Steel Coyote

Steel Coyote

Entangled Publishing - Amara
July 22, 2019


Read an Excerpt


The universe can be a tough place to make it as a cargo ship captain and Remington Hawthorne fights every day to scrape together enough to get by. Hanging on by her fingernails, she has to find something to keep herself and her quirky crew alive. 

When a sketchy deal goes south, she doesn’t want to accept help from the stranger who calls himself Max Fletcher. Life however, doesn’t give her a choice. Hurtling through space with illegal cargo, extra passengers she doesn’t want, and a growing attraction to Max she can’t resist, Remy knows she’s in trouble. 

When worlds collide, Remy and Max have to find a way to trust each other, save the crew, and not get themselves killed in the process. It’s gonna be a helluva ride. 




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Excerpt

Chapter One

The quadrant was, for all intents and purposes, a galactic tug of war. Every planet, every moon, every outpost, every waystation, every speck of dust upon which a sentient being could live was claimed by either the Corporation or the Great Family.

Neither was any more desirable than the other.

The Corporation ruled through military force. The iron fist it wielded was fed by the wealthy and elite, those who had much and shared with no one. They stood on the backs of the people who paid taxes and tariffs to support the very military that kept them subdued and subjugated. Yet, the same force that kept them in check also protected them. With the Corporation came order and regimen. Some thrived. Others refused that type of structure and set off for their own to lawless moons and waystations of questionable reputation, living beneath the radar of the Corporation’s mighty military. They did not, however, escape notice from the Great Family.

No one was sure how the Family came into power. Rumors swirled, but the Rasmussens were a tight-lipped group. They rewarded loyalty with rich trade routes and bountiful opportunities to support themselves. The Great Family ruled with a velvet fist, strong but softer than the rigid military of the Corporation.

Simple people who desired a simple existence flocked to the lure of seeming self-rule under the auspices of the Great Family. Remy was far from simple. She had to walk the tightrope in a quadrant where a battle raged every day. Gunnar had warned her to steer completely clear of the Great Family because no rules existed in their domain.

There was something to be said for taking control of one’s own fate, unless of course, that was an illusion. When you floated between the two titans of the galaxy, one lived on the razor’s edge of one power or the other. It was a dangerous place to be.

Remington Hawthorne’s boots pounded down the metal steps from the bridge and into the main hull of the ship. She had thirty minutes to get her ass to the Metalheads Bar on Station Twenty. No time to think. She had to move, move, move like her life depended on it. A black sphere hovered above the thoroughfare. She tried not to glance at it, knowing it was the Corporation’s way of tracking everyone everywhere.

Station Twenty was a lonely outpost on a small planet that had been terraformed, but it was a haven for all the ships that frequented the trade routes from one side to the other. The Steel Coyote could have called Twenty home for all the times it had been docked there. This time, they’d barely made it into port using the remaining fuel in the tanks. They needed the job and the money it brought in, or they wouldn’t be able to leave the outpost.

Remy didn’t know Cooper, but she’d agreed to meet him on the space station on the outer rim of the quadrant. He’d insisted on a public place with multiple exits. It meant he wanted to use her to smuggle something, but she didn’t care. She didn’t have that luxury. The Steel Coyote needed cargo, and Remy was desperate enough to not ask questions.

She’d done pretty well for herself at first, and then the last three months all their work had dried up. The usual jobs disappeared like wisps of smoke. Someone was sabotaging her and she didn’t know who or why.

Her heart beat a steady tattoo as she raced down the loading platform and onto the dock. Her late father, Gunnar, had taught her to smash those softer emotions beneath the surface. No matter what the situation, Remy kept her armor her place even if she was terrified of failing. This job was too important. She swallowed the lump in her throat and turned right toward Metalheads.

Nighttime was louder than a parade on Twenty. Hookers, hangers, and tweakers were everywhere, looking for whatever they could get. Remy ran past them all. These were the “have nots”. People who lived simply, hand to mouth. The sad fact was the Corporation only helped those who fit into their mold of good citizens and swept out the refuse to the outer planets. The Great Family took hold of that refuse and controlled it using any means necessary.

