Sunship Exalt, interplanetary communications deck
“I don’t know about you lot, but I think Da’s trip to Earth has been a bit of a strain on the nerves all around,” Bianca said from the vidscreen, the ironic gleam in her eyes coming in clearly over millions of kilometers.
Even though she wasn’t the slightest bit happy, Sita had to smile. When she wasn’t being a terrifying ice-queen, Ana’s daughter was rather adorable, she decided. She ran her gaze over the others Max had called to attend this ‘briefing meeting’.
On the vidscreen, a dangerously handsome man with a cheerful grin and sharply intelligent eyes was sitting next to Bianca—her husband Cesare Chan.
Sitting to one side of the room's conference table were Devi and Jacques, their eyes rapt on the pair on the screen. Jacques had only just been released from the recovery room, but he seemed to be rapidly shaking off his recent brush with death and was back to his cheerfully impudent self. When they had first appeared in the com chamber, Devi had been inclined to fuss anxiously over him. But Jacques had put a stop to that by the simple expedient of picking her up, kissing her soundly, and then settling her on his lap.
Max, from his position at the head of the com room’s conference table, had eyed this his son-in-law’s display with a grunt of disgust, but had refrained from trying to take Jacques’s head off. Progress, Sita decided.
But to Sita, Max hadn’t given so much as a word or a glance.
From the moment the sec team had scooped them out of the debris field that was all that was left of Xu’s space station, Max had withdrawn from her so completely she could practically feel a draft of cold emptiness emanating from him. And there had been nothing Sita could do about it.
The instant the sec shuttle had delivered them to the Exalt he had vanished into a crowd of cringingly apologetic aides and ship’s officers, leaving her alone. That had been hours ago, enough time for her to check on Devi and Jacques, get cleaned up and changed into a new carbonsuit, and choke down a meal. Only then had she received a terse message from Max summoning her here to relate her part in this horrible story.
Fortunately, he had limited this conference to the family. His aides he had sent scurrying to their quarters with a barked out order to keep themselves busy by praying to Heaven that they still had their jobs. And as for Captain Lopez, she had disappeared into the ships offices to soothe her pride by bullying her crew. Sita suspected they wouldn’t be seeing much of her for the remainder of the journey to Mars, for which she could only be thankful.
Since this select group had shut themselves up in the com room more than an hour ago, they had been talking over everything that had happened, sending periodic exchanges to Bianca and Cesare over the twelve-minute satellite relay.
But no matter how dramatic the others became in their recounting of events, all of Sita’s attention was on Max. His expression the same cool mask he always wore, except for the strain around his eyes. She could blame Xu for that, but she knew in her heart that it was her fault.
For the hundredth time, she cursed her foolish cowardice. How could she have hesitated over his offer of marriage? The fears and objections that had loomed so large at that moment seemed so insignificant now. Yes, she had always wanted a peaceful, simple life. But she wanted Max even more.
And she had to tell him that, the instant they had some privacy. She tamped down her frustration and focused on getting this meeting over with so that she could finally talk to him alone.
Bianca continued, “I for one will be much happier when you’re all back home on Mars, where it’s safe.”
On the vidscreen, Cesare grinned at his wife, one of his big hands coming up to grip the nape of her neck in a fond, possesive gesture. “Don’t fret about your da, spacebabe. I think Max has proven he can take care of himself. The bloke destroyed a space station with nothing but a drink package,” he said with patent admiration. “That is some Mars-class mayhem.”
Sita saw Jacques nodding in agreement, his eyes wide.
Max said nothing, but he straightened his spine, his expression warring between pride and disgruntlement.
Cesare’s face suddenly went hard. “Anyway, Mars isn’t safe anymore either. Not if what Xu told Max about the Aurora project is true. There’s obviously more to this group than we ever imagined. But we agree that we should keep our suspicions quiet for now. Tales of genetic engineering and bioweapons could cause massive panic and confusion throughout civilized space. And they might just be a madman’s fabrication. What we need is more evidence.”
That was something they weren’t likely to get anytime soon. Max already had the Exalt’s sec team scanning the wreckage of the space station for any computer fragments that might conceivably still hold retrievable data. But it wasn’t looking promising so far. The damage to the station had been too great. Even the identities of Xu’s victims were probably lost for good.
When the transmission ended and Bianca and Cesare’s images had gone still, Devi was the first to speak in their answering message. “Jacques and I have decided we’ve had enough of life-threatening situations for a while. When we get back to Mars, we’re going on a long vacation. Right?” she said, shooting a stern glance down at her husband from her perch on his knees.
