Excerpt: Steal the Stars by Nat Cassidy

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Dakota “Dak” Prentiss guards the biggest secret in the world.

They call it “Moss.” It’s your standard grey alien from innumerable abduction stories. It still sits at the controls of the spaceship it crash-landed eleven years ago. A secret military base was built around the crash site to study both Moss and the dangerous technology it brought to Earth.

The day Matt Salem joins her security team, Dak’s whole world changes.

It’s love at first sight—which is a problem, since they both signed ironclad contracts vowing not to fraternize with other military personnel. If they run, they’ll be hunted for what they know. Dak and Matt have only way to be together: do the impossible. Steal Moss and sell the secret of its existence.

And they can’t afford a single mistake.

Steal the Stars will be available on November 7th. Please enjoy this excerpt.

1

Right before I heard the guy’s collarbone break, I remembered a print hanging in my grandmother’s house. In the guest bathroom, written in an innocuous font over a pastel flower: “There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing joy on the face of a friend.

My grandmother had obviously never thrown a guy twice her size across a room before.

Now, look, I’m not a violent person by nature. I don’t actually enjoy fighting. It stresses me out and makes me feel the bad kind of tingly for the rest of the day. But when a guy sidles up to you in one of only a handful of bars you have the option to patronize and his breath smells impossibly of socks and he leads with maybe the tritest pickup line in history, making it both annoying and insulting? Well, you make sacrifices.

“Excuse me,” he breathed, he exhumed, and if I’d had a force shield I would have deployed it. He tried again, his voice low and (snort) sensual. “Excuuuuse me.”

I made the mistake of responding. Not much—barely more than a sustained blink, not even looking in his direction—but he took it as leave to continue. It set him up for the clincher: “Was your daddy a thief?”

*   *   *

The thing nobody tells you about the end of your life is sometimes you have so much damn longer to live afterward.

I’m talking days, weeks—hell, decades—from when your life ends until your body finally gets the message. In my case, my life ended the day after I threw this guy across the bar and I’ve been running ever since. I didn’t even get, like, a five-minute break to mourn.

And it’s all your fault, by the way.

Of course, I say my life ended that next day, but the truth is I’ve had difficulty pinning down the exact moment it happened. Believe me, I’ve tried. I really can’t help myself—I may not have been a scientist, but overthinking is something you catch hanging around them, like a disease.

When was the precise moment my hull breached, my engine failed, my horse went tits up? Was it when I looked at your bare chest and realized I could see your heartbeat? Maybe it was before then, that first handshake, looking into those eyes? Maybe it’s the most accurate to say my life ended the day I dropped everything and started working at Quill Marine in the first place, signing my life (and all my fraternization rights) away?

Yes? No? All of the above? Who fucking knows? Technically, it’s not the bullet that kills you, it’s the lack of oxygen to your brain due to the ruptured blood vessels, right? You parse something long enough and it loses all meaning.

Except those eyes. If anything, the more I parsed those eyes, the more meaning they took on.

Anyway. Back to the guy at the bar.

*   *   *

“I’m asking, was your daddy a thief?”

I’m asking myself how a guy’s mouth can smell so much of feet.

I usually have one drink on the way home. No more and, if there’s a just and loving God, no less. I could just as easily have that one drink in my house, but for whatever reason I prefer not to drink in silence.

There are a surprising number of bars around this tiny town—or maybe it’s not that surprising, if you’ve ever lived in a tiny town—but I usually stick to this one, the Heron. It’s got a better juke. Also, of course, consistency helps avoid unwanted run-ins with co-workers. Again: fraternization.

“Because he musta been a thief—”

Here it comes.

“—cuz he musta had to steal the stars from heaven—”

Feeeeeet.

“—to put them in your eyes.”

Uuuggh. At last, I turn to him, hoping these eyes he’s so fond of have somehow found the ability to shoot poison.

“No.” I turn my attention back to my glass.

It’s a word I’m sure he’s heard a lot. It whisks off him like a drop of water off a windshield.

“I, uh, I see you in here a lot, you know.” He’s rubbing his fingers back and forth across the bar while he talks, absently, clumsily. Like a piss-poor massage. I put my rocks glass down as close to those knobby worms as I can, trying to send out the signal that I’m okay with crushing any part of him that gets too close to me.

“I’m not gonna fuck you.” I make direct eye contact once again.

His eyes widen. “Whoa! Who said anything about—? Jesus, I’m just trying to talk to you here. Just talk to me for a second! People always look at me cross-eyed but once we get to talking, they like me!”

