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by MB Panichi
They escaped a murderous plot with their lives, but the danger surrounding former Special Operative Shaine Wendt and long-lost heiress Morgan Rahn is only beginning.
At first the worst of their problems seems to be the endless media curiosity that follows them from Earth to Moon Base and back again. An assignment to Mars allows them to hide, but a mining accident leaves Morgan injured and Shaine convinced it’s sabotage. Her prime suspects are from the colony of religious extremists not far from the site.
Shaine’s investigation uncovers the seething malice that she expected—and then something far worse. All they both want is a place to call home, but if they turn their backs will anyone be safe?
The candy-red MicroCruz Racer 3500 air car streaked through the summer sky, flying in the sky lanes over the plains of the North American Midwest. The car’s sleek lines drew a thin, fast-moving shadow over the fields below.
Morgan Rahn leaned back in the leather passenger seat, legs stretched out under the brushed aluminum dashboard, one arm draped across the padded center console, her fingers entwined with her girlfriend’s. The air vents feathered her dark hair off her face. She reveled in the feel of the outside air on her skin, even if it smelled vaguely of dust and the exhaust fumes of vehicles they passed. Morgan squinted against the light and smiled at the heat of the sun warming her skin through the car’s moon roof.
She cast a glance at Shaine Wendt, who drove the souped-up air car with comfortable ease. Shaine nodded her head absently in time to the music playing on the sound system. Morgan appreciated the lines of Shaine’s strong hand guiding the joystick with exacting control, long fingers wrapped around the silicone-coated chrome. Her rippling arm muscles slid beneath smooth skin as she shifted the controls.
Shaine was so beautiful, Morgan thought, all angular lines and strength. Her thick red hair was spiked barely an inch high and cut closely at her neck and over her ears. Broad shoulders stretched the tight black T-shirt she wore. Even sitting, she was tall. Morgan loved the stretch of her long legs in tight leather. Shaine still carried herself with the confidence of the military commando she’d been a decade ago. Morgan squeezed Shaine’s hand, as always amazed at the warmth and comfort of her grip.
Shaine grinned. “Having fun?” she asked.
Morgan smiled. “Absolutely.”
Shaine said, “If you think this is great, you oughta try a road-trip on an open-cockpit air bike.”
Morgan shook her head. “No thanks. This is about as open-air as I plan on getting.”
Morgan turned back to the window, fascinated by the view. She was a spacer—born and raised on the Asteroid Belt’s many mining facilities and on Moon Base. Like most true spacers, her skin was smooth and very pale because of the lack of exposure to true sunlight and weather. Her straight black hair fell just to her shoulders, feathered away from her face. Her bangs fell in wispy strands over wide gray eyes.
She couldn’t wait to be able to sit in the sun. She wanted to feel the warmth of it on her skin and to experience what she’d only read about or seen in vids. This was only her third visit to Earth. She didn’t really remember the first time—she’d been barely five years old. Her parents had taken her to the North American West Coast to visit her mother’s relatives. Her father said she’d played in the ocean and loved it. She wished she could remember more than vague images of blue sky and water.
Her second visit had been a few years ago, with her ex-girlfriend Gina, and it was an experience she would rather forget. Gina took her to New York City, so Morgan could experience a “real” city. Morgan freaked out, overwhelmed by the press of people and the assault of unfamiliar smells and tastes and images. Instead of trying to help her adjust, Gina teased her and made her feel even worse.
Her third visit, only weeks ago, she had been running for her life with Shaine. There hadn’t been time for sight-seeing or lying in the sun. This time, Shaine was taking her to a much quieter, less intense place—not an adventure and not an overwhelming experience.
They were headed to the organic farm Shaine’s family owned, in the Territory of Iowa in the United Federation of the Americas. Shaine promised she would introduce Morgan to all the horses, cows, chickens and goats, but she wasn’t sure she was quite ready for that.
