Excerpt for The Echos of Sol: Books 1-3 by , available in its entirety at Smashwords







Echoes of Sol

Books 1-3




















© 2017 by Charissa Dufour

All rights reserved.

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. It may not be re-sold or given to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.



Follow Charissa Dufour at

http://amzn.to/1MzHqYY

https://www.facebook.com/Charissadufourauthor

https://twitter.com/CharissaDufour

https://www.instagram.com/charissadufourauthor/

https://charissadufourauthor.com/













Trust and Treachery

By Charissa Dufour







Chapter One

Like everyone else not involved in the high-risk game of poker, Bit stood on the sidelines watching her employer glare down at his cards. “Employer” wasn’t precisely the correct term. Since she was five Bit had been an indentured servant, handed off from one employer to the next as her debt was sold.

In truth, it wasn’t her debt. Her father had signed over her and her sister to relieve his debt, and when her sister had died during childbirth, Bit had taken on the duty of working off three-fourths of the bill. The newborn had become responsible for the other one-fourth. If her employer’s sums could be trusted, she would be working it off for the entirety of her life.

Bit glanced down at her dirty hands, her interest in the poker game fading with her growing hunger.

“Your bid, Mr. Asselstine,” said the only other player still in the game.

Her employer glanced at the pot, at his lack of chips, and his hand in quick succession.

“Will you take an indentured?” Asselstine asked, nodding his head toward Bit. “She has a near million to work off, much more than is on the table.”

The other player smiled as Bit jerked her head up to stare at her employer. He couldn’t possibly mean to trade her in a lousy hand of poker, even if it was high stakes. Bit stared at the other poker player. He had a long blade of a nose that bisected his playful brown eyes. His dark brown hair was cut short and haphazardly styled. He winked at Bit, enjoying her discomfort.

The other members of the audience whooped and hollered, encouraging the two opponents towards various options. The other indentures stared at Bit, some of them showing their empathy while others jeered, happy to not be the person on the chopping block.

Like most cantinas in the slums of Johannesburg, the large, dark room was filled with smoke. The stale smell of old liquor and sweat permeated the haze. Bit was too accustomed to the smell to notice. Her whole attention was on the worn, felt-clad table where her fate was being decided.

“Sure. Add her to the pot,” said the younger man with a smirk.

“What’ll your brother say, Calen, when you bring a girl home?” scoffed a blonde man standing behind her employer’s opponent.

“Maybe take a go at her himself,” replied another man standing on the opposite side of the table. “As far as I can tell, he’s been on a bit of a dry spell.”

An older man positioned between the two scoffers slapped the crude man across the back of the head.

Bit pulled her attention off the men who clearly knew the other poker player, Calen. She didn’t much want to join their group, especially if they joked about taking sexual favors off her. Then again, James Asselstine wasn’t much of an improvement. While he had never shown interest in her in that way—in the way some employers had treated her sister—he was not a kind man.

She had heard of indentured servants working for people who treated them like family but had never experienced the oddity. Though her debt had been owned by five different people—all varying in degrees of cruel—she held out hope to find a kind employer. Something about the way the poker player smirked at her said he was not what she had been looking for.

Mr. Asselstine tossed her paperwork onto the pile of money, gold, and trinkets. Finally, the two men lowered their cards and laid them out across the messy table.

Bit felt her breath catch in her chest.

Mr. Asselstine’s three kings were easily beaten by Calen’s full house. Bit watched as her employer’s shoulders slumped. Slowly, he rose from his seat, grabbed Bit’s arm, and pushed her toward the other man.

Somehow, Calen managed to come to his feet in time to catch her. The strange man held her shoulders, keeping her standing with her nose mere inches from his flat chest so that she couldn’t see her old employer’s exit. All the same, she could hear the rage in Mr. Asselstine’s voice as he spoke.

“Take the little slut. What do I care?”

Bit cringed, her face still blocked by Calen’s chest.

“Now what’re you gonna do?” demanded the youngest of Calen’s friends.

Despite the tattoos running up the man’s neck, the studs in his ears, the barbell in his lip, and the Mohawk-cut of his hair, he had a soft, baby face. The young-looking man scratched at his painted neck as he stretched to get a better view of Bit.

“We need to be getting back. Captain will be looking for us,” said the oldest of the trio before Calen could respond.

“Help me gather this all up,” he said to the group, motioning to the pile of winnings still on the table.

The other losing players had already climbed to their feet and sauntered off, looking for a new form of entertainment. The audience had also wandered away, leaving the four men and one indentured to sort themselves out.

The four men began gathering up Calen’s winnings. Bit stepped out of their way and watched from a safe distance. She knew better than to touch the money of her new employer. Once the money, gold, and trinkets were dumped into Calen’s satchel, he grabbed her wrist and led her out of the cantina, the other three men in hot pursuit.

Bit trotted behind Calen, her shorter legs pumping hard to keep up with him. Though she was twenty-two, many people mistook her for a teenager. The years of malnutrition had kept her short and unusually thin.

They weaved through the crowd surging between the enormous buildings of the city. Though she knew the sun was out, its light was nothing more than a soft glow seeping past the tall structures. Only at midday would the sun shine directly down into the narrow streets.

Within a few short blocks, they were beyond Bit’s known territory. Mr. Asselstine did not allow her much freedom and only sent her to the shops nearest his warehouse where she had worked. Now, though, she was journeying farther and farther away from the small area that had been her life for the last eight years.

Her heart began to race as she realized just what a mess she was in. They hadn’t even allowed her a chance to return to Mr. Asselstine’s warehouse to retrieve her few meager possessions. In truth, the only thing she valued was safely lodged in her memory.

