ManOnFire, page 1
Table of Contents
Amanda’s one fired-up mercenary, but the truth about her new commander just might be too hot for her to handle.
When Amanda’s unit is assigned to a brand new base at the edge of company territory, she thinks she’s ready for anything until she wakes from cryo-sleep and finds that their new leader is far more than she expected.
Mercenaries don’t have time for the feelings Commander Wells stirs in her and none of her training could prepare her for the instant heat between them. When the big brass orders her to spy on him, Amanda’s sense of duty takes her personal desires to task.
Wells is keeping secrets, he’s behaving in unusual ways and suddenly Amanda has more to worry about than a few sparks. If the man she wants isn’t who she thinks he is, will the truth be too hot for her to handle?
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Man On Fire
Copyright © 2012 Frances Pauli
Cover art by Angela Waters
All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, is forbidden without the written permission of the publisher.
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Man On Fire
The first time they met, she threw up on his boots. Coming out of stasis usually made her nauseated, but the new star drive had even more quirks than the 200 series. Her legs buckled two steps from the pod. Amanda found herself kissing the silvery floor grate and praying for a firm planet—any firm planet—to stand on. Her stomach rolled with the engines at the same instant the shiny, black boots stopped marching directly in her path.
She wiped the spew from her lips and sat back on her heels. A deep voice, gruff and with a faint trace of humor, boomed at least six feet over her head.
“Dr. Gerafit, I believe we have a puker.”
Amanda took a chance and leaned her head back.
“Pod two, six, five, seven,” a new voice chimed in. “Reinsertion code. Acknowledge.”
She stared at the man she’d yacked on and nodded in answer to the doctor’s question. Pod 2657. That was she. She was supposed to respond, but the dark eyes regarding her from a broad, unsmiling face stole her words away.
“Is she clear?”
“Not yet. Pod two, six, five, seven, code?”
Amanda’s brain focused. Her code phrase—she had it. She shook off the last dregs of hyper-sleep and answered. “Sorry. Man on fire.”
“She’s clear.” The doctor spoke from somewhere to her left, out of sight.
The man she faced, most likely command staff if the uniform and evil grin could be trusted, offered her a hand up, however. She felt just wobbly enough to need it.
His gaze scanned her, dropped to his tainted boots and then flashed with amusement at last.
“Sorry about that.” Her cheeks heated. “I’m usually a lot less volatile coming out.”
“It’s the new drive.” He shrugged and his hand shifted against hers. He hadn’t released the grip, even though her legs had steadied. “I hurled, myself, when they brought me round.” He smiled, gave her hand a little squeeze and then dropped it.
Amanda looked down, around, anywhere but directly at the mysterious, well-ranked stranger. Hardly a dignified introduction, Pod 2657. The vomit combined with a drab gray, overly inflated pod suit would hardly go down as having made a good impression.
“Very well. Dr. Gerafit, I trust you can oversee the rest of the reinsertion.”
She stared at the grate and listened to his steps ring out of the pod bay. The doctor stepped behind her and tugged at the suit’s controls until she deflated with a whoosh. Her suit sagged and hung heavily for a second. He released the catch and it fell in a frothy puddle to the floor. She stood in the tailored second skin and wished that sir had been five minutes later with his inspection. She could pull off sexy in poly-skin, but then, who couldn’t?
“What’s the stardate?” The doc continued to work at her vital scan. The readout on her collar would feed him the entire history of her body’s processes during her slumber. She balked at the answer he tossed off. Her unit had traveled to the brand new MDC base at the edge of the company’s territory, but they couldn’t possibly have arrived so soon. “Wait. Really? That’s two weeks early.”
“We’ve been called out for a private job. Abduction on Verilan Beta involving a Thurian courtesan.”
“They woke us early for a courtesan?”
“The woman in question is the prime minister’s mistress.”
“Aha. Sure.” Amanda scanned the med bay. Three pods had been emptied before hers, leaving twenty-two of her unit still snoozing. “And the suit I yacked on was?”
“Of course.” She’d tossed her cookies on the new boss. Great. If she could manage to slaughter the ship’s mascot on the way to her bunk, she’d be a shoe-in for a promotion. “Right.” She groaned. No help for it now. “Hand over my assignment and I’ll let you get on with it.”
Gerafit stepped around to face her. Pescine. Amanda smiled and stared into his huge, watery eyes. His rubber lips pursed and he lifted his hand-held and blinked at the screen. “Your unit has level eight. Bunk assignment fifty-two high.”
“Great. Thanks, doc.” A top bunk, damn it. The way her day was going, it hardly surprised her. Her duffle waited for her in a locker by the med bay door. She’d stashed it there seven months, three weeks and two days ago. A prime minister’s girlfriend. Go figure. Amanda shrugged again, retrieved her bag and prayed the C-smokes she’d stashed inside still tasted as good as she remembered.