In their short few weeks together, Shaine hadn’t revealed much about her youth. She tended to talk more about her years in Earth Guard, and, occasionally, the time she worked for Mann-Maru Universal’s corporate Security Department, though rarely about her time as an agent in Rogan’s covert Security Group.
As they sped through the sky lanes toward the farm, Morgan found herself thinking about what it would have been like to grow up on Earth. She could hardly imagine living in a place where there was so much empty space or so much freedom to move around. She wondered how Shaine felt about her life here.
As the fields and farmland flew past, she turned her head to study Shaine’s sharply-featured profile. Her expression was relaxed, with a hint of a smile on her lips. Shaine’s hair had grown out over the last month. Morgan slipped her hand from Shaine’s and ran her fingers through the thick strands.
Shaine sighed, leaning into the caress with a contented purr.
Morgan traced light patterns at the base of Shaine’s neck, twisting lightly into the short hair. She asked, “Are you excited to see your family?”
Shaine glanced over briefly before returning her attention to the heads-up display of the sky lane projected in front of the driver’s side windshield. There wasn’t much traffic. In the last hour, they’d passed a handful of passenger cars and a single cargo transport.
Shaine nodded. “Yeah, I am.” A wistful smile creased her lips. “It’ll be good to have a chance to visit, to connect again. It’s been too long.”
Shaine sighed. “A little over three years,” she admitted. “I was going to go back after I left Rogan’s Security Group, before I settled on Moon Base, but things didn’t work out. I think I avoided it because I didn’t want to talk to my family about what I was doing in covert security. Mom would ask too many questions.” She shrugged. “She probably still will.”
Morgan processed that. “What about after you were discharged from the EG? You spent time here after that, didn’t you?”
“While I was learning to walk again?”
Morgan heard the bitterness in Shaine’s voice and noticed the tension as she adjusted her grip on the joystick.
“Yeah, I was here. I don’t think I would have made it through all that physical therapy without their support. My nephew Toby was my little angel through it. He was the only one who could convince me it was going to be all right, that there was a reason to move ahead.” She frowned, lost in memories. “It wasn’t just losing my leg. It was losing my squad mates, and trying to accept that there wasn’t anything I could have done to save them. It took a long time to be okay with the fact I was still alive.”
Morgan’s heart broke for Shaine, for the pain reflected in her eyes. She caught Shaine’s hand and brought it to her lips, gently kissing her knuckles.
Shaine murmured, “I think I’m looking forward to seeing Toby the most.” Abruptly, she shook off the darkness and a grin lit up her face. “He’s gonna love you, Morg.”
“I hope so. I hope they’re okay with me being there.”
Shaine laughed. “Oh, no worries about that. Mom and Leese will be absolutely out of their minds that I’m actually bringing someone home. They’ve been pissing at me about it for as long as I can remember. They’ll probably make you as crazy as they make me.”
Morgan raised a brow. “You never brought anyone home?”
Shaine shrugged. “Wasn’t any reason to.”
“I can’t believe you didn’t have dates falling at your feet.”
“Who said I didn’t?” Shaine grinned. “I just didn’t have any reason to bring anyone home.”
Morgan wrinkled her nose, knowing Shaine was tweaking her. Still, she wasn’t entirely sure where their relationship stood.
Morgan turned back to the window. She felt like she and Shaine were more than just casual lovers. She felt a deeper connection to Shaine than anyone she’d ever been with. She trusted Shaine with her life, quite literally. More and more, she also trusted her with her heart. Was this what it meant to be in love? Did it mean anything special that Shaine was taking her home to meet her family? Did it mean that they were serious? That maybe they were forever?
Or was this just a convenient place to go to get away from the media hounds that had latched on to her since they discovered her hidden birthright?
Her birth father, Tarm Maruchek, was one of the most wealthy and politically connected men in the world. As founder and CEO of Mann-Maru Universal Industries, he had indirect control of millions of workers’ lives. His corporation owned more asteroid mining facilities than any other. Mann-Maru ran Moon Base Security and Operations, as well as the space docks and the ships’ maintenance crews at Moon Base, from which supplies were routed between Earth and the Asteroid Belt facilities.
Morgan worked for Mann-Maru as a Ships’ Systems Mechanic for over a decade before her best friend, Digger, had become the victim of terrorists out to destroy Mann-Maru. Digger’s death was the catalyst that caused her to learn the identity of her birth father and made her a target for her father’s lifelong enemy. Shaine saved her life, but the sudden changes left her whole existence in flux.
Two months ago, she’d been an average worker on Moon Base. She spent time with her friends, worked and played rec league grav-ball. She was content with her life. It had been a very normal, ordinary existence. Vinn and Elise Rahn had adopted her as an infant when they couldn’t have children of their own. Knowing she had been adopted, she’d grown up loved and cherished, even after Elise was killed when Morgan was twelve. She and her dad had grown closer, taking care of each other over the years. Now she knew that Vinn and Elise had known of her true parentage all along, but had never told her. The betrayal still hurt, but she understood why they decided to keep their secret.
So much change. So many lies to try to process.
On top of that, the tabloids had pounced on her, poking into her life, speculating about her relationship with Tarm Maruchek, speculating about her personality and her past. It was big news that Tarm Maruchek had an heir besides his son Garren, her older brother.
Everything about Tarm Maruchek was news. He was active in politics. Mann-Maru Universal Industries was one of the largest corporate entities in the solar system. Everything Tarm Maruchek did had an impact on the business world. Morgan hated that she had become part of it. She tried to ignore the press, but so far, that wasn’t working so well. Reporters had been harassing her day and night on Moon Base, and she’d had enough.
Now they were escaping to Shaine’s family farm.
Maybe it meant something more that Shaine was taking her home, and maybe it didn’t. She frowned inwardly. Did she want forever with Shaine? She’d never needed it before. Before Shaine, she’d never considered love a forever thing. An obsessive, needy, desperate thing, sure. But she’d never had a relationship she could equate to the relationship her mom and dad had.
She and Shaine had settled into a comfortable togetherness. Morgan realized they’d been inseparable for the past month. They hadn’t spent one night or day apart. I don’t want to be without her, or away from her, or separate from her.
It was odd, really. She always had her own space and believed she needed it. Now it felt wrong to be alone.
It wasn’t that she and Shaine talked constantly. A lot of nights they relaxed on the sofa with the vid screen on or reading. Usually Morgan lay across Shaine’s lap, while Shaine’s long legs stretched out on the ottoman. Or they curled up in bed, always touching in some way. It would be good, spending time with Shaine and her family. Morgan smiled to herself.
Shaine asked curiously, “What?”
“Nothing. Just thinking.”
Morgan grinned. “That I like being with you.”
Shaine flipped her a surprised and very pleased expression. “I like being with you, too, baby.” She captured Morgan’s hand and held it on her lap. Morgan reveled in the warmth of Shaine’s thumb rubbing lightly on her skin.
Shaine sped past a handful of farm and transport vehicles lumbering along at ground level. They passed a holographic mile marker, and Shaine grinned, pointing. “That’s our marker. This is our farm. It’s only another few kilometers to the house.”
“I knew you were more excited than you let on,” Morgan accused.
Shaine chuckled and pushed the joystick forward. The air-car surged ahead. Moments later, Shaine dropped out of the upper sky lane to hover just above the ground, slowing down to guide the Racer off the road and onto a long wide drive that ended at a clearing circled by a sprawling house, barn and sheds.
Shaine smiled, relieved to finally be home. The house seemed a little more weathered, the gray trim chipped and the redwood siding faded. The main part of the house was a traditional two-story farmhouse. Solar panels covered the south-facing roof. A two-story dome-home was added onto the east side, connected to the main house through a short, windowed breezeway. The barn and working sheds were set back on the opposite side of the clearing, facing the house.
Shaine noted several vehicles parked haphazardly on the gravel between the house and the sheds. She recognized the two well-used air trucks, one currently filled with a load of hay. She didn’t know the multipassenger air car or the small red commuter car. Near the house, a shiny black air bike rested in the shade.
As Shaine eased the Racer closer to the house, a lanky, sun-bronzed teenager with long red hair came running from one of the sheds. A huge, shaggy, black dog romped at his heels. The teen waved as he sprinted toward the car. He was shirtless, wearing loose work pants and boots. He ran to the car as Shaine pulled to a stop, not even waiting until she’d shut down the engine before he opened her door.
“Shainey! You’re home!” he yelled, pulling her out of the car and into a bear hug.
“Hey, Toby!” Laughing, Shaine lifted him up and twirled him around as though he were still six years old.
The dog pranced around them, barking incessantly, his tail practically wagging off his furry behind. Setting Toby on his feet, she shook her head. He was as tall as her. “Holy shit, T, you grew!”
“I know!” he responded, patting her on the head. They giggled like kids. He said, “Grandma’s got dinner on. She’s been going nuts. Mom’s in the house too. She said she’s gonna kick your ass for not coming home sooner. Dad and Gramps are in the field, they’ll be back in a while. Who’s your friend?”
Big George jumped up and planted his paws on Shaine’s chest, pushing her back against the car with his bulk. She playfully rubbed the Newfoundland’s massive furry head. “Hey, Big George, you remember me?”
The dog barked excitedly and licked her face. Shaine wiped off the slobber with the back of one hand, rubbing George’s ears with the other. “Stupid dog,” she cooed. “I missed you too, ya big softy.”
“So who’s your friend?” Toby asked again.
Shaine pushed the dog off her chest and draped an arm around Toby’s shoulders. Morgan had come around to lean on the front fender, watching with a cautious smile. Shaine reached out, catching Morgan’s hand and gently pulling her toward them. “Toby Martin, this is Morgan Rahn. Morgan, my nephew Toby.”
Morgan smiled. Toby grinned and stuck out a hand, firmly shaking Morgan’s.
“Hi, Morgan. Welcome to the farm!”
Big George lumbered up and stuck his big, wet nose into Morgan’s stomach. Morgan immediately backed away, eyes wide.
“George, sit!” Shaine ordered sharply. The dog dropped his butt to the ground, looking anxiously between Shaine and Morgan.
She wrapped an arm around Morgan’s waist. “It’s okay, Morg.”
Toby took hold of George’s collar. “Don’t be afraid of George. He’s just big and harmless.” He grinned. “You can pet him. He won’t bite you or anything.”
Morgan shot a worried glance at Shaine.
“Let him smell your hand first, like this.” Shaine demonstrated, easing the back of her hand toward George’s nose, letting him sniff her skin, then she petted his head and scratched behind his ears. “Go ahead.”
Morgan tentatively put the back of her hand near Big George’s damp black nose. He studied her with curious, gentle eyes, shook his head a little and sniffed, then happily slobbered her hand with a big pink tongue. Morgan jerked back with a choked yelp.
Toby exclaimed, “He likes you!”
Shaine said gently, “It’s okay. It’s his way of saying hello.”
Morgan bit her lip and reached out again, touching the big dog’s head. Carefully, she ran her fingers through his fur. Toby scratched George’s other ear. The dog leaned into the scratching and gave a big, loud yawn of contentment.
Morgan shifted away again. George leaned forward and pushed his head under her hand.
Shaine grinned. “He wants you to keep petting him.”
“You’re sure he won’t bite?”
Toby said, “He won’t bite. He yawned because he’s happy and excited.”
Tentatively, Morgan copied Toby, scratching behind George’s ears. She grinned after a moment and ran her fingers down George’s thick neck, laughing when he leaned against her legs, his bulk pushing her backward.