Bit crinkled her nose as the smell of oil, ionization, and something acidic accosted her senses. She began to wonder what Calen did for a living, who this infamous brother might be, and where in the world they were taking her.

It was a long walk before they turned a sharp corner and came to a stop. Before them stood a large glass box connected to a series of chains and gears. Bit’s eyes ran up the chain, which faded out of sight as it rose into the clouds.

Though she had never ridden on one, Bit knew what the glass box was—an elevator to the floating landing pad where transport ships waited. By sling-shooting the ships off of an elevated pad they used less fuel.

Before she could express her fear—not that she would have—Calen pushed her through the door and into a seat nearest one of the glass walls before sitting beside her. The other men took their own seats and began strapping themselves in. Bit scrambled to copy them, though she had no idea how to make the various straps and buckles work.

Just as another small group of travelers stumbled into the glass box and took the remaining empty seats, Calen became aware of her struggles.

“Never flown before?” he asked before undoing his own buckles with a conservative twist.

Bit gave her head a quick shake.

He turned in his seat and worked on her buckles. Bit tried not to flinch as his hands grazed her chest. He wasn’t trying to be inappropriate, she realized. He was just trying to get her tangled harness ready before the elevator began climbing.

With mere seconds to spare, Calen finished with hers and re-hooked his own harness. The large glass box gave a shudder and a jerk before beginning the long ascent up to the platform. Though the elevator didn’t dally it still took a number of minutes to travel six miles with nothing but a chain pulley system for locomotion.

Bit held her breath as the box crept upward and the enormous city shrunk beneath her feet.

Why did they make the floor glass, too? she wondered as she jerked her gaze back to the hair of the man in front of her.

“You are in so much trouble,” chuckled the man sitting on the other side of Calen.

The speaker had blond hair carelessly cut and a crooked nose that suggested he liked the occasional fist fight. Based on the grease under his fingernails and lining the wrinkles in his hands, she thought he worked on engines.

“Shut up, Forrest,” grumbled Calen as he crossed his arms over his chest.

Forrest chuckled to himself but didn’t say anything more.

“Really, what were you thinking?” asked the oldest of the men, despite Calen’s dark glare. “Accepting an indenture’s debt. Jack is going to be furious.”

“I don’t see it being any of your business, Dirk,” said Calen, his eyes still pointing straight ahead.

The oldest man, Dirk, had a grumpy set to his lips and bags under his eyes. His short-cropped hair was black while his thick beard was pure salt-and-pepper gray. The combination made it hard for Bit to guess at his age. Whatever it was, she thought him past his prime.

Finally, when Bit thought she was going to have a panic attack, the glass box shuddered to a stop before rumbling again. Bit assumed the noise meant they were about to plunge to their death. Instead, the box glided forward, connecting with the doors of a building. A strange sucking noise filled the box, going silent just before the two sets of doors slid apart.

As if they had been given an unheard cue, the other passengers began undoing their harnesses. Bit hesitated a second before setting to work on her own straps. She had half-freed herself when Calen came to her rescue.

He caught her eye and threw her a wink. “It’ll be okay. Just ignore them.”

“Y-yes, sir,” she whispered, speaking for the first time.

She followed the others, breathing a sigh of relief as she stepped out of the glass box and into the pressurized building. It was a no-nonsense building, as most transportation structures within the poorer cities tended to be. There were no windows, protecting their eyes from the reflection of the sunlight off the top of the clouds. Most of what Bit could see from the entrance was a wide corridor packed with travelers toting their luggage.

Calen reached back and took her wrist again, keeping her close as they weaved through the loud crowd. The corridor broke off repeatedly. She stayed at Calen’s side, fearful of getting separated. Though she couldn’t see any signs pointing them in the right direction, Calen and the others seemed to know their way.

Finally, they came to a stop at the end of a corridor. Through a break in the wall of bodies, Bit spotted another set of doors, though where they led she could not tell. She wanted to ask where they were going but dared not speak.

The other men were talking to each other, but from her place on the other side of Calen, she couldn’t hear what they were saying. As they waited, a man bumped against Bit’s back, knocking her against Calen.

Calen wrapped his arm around Bit’s shoulder and dragged her up against his side, meanwhile glaring at the offender. The brief encounter caught the attention of their companions. Forrest and the tattooed man stepped forward, placing their bodies between her and the rest of the crowd. Dirk, the older man, rolled his eyes and gave a grunt of disgust.

Bit clamped her teeth together, thinning her lips as she fought against the pressure behind her eyes.

You’ve no reason to cry, she told herself firmly. The men were being nice, but between their unaccustomed generosity and the sudden changes in her life, Bit felt close to a complete breakdown.

Before anything else exciting could happen, the doors opened and their immediate neighbors began filing in. Calen led her in with the others. Beyond the doors, they wound down a strange enclosed ramp, passed through another wide door, and entered what could only be a transport ship.

Nothing but rows upon rows of seats greeted them. Their group found an empty row and filed in. This time, Calen allowed Bit to wrangle her own harness. She finished attaching the various buckles and Calen gave her another smile.

Bit stared at the back of the seat in front of her, determined not to think about anything. She had never been very good at thinking only on the here and now, especially when the here and now was so foreign, but she tried all the same.

It was a long wait before everyone was seated and the doors slid shut. Finally, the transport ship began to rumble. Bit felt it turn. She forced herself to glance at the nearest window. They were taxiing across the enormous platform. She spotted a few workers on the tarmac dressed in thick, protective jumpsuits, their faces covered in tinted oxygen masks.

As she was watching the workers, wondering what their lives were like, the ship rumbled and quaked as though it were an animal barely able to contain its great power. Bit’s gaze jerked back to the seat in front of her just as the great animal was released. She was pressed back into her seat as the ship jetted down the tarmac.

