Marshall Galaxy--Beta, year 2060
Willa Rayes shoved through the diverse groupings of aliens, half-caste beings and humanoids that made up the assemblage, edging as close as she could to the speaker's podium. Excited chatter wove around her in more languages and dialects than she'd ever experienced. Smells, both familiar and strange, assailed her nostrils, reminding her of the far-flung nature of this longed-for event--hell, she'd trained for this race most of her life.
General announcements boomed over the loudspeakers--a rush of garbled, scratchy words in the host planet's language, followed smoothly by the same announcements in the native languages of a variety of other species and beings represented in the crowded spaceport. The Nebulon Trike would begin in just under an hour's time.
Any moment now, the team announcements would come. A brief smile curved Willa's lips. She fingered the HEPP, her handheld energy-pulse pistol, hanging on the belt slung low on her hips. No matter how comfortable the scene made her, she couldn't trust her personal safety to anyone but herself. Good thing weapons were standard across this galaxy and easily obtainable, even in the most remote spaceport. Her partner would need to understand she'd be in control every moment she occupied the cockpit. It was just who she was--the daughter of the most famous Lingorian fighter pilot who'd ever lived--and this race was her ticket to independence and respect from her father and four brothers, not to mention from almost everyone she knew back home.
She took a deep breath, and the smile flickered again. Beneath the sweat and nerves of the crowd, the sharp scent of rocket fuel permeated the air. It blended with mechanics' grease and heated electrical wiring and the organic smell of brand-new leather upholstery, topped off by paint fumes. The ships that would be employed during the race were housed not fifty yards away, and her fingers itched to familiarize herself with the steering mechanisms and instrument panels of the one that would be hers to command during the race.
This was where she felt most comfortable; this was where home would always be, here amidst spacecraft of every shape and size. Being one with her ship, accepting no excuses, executing each command with inherent confidence, always in control with no margin for error. It was the best feeling in the world.
Another announcement echoed throughout the cavernous hangar, this time underscored with authority that demanded quiet. Colorful, triangular banners emblazoned with sponsors' logos stirred in the air currents from the outside. The fresh breeze smelled faintly of the sun-bleached hay usually present at race sites to sop up spilled fluids. Excitement shot through Willa's stomach as she craned her neck in an attempt to see above the heads and shoulders of the beings clustered in front of her. Being five and a half feet tall in a galaxy populated with much taller beings might have put her at a disadvantage. However, she played her height challenge well; it made her faster and able to squeeze into some ships the others couldn't hope to fit into. Unfortunately, the lack of height meant the extra inches filled out her breasts and hips, making her a universal object of male appreciation.
Not that she cared. She wasn't here for a hookup. She was here to crush egos.
A short, squat humanoid male lumbered to the speaking podium, readjusted the serpentine microphone and cleared his throat. "If everyone could please employ their universal translators, I will proceed to announce the ten teams who will compete in our race this year." The ends of his graying mustache vibrated from the vocalization.
A wave of quiet grumbling ebbed through the crowd. As a general rule, Willa hated using her translator. To her way of thinking, it was sheer laziness on the parts of the masses for not pushing themselves to learn as many languages and dialects as possible, but she recognized the need for them as the galaxy expanded and new peoples were discovered. She raised her hand and activated the tiny device embedded in her skin just behind her right ear. It would be useful in case her shipmate was from a race she wasn't familiar with.
The little man launched into a long-winded speech thanking sponsors and the Planetary Racing Commission--the authorities that enforced the rules throughout the race--as well as the Universal Racing Association--the folks who sanctioned the race and elected the members of the PRC. Representatives of those governing boards stood behind the speaker on raised, metal platforms and were dressed in their finest clothes from their respective planets or moons. Willa tuned him out, not caring about the politics of the event. She wanted to find out which one of the crafts she'd be piloting and get on with it. Picking at a stray thread on a loose-fitting linen sleeve of her own uniform, she bit her bottom lip in frustration. Come on already!
Finally, the announcements began. The URA representative announced the first three teams of two. Applause and cheers exploded in the space as the members wound through the crowd to assemble on another metal platform. Willa recognized only one person--Chaf Trant, a humanoid-Umbrian hybrid. His pebbled, rusty skin, vivid green hair and muscled body had played into her fantasies more than once. She'd gone up against him in a similar race two years ago. He'd won. She'd come in second place, but that race hadn't had nearly the cachet this race--the Nebulon Trike--did. Of course, it didn't help matters that the very next year she'd been paired with Chaf for one of the races on the circuit. If ever there was a man who needed a smack-down, it was him. Good thing her fantasies had ceased after that. He'd never once thanked her for her piloting expertise and had pretty much blamed her for their poor fourth-place showing. She narrowed her eyes. It would serve him right if she could best him on a majority of the race legs now.
"Team five will consist of Willa Rayes..." The announcer paused as he shuffled through his paperwork, and low murmurs swept through the crowd. The urge to grin tugged at her. She squelched it. Better not appear too confident. At least her reputation had come before her. They should be in awe; she'd wipe the racecourse with all of them. Willa held her breath, disconcerted she'd missed the last team's names while lost in thought. "Willa Rayes and Stratton Sinnet. Please take your places to the left of the podium."
Willa's heart plummeted into her churning stomach, even as her pulse accelerated. Stratton Sinnet? There had to be a mistake. She glanced around the hangar but didn't see anyone fitting his description. Though she'd never met the man, his reputation preceded him too. Rumored to be the louse of the galaxy, he'd been dubbed a bounty hunter, a con, a thief and a womanizer, among other things. The only redeeming quality she'd heard was that he could pilot a craft with a decent amount of knowledge and skill.
