Atrea didn’t go to Jaxon right away. She had a life. Training. School with the kids. An awkward dinner with her Dad.
And wasn’t that just the highlight of her day? She was getting really tired of this standoff between them. She loved him, and most of the time she could see the reasoning behind his obstinacy, even when they didn’t agree. But not when it came to her Mom.
For years, she’d put up with his silence on the matter, believing his grief responsible. Tess, Atrea’s mother, was too painful for him to talk about. That’s what she’d always thought. When he did talk about her, it was small things. How much Atrea looked like Tess. How she’d hated space jumps, despite being an excellent pilot. How she’d loved her newborn daughter more than anything in the universe.
Atrea didn’t remember her mother. Nothing. Not even a vague impression, a voice, a smile. Tessea Hades died when Atrea was only six months old. She didn’t even know how her mother had died. Not really. From the few things her father let slip over the years, she’d always assumed an illness of some type.
But now, given his even greater reticence since coming to live among the pirates, Atrea wondered if that was true. She wracked her brain to try and remember if he’d ever specifically said anything.
Nope, nothing. In fact, now that she really thought about it, Dad never said she died from an illness. Instead, he’d said things like “taken too soon” or how the universe was “a bleak place” with Tess’s “light faded”. All very vague, and they could mean anything. In her young mind, faded had translated to sickness.
And maybe that was true. But maybe it wasn’t.
“You’re quiet tonight,” her father said. One of those conversational gambits that danced around the problem between them.
Atrea hated that. Wolfgang Hades was a direct sort of man. On every topic but this.
When she thirteen years old, she’d asked him about sex. It had taken all of her nerve to bring up the topic. Not because she was embarrassed for herself. She was a smuggler’s kid. She’d already seen and heard enough to know all about sex.
No, she was embarrassed because for the first time, she was challenging the life her father had appeared to choose for himself. In every spaceport, there was some form of brothel making loads of credits. Some of them used service bots, some employed people – usually a mix of clones and regular folks. The people who made their living in the confined spaces of ships navigating the black for long, lonely stretches of time were big business for the sex trade. And often, it was more than sex.
Lots of smugglers visited the same women as they passed through. They might have dinner, take in a holovid, share bits of their lives. It was a connection, a pseudo-relationship that they could pretend was real out in the black.
But Wolfgang never went to one, not once. He never brought anyone back to their ship, either. At thirteen, she’d wanted to know why. Even if he still missed her mother, he had to be lonely.
But Wolfgang took her question as being less about his emotional well being, and more about the act itself. And he’d answered her in his usual blunt fashion. No dissembling. No embarrassment. Then he’d taken her to the nearest clinic so she could be inoculated against most of the sexually transmitted diseases commonly encountered. She’d also received her first implant against unwanted pregnancy.
She’s never been more mortified in her life.
Now, she put down her fork. “Why won’t you talk about Mom?”
He sighed. “Not tonight, Atrea.”
“Not tonight? How about not ever.” She pushed her plate aside and leaned her arms on the table. “You never want to talk about it. How long are we going to keep this up? Because I’m never going to stop asking.”
He eyed her, saying nothing.
“Come on, Dad. You know I can be just as stubborn as you.” She gave him a tight smile. “Where do you think I get it from?”
He didn’t smile back. “You know I can’t talk about it. I was in the military when your mother and I met—”
“That is such a load of bullshit. Yes, you were on a military assignment when you met. But that code of silence doesn’t cover your entire relationship. You left the military for her. I know that much. She was Talented, and a pirate, and you couldn’t keep working for the people who would kill her if they knew. Stop using it as an excuse.”
Wolfgang rubbed a hand over his neatly trimmed beard, a sure sign of his discomfort. “That’s an oversimplification.”
“Is it?” She leaned back, crossing her arms. “Let me just take it off the table, then. Because I was in the Navy. You know I looked up your records, right? I know exactly when you left. I know which mission you were on when you met Mom. I even read the file that mentions her.”
He went rigid. “That file was sealed. How did—” He stopped himself with visible effort. His jaw worked, but he didn’t speak. His blue eyes were livid. She was sure she’d seen him more pissed off, but she was having trouble thinking of when.
“Yeah, you know exactly how. Because I’m Atrea Hades. Your daughter. You taught me everything I know. You made me who I am. And Dad, I appreciate that so much. I have no regrets about our life together or the way you raised me. I love you. But I want to know about Mom. I want to know who she was, who her family was. How am I like her? Did she have my Talent, or something different? What did she give up when she left to be with you? To have me? These questions are not going away, and in case you’ve missed it, secrets don’t stay secret for long around here.”
He stared at her, saying nothing. So she stared right back. She was not backing down, and she let him see that.
“It’s dangerous,” he said finally. He ground the words out through clenched teeth. “She made me promise.”
Four words. It was the most she’d gotten out of him, ever. Surprise made her take a few moments to absorb them.
“Mom made you promise? You’re saying this determination to keep me in the dark came from her?”
The look he gave her was one she knew well. It was the look that said of course, and why hadn’t she realized it sooner? It was the look he gave her whenever it took her too long to figure out how to do something.