It would take thirty minutes at a normal pace, and she wanted to be there at least five minutes early and make sure she got a drink down before the meeting. Hopefully there was some of that good bourbon, because she sure as hell needed a double. With only three of them left on the Steel Coyote, she didn’t want to call herself desperate, but she was. Since Gunnar died, things had gone from bad to worse, and now she was hanging on by her fingernails.

Her father always used to say the universe was made of “haves” and “have nots.” The “haves” were the people who lived within the Corporation’s regime in pretty houses, with servants, anything credits could buy. Work was limited to choosing what to serve for their dinner party or what shoes to wear to the cotillion on a neighboring planet.

The “have nots” lived within the Great Family’s regime where people would fight, steal, or kill to survive. They didn’t have the luxury ships, interstellar travel, or even electricity the “haves” took for granted. The “have nots” lived simply, grew their own food, hunted for meat, rode horses, and used wagons. They knew the value of bartering and never left their home world.

Then, there were those who drifted within the two. People like Gunnar and his crew of the Steel Coyote. A cargo ship that moved within the quadrant, delivering and picking up goods from the “haves” and “have nots.”

Remy had learned how to maintain the delicate balance of existing between the two halves of the quadrant. She’d watched and discovered what it meant to fly through it all. She’d thought she knew everything she needed to.

When Gunnar died, and Remy took over the ship, she’d assumed the crew would accept her as captain. They’d do what she wanted them to, it would be business as usual.

She’d been wrong.

Lucky for her, she had Katie. The engineer was her best friend, albeit a character in her own right. Then there was Foley, one of her father’s oldest friends who could barely do any chores, but his heart was bigger than the entire ship. They were a team of three against the universe.

As she moved through Station Twenty, most folks let her by without a word. Her ponytail bobbed madly, slapping on her back as she walked the last five minutes to cool down. The near run had heated her up, which meant her face was flushed and sweat stood out on her pale skin. She hated the fact she resembled a tall glass of milk with big boobs and a wide ass, but she’d learned to use the height to her advantage and never back down.

As she passed the handyman’s shed, a woman stepped forward from the shadows. She was tall, elegantly dressed on a station where most people had layers of dirt. The woman wore a scarf over her head that covered her hair and most of her face. She held up one hand and Remy spotted the purple crescent tattoo on the woman’s wrist.

The Great Family.

Icy tendrils of fear slid down her back. Her father had told her repeatedly to give the Great Family respect and stay out of their way. He’d known the matriarch, Victoria Rasmussen, when they were younger but never introduced her.

Remy kept going forward without responding. There would be no reason for them to seek out Remy. And if there was, she didn’t want to know about it—she had to focus on the here and now. Meeting Cooper and getting the job.

She was taking a risk trying to make a sketchy deal with a sketchy man. The good thing about Metalheads was that it was a bar she’d been going into since she could sit on a stool. She knew the layout and the way out, not to mention Royal Chadwick, the crazy ex-pilot who owned the place.

As Remy crossed the threshold into Metalheads, she straightened her shoulders and put her chin up. It was time to be the captain she knew she was.

###

Max Fletcher saw the blonde walk into the bar and couldn’t help but stare. She was tall—really tall—with nice tits, a wide mouth, and a gun looking mighty comfortable on her hip. Her long-leggedy stride led her straight to the bar where she chatted with the hairy guy working there as if she knew him. They shook hands, and he reached beneath the bar to pour her something that looking like blue bourbon.

Even more interesting. High-end booze for the lady.

Who the hell was she?

“How may I be of service?” The familiar voice of his Moral Compass interrupted his perusal of the very fine-looking lady.

He growled at the foot-tall hologram of the man who appeared on the table. Most people thought him a fool for carrying around what amounted to a conscience, but he hadn’t had much in his life that was a constant. Except the Moral Compass. Saint was a pain in the ass, but Max had worn the device for more than ten years. A record in Max’s life.

