The suite’s kitchenette came with a fully stocked bar. I was perusing the options when the doorbell rang. I firmly ordered the butterflies in my stomach to take a hike. Two deep breaths and I’d pulled myself back into a semblance of calm and controlled.
That control wavered precariously when I checked the door display. Valentin was in a tight T-shirt that hugged the muscles in his chest and loose pair of lounge pants. He was barefoot.
I closed my eyes against a wave of desire mingled with unexpected bashfulness. Just because I was confident and happy with my body didn’t mean I was blind. Even on my best day, I wasn’t in his league.
I swung open the door before self-doubt could plague me. He was here because he wanted to be, and that was enough.
A slow smile spread across his face. “Hi.”
I couldn’t stop my answering smile. “Hi.” I stepped back. “Come in. Imogen went to find the gym. You have a gym somewhere, right?”
His eyebrows rose. “Yeah. In fact, Luka was heading there. Think I should warn him?”
We shared a conspiratorial grin.
I led Valentin back to the kitchenette. “I was just contemplating a drink,” I said. “Can I get you something?”
“I’ll have what you’re having.”
“Adventurous, since I don’t know what I’m having yet.”
“I trust you.” He said it quietly but it had the ring of truth—and felt deeper than just our talk about drinks.
I studied the bottles as if my survival depended on it. Valentin’s staff had outdone themselves. Every liquor was a high-end brand that was difficult to find and incredibly expensive. I pulled out a whisky that routinely went for more than a fifty credits a glass.
When I held it up, Valentin nodded his acceptance. I poured us each a couple fingers, neat, and handed him his glass. I lifted my own and breathed in the woodsy, smoky scent mixed with the sharp bite of alcohol.
“To us,” Valentin toasted simply.
“To us,” I echoed. I took a sip. Warm fire rolled down my throat and settled in my belly. I hummed my appreciation. This was a damn fine whisky.
Valentin cleared his throat. “Shall we?” he asked with a wave toward the living room.
I moved to the sofa and sat with my back against one of the armrests. When Valentin moved to take the other end, I waved him closer. “I don’t bite. I just want to see you while we talk.” He sat in the middle and I tucked my bare toes under his thigh. “Plus, you can keep my feet warm.”
He held his free hand to his heart. “It would be my honor,” he said solemnly, but his eyes danced with merriment.
A playful Valentin was nearly irresistible. I could just crawl over there and—I cut off that line of thinking. I savored another sip of whisky while I decided on an opening gambit. I needed to know more about his advisors, but I was also desperately curious about his mother.
Valentin made the decision for me. “Myra told me that you asked her for help.”
“I did. It might be a mistake, but I need an ally who isn’t the emperor. My gut says she’s loyal, but even if she’s not, it will give me more information than I have now. Tell me what you think about the attack.”
“You tell me. You don’t have any preconceptions, and I don’t want to influence you.”
“They operated more like a military unit than a mercenary unit. They obviously have access to a lot of high-powered weapons and good information. I wonder if my landing delay wasn’t engineered to give the team time to get into place. If I had to guess with what I know right now, I’d say it’s a squad of Quint soldiers trying to look like mercenaries. Maybe rogue Kos soldiers, but that seems less likely.”
Valentin remained quiet, so I kept going. “Motivation is murkier. Nikolas obviously wants to be emperor, and some of your advisors back him because they worked deals with him for years. But, by all accounts, you’re a good emperor. It can’t all be ideological. There has to be a great deal of money on the line.”
“I am working on a treaty to end the war.”
I sucked in a breath. “How many people know about it?”
“My advisors. The Quint chairwoman and her council.”
“Damn. No wonder half the universe wants you dead.” War was a very lucrative business as long as you didn’t have to actually dirty your hands with the fighting and dying.
