and went completely still. Why hadn’t he gone after her? Followed her? Then he would have found out about the baby. Everything would have been different. Instead he’d allowed his hurt to dictate his actions. He should have known better. He pushed his plate aside, an ache in the back of his throat. Some of those calls had made it through, and he’d ignored them. He scrubbed his hand from his eyes to his chin. He was as much to blame for the way events had turned out as she was. His anger disappeared, leaving him numb.

Unable to swallow, he rasped out his response. “You did what you had to do. Carolina is lucky to have you as her mother.” The tightness in his chest overwhelmed him, but at last he choked out the words that had to be said. “I can’t fault you for how you handled things.” But I can fault myself. I was an idiot.

Marianna’s face crumpled, her lips pressed together, and her chin trembled. “Thank you.” Her words quavered.

He took a breath, long, slow, and deep, forcing air into lungs constricted as though resisting the pressure of a heavy weight. His voice husky, he asked, “What now? Why now?”

Fat tears dripped from her eyes. She brushed them away with slender fingers and squared her shoulders. “Carolina and I are moving here, to Domingue, permanently. I’ve accepted a position as a project manager for the Sauterelle II archeological expedition. Since Domingue is the closest planet to where the ship was discovered in deep space, they’re towing it into orbit near the space station. The expedition’s offices are here.”

She paused. “I thought…if you and she were willing”—she fingered the pendant at her throat—“it was time for her to meet you.”

He brushed a hand across his forehead to counter his sudden light-headedness. “And is she? Willing?”

“She doesn’t know about you yet. I’m not certain how she’ll react. I wanted to be sure of your response first.”

He nodded gravely, his mind scurrying with possibilities. “And your husband? How does he feel about this?”

Marianna bowed her head before returning her gaze to Max. “He died a year and a half ago.”

“I see.” Despite all the pain this discovery brought, he had a daughter. His heart actually leaped at the thought. A daughter of his own to care for and guide and spoil as only a papa could. He leaned forward and held his hand out to her. When she delicately laid her own in it, he squeezed. “I would love to meet my daughter and will accept whatever conditions you impose. If she refuses, I won’t pursue matters.” His stomach wrenched. “I’ll leave it to her, but please do all you can to convince her.”

He lowered his gaze to their joined hands. “I’ve…” She pressed his fingers tight. “I’ve always wanted a child, your child. I was half in love with her before I knew she existed. Now… It’s like I’ve been given a most precious gift. Thank you. I’ll cherish her as long as I live.”

Her face had softened as he spoke. “I know you will. I never doubted it.” She gave a deep sigh. “I’ll call you. I can’t give you a timeline. Everything depends on Carolina.”

“Of course.” He brought her hand to his lips, pressing a kiss to it. “Whatever you need from me, you have but to ask.”

She glanced to the side. “I should go. Thank you for lunch. I’m sorry I didn’t have the appetite to eat.”

It took effort to release her warm fingers. Memories of how she had skillfully caressed him played in his imagination. But that was the past. She hadn’t even hinted at the possibility of renewing their relationship. And why would she? He’d betrayed her, after all. He needed to stop thinking that way. “I’ll wait to hear from you.”

She rose, smoothing her dress. “Go with God, Max.” He stared after her as she slipped away, a spot of vibrance in a prosaic world.

Go with God. That phrase was so much a part of his remembrances of the woman. Go with God, she’d say when they parted. But the last time they’d left each other, God had chosen not to accompany him. Abandoned to his own imprudence, he’d made the worst mistake of his life. His stomach knotted. Regret was a bitter pill.


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