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Staked: Chapter Fourteen

The look on his face didn’t turn out to be quite as satisfying as I’d hoped.

We had arranged to meet several streets away from the docks in an area that Kieran thought would be out of range of any surveillance around the ship. The deck where the ship was docking was only a few levels lower than where the Star and Pietra’s house were––not exactly reputable, but not downright risky, either.

I felt conspicuous wandering around in my dress and heels, let alone the makeup, so I stayed half a step behind Pietra and Sardra as they led me to the rendezvous point. 

Kieran stood by himself waiting for us. He blinked at me as I rounded the corner, and then his face went still.

“Well,” he said briskly to Sardra. “Your people are good. I can hardly recognize her.”

Entirely professional, with a hint of backhanded compliment.

I bit back a sigh.

Sardra just nodded. “I’m glad it meets your expectations. Now, anything else you want us to know before you head in there?”

“Yes,” he said. “I’ve set up a channel that I can use to get in touch with you, if things go wrong. I’ll send you the key for that now, and a key for contacting my employers directly in case something goes wrong.” He grimaced. “They’re not happy about it, but I insisted. Keep that in mind if you do end up deciding to use it.”

“Understood.” Sardra said. She patted me on the back, and Pietra gave me a quick hug.

Then it was time to go. “Ready?” Kieran asked. I could hear the unspoken question: Do you really want to do this?

“Yes,” I said, keeping my voice firm. Even this late in the game, I knew Kieran would try to talk me out of it if I gave him half a chance.

He shook his head. “If you say so. Give me your arm.”

We walked several blocks to the edge of the docks. I leaned into him, resting my head on his shoulder and forced myself not to look back. I looked up at him instead. I saw his eyes dart down to me then away.  His shoulders and back felt unnaturally tight under my touch.

This was going to be awkward.

Lovely.

The docks were wide open compared to the rest of the ship with resting areas for the smaller ships and large airlock doors lining the station wall. There were only a handful of ships in port. Ahead of us I could see clumps of people in fancy dress, moving slowly to one of the smaller ships. I looked it over as we walked.

“Stay close to me,” Kieran muttered. “The story is that you’re my most recent paramour and the one who got me interested in Blue. Nobody will question it if you follow me everywhere and pretend to ignore what everyone else is saying.”

“Got it.” I said matter-of-factly. “Don’t worry, I’m ready to play the part.”

Kieran looked down long enough to raise an eyebrow at me before a guard stopped us in front of the ship. He was wearing an ill-fitting tuxedo and a disgruntled look. “I need to verify your invitation, sir,” he said.

Kieran pulled his commtab from the inside pocket of his coat, tapped it twice, and held it up for inspection.

The guard looked it over, checked something off on his own device, and gave me a look. “And she’s…”

“My plus-one,” Kieran said smoothly. “I mentioned her in my reply. Surely there’s no problem?”

The guard gave me a narrow-eyed look. “I was told to ask for identification on all our guests.”

“It’s all right,” I said. I let my voice go sultry and slid out of Kieran’s arms, tracing a finger up the guard’s chest. He wasn’t very attractive, but I’d been practicing for just such a situation. “I promise I’m not anybody interesting. I’m just here for a good time.”

Behind me, I could feel Kieran bristle. “It just so happens that if her identity became known, it could get…inconvenient,” he said tightly. “I’m sure that’s the case for some others who will be on the ship this evening.”

He grabbed my wrist and pulled me out of the guard’s range, and I wrapped around him again.

The guard looked a little dazed, but coughed and shook it off. “Yes, of course,” he said. “I understand, sir. I’ll add her as your special guest, not a business partner.”

Which I technically wasn’t anymore, I reflected as Kieran dragged me past the guard and onto the ramp leading into the ship.

I could be considered a partner in crime, though…but did it count as crime if you were doing it to the bad guys?

