“Will, how could you?” Charlie Owens, lately known to the high society of the Andromeda system as Charlotte Elizabeth Owens–Stratton, ran a hand through her thick mass of curly reddish-brown hair and glared at her little brother. Back home on Andromeda Prime he had been known as William Bernard Owens–Stratton, IV, but that was before the family fortune had been lost by their uncle in a series of badly calculated investments. Before they had left the upper crust of Andromeda society to keep their debtors from hunting them down and trying to collect by force what they didn’t even have. Before Charlie had traded her designer couture and her comfortable cloud condo on Prime for a barmaid’s apron and a miserable hovel in a mining colony on a fringe world so bleak the inhabitants just called it Hole. Before. And now Will was telling her they were right back where they had started—deep in debt and headed for trouble.
“How much did you say you lost?” Charlie demanded, crossing her arms over her breasts.
“Forty thousand.” Will hung his head, his long pale lashes brushing his flushed cheeks.
“Forty thousand credits!” Charlie paced the length of their tiny living space, an area so cramped it only took her two steps to get across it before she had to turn and go back again. The prefab econo hovel was in the worst part of the city, a slum called Pain Town by the locals, and it was infested with Bent dealers, pimps and the harlot bots they pushed, as well as the desperate and degenerate customers they serviced. It was also crawling with wigglers—tiny black insects that always seemed to come back no matter how thoroughly Charlie cleaned. But up until now, at least it had been affordable. Now they were going to be out on the street if what Will was telling her was true.
“Sis, I’m sorry, I just—” her brother started but Charlie raised a hand and cut him off.
“Will, I only make fifty credits a week working at the Triple Sickle,” she said, pushing her hair out of her eyes again. “And you only make fifteen as a busboy at Carnivore. That’s barely enough to live and put away five credits a week for a ticket out of here when the heat dies down. Forty thousand might have been pocket change back on Andromeda Prime but it’s way out of our league now. We just don’t have that kind of money.”
“I know, but that’s why I was playing in the first place—to earn enough credit to get us off this rock. It’s been over a year—plenty of time for the estate to go through bankruptcy and get the creditors off our backs. But we’ll never be able to afford to leave at the rate we’re saving.” Will gestured earnestly, his voice breaking on the last word. “And the game was going so good too, I was winning every hand. All the other waiters, and even the manager, were saying how lucky I was.” He frowned, his blond eyebrows drawing low over his expressive brown eyes, so like Charlie’s own. She was reminded again how very young her little brother still was. He had been barely fourteen when they had to flee from Andromeda and the year of hard living on Hole hadn’t been easy on him.
“I know you want to get out of here—I do too,” Charlie told him, trying to soften her voice. “But you shouldn’t have been playing a game of Luck-is-Blind with your weekly earnings, no matter how lucky you were feeling.”
“But I was lucky!” her little brother protested, moving into the kitchen nook that was furnished with a postage stamp-sized table and two cheap plasti-wood chairs. “That is, I was until ~he~ came along,” he added darkly. “He asked to sit in and pretty soon the stakes got higher and higher. And I thought how much it would buy if I won—forty thousand would be plenty enough to get us back to Prime ~and~ get us someplace decent to live. I hadn’t lost a hand all night so when he said double or nothing I—”
“He who?” Charlie demanded. “If it was one of the waiters he should have known better than to play for such high stakes. And he has to understand that there’s no way you can pay such a huge sum of credit. It’s just ridiculous.”
“It-it wasn’t a waiter.” Will hung his head, unwilling to meet her eyes. “It was the owner. And I’m pretty sure he expects me to pay.”
“The owner? You mean the owner of Carnivore?” Charlie felt her heart drop like a stone. “Will, please tell me you’re joking,” she whispered. “Please.” The owner of Carnivore, as well as the local platinum mine and most of the other businesses in town, went by the name of Lynx. He was a regular at the Triple Sickle and Charlie knew him well—much better than she wanted to, in fact. He was six foot eight with shoulders so broad he had to turn sideways to fit through a door and a disposition frightening enough to match his outward appearance. But the ~worst~ thing about Lynx was the way he made her feel when he touched her.
Charlie closed her eyes briefly, remembering the horribly embarrassing sensations between her legs the last evening he’d visited the bar. The way he’d touched her, looked at her… She’d run to the bathroom as soon as he left, unable to help herself, needing a release so badly she’d almost screamed when she’d locked herself in a stall, pulled up her skirt and parted the wet lips of her pussy with two fingers. Her orgasm had come so fast and hard it left her panting for breath, feeling like she’d run for miles, and all the time she’d been seeing those strange amber eyes with the vertical pupils watching her as she touched herself, as she made herself come… But no, she pushed the humiliating thought firmly away and corrected herself. The worst thing about Lynx was that he wasn’t even human—he was Xorn.
One of the reasons Charlie had hidden them on Hole in the first place was that the mining colony wasn’t at all picky about immigration. Anyone was welcome from the wealthiest citizen of the inner worlds to the lowliest beggar from the fringe colonies. But they also welcomed non-humans, no matter how dangerous or unpredictable the species. And no other non-humans had a reputation as frightening as that of the Xorn. Their savagery was the stuff of legends and as for their mating rituals…well, those weren’t even spoken of in polite society, though they were darkly hinted at. But there were worse rumors than the ones that had to do with their fucking and fighting.
Vampires, Charlie thought, her mouth going suddenly dry. ~Emotional vampires, feeding off the fear and pain of others.~ The Xorn were banned from the inner worlds entirely, and until Charlie and her brother had moved to Hole she had never even seen one. But she had heard plenty of stories, stories that made her knees weak and her stomach twist with fear. About the way the Xorn fed on other species, building them up to emotional peaks so they could suck them dry—suck their very souls from their bodies and leave them discarded husks to wither and die when they were through.
“Will,” she said. “Please tell me you’re joking about owing forty thousand credits to…to Lynx of all people.” She had to fight to get the name out and take a deep breath before she could continue. “That this is all just a stunt you’re pulling. Not a very funny stunt but…”
Will shook his head, his fair cheeks red with shame. “Sis, I know how it sounds but what are you gonna say when a guy like Lynx asks to sit in on the game? No?”
“That’s exactly what you say,” Charlie snapped. She sank into one of the cheap plasti-wood chairs and leaned her elbows on the cracked tabletop. “Oh Goddess, what are we going to do, Will? The last man who owed that…that ~Xorn~ credit and couldn’t pay…” she trailed off abruptly, keeping the rest of the thought to herself.
The last man, Tover Grimes, who had been unable to pay a debt he owed Lynx had been found at the bottom of a mine shaft with two broken legs and a face like raw meat. Charlie had never exactly liked Grimes, a burly man with a loud voice who had harassed her constantly while she tried to do her job at the Triple Sickle. But despite her dislike for the man, hearing what had happened to him when he couldn’t pay the four hundred credits he owed Lynx had turned her stomach. And if the Xorn had done that over four hundred credits, what would he do to someone who owed him ten times that amount and couldn’t pay? Just the idea of her little brother all twisted and mangled made Charlie feel sick and weak. She couldn’t let that happen to Will—she just couldn’t.
“Sis? D’you think Roger could help us? I mean, I know you two aren’t officially engaged anymore but—”
“No.” Charlie sat up and shook her head, ending that line of questioning right there. Roger Bradley Simkins, III, heir to the Duke of Barrington, had been her fiancé up until the time of the ruin, which was how she thought of the time when their entire fortune went down the drain. They’d been meant for each other from birth—a perfect match, she remembered her mother saying. Roger’s family had the title and Charlie’s family had the wealth to make it the most brilliant match the Andromeda system had ever seen. He would make her a duchess and in return she would make him a very wealthy man. It was to have been an arranged marriage, but she liked Roger anyway, even loved him, or so she’d thought.
When the family fortune disappeared almost overnight, Charlie had offered to release Roger from the engagement, never dreaming that he might agree. She had been stupid enough to think that he loved her too and not just the money behind her family name. But after only a few protestations of undying love, he had taken her up on the offer with a relieved look on his face she still couldn’t get out of her head.
In a way, Will’s suggestion to ask Roger for the money made sense. His family might not have multibillions, as hers used to, but Charlie knew perfectly well he could part with forty thousand credits quite easily. She also knew she would rather die than ask him. That look of relief on his face the last time they’d said goodbye was still too fresh in her mind.
For a minute she racked her brain, trying to think if there was anyone else she could ask for the credit they so desperately needed. Her mother’s family was in a far-distant system and supposedly very wealthy, but Charlie’s parents had lost touch with them years ago before they died. She wouldn’t even know who to call or where to reach them. No, she would have to find a way out of this mess herself, without the aid of her ex-fiancé or any distant relatives.
“Sis?” Will was looking at her anxiously and shifting from foot to foot on the scuffed and matted plastic floor covering that served as their carpet. “Sis, don’t be too upset. We’ve saved a lot and I bet maybe Lynx’ll let me work out some kind of a payment plan. Maybe if I just go talk to him—”
“No!” Charlie reached out to grab his hand. “No, Will,” she said, realizing what she had to do. “You leave him alone. I don’t want you anywhere near him. I-I’ll talk to him myself. Alone.”
He frowned. “I don’t think you oughta go there by yourself. I should come with you—for protection.”
Charlie tried to smile as she kissed her little brother on the cheek. “Don’t worry about me, Will. I’ll be just fine. Now get to bed—I know you have the early shift tomorrow.”
He looked like he wanted to protest but she gave him her best parental stern look and he subsided without too much fuss. Charlie drew a small breath of relief at that—she had been afraid he would be stubborn. But she was ten years older than he and had been taking care of him since she was his age, which was when their parents had died in the accident. So her pseudo-maternal authority still worked—for now. She hoped to the Goddess that it would keep working a little longer because the last thing she needed was for Will to get more mixed up with the dangerous Xorn than he already was.
Taking a deep breath, she got up from the table and went to find her coat. She was working a double shift at the Triple Sickle tomorrow and there would be no time to go talk to Lynx then. Besides, tomorrow might be too late. She had to go now, even though she had no idea what she was going to say.
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