A dangerous attraction. A secret revealed. The superpowered sci-fi romance series continues.
Jolie knows that Deneve staying in Austin is only temporary, especially when a government agency far too interested in people who developed powers from alien ship nanites may have its eyes on the city. Too bad Jolie’s heart doesn’t seem to be getting the memo that Deneve won’t be around forever.
Deneve’s nanites won’t let her leave town, but without any precognitive visions of what catastrophe she’s supposed to avert next, she’s at loose ends. She’s also spending too much time close to Jolie, the beautiful woman who saved Deneve’s life with a wall of fire.
When an attack connected to a secret from the alien ships leaves someone dead, Deneve’s visions come back with a vengeance. But surviving the confrontation that follows is going to take more than seeing the future. Deneve and Jolie must start trusting the growing connection between them… and confront the truth about what happens when their powers combine.
The second novella in a near-future science fiction F/F romance series, which is slow burn to high heat with a guaranteed HEA at series end.
Preview: Chapter 1
The owner of the massage therapy franchise next door had accidentally put Paper Dreams’ suite number on a package again. Jolie wondered if that would happen so often if she knew Jolie could incinerate them. She assumed not. The woman had put a bigger “No Nanites” sign in her front window within the past few days, this one featuring the lumpy outline of an alien ship and a red circle crossing it out.
The owners of the Thai restaurant had been shaking their heads over it when Jolie saw them while hauling out the trash. In hushed tones, they told her about how the woman had worn a gas mask to go outside for a full month after the ships landed—though the closest ship was in San Antonio and no one had seen a nanite cloud since the first hour after the ships’ simultaneous arrival and demise.
The sign was irritating, but it was hard for Jolie to fault anyone who had taken similar precautions. She didn’t want these things in her body either.
“You heading out soon?” Deneve asked from the door of the workroom, after Jolie sent the UPS person on their way. Jolie turned to find Deneve leaning against the frame, arms crossed, eyebrows raised inquisitively. Jolie had driven her to get clothes after the fire, work things and a couple of casual outfits. The electric blue short-sleeve button-down and black capris she was wearing today did more for Deneve’s freckled skin and long limbs than Jolie was comfortable with.
Jolie tried to smile reassuringly. She wasn’t altogether convinced her smiles worked the way she intended outside of the social context of customer and shop owner. But she’d been on her best behavior over the last two weeks, and she intended to continue. No sense sending Deneve running off and both of them ending up in a burning construction site a second time. Better for Deneve to be here.
Not that Deneve was here here. Obviously. Jolie understood that. Deneve’s continued utilization of the cot in the Paper Dreams workroom was simply a temporary measure while she remedied the situation of all her worldly possessions being destroyed.
“I should go, yes,” Jolie said, to finally answer the question, because Deneve was starting to look slightly concerned. “The traffic’s probably died down somewhat by now.”
“You’re sure you don’t want me to come with you?”
Jolie applied price tags to the last three boxes of art deco notecards. She was entirely confident no one would attempt to kidnap her from the parking lot of Ada’s Fine Foods again. No need to have Deneve along for protection. Especially since her only weapon—brass knuckles she’d punched someone with on Jolie’s behalf the last time she’d visited the establishment—had been lost in the fire.
“I’ll be fine,” Jolie assured her, handing over the boxes of stationery.
She retrieved her purse from under the workbench. Deneve found the correct table for the notes and stacked them in a pattern that wasn’t entirely unattractive. Jolie was grateful for her assistance between the days when Deneve found paying work. Deneve knew how to check out customers now, and at least vaguely what categories of products the shop sold even if she couldn’t tell a Mont Blanc fountain pen from a Cross without reading the boxes. The previous Thursday, Jolie had taken a few hours to sit and read in the coffee shop across the street. She hadn’t taken a break to do nothing since— Well, it had been a while.
“Call me if you need to,” Deneve said, in a half offer, half direction.
Jolie nodded in agreement. There’d been no indication in the last two weeks that more trouble was brewing. Owen wasn’t reporting any unnerving chatter about further missing persons, murders, or suspicious car accidents. Reassuringly, too, there hadn’t been another instance of Deneve’s eyes glowing blue while she attempted to speak what might be an alien language before collapsing unconscious on the shop floor.
Even so, knowing she could call and Deneve would answer felt oddly reassuring despite Jolie being the more qualified of the two to deal with a physical threat.
“Do you need anything while I’m out?” Jolie asked.
Deneve shot her a cheeky grin. “They carry anything with that edible gold leaf decoration? You know I’m all about the fancy stuff.”