“Fuck off. I’m just watching.”

Saint’s eyes twinkled with amusement. “Of course you are.”

Max swirled the shitty rotgut in his glass and watched as she downed the clear blue liquid in one quick motion. Lady knew how to drink, too. He was more than intrigued. There weren’t many women in Station Twenty like her. Hell, it had been a dog’s age since a woman had done much to spark an interest in him.

Women on most of the planets were scrambling to get by and had no interest in doing anything but having a good fuck. Life was hard enough without pleasure where a man could grab it. He accommodated them, and they accommodated him.

He was a lover, not a fighter.

“Your vital signs reflect arousal,” Saint was always so helpful. “She does appear to be a strong female.”

“She is.” Max couldn’t take his eyes off the woman at the bar.

“You have an appointment to keep with the cruise ship company.” Saint thought it was his job to keep Max’s calendar and not just be his conscience. “You must not be late.”

“I won’t be. For God’s sake, I need the paycheck. And stop sticking your nose in my business.”

Saint shrugged. “I cannot change my programming.”

After the bartender poured the blonde another drink, she nodded and finally turned to look around the bar. Metalheads was a dive in an outpost full of dives. It had dark spots, scarred metal tables, and dented chairs. Up the stairs were bedrooms of questionable use; Max had personally had a threesome up there a few years earlier.

The one good thing he could say about the bar was that there were few fights. The hairy bartender, Royal, was big and ugly enough to keep the peace with the rough crowd who frequented Station Twenty. Max wasn’t a regular, but he’d been there on and off the last few years. He’d never seen the blonde before, though. He would have remembered her.

“Do you know her?” Saint turned toward the blonde.

“Not yet.”

She pointed to a table at the back of the bar, one near the tank of robotic jellyfish that floated aimlessly in green tinted water and fake plants. To get there, she had to walk past him. His dick jumped at the opportunity to see her up close—or as close as he was going to get. He didn’t fuck with armed women, especially one who looked like she could take care of herself. He wasn’t an idiot.

But he was intrigued.

“Evening, ma’am.” He tipped an imaginary hat.

She didn’t even spare him a glance.

He wasn’t insulted. She obviously hadn’t heard him. As she breezed past him, he tried again.

“I said, good evening, ma’am.”

“I heard you. Fuck off, mister.” She kept going to one of the darkest corners of the room and sat down with barely a whisper of her booted feet.

He told himself she didn’t want to talk. The woman obviously had something on her mind, and it wasn’t speaking to him.

Max had an hour before he needed to be at the interview with Captain Ross. As the best pilot in the quadrant, he had no doubt he’d get the job. Confidence in his abilities wasn’t arrogance—it simply was.

“Smooth.” Saint continued to be helpful.

He poked his finger at the hologram’s chest. “I thought I told you to fuck off, too.” Max turned away and angled his chair to watch the woman. Curiosity niggled at him.

A man as big as an asteroid walked out of the shadows and approached her table. Max sat up straighter and kept his ear tuned to the conversation.

She got to her feet and pressed her palms together at the middle of her chest. “Blessings be upon you.” She utilized the formal, respectful address. Max was impressed.

The big man pushed his own meaty hands together for less than a second. “And hale be hou. You Hawthorne?” The behemoth pulled a chair out with a loud scrape on the floor and lowered his bulk into the metal frame. It was a wonder it didn’t fold under the pressure.

“Captain Hawthorne.” She sounded hard, without an inch of femininity. “And you’re Cooper.”

“A’course I am. I got a job to get done. I heard tell you’re looking to get hired.”

She nodded. “You heard right.”

“This ain’t a job for a captain like you. You done maybe ten jobs?” He snorted. “I ain’t hiring you.”

A pregnant pause. “Why not?”