Money was at the heart of the ongoing war between Quint and Kos. They both claimed a series of habitable planets that contained very rare, very valuable resources. They couched it in other terms, of course, because an ideological war was more popular than a mercenary one—the enemy is trying to destroy our way of life! And to a certain degree that was true. Quint citizens didn’t think an emperor was fit to rule, and Kos citizens didn’t think Quint’s corrupt sham of a democracy actually looked out for the people it was supposed to protect. Both were right, and wrong.
And the Rogue Coalition had a pony in this race, too, because the end of the war—the true end, not some farce—would likely mean the end of our little band of misfits. Without the threat of war, people could return to their former homes and rebuild their lives. It was a bittersweet thought.
“Who’s pushing back the hardest?” I asked.
“Oskar, Hannah, and Asmo.” Military strategy, diplomatic relations, and domestic affairs.
Oskar made sense—military strategy would lose significant importance once the war was over. Hannah should be happy, though, because diplomatic relations would reopen with Quint, increasing her value. Asmo’s domestic affairs position was more of a mixed bag. The end of the war would be good for the majority of the Kos Empire, except for those in positions of wealth and power.
“Do they have good reasons?” I asked.
“Oskar remembers the last treaty. Quint signed it with no intention of honoring it. They used it as a short break to build up their military before attacking once again.”
I frowned at him. “I believe they learned that maneuver from your father. And possibly Oskar himself.”
“Yes, we are not blameless,” Valentin said grimly. “I’m trying to change that.”
“What about Hannah and Asmo?”
“They both think that we would be better off destroying Quint entirely, despite the fact that we have not managed it in the last thirty years. They refuse to believe that a treaty will solve anything.”
“That’s a little bloodthirsty for someone supposedly in charge of diplomatic relations. No wonder you’ve been at war for so long.”
“Bloodthirsty might be an understatement,” Valentin muttered. “I think if it were up to her, we’d fight them to our dying breath.”
I filed that information away. “Is anyone in favor?”
“Junior and Myra are both in favor. Junior wants better access to Quint medical research and Myra thinks I’ll be safer if Quint isn’t out for my blood.”
“Speaking of, have you heard anything about Commander Adams?” Quint commander Tony Adams had attacked Arx because I’d rescued Valentin from him. When Adams was defeated by Valentin’s forces, he’d escaped in a shuttle and disappeared. It’d been weeks and he still hadn’t reappeared. I hoped he was dead, but I wasn’t holding my breath.
Valentin glanced away. “My people in Iona heard rumors that he briefly returned to the city last week, but they were never able to get confirmation.”
Iona was Quint Confederacy’s capital city on Casseda Prime, but it didn’t surprise me that Valentin had people there. Just as I wouldn’t be surprised to learn Quint had people in Koan.
“He could throw a wrench in any peace talks, especially if the Quint chairwoman values his input. He didn’t seem amenable to peace.”
“Adams is against any sort of peace that doesn’t involve our complete surrender.” Valentin grimaced and continued, “As for whether he can influence the chairwoman, it may not matter. Earlier today, my intelligence staff intercepted a message that indicated Adams was headed for—or possibly in—Koan. That’s why I was pulled away this afternoon.”
My pulse sped up. If I’d known Adams was here, I could’ve been looking for him. Instead, Valentin had kept me in the dark. “Why did you wait to tell me?” I demanded.
Valentin remained calm. “I was waiting for confirmation that the message was legitimate and not a trap. A second message was intercepted this evening during dinner. The information is legitimate, but it may still be a trap.”
“Is Adams behind the attack this afternoon? Is he working with one of your advisors?”
“I don’t know.” Valentin blew out a frustrated breath. “The messages didn’t have any additional information. Hell, one of my advisors could be faking them, but if so, they’re far better than anything I’ve seen before. I just don’t know. You have all the information I have.” There was no reproof in his tone despite the fact that I’d snapped at him.
I took a sip of whisky and let the slow burn remind me to be patient. Valentin had promised to try to be more open with information, but people didn’t change immediately and breaking a lifelong habit was hard. And Koan was a city of twenty million people. Even if Valentin had told me about Adams earlier, I wouldn’t have found him today.
