Junior released Valentin just over an hour after my lunch with Margie. By that time, I had my facts in order. Valentin had returned to his suite to get ready and we were supposed to meet in ten minutes.
He’d been his normal self when we’d linked earlier, and he didn’t seem to hold my failures against me, but nerves still fluttered in my belly. I hated failing, and letting Adams escape had been an epic fuckup. At least I could help with the problem I was here to solve. Hopefully.
Imogen caught me fidgeting and rolled her eyes. “After all you’ve been through, now you’re nervous?”
“I got his soldiers killed and didn’t even catch the person responsible.”
“Neither did the ten other people with you,” Imogen reminded me gently. “I know you think you can do everything, but occasionally let the rest of us take our fair share of the blame.”
She was technically right, but that didn’t change how I felt. It was my call to attack Adams and my failure that resulted in deaths. So I fidgeted and paced and tried to plan for every response Valentin could throw at me.
At two minutes to noon, I headed for Valentin’s suite. Luka opened the door and my heart sank. If Valentin had been as eager to see me as I was him, wouldn’t he have opened his own door?
“He’s on the balcony. Imogen and I will be in the kitchen.”
When I glanced at Imogen, she rolled her eyes at the high-handed order but nodded her agreement.
I left them to it and made my way through Valentin’s suite. It was even larger than Margie’s and done in tasteful shades of blue and gray. The living room overlooked the balcony. Valentin stood staring out into the garden through the tall thermoplastic panels that had been added for extra protection. He wore a dark pinstriped suit that fit him perfectly, and the difference between us had never been more apparent.
I composed myself and pushed open the door to the balcony. Valentin turned as I approached, but I couldn’t read his expression.
“How are you feeling?” I asked, just to break the awkward silence.
He closed the distance between us and pulled me into a tight hug. All of my careful planning went out the window and I wrapped my arms around him.
“I was so worried,” he murmured into my hair. “I’ve wanted to do this for two days.”
“Me, too,” I agreed. I enjoyed the moment before I remembered why he’d been in a med chamber to begin with. “I’m sorry I failed. I have information about the traitors and Nikolas. I’m sorry I didn’t get it fast enough to prevent the attack.”
He chuckled but didn’t let me go. “Only you would do something I’ve been trying to do for months in mere days and apologize for not doing it faster.”
“I had help. And it wasn’t cheap, FYI. I’m adding it to your bill. You might want to be sitting down when you look at it.” I shut my mouth to stop the rambling.
He drew back far enough to meet my eyes. “Thank you.” He slowly moved in, giving me plenty of time to back away. I stayed.
Valentin brushed his lips against mine. I closed my eyes and leaned into him. He kept the kiss light, but something loosened in my chest. He was here and he was okay. I didn’t know what the future held for us, but for this moment, I enjoyed his mouth on mine, his hands holding me tight.
He pulled away, his reluctance clear. “As much as I would like to continue, I suppose work must come before play.” He led me to a pair of outdoor chairs clustered around a little table. “Is this okay? Can I get you something to drink?”
“This is perfect and I’m good.” The nerves were back and I just wanted this conversation to be over.
Valentin settled into the chair next to me. “You’ve been busy. I looked over the data you shared, but I want you to talk me through it, make sure I’m seeing the same things you are. And I would like to know where it came from.”
“That one is easy, though I won’t give you my exact sources. Suffice it to say that their job is digging up information that people would rather wasn’t found. I’ve worked with them in the past.”
“Before you became queen?”
That was a delicate way to ask if it was from the time I’d been working on kill contracts. “Yes.”
“You trust them?”
I shrugged. “As much as I trust anyone. Their loyalty is to credits. I worked with the two of them independently and their data matched. I suppose there is a small chance they are both compromised and working together, but that would be unusual.”
“I’m assuming they didn’t obtain their information through legal channels?”
I laughed. “You assume correctly.”
“Tell me what you found.”
“Copley Heavy Industries, Asmo’s family’s company, nearly went under fourteen months ago, just before your father died. Only a large private loan from a shell company owned by Leo Perkins allowed them to remain solvent.”
Valentin did not look surprised.
“I don’t know why the original deal happened. Perhaps it was just good business. But then you became emperor instead of Nikolas and suddenly Hannah Perkins had a hold over Asmo. I believe she coerced him into helping put Nikolas on the throne. Maybe he had his own reasons, too, but it’s only after the loans that my contacts were able to track down payments on two separate kill contracts for you that came from deeply buried Copley accounts.”
“Why do you think Hannah is involved? Maybe Leo made a business decision without Hannah’s involvement.”
“Two reasons. First, the contract money originally came from a joint company Hannah holds with her husband. And secondly, Hannah is paying your assistant for access to your information. Asmo has been dealing with the mercenaries and kill contracts, but I believe Hannah is feeding information to Commander Adams.”
This time, true pain flashed on Valentin’s face. “Lewis has been with me for five years.”
“He’s also up to his eyeballs in debt. I don’t have definitive proof yet that Hannah is the one providing the information to Adams, but she made payments to your assistant just before Adams picked you up last time. How many people knew exactly where you were going to be?”