No matter. No skid mark of society was going to keep her from winning this race.
Shoving her way through the tightly packed bodies, she crossed to the stage. Her boot heels rang against the grating of the steps as she climbed to the stage. A few murmured words of congratulations from the other participants later and she took her spot at the end of the line. The announcements of the next teammates droned on, and still her racing partner didn't show.
Where the hell is he? This isn't playtime.
She flipped the end of her black ponytail over a shoulder in frustration, and that was when she caught sight of him--Stratton Sinnet, more commonly known throughout his fan base as Sin. He moved through the crowds with the grace and easy confidence of a celebrity or a politician, shaking hands and even signing an autograph or two for the children lingering in his path. A few whispers of Sin accompanied the spectacle of his arrival, while sycophantic, female groupies and wannabe male pups followed in his wake. As she watched, a tiny part of her mind agreed he was indeed the personification of sin.
The man was tall, probably a tick over six feet, and his creamy, light-cocoa skin gleamed with a thin sheen of sweat. Not surprising in the hangar's sweltering temperatures. Rich-brown eyes seemed to take in every aspect of his surroundings even as he joked and laughed, although they were hard, empty, no trace of happiness or humor behind them.
Willa moistened her bottom lip with the tip of her tongue. He paused at the base of the metal stairs, and his gaze met hers for a moment. Slowly, as if he meant for her to know exactly where she stood in his estimation, he raked his gaze down her body. She shivered, her skin almost heating under such blatant perusal, but she stood her ground, staring back, willing him to look her in the eye.
When he did, she stumbled back a pace. His sensual lips edged upward in a grin that sent a rush of sensation between her legs. She squeezed her thighs together and swallowed--hard. Yes, Sin was a good name for this man, with his liquid brown eyes and a mouth that probably had made more than a few females beg. A thin goatee graced his face, the meticulously groomed ribbon of a beard outlining the sharp cut of his jaw and ending at his earlobes. Other than that scant facial hair, Stratton Sinnet was bald. Every move was calculated to bring attention to a lean, powerful body that his tight-fitting cream trousers and billowing black silk shirt couldn't come close to hiding.
Of course, the damned man had to be handsome. Not only that, he was very aware of how good he looked. She narrowed her eyes. I detest attractive, arrogant men.
As he mounted the stairs and walked the length of the stage, she shook her head, clearing her lustful thoughts. This man was nothing to her but a navigator, the second of her team. He could take his reputation and shove it, for all she cared. Sometime during the course of this race, she'd bring him down a peg or two, show him not all women were meant to fawn over him simply because of his pretty face and body.
Barely aware of the remaining team announcements, Willa focused on Stratton's approach. When he stood before her, she drew herself up to her full height and extended her right hand. "Good afternoon. I'm Willa Rayes, and I'll be your pilot during the Nebulon Trike."
"Now, see, here's where we'll have a problem." Stratton grasped her hand, holding on to it much longer than necessary. "I'm Stratton Sinnet. I'm the pilot. You are my navigator, and I always get what I want."
She ignored her annoyance. Now was not the time or place to call him out. It was hard enough to control the heat his smooth-as-glass voice stirred in her stomach. "Not today. I'm always the pilot, so you'd better get it into your skull that I'm in charge." She wrenched her hand from his grip, resisting the urge to wipe it on her pants. Time to lay down the ground rules. "As soon as we're assigned a ship, I need you to enter the coordinates to the first checkpoint. Also, I'll need a status report of the ship itself, as well as a listing of any skills you may have."
"And I need you to shut your yap." Stratton's gaze constantly roved over the other racers before focusing on her. Again she reeled beneath the force of those eyes. "Look, you may be important on your home planet, but here, you're my navigator." He pinned her with a glare that could have frozen water. "There's more at stake in this race than whatever it is you're here for. Now, you leave the flying to me, and if you're a good girl, I might let you rub my feet at that first checkpoint."
Willa seethed, clenching her hands into fists so tightly her nails bit into her palms. She ground her teeth as surprised laughter erupted around them on the team stage. Remembering why she'd entered the race in the first place, she stepped into Stratton's personal space and drilled a forefinger into his chest. "I rub no man's feet, and I don't take orders from them. You don't have the right to treat me like one of your conquests."
More announcements sounded over the speaker system, and a high-pitched squeal from the universal translator made her blank out for a couple of seconds. Sometimes the technology didn't mesh with her neural circuits when there was too much stimulation or other translators in the vicinity.
Stratton's beautiful mouth lifted in a grin. "Looks like they're handing out ship assignments. As your pilot, I'd better go claim ours."
"Step off, newbie." She gave him another couple of pokes, loving the surprise that flickered deep in his eyes. "I can pilot any craft as well, or better, than any man here, so it would be in your best interest not to piss me off. Otherwise, I'll make sure you never get past that first checkpoint." Her voice had risen steadily through her diatribe.
Startled silence cut into the general melee in the hangar as every eye stared at her. Willa was beyond caring. She gave him one last poke, ignoring the hard-packed muscles beneath the thin fabric of his shirt. "I don't want any more excuses. Get your rear into the bays and put on the uniform. You're not allowed to fly in street clothes. I'm going to find out which bird we're assigned." She turned on her heel so quickly her ponytail whipped around, and she felt it smack his chest.
Stratton Sinnet could rot. There was no way she was giving up control to the likes of him.