Music blared from overhead, the heavy pulsing beat thumping throughout the bar. Voices in conversation rose and fell along with occasional barks of laughter. Words flowed in a variety of languages yet all overlapping in a smooth melody that Hunter found oddly soothing.
This place was his business and had been for the last few years since he bought it from the owner looking to move on. Initially Hunter hesitated when the Telian made the low offer for him to take the bar off his hands. Until then, it never crossed Hunter’s mind to settle down in one spot after losing his career in the military.
He didn’t have much of a family like many who volunteered for the soldier program in the Great War against the Vargos. No one for him to go back to and nothing to call home. Even his wife had procured a legal dissolution of their union during his third tour, leaving him without a spouse to connect with on his rare off time.
Hunter didn’t blame her. He wasn’t the same man any more. He didn’t have the same body or face she’d fallen for. Hell, everything about him was different and that didn’t count some of the physical upgrades made along the way. All of which left Hunter at loose ends with his time and overflowing credits. Credits given in a poor apology from the government to Hunter after he’d been wounded and his career ruined.
As a result, not much excited him any more and yet Abline’s offer for The Zone tempted. For once instead of following his instinct and saying no, Hunter accepted. He now owned everything in the bustling hot spot including the small two-level apartment on the floor above. It amounted to more than he’d ever hoped to have and then some.
“Don’t you think it’s time you found a woman?”
Hunter barely glanced up from the bar top and wiped the rag one final time over the shining mahogany surface. “I already found her.”
The man on the stool jerked and Hunter sighed, tossing the rag aside.
“You found her?”
Hunter wondered if he should be offended by the doubt in the tone. “Yes. Much to my regret she’s not interested.” He shrugged. “It happens. Nothing left for me, but to be destined to live alone.”
The Bounty Hunter who caught his eye visited this out of the way satellite location periodically during the course of her work. She’d yet to take him up on any of his overtures.
Gore snorted and lifted the bottle of pale pink liquid to his mouth. “There are about ten women in here easily who would love for you to look in their direction for longer than it takes a man to piss.”
Hunter doubted that. For one he wasn’t much in the looks department and that was before a shock bomb exploded ruining one side of his face and damaging his body beyond repair. Hunter fingered his chin, the skin tough from aged scars. Appearances didn’t matter much to him. Never had, but he’d lost friends that day and a loyal partner. The memory would forever bother him far more than his looks.
He faced his frequent customer. “Why don’t you try your luck with the ladies, Gore? I’ll do what I do best and serve drinks.”
Gore stood on a stretch and set his empty bottle on the counter with a hefty credit chip to pay. “My wife might have something to say about that.”
She definitely would. Maai was not a female to trifle with. The corner of Hunter’s mouth quirked up. “I guess we both lose.”
“Speak for yourself. I’m going home to sleep next to a warm female body and you’ll be sleeping all alone my friend.” On that note Gore smiled and nodded on his way out, his large bulk surprisingly spry as he made his way to the door.
Hunter returned to his work, thoughts already on finding his bed tonight and going to sleep. Alone as Gore said, but he liked it that way.
The mewling cry cut through the night and grabbed Narelle’s attention. She paused and cocked her head to the side, listening for the sound again. Silence greeted her. It was late and she hoped to stop in at The Zone before they closed the doors for the night. Maybe squeeze in a quick chat with the striking owner and bar keep. A grin tugged at her lips. Hunter Gils definitely warranted her best effort to get there on time.
Thinking about the serious brown eyes which lightened at her approach and the slow smile Hunter always gave at her arrival was enough to hurry her steps. As a Bounty Hunter for the Retriever Association, her path brought her to this satellite station every few months. She could have chosen other routes or stopping points after her bounties were completed, but she was drawn to here. All because of one man.
Another whine followed by a yip stopped her in her tracks. Tugging up the collar of her synth leather jumper against the late night chill, Narelle sighed and rolled her eyes.
“This better be worth my time.”
She doubled back on the street, following the continuous whines until she reached a locked shop door. All of the lights inside the building were out, the owners probably warm and settled in their residence for the night.
Narelle huffed and tapped on the thin-framed door just in case. “Hello?”
She paused, waiting for some sign anyone remained inside.
“Well, I did my part.” She turned, fully prepared to rush to The Zone in hopes of catching sight of Hunter.
Rapid barking brought her to an abrupt halt. Narelle cursed and turned back. This time she bypassed the front door and peered around the corner to the narrow pathway nestled between the two buildings. The tight passage reeked of rotting trash and stagnant water from the prior night’s rain storm.
A dark shadow flashed against the wall on the right, heading toward her at a rapid speed. The size and shape of the threat loomed above her head. Another curse and Narelle stumbled backward but the creature kept coming, its pace picking up. Seconds from withdrawing the knife she wore at her hip, Narelle burst back onto the street and glanced over her shoulder only to come up short.
The menacing creature from the dark was...a four legged animal about knee height. A pitiful one at that. With more than a bit of trepidation, she held out her hand. “Hello there.”