“Alpha one to landing party, eta?” The voice on the comm rattled with terror. It made Commander Wells’ reply sound like polished steel.
“Twelve minutes at this trajectory.”
“They’re taking us apart, Commander. The last charge took out the minister’s wing. Three floors in rubble and only twenty percent of the ceiling intact.”
“We’re full out, Ambassador.” Wells kept his voice icy, but Amanda saw his cheek twitch. This news didn’t please him. “Do you have a status report on the minister?”
“A detachment was sent to escort him to his private bunker. We’ve lost contact and—” The singing of laser fire hummed over the line. It echoed through the shuttle interior. Wells growled and slammed a fist into the console. “Damn!”
Amanda leaned her head back against the transport’s padding and watched him fume. Beside her, Hicks chuckled and adjusted the dial on his heavy rifle, tweaking the charge and making the gun whine.
Opposite Amanda, their youngest member clutched his straps with shaking hands and whispered his personal, pre-battle mantra. The habit had earned him the moniker Chicken and though he’d disproved the label repeatedly in the field, the name stuck. That’s how it went with mercs. Even their nicknames were unflinching.
“You tuned, Man?” Hicks’ fingers twitched toward her rifle, but she stilled them instantly with a look. She’d been Man to the unit since her first kill and they’d probably carve it into her helmet after they’d pried if off her corpse.
“I’m good. I’m all good.”
She wasn’t, though. Despite her nickname, Commander Wells had somehow managed to stir in her something she’d almost forgotten was possible. He ran a tight ship, orchestrated a grueling training schedule and oozed business-like authority in all things. Still, one look from the boss and Man quickly reminded herself that she was a woman. She clutched the assault rifle in her lap and glared at Chicken for no good reason.
The transport banked, pressing her against the padding again, then dipped forward as they began the real descent toward the planet’s surface. Verilan Beta was a shithole, but an affluent one. The political environment changed like the air fronts constantly shifting on the planet’s shorelines. What little segments of land were available on Verilan constantly passed from one set of dictatorial hands to another. The resources abundant in the planet’s oceans funded the constant fighting and rapidly increased the wealth and status of whatever warlord currently sat on top of the mountain.
That distinction currently fell to a prime minister with a taste for exotic concubines.
Wells leaned forward and peered at the transport’s viewer. Amanda couldn’t catch his expression, just the stiffening of his spine and the edge of exasperation in his voice. “It’s a bloody war zone down there. That section.” He pointed a decisive finger. “Land this bird in the palace courtyard.”
“We’ll likely add to the damage, sir.”
“Good.” He sighed and ran his hands along the console. “If the idiot had waited for us, he wouldn’t be in this fix…and we’d have a much easier job at hand.”
“Not to mention fewer casualties,” Hicks muttered. He meant it only for the unit, but their new commander had exceptional hearing.
Wells twisted around and focused his displeasure on Hicks. His hands settled on the waist of his uniform and his left eyebrow arched higher. “Would you like to file an official complaint, Hicks?”
“Very good.” Wells turned in her direction. Amanda slammed her shoulders back and looked straight forward, then at his belt, his buttons, whatever didn’t involve making eye contact.
The prime minister had rushed. She couldn’t argue that and her face would show it. If the jackass had waited for them to fetch back his Thurian, the other side wouldn’t be pummeling his palace with artillery at the moment. She felt exactly like the rest of the unit, as if the prime minister deserved what he got, as if the man’s stupidity had escalated the situation and would risk more of their skin than necessary.
“You have something to add, Man?” Wells voice poured around her, slick and full of suspicion.
“Damn straight.” He cleared his throat and his voice changed, the tone back to business. “Now if the situation on the ground is any indication, the prime minister is about to be relieved of that status. Luckily, he paid us in advance.”
This earned him a few snickers. Amanda turned her head and caught the shaking of Chicken’s shoulders. The bench rattled as Hicks shifted position and tried to hide his own reaction.
“Instead of fetching the courtesan,” Wells continued without comment, “we’ll be rescuing the man himself. I want cover fire from the transport the minute we touch down. Hicks’ squad will secure the courtyard and the rest of you will infiltrate the palace and take out any hostiles that have managed to gain entry.”
“Sir!” The cabin rang with the affirmation. The benches shook and Amanda pressed back into the padding and pulled her rifle into ready position. The engines changed pitch. The transport dropped into the last stage of its dive. Commander Wells reached for the wall over her head. He stepped close enough that she could stare at his boots.
“The prime minister has fled to his private bunker. We need to get there and get him out—if he’s still alive. Chicken?”
“You find communications and get me a location. Man’s squad’s with me.”
