Excerpt from Starfire Rising
Alado Flight Academy, Autumn, 2258
Darkly handsome, Desmond Sanchez was accustomed to drawing admiring glances from strangers, but the looks coming his way this afternoon were as subtly disparaging as the whispers echoing off every corner. A native of Earth in a room filled with the sons and daughters of star travelers, he felt not simply uneasy but suffocated by a deadening sense of alienation. The printed program for the reception listed his name with the other new faculty members at the Alado Flight Academy, but that did not begin to tell his story.
He escaped the party at his first opportunity and after a moment's hesitation, chose the closest path through the garden. The extensive flowerbeds had been planted in ever-widening arcs with the lush blooms producing a range of color, from red, through orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet creating an immense display of floral rainbows. A lone gardener worked nearby and when she looked up and smiled, he walked over to her.
"Rainbows belong in the sky, not on the ground," he commented with a broad gesture that swept over the colorful surroundings.
The gardener brushed a long wisp of honey blond hair out of her eyes and stood to face him. Six feet in height, she was almost as tall as he. She yanked off her right glove and extended her hand. "Major Sanchez, it's an honor to meet you, sir."
That he would be recognized by a gardener startled him momentarily, but then remembering she worked at the academy, he realized she would be privy to the same insulting speculation that had made the commandant's party such an unbearable ordeal. Her gaze was admiring, however, and he took her hand. Her fingers were long and slim, the nails frosted with a shimmering pink.
"Thank you. I didn't realize anyone would still feel that way," he said.
The gardener's long-lashed eyes were more gold than green and widened slightly at his remark. "I doubt that one bad flight will permanently damage your reputation. Do you really feel disgraced?"
Her voice was low, with a seductive warmth that invited conversation. There was a bench a few steps away, and intrigued by her, he sat down, leaned forward and rested his elbows across his thighs. "It wasn't just a bad flight," he explained. "It was—"
The gardener's hair was twisted atop her head in a careless knot, and even in a bright yellow jumpsuit, her slender figure was delightfully feminine and enormously appealing. Completely distracted by her enticing presence, he longed to ease the dark burden of his memories in the warmth of her delectable flesh.
"It was what?" she coaxed.
Ashamed of the erotic direction of his thoughts, he hauled them back to the subject at hand. "I won't describe it again."
Immensely intrigued, she joined him on the bench. "Tell me what you can," she urged.
Surprised by her persistence, he stared at the attractive gardener. Obviously a Skychild, she projected an ethereal calm that was as soothing as her garden, but at the moment he needed something far more primitive. "This garden must take an enormous amount of effort to maintain. What if you were to come out here one morning and find all the plants uprooted and crushed, the faded blossoms strewn all about? How would you react?"
She looked out over her well-tended beds. "I'd be devastated if the garden were maliciously destroyed. Is that how you feel about your last flight?"
Her glance was serene, yet curious, and he found it impossible to look away. "Let's just say no one ought to come that close to death. It was like being buried alive."
His dark eyes were filled with an unmistakable sheen of pain that would have frightened lesser women, but she was touched by his anguish.
"Have you been forbidden to fly?"
"No, there aren't any restrictions on me at all. It's just that—"
The sympathetic gardener finished his sentence for him. "You're afraid the same thing will happen again?"
He breathed a dejected sigh and rubbed his neck in a vain attempt to relieve the tension tying his muscles in knots. "The Eclipse has been cleared for flight, and despite what some feel is evidence to the contrary, doctors can't find anything wrong with me."
"You've a week before classes begin."
"A week to finish the job, you mean, to get myself killed?"
"No, you're clearly the best."
He responded with a rueful laugh. "I was the best. No one would grant me that distinction now."
"I just did."
A slight smile crossed his lips. "You have a marvelous voice. It's as smooth as honey."
"Thank you, but I meant what I said."
He had always been popular with women, so it didn't surprise him that this one still admired him. "If I fly the Eclipse, do you have the courage to come with me?"
Her heart leapt to her throat, but it was due to sheer joy rather than fright and a warm smile lit her expression. "I can't think of anything I'd rather do."
Having called his bluff, she was daring him to make good on an invitation he had not even imagined she would accept. Too proud to back down, he nodded as though he were equally pleased. "Good, let's go."
She stood and took his hand.