Stealing Coal Page 6

She stepped back and put the canister down, turning away to get more rags. She took her time and then faced him again. The foam melted and with it the oatmeal slid off his muscular, wide chest. She swallowed. Her ex-husband had been pale, overweight, and the only muscles he’d had were those developed from using his insulting mouth to verbally abuse her. She walked closer and waited for the cyborg to open his eyes. He shook his head, lifted his face, and his gorgeous eyes snapped open. They immediately locked on Jill.

“I’ll dry you.” She shoved one rag under her arm and gripped the second one with both hands. She hesitated and then leaned over him. He had a lot of body to rub down with the dry material. “Just give me a second. I don’t want you getting chilled.”

He didn’t protest when she started at his waist and worked her way up, careful not to touch his skin with hers. She had barely reached his chest when she had to toss away the damp towel and use the second one. She hesitated at his neck, staring at his handsome features.

“If you’ll close your eyes I’ll dry your face and head.”

His intense gaze narrowed but then his eyelids closed. She very gently patted dry his face and his mostly bald head. Her thumb brushed the skin at the top of his head, feeling rough stubble, realizing that he was able to grow hair. She paused, also noting something else about him.

“Are you feeling well?” A horrible thought struck her as she dropped the towel and pressed her palm flat against his forehead. Alarm filled her as it registered how warm he felt. His eyes opened. “You’re burning up!”

“I run hotter than humans.”

Her hand slid to his cheek and then to his neck. “Are you sure you aren’t sick? You really feel feverish. I thought I set the controls to be warm enough to keep you from catching a chill.”

He studied her for long moments. “You’re touching me.”

Her hand jerked away. “Sorry.” She lifted her chin and stared at Arm. “Are you monitoring him, Arm?”

Two lighted sensors snapped open and Arm’s head adjusted until he’d targeted Jill with them. “Affirmative. His temperature is unchanged from when we rescued our man.”

“Our man?” Anger tinged the cyborg’s voice instantly while he glared at Jill. “You said you’d free me. You lied?”

“No.” She shook her head. “We’re going to release you when we reach Hixton Station. He just calls you his man. I told you he’d been designed for military use.”

“You said you had him remain with me to keep me company but you lied. He’s watching my every move.”

“Not really.”

“You just asked him if he’s been monitoring me.”

“Arm is not only a soldier droid but he’s a medic. That’s what I meant. He monitors all life around him. It’s in his programming. He would have scanned you just the way he does me every so often. It’s what he does. I just meant had he scanned you for illness recently.”

He glared at her. “I don’t believe you.”

“It’s the truth.” She shrugged. “It doesn’t really matter though. You’ll see in a few days when you’re standing on Hixton with money to get you back to wherever you came from. Here’s some advice though. Stay away from humans.” She hesitated. “They aren’t nice and you’re a rarity, which means you’re worth big bucks to traders.”

“Are you going to sell me, Jill?”

Hearing him say her name had an odd effect on her. She licked lips that suddenly had gone dry. “No. I stole you to set you free.”

“Then do it now.”

She took a deep breath. “Even if I were willing to believe you wouldn’t kill me outright, I don’t trust you not to steal my shuttle. It’s not much but it’s all I’ve got. I can’t return to Earth.”

“Why not? You’re human.”

She hesitated. “When my father died, I found myself alone on this shuttle with only cargo in the hold and computer records as assets. There wasn’t enough fuel to reach Earth. I was stranded out here.”

“You traded with those men who had me. Are you going to return to Earth now?”

“No. I can’t.” She cleared her throat. “The first trade I did to earn money turned real bad and I ended up killing two Earth Government soldiers by accident.”

The cyborg frowned. “Why?”

“Because I didn’t want to be sold into a whorehouse and when they realized I was alone they tried to grab me to do just that. They not only wanted back the money they’d paid for the cargo I’d sold them but they thought they’d make some bonus bucks off me. I barely made it back to my shuttle alive and then they chased me instead of just letting me fly away. It was before I’d found my guys to help me fool people into thinking I had a live crew who would back me up. I didn’t mean to kill anyone but if you haven’t noticed, this thing is old. I am not the best pilot since this is my first one I’ve ever owned and I couldn’t outrun them. I was scared enough to steer into an asteroid field. I don’t know how I made it out alive. My shuttle took some hits but theirs ended up destroyed. I’m sure I’m wanted on Earth now as a criminal. I can’t ever go home.”

“So you are alone.”

She hesitated. “I have Arm, Fray, and Roid. I’m not alone.”

“You have no living beings to rely on?”

She hesitated. “No. I don’t. What about you? Do you have a family?” The instant thought of some Mrs. Cyborg had her feeling a little disturbed at the concept. Were there girl cyborgs?

“I have biological links to other cyborgs so the answer would be affirmative. I have family.” He paused. “I am not close or in contact with them though.”