“Ay,” Jacques said meekly, settling his wife further onto his lap. “You know I always follow orders, Doc.”
Devi snorted, then continued, “But we want to help track down Aurora. These people are a danger to the entire Sol. They need to be stopped.”
“And we have some personal scores to settle,” Jacques said, a dangerous light suddenly gleaming in his gray eyes.
Max said abruptly, “For my part, I’ll assist the investigation of Aurora in any way I can. But my direct help is likely to be limited in the future. There is…that is to say, I have had plans to build a new space elevator complex on the dwarf planet Ceres for some time now. I’ve decided that my return to Mars will only be brief. I intend to leave for the Asteroid Belt to work on this new project as soon as possible.”
“What!” Sita said, stunned. No, not stunned. Furious.
Devi let out a soft little breath, and Jacques’s brow furrowed. Bianca and Cesare wouldn’t hear Max’s announcement for several more minutes, but Sita could just imagine what their reaction would be.
Max kept his eyes forward. “Bianca, you’ve proven beyond all doubt that you’re an excellent president for StarLine. Better than I ever was. I’m a builder, you see. I’m not much good for anything else, as this latest incident has clearly demonstrated,” he said in a monotone.
“I have every confidence in your ability to handle the space elevator on your own, so I’ve decided to leave it in your hands and go where I can put my skills to use.”
That does it. Sita shot up out of her chair strode over to Max. He looked up at her in surprise, surprise so great he didn’t resist as she pulled him up out of his seat and threaded her arm though the crook of his elbow. “Will you excuse us for a few minutes? We need to discuss something,” she said to the room at large, and tugged Max firmly toward the door.
“What on Mars are you doing?” Max growled at her.
“I’m kidnapping you,” she snapped as the door opened. “It seems to be the only way to get your attention.”
Sita caught a glimpse of incredulous expressions and dawning smiles on Devi and Jacques’s faces before she dragged Max into the hallway that led toward the lifts. And I’m going to give them something to smile about, by hell.
* * *
Max wasn't sure why he was allowing Sita to drag him through the corridors of the ship to the residential decks like a shuttle hauling cargo into port, but whatever nonsense had her blood up this time, they were dusted well going to thrash it out once and for all, he decided.
By the time Sita had ushered him into her compact living quarters and firmly shut the door behind them, he was primed and ready for battle.
Sita obviously felt the same. She strode to the center of her habsuite, pinned him with a flashing glare, and fired her opening round. “You are not going to go to Ceres,” she announced.
He folded his arms over his chest, striving for a clever and cutting reply. But all he came up with was, “Oh, I’m not?”
“Na. You’re needed on Mars,” she said, her face beautifully flushed, her small nose tipped up proudly. “You can’t shirk your responsibilities. Has it escaped your notice that Devi and Bianca are only forty-two and thirty-one? They’re barely more than infants. They still need their father. And their husbands need a man to keep them in line. Heaven knows I’m not up to the task.” She started pacing around, the way she always did when she got agitated.
Max said cooly, “It looks to me like my kits have their husbands and their lives firmly in hand. They don’t need me. They never did.”
“You’re wrong!” she snapped. “And what about StarLine? The space elevator? Do you really think the creation you poured your heart into for all these years will be the same without you?”
“Like I told Bianca—“
“I heard what you told Bianca, but I don’t believe it for a second. And neither do you, because if you did you’d be a fool, and I know you’re no fool.”
He frowned at this logic, but Sita didn’t give him a chance to respond.
“And what about me Max?” she demanded. “I know that there are thousands—no, millions of people who need you, but did you give one thought to me when you concocted this ridiculous scheme? Because of all of them, I need you most of all.”
His chest tightened, but he forced out a bitter laugh. “You’re the last person in the Sol who can say that, Sita. You lived exactly the life you wanted without me all these years. You’ll live a hundred, two hundred years more without me just the same.”
She came to an abrupt standstill before him, and her proud posture sagged. “No, I won’t,” she said quietly. “I haven’t lived the life I wanted. I survived right enough. But to truly live, I need you, Maxin. I was a shadow of the woman I should have been. I got used to it over time but every night without you was like…” Quiet fell as she seemed to search for the right words.
“Like cold emptiness straight through the middle of your body,” he whispered in spite of himself.
She nodded. “I lost half my soul when we parted. If you send me away again, what will be left of me?”
