The painkiller knocked off the worst of my pain, but it also muted the adrenaline that had kept me going. The world went distant and fuzzy. My fingers turned clumsy and I struggled to reach the wound on my shoulder.
“Hold still and let me do it,” Valentin groused. I paused. I wasn’t used to relying on other people, but perhaps he was right.
With my hesitation, Valentin took over. His hands trembled as his own adrenaline wore off. He hid it well, but the close call had shaken him deeply. Near death experiences tended to have that effect on people, but he was holding up better than I expected.
He frowned in concentration as he cleaned and bandaged my shoulder and other wounds. He treated me as if I was fragile and precious. It was adorable, and drifting deep in the painkiller haze, something very much like affection bloomed in my chest.
“All done,” he said a few minutes later. He looked me over. “You’re smiling. Does that mean you’re going to live?”
I met his eyes and again felt a jolt of desire. Maybe for one brief moment I could put aside the crushing weight of responsibility and just be a woman standing in front of an attractive man, celebrating the fact that we both were still alive.
“I’m fantastic,” I said. I buried my hand in the short, dark hair at the back of his head and pulled him towards me. His eyes were gray and wide with surprise. A tiny bit of doubt reared its head, and I stopped with a breath of space between us. Had I read him wrong?
He hesitated for an eternal second then groaned low and pulled away. My hand hovered in the air for a moment before I remembered to drop it. Valentin started to reach for me, but stopped the motion halfway. He ran his hands through his hair in frustration.
“I’m sorry. I can’t. I know before, but I thought we were going to die and…” he trailed off. “You’re high on painkillers. You rescued me. I won’t repay that debt by taking advantage of you now.” He muttered something else, but my pride was too busy trying to recover to catch it.
Heat climbed my cheeks as the rejection finally sank in. Embarrassment burned away the pleasant haziness until I was left with only cold reason.
And reason said I was a fucking idiot.
I wasn’t just a woman, not anymore. I was a Queen with a plan, one thousands of people were counting on. And affection had no place in that plan. Kissing definitely had no place. Emperor Kos was a means to an end, and if I lost sight of that, I ran the risk of losing everything.
Commander Adams hadn’t been wrong, either—the Kos Empire did have a bounty on my head. If I wasn’t careful, I’d end up the one captured. I needed to stick to the script and get my head in the game.
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and tried to herd my thoughts into some semblance of order. I pasted on a too-bright smile and met Valentin’s gaze. “Sorry about that,” I said. “I didn’t expect the painkiller to affect me so strongly, but that’s no excuse. I apologize.”
“Samara—” Valentin started.
“Let’s get you patched up,” I said. “Where were you hit?”
He started to argue further but changed his mind after a glance at my face. “A bolt grazed my back,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s too bad. It can wait.”
I motioned him around with a little twirl of my fingers. He grumbled but turned around. His shirt gaped open from his shoulder blades. The bolt had burned through the fabric and just grazed his skin, leaving behind a long, narrow burn.
“Take off your shirt. It’s trash, anyway. I’ll find you a spare,” I said. “The wound is shallow but I’ll put some renewal gel on it to speed up the healing.”
Valentin pulled the shirt over his head revealing a surprisingly muscled back and sculpted arms. He might have genetics on his side, but he’d worked hard to build this much muscle. The real question was how—and why.
He half-turned, trying to see the wound over his shoulder. I caught a glimpse of a smoothly muscled chest before I forced my eyes away. The man was already insanely gorgeous. I didn’t need his killer body haunting my dreams, too.
I focused and carefully dabbed renewal gel on the wound then covered it with an elastomer bandage. It wasn’t deep, but sometimes shallow blaster wounds stung worse than their deeper counterparts.
“Do you want a painkiller or just an immune boost?” I asked, already preparing the injector.
“I don’t need either,” he said. He turned to face me.
I frowned at him. “That wasn’t an option. Painkiller: yes or no?”
“No, thank you,” he said. “And I’m augmented to improve healing, so you might as well save the immune booster, too.”
“I’m not risking you getting an infection when the ship has such limited medical facilities. Give me your arm.”
“I’m not going to die of infection in a few hours,” he said with a smile, but he gave me his arm.
I pressed the injector against the skin of his upper arm and hesitated. I met his eyes. He was still smiling, his expression warm, like he was trying to soften the blow of rejection.
Valentin wasn’t what I expected, but that didn’t change anything, not really. I pulled the trigger with a sigh and blamed the flash of regret on the painkiller still swirling through my system.
He stopped me before I could turn away. “Are you okay?” he asked.
“Do you ever wish you were someone else?” I asked instead of answering.
His expression turned wistful. “When I was little, I’d sneak out of the palace to play with the boys in the city. It gave my nurses heart attacks, but those kids didn’t care who I was, they just knew I was another body ready to join in their games.”
He paused, then continued, “I wasn’t supposed to be Emperor. Father secretly changed the line of succession two months before he died. He didn’t ask me, didn’t offer any explanation—hell, he didn’t even tell me. I found out from my best friend. My older brother Nikolas thinks I stole his crown. He refuses to talk to me and would prefer me dead.”
Everyone knew about the last-minute succession change, but everyone assumed that Valentin had stolen the crown from his brother. If he truly hadn’t, then it cast a whole new light on the past year.
Valentin would’ve had to work fast to build support in a hostile house because no doubt his brother had been collecting allies and making deals since he was a child. And none of the people on the other ends of those deals would be happy with Emperor Valentin.
The fact that he had kept the crown—and his head—meant Valentin Kos was far more cunning and determined than his recent actions had led me to believe.
Valentin’s gaze dropped to the blaster scar on my left collarbone. The bolt had shattered the bone. I’d spent five days in hell before an auto-doc patched me up. I could’ve paid to have the scar removed, but I kept it as a reminder to not fuck up next time.
A reminder I dearly needed right now.
Valentin blinked slowly. “What about you, Samara, do you—” He shook his head and clutched at the wall behind him as he staggered back a step. He swayed then slowly crumpled to the floor. He looked up in confusion.
“What’s happening?” he asked, his voice slurred.
“It’s nothing bad, just a little sleeping drug. You’ll take a nice nap while I get us out of here.”
The confusion gave way to a such look of sheer betrayal that even my cold heart twisted. Fury darkened his features and he tried to lunge at me but the drug was already well into his system. He slumped sideways and glared at me from the floor.
“You’ll… pay,” he ground out.
Bitterness crept into my smile. “I know,” I said softly. “Sleep well.”