“I only showed up because I knew Gunnar and respected the man. That’s the only reason I’m here now. I don’t know you, and I don’t trust you. I sure as hell ain’t trusting a ship with a small crew of three that includes an old man who can’t even find his dick with both hands.” The stranger pulled out a silver cigarillo and snapped the end to light it. The tip glowed blue in the shadows as he puffed on it. “You ain’t got enough experience.”

“My crew is capable of transporting any cargo. It shouldn’t matter if there are only three of us. We’ve delivered every cargo successfully since I took over the ship. If you’ve investigated me, you already know that.” She sounded tough, but Max heard something beneath the words—anger and what might have been desperation.

“It does to me. I don’t trust no one without a record as a ship’s captain. And you ain’t got one.”

“That’s bullshit. I’ve been running cargo since I was a babe, by myself since Gunnar died. I’ve never lost a load, and I’ve never missed a deadline.” She kept her voice steady although he could hear the frustration.

“It ain’t enough.”

“You were ready to make a deal when we talked on the comm a couple days ago. What changed?”

The big man shrugged. “I ain’t gotta tell you nothing. If I don’t wanna hire you, then I don’t.”

The silence stretched on. Max told himself to mind his own business, to leave the girl alone. Her business was hers to mind, not his.

“What can I do to convince you?” She spoke low and tight, her words clipped. Max hoped she wasn’t going to offer herself to get the job.

“Not a damn thing.” The chair squealed as he pushed himself back.

“Do not interfere,” Saint spoke softly.

Ignoring his conscience, Max was on his feet before he could talk himself out of doing something stupid. Saint disappeared, and he was on his own. It was too late to reconsider his impulse. He’d decided without thinking, and he was quite good at that. Those decisions usually involved a woman.

“Well met, good sir, good lady.” He swaggered over to the table, hiding his surprise at the sheer size of Cooper up close. How had the man even fit through the door? “You were right, Hawthorne.”

“Who the hell are you?” The big man’s brows slammed together.

“I’m her new pilot, Max Fletcher. She wanted to get your business without pulling me into it.” He winked at her, ignoring the angry flush in her cheeks and sheer murder in her eyes.

The man scowled harder. “I heard of you. Ain’t you the one they found banging a girl while you docked a ship?”

Max maintained a smile although he could feel the burn of the woman’s disapproving gaze, not to mention Saint’s invisible censure, even if he was safely tucked away at the moment. “That’s me.”

“I heard you crashed into the docking clamps.”

Max shrugged. “Barely dinged the hull. Banged it out with a hammer and a couple welds.” His reputation had been exaggerated to epic proportions. No need for his ladyship owner to know the real truth.

“Hmph. So this your new pilot?” He cocked a thumb at Max, looking to her for confirmation.

She could say no, and Max might get a pounding he’d remember for quite some time. She could say yes and get the job. Either way, he wasn’t going to make it to the Polaris for the job interview. Saint would lecture him later. The captain of the cruise ship would probably never hire him, but Max was chivalrous enough to rescue a damsel in distress.

Hopefully she didn’t shoot him for it.

“We didn’t shake hands on it yet, but yeah, he’s my pilot. After Jefferson left, I needed someone with experience on Emerson class ships.” She lied so smoothly, Max almost believed it.

Cooper eyed him up and down then turned back to the woman. “What berth number?”

“Three twenty-three.”

Cooper nodded and got to his feet. “If you’ve got him at the helm, then I’ll be at the Steel Coyote at five tomorrow morning. He’s got skills and the rep to back it up.”

As the big man lumbered away, Saint joined the conversation from his perch on Max’s shoulder. He probably would have watched while the big fucker pounded him into the ground. “You have started something you cannot finish. Again.”

Max ignored him and smiled at Hawthorne.

“Guess I’m your new pilot.”

She scowled at him. “I should kick your ass.”

###

Remy had never been so furious and helpless at the same time. She’d nearly lost the job because of Cooper’s inexplicable last minute change of heart—another nail in the sabotage coffin. Then, this black-haired stranger with ice blue eyes and a flashy smile stepped in and lied. And his lie made her lie. She was fully capable of taking care of herself and her ship without any help. Now this man pushed her into a corner, and she resented him for it.

She wanted to shoot him. Or at the very least, punch him. Even the hologram disapproved of his foolishness.

“What did you think you were doing?” She stood and faced him, her hand itchy on the butt of her pistol.

“Saving your ass.”

“I didn’t need saving.”

“Didn’t sound that way to me.”

“You shouldn’t eavesdrop on people.”

He had the audacity to shrug. “You shouldn’t meet in a bar if you don’t want people to listen to your conversation.”

She refused to concede he was right. The meeting in the bar wasn’t her idea, but the man still shouldn’t have been listening. “If I see you again, I’ll shoot you.”

Remy had to walk away or she would do something that might catch the attention of the local law. Worse, put her crew and ship in jeopardy because she couldn’t meet Cooper for the drop.

“Where are you going?” The fool Fletcher followed her out of the bar, with the hologram perched on his shoulder and a small black bag in his hand.

Royal started after them, concern on his face, but she held up her hand to stop him. There wasn’t a man alive Remy couldn’t manage on her own. Gun or no gun.

“Back to my ship.”

He walked along beside her, his long gait matching hers. She picked up her pace and he sped up, too. Remy came to an abrupt halt, absurdly pleased when he almost fell on his face trying to stop.

“You can stop following me now.”

“I can’t. I work for you now, remember? You think Cooper is going to let you load his cargo in the morning if I’m not there?” His handsome grin made it worse.

“Look, if it’s not the Corporation, it’s the Great Family or whoever has painted a target on my back. Someone is always taking food from my crew’s mouths.” She poked a finger into his chest. A hard chest that made her finger smart, damn it. “I don’t need someone like you fucking with my business, too.”

“I told him to mind his own business.” The hologram spoke up, and she looked at the little man more closely.

“Is that a Moral Compass?” She was quite honestly astonished. She’d never seen one of the devices up close.

Fletcher frowned. “Uh, yeah.”

“You have a conscience you wear on your arm?”

She didn’t understand the man. A moral compass was expensive, used mostly by rich men who worked for the Corporation. He wore it, yet he was having sex when docking a ship? Obviously, the thing was broken. She peered at the ridiculously handsome man more closely.

“Who are you? You don’t work for the Corporation, do you? Or the Great Family?”

That was the last thing she needed.

She’d operated under The Corporation’s and the Great Family’s radar by taking jobs that were legitimate, as much as she could, anyway. They’d left the Steel Coyote alone, although she always tried to stay one step ahead of them. Remy had escaped notice during her time as captain. Perhaps she’d been wrong about that.

Fletcher leaned toward her. “Of course not. I’m an independent pilot. Your man Cooper knew of me.”

She shook her head. “Your reputation includes fucking women while you’re docking a ship? Not much of a recommendation in my opinion.” The image of this man with a woman flashed through her mind and she ruthlessly shoved it away. His looks couldn’t, and wouldn’t, sway her decision.

He crossed his arms. “Do you need this job? Then you need me to pull this off.”

She did, and the jackass knew it. Resentment burned in her gut. “I don’t know you, Fletcher, but I know I don’t like you. I don’t want you to fly my ship.”

She’d had enough conversation. She walked away and did her best to ignore the man.

Growing up, Remy’s temper had landed her in trouble enough times that she generally kept a tight hold on the reins. Something about Max Fletcher loosened her control and made her emotions bubble to the surface.

This time, she didn’t care if she was sweaty and flushed. She walked with her arms swinging, anger fueling her speed. A few people tried to sell her their wares but she waved them off and concentrated on reaching the ship. Her stomach jumped and she had to swallow back bile at least twice. There was no time to be weak or let anxiety take over. Tomorrow, they would have cargo and money to buy fuel and supplies. She was tired of eating dried food she couldn’t identify. Pitiful as it was, she ached to eat a piece of real fruit.

That all hinged on the fact Cooper thought she’d hired a pilot.

