Heart of Stone

By: Cathryn Cade

Stone Masterson knew the small female standing on his doorstep was trouble, but he opened the door anyway. He was bored and he was lonely. Lonely, he could deal with, but he loathed being bored.

Sure enough, no sooner had the massive entry hatch to his Frontiera stronghold groaned open than she pulled a weapon on him, and he found himself being escorted back into his own home at laser gunpoint. That was a twist he hadn't expected.

He looked down at her as the hatch slammed shut against the swirling snow and frigid wind. She was just a little bit of a thing, wrapped in a cape of buttery-soft skrog leather dusted with snow. Visible over the weapon were two big green eyes filled with a mixture of fear and determination, a pert nose and the prettiest, most kissable mouth he had seen in some time. Seven hells, he must be lonelier than he'd thought.

Or perhaps memory was a more powerful force than he'd reckoned. Because those eyes and that mouth had stirred powerful urges in him the first he saw her, too—even if he hadn't acted on them at the time.

"You evidently have business with me," he said. "I usually respond more cordially without a weapon in my face."

His words, which he thought damned diplomatic, considering, seemed to incense his visitor. Her eyes narrowed dangerously and her mouth firmed into a hard line. Actually it was more of a pout, but he could see it was meant to look mean, so he bit back the grin that threatened. At least she'd stopped the shivering that made him want to haul her over in front of the fire.

"You'll respond, all right," she said in a husky voice. "Or—or I'll blast a hole in your hide that a skrog could tromp through!"

Ominous. The wild herd beasts were huge. He wondered why he wasn't more worried. Part of him was stirring all right, but it wasn't the hair on the back of his neck, his usual visceral response to danger. Who the quark knew it would be so arousing to have a pretty female pull a weapon on him?

Hers was the compact type of laser chosen for personal safety. An older model, but well made, of silver cerametal with narrow titanium trim. Although small, it was still deadly, even in the hands of a novice.

She peered past him. He watched her, interested to see what she thought of his haven. A tarma-wood fire burned in the hearth at the far end of the great room. Primitive as it was, he had yet to tire of the novelty of sitting before a fire in the evening, indoors or out, watching the flames lick through the fuel he fed it. By the time he left Earth I, the only wood had been enclosed in locked and guarded tree-farms and the gardens of the wealthy.

Two armchairs were drawn up before the fire. A small hover table held a snifter of moon-brandy and the holo-reader he'd been perusing before his alarm warned of her approach. Glow-lamps floated, round shimmering balls of light.

Would she think the scene cozy, inviting? Or that he was spending his evening like an old man, instead of a virile one in his prime? Maybe, but as the Frontiera autumn deepened into winter, he'd found himself tired of evenings at the bars in New Haven, the nearest settlement. Even the thought of flying in a courtesan failed to excite him.

And tonight he'd had a special reason for being snug at home.

Perhaps his visitor was the answer to his ennui. She waved the gun toward the dining area visible through a wide arch.

"Sit down in there. And—and put your hands behind your back."

"Ah, you intend to restrain me, do you?" He cocked his head thoughtfully. "Now, in my experience, when someone wishes to bind me, they want information, leverage, or revenge. You've no reason for revenge." Not yet, at least.

There were plenty of other beings in the galaxy who did, and some of them wouldn't give up until he was dead—or they were. Recently he'd been told the price on his head was enough credit to buy a fast cruiser. Of course the last bounty hunter who'd tried for him had been left for catamount bait on the mountain. The one previous had survived long enough to crawl onto his cruiser, but crashed soon after. Presumably he'd blacked out from blood loss. Stone had wounded him several times with his own laser.

She held her weapon steady. "Information, that's all I want."

"Well, if I'm to be held prisoner, I'd like to comfortable. I'm sure you can understand that." He motioned her to follow him through the wide double doors open on the left side of the big room. "Come along, Rose. You can tie me up in here."

As he led the way, he was smiling to himself. His boredom had been snuffed out like a deleted holo-vid link. By brazening her way into his home, she'd changed the rules. He'd stayed away from her, hadn't he? He'd tried to do what was best. But if she was going to treat him like a brigand, then he'd behave like one.

