by Adera Orfanelli
eBook ISBN: 06259-02011
Eden isn’t going to let anything — or anyone — stop her from winning this game. Not even Brock, the man she nearly married three years ago. Just because they’re reunited in the game doesn’t mean they’re a team. There isn’t anything in the rules saying she can’t tease him just a little, and if she happens to distract him, well she could use the money to start a new life with her daughter.
Eden had been in a lot of situations, but she’d never been in one this hot, or this sticky. Peering through the foliage at the man drinking from a small stream, she watched sweat roll down his bare back. The black pants, probably made from some super-high-tech material from his former work with Relacharan special forces, hugged his ass and his muscled thighs. He tipped his head, letting long, black hair cascade down his back, and she curled her fingers around the fat palm leaves to keep from going to him to stroke the raven strands.
Her breath came in shallow pants she attributed to the humid, jungle-like atmosphere. Brock Deltarin hadn’t been part of her plan. She closed her eyes and pictured the angelic face of her two year-old-daughter, left with her best friend on a space station orbiting Roh Canciri. The peace and calm she always felt around her daughter returned, and when she opened her eyes again, Brock was gone.
Eden released a breath, wiped sweat from her brow, and strode forward toward the stream. Her objective was simple. Make it to the end of this game by winning, collect the rewards, and make a new life for herself, her daughter, and her daughter’s father. As always when she thought of the past her gut twisted in a sucker punch. She’d trusted Brock at one time. Hell, once she’d even agreed to marry him. That’d been before, and she wouldn’t be stupid nor make the same mistakes again. Like ogling his long black hair and tight ass.
She strode forward, careful to keep a lookout for Brock or any of the game’s other competitors. Several of them had already gone home — injured or worse. She knelt by the stream and lowered her canteen into the running water.
A heavy hand landed on her shoulder. “Didn’t think to see you here,” Brock drawled.
Eden shrugged off the hand. “Don’t touch me again,” she growled, all the hate she’d been repressing for the last couple of years welling up inside her. “You lost the chance to touch me on Lanx Station.” She looked up at him and stood. “I suggest you don’t try it again.”
“Eden?” The hesitation in his voice shook her. Brock never paused for anything. “You know I had nothing to do with that.”
“Do I?” She squatted and filled the other two canteens hanging from a utility belt at her waist. “I don’t know a damn thing, because you left, and Jake is in prison.”
Something flashed in Brock’s eyes. Awareness, understanding, acceptance… She didn’t know and frankly she didn’t care.
“Stay the hell out of my way. Whatever you’re going to do with the money is not half as important as what I need to do.” She shoved past him and started down the trail she’d determined would lead to a shortcut along the edge of some cliffs.
“I wouldn’t go that way. It’s a dead end.”
She stopped in her tracks. It couldn’t be. She’d used the last cliff to survey the layout, and she swore she’d seen a track heading along the ridge that would cut several kilometers off her journey. She glanced over her shoulder. Brock pointed at a trail that led in the opposite direction.
“Don’t fuck with me,” she spat. “I’m not without training in this.”
“Neither am I,” Brock replied. “I spent weeks surveying old maps of this planet before this game even started. That looks good, but it leads to a sheer drop. Even I’m not a good enough rock climber to try and rappel down that face.” He nodded in the direction he indicated. “This backtracks a bit, then leads away from the valley.”
“So I go around?” She frowned. On one hand, it could be a plan to win this game. On the other, he could be adding precious time to her journey to the next checkpoint.
“Over. Come with me and I’ll show you. It’ll put one of us in the lead.”
“And the other?” She must be crazy, have heat stroke or something, because she was actually contemplating following his tip.
Brock shrugged. “She’ll come in second.”
His devil-may-care attitude and the assumption that she’d be fine coming in second caused a swell of anger inside her. “There’s no saying what will happen once we get over the cliff. And there’s no way to guarantee you’ll come in first.” She glanced around, aware that while she stood there arguing with Brock another contestant could pass them. “You could be leading me astray so you’ll win. I wouldn’t put it past you.” Eden crossed her arms over her chest. “This is bullshit. I know better than to trust you.”
Brock reached for her. His fingers managed to caress her cheek before she pulled back. “What happened to you, Eden?”
“Do you really need to ask?” She shook her head and turned toward the trail she’d previously scoped out. Maybe she would run into a dead end, but maybe she’d find a shortcut and win, too. She couldn’t let him turn her from her task.
“I’ll split the winnings with you if I win. You don’t want to take that track. Trust me.” He looked so earnest, as if he might even care.
It took all her willpower not to fall for his words. She knew the math, had worked the calculations so many times in her head she saw them in her sleep. She needed about half the winnings to pay restitution and get Jake out of prison. The rest of the money would take them to some station away from the big shipping lines and give them a new life. She licked her lower lip and tried not to think about how easy it would be to take Brock’s bargain.
His gaze dropped to her lips. A familiar heat blossomed in her stomach, and damn it, she so fucking didn’t have time for this.
Brock leaned forward. “Do you trust me?” The puff of air from his words caressed her lips, and she shivered in spite of the hot, humid air.
“Not really,” she replied, the raw honesty the only thing she could muster at the moment to counteract her arousal. “You left me hanging and your best friend in prison, Brock. Do you expect me to trust you?”
He put a finger to her lips and looked behind him. Turning back to her, he removed his finger and grabbed her hand. “We’ve got to go. Either you’re taking the cliff route or you’re not. Someone’s watching us, and I don’t think it’s one of the officials.” He tugged her not in the direction of the shortcut he’d offered, but the track she’d wanted to take.
A ruse to force them along her better path? Eden didn’t think so. No, she’d seen the stern set of Brock’s shoulders, the way every sense went on alert before. Someone had been watching them. She hadn’t been hurt, yet, though several of the competitors had gone home with injuries, some minor, some more severe. One man had tumbled down a cliff and broken his back. Only the timely actions of the officials had saved him from paralysis.
After a quick, twenty-minute hike halfway out of the valley, Brock gestured for her to step into a secluded alcove created by some trees. “Which will it be, Eden? Will you trust me now? I could point out half a dozen signs that we were followed, but I think our pursuer finally turned back when he realized this was a dead end.”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Sure. You could follow this path and see if you are right. Doesn’t matter to me.” He drew her close and motioned for silence. Someone hiked rather loudly past them. When he was gone, Brock smiled. “Didn’t that guy want to hike with you?”
Eden closed her eyes and wished she could block the sight of Brock’s wide, muscled chest from her mind. This close she smelled him, a heady mixture of sweat and male. It should have turned her off, but instead, it only reminded her of the times he’d come back from a mission, still reeking of the stale air and close quarters of a troop container, and she’d hardly take the time to rip his clothes off so they could fuck.
If Brock’s suspicions were right about the hiker, then the too-skinny guy had indeed wanted to hike, or more, with her. She made an instant decision.
“If I go with you, then you give me half the amount of the winner’s check, even if we both lose,” she offered.
“Fine,” Brock agreed.
“Wait? You can do that?” Most guys in his position didn’t make that much money.
“You backing out?” Brock asked. “Let’s go.” He checked the area, then led them from the alcove and back down to the stream.
“No. Just curious.”
“Sure. I can do that,” he said. With his back to her, she couldn’t see if he was lying or not. She’d have to take him at his word, something she hadn’t been able to do for a long time.