The interior of the ship had a plush blue carpet leading to the reception area with velvet ropes cordoning off the ship on either side. As soon as we were out of sight, Kieran ducked to the other side of the ropes and pulled me down a shadowy hall and around a corner to a small storage area lined with wooden crates.

He pushed me against the wall and growled at me through gritted teeth. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Playing my part,” I said steadily.

“You’re asking for trouble,” he said.

“What, mad because I flirted with someone who wasn’t you?” I raised an eyebrow at him. “I think you’ve lost the right to be upset about––”

“I’m upset because you’re asking for the wrong sort of attention!” he snapped. “What would you do if that guard had decided to take you up on that flirting?”

“And what if he’d found out who I really am?” I said, looking him straight in the eye. “Wouldn’t that be worse?”

“You know what I think?” Kieran demanded, leaning forward without breaking eye contact. “I think you just wanted some action––it didn’t even matter who. Maybe the Blue hasn’t worn off as much as you might think.”

I choked a bit on that. He thought I hadn’t been acting? “You––”

“You want some right now, don’t you?” Kieran leaned over me, arms braced just above my shoulders, staring deep down into my eyes.

He wasn’t close enough that I felt stifled, but his proximity was sending sparks of want through me.

It was distracting.

“I could find a nice quiet corner if you want. Anyone who saw us probably wouldn’t even find it strange. Or we could make it even more public, keep the disguise believable––“

“Don’t even,” I hissed at him. I had to drag my eyes away from his lips once or twice. He was close and he felt…nicer than I wanted to admit to myself.

Still, he was going too far.

“Sounds like I’ve already changed your mind, though, if you’re threatening me with that. And here I thought you didn’t want to draw the wrong kind of attention…”

“Who’s threatening?” he asked. He traced a thumb along the bottom edge of my lip, and I forced myself to hold absolutely still. “This isn’t like before. You didn’t know what you were doing––you’d have taken anyone who’d offered to give you what you wanted back then. But now…you know who I am and why you want what you want. And you want it anyway, don’t you? You can say no if you want to…but I bet you don’t.”

His tone was quiet, teasing, but intense, sparking a deep quivering in my core. He pressed his thumb, just slightly, inside my parted lips.

My traitorous tongue flicked it, and I groaned deep in my throat as he slid it in a fraction deeper.  Our earlier encounter flared within me, and unbidden, I closed my lips around the demanding intruder and gently sucked. 

His eyes darkened with desire, and he slid his other hand down the front of my bodice, fingers grasping, kneading. He found my nipple and gave it a light pinch before rubbing it between his fingertips.

I gasped at the sweet sensation, and he took advantage of my open lips to slide his hand behind the nape of my neck and pull me to him.  Kieran’s mouth devoured mine, his tongue thrusting and twining. My back pressed into the wall of the storage closet as he claimed me, grinding into my hips. I gripped the front of his coat, desperate for balance, for him, for something.

“Ani,” he murmured into my ear, “you don’t know what you’re doing.” 

He was right, I didn’t. But I didn’t care. His hand left my breast, and I could have cried with the lack of him, but his driven focus on my mouth had me nearly out of my mind. 

Kieran’s hands left me, and I sagged against the wall. But this was no respite. He had slid his hands down my dress, pulling the fabric up, away from my legs, until the rough skin of his palms caressed my bare thighs.

A shiver at his touch ran through me, and he answered with a grunt as he pulled me away from the wall, closer to him. One of his arms wrapped around my waist with a grip of iron while the other slid between my legs. Sparks ran through me, and I jerked in his hold. “Kieran…” I stuttered, but his rough breathing was his only response. His fingers rubbed against the rapidly dampening fabric of my panties, rubbing faster, as I squirmed against him.

“You’re not going anywhere, Ani,” he breathed. He ground the heel of his hand into my throbbing mound. His questing fingers grew more insistent; the pressure of his arm holding me tight, the raw need in his voice – it was all too much.

At the next press of his hand, I flew apart, shattering under his control.