Despite her best efforts, a little squeak of panic escaped her clamped lips. Calen reached over and took her hand. Though his touch startled her, she squeezed his hand in panic as the ship’s speed increased in another burst. It gave a little dip as they left the elevated tarmac before beginning to climb upward.

Bit squeezed her eyes shut, refusing to look out the windows as they passed beyond Earth’s atmosphere.





Chapter Two

Jack crossed his arms as he stared out the bridge’s windows, watching the cranes lift the last of the cargo crates into his hold. His jaw began to ache, reminding him to relax the pressure on his teeth. He was always grinding his teeth, usually due to some mischief from his younger brother. He heard footsteps on the bridge’s metal plating but refused to turn and acknowledge the newcomer.

It wasn’t Calen, so what was the point?

“Captain,” a voice said from behind his shoulder.

“David,” he replied, easily able to recognize the older man’s voice. “Still no sign of Calen?”

“Nope.”

“What of the others? Dirk, Oden, and Forrest?”

“Also gone. All four left last night and went to the surface. Thought they’d be back before night. Don’t worry, sir. They know when we ship off.”

Jack grunted. He had no doubt Dirk would be back and, therefore, Forrest, his subordinate. But concerning Calen and Oden he wasn’t so sure.

His two pilots. Missing at the same time.

Jack almost laughed at the absurdity of it all. He couldn’t take off even if he wanted to at the appointed time if they didn’t return on time. And that would result in hefty fees from the docking authority.

Sure, Jack could fly a ship like most captains, but he wasn’t as skilled at it as his brother or Oden. He wasn’t a true pilot, and he would rather pay the fees than risk damaging the ship, even if his ego took a hit.

“How comes the loading?” he asked his Executive Officer, changing the subject.

David was a steady man. He was Jack’s second cousin, but that wasn’t why he had the coveted second-in-command position on the family’s freighter. David had been a captain on sea-fairing freighters on Earth for at least a decade. While transporting cargo in space was a far cry from transporting across the seas, David’s experience was invaluable. The minute Jack had inherited his father’s business six years ago, he had contacted his second cousin with the job offer.

After all, the previous XO was unwilling to work under a man as young as Jack. When he had resigned, David had been the obvious choice for the family business. Now, six years later, they had both learned from each other.

“Nearly finished.” David glanced down at his clipboard. “I believe there are just four more to be loaded. Should be done within the hour.”

Jack squeezed his eye shut.

Great. They were ahead of schedule. The port would expect them to take off when the crates had been loaded, whether it was before the appointed time or not, and he had no pilots.

“Damn that boy,” he growled more to himself than his companion.

In truth, Calen was only six years younger than Jack, but he had not been forced into the patriarch’s position at the age of twenty-five, nor had he been groomed for the position since his birth. He had been allowed a normal childhood while Jack had learned the family business. Calen had been allowed to pursue his dreams of becoming a pilot while Jack learned the interstellar politics subsisting between the various factions controlling their solar system.

Jack tried not to resent his brother’s freedom, but, at the current moment, Calen was making it difficult.

Before Jack could say more to his XO, they both heard a ruckus from the level below. Through it, Jack heard his brother’s voice rise above the others. He let out a sigh of relief. At least one of his pilots was back in time.

Jack led David out of the bridge and down the staircase to the lower level. He skidded to a stop as he reached the landing and turned to take in the ship’s entrance. On the level below him, Jack spotted a young girl, huddled against the wall as the entire crew tried to talk over each other.

“What the devil is going on in here?” he demanded, the sound of his voice quickly quieting his men.

From where he stood, he spotted Dirk glaring at the girl. Oden and Forrest stood behind the chief engineer, their faces wreathed in humor. Calen stood near the girl, a sheepish grin on his face as he dragged his eyes up to where his brother stood on the landing. Vance, the chief steward, Nolan, his under-steward, and Jeremiah, the ship’s second engineering assistant, stood in a huddle in the corner, each of them eyeing the girl.

As Jack glared down at his men, his brand new security team peeked out from the stairs leading down to the lower levels of the ship. No doubt they were equally surprised by the sudden appearance of a woman on the freighter.

“Umm…” began Calen in response to his brother’s question before trailing off.

“Your brother’s gone and won himself a woman,” growled Dirk.

Dirk’s hatred of the fairer sex was well known among the crew, but for once his anger seemed well-founded.

Jack forced himself to take a deep breath, only half aware that he had been holding it. He dragged his eyes over to his brother and the woman in question. She was a tiny little thing, with blonde hair hanging in dreadlocks down her back and dirt smudged on her fair skin. Her eyes were cast on the floor, and Jack spotted a quivering of her bottom lip as she tried to disappear into the walls of the ship.

“What do you mean? Calen?”

“I kinda won an indentured in a game of poker,” he said, raising a packet of documents.

“You what?” snapped Jack, completely dumbfounded by what he was hearing; surely his brother knew the issues with having a woman on board a ship that went weeks, even months, between ports.

“Yeah. He said she had a near million left in her debt. Signed the papers over to me right then and there.”

Jack’s eyes flickered to the girl again. How could a girl as young as her get into such debt as to require her to indenture herself to pay it off? Slowly, Jack became aware of his crew. All their eyes were on the girl, too.

“I’m sure you all have work to be doing. The port wants us out within the hour. Calen, take the girl to my room. David, please take the bridge with Oden at the helm. All of you, get to your stations.”

In record time, the entrance to the ship emptied. Jack marched down the remaining stairs and followed Calen and the girl into his room. He shut the door with more force than he had intended and, to his surprise, the girl jumped before tucking herself into a free corner.

“Now, Calen, tell me exactly what happened?” he asked as he reached out for the documents.