“Why would Mom make you swear not to tell me about her?”
He shook his head, looking tired now. Weariness and old sorrow etched lines into his face. She almost felt bad.
“I can’t talk about it, Atrea. Please stop asking. I would do anything for you. Anything, except betray her.”
He stood up abruptly. “That’s all I’m going to say. Good night.”
He left without even kissing her on the cheek, forgoing a ritual between them that spanned back as long as she could remember.
She went to bed still torn by conflicting emotions. She hated causing her Dad pain, but part of her was more determined than ever. Ignorance was not, in her opinion, a good way of protecting someone. It was certainly not a method Wolfgang had ever subscribed to before. He’d always, always explained his reasons why he didn’t want her to do something.
She respected the promises he’d made to her mother. But the cold truth was, Mom was gone. She was never coming back. And Atrea was here, living with something neither of her parents had ever expected her to have: the Talent from her mother’s bloodline.
Atrea needed answers.
She thought again of Jaxon and his offer to help her. She had an idea that his help might extend beyond tracking down this murderer. All she had to do was ask. Of course, she hadn’t even told him she was accepting his offer yet. Truth be told, she was going to put it off until the next morning.
But when she tried to sleep, the visions came. Only now they were mixed up with weird dreams about the mother she didn’t remember. Atrea had become one of the children in her visions. The bad man was coming to kill her, and her mother was screaming at her to run, to hide. The shadow figure threw herself bodily into the murderer’s path. A shot fired, and Atrea screamed.
She woke, heart pounding, a sob caught in her throat. A cold glass of water later, and she’d calmed herself down. But the dream had been so vivid, she couldn’t banish it from her mind. Was this some new twist on her nightmares? Lovely.
She found herself knocking on Jaxon’s door in the middle of sleep cycle. It didn’t occur to her that this might not be the most opportune time until it took him forever to answer. Then her brain caught up and she realized he was probably asleep. And then she started wondering stupid things, like was he alone.
When the door slid open she was about to turn around and beat a hasty retreat. Instead, she found herself staring at his naked chest, and all of the words fell right out of her head.
He was wearing loose cotton pants and nothing else. She’d seen him mostly naked before, in the infirmary after she’d shot him. But that had been a completely different situation. Seeing him then had filled her with anxiety. It certainly hadn’t made her mouth go dry.
All of the dogs kept in shape. In fact, most of the pirates worked out and trained with a dedication she’d only encountered before in the Navy. Jaxon was no exception. She found herself staring directly at the smooth expanse of his chest. His torso and arms were clearly defined muscle, his abdomen flat and tight. Against her will, her gaze traveled from his shoulders down his body. Over the hard planes of his pecs, down the ridges of his abs, and caught on the waistband of his pants.
She realized what she was doing a slow blink later, and jerked her eyes back up. She could feel her face warming and knew her fair skin was flushing a betraying red. She avoided his eyes and focused her gaze on his hair.
It was even more ragged than usual, mussed from sleep and haloing his head in a messy tangle that made her want to take a brush to it. Or cut it. Atrea had a need to make things orderly, and Jaxon’s tendency to disorder frequently drove her insane.
She searched frantically for something to say to salvage this disaster. “Don’t you ever bother to cut it?”
She winced. That came out sounding bitchy and judgmental. She forced herself to meet his eyes. Cowardly behavior wasn’t normally something she engaged in. “Sorry.”
He held her gaze, leaning into the door frame and crossing his arms over his chest. “What do you want, Atrea?”
Unlike hers, his voice was completely neutral. Great. She’d probably mortally offended him.
“I’m taking you up on your offer.”
“You could have reached out to me telepathically to tell me that.”
She huffed out a breath. “You know I’m not great at that yet.” And she’d wanted to avoid the intimacy of having him in her head for as long as possible. Although in hindsight, that might have been the safer course of action. Mental connection, or seeing him half-naked? Hard to choose which was worse.
“Practice is the only way to improve.” He cocked his head. “I think maybe you just wanted an excuse to see me.”
Okay, so he was going to taunt her about this. Fantastic.
“Look, are we doing this, or not? Because if you’re not in, I hear there are other Hunters.”
Oh, he didn’t like that. His eyes narrowed, and that teasing light left them.
“I’ll talk to Titus and the other guys.”
“Others?” She frowned, not sure just how many people she wanted involved.
He shrugged. “We’re a team. We work together. Me. Titus. Ghost. Knox. And Zion.”
Just great. The other guy she’d shot at. And missed.
“It’s going to be fine, Atrea. Trust me.” Jaxon said the words softly, and after a moment, she nodded. The movement was stiff. She still wasn’t sure how she felt, and this whole conversation had been nothing but awkward.
“So…let me know. I’m going to leave now. I mean, go back to my quarters. Alone.” Mother, could she sound any more like an idiot?
He gave her a slow smile. “Good night.”
“Night.” She fled without another word, telling herself that she wasn’t running away. Atrea Hades didn’t run from a challenge. And Jaxon was proving to be a challenge to her own self-control, if nothing else.
Maybe if she said it enough times, she’d even believe it.