She stood on the crest of the hill, staring down at him. The filmy white folds of an almost transparent gown whipped around her body, caressing breasts and hips like a reverent lover. A veil covered the lower half of her face, but the deep pools of dark eyes seemed to see across the distance that separated them and peer directly into his soul.
Forget about the wind, he told himself. If his brain could conjure up this exotic beauty, he would quite willingly remain in bed and let this dream play out.
Zeth's voice broke into his stunned fascination. "The damn comp is down again," he shouted from inside the rover. "I could swear it was working when we bunked down last night."
Zeth's voice grew louder as he approached the mouth of the ramp.
"I want to check the weather report before I head out for the day. The port at Citadel City issued a caution last night, something about a heavy atmospheric pattern moving into the area. I need to see if it's been lifted. Nealan? Nealan! What the hell are you staring at?"
Ignoring the steps, Zeth jumped to the ground and jogged to his bond-brother's side. He followed Nealan's stare.
"Holy Mother of us all."
Nealan looked at him. "You can see her?"
"Of course I can see her. You fall on your head getting out of your bunk this morning?"
"For a while there, I thought I had. Look, she's coming down.?"
They watched as the woman began to negotiate the rocks and scrub brush, coming toward them at a pace that wasn't a run, but quickly covered the uneven ground nonetheless. The flimsy white robe conformed to her body as drapes of the fabric fluttered behind her to create an erotic portrait of desire in the desert.
The closer she came, the more clearly Nealan could see her lithe body through the wispy fabric. Her face, too, lost its anonymity behind the veil. Beautiful wasn't the right word, because she had none of the plastic, bought-and-paid-for features that were too often the norm. Exotic was closer to the mark. Sensuous. Captivating.
And now he sounded even to himself like an infatuated schoolboy.
"Hot damn, let this be my fantasy come true," Zeth said beside him. "I could really go for a damsel in distress right now, eager to show her appreciation to her handsome, virile rescuers."
"Damsel in distress? What makes you say that? Apart from swinish stereotyping, that is."
"Look at her gown," Zeth said, nodding with his chin. Nealan heard the concern under his bond-brother's flip words. "It's all torn, dirty. And the headscarf is tied on her head, rather than draped. And for all that she moves like nothing short of an attacking whraken will slow her down, she's limping."
Nealan felt a sting of shame. He'd been so focused on the woman's body he hadn't noticed the state of her clothes or the hitch in her stride.
"We've got to help her. She must be in some kind of trouble."
Zeth sighed deeply, obviously letting go of his grateful-female fantasy. "Yeah. I know."
She'd almost reached them.
"I'll get the medikit." Nealan started to turn toward the rover, but stopped when he noticed the grungy utility belt strapped to her waist, a jarring note of practicality against the impractical feminine robe. Saw, too, what the belt held, aside from a provisions pouch of some kind?a wicked-looking blaster, which seemed to leap from its holster to her hand. She trained it on them without a flicker of hesitation. Her other hand held a short-bladed knife like she knew how to use it.
"What are you doing out here? Can't you see the storm?" she demanded, her husky voice just loud enough to be heard over the wind, which had picked up significantly in the last few moments. She gestured at the sky, the bruised clouds now shot through with odd red streaks of trapped lightning. "It's a screamer. You should be under cover."
"We'll be fine inside the rover," Nealan answered, eyeing the blaster. "We've weathered a few sandstorms in it already and been just fine. Cramped, but fine. You're welcome to join us if you need shelter, ma'am. No need for the weapons."
She muttered something that sounded like, idiot offworlders. Gesturing sharply with her gun, she snapped, "I haven?t got time to be polite. Get in."
"You've been polite up till now?" Zeth drawled.
Ignoring his comment, she said, "Anyone else in your party here? Tell me," she barked when they exchanged a glance.
"Just us," Nealan said.
"Thank the Mother for small favors. They say she looks out for idiots and small children." She started forward, shoving the knife into a sheath on the belt. She didn't put up the blaster. "Why are you still standing here? Get in the rover. If we're lucky, we might have just enough time to find shelter before the screamer hits."
Aware of the unwavering muzzle of the blaster pointed at him, Nealan asked, "And if we don?t?"
She didn't answer.