As Calen had said, the previous owner had signed the girl—Larissa Earnest—over to Calen. The girl’s debt was very near a million dollars. By herself, he suspected she would be working for the rest of her life to work off the debt. He flipped back through the documents, noting that Calen was now her sixth owner.

“I told you. I won her in a game of poker. Didn’t really think I’d win, to be honest. It all happened so fast.”

“Do you have any idea what this means?”

Calen shrugged. “She can work with Vance. Cleaning and cooking and whatever the stewards to do.”

Jack squeezed his eyes shut, amazed at his brother’s ignorance.

“And how will we keep her safe?”

“Safe?”

“From the men. You’re telling me these men,” and he waved at the door of his room, “are gonna act like perfect gentlemen with a woman on board? You really think none of them will try something indecent with her?”

He watched as Calen blanched. He may not have thought of it on his own, but Calen wasn’t slow to understand what his brother was implying.

“I hadn’t thought…”

“No. You never do think, do you?”

“When do we leave port?”

“Any minute,” Jack barked.

“Jack, you’re scaring her.”

The captain glanced at the girl. Sure enough, she had her eyes glued to the floor, her whole body quivering. Jack took a deep breath, willing his voice into a calmer tone, despite the rage roiling inside his chest.

“We fly to Mars. I’ll find her a job there when we arrive. Guess this is your lucky break, girl. When we get to Mars, you’re free to go.”

He watched as her blue eyes lifted to his face and widened with fright. Jack frowned. He had expected her to be grateful that they were forgiving her debt, but the expression she showed him was sheer terror.

“P-please, sir. You can’t,” she said, her voice a mere whisper.

Jack found himself leaning forward to catch her words.

“Why ever not?” he asked. “You’d be free of the debt.”

The girl swallowed as though something was clogging her throat. “It don’t work like that. Mr. Asselstine were the last employer, according to the records. They find me on Mars, rather than with my employer,” she nodded to the documents, “they’ll ship me back to Mr. Asselstine and the cost of the voyage will be added to my debt.”

Jack groaned. He didn’t know this “Mr. Asselstine,” but judging by the healing bruises half hidden by her tattered tank-top, he had not been a kind employer.

“Calen, go do your work. I’ll deal with you later.”

Jack felt a new rise of anger as he watched the girl shy away from him. He hadn’t realized how much the girl had already grown to trust Calen. For whatever reason, he found himself hating the fact she trusted Calen more than himself.

She pressed herself back into the corner, her eyes focused on the floor again.

Jack stepped past her and opened the door into his private bathroom. It was one tiny closet, acting as shower, sink, and toilet all at once. He pointed to the lever that would turn on the water.

“That’s how you turn it on,” he said, pausing to make sure she actually looked where he was pointing.

He moved to the drawers tucked under his bunk and pulled out a clean towel. He dug in the bowels of the lowest drawer and pulled out a t-shirt he had long thought too small and a pair of sleeping shorts.

“And here’s some clean clothes. Go ahead and clean up. I’m gonna go to the bridge and contact the authorities. See what I can do about my brother’s mess.”

Jack turned to the door, ready to exit, his hand resting on the handle. “I’m sorry, miss, for what my brother’s done to you… wrecking your life like this.”

With that, he marched out and shut the door behind him.

Randal, the commander of his new security team, stood near the staircase leading up to the bridge. He gave Jack a little smile. Like David, Randal was older than Jack by a good number of years, and yet perfectly willing to work under the younger man.

“Randal,” Jack sighed as he scratched the back of his head.

“Never a dull moment,” chuckled the older man.

“Not with my brother around. Will you hang around here for a few minutes? No one’s to enter my quarters, but I don’t want it looking like I set a guard.”

Randal nodded. “’Course, Captain.”

Jack nodded before jogging up the stairs, taking them two at a time. He reached the bridge and ignored the glances David and Oden threw at him. No doubt they were curious what the fate of the girl would be. She was pretty enough that even Jack had given her a second glance; more’s the pity. If she had been ugly, Jack might not have been so quick to get rid of her.

He sat down at the communications console, popped the headphones over his ears, and began punching buttons a little harder than necessary.

Twenty minutes later he punched the off button and tossed the large headphones against the console before scratching at his head where the earphones had pressed against his skull. All his efforts had failed.

“Sir,” came a hesitant voice from near the helm.

Jack turned in his seat to see his XO staring pensively at him.

“They’ve finished loading the crates. Port’s asking when we’ll detach.”

Jack rose from his feet and took his station on the bridge. “Contact Port. Tell them we’ll be detaching as quickly as we can. Oden, begin uncoupling procedures.”

The captain glanced at the displays. The space around them was clear. Compared to other departures, it should be a fairly straightforward procedure, meaning he had few excuses for avoiding the coming conversation.

Jack scratched at his head again. He was loathe to leave the bridge. Here he knew what he was doing. He knew the moves, the commands needed for leaving port. Down there, where that girl waited, he had no idea what he was doing.

“David, the ship is yours. I’ll be back as soon as I can,” he said as he turned toward the exit.

“Cap,” came Oden’s voice.

Jack turned back to look at the tattooed pilot. His hands were still on the controls, ready to continue his work.

“The girl staying?” he asked.

“Looks like it.”





Chapter Three

Bit watched the tall man leave. They had said he was the captain of the ship and brother to Calen. Though his hair was darker and his eyes lighter, he had the same long aristocratic nose and firm, muscular jaw. Like many of her past employers, this Jack had a temper. She had seen it in his clenched fist and the working of the muscles in his jaw as he fought the urge to respond with violence. He may not have hit her yet, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t later.

Though she wanted nothing more than to stay in her corner, she obediently stripped out of her old clothing and stepped into the shower. She pushed the lever and flinched as the cold water poured down on her body. In record time she was clean and garbed in the captain’s clothing.