Valentin closed his eyes. “Not many. Why does she hate me?”
“It’s not you she hates, it’s Quint. They killed her sons. She wants them wiped out and you are threatening peace. If Nikolas takes over, perhaps she thinks he’s less likely to stop the war.”
“She can’t know that, though. Why risk it?”
I knew Valentin was too smart to accept half an answer. “I believe she knows or has proof that Nikolas is illegitimate and plans to blackmail him into continuing the war. And I believe she promised Asmo that the war would continue to secure his help, since his family depends on the income from their shipbuilding company.”
Valentin narrowed his eyes at me. “Why do you think she knows about Nikolas’s parentage?”
“Because I spoke to your mother.” Telling him that much wasn’t technically breaking my promise to Margie, and while I understood where she was coming from, I refused to lie to him. “That’s all I can tell you.”
Valentin shook his head. “I’ve long suspected Asmo, but Hannah was only recently added to the list.”
“You told me you didn’t know who was betraying you!”
A chagrined smile touched the corners of his mouth. “I didn’t, not for sure, and I didn’t want my feelings to influence you.” His smile died. “And I would’ve bet credits that Lewis was loyal.”
I rubbed my face and prayed for patience. “Did you also know Nikolas has stayed in Koan since he left the palace?”
He blinked at me in surprise. “No.”
“As far as I can tell, based on the information I got from my specialists, Nikolas has been moving around the city every few weeks. His exact locations are unknown because he hasn’t been paying for lodging, but his most recent transactions were yesterday in a building where Leo Perkins owns two penthouses.”
“If he made purchases yesterday, did he escape or did Adams let him go?”
“My gut says he escaped. Even if they were working together at some point, I don’t think Adams would’ve voluntarily let him go. Maybe Nikolas didn’t know who Adams was, other than someone he was told would help ‘reclaim’ his throne, but Adams definitely knew who Nikolas was. I think Adams used him until he wasn’t useful anymore, then planned to keep him as a bargaining chip.”
Valentin nodded. “I agree. I read Sakimoto’s mission report. I think Daniels helped Nikolas escape. It would’ve saved us all a lot of trouble if Daniels had shot Adams instead of one of his flunkies, but I’m betting he hoped Lee would bag you and they could claim the promised reward. Trying to play both sides.”
“Do you think Nikolas will come after you on his own? Does he truly want you dead?”
Valentin slumped back in his chair and stared at the sky. “I found a snippet of video of the team who infiltrated the family wing. Nikolas was not with them. But if he was coerced, he could’ve given them codes that would’ve set off alarms. I think he would like me gone, but doesn’t want to pull the trigger himself.”
I squeezed his arm. What a terrible truth to learn about the older brother you’d looked up to for so many years. “What will you do now?”
He straightened in his seat. “I don’t know. We’ve embarrassed Adams twice. He’ll be foaming at the mouth for revenge. If I could leak enough information to lead him into a trap, we could end him for good.”
I considered the angles. “It’s risky. Far better to figure out how Hannah and Asmo were communicating with him and then use it yourself after shuffling them off to an uncomfortable prison cell on a dark, cold planet.”
“If only it were so easy,” Valentin said with a sigh. “They’ve built up a lot of support, as evidenced by how fast the rumors of my death spread. They might be the only two actively betraying me right now, but they aren’t the only two who would prefer Nikolas. And Asmo’s family is powerful enough to cause trouble. It will have to be handled very carefully and the case must be airtight.”
“I’m assuming you’re already working on it with the information I sent you earlier?”
“I am,” he agreed. “I will take down Asmo first, as he actually made payments for the kill contracts. Hannah might get cocky and think she’s in the clear.”
“Or she might turn into a flight risk.”
“We’ll watch her. I will leave Nikolas alone for now, but I’d like you to have your contacts keep tabs on him.”
His expression shuttered. “Your debt is paid. What will you do now?”
He wasn’t giving me much to go on, but I decided to take a risk. “Well, Arx has survived without me for almost a week, so I thought I might stay for a bit and help you build your case. And pick out my new ship,” I said with a teasing grin. I didn’t really expect him to replace Invictia, but I needed to lighten the mood. “If that’s okay with you.”
His smile was like dawn breaking after a stormy night. “I already have some ship designs you might like, but the choice is yours. And you are welcome to stay as long as you like.”
The last thing I’d wanted to do was put on a dress, go to dinner, and make nice with the people who wanted Valentin dead, but I’d done exactly that. The dress was a gorgeous strapless scarlet affair that I’d adored. And it had certainly eased some of my worries when Valentin had been rendered mute at the sight of it.
But now I stood outside of his suite door in my pajamas and bare feet. I hesitated. We were supposed to talk, but the last time we’d tried it, I’d jumped him then my ship had exploded, so our track record wasn’t exactly great.
I hadn’t yet knocked, but the door swung open to reveal Valentin. He also wore pajamas. “It would’ve been more gentlemanly to pretend I didn’t know you were there, to let you decide on your own. But I wanted to tip the scales in my favor.” He grinned. “Is it working?”
