By the end of the sixth day with no new information, I was done with every person in the house except Valentin. He remained safe only because he was smart enough to let the others ask, for the millionth time, if I had any updates.
No, no I did not.
But even Valentin had started wearing a worried expression when he thought I wasn’t looking.
In the past, I’d enjoyed the information gathering part of any mission, but I had been working alone without pressing deadlines. The dynamic changed when I had a team of people counting on me to deliver crucial information in a timely fashion. The continued failure pressed on me, sharpening my temper. After the latest report, Stella had taken one look at my face and ordered me to spend some time alone “for everyone’s sake.”
I’d taken her advice and buried myself in the downstairs office while Eddie cooked dinner. I was as far away from everyone as I could get without physically leaving the building—which remained an option.
One that was becoming more likely. I’d promised Valentin that I wouldn’t take any unnecessary risks, but all risks were becoming more necessary as time wore on.
I muttered a curse under my breath when the office door opened. “What now?” I demanded.
Valentin stuck his head in and held up a bottle of whisky and two glasses. “I come in peace.”
“I’m not good company today,” I warned.
His smile lit up the room. I desperately wanted him to stay, even if I was going to end up growling at him. “I won’t hold it against you,” he promised.
He entered, closing the door behind him. I watched as he crossed the room. His posture was relaxed, so at least he wasn’t here to deliver more bad news. Probably.
Valentin reached across the desk and set a glass in front of me. He held up the bottle. “How much?”
I held my fingers a couple of centimeters apart. I’d like for him to fill the glass to the brim, but I needed to remain alert in case Adams decided now was the perfect time to show his face.
Not that I had much hope of that happening.
Valentin splashed whisky into my glass, then gave himself the same amount. He sat on the edge of the desk and raised his glass in a toast. “We’ll get him.”
I touched the rim of my glass to his, then took a sip. The alcohol had a smooth burn and a delicious smoky flavor. I looked at the bottle, but I didn’t recognize the brand. “Did you buy this here?”
He shook his head. “I brought it with me. For you.”
Warmth fought with frustration. Valentin kept doing all of these amazing things for me, and I couldn’t even catch the person who’d kidnapped him and threatened his safety. I bit my lip and stared at my glass. I vowed to do better, no matter what I had to do to make that happen.
Valentin stood and circled around to my side of the desk. He scooped me up and then sat in my chair with me held sideways in his lap. “What’s wrong?” he asked quietly.
I leaned my head against his shoulder so I wouldn’t have to meet his eyes. “I’m frustrated and worried. And I can’t even repay all of your kindness by doing the one thing I’m supposedly good at because my target is a fucking ghost and my hands are tied trying to keep everyone safe.”
He hugged me close. “Kindness isn’t something that accumulates debt,” he said, his voice velvety soft. “You owe me nothing. I enjoy finding ways to help you or brighten your day.” His lips brushed across my forehead. “You’re so capable that you make it a challenge.”
We sipped our drinks in silence, and I let the comfort of his embrace and the warm buzz of the whisky loosen some of my tension. A few minutes later, I murmured, “Would you like to know a secret?”
“My days are always brighter when you’re in them.” Valentin stilled under me and my cheeks heated. Was that too sappy? Not sappy enough? Why were relationships so hard?
I shifted uncomfortably, but Valentin’s arms tightened around me and he settled me more firmly on his lap. “I’m glad,” he whispered, “because I feel the same.”
My nerves steadied. I braced myself against Valentin’s chest and pressed my lips to his. His mouth opened, and I deepened the kiss. He tasted of whisky and desire—my new favorite combination. I reluctantly pulled away before the kiss burned out my self-control. As much as I’d like to have him sprawled under me on the desk, I needed to discuss a new plan.
One that he wasn’t going to like.
Sensing the shift in my mood, Valentin set his glass on the desk and waited for me to gather my thoughts. His arms loosely encircled me, offering support without making me feel trapped.
I loved the way he intuitively knew what I needed.
“The meeting is set for a week from now,” I said. “And we still don’t know where Adams is, or even if he’s going to show. We’ve scouted all of the potential blocks. We have people searching the docking database. We’ve done all we can. We need more information.”
