RATED: PG for language
The spinning gold-tinted lenses on the glasses Kale’s wearing make it look like he’s got a head injury. Good thing nobody’s sitting close enough to notice them, or they might have questions. Questions draw attention, and we’re supposed to be inconspicuous.
So, of course, that’s why Kale’s wearing scanning specs that could light up a dance party.
But he stops the scanners as a waitress appears at our table.
Crap. Is that a corset? What kind of restaurant is this? I thought our bounty head hit classy places after a heist. Judging by the amount of skin I see at the moment, this place must just be fancy.
Fancy and classy don’t always go hand in hand, I guess.
“Hello, gentlemen.” She reaches across the table with exaggerated slowness. “How are you this fine evening?”
Kale doesn’t answer. He probably won’t. So I’m the one who has to be nice. Not that I mind, but I can already tell this chick is going to be a clinger.
“We’re fine,” I say. “Hungry.”
“Well, you’ve come to the right place.” Miss Corset straightens and winks at me. “What will you boys have to drink?”
Kale presses his lips together in a straight line. He doesn’t care. Just wants it cheap. That’s usually his mantra.
“Glass of Merlot,” I say and glance at him. “And a mineral water.”
Miss Corset winks again—has she got something in her eye?—before she bops off.
I stare at Kale. “Got him yet?”
I roll my eyes and sink back in the plush cushions in my chair. This place may not be classy, but I’d take the chairs in a heartbeat. We should invest in some of these babies for the galley. That would cheer the place up. No more parking our asses on rickety chairs held together by plastic cement and zip ties. We could eat our processed protein while we sit in comfort.
Yeah. No way in hell. Scraps wouldn’t let one of these chairs past the loading bay, let alone in the galley.
But it’s nice to dream. So I snuggle farther back in the chair and sigh.
“What are you doing?” Kale snarls behind his scanning lenses.
“I’m a big, tough, bad-ass bounty hunter,” I say. “I can snuggle if I want to.” I smirk at him. “You should try it.”
“Come on, Kale. You know you want to.” I poke him across the table.
He swats me away. “Do that again, and I’ll break your finger.”
I pout at him. “Who pissed in your coffee this morning?”
He scowls at me.
“What? Not professional enough for you? Mr. Sullivan?”
He points at me—pissy-Kale-speak for “shut the hell up”—as Miss Corset saunters back to our table with a bottle of mineral water and my glass of Merlot. She sets them on the table and bends over so I get an unimpeded view down the front of her blouse.
No, really. I enjoy that particular view as much as anybody.
But if Kale lets it slip that I spent the meal staring down the waitress’s corset, Jaz will kill me. No, scratch that. She’ll disembowel me with a wooden spoon and let me bleed out on the cargo bay bulkheads.
And she could do it.
With her little finger.
I shiver as Miss Corset bustles off, but I hide most of it behind my menu as I use it to shield my face.
“Europan lobster,” I mutter, hoping he’ll take any involuntary shuddering on my part as eager anticipation.
If Kale sees it, he doesn’t say anything. Good. Because that’s not a conversation I’m ready to have with him yet. He doesn’t need to know about me and Jaz.
Not that he’ll care.
Well, of course, he’ll care. But if anything, he’ll tell me I’m stupid. Investing in someone so deeply, even trying to love someone, is so far beyond him these days, I don’t think he’d understand it if he tried.
He’s so different now.
He’s nothing like the boy I knew on NUUSA. Back then, he always had a joke ready. Or he was always grinning about something. He was happy back then. But, we both were.
Those were the days when the biggest worry we had was Dad busting us for sneaking girly magazines into the house—and blaming it on my little brother. Crazy how things change. Damn, if that was all we had to worry about now, we’d be set for life.
Now? Now we’ve got to catch this bounty head, or we’ll be stuck eating foot-flavored protein bars for another month.
He activates the skull scanners again and takes another sweep of the fancy-schmancy restaurant.
Who the hell am I kidding? Who cares about protein bars? Every time we go out on a hit, the same fear gnaws away at my brain.
What if somebody knows him? What if we run into somebody who recognizes him? What if we stumble into a Black Dragon who IDs him? What then?
Yeah, we kill the guy. No big deal. But what about Kale? What will he do when his cover gets blown? Because it’s going to happen someday. I’m not sneaky enough to remember to call him Matt Sullivan all the time. One of these days, we’ll come across somebody who knows who he really is—the best hit man the Black Dragons ever produced. And just like that, he’ll be gone again.
We blow his cover, and he runs for it.
He’s always been good at running. Last time he ran too fast for me to catch up with him, and it took him getting caught in an explosion of his own making to slow him down.
He had to slow down. His bones were dust. That’s how I caught up to him again, and that’s how I dragged him into hunting for Talon McLeod and the Prodigal. And as far as I know he’s happy again. He doesn’t smile like he used to. He doesn’t laugh like he used to. But glimmers of the old Kale are still there, and they’re getting brighter every day.
But someday, he’s going to have to face what he was. He’s running from it now, and that’s okay because I’m running with him.
But the day is coming when he’ll have to stop running.
We both will.
I’ll have Jaz. She’ll be there to catch me when I can’t take another step. But Kale won’t let me catch him. He won’t let anyone catch him.
I’ve punched him and kicked him. I’ve pulled him and dragged him. But nobody—nobody—catches him. So on the day he stops running, I don’t know what I’ll do. And if he’s honest about it, neither does he.
I just hope somebody comes along soon who he’ll trust enough to let that close. But I don’t see it happening. I’ve known him all my life, and he doesn’t trust me that much.
Not-so-little Miss Corset bounds back to our table with a datapad, intent on taking our orders.
Talon said the Europan lobster was good.
Glancing over the menu, it’s the only thing I recognize. They don’t even have normal food—like a steak. Steak would be nice. But the only steak in the solar system that’s any good is on NUUSA, and they’re light years away.
So Europan lobster it is. It’d better be good. For 200 Credits it’d better be the damned tastiest piece of seafood I’ve ever eaten, Jupiter moon or not.
Kale hasn’t even looked at his menu. The waitress pauses in front of him, bent over at the perfect awkward angle to let him see as much as he wants. It doesn’t faze him. But then, not much does.
“Green salad with pheasant,” he says sharply, not even looking at her.
The waitress almost pouts as she makes the note on her datapad and scurries off to put our order in.
“You get him yet?” I ask.
“Not in the two minutes since you asked the last time.” He arches his eyebrows at me and lets the glasses slip down his nose so he can see me. “Don’t you want time to eat your lobster dinner?”
Those blue eyes of his are sparkling, almost like they used to when we were kids, and I can’t tell whether to grin or hide. It’s great to see him happy—but I don’t like that he’s talking about my lobster that way.
With my luck, Talon probably wanted me to order it because he knows it tastes like crap.
And Kale knew and didn’t stop me.
“I hope you choke on a pheasant bone.”
He grins at me and pushes his glasses up, going back to scanning the room. But he doesn’t stop smirking.
Ah, hell. Who cares if the lobster is a trick? For this moment, Kale looks like his old self again, and that’s worth more to me than just about more anything.
Besides, how bad can lobster be?