Chapter Three

“You have no family?” The cyborg seemed genuinely interested.

Jill hesitated. “Do you really want to hear this story?”

“Does it look as if I have anything better to do?”

“No.”

She moved closer to him and tugged up his shorts, watching the rag closely. Again he lifted his h*ps so she could pull them all the way up. After taking a step back, she turned, walked over to an empty crate, and sat down on it. Their gazes locked.

“Have you ever heard of the bloody trader, Big Jim?”

He shook his head. “Someone is actually called that title?”

“I won’t lie and say my father didn’t earn his reputation because he most certainly did. My aunt, his sister, never lied to me about what my father did for a living. He had a brutal reputation in space. If anyone gave him any shit or tried to screw him in a deal, they died viciously. That is where the bloody part came in. He actually met my mother after he kidnapped her for ransom since she came from wealth. They fell in love and I came to be. My aunt said he really worshiped my mother but some of his enemies found out about her. They attacked my father’s ship when he was away on a trade. My aunt Mary managed to smuggle me off the ship while my mother bought us time.”

“She fought them?”

Hot tears filled Jill’s eyes and she blinked them back. “Yes. I was only a few months old. Aunt Mary jettisoned with me in a life pod and those men didn’t come after us because they had my mother. She gave her life to save me.”

“That is what a mother should do.”

It sounded so cold to her but she nodded. “I guess. My father hunted down every man who was involved and killed them brutally to make an example of what happened to anyone who screwed with something of his. It was so bad he made a name for himself for being a stone-cold killer. He bought a farm on Earth and my aunt raised me there to hide my existence. His enemies either didn’t know he ever had a child or they assumed I’d died with my mother. Last year he contacted me and ordered us to go with two men he sent to pick us up. He only had weeks left to live and wanted to see me one last time.”

“That is how you got out here in space.”

She nodded grimly. “I wouldn’t have come if I’d known then what I do now. Big Jim thought he could trust the two men he sent to retrieve me but those ass**les betrayed him the second he died. They had sworn a blood oath to him but said that once he stopped breathing all their loyalty died too. They decided one of them would marry me to get their hands on my father’s money.” She hesitated. “Let me just assure you neither of those guys were anyone you’d want to end up married to and I’m sure I would have had a deadly accident on the forced honeymoon.”

“If your father had money, you could have afforded fuel to return you to Earth.”

“If I knew where he kept his money, sure. I think it’s gone, blown up with his ship. Those men turned on us and my aunt died saving me. After what happened to my mother she never traveled without weapons. We fought those men in a blaster battle and I ended up injured when I took a hit to my shoulder. I remember her dragging me into the Jenny.” She waved her hands at the cargo hold. “She leaned over me and said she would make sure they couldn’t come after us and she’d be right back. Only she never returned. She had put the Jenny on autopilot and she blew up the Viking, my father’s ship. All of my father’s men died with her. I woke up hours later alone, drifting in space, with only the computer logs to tell me what had happened. Aunt Mary had left me a message stating that she could only hold them off if she stayed onboard to stop them from using the life pods to come after me. She said she loved me and to get back home to Earth.” She blinked back tears. “Only there wasn’t enough fuel.”

The cyborg said nothing, just watched her. “So you have no one.”

“I told you, I have my androids.” Her chin lifted. “And I have the Jenny.”

“If you release me, I won’t harm you or steal your ship. I want access to your communications to contact my friends.”

She shook her head. “What if they want to take the ship or sell me? I’m a woman alone in space. I’ve learned what that means. If I didn’t lie and pretend to work for Big Jim I never would have survived as long as I have. Most of the traders I’ve dealt with are too afraid to mess with me.”

“My people won’t sell you into slavery. We wouldn’t do that with our history.”

Regret flashed inside Jill. “I wish I could trust you but I just can’t risk it. I know I’ve said too much—I guess I miss having a real person to talk to and was careless—but I doubt you deal with humans much so my secret should be safe with you. I’ve only told you as much as I have because I figure you must be worried about my plans for you. I want you to understand both of us aren’t safe from predators in deep space. We have that in common. In a few days we’ll reach Hixton Station and I’ll have Roid obtain you a private room there. You can contact your friends from there if you think they can pick you up or you can find accommodations on a shuttle wherever you need to go to meet up with them. It’s a well-known station with plenty of visitors. I can guarantee you won’t be stuck there long and I’ll even give you a weapon to defend yourself.”

“I want to be freed now.”

“And I want to know for sure that you aren’t lying to me. I wish I could trust you but I can’t.” She paused. “You don’t trust me either. Until you’re standing free on Hixton we both know you half believe this is some kind of trap.”

His eyes narrowed consideringly. “Correct.”

“Damn straight. I wasn’t born yesterday.” She took a deep breath. “Are you ever going to tell me your name?”

“Coal.”

It surprised her. “Really?”

He frowned. “What is wrong with my name?”

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