Valentin’s expression remained even. “You plan to go to Block 1.”
“I do. If Adams is anywhere on the station, Sawya can find him. If he’s not, they still might know where he’s hiding.”
“I will go with you.”
I shook my head. “You can’t. I appreciate the thought, but you are too tempting as a target. We don’t want to draw any attention to you, and no disguise will protect you from Sawya.”
“You said this was a last resort. What will it cost you?”
I glanced away. “I don’t know.”
It wasn’t a lie, exactly, but it wasn’t the full truth. If I wasn’t extremely careful, Sawya would smell the desperation on me. They were cheerfully ruthless and would exploit every weakness. And I risked not only myself, but Valentin and the Rogue Coalition, too.
Valentin’s body turned to stone and his mouth pressed into a flat line. His hand flexed against my hip, like he was fighting the urge to pull me close. “Are you sure it’s the only option?” he asked at last.
“It’s the best option.”
Valentin blew out a frustrated breath and bowed his head. “I hate this,” he murmured. “I want to put you in Ardia, fly us home, and lock you away with me in an unbreachable fortress. Everyone else go can fuck themselves.”
I gently stroked his jaw. “You don’t mean it. You care about your people too much.”
“I care about you,” he said, his expression fierce.
My heart skipped a beat. “I care about you, too,” I admitted quietly. “And I would prefer it if you were already safely locked in that fortress while I dealt with Adams.”
His lips twisted into a bitter smile. “Neither of us get what we want.”
I kissed him, brushing my lips across his until his mouth lost the bitter edge and softened under mine. “Not yet,” I murmured against his skin. “But once Adams is caught, the rules change. And I’m overdue for an extended vacation in a remote fortress somewhere.” I grinned at him. “Do you know where I might find such a place?”
Valentin pulled me close and buried his face against my neck. “I know the perfect spot. And I’m going to hold you to it, Queen Rani, so let’s catch the bastard.”
His soft hair tickled my nose as I leaned my head against his. “As you wish, Emperor Kos.”
Unfortunately, trying to persuade everyone else that Sawya was the best option took the better part of two days. The scheduled meeting with Adams was less than a week away and we still had nothing on him, so I stopped negotiating and started dictating.
I called everyone into a meeting.
As soon as they arrived, I said, “I am going to see Sawya tonight.” When Ari growled something under her breath, I slashed a hand through the air. “I’ve already scheduled the meeting, so you can help me prepare or you can leave. Decide.”
The office was deathly quiet despite being full of people. Valentin stood beside me, a silent show of support. He’d been working on convincing Ari, Stella, and Imogen, too, despite his own misgivings.
“What can I do?” Eddie asked.
I smiled at him. “You can go with me.”
The room erupted as everyone started talking at once.
“Are you out of your—”
“I will go—”
I let them talk themselves out. When they quieted, I raised an eyebrow. “Are you ready to listen now?”
“We just want you to be safe,” Stella said quietly.
“I know. But we are running out of time and there aren’t any easy solutions left. Confronting Adams without information puts us all in danger. And if he’s not coming at all, then we’re just wasting time while he plots something new. I’ve dealt with Sawya before. I know what I’m risking.”
I turned to Eddie. “Did you find a way in?”
He grinned at me. “Of course. It’s full of traps, but nothing I can’t handle.”
“You weren’t able to get an invite?” Ari asked.
“Oh, I did. I could walk through the front door. But Sawya appreciates a little theater, and I plan to deliver. Entertaining them will make them more likely to listen to my request.”
“How do you know they aren’t already working with Commander Adams?” Ari asked.
Ari threw up her hands in exasperation. Stella wrapped an arm around her waist and leaned into her side. Ari closed her eyes and tucked Stella close. She took a deep breath and let it out with a sigh. “What can we do to help?”
My smile had a sly edge. “I’m so glad you asked.”
I chose my clothes with care. I couldn’t show up dressed for war, no matter how much I might prefer it. But just because I couldn’t look like I was dressed for war didn’t mean I wasn’t ready for whatever the night might bring.