He held me until I stilled then brought me close to him. “And now, you’re going to walk out of here, and wait for me. Because if you give me half a reason, I’m going to bend you over those boxes and fuck you until you scream. And we have other things to do tonight, correct?”

The cold fury in his voice cut through any lingering haze. A glance at his eyes, and I saw him struggling for control.

I swallowed.

What would happen if he lost that last little shred?

I shook my head, and he straightened my ridiculous hat with the wig, carefully avoiding contact. He was right.

We had things to do tonight, but whatever was between us, this wasn’t over.

“Go into the main room, and wait for me.” His voice had settled, just a bit towards normal. “Try not to start any trouble for a change.” 

I flashed a smile at him, then with a quick pat down of my dress to make sure I was more or less in order, gathered my wits about me and went ahead.

The decorations in the room were opulent. Cut glass, bright as diamond, hung from chandeliers installed in the ceiling. The chandelier lights were electric, but lamps with real flame burned near the edges of the room.

Refracted bits of light sparkled off of silver platters and crystal decanters, filled with foods that ranged from the ordinary to things I’d never seen before in my life. The Uppers had been more luxurious than anything I’d seen outside of video feeds, but the deck here was a different kind of luxury.

Fortunately, the role I was playing allowed me to gawk a little bit. Part of me hoped that Kieran would come back for me soon. I tried to ignore that feeling.

Sardra had been right––I wasn’t too gaudy for this crowd. In fact, I was a bit on the plain side––my dress didn’t sparkle, and my makeup was downright tame compared to what the women (and a few of the men) were wearing.

Several people sparkled with jewels at their throats, cuffs, or ears, or in their hair––anywhere they could be stuck. Many of them were probably fake, though.

I was no expert, but this seemed like the kind of gathering where appearances were more important than reality.

Good, I thought, trying to breathe deep. I fit right in.

The people around the tables seemed just as artificial as much of the décor. In knots of two or three or five, they ate and drank and chatted. Some of the women were feeding the men who stood beside them.

I tried not to look too hard for blue irises, and wondered how many women here had tried Blue already––and how many of them here were potential subjects rather than potential customers.

Kieran joined me a few minutes later, looking considerably calmer than he had before, but still not happy. “Enjoying yourself?”

“It’s lovely,” I said, smiling at him. He was right, we had roles to play. “I think you should get me something to eat.”

“If you want,” he said. “But you come with me. I don’t want you wandering around.”

It was a compromise I could live with. I followed him to a table near one of the windows and loaded up a small fake-crystal plate with some food I wasn’t too sure of. Kieran murmured recommendations in my ear, and I tried to look appreciative.

We were left to ourselves for maybe half an hour, at which point someone came over to talk to us––a middle-aged man with gray hair at the temples. He looked comfortable enough in his finery, but I there was a strange air about him that put me ill at ease.

He started talking shop with Kieran, and I pretended that I didn’t care what they were saying so that I could ignore it, staring out the window instead.

The ship hadn’t travelled too far, so the station itself blocked most of the blackness and pinpricks of stars behind it. It still looked smaller somehow than I could have imagined.

I tried to imagine everyone I knew inside––Pietra, Oleg, and the others, all probably wondering what was happening to me.

“––has she tried it?” I heard, and looked back around to see the man jerking his thumb in my direction, asking Kieran a question.

“Several times,” Kieran said, “or so I’ve heard. I only acquired her recently. Before then, I hadn’t heard much about Blue except for rumors. Which is why I’m here, actually. I wanted to learn more about getting in the business myself. I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

“I hadn’t either,” the man said, smirking as he looked me over. I tried to keep my face blank, empty. Something about his voice put a twist in my stomach. “Nobody seems too sure yet what it does in the long term, but with the profits we’ve been getting, even a high turnover would still turn a profit.”

He looked at me with a critical eye then leaned in, putting a hand under my chin as he stared into my face.

