Chapter 1Music pounded against Samantha’s ears as the band started into a new set. The babble of voices raised above the notes in the bar almost drowned Edward out—almost.“We need steady work, Sam. The crew will follow you anywhere, but some cushion in funds would be nice.”She wiped her sleeve across her lips and glared at her first mate. He’d held that role since her father died and left the Pimpernel in Samantha’s hands. “We don’t need steady work. We need to be in the right place at the right time. No matter what, I’ll get my merchant fleet.”His sour laugh grated. “I’m not holding my breath. Our clipper doesn’t have enough of a belly to make the kind of credits you’re looking for, even with the mods you added. Last time we went charging after a slim chance, the Pimpernel ended up in Galactic Force cold storage.”“Hey, I got her back, and I found good paying work for all of us in the meantime.” Samantha tossed off another swallow, the quick head movement making her dizzy.A woman brushed her hand across Edward’s shoulder as she passed their table. He tossed back his long red curls and grinned.Samantha started to make a sarcastic comment, but the words froze on her tongue. Somehow, she hadn’t noticed her childhood friend had grown up so well. He’d always just been Edward.His expression sobered. “None of us were cut out for militia, and you know it. We’re not even Spacer Guild material. We like the freedom of being indie traders.”She shrugged. “Is that just another way of saying I’m a lax captain?” Though she’d meant to joke, she couldn’t quite hide the thread of worry. Most of the crew worked with her father first or had grown up beside her. To them, she was Captain Sam, hardly as imposing as her father’s Captain Marsdom.Edward shook his head. “If lax means you let us live up to our potential, work from our strengths, and don’t pull any hierarchy crap, then yeah.”Samantha laughed and slapped her hands palm down on the table. “I’m not proud, just determined. I promised we’d stay out of militia jobs from now on, and I meant it. But that experience bought us some bona fides, and I’d be willing to use them to run security for a hodgepodge fleet at first. That would earn us a few.”“Yeah, but who would take us?” Edward muttered. “Even with the militia record, we’re not Guild.”She pushed off the table, meaning to rise, but the last synale had been one too many. Instead, the world tilted and the bench tangled her legs.Braced for impact, she couldn’t quite comprehend the feel of strong hands around her shoulders. Samantha glanced up into the warmest brown eyes she’d ever seen. A flush heated her face as she took stock, aware of her undignified sprawl.“Thanks,” Sam muttered, struggling to free her legs so she could regain her feet.With a sharp tug, her rescuer pulled Samantha upright, keeping an arm around her waist. “You’re welcome,” he said in a deep voice. “Just in the right place at the right time, I guess.”She blinked, her own words echoing back to her. For a heartbeat, she wished she had a slinky dress like the woman who’d nudged Edward. But her father hadn’t focused on social niceties. She’d always been part of the crew with no need for feminine extras.“I’ll take her now, mister.” Edward came around the table and grabbed her arm.She shook off his hold, not looking for any help. “You go on ahead.”Her gaze stayed locked with the stranger’s. He seemed to understand her desire to be treated like a woman for once despite her inability to express it.Edward held his ground. “I think it’s best if you come with me.”“You’re not my father,” Samantha growled. “I’m a big girl now.” The synale’s happy buzz faded, and she could feel her temper growing.“Please. I don’t mean to come between you,” her rescuer broke in.“We’re not together,” they both said at the same time before turning to stare at the other.Samantha looked away first, unnerved by Edward’s gaze.The man’s smile displayed well-tended teeth. “As much as it pleases me to hear that, I came over with a business proposition. You’re Captain Samantha Marsdom from the Pimpernel, yes?”It took a moment before Samantha realized what he’d said. “A job?” She prided herself on keeping her voice clear, despite her disappointment. Of course someone like him wouldn’t be interested in someone like her.“We’ll be in port for a couple more days,” Edward answered, his hand closing on her shoulder again. “We can arrange a time.”The man nodded. “I’ll be here for a while longer myself.”Samantha pushed between them, annoyed that Edward would think her unable to negotiate. Opportunities were slim enough. “I’m ready to talk tonight.” Only after the words left her mouth did she wonder how he’d known their ship.He smiled down at her with his gorgeous eyes, and she had to concentrate to keep any thoughts in her head.“Heard of us, have you?” Edward asked, voicing the question she’d somehow forgotten in the liquid pool of her rescuer’s gaze.She let out a small sigh when he turned to face her first mate.“I’m sorry. We haven’t been introduced. I’m Victor Bellanova, owner of the merchant vessel Mayflower. We’re looking for an escort, and the Pimpernel came up in discussions.”“Escort?”“What discussions?”Samantha wanted to hush Edward, but he tended to have an instinct about these things, even if his protective behavior could be annoying.Victor—she couldn’t help but think of him by his first name—gave Edward a smile that showed no offense at the other man’s gruff tone. “Word is your captain knows how to keep her vessel safe. And that she’s not picky about taking up with others.” He nodded his head toward Samantha.“That’s an old story,” she grumbled. “If he’d had control of his vessel, I wouldn’t have blown it out of the sky.”Victor laughed. “But still a good one. I like a captain who takes care of her ship. More likely to take care of mine.”“A carpenter is only as good as her tools,” she said, trying to suppress an appreciative blush. If her father hadn’t owned the Pimpernel, she’d have ended up in engineering.This time, when Edward stepped between them, he was all business. “A merchanter? Where are you heading?”Even before he spoke, Samantha knew she’d rearrange their plans. This was their chance, and she wouldn’t mind getting to know this Victor better.
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