There’s a trace of sullenness there. I’ve hit a sore spot. And here’s my next mistake: I’m a sucker for accidental vulnerability. It fascinates me. It makes me want to stay and watch what happens. So I don’t get up and leave. I let him talk a little bit longer.

“So … you work at Quill Marine.”

“What was your first clue?” I ask, picking up my glass again.

“Hmmmm. The uniform!” he responds with a smug smile. Oh, no, it thinks it’s clever. I’m, of course, still wearing the charcoal canvas coveralls that I foolishly hoped would be shapeless enough to render me invisible. Stitched on the arm are the words “Quill Marine.”

“That’s really impressive,” I say.

“Hey.” He pulls out the stool next to me and sits down—actually sits down next to me, and somewhere in the back of my mind I’m already preparing for violence. “What is it you guys do in there, anyway?”

His voice has dropped to a conspiratorial tone. I match it.

“Are we going to have a problem here?” I ask.

“I mean,” he chuckles, “we kinda already have a problem here. You guys … you don’t hire local. Why is that?”

He’s still smiling, but poisonous clouds are gathering around the edges of his voice. Another sore spot. I have little doubt he came over here to flirt first, but, if that mission winds up being a failure, he might as well air some grievances. Never underestimate the ability of a spurned man to shuffle emotions like a monte dealer.

I don’t respond and he keeps going: “No, seriously. Why is that? It’s not like there’s a ton of jobs out here. But then there’s big ol’ Quill Marine, taking up valuable real estate and refusing to let people sign on. I mean, what, we don’t make ’em good enough for you guys out here?”

He’s still smiling, trying to show me this is all just harmless, charming ribbing, but his mouth has tightened and the look is grotesque.

I don’t hear the bar door open behind us.

“I bet I know why,” he goes on. “You guys are making weapons in there. That’s it, isn’t it?” He nods at my lack of comment. “Yeah. You know … my cousin made a delivery there once. He says he saw weapons inside. He swears it. Just lying around.”

No. No. It’s too much. Too stupid, too confident, too goddamn aromatic. I have to respond.

“I can promise you,” I finally say, regretting the decision immediately. “Nobody’s cousin saw weapons in there.”

His face lights up.

“Ah! See, but: now you’re interested in me.”

Maybe it all could have been defused. This wasn’t the first time I’ve gotten an earful like this from a disgruntled townie. Maybe I could have talked him down, shit-talked paper tiger versions of my higher-ups or the company that owned Quill. Maybe I could have avoided what happened next. But, then, enter: her.

WHAT. THE. FUCK?!

The guy blanches and spins around on his stool.

“Janey?!”

What the fuck are you doing?!

Janey is standing in the middle of the bar, having just walked in and spotted her man, dear old Feetbreath, chatting to the gorgeous specimen in the charcoal coveralls at the bar. Janey is upset. Janey looks like a bedraggled heroine straight out of a Springsteen song: long-suffering, exhausted, ready to snap.

Feetbreath’s voice does an impressive switch from wannabe lothario to whiny teenager: “Jeeeeeeeesus, I can’t get one minute to myself?”

Janey’s not to be deterred. She’s probably been practicing this: “You wait ’til I’m asleep and you come up here—you wait ’til I’m asleep and creep out like a fucking raccoon getting in the garbage?!”

“I can’t get one minute to get outta that shithole and clear my head?”

Meanwhile, I’m draining the rest of my rocks glass into my face. I’ll be goddamned if this soap opera is going to rob me of my hard-earned buzz.

But, then, with impressive speed, Janey’s on the other side of me, actually holding my arm.

“How long have you been seeing him?”

I almost choke on my whiskey.

“What?”

“He’s been with me six years. I bet he didn’t tell you that.”

Feetbreath pulls her off of me not a second too soon.

“I’m just talking to her! Can’t I talk to a person?”

“Has he mentioned me at all?!” Janey is shouting into my ear.

“I can’t just get out of the house and talk to a person?!” Feetbreath is shouting at her through my other ear.

“You’re supposed to talk to me!”

“I can’t get a break from your voice for like ten fucking seconds—”

“I wash your pants, I suck your dick—you wanna talk to somebody, you talk to—”

SMACK!

Okay.

Let it be said, Feetbreath started it. Let it be said, once again, that I’m not ordinarily a violent person, and that very much includes having a zero tolerance policy toward men who strike women. Not that I haven’t met a huge amount of women who could easily hold their own in a fight—it’s just damn rude to hit someone smaller than you first.

He got Janey in the eye. She stumbles backward, stunned, almost falling. And it looks like he might try for another shot.

So I grab his arm. Hard.

“Huh? Get the fuck off of me.”

“Walk out with me,” I tell him, calmly, evenly.