“Her eyes are already going, I see,” he said. “You’re going to want to keep a watch on her. After a while, they start behaving irrationally even between doses…”

His voice faded out as I was hit the sudden certainty that I’d met this man before. It was the smell that did it––musty sourness and a hint of unwashed skin.

The darkness from back then seemed to close in on me: the sensation of being tied down, drugs in my blood and in my lungs, the feeling of burning emptiness inside me and what it had almost made me do…

My heart thudded painfully in my chest as I realized I was way too close to someone who could recognize me any second. Since he’d already been involved in kidnapping and questioning me once, I was sure nothing good would happen if he became aware of my identity.

My mouth opened on its own, and I let my eyes slide to half-mast as I leaned forward, trying to keep the terror I was feeling out of my face. I had to play this well.

“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t touch,” Kieran said coldly, taking the man’s hand and removing it from my chin. “I’m very pleased with her, and not much in the mood for sharing.”

Taking the small opening he’d provided, I latched on to him, a hand running through his hair as my lips played with his ear.

“I love it when you get all possessive,” I murmured, loud enough for the other man to hear. I wanted to say, Get me out of here, but he was too close. I could feel myself shaking against Kieran and hoped that nobody else could see.

He wrapped an arm around my shoulders, even as he pushed me down and away. “Shh,” he said, putting a finger over my lips. “Not in front of our hosts, darling. Wouldn’t want to be rude, now, would we?”

I pouted at him, my thoughts consumed by a need to get away. Behind Kieran’s back, I took a handful of his suit and gripped it, hard. What had he meant, hosts? Was this someone important? It wasn’t as though I could ask––

I froze as something else occurred to me. If he’d been there when I was kidnapped, he’d heard my voice before, both when I was drugged and when I wasn’t. He might not have seen my face before, but heard me?

I shut up, clinging more tightly to Kieran instead. I tried not to glance out at the crowd as I started kissing his neck––small, flighty kisses that were spoiled by how hard I was breathing. I tried to keep the feeling of mortification at bay as I started to slide one of my legs around him, praying he would get the hint that I couldn’t convey with words.

Kieran swore lightly, eyes twinkling like this was a joke. “Oh dear,” he said, “I think she’s about reached her limit. I’d ask for a private room with her, but I’m rather hoping to discuss business.” His hand squeezed my shoulder slightly on the last word, as if for emphasis. A signal? “So if I can ask where you’re keeping the…” He stumbled a bit, trying to find the right word.

The man gave him a brief smile and overrode him. “Your lady friend will find others like her resting down the hall. If you’ll allow me?”

His formality sounded strange in the drawling accent he barely bothered to hide. I saw that his hands were battered with split, flattened nails and scrapes barely closed on the knuckles. It matched the laid-back tone I’d heard before, when he’d only barely bothered cautioning Jahal against going too far with me.

He led us down several hallways then through a door that looked like a service hatch. We were in a much less finished part of the ship, and we ended up in a nondescript storeroom. He unlocked the door and pulled it open on hinges that creaked.

The women inside weren’t in chains or otherwise restrained. There were maybe a dozen of them, sitting in various positions, some on chairs and others on the ground, a few draped on tables. Most of them were at least partially undressed, and they didn’t look like it bothered them.

They didn’t look like anything bothered them; they barely looked up as I was herded inside.

“I’ll be back for you soon,” Kieran said. “Try to calm down in the meantime.” And then he was gone, the man with him. The door shut behind them on the start of our guide’s laugh.

My fists clenched as I stared after them for a moment. Then I took a deep breath and looked around. Only a few of them were watching me, but I scanned the room carefully before doing anything.

“Hey, everyone,” I said, voice low.

A few more looked up.

I saw a girl who couldn’t have been out of her teens raise her head from where it had been pillowed on her knees. Her face was streaked with tears.

“Okay,” I said, firmly, fishing out my commlink. “I don’t want to get your hopes up too high, but I know some people. Who wants to get out of here?”


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