With nothing else to do, Bit settled back down in her corner. Before she could get comfortable, the ship began to rumble. She heard various metallic sounds as the ship detached from the spaceport.

Bit glanced up at the wall she was leaning against and noticed a swath of cloth. Assuming it could only be a curtain, she climbed to her feet and pulled it aside. Numerous layers of duroglass formed a window. It was small, and all she could see was what looked like a long metal arm. The arm was retracting itself, slowly folding into itself like a telescope. As the arm retracted, the ship gave a small jerk before gently pulling away. The further the ship drifted away, the more she saw of the enormous spaceport.

Without even trying, she counted at least seven arms jutting out of the central hub. Three of the arms were in use, attached to ships of various sizes. Two were freighters, but the third was a sleek, shiny government vessel. Though she had never seen one herself, she had spotted pictures of the new military ships when they were first launched two years ago. From what little she had caught from Mr. Asselstine’s grumblings, the Earth’s government had “been caught with their pants around their ankles” in regards to monitoring space travel… whatever that meant.

Slowly, the ship turned, revealing the other end of the spaceport and four more ships. Bit had never traveled in space before and only knew about it from what little crumbs of information her employers accidentally dropped for her. She didn’t know what she had expected, but it hadn’t been this. She had never dreamed that the skies were so busy. Some portion of her had assumed there were only a few ships out there, barely able to travel from Earth to Ceres—the farthest human habitat. Clearly, her few expectations had been wrong.

Bit slid down to the floor and pulled her knees up to her chest, resting her chin on them. She was tired of being frightened. Though she wasn’t naive enough to think she would ever find the peace of her early childhood—before she became an indentured—she didn’t want to be afraid of her own shadow. Bit wanted to be courageous, she just didn’t know how.

She was just beginning to drift off in her cramped and huddled position when the door creaked open. Jack entered, dropping her documents on his bed and sitting down in one swift motion.

As the door swung shut she spotted another man loitering on the catwalk near the stairs, as though he was trying to look like he had a reason to be there. Though she had only seen him for a moment, it was enough to tell her to be afraid of him. He was leaving middle-age behind. His once brown hair was losing its color and she had spotted wrinkles around the eyes, but, despite all this, she saw the power in his arms and shoulders and the stance of a fighter. Even as he lounged against the railing he stayed on the balls of feet.

The door clicked shut, blocking the man from her view. Her eyes flicked up to Jack of their own accord. He caught her looking at him and she dropped her eyes to the ground, focusing on the seams in the metal plating.

“I contacted the Department of Logistical Labor. You were right. I can’t just forgive the debt,” he said, nearly growling the last few words.

His hand curled into a fist and he pounded it against the mattress.

“So I guess you’re stuck with us.”

“I-I’ll try not to be a burden, sir,” she said, barely able to get her voice above a whisper. “I can work hard.”

To her surprise, she watched as he clenched his fists again. Bit closed her eyes, waiting for the blows to come.





Jack looked down at her. She had pulled her knees up under her chin almost as though she felt the need to protect her stomach. Her eyes were closed tight and he noticed a slight tremor run through her body. She was frightened and he wasn’t helping.

He took a deep breath, letting it out slowly.

“I’m not doing a very good job, am I?” he asked.

As he had hoped, she opened her eyes to stare at him and his unusual statement.

“I’m not worried about you not contributing…” He glanced at her docs to remember her name. “Larissa.”

Jack watched as a fleeting emotion crossed her face.

“Do you not like being called Larissa?”

“Uh… no one’s ever really called me that before.”

“What do they call you?”

“Bit.”

Jack frowned. “There must be a story behind that.”

She gave him the faintest glimpse of a smile. “My sister… she became an indentured with me. She called me Little Bit. Our first employer picked up on it and eventually it was just Bit. I guess it stuck.”

He gave her his best smile, the one all the men in his family knew how to use but, oddly enough, she tensed.

“All right, Bit it is.” He paused, trying to figure out how to explain the situation without frightening her. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-two.”

She was older than she looked. He had assumed she was fifteen or maybe sixteen. He needed to feed her up. Her last employer hadn’t been taking very good care of her. Sadly, her age meant the men would find her even more enticing.

Jack scratched at his jaw, aware that he never had the chance to shave today. He felt his cheeks heat with a blush as he considered the issue. The worst of it all was that even he found her attractive, especially now that she was clean.

He cleared his throat. “The thing is…um… the thing is, this is a ship full of men. And sometimes we go weeks, even months between ports. There are… complications when we throw in a good-looking girl.”

She blushed prettily and dropped her eyes from his face.

“Other than the officers, our crew all sleep in the same room. Obviously, we can’t add you to that mix. And some of the men are gonna want…ummm.”

“Sex?” she asked, saying the word in a matter-of-fact tone, as though this was a normal situation for her.

Without thinking about her previous expressions of fear, he dropped to the ground in front of her, dipping his head so that he could look her in the eye. She glanced up at him before making a greater effort to hide her face.

“Bit. You listen to me,” he said with a firm voice.

She couldn’t help but look up at him.

“While you are on my ship, no man will touch you without your permission, and if they do, I’ll shove them out the airlock. You understand?”

He watched as her eyes glazed with tears. Her bottom lip trembled briefly before she pressed her lips into a thin line. Finally, she nodded once.

Before Jack could try to further relieve her fears, he heard a knock on his door. He climbed to his feet and put some space between them before calling out.

The door opened to reveal his younger brother. Calen wore a sheepish grin on his face, which Jack didn’t believe for a minute.

“I take it she’s staying since we’ve shoved off.”

Jack glared at him, being certain Bit couldn’t see his expression.

“Yes, Bit is staying.”