“I’ll take your request under advisement,” Jolie said dryly, and was rewarded with a chuckle.
She felt herself smiling unintentionally as she stepped out the back door into the early October warmth. Since she hadn’t been in Austin for a full year yet, she had no idea when an autumn that met her personal criteria would arrive, but October was more tolerable than July and August had been. Jolie unlocked her car door. Even if she wasn’t bringing back large heavy objects, she wasn’t comfortable on a bus anymore. She didn’t understand what had happened when she set fire to the construction site, which meant she couldn’t predict when it might happen again. Deneve had been nearby that time, but it might not depend on her presence.
Regardless of the necessity, driving into the campus area would be annoying. The kids, as Austin residents tended to call the university students, had almost no sense of self-preservation. They walked or biked into the street without any provocation. That was fine, somewhat, when it was a group so they were easier to see. It was the lone figures that made Jolie nervous.
Fortuitously, Jolie reached the shop without incident. Marin, the stock clerk, easily located Jolie’s two cases of blueberry bourbon pecan jam and cherry shiraz preserves to include in Paper Dreams’ custom gift boxes. Jolie could have carried them out herself, but Marin always seemed so pleased with any opportunity to show off xyr muscles. As they were very fine muscles, who was Jolie to object? As xe was loading the boxes into Jolie’s trunk, her phone rang. Not the store line, but her own, which was rare. She slipped it out of her purse, her heart already beating faster, because what if it was Deneve, something could have—
It was Wells Ashby.
Jolie hadn’t been able to bring herself to block his number. Or his father’s, but it had been clear early on that Wells had taken it upon himself to be the family’s ambassador. Seeing the calls pop up and watching the screen until they went to voice mail had felt like a price she shouldn’t try to avoid paying. Eventually they’d stopped, which had been the next price. Jolie had finally been alone. But it had been worth it, because everyone had been safer.
Since Deneve’s arrival, however, lines were blurring. Jolie was back in touch with Owen, had even seen him in person, though only under emergency circumstances. Deneve herself was in the shop, and in Jolie’s apartment when she needed a shower, or when they ate together—generally meals Deneve had cooked. They’d watched a movie twice in the evenings on DVD, since Jolie limited her online retail and subscription accounts to the bare minimum and Deneve lived off the grid. Deneve hadn’t managed to stay awake through either of them, but Jolie hadn’t minded.
Now Wells was calling again, and Jolie was back to listening to her phone ringing and waiting for it to end.
Once it did, she slipped the phone back in her purse, bracing for a voicemail notification. She’d deleted them all without listening. She could do it again.
As she was unlocking her car door, the lit sign for the takeout place at the end of the street caught her eye. Pizza. Deneve had brought one back a few days ago from some half-price deal and had seemed quite pleased with it. Black olives, spinach, and mushrooms.
Jolie crossed the street and headed down the block. The area was a mix of older apartment buildings and much larger, more recently built condo complexes. All student housing, lots of concrete, but there were still a few patches of green, stands of trees, and dense hedges on properties where the older buildings hadn’t run right up to the property line like the new ones did.
From one of them, or possibly the parking garage behind it, she heard a low, dark noise as she passed. Metal dragging against concrete? It was there and gone too fast for Jolie to be sure. It shouldn’t have caught her attention, not in a neighborhood full of cars, buses, scooters, and students who were liable to drag all kinds of objects around for no sensible reason. Yet she heard it again as she waited for a car to pass. Longer this time.
A young white woman burst out from behind a tall hedge. Jolie had already taken a concerned half-step towards her before realizing she didn’t look injured. Jolie wasn’t clear on why she’d thought that might be the case. Or, to be honest, whether that was why she’d moved.
The woman skidded to a halt when she saw Jolie. Her dark eyes went wide. “Dammit!” she said, though Jolie couldn’t tell if the curse was directed at her or life in general. “Sorry. We didn’t, uh…”
Before Jolie could do anything, the woman shoved her hands into the pockets of her faded navy hoodie and took off at a brisk pace, her head and shoulders hunched.
Jolie only then realized her mouth had been open to ask, are you okay? She closed it. She turned back to the street, and since there were no cars coming, crossed in the failing light.
By the time she was carrying a pizza box back to her car, she still didn’t know whether she should have tried to stop the woman from running off. She felt like yes, but couldn’t explain why, even to herself.
* * *
Deneve didn’t seem to notice the pizza at first. She was standing at the front window looking out, arms crossed, her long red hair tumbling loose across her shoulders.
