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Copyright ©2013 Adera Orfanelli
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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.