“Bit?” asked Calen, smiling down at her.

To Jack’s disgust, he hated his brother’s grin. Whether he liked it or not, he had to admit he’d already taken the girl under his wing. Jack didn’t know what his feelings towards her might become, but for now, they were protective.

“I’ll let her tell you that story. For now, we need to find her a room.”

“If I had my own cabin, I’d give it to her,” Calen said with a fresh grin.

Jack rolled his eyes. It was a long-standing joke between them that Calen, a member of the family who owned the company, didn’t have his own cabin.

“Calen chose to be a pilot. Even after all these years, he complains about not having his own room,” Jack said to Bit.

Calen elbowed his brother in the ribs. “My brother just won’t admit I’ve earned one.”

Jack rolled his eyes again.

“Actually, I have an idea where she can sleep for now. It’s nothing glamorous, but it will be private.”

“I don’t mean to be a problem,” Bit said from her place on the floor; she still hadn’t climbed to her feet.

“Bit,” said Jack in a mock growl. Sadly, she flinched again. Someone had really done a number on her. “You’re not a problem. This is not your fault. If it’s anyone’s fault it’s Calen. Now, where were you thinking?”

“Well, there’s that closet under the stairs on this floor. We could hang a hammock. There’d still be room for a foot locker and maybe we can find an extra desk for her.”

“Good. While Oden’s on duty can you get that arranged?” asked Jack.

Calen scratched the back of his neck. “Kinda already did.”

“Let’s go see it. Bit?” asked Jack as he reached down to help her up.

She looked up at him, her eyes going from his open expression to his hand and back. Slowly, she reached up and slipped her little fingers into his. They were rough from work and cold to the touch. He pulled her to her feet and released her hand.

They followed Calen out of Jack’s cabin. This level consisted of private cabins for the captain, XO, security commander, and the chief engineer, as well as a large room for the crew to share. In the center sat the stairs leading up to the bridge and down to the lower levels. The stairs leading up started as one, reached a landing, and split into two staircases heading in opposite directions. The steps leading downward were a basic switch-back style.

Tucked under the landing of the staircase leading up was a little closet. Jack couldn’t even remember what had been stored in it if anything. Calen opened the door and pulled on the small chain attached to the light fixture. The light flickered on, faintly revealing the interior of the closet.

Whatever had been inside it had been removed. A homemade hammock had been hung on one side of the door, a blanket and pillow tucked into its folds and a dented metal footlocker placed underneath it. Just as Calen had said, there was still space for a desk and chair. To Jack’s surprise, the floor had even been mopped.

“Sorry it’s not very nice,” Calen said.

Bit stared at the little closet as though it were a palace. “This is for me?”

“Yep. And we’ll get some more stuff to make it better. And I’ll get a lock for the door too,” said Jack.

“Th-thank you,” she said, her voice dropping back to a whisper.

“No problem.”

Jack turned back to show her the rest of the ship when he noticed three heads peering around the railing of the staircase, eyeing their new crewmate. They jerked their heads out of sight and raced down the steps to the lower level.

“Calen. Take her down to the kitchen. I’m calling a meeting. We’re getting this all out in the open now before the scuttlebutt even has a chance to begin.”

With that, Jack stomped up the stairs.





Chapter Four

Bit watched the captain storm away. He was angry again, but for once she didn’t think it was with her.

She glanced back at the little room Calen had arranged for her. Though it was small, it was private, and she had never had a private room before. Bit glanced up at Calen.

He was watching her, a gleam of mischief in his eyes. She didn’t think he would do anything like what Jack had insinuated. Bit was starting to suspect Calen was the sort of man to tie another man’s bootlaces together.

“Let’s get some grub,” he said, guiding her to the stairs that led downward without actually touching her.

They headed downward. At the base of the stairs, Calen took the lead, opening a door across from the bottom of the staircase and ushering her in.

“We need to get you clothes that actually fit,” he said as they entered the large room.

It was an enormous rectangle, with long tables filling up the first half of the room. The second half was left open, with what looked like a padded mat covering the floor. The burly man she had seen before was watching as two younger men grappled each other. They paused for a moment to eye Bit and Calen before continuing the exercise.

Based on the sweat glistening on the fighters’ brows, she suspected they had been practicing for a number of minutes, and yet within a few seconds of her entrance, the man with the longer hair had his opponent on the ground and pinned.

“Why don’t we sit over here,” suggested Calen, ushering her to the furthest table from the practice area. “I’ll be back with some food.”

Calen disappeared through the only other door in the room, presumably into the ship’s galley. Bit did her best not to look at the men practicing. The sight of their muscles working to dominate each other reminded her of how little power she actually had in this cage full of men.

Bit clamped down on her bottom lip, determined not to be afraid, or at least not to show it. The captain would protect her, and if he didn’t, she’d just have to protect herself. She refused to be the victim anymore. Strangely enough, it had taken being thrown into a ship full of men who could very easily hurt her to make her bold. Well, bolder.

Slowly, other crew members began filling the mess hall. She recognized some of them, but not all. Though they all took turns staring at her, none of them sat at her table. Bit kept her eyes down, hoping they would continue to leave her alone.

But it was not to be.

A man she had not seen before spotted her and gave her a sloppy grin. His dirty brown hair was in need of a cut. It flopped in his eyes and he brushed it aside, his smile still in place.

“So this is the chick?” he asked to no one in particular as he crossed to her table and sat down on the bench next to her. “What’s your name, sweetheart?”

Bit tried to pull away from his touch, but she was already pressed against the cold metal wall. He gently tucked a long dreadlock behind her ear, pausing to caress her cheek.

“Bit,” she whispered.

He leaned in to catch her words.

“Ah, Nolan, leave the girl alone,” the blond-haired man from the cantina said. Bit thought his name was Forrest.

