First Chapter: King of Clubs by Bianca D’Arc
Today, not only are you getting a first chapter, but a SNEAK PEEK! This book isn’t out yet, but I plan to have it published soon. It’s the next installment in my Arcana series. The first two books, King of Swords and King of Cups are already out. King of Clubs will be out by the end of June and the last of the quartet, King of Stars will be out later this year. The amazing and talented, Valerie Tibbs of Tibbs Design did the covers.
Speaking of which, you’re also getting the unveiling of a new cover in this blog – the heretofore unseen King of Clubs cover. Isn’t it hot? Major kudos to Valerie!
Without further ado, here’s the first chapter of King of Clubs…
King of Clubs (c) 2012 Bianca D’Arc (All rights reserved.)
Charlie arrived at The Rabbit Hole on Madhatter Station expecting to find the bar closed, with only the cleaning bots active. What he found was something quite different. The server bots were busy pouring and delivering drinks to the off duty crew of mechs and techs who sat at tables in the dim interior of the bar. They had mostly just come off shift from the mech core of the station, which was on the same level as the tavern.
The long bar itself was occupied by a small but solid group of retired soldiers, set apart from the rest of humanity by their sheer size, physical fitness level and military bearing. They didn’t fit in well with the rest of the populace, so if they made it to retirement age, they usually clustered together in small groups. It was easier that way. They felt more comfortable around their own kind. Or perhaps it was more accurate to say that civilians felt more uncomfortable around soldiers, than the other way around.
The club called The Rabbit Hole was a gently whirling maelstrom of activity. Comforting rather than frenetic. It had a soothing rhythm of conversation, soft music, dim lighting and the appetizing aroma of the snacks and quick meals being served at various tables.
At the center of all the activity was a woman. Not a girl. No, this female had some years on her, but not enough to make her old, per se. No, she looked competent. Experienced. And absolutely appealing in every way.
If he had to guess, Charlie would say she was a little younger than he was. Perfectly aged for his tastes. And the more he watched her, the more attractive she became.
She handled the crowd well, seeming to enjoy being the center of activity in a room filled mostly by men. Nobody disrespected her and she ruled the bar with a gentle hand. She seemed equally comfortable with the soldiers as with the civs, which was something unique in Charlie’s experience. A clearly civilian woman like this was usually wary of big brutes like him and the other retirees sitting amicably at the bar.
Deciding to approach cautiously and do some reconnaissance before he announced his presence and position, Charlie sidled up to the bar. The others recognized what he was, if not exactly who he was.
The woman herself came over to take his order. He noted with interest that she let the server and cleaning bots do most of the work out among the tables, but she kept the bar work for herself.
“What’ll it be?” She placed a coaster in front of him.
“I see you have Pearson’s Star Ale on tap. I’ll take one of those.” He slid his credit chit across the surface of the gleaming bar toward her.
She touched it and only then did her gaze rise to meet his. Her eyes widened and her mouth opened, just slightly, betraying her surprise. Though why she should be surprised to see a soldier like him bellying up to the bar, he had no idea.
“Um…” She hesitated a fraction before she visibly regained her composure. “Coming right up.”
He watched as she poured the ale. She was good at what she did, but her movements didn’t have the easy familiarity of a life-long bar maid. No, this lady was new to the profession. Competent but not quite polished yet.
He noticed that she set the bot to serve the bar before coming back to serve his ale. She placed the old fashioned pint glass in front of him and smiled nervously.
“I’ve been waiting for you.”
“What?” Her startling words surprised an unguarded response out of him, much to his chagrin.
“You.” She seemed at a loss for words, but found some that didn’t mean much to him. “You’re the King of Clubs.”
“The what?” He counseled himself to calm. He needed to assess what she was telling him. Was this some sort of code?
She reached for a heavily embroidered pouch at her waist and pulled out a well-worn deck of cards from within. She shuffled through the cards for a moment, looking for something. When she found the card she wanted, she placed it on the bar, facing him.
“That’s you. The king of staves in the Tarot deck. He’s the king of clubs in the playing deck. This is how I knew you were coming.”
Charlie studied the card on the bar, not wanting to touch it for some reason. Sure enough, the man depicted wearing a crown on the ancient card looked a lot like him. Same hair. Same eyes. Same set of the jaw. The dude on the card could have been him—if he’d ever worn a crown.
Charlie had worn a lot of different disguises in his line of work, but he’d never posed as royalty. And he wasn’t about to start now. Still, the woman’s words puzzled him.
“You saw the card and that told you I would be arriving here, in your bar?”
“It’s not my bar, but yes, that’s the gist of it. I’m a reader. I mean…” she blushed prettily. “I mean, I can see the future in the lay of the cards. It’s something that runs in my family. It’s how I knew I had to come here, to this bar on this station, to meet you.”
“You’re kidding, right?” A smile wanted to break out over his lips, but this woman seemed to be serious.
Thankfully she laughed first. “Figures you’d be a skeptic. The cards warned that we would have a rocky start.”
“You’re serious.” His smile died.
He’d seen a lot of weird shit in his line of work. He’d even seen true clairvoyance once. Only once. It had freaked him out then, and if this woman were for real, Charlie was afraid he was about to be freaked out again.
“Sorry. Yes, I am serious. Let’s take this slower.” She put the cards away and wiped her hands on her apron. Taking a deep breath, she held out her right hand across the bar. “Hi, I’m Lila Senna. I’ve been running the bar until the new manager arrives.”
Charlie got off his bar stool and stood, as manners required, to shake her hand.
“I’m Charles Quartain, the new manager.”
“I knew it!” Her eyes lit with something that looked like victory as she smiled.
He couldn’t help but grin back. She really was adorable, even if she was a bit on the nutty side. He reclaimed his seat, taking a sip of his ale as he thought fast.
“Senna, you said?” Her last name sounded familiar. He went back over the most recent intel reports he’d had before coming here. “Is Adele Senna a relation? Your sister, maybe?”
She laughed and the sound enchanted him.
“You’re kind, but Adele is my daughter. Della, the former card dealer in this establishment, is my sister.”
“Della.” Della Senna. Oh yeah, he knew that name. She was the one, honest to goodness clairvoyant he’d ever encountered.
“You know her?” Lila’s pretty eyes narrowed in suspicion.
“Our paths crossed once. Let’s just say, it was memorable.”
“Dammit. Did you sleep with her?” Lila seemed immediately contrite, as if she couldn’t quite believe she’d spoken her thoughts out loud. Charlie had to laugh. “Forget I said that, please.” She busied her hands, wiping down the bar with a small towel.
“No need. I never had the pleasure,” he admitted. “But I was the recipient of a… uh… I guess you’d call it a reading.”
“Della read your cards?” Her embarrassment was replaced by curiosity as the towel in her hand stilled on the bar top.
“She didn’t use cards, but she did give me a warning about my future. Something that ended up being all too accurate, as it turned out.” He wouldn’t go into more detail than that. The mission he’d been on was still classified. He couldn’t discuss it with anyone. He decided to change the subject. “So you sister Della works here?”
Lila nodded. “Yes, though as you probably know, she and Alex Hambly, the owner, are traveling at present.”
The look in her eyes told him she knew more than she was saying about her sister’s travels. He wouldn’t ask her here, out in the open. And there was the little matter of confirming her identity before he proceeded any further, of course. If she checked out, then he’d dig a little deeper to find out what she knew.
And if she didn’t check out, he’d still dig deeper, but in a slightly more… adversarial sort of way.
“I thought the bar would be closed until I got here.” He steered the conversation down a different path once again.
“Alex left one of the old timers in charge. He was running the place when I got here but he wasn’t happy about it. He’d agreed to oversee things for a few days, but when it turned into weeks, he wanted out. He basically dumped the key codes on me the moment he heard I was Della’s sister and took off. I figured I could keep things going until you got here.”
“And the cards told you I was coming. Did they tell you when?” He only half believed her claim. Normally, he wouldn’t give a claim of clairvoyance any credit at all, but if she really was Della’s sister, she might not be lying after all. He had to proceed with caution.
“Well, the cards said either two days, two weeks or two months. And here you are… two weeks later.”
“So you’ve been running this place by yourself for two weeks?” He looked around at the comfortable establishment, missing little.
“Two weeks to the day,” she confirmed. The server bot trundled around behind her, dispensing drinks for the other patrons at the bar. He’d deliberately sat at one end where his nearest neighbor was out of earshot.
“What can you tell me about the place?” He figured he might as well play the part of new manager.
“It gets busy at shift changes, as you can see, though this is the mildest one of the cycle. Midday is the busiest. We’re on night shift now, so these folks are facing a morning rotation. Some are having breakfast before going on shift and a few are left over from the previous staggered changeover, having what would be dinner for them before they go to their compartments for a rest period.” Though The Rabbit Hole was first and foremost a bar, it also served simple food items and Charlie could see that most of the civs had a plate or bowl in front of them.
“That tells me about the civs. What about them?” He jerked his chin toward the other vets farther down the bar.
She looked at the small group of big men and smiled back at him. “I would think you could tell me more about them than I could tell you.”
He liked the teasing challenge in her voice and expression. He was being cautious until he had a chance to check her story out through back channels, but if she was legit—and he was leaning toward believing she probably was—then these next few weeks filling in for Alex might be a lot more interesting than even he had expected.
He decided to play her game, looking more closely at the group of men holding up the bar a few yards away. He could tell just by looking that more than a few of them were operatives he’d been sent here to handle in Alex’s absence. And there was one guy, a pilot named Julian, whom he’d been asked to keep a special eye on. They’d worked together before but Charlie wouldn’t reveal that little fact to anyone. He decided to stick with non-operatives for this game of hers, and only note the more obvious things.
“The guy in blue is a new retiree. Probably just got out of the service in the last week or so. Am I right?” He was almost sure she’d have some knowledge of her clientele, especially since she seemed to like to work the bar herself. He already knew she was the talkative type.
“Gary? Yeah, he got out last week and decided to take a little tour around the Rim. This is his first stop. How did you know?” She seemed both impressed and intrigued.
“The cut, quality and condition of his clothes. Plus the length of his hair. It hasn’t had time to grow out yet.”
“Maybe he just likes to keep it military short after so many years in service,” she challenged.
“Nah. The gold earring marks him as someone who’d have longer hair if he could. Looks like he’s trying to fit in with civs, though his size alone will make that impossible. No doubt the earring is new, just like his clothes. They don’t usually allow us to decorate our bodies with precious metals while in service.”
“I didn’t know that.” She looked him over, noting the length of his hair, longer than military regs, but still neat, and his clothes, which were well worn and comfortable, though still cut in a quasi-military style. He liked the way she looked at him, as if she liked what she was seeing.
“I bet there’s a lot you don’t know about the warrior class. Your husband was a civ, wasn’t he?”
She gasped and her eyes widened the tiniest bit. He’d managed to surprise her and that made him smile with satisfaction. He didn’t think this woman was often surprised.
“How did you know I was married?” She asked the obvious question, but then glanced down at her left hand where she still wore her marriage band. She blushed. “Okay, I’ll give you that one. But how did you know he was civilian and why did you use the past tense? For all you know, he could be in the back room.”
“Oh, honey, you made this way too easy. First, you don’t know much about soldiers. You’re not afraid of us, which counts against my guess, but you don’t seem to have an easy familiarity with our kind either, so I’m going to have to stick with the idea that you never really interacted with any of us before two weeks ago when you took over the bar. In that case, your husband couldn’t have been a soldier. And if he was still around, he wouldn’t let you out here by yourself to be ogled by all these men. Not if he had half a brain in his head. You still wear his ring, so my guess is, he died. Probably a long time ago because your smile comes easily and your eyes get just the tiniest bit wistful when you gaze at that ring. You loved him and he died. Not recently enough for you to still be in deep mourning, but not long enough ago for you to have forgotten him. Possibly you never will forget him.” Charlie’s voice softened as he spoke. “He was a lucky man to have a woman as loyal to his memory as you have been.”
She gaped at him. “How could you know…?” Her voice trailed off as her eyes grew misty with emotion. She swallowed a few times and smiled a little to try to hide her deep, emotional reaction. “And I’m supposed to be the fortune teller.”
“Don’t sweat it, Miss Lila. I’m a trained observer of human nature.”
“What did you do in the service?” she asked, suspicion in her tone, her smile friendly and curious.
“Oh, I didn’t learn this in the military,” he lied with a straight face. “I’ve been managing clubs all over the galaxy since I got out. You run a bar long enough, you get to know people’s stories. You can tell who’s going to cause trouble and who’s there to drown their sorrows. Who’s dangerous and who is just out for a good time. If you don’t learn how to read people, you don’t last long in this business.”
“So that’s why Alex asked you to fill in for him? You’re a professional tavern manager?”
“Something like that,” he agreed easily. He wasn’t about to say he’d been assigned here by their superiors in the intelligence service.
He and Alex might be retired on paper, but they were still both very much in the game. They just weren’t active participants on ops anymore. Now, as older men who’d survived active duty in the most secret game of all, they were running the younger operatives. They lived relatively normal lives but when the active duty guys needed to pass on information or get instruction or materials, they were the go-betweens that got the data where it needed to go.
“I hate to ask you at this late date, but before I turn over the bar to you, I think it’s only right that I get the proper unlock codes from you. My predecessor was all too willing to give them to anyone who showed an interest, but it wouldn’t be right for me to be as cavalier as he was.”
“Quite right,” Charlie lifted to remove a data wand from one of his pants pockets. He handed it over with a flourish. “The unlock codes for the bar and attached private residence are on there. Where have you been living, if I might ask? I wouldn’t want to kick you out. I can always find accommodation on the station if you’re in Alex’s place behind the bar.”
“Oh, no,” she was quick to answer even as she scanned the data wand through the reader behind the counter. “I’m bunking down in Della’s quarters. I had her codes, and she has mine. We’ve always made sure we could access each others’ places. It’s good to have one person you trust that can help you out in a pinch.”
“Good policy,” Charlie replied noncommittally. In his business, there were damn few people he could trust with that kind of information.
She handed the data wand back to him. “Your codes check out. I’m happy to turn over The Rabbit Hole to your care.” She smiled at him and he felt like he’d won a treasured prize. He liked her smile and the way it reached all the way into her eyes. It was a genuine look that spoke of happiness and shared pleasure.
And wouldn’t he like to share pleasure with this soft piece of feminine fluff? Whoo boy, he could live on dreams of making love to her. But she was still attached to the memory of her dead, civilian husband. She was too fragile for the likes of Charlie Quartain. He’d have to throttle it back. They could work together—if she wanted to stay on now that he had arrived to take possession of the club—but he wouldn’t let his marked interest go any farther. His conscience wouldn’t let him. She was too good for him, or any other soldier for that matter.
No, she needed a softer, gentler man. Another civilian. That was if—and it was a big if—she would let another man into her heart, or her bed. For all he knew, she was still hung up on her dead husband. He wouldn’t be surprised. A woman like her loved with her whole heart and when she gave it, she gave it for keeps.
“You have any plans for the next few weeks?” Damn. He hadn’t meant to say it. After he’d just gotten through telling himself she wasn’t for him, here he was inviting her to stay.
“Nothing that can’t wait,” she replied with a cautious smile. “Why?”
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