Max Fletcher.

He was still behind her. She could feel him and hear him greeting the people she’d walked past. Damn him.

Much as she didn’t want to face it, the truth of it was, she was stuck. She needed him to get the cargo, and Cooper might want to see them take off together to seal the deal. She didn’t want to allow Fletcher to step foot on board but common sense told her that she was going to have to.

When she finally reached her ship’s berth her anger had cooled. Foley sat on a metal crate, the ramp wide open. The old curmudgeon had been her father’s chief engineer. Now that his eyesight was failing, he did maintenance around the ship, keeping things oiled, tightened, and clean. The grizzled beard hid a gaunt face. Foley had lost a great deal of weight and Remy suspected he was sick. If only she could convince Foley to accept a healer’s touch.

He wore the same navy-blue shirt and trousers he’d had for as long as she could remember. One day she might dare herself to check his quarters to see if he had dozens of the same outfit. Perched on what was left of his halo of frizzy white hair sat a black hat that had seen better days. A bullet hole graced one side and stains of unknown origin decorated most of it. A tiny blue earring was pinned in the center. She’d never asked him where it came from, but suspected it had been a woman from his past. In her twenty-one years, she’d never seen him with one, so perhaps this was the one who’d set him on the course of bachelorhood.

“Well met, Cooper.” She sucked in a much needed breath.

“Well met, Captain.” Foley pointed his favorite knife at a spot behind her and squinted. “Who’s that?”

Remy stopped and put her hands on her hips.

She didn’t have a choice and that was the bald truth. Pride was one of her biggest flaws, and it didn’t go down easy when she had to swallow it. But for her untraditional family, she would do what she needed to. She took a deep breath and accepted what the universe decided to throw in her path.

“Our new pilot.”

“Looks like a pretty boy to me.” Foley snorted. “The boy ain’t even got dirt under his nails.”

“Well met, good sir.” Fletcher huffed a laugh. “I can see good hygiene is not of particular concern.”

“Pretty boy.”

“Old bastard.”

“Shut up both of you.” Remy shook her head. “Foley, stop taunting him. Fletcher, stop being an asshole.”

She turned to look at them posturing like a couple of bantam roosters they’d carried a few times in the cargo hold. Male creatures were foolish. And annoying.

“I ain’t gonna like him. Doesn’t even carry a gun.” Foley used his knife to scrape at his filthy nails.

“What makes you think I don’t have a gun?” Fletcher’s smile was a slash of white, and not at all friendly. “I don’t like to wear a holster on my hip, but that doesn’t mean I’m not armed.”

“Well met, Remy. Glad you’re back. Who is this?” Katie strolled up, hands in her pockets and a friendly smile on her face. “You picking up strays?”

“Unfortunately, we have to. Katie, Foley, this is Max Fletcher.” Remy waved her hand in the general direction of the man. He opened his mouth to likely say something charming, but she cut him off. “I couldn’t get the job from Cooper unless Fletcher was at the helm. Apparently, my experience and reputation aren’t good enough.”

“Well that’s just stupid.” Katie frowned.

“Cooper will be here at five. Let’s get the ship ready.” She waited while the three of them sized each other up. “Or I can fire all of you, sell the ship, and live the rest of my life with pretty boys feeding me hydroponic grapes.”

“Fine, but I ain’t gonna like him.” Foley levered himself up out of the chair with a creak of his old bones. “I’ll inventory our supplies and get fresh water in the tanks. Make sure this one stays out of my way.”

Katie shook her head. “Can’t wait to hear this story. In the meantime, I’ll make the engine ready and arrange for fuel to be delivered.” She raised her eyebrows at Remy. “This is going to be an interesting trip.”

Once her engineer bounded back into the ship, Remy was alone with Fletcher again. She didn’t want him there, didn’t trust him. But she had to do what she must to save the Steel Coyote.

“What do you want me to do?” His deep voice sizzled over her already tight nerves.

“Stay out of my way.”