She might have a weapon, but he had a few at his disposal, too.

# # #

Rose Thorne could not believe her eyes. Her prisoner, the man she held at gunpoint, had invited her to follow him as casually as if she were a guest dropping by, not an armed intruder.

"Wait a sec," she protested. "You can't just—walk away from me. I've a weapon, remember?" But she was speaking to his back.

And had he just called her by her name? She could have sworn he hadn't noticed her the one time they'd been in the same room together.

Masterson's lean, rangy form disappeared through an open doorway. She hurried after him. He undoubtedly had weapons hidden around his home—she couldn't give him time to draw one.

She wanted to stuff her weapon back in the pocket of her cape, plop into one of those huge, cozy chairs, and just forget this whole scheme.

She'd been fighting that impulse from the moment he flung open the huge doors and looked down at her with eyes as golden and merciless as the fire flickering behind him. Up close, he had the face of a raptor—fierce as a Frontieran gyre-hawk, with high cheekbones, a blade of a nose and deep-set eyes. The long, chestnut-brown hair falling around his shoulders only added to his untamed appearance.

He was untamed. A space magnate whose meteoric rise to wealth had origins as murky as a black hole. Her own training as a dutiful daughter and pastry chef hadn't prepared her to deal with men like him.

Even if part of her had been craving just that for an entire lunar year.

Why did he have to be a—a space pirate, who had drawn her only remaining family into his nefarious schemes? The most exciting man she'd ever met and she had to get his attention all right, but not for romance. He was like a delectable dessert displayed in a café window—mouth-wateringly tempting, but unavailable+.

Tracking his long-legged saunter through his home, Rose drew a determined breath. Mooning over what couldn't be wouldn't win her goal. Only force would work—that's what men like Stone Masterson understood. So she'd come here to beard him in his den.

And it was den-like. She looked around with fascination as she hurried after him. Everything was built on a large scale, of solid stone, wood and leather. It was quite cozy, really, with the fire burning warmly in the hearth and soft light from the glow-lamps in every room. A complete contrast to the winter night and blowing snow outside. She'd barely been able to see the last stretch of the hovie track that had been cleared up the mountainside. If not for his lights, she might have missed it entirely.

But she stopped short in the open door. He'd led her to his bedroom. And the man who was supposed to be her captive was lying back on the huge bed, watching her, relaxed as if they had come here to—well. She had the surreal feeling that he was in control, not she, which was ridiculous because she had the weapon.

"You can tie me up here, Rose." His voice was soft, coaxing as if he didn't want to frighten her. Which was also ridiculous because why would he care if she were frightened? Except that of course he didn't want to get shot by a nervous kidnapper.

"I will, then." She crossed the room with the weapon before her. "And don't get any more creative ideas, Mr. Masterson, or I may start shooting."

"Oh, I won't," he assured her. "I can see you're a determined woman."

He lay back against the mounded pillows on the bed and arranged his hands helpfully on the massive wooden crosspieces of the huge headboard. Both he and the bed looked as though they had been hand-hewn.

He wore a pair of leather pants, so pliant they clung to his muscular legs like a second skin. With his moss-green shirt pulled up by the position of his arms, she could see his pants also molded to his groin. Rose blinked. He was certainly … impressive.

As a peculiar warmth invaded her own nether regions, she jerked her gaze back to Masterson's face. His mouth twitched. Rose eyed him suspiciously. Was he laughing at her?

His glossy hair fell back from his high cheekbones, revealing a small comlink in one ear. Nearly all Frontierans wore them, held on by a minor surgical procedure. A rudimentary satellite communication system had been established on the planet. Masterson's comlink was carved of polished horn, a small objet d'art. That figured; he was said to be wallowing in wealth from his shady pursuits.

Reaching under her cloak, Rose fumbled for the soft restraints she'd brought. They stuck in the inner pocket, and her attention wavered from her weapon as she tugged. At last they came free.

She approached the bed under his look of rapt interest. Rather like a large predator might look at his next meal. Her heart pounding even harder, she scowled at him.

"I'm going to tie you up now," she said. "And if you make a move, I'll shoot."