“Everything all right?” Jolie asked.
“Probably,” Deneve said, but she didn’t sound entirely convinced. “Everything go okay?”
“Nothing untoward happened.” If you didn’t count Wells calling. If you didn’t count him not leaving a voicemail. Jolie had waited the whole rest of her walk to the pizza place for the notification sound despite knowing it never took that long to arrive. “A college kid staggered out from behind some vegetation and said a mild curse word. I somehow survived.”
That startled a small laugh out of Deneve. She turned from the window, but not without a suspicious glance at something outside.
“Oh,” Deneve said happily. “Pizza.”
Jolie didn’t know how she hadn’t smelled it. She handed it over, and Deneve took it to the shop counter. There were no customers present, but that wasn’t uncommon this late on a weekday evening.
“Eat,” Jolie said. “Before it gets cold. I got…” She stopped and waved her hand at the pizza, suddenly embarrassed that she’d been about to call attention to it. Deneve cooked and generally insisted on washing the dishes as well. All Jolie had done was buy something.
Deneve opened the box, then looked at Jolie with a delighted smile. “You got exactly what I like. Thanks.”
Jolie nodded and moved away to stock and straighten. There wasn’t much to do after her thorough organizing yesterday evening. Out of the corner of her eye, Jolie watched Deneve work her way through a slice, then take another. She paused before she put it in her mouth.
“Do you think it’s a bad idea to look up NERA on the computer down here?” she asked. “Library computer access requires a photo I.D., and data on my phone is pretty expensive.”
Jolie finished fanning blank journals evenly on the table closest to the window. They’d both been watching news on the shop tablet off and on in case the fire and the terrible scene Owen had watched play out were mentioned again, but specific searches into anything nanite-related gave her pause. It felt like something Owen would warn against.
“How much do you know about them?” Jolie asked.
“They do research?” Deneve shrugged. “I just thought it was weird when they were in that clip about the investigation into Callahan’s place, and I can’t stop thinking about it.”
Jolie had thought it strange too, though aside from filing her taxes, what she knew about federal agencies could fill a postcard and leave room for the address and stamp. “We know Callahan was involved in something.”
Deneve’s expression darkened. “I wish I knew why he came in here and talked to you, then just left.”
Because if you were building a powered army, surely a firestarter would be a high-priority acquisition.
“I’d rather keep searches off the shop computer,” Jolie said, to answer the original question. “I can look on the one upstairs, if you tell me what you want to know.” She should probably offer to let Deneve use the secure laptop herself, but Owen might well warn her about that too. It also felt like Jolie was getting far too used to having Deneve in her space. She could picture the woman browsing on a laptop with her feet up on the coffee table and a cup of tea in her hand. Tea Jolie could make for her without the stove or microwave.
Deneve sighed. “I wish I knew what I wanted to know about them.” She took a bite of her second slice and chewed slowly. “I guess my big question is, are they around here? If they’re just a bunch of bureaucrats I would have expected them to be in D.C. pushing papers, but then they were in Louisiana at Callahan’s headquarters. If Callahan was kidnapping and holding people here and they’re looking into it…”
NERA’s presence would give Deneve yet more motivation to leave Austin. Which she might do any day. She’d already replaced most of her lost belongings.
Before Jolie could reply, Deneve shrugged. “It’s not like they’d advertise it if they did, so I don’t know what I think I’m gonna find.”
She sounded tired. Maybe not physically, but of what their lives had become. Jolie couldn’t blame her. Missing what she’d had before was a waste of energy, but there were days when Jolie would give anything to simply… turn this off. For a while, anyway.
“I’ll tell you immediately if Owen shares anything,” Jolie reassured her. It wasn’t much, but it was what she had to offer.
These are as spoiler-free as possible, but to the author it’s more important that folks who need content details can get them.
On-page or significant discussion:
- Homelessness / transient living, living without credit cards and I.D., avoiding police.
- Discovery of dead body.
- Gunfire. Assault, some of which leads to death.
- Animal attacks on humans. Injury to an animal, but no death.
- Suggestion of body horror.
- Explosion. Fire.
- Potential stalking.
- Nanite infection that affects emotions & behavior.
- Concern about being disappeared by the government or a corporation and experimented on.
In main characters’ backstories, significant discussion:
- Accidental injury to a human with fire.
- Mass missing persons event worldwide causing chaos, both physical and economic dislocation, and riots.
- Police, military, and vigilante violence against people with superpowers.
Off-page or brief mention: