“What happened to your ship?” Ganavan asked, nodding vaguely toward where I thought the Squirrel Tree must have been from here. “The Dark Watch blow it full of holes?”
Nerves exploded inside me. It was a joke. He was joking. I forcibly calmed my racing heart. “Unexpected asteroid belt.”
“You fire your navigator for that?”
I shook my head. “It wasn’t her fault.”
He nodded, his hands moving to his hips. I noticed scars on his knuckles and wondered how many times he’d split his skin open punching someone in the face. I had a few of those myself. Prison brawls. They happened.
For his part, Shade Ganavan watched me like a hawk, and I wasn’t quite sure why. I could tell he was interested, but this seemed to go beyond normal awareness. I could have sworn he took in my every blink and breath.
Finally, he said, “I might not have the metal you need for a few days, sugar.”
“You might not have your tongue if you call me ‘sugar’ again.”
His expression flared with a heat I felt branch out into every part of me. The man definitely liked to be provoked, and for some reason, I liked provoking him. I think I even liked it when he provoked me.
His countenance changed suddenly, sharpening. “You know how to carry through on a threat?” he asked quietly.
I frowned. “You want me to slice out your tongue?”
“I want to know if your sharp edges can actually cut.”
“Why?” He’d lost me. Was this kinky talk, and I wasn’t getting it? I wasn’t a virgin or totally inexperienced. There had been Gabe. But then he’d run one way that day and I’d run the other, and we’d never seen each other again.
Shade’s voice came to me on a low whisper over the tinkling of the bell I’d just noticed, but there was nothing seductive about it. “Because the Dark Watch just followed you into my shop.”
Panic iced me over, and I froze. It couldn’t be. How did they know?
“Who?” I mouthed more than said aloud.
Shade’s eyes flicked over my shoulder. He gave a slight shrug, speaking so quietly I essentially had to read his lips as well. “I don’t know every goon they’ve got.”
“Uniform?” I breathed.
“Black,” he mouthed back.
I exhaled. A trooper, then. If it had been my uncle coming for me, he would have been wearing red.
I lifted the shiny metallic cartridge box I still had in my hand. “You’re sure all forty rounds are in here?” I asked in a normal voice again, angling the box to reflect what was behind me. I saw a soldier I didn’t recognize. Probably just some Sector 2 guy in here looking for a knickknack or spare part.
I tried to act casual, even though adrenaline was making me jittery underneath. My relief was cerebral. My body hadn’t caught up yet.
“How much for this?” I asked.
“Fifteen,” Shade said, taking the box of bullets from me. “I’ll ring it up.”
I followed him to the register and then paid, only once darting a glance at the soldier who was perusing the shelves a good twenty feet from me. When Shade handed me back the cartridge box and my change, our fingers brushed, but I was too nervous to appreciate the brief contact.
Chuckling, he said, “I thought you were going to walk off without paying for that.”
What in the galaxy made him think that?
“I’m not a petty thief,” I said, coolness creeping into my voice. When I stole something, it wasn’t measly cartridges for guns we hardly used. It was cure-all vaccines and food for the starving and prisoners of war.
“I was teasing.” Shade cocked his head to one side, looking almost sorry.
I blinked. Oh. All right, then. Clearly, I needed a manual on flirting. I felt myself turn crimson again.
“You remember where to find me when you have those parts?” I asked.
He nodded. “See you soon…”
His sentence seemed unfinished. He might have been about to add Tess or another antagonizing sugar, but he chose not to say anything else when the soldier came up beside me and plunked a shaving kit down on the counter.
Ducking my head, I turned and left Ganavan’s Products and Parts, not looking up or slowing down again until I’d reached the base of the Squirrel Tree.
The Dark Watch was on Albion 5, just like they were everywhere. And where there was one, there were many.