“The girl and I were just talking,” Nolan said as he lowered his hand to the back of her seat, his thumb rubbing her back between her shoulder blades. “How’d we get a pretty little thing like you to join our crew?”

Before she could answer, a man appeared behind Nolan’s seat. His hand snaked out, catching Nolan by the neck and slamming his head down on the table. Bit jerked back, hitting her own head on the wall as she looked up to see who had come to her defense. It was the man with all the tattoos and piercings.

He might have a soft face, but the ripple of the muscles running up his arm was pure strength and testosterone.

“I don’t think she’s much interested in talking to you,” Oden growled.

“What is going on here?” demanded Jack from the doorway.

Bit flinched. It felt as though the entire room was holding its breath. She wasn’t the only one afraid of Jack, though he was not the obvious fighter in the room. She spotted Calen standing beside the door with a plate piled high with food.

“Well?” asked Jack when no one answered.

“Nolan was giving the girl a hard time.”

Wassna,” mumbled Nolan, his lips distorted as Oden pressed his face against the table.

“Oden, Nolan, get away from her. Everyone get some grub and take a seat.”

As if on cue, another man slid a large tray of finger foods onto the counter connecting the galley and the mess hall.

Calen made his way to sit in the seat Nolan had begrudgingly vacated and slid the plate over to her, along with a cup of something she didn’t recognize.

“Eat as much as you want,” he said as if he knew her hesitancy.

Bit had never been given so much food in one day, much less at one meal. With Calen sitting next to her and blocking her from the other men, she relaxed a little and dug into the food.

Slowly, the others got their food and took their seats. Oden sat across from her, working to keep his eyes off of her. Forrest took the seat next to Oden. She was beginning to suspect the two young men were close friends with Calen. She wanted to like them all if nothing else than for Calen’s sake.

After all, Calen’s luck in poker had freed her from Mr. Asselstine. She might be terrified of the men around her, but it wasn’t any worse than her former employer all by himself. Or at least she hoped that was the case.

Eventually, they were all seated and ready to listen to Jack. Bit stopped eating. She knew whatever he said was likely to be about her and bring more attention to her. She didn’t want to be stuffing her face when the entire crew turned to stare.

“As I’m sure you’ve all heard by now, Calen was clever enough to win a person in a game of poker. I hope this incident will not encourage you all to try and emulate him.” Jack took a deep breath. “I’d like to introduce Bit to you. I’ll let her tell you the story behind the name.

“I realize that having a woman in our crew is going to be a little difficult on some. We have already arranged a room for her, and Dirk is currently fixing a lock on her door, to which only she and I will have a key.”

The room echoed with the titters of half-concealed laughs. Jack let his dark gaze cross the room, silencing the few who had dared to laugh.

“If any of you touch her without her expressed permission, I will personally see you floating in space. Do we have an understanding?”

The men nodded, their eyes flicking to her and back to the captain. One man dared to raise a hand with a question. Bit recognized him as one of the men grappling on the mat when she first entered the mess hall.

“Yes?” Jack asked, nodding to him.

“Umm… permission to speak freely, sir?”

Jack nodded.

“Does this mean we are to consider her yours?”

Bit dropped her eyes to the half-eaten food. She didn’t know what Jack’s answer would be, but she knew it would define her future.

The room descended into silence. Whatever his answer would be, Bit hadn’t expected it to take long. The silence brought her gaze back to his face. Even from this distance, she could see the wheels in his head turning, as though he had to think on his answer.

Bit’s breath caught in her chest. He was thinking on it. He was truly debating over what answer he would give. She had thought the captain an honorable man, never imagining him capable of forcing a woman into his bed. It had only been her past that had made her frightened of him. Now that had all changed.

Eventually, he shook his head.

“No. Bit is a grown woman. She is free to do as she likes in that department. Who knows, one of you may be lucky enough to get her to like you. I wouldn’t have high expectations, though,” he added, trying to make a joke. “The point is, I will not have any one of my crew forcing themselves on another member of my crew. Is that understood?”

All the men nodded.

“Good. I don’t know where Bit will be working yet. We’ll have to figure that out as we go along. For now, I expect each of you to show her the ropes, be courteous, and, above all, get your jobs done. Dismissed.”

Before she could take a breath, five more men had joined her at the table.

“So, where’d the name Bit come from?” Oden asked before anyone else could speak to her.

Bit glanced around at the faces. Even Nolan had been brave enough to join her table, though he looked a little chagrined. She swallowed the lump in her throat. For once, she wasn’t going to be afraid. None of them were angry with her. There was no reason for her stomach to be doing cartwheels.

“When I first became an indentured servant I was five.”—More men joined the crowd listening to her story.—“My sister became an indentured too. She always called me Little Bit. My first employer picked up on it and it kinda stuck.”

The men chuckled.

“What’s your real name?” asked one of the fighters.

“Larissa.”

“You prefer Bit?” asked another man.

“Why don’t we let her eat,” Calen said.

Another wave of chuckles spread across the crowd.

“All right, boys, back to work,” said the strong, older man she had seen before.

He began tapping his fighters on the shoulder and directing them back to the mat.

“Shouldn’t at least one of you pilots be on the bridge?” he asked before turning and leaving.

Bit watched as Calen and Oden eyed each other. Before either could say anything, Jack settled the debate.

“Oden. Aren’t you on duty?”

Oden let out a sigh before tossing her a wink and climbing to his feet. “Yes, sir.”

As the pilot left, Dirk appeared in the doorway.

“Her lock’s all done,” he said as he dropped two keys into Jack’s hand. “And why the hell are my assistants huddled around that skirt?”

Forrest scrambled to his feet, running his grease-stained hands through his hair before smacking another man on the shoulder. Bit eyed the other man. “Man” might not have been the right term. He was by far the youngest member of the crew, with soft brown skin that looked as though it had never been touched by wind or sand or dirt, though she did spy some grease under his nails, just like Forrest. They sauntered off with Dirk, the old man who had been in the cantina when Calen won her debt.

“Nolan,” called the slightly plump man from the kitchen doorway. “We have work to do.”

Nolan rolled his eyes as he left the table and joined the other man in the kitchen, leaving Calen and Bit alone. Presumably, Nolan was the assistant steward. Bit frowned as she watched the man leave. He didn’t look like the sort of person to work as a steward. Bit tucked that mystery into the back of her mind.

“You still hungry?” Calen asked, glancing down at her half-finished meal.

Bit picked up her fork and tried to eat some more. She had long ago trained herself to eat anything placed before her, even if she was full, for fear that it might be days before her next meal. She picked at it unenthusiastically.

“You don’t have to eat more if you don’t want.”

Bit shrugged. She didn’t want to tell him about her past periods of starvation.

“We’ll be having dinner in a just a few hours. Don’t want to totally ruin your appetite,” he said, sounding as though he had read her thoughts.

She set her fork down. “Yeah. Good idea.”

“Calen,” Jack called from near the doorway. “Why don’t you let Bit rest? She’s had a rough day so far. If you want, of course, Bit.”

With that, Jack left the mess hall.

“Remember how to get your room?” Calen asked.

Bit nodded. He let her out of the narrow space around their seats and left her to find her own way back up to the main living floor. She spotted a man she had only seen when she first came on board, earlier in the morning.

“You must be Bit,” he said with a happy smile.

He was middle-aged, with a head nearly completely shaved clean and firm lines in his face.

“I’m David. I’m second cousin to Jack and Calen and happen to be the Executive Officer. Sorry I couldn’t meet you with everyone else. Someone had to stay on the bridge.”

She accepted his offered hand in silence.

“You’re probably off to rest. Quite the day, huh?” he asked with a laugh.

Had she not been so tired and emotionally drained she would have liked him, but at that moment he was simply another obstacle between her and her hammock.

“Well, I won’t keep you,” he continued. “But Jack wanted me to give you the key to your room. It locks from the inside. He’s keeping his key just in case you accidentally lock yourself out.”

Bit accepted the key and nodded. She wasn’t worried about Jack having access to her room. Nolan, on the other hand—Bit pushed those thoughts away, determined not to be afraid.

Finally, David left her in peace and she entered her new bedroom, alone and relieved.







Chapter Five

Oden loitered in the large room where the crew slept. He made his bed with extra care, styled his Mohawk as slowly as he could, and debated over his limited wardrobe. Even with his purposeful dallying, the other men seemed equally slow in leaving for breakfast.

“You coming, Oden?” Calen called from the tail of the mob.

“Yeah. I’ll be right there,” Oden said over his shoulder.

Calen left with the others, their loud voices fading as they descended the steps and disappeared into the mess hall.

The night before the conversation had settled on one topic, and one topic only: Bit, their new crewmate. It seemed nearly every young man on the crew had an opinion on her presence on the ship, ranging from “What do we need a girl for?” to “Can’t wait to get me a piece of that”.

Oden had mostly kept his thoughts to himself. Not so much as to be noticeable, but he wouldn’t admit to what he had observed in their new crewmate. If they couldn’t see the truth in her, they didn’t deserve to know her.

He loitered beside his bed, waiting for another full five minutes before carefully opening the door to the barracks. Just as he had expected, Bit was just peeking her head through her own doorway.

“Good morning,” he said softly.

As he had expected, she gave a little start and eyed him cautiously.

“Hungry?” he asked.

She hadn’t appeared in the mess hall for dinner, and the captain had insisted they leave her alone. He knew she must be starving, but he suspected she was sadly accustomed to the sensation.

Finally, she nodded.

“We missed you at dinner last night,” he said as he motioned for her to lead the way to the stairs, wanting to make sure she knew that they ate two full meals a day, with snacks out at midday, and that she was welcome at them all.

Bit didn’t respond, and he didn’t push.

“We need to get you more clothing. Maybe even something designed for a woman.”

She glanced at him over her shoulder and he threw her a wink to make sure she knew he was trying to tease her a little. Once again, Bit didn’t respond. Instead, she came to a stop in the doorway of the mess hall, staring at the mass of bodies as though she had forgotten how many souls there were on board. Counting her and the new security team designed to protect against pirates, the ship carried sixteen humans.

Jack looked up at them and smiled as though he knew and appreciated Oden’s tactics. With a smile, he nodded to the empty seats at his table.

Unlike larger freighters, the officers ate with the crew. They were all one big happy family. Oden tried to ignore the sarcasm in his own thoughts.

“Shall we sit with Jack?” he asked, ignoring the hopeful glances of the other men.

“Sure,” she whispered.

“Let’s get some grub first.”

He showed her the ropes. She put a little dab of food on her plate, leaving it mostly empty. When he thought she wasn’t looking, he plopped two extra sausage links onto her plate. She looked up at him, shock apparent on her pale features.

Oden gave her his best innocent face. “What?”

He thought he saw the beginnings of a smile, but the look faded quickly. Oden grabbed both of them a juice pouch and led them back to Jack’s table.

“Morning, Cap,” he said as he sat down beside the captain, leaving Bit the seat at the end.

It left her open to be bothered by the others, but he didn’t want to look like he was arranging things. He had already received a glare or two from his crewmates. Oden smiled back at them, enjoying their annoyance. No doubt tomorrow they would all try to be the last person out of the barracks in the hopes of catching her on the way to the mess hall. He would need to warn her ahead of time.


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-31 show above.)