Across the table, he watched her with an intensity that reminded her of Hanek, and it made her feel unaccountably nervous. It wasn’t that she was afraid of Toh—he had taken almost maternal care of her, anticipating her wishes, helping her to stand and dress—but there was something in his eyes. Something that reminded her of her tremulous teenage years, of nervous waits for arriving boyfriends and the heady anticipation of sweet drugging kisses.
“Survive?” She attempted a smile, encouraging him to talk. Up till now, he had only given simple responses to her questions, saying that she still needed to recover and he didn’t want to exhaust her. But she wanted to know more. She wanted to find out his line of work, what he was doing in such a desolate place. If he really was as caring as he appeared.
If he had a wife.
“Is it that bad here?” she asked.
“It can be.”
“What is this place anyway? Is it some kind of research station?”
“In a way.” He changed the subject abruptly. “How do you feel?”
She shrugged. “Fine. My body still aches a bit and my skin feels very tender.”
“That’s only to be expected. It will be a few more days before you are fully recovered. In the meantime, you should do as little as possible.”
As a Junior Commander with the Republic Space Fleet, Hoara was well used to putting her feelings, her more “ladylike” sensibilities on hold, but there was something about the man sitting across from her that called to that distant, walled-off portion of her. Maybe it was because he was so gentle, in a galaxy of testosterone-driven males.
“You’re coddling me,” she teased, as she finished off the last piece of pastry.
“You’re my patient. Under the circumstances, you deserve to be coddled.”
The men she knew, albeit most of them from the Fleet, always wanted to dominate, to decide, to show her how boorishly take-charge they were. It was strange, and appealing, to be with someone who didn’t care about impressing her. Except, by not doing it, he was. Idly, she wondered what his skin felt like under the material of his shirt.
“Would you like to take a walk?” he asked. “Outside?”
“That would be, wonderful.”
He pushed his chair back with a scrape. “I’ll, er, get you some footwear.”
He moved very quickly, and it was funny watching him wrench cupboard doors open. It must be nervousness that was making him look as though he was unfamiliar with what was in his own dome.
“This is quite an old structure, isn’t it?” she said, looking up at the curved, ivory ceiling. “I didn’t think they made habitats like this anymore.”
Toh came back to the table with two pairs of boots, one much larger than the other. “It’s an efficient shape,” he said. “Good structural integrity.” He offered her the smaller pair of boots. “Here.”
Hoara slipped her feet into boots that were still many sizes too big, but if she shoved her feet forward, she could manage a clumsy walk. Toh took the larger pair and led her to the door next to the kitchen sink. He opened it, and beckoned her outside.
Strange to think that this was her first glimpse of where she had crashed. In the deepening dusk, she saw that the surrounding land was barren, with the dark outline of distant eroded peaks to the north. She took a deep breath. It might have been desolate, but the air was clean, with not a hint of the esters and acetones she was used to.
“I can understand why you like living at such a remote research station,” she said, taking in a deep breath. “The air is so clear.”
Her gaze moved up. “And not a cloud in the sky. How bright the stars look.” She frowned and pointed with a finger. “Was that a satellite I just saw tumbling past?”
“We have an extensive satellite system here,” he said.
“Ah, that’s what I keep meaning to ask.” She walked over to him, but tripped over. Strong arms caught her, hesitated, then pulled her close. Hoara was unaccountably glad of the support. She leaned into him. “What’s the name of this planet again? I command a crew mostly made up of scientists, you know, but I still don’t know a fraction of our research stations.”
“It’s a small, pilot project. Classified.”
Secret, eh? Well, she knew all about those.
“Did you contact the Fleet?” she asked, turning around. “I really need to get in touch, tell them there’s a gravity shear out near—”
His lips, hot and feverish, met hers, stopping the words in her throat. Cradling her as if she was a precious piece of glass, he delivered a series of feather-light touches on her mouth. It was quick and gentle, and not at all what Hoara wanted. With fierce determination, she looped her arms around his neck, forced his head down and kissed him more thoroughly. He seemed surprised, and she pushed her advantage by moving her mouth against him, sending her tongue to duel with his, moaning as his grip tightened.
When they finally broke apart, the concern on his face was clear. “Did I hurt you?”
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