Distinguishing the color of the short-matted coat proved hard. A mixture of dark and light brown hair covered a shivering body beyond thin. At the sound of her voice, the animal lowered itself close to the ground and crawled toward her with hesitant steps and another whine. Narelle’s heart softened as she squatted until the creature reached her.
Not an ordinary dog, she decided, even in the dim security lights from the nearby closed shops. The eyes reflected a keen intelligence. As soon as the dog drew close enough, she ran her hands along its trembling sides, and bones met her fingers. Pointed ears flicked forward at her touch and a warm nose nudged at her chin.
“Aren’t you a cute boy. Or girl.” Determining the sex needed a different angle and better light.
Now the bigger question—what to do with her discovery? Pushing up to her feet, Narelle glanced longingly in the direction of the bar. She could take the dog to her rental and hope she didn’t get kicked out for violating the no living pet rule or she could continue on her path and see if Hunter had any idea on what to do.
The dog leaned into her side, bumping the back of her knee. A quick lick of its dry tongue against her fingers decided.
“Come on, boy. Or girl,” she muttered and started for The Zone at a rapid pace. Her furry friend kept up, claws clacking against the wet pavers.
As she neared the popular spot for off-worlders, Narelle slowed. The door burst open and several men fell through the entrance laughing and stumbling into one another. At her side, the dog growled, drawing notice. One of the men, a regular she recognized just by his scrungy shirt and pants with a threadbare cloak thrown over his shoulder, stared.
“Wassat?” He bumped a friend and pointed behind Narelle.
She tensed, one hand dropping to the top of the dog’s head. The short fur bristled beneath her fingertips.
His drunk cohorts laughed and grabbed his arm as they tugged him down the street until she no longer heard their sloppy footsteps. Breathing a sigh of relief, she stepped inside and crossed into the hum of activity representing The Zone. Due to the late hour, only a few determined customers lingered waiting for Hunter’s inevitable bellow as he evicted them all exactly on closing hour.
Hoping to go undetected, Narelle took a seat in a back booth, settled the dog then watched the bustling man behind the bar. Hunter’s large frame moved briskly from one end of the counter to the other, a towel slung over a broad shirt-clad shoulder. While chatting with the two customers seated on the stools, he washed and cleaned glasses. He worked with an economy of moves and Narelle allowed herself to enjoy the sight.
Smooth muscles rippled and flexed in his lower arms made bare by the rolled sleeves of the black fitted shirt. Shaggy black hair in need of a cut fell over his brow and blocked a clear view of his features. Not that Narelle minded, since she knew exactly what he looked like and could describe him with her eyes closed even after a drink or three.
At her side, the dog nudged her thigh before stretching out full length on the wine-colored bench seat.
“Are you hungry?” She rubbed a pointed ear. Deep brown eyes met her gaze, and Narelle melted. She wasn’t a melt-y person, but this animal was hitting all her weak spots. “Alright. Let me see what I can do.”
Taking a deep breath, she rounded the booth and pushed back her shoulders as she strode toward the bar and the one man who managed to arouse and terrify her at the same time. He looked up and their gazes connected.
Control. It radiated from him in waves and no other word perfectly described the man she approached. Sections of dark hair stood up in disarray on top where he’d no doubt run his fingers through it several times during the evening. Thick brows lowered in her direction, brown eyes narrowing.
Familiar heat from whenever they crossed paths slammed into Narelle despite her attempt at nonchalance. Everyone around them faded away. The lights, the music, none of it intruded. Her focus zeroed in on the man stripping her bare with nothing more than a look.
It was obvious Hunter didn’t care if anyone saw the way he stared. A customer tried to catch his attention, but his intensity never wavered. Narelle paused to catch her breath, masking the hitch in her stride by swiveling around as if she was surveying the crowd. When she turned back around, his eyes continued to blaze in her direction.
The wiser part of her screamed run, run now and the less sane part—mainly her libido—strained to reach out and touch him. But she didn’t let any of that deter her. She needed answers and not a being in this establishment doubted Hunter was the one to talk to if you had questions.
If her stomach bubbled with nerves, it was because he’d stated his interest clearly every time her travels brought her this way, and she’d flirt, laugh then scurry off. The last time Narelle had felt herself waivering, tempted beyond belief to give in to the sensual strings connecting them.
It always took a while to bolster her courage enough to return and face him. Even then she still denied the vivid attraction because that way was trouble. Hunter slept his way through women and she had the terrible habit of falling in love with any man she took to her bed. Nothing good would come of her giving in to Hunter and she’d end up with a bruised heart for the endeavor.
All of this meant it was probably time to move on, time to find another stopping point on her routes. At least Hunter allowed her the illusion of pretense. Oh, he continued to eye her from across the room if he noticed her arrival and not once did he stop the wicked glances.
The difference lay in the effort, deeper undertones and the knowing smiles which lacked the force and potency of earlier gestures. It was if he’d backed off and put the onus on her. Daring Narelle to reach out for what she wanted.
And she wanted. Stars and moons how she wanted!