“Sir.” She snapped the affirmative while her fingers drove against the cool metal on the rifle’s grip. It meant nothing, yet her mind played with the idea. Did he want to keep an eye on her because he didn’t trust a woman squad leader? Maybe he’d seen something in training, something that actually placed her high enough in his esteem to make her the one for the job. Had she caught some kind of virus in cryo-sleep that turned fully trained mercenaries into complete idiots? She bit down on her bottom lip and let the sting, the taste of blood force her back to reality. It meant nothing.
The thrusters howled and she felt the vibrations through her seat. Landing. Go time. She was with him. She frowned and chewed her lip harder. The second they got back, she’d report to Gerafit for a psych evaluation. Something was wrong with her brain.
Wells’ barked the order, “Helmets!” Her hands reacted automatically, reaching up to secure the protective gear, flipping the visor down to lock, but her eyes drifted to his face and her heart stuttered to find him watching her. As they touched down, kissed the planet surface and made ready for war, all Amanda could see was the spark in the commander’s eyes.
It burned through her like a laser, more like fire. They headed into hostile territory, into battle, and Amanda had already taken the first hit.
“Jones is down!” Wells yelled from the far end of the corridor. “Chicken, I need that schematic.”
Amanda held position at the corner. Her squad waited, spread out along the hallway in front of Wells and guarding two side passages they’d left behind them. The tracking device attached to her wrist showed their positions as a pattern of green dots. Jones’ just turned red. Casualty. Not her first, but what did that matter? He died on her orders and she felt it like a punch in the gut.
The building shook and rained pulverized mortar down around them, adding to the rubble and dust filling the halls. Chicken had guided them close to the minister’s bunker, but as far as they could work out, the thing had no visible entrance. Commander Wells leaned against a wall that should have been a door and shouted orders into his comm.
A few hostiles hunkered behind a barricade in the hallway ahead. Jones took a belly full of laser before they’d worked that out. Now her lead pair fired the occasional blast to keep the invaders at bay and buy Wells a few seconds to work out where their mark had gone.
“Chicken!” Wells let his composure go. She heard it all the way down the hall. Their time had run out. “I need a way in here!”
She confirmed the data at her wrist again, seven green dots. She glanced back over her shoulder and caught the thumbs up from Mason. Ahead, Wells posed like a battle god—all wide stance and angles. His body armor only added to the square shoulders and muscles she knew hid beneath his uniform. He stood in the center of the corridor, directly in her line of sight, and Amanda forced herself to breathe. The dusting of plaster only enhanced the man’s build. Like highlights.
Gerafit was going to have to put her on drugs.
“Got it!” Wells shouted and waved a hand in the air without looking back. “Move up, Man!”
She checked the hall behind her once, pointed to Mason and then indicated he take her position. When he returned her sharp nod, Amanda bolted from the corner. She held her rifle at a slant in front of her chest, muzzle toward the floor and outer wall, but ready to flip up in an instant. She r
He cursed and leapt back when the metal crashed down to the rubble-strewn floor. One of his hands reached up and snapped down his visor, shielding his face and blocking her view of his high cheekbones. His voice came through her helmet this time, on the internal comm that would assure a private conversation. “The duct is a decoy. Chicken seems to think it will lead us to the prime minister’s bolt hole.”
Amanda took his lead and flipped her own visor down, spoke on the Q.T. “Us, sir?”
“You’re with me.” He already dragged a chunk of dislodged ceiling closer to the hole. “Have your squad hold the corridor. We’ll need an escape route if this is a keyhole extraction.”
He should have taken one of her men and left her to lead the squad, but Amanda didn’t question orders. She did what she was damn well told. Mason took over the team under her order to hold position and keep a route clear for their return. By the time she’d relayed Wells’ message, he’d build a platform of rubble below the duct. He watched until she’d returned and then leapt for the opening, catching the lip with his midsection and wriggling into the gap.
Amanda cleared her throat and dropped her eyes from the sight of his ass and legs sliding into the wall. Gerafit would have a sedative or something. She squinted at the heap of rubble. Powerful drugs—that was the ticket.
She heard his voice in her helmet. “Can you reach me?” His arm fished out from the opening, soon followed by his own helmet. “I’ll pull you up.”
Like hell he would. Amanda hit the platform and sprang. She rolled forward and landed the same way he had, belly down with only her legs dangling. She grinned when Wells scuttled back to make room for her. His visor was up and his eyes widened. His lips twitched an amused smile.
She dragged her body forward and kicked her way in beside him. The duct should have been smaller. Chicken had nailed the decoy theory. This passage had room to squat in, way too much room for its obvious function. Running lights high on the sides clicked on and off as Wells shifted position. Motion detectors, light strips—this went somewhere, and someone had wanted to make sure it wasn’t found.
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