Max drew breath, but there were no words he could say. Not in any language. Even numbers had deserted him now. He moved toward her as if pulled by gravity, until he was standing just a breath away, looking down into her beautiful face as if he could find the meaning of all the lost years there. Her soft lips parted, her eyes going as dark as space.
Deep in the cold pit of his heart, a spark flared to life. Hope, burgeoning out through every nerve and every vein, until it felt as if his very skin was blazing with it. He sucked in a breath, grappling with the terrible power of it.
She swallowed, a delicate movement of her slender throat. “And…and there’s one other reason you have to stay on Mars, Max.”
“What’s that?” he managed.
“Well, you see, it’s like this. I have this dream house in mind, and I could use a good engineer to give me advice about building it, and you know, you really should support your wife in these little things, and…er, well, there it is.”
“Ah…did you just ask me to marry you?”
She drew herself up haughtily. “Actually I was attempting to answer a question you posed to me earlier. You know. When we were floating in space after we narrowly escaped death.” She cleared her throat. “Yes. Since you insist, I’ll marry you.”
“I see,” he said gravely.
Sita’s nostrils flared. “Well, what are you thinking now?”
Max was aware that he was far from the wisest man in the Sol, but even he knew there was only one answer to that question. He swept Sita up into his arms, his mouth coming down on hers in the deepest, hottest kiss of his life.
She gasped, her mouth opening to let his tongue twine with hers. Her hands flew to his shoulders as he lifted her up against him, crushing her softness against his body, his lips moving over hers in a slick, heated demand. Her fingers bit into his muscles as she went soft and pliant as silk, her body winding against him, curling around him.
She fumbled with his collar, and then his suit was open, her touch gliding over his bare skin. “Bed,” she said against his lips. Then she fisted her hands in his loosened suit and pulled him toward the door to her bedroom.
They stumbled into the shadowed chamber, devouring each other with their lips, grappling with their clothes, until at last he had stripped Sita down to her golden skin. They bumped up against the bed as he kissed down the sweet lenth of her throat. He ran his tongue into the deep cleft between her breasts and took one dark nipple in his mouth as he shoved his boots off his feet. Then he wrapped his arms around her back and straightened. She coiled her long, smooth legs around his waist and bent her head to take his mouth in another searing kiss, the little moans in the back of her throat destroying his mind.
Her wet yin rubbed against his steel-hard erection as she writhed against him, trying to get his weeping tip to her entrance. She found it just as he tipped her toward the bed, and he was inside her with one hard thrust before her back hit the mattress.
“Max!” she cried out, her body arching toward him as he filled her. He grabbed her hips to hold her still, and she moaned, her eyes flying open to find his.
He braced his feet wide on the floor and leaned over her, gritting his teeth. “Slow this time,” he managed to get out. He wasn’t going to end this insane rapture a nano before he had to. He would stay here forever if he could, clasped tight in Sita’s long limbs, her soft, wet yin. He held, and held, his rod deep inside her, looking down into her eyes as dark as the heart of space itself.
They glimmered, then a tear spilled down the perfect curve of her cheek. “Max, please,” she panted. He looked down their bodies to see his rod, slick with their combined excitement, buried deep in her beautiful pink sex. That amazing sight almost made him come instantly, but with an act of will he forced the knot of release back down his straining shaft.
Finally he had to move. A slow glide out of the silky clasp of her body, all the way to his tip, and then a slow drive back in, all the way to his root. She cried out under him, arching her gorgeous breasts up to brush his chest and clenching her inner muscles around his rod.
He bit back a cry of his own and bent every micron of his will to keep his body in check. Slowly he pulled out, then drove in again. Then again. And again. Every long, slow stroke more torturous than the last. Every controlled movement wringing another desperate cry from Sita.
His breath sawed in his throat, sweat bloomed on his chest. Another stroke. Sita leaned up to brush her lips over his nipple and run her tongue up his throat to his ear.
Another stroke. “Max! I’m so close,” came Sita’s husky whisper.
His heart thundered, his muscles shook. Another stroke. “Please, Max!” She raked her nails down his back.
“Feck!” She was going to kill him. Another stroke.
“I love you Max! Heaven! Love…you…”
That did it. His control snapped. His hips shot forward and he was pounding into her, a blast of pleasure erupting from the deepest part of him and sweeping him away, helpless before its power.
His ferocious thrusts were moving her up the bed, and he climbed onto it, chasing after her. She reached over her head with one arm to brace herself against the wall and shoved back against him, her thighs clamping around his ribs as she moved at just the angle she needed. Her other hand reached down, caressing the place where their bodies joined.
The first quake of her orgasm shook him, demanding that he follow.
His eyes flashed to hers, and in that moment, he saw it at last. The golden equation he had been searching for all his life. She was supreme, sublime beauty. Delight. Exaltation
Mine. Always mine.
His spine arching with the force of his release, he threw his head back and cried out in the revelation of Sita, Heaven itself, naked in his arms.
* * *
Sita rolled over, reaching for Max, but the bed beside her was empty. She peeled her eyes open and squinted at the time display on the vidscreen next to the bed. Dead middle of the night. They had definitely been gone from the com deck longer than the ‘few minutes’ she had promised when she had dragged Max off to have her way with him.
Ah well. The girls and their husbands were probably capable of figuring out what had happened, and she suspected they didn’t mind in the least.
In the aftermath of their cataclysmic lovemaking, she and Max had instantly dropped unconscious. Which, considering the physical and emotional trials they had just endured, was not at all surprising. But Max was always a lighter sleeper than she and often got up to roam about in the middle of the night, Sita remembered as she rolled to her feet.
She cleaned up quickly in the lav attached to her bedroom, threw on a light sleepsuit, and went to look for Max, certain of what she would find.
She took one look around her main room and smiled. She had been right.
Max, dressed once again in his usual gray suit, was sitting on the habsuite’s couch. He had one ankle crossed over his knee, his tawny head bent over a new cuff comp he held in his hand.
The familiarity of the scene struck her heart, a sweet, golden pain. He looked so right lounging in her quarters, wrapped up in his flights of engineering fancy, exactly like he had during those wonder-touched days when they were first together.
She stood mooning over him for a moment, just as she had once long ago. Then, as if her body remembered the next part of this ritual on its own, her feet took her to the hab’s tiny kitchen unit. She would make tea, and hand him a cup which he would drink without taking his eyes off his cuff. Then she would join him on the couch and go over her own work in companionable silence until they were both ready to go back to bed for more sleep. Or other activities.
She smiled to herself. If this was going to be a nightly habit like it had back then, she would have to stock some food to cook for him, because he never remembered to eat unless she fed him. Really, how had the man managed not to starve himself without her?
She reached to turn on the water coil, when long, strong arms came around her waist and a lean, powerful chest pressed against her back. She let out a tiny shriek of surprise. This wasn’t part of the ritual.
She turned in his loose clasp. One of his hands still held his cuff, but he seemed to have forgotten it as he smiled down into her face, his sandy hair falling into his eyes. There was nothing to be done but go up on her toes and kiss him with all the love she had in her.
A while later, he eased her back down and drew back enough to look into her eyes. “You really are going to marry me this time? You’re really going to put up with being the wife of the richest and most powerful man on Mars?”
She linked her fingers at the nape of his neck and smiled up at him. “Ay. You can march me off to your lawyers and we’ll draw up the contracts first thing in the morning, if you like.”
A hint of uncertainty still lingered in his gaze, so she said quietly, “I can do this, Max. If I could handle Xu, I can handle your money, and your flunkies, and your mad, cracked-up life. I will always have your back from now on.
“And I’ll always tell you when you’re being an idiot, but only in private,” she added with a grin. “You see, I’ve finally learned how to behave in a civilized manner, as they say. I won’t give you a single reason to be ashamed of me. I promise.”
“You can’t shame me, Sita,” he said brusquely. “I may be Maxin Ross, but you’re Aksita Chandra. And if Mars doesn’t like Aksita Chandra, then Mars can go to hell.”
“Well then, I’ll have to try my hardest to make Mars like me, so as not to damn a whole planet.” A devilish thought took her. “Besides, I want our next baby to have a respectable mother for a change,” she purred, patting her belly.
Max instantly went white, wobbling on his feet a little. “You’re not—“
Sita’s peal of laughter cut him off. “No, no. Ciel, Max, you should see your face.” Then she peered at him, almost shyly. “But…in a decade or two, would you maybe like to have another? A boy this time? There’s no rush, obviously. We’re not even in our hundreds yet!”
Max threaded his hand through her hair and grinned down at her, his eyes blazing blue. “I’ll give you all the children you want. I’ll give you everything in the Sol. Everything I have to give.”
“I already have everything I ever wanted right here,” she said, and kissed him again.
Before they stumbled back to her bedroom, he dropped his cuff on her counter, where it lay forgotten all night long.
What did you think of Game Of The Red King, Chapter Thirteen?
Want to read more of the Once Upon A Red World series?