Voices called across the clearing and two women hurried from the house. Shaine waved. “Mom! Leese!”
She grinned and slipped from Morgan’s side to meet Jeannette Ichiro halfway. Her mom hadn’t changed much. She had the same short, stout frame that Shaine remembered, though gray strands highlighted her red hair. Shaine wrapped the older woman in a bear hug, dwarfing her in her arms.
“Oh, Shaine, honey, it’s good to see you!” Her mom hugged her tightly, laughing even as tears leaked from her eyes. “I’ve missed you so much!”
Shaine kissed the top of her mom’s head. “I missed you too, Mom.”
Her sister stretched her arms around both of them. Shaine laughed. “Hey, Leese.”
“Shainey, it’s been too damned long, sis.”
Leese was small and compact like their mother. Her hair was dark auburn, falling in loose waves past her shoulders. She was rounded some, but not overly heavy, her eyes a pale hazel. Shaine released her mom and squeezed Leese. “Missed ya, Leese.”
They all stepped back. Shaine watched as her mom looked past her to Morgan who still petted a very content Big George’s head. Jeannette’s eyes sparkled, her smile wide and welcoming. “And you must be Morgan.”
“Mom, Leese, this is Morgan Rahn. Morgan, this is my mom, Jeannette Ichiro, and my younger sister Leese Martin. Toby’s mom.”
“Welcome, Morgan,” Jeannette said happily. Morgan held her hand out, but Jeannette ignored it and wrapped her in a hug. Surprised, Morgan stiffened for a second before she relaxed and tentatively returned the hug.
George barked, pushing his head between them, making everyone laugh. Leese said, “Welcome, Morgan. It’s great to meet you. Come on, we’ve got lunch on. Toby, grab their bags and bring them up to Shaine’s room.”
The tall young man whined, “Geez, Mom, do I look like a butler?”
“And put a shirt on before you sit down at the table.”
Shaine popped the rear cargo hatch on the Racer. “Thanks, T.” She slapped his shoulder playfully, then put an arm around Morgan’s waist and guided her toward the house.
Jeannette directed Shaine and Morgan to chairs in the bright, open dining room, refusing their offers to help in the kitchen. She and Leese bustled back and forth, carrying platters of sandwiches and raw vegetables to the table, along with vegetable dip, potato crisps and pitchers of iced tea.
Toby trundled back down the stairs and gave Shaine a dirty look. “What’d you have in that one bag? Weights? Geez.”
Shaine smiled sweetly. “A gal’s gotta stay in shape,” she quipped. And carry an assortment of weapons in locked cases, she thought. She never traveled without being prepared. She hadn’t since she left the EG.
He grabbed a glass and filled it with tea, then filled a plate for himself.
Shaine swallowed a mouthful of chips. “Hungry much?” she teased as he piled on a third sandwich.
“Hey, I’m a growing boy,” he protested, dropping into a chair opposite Shaine and Morgan.
Leese commented wryly, “He’s an endless stomach.”
There was a commotion at the back of the kitchen—male voices talking and the screen door slapping open and shut.
Jeannette’s voice directed, “Leave those dusty boots in the mudroom, or you’ll be mopping after lunch!”
“Where’s my girl?” a booming voice demanded. Two men came through the kitchen. Shaine stood to greet her stepfather and her brother-in-law. Kent Ichiro was a small, wiry man with dark eyes and straight black hair pulled into a tight braid at the nape of his neck. He crossed the room and wrapped Shaine in a bear hug. It didn’t seem to matter that she was taller. With just the strength of his personality, he still seemed larger. Shaine hugged him hard, smelling dust from the fields, exhaust from the combines, and a hint of his favorite cologne. “Hi, Dad. I missed you too.”
He slapped her on the back. “Damn, it’s good to see you, Shaine. You’re looking good, girl.”
She playfully backhanded his stomach. “You too, Pop,” she returned. She turned and gave her brother-in-law a hug. “Hey, Mike.”
“Welcome home, Shaine.” He returned the hug and ruffled her hair. Mike was even taller than Shaine, broad-shouldered and muscular from years of manual labor. His light brown hair was matted from the ball cap he’d been wearing, his skin deeply tanned.
“Dad, Mike, this is Morgan Rahn. Morgan, this is my dad and my favorite brother-in-law.”
Greetings were exchanged as the men pulled up chairs. Lunch was a boisterous affair. Talk ranged from news on Moon Base to news on the farm, what everyone was doing with their lives, updates on family and friends, the weather and sports. Toby expounded excitedly and passionately about being involved in a series of protests against the reopening of a nearby nuclear power facility that had been empty for over a century.
Shaine was proud of him. He’d grown up so much. He was a university student now, a bright and intelligent young man. Both she and Morgan asked him questions about the power facility. He believed it all came down to corporate money and greed versus good sense. Shaine suspected her nephew was an idealist in the making. She was too jaded for idealism. She’d seen the results of corporate money and greed when she worked for Mann-Maru Corporate Security. On the upside, Mann-Maru hadn’t always been the bad guy.
The one thing nobody brought up was why Shaine and Morgan were spending time at the farm, or the facts of Morgan’s notable parentage. Shaine had given her mom a quick summary of the situation and warned her not to bother Morgan about the recent media harassment. She was relieved that her advice had been taken seriously.
Shaine relaxed into the familiarity of her family. Jeannette still directed everything. Leese teased her incessantly. Her father alternately treated her like his little girl and the soldier that she’d been. Toby still apparently worshipped the ground that she walked on, and seemed to be passing that worship on to Morgan. Shaine slouched back in her chair, feeling comfortable and happy. Her stepdad and Toby peppered Morgan with questions about what it was like to live on Moon Base or in the ’Belt.
Morgan seemed to be handling the attention well. Jeannette caught Shaine’s eye and winked. Shaine couldn’t stop smiling.
After lunch, Shaine and Morgan helped Leese and Jeannette with cleanup, then Shaine brought Morgan up the back stairs to her bedroom at the top of the dome. Shaine opened the door into a room bright with summer sun. The top third of the domed ceiling was made of clear glass panels. Shaine looked up at a crystal blue summer sky. Her bedroom was neat and orderly but remained the room of a teenager with dreams. Colorful posters covered the concaved walls, EG recruiting posters, a favorite thrash band in concert, soccer and grav-ball action shots.
A double bed took up the middle of the wall opposite the door. The comforter was a solid navy blue. Several pillows in primary colors rested haphazardly against the headboard. There were built-in closets and a dresser to one side, a functional student desk against the wall on the other. Framed holos covered the top of the dresser. A shelf with a handful of knickknacks hung above the desk. Beside the desk sat a low bookcase overflowing with books and journals. An outdated computer terminal rested on top of the desk. A pair of speakers were mounted on the wall to either side of the shelf.
Shaine closed the door quietly behind her.
Morgan cocked her head as she looked around. “Strong and comfortable,” she murmured, “like you.”
Shaine raised a brow at the comment and moved behind Morgan. She slid her arms around Morgan’s waist and nuzzled her neck. She breathed in Morgan’s essence and tasted slightly salty skin, closing her eyes with a sigh. “Mmmm. Not how I would have described it,” she murmured. “You know you’re the only girl I’ve ever had up here.”
Morgan twisted around in her arms. Shaine lost herself in Morgan’s kisses. Morgan locked her arms around Shaine’s neck. Shaine backed Morgan up until the backs of her knees hit the bed and tumbled both of them onto the soft mattress. She rested on her elbows over Morgan’s body. Morgan grinned up at her.
“So,” Morgan murmured, “are we going to christen your bed?”
Shaine captured Morgan’s lips again, delving deeply, leaving no doubts as to her intentions.