“Get your fucking hands off of—you wanna die?”

“I wanna walk out with you. Come on.”

He’s twisting, trying to get free. Ain’t gonna happen.

The bartender has been watching this the whole time, of course. We are far more interesting than whatever catch-the-ball breakdown is happening on ESPN right now. He finally chimes in: “Dak, you need me to—”

“Nope. I’m good,” I tell him. “In fact, I’m great.”

And it’s true. Because at the very least, I’d managed to finish my drink.

*   *   *

My name was Dak, by the way. Short for Dakota. But you know that.

*   *   *

I start dragging Feetbreath to the door. He is actually grunting, “Do you wanna die?” at me, which is possibly the funniest thing I have ever heard.

A few feet from the door, I catch a glimpse of Janey. She’s reconnecting with the world, and her increasingly clear eyes catch mine. First with shock … then an unmistakable hatred. It actually takes me aback for a moment. Just a moment, long enough to loosen my grip on Feetbreath, who manages to twist around enough to position his free arm exactly where I don’t want it.

“Cuz if you wanna die, I’ll—”

And he swings at me.

He telegraphs the punch like a year in advance. I have plenty of time to stroll out of the way. He tries and fails again. And this time I engage.

Three rules for winning a fight against someone way bigger than you:

One. Don’t let them get a single hit in. I’m stocky and solid, but this guy is lumberjack big and has almost half a foot on me. All the training in the world doesn’t protect you from sheer poundage, that’s just physics.

Two. Every one of your hits has to count. No chest, no upper back, no shoulder. You gotta aim for solar plexus, kidneys, balls if that’s an option. Dirty? Sure, I guess. Every fight is dirty. And shame on you if you jump into one you don’t plan on winning.

Three. You have about thirty seconds. If you don’t put them down in thirty, draw or run.

In this particular case, about ten seconds into the scuffle, he gives me a wide, sloppy cross that I basically use as a trebuchet.

*   *   *

This brings me back to my original point.

Sorry, Grandma. There is nothing, nothing, more satisfying than throwing a man twice your size—especially one who just hit a woman after sloppily trying to worm his way into your pants—all the way across a goddamn alehouse.

“Satisfaction” is the right word for it. That feeling of his bulk leaving yours, of shrugging him into orbit, handing him over to the gods of gravity as if to say, “This is yours, do with it what you will”? It satisfies. It feels like everything is operating the way it’s supposed to.

It would be a long time before I got to feel that again.

*   *   *

Feetbreath is not trained in the art of being thrown. There’s a sickening crack we all hear when he lands, followed by a howl of pain one slow synapse later.

Whoops.

Janey rushes to his side. Meanwhile, the bartender looks at me and shrugs.

“I had to call the cops, Dak. This is your chance to get out of here.”

There’s no malice in his voice. He’s doing me a solid. Rules are rules and business is business. I slap an extra ten dollars down on the bar.

Janey is cradling Feetbreath. The area around her eye is already beginning to swell.

“Look at what you did to him!” she screams at me. There’s such hurt in her voice you’d almost think it was her who just snapped a bone.

“In about thirty minutes you’ll be able to see what he did to you. Hope you look good in purple.”

I mostly mumbled that second part to myself, though. She was already screaming over me.

“It’s not your business! It’s none of your business!” And then she turns her attention to her wounded, moaning partner. “Baby, baby, are you all right? Baby, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’ll do better, I’m sorry.”

The bartender picks up my ten dollars and says to me, “I’ll say it was someone I don’t know.”

I tell him to go ahead and say it was me. The cops won’t give me a problem. I work at Quill Marine.

And with that I head for the door.

On my way out, though, I turn back and survey the scene. Janey’s on her knees, helping her man stand up. She’s babbling to him in soft, soothing tones.

“I didn’t know, baby, I won’t bother you so much, I didn’t know. I didn’t know I was bothering you so much, I’ll stop. Let me get you home.”

Snapshot, I thought. Right there: everything you need to know about love in one handy image. So neat and tidy you could put it on a print and hang it in Grandma’s house.

I walked out of there, shaking my head, suddenly very tired.

*   *   *

That’s not my last real memory of the woman that was Dak, but it’s certainly the most representative. And like I said, by some point the next morning, that life was over.

And like I said, it’s all your fault.

But I’m not mad at you. Not for ending that life, at least. That life wasn’t all that spectacular to begin with.

Besides, here’s something people have said about the end: sometimes paradise is waiting on the other side.

It might only last a few moments. It might take a whole lotta hell to get there. But it’s there.

So let’s fucking get to it already.

 

Copyright © Nate Cassidy

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