I finally decided on a tailored pair of slacks in a shade of deep charcoal gray and a loose, black, tunic-length blouse over a tight black cami. I’d had the outfit made for my trip to Koan. The technical fabric had been ridiculously expensive, but it worked as a type of lightweight armor that would block blades and deflect glancing plasma pulses. The pants had a built-in sheath in each pocket the perfect size for a slender knife.
Each ankle also sported a small sheathed knife, and I had a pair of blades built into the soles of my short boots. Finally, I had two plasma pistols: a tiny one in a waistband holster at the small of my back and a larger one in a shoulder holster tucked into the curve of my waist. The long shirt covered both.
I laid out a reversible cloak that was gold on one side and black on the other and a large, gold, dahlia-shaped filigree clasp set in onyx. Tonight was not a night for subtlety.
Valentin sat on the bed and watched me get ready with an unreadable expression. I stopped to press a kiss to his lips. “It’ll be okay.”
He nodded, his eyes clear. “Good. Because if anything happens to you, I’m going to tear this station apart with my bare hands.”
The statement was all the more powerful for the quiet delivery.
I kissed him again. “Don’t do anything rash.”
I pulled back but stopped when his fingers gently closed around my wrist. “I would burn down the world for you,” he said, expression as serious as I’d ever seen it. “Never doubt that. If anything happens, I will come for you, no matter what.”
My heart tripped over itself. What would I do if someone threatened Valentin?
Burning down the world would just be the beginning.
I smiled even as tears pricked the backs of my eyes. “If that happens, I’ll be sure to save a few enemies for you so you won’t feel left out.”
He pressed a kiss to the center of my palm. “Deal.”
He let me go and I applied my makeup with hands that weren’t quite steady. It took two tries before I was calm enough to ensure the eyeliner ended up on my eyelid rather than my eyeball.
It had been a long time since I’d fully donned my Golden Dahlia guise, but memory was a funny thing. Glancing in the mirror, it felt like no time at all had passed. My eyes were transformed by the heavy liner and golden eyeshadow. My cheekbones were more pronounced thanks to careful contouring, and my lips appeared smaller and thinner.
It wouldn’t hide my identity, but it was just different enough from my normal appearance that it made people question their memory.
I turned for my cloak and Valentin’s gaze traced over my face.
“Well?” I prompted when he didn’t say anything.
“You’re beautiful, no matter what makeup you’re wearing—or not. Tonight, you look dangerous.”
“You always say such nice things,” I murmured without thinking. “No wonder I love you.”
Valentin froze and I did the same, looking for the threat. It took a beat before I realized exactly what I’d said. I lifted my hands and started to stammer out something—a joke, an apology, a reiteration—but I didn’t get a chance because Valentin rose and enfolded me in his arms.
“Don’t run,” he pleaded, his voice whisper soft.
Valentin knew me well because my first instinct was to deflect, to hide, to run—if not physically, then emotionally. I swallowed the urge, but I couldn’t loosen the tension that tightened my muscles. I stood stiff and still as Valentin held me gently, carefully, like I was a fragile blossom he didn’t want to crush.
I took a deep breath and gathered my courage. Held this closely, I couldn’t see his face, but maybe it was easier this way. “I didn’t mean to tell you that,” I said quietly, “but that doesn’t make it untrue.”
Valentin’s arms flexed around me, a minute tightening that betrayed his emotions. “Are you going to run if I tell you the same?”
I froze again and a short laugh worked its way past my tight throat. “Maybe.”
Valentin’s lips brushed across my temple. “I love you,” he whispered into my ear. “Run if you have to. I’ll be here when you get back.”
Something in me unlocked and the tension drained away. I pulled back so I could see his face. His arms briefly tightened, as if to hold me in place, before slowly falling away. His jaw clenched, but he made no move to reach for me again.
I traced my fingers over his jaw and the flat line of his mouth. “I like the company here, so I think I’ll stay, if that’s all right with you.”
His mouth fell open and I took advantage, pulling his face down to mine and fusing our lips. I licked his bottom lip and he shook off the shock, taking over the kiss and leaving me breathless.
A light, buoyant feeling spread through my chest, followed by hardened certainty. I would catch Adams. I would broker peace between