I smiled at him. “Yes.”
He stepped aside to let me enter, then led me to the living room. Two glasses and a decanter of red wine waited on the end table.
“I have whisky, too, if you would prefer it.”
“No, wine is perfect.”
I accepted a glass and settled on the sofa. This reminded me of the last time we’d tried this, both the good and the bad. I’d gone to see the remains of Invictia earlier. The loss broke my heart.
After Adams had blown up the warehouse and disappeared, Valentin had posted a huge bounty on him. Every hunter in the city would be looking for him, but since he hadn’t been found, we assumed he had already fled off-planet. Maybe we could make it through the evening without anything else blowing up.
Valentin picked me up, sat down, and tucked me into his lap. His strength stole my breath and reminded me of the muscles hiding under his clothes.
When I remained silent, he quietly asked, “Are you uncomfortable?”
“No. In point of fact, I was imagining you naked.”
He choked on his wine. Good to know I could still surprise him. I set aside both glasses and patted his chest while he caught his breath. He trapped my hand beneath his, pressed against his heart. We were close enough that I could see the dark flecks in his gray eyes.
“Stay,” he whispered.
“I already agreed to stay for a while,” I murmured, unsure what he was asking.
“Stay with me. Permanently.”
I didn’t expect the sharp stab of yearning. Home was something I’d craved for a long, long time. I knew I couldn’t accept, but curiosity made me ask, “As what? Your guest? Your mistress? An exiled queen in need of assistance?”
“As whatever you like.”
“And what happens when you have to get married?”
“Then I hope you’ll say yes.”
Every cell froze. “Are you asking me to marry you?”
His smile was so tender it hurt. “No, it’s too soon, as evidenced by you turning to stone in my arms.”
My emotions were in a jumble that I couldn’t begin to sort out. “But you hardly know me.”
“I know enough.”
Bitter laughter bubbled up. “You really, really don’t. I joined a mercenary squad at ten. By fifteen I was a proficient killer. I’d earned enough credits to buy my augments and my own ship by twenty. By the time I quit at twenty-five, I’d become a legend in the elite merc circles. I’ve lost track of the number of people I’ve killed, and I regret many of their deaths. My soul is stained with blood.”
“You’re the Golden Dahlia. I know.”
I met his eyes, but I didn’t see condemnation. “How?”
“I saw you give the card to Finlay and caught his message.”
“That was you I saw in the bar that night. That was a stupid risk. Did you think Luka would betray me? Were you only at Blind?”
“No, I trust Luka. He would’ve protected you as well as he protects me, but I wanted to be nearby in case you ran into more trouble than the two of you could handle.” He chuckled. “Of course that would likely take an armored assault vehicle guarded by two platoons of berserkers. I followed you to the other two bars, but I ditched the coat for a hat and balaclava. You almost caught me when you circled back.”
“Does Luka know you were out?”
“He might’ve caught me outside of Blind. Then I had to listen to him yell at me all night via neural link.”
We were getting sidetracked. I brought the conversation back to the important point. “I killed people for money, and while I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it exactly, I liked the challenge and I loved the money. There is no rosy side here. When I could afford to be picky, I tried to ensure the targets deserved what they were getting, but there were times when I couldn’t.”
“I killed as a soldier, and then as I climbed into command, I ordered soldiers into battles I knew they couldn’t win, just to buy the rest of the fleet more time. You may have killed individuals or even small groups, but I’ve killed battalions for a rock neither side needed.”
“War is different.”
“It’s not,” he said, very quietly.
“Even if I wanted to stay,”—and it was so, so tempting—“I have a responsibility to my people. I can’t abandon them. The war between you and Quint has already cost them their homes. The Rogue Coalition was their last hope. I won’t take away that hope.”
“I know. It was a selfish request. But what if the war were over? And we split time between here and there?”
I looked at him in surprise. “You would be willing to live part-time in Arx?”
“After the war is over, yes. Like you, I can’t abandon my people when they need me.”
Cautious hope bloomed. “In that case, once the war is over, I’m willing to try.”
His thumb brushed my jaw. “Then I will end the war.” He said it with such certainty, that I believed he could do it. The hope grew roots and burrowed into my heart. A happy, buoyant smile broke across my face.
He matched my smile and sealed the promise with a kiss.
That’s it folks, we’ve made it to the end! I hope you enjoyed this installment of the Rogue Queen series! Thank you so much for reading, commenting, and being so supportive. I really appreciate it!
After the story is edited and polished, it will go up for sale as an ebook, with a currently planned release date in early July. I hope to have the preorder links up in a couple weeks, and of course, I’ll post them when they are available.
I plan to continue the series with a third novella kicking off late fall/early winter of this year (deadlines willing). When I started TQG, I loosely planned for this series to be a trilogy, so you can expect a certain Quint commander to get what’s coming to him. :)
Until then, if you enjoyed TQA, you might enjoy my debut novel, Polaris Rising. It’s set in a different universe, but the Consortium Rebellion series still features kick-ass women and the men who fall for them. Book two, Aurora Blazing, comes out in October!