I slid around so I was sitting on my heels next to Valentin. It put us at eye level. “I’m sorry I was short with you,” I said. “Thank you for sharing your intelligence. If you find anything else, I would appreciate being looped in.”
“Of course. I planned to tell you that Adams was here as soon as I knew the information was good.” He clinked his glass against mine and grinned. “We’re partners, after all.”
Warmth that had nothing to do with alcohol and everything to do with affection spread through my chest. Not only did I find him smart and sexy as hell, but I also liked Valentin, quite a lot. I liked his cool calm. I liked how he respected me, and listened to me, and didn’t underestimate me. I liked the way looked at me like I was the most beautiful woman in the room. I especially liked it when he called us partners. I set my glass on the nearby table. “I’m going to kiss you now.”
His answering grin was filled with wicked heat. “Please do.”
I leaned forward but I could already tell the angle was going to be wrong, so I pressed a kiss to his cheek.
“Not exactly what I had in mind,” he teased, “but I’ll take—”
His sentence ended on a groan as I swung myself into his lap, my legs straddling his. I sucked in a breath when I realized exactly how thin the layers of fabric between us really were. I was walking a dangerous, dangerous line. “Is this okay?” I asked.
“Yes, but you still owe me a kiss,” he murmured. He gripped my hips and pulled me closer. The movement sent shivers of pleasure dancing through my system. He made a low, pleased sound, and his hands flexed but remained where they were.
I leaned forward and pressed my lips to his. I kept the kiss light, exploring, building the tension. Valentin let me until I licked into his mouth. Then he buried a hand in my hair, tilted my head, and kissed me long and deep. By the time we came up for air, he was fully aroused and it was all I could do to stay still and not mindlessly rock against him.
He pressed a kiss to the corner of my mouth, then nuzzled my jaw, slowing the pace. “You are amazing,” he whispered against my skin.
I chuckled. “I’m no closer to figuring out who wants you dead, and then I yelled at you because you didn’t give me unverified data. I am not amazing.”
“You’ve got my advisors running scared and you impressed my mother. In less than a day. You. Are. Amazing.” Each word was punctuated with a teasing kiss on my neck.
“Keep going and maybe I’ll agree with you.” I tilted my head, giving him better access. I felt him smile before he obliged. He bit me gently and my arousal spiked.
I slid my hand to the back of his head. His dark hair was short and soft, and I played with it for a moment before I pulled his head up to mine. “You’re pretty amazing yourself,” I murmured against his mouth.
His eyes crinkled as he grinned, then he parroted my words back to me. “I’m no closer to figuring out who wants me dead. And I didn’t immediately share important information. I’m not amazing.”
I wasn’t always the best about sharing my feelings, but here, couched in the safety of a game, I told Valentin the truth. “You helped catch two of our attackers and you trusted me to handle myself with your advisors.” I kissed him. “You.” Another kiss. “Are.” I nibbled on his lower lip. “Amazing.”
His smile promised wicked, wicked things. “Keep going.”
I leaned forward, planning to do just that, when Invictia blared a proximity warning to me via neural link. I froze and Valentin picked up on my distraction. “What’s wrong?”
“Someone is near my ship.”
“No, she wouldn’t set off an alarm.” I frowned and connected to the ship’s systems, trying to get a visual. The warning came from the rear of the ship, but the cameras had limited visibility in that area and showed nothing out of place.
A minute later, an attack warning screamed across the link, cut off halfway through as my connection to the ship went dead. What the hell was happening? I caught a flash of light and heard a distant boom as something large exploded in the distance.
Dread churned in my gut as I unsuccessfully tried to reconnect with my ship.
“That came from the direction of the spaceport,” Valentin said with alarm. His expression went distant then his face drained of color. He glanced at me, stricken.
With a sinking heart, I already knew what he was going to say.
“Your ship was attacked. Fire crews are on their way, but it doesn’t look good. Based on the snippet of video I saw, it looks like a total loss.”
If you like TQA, perhaps you would also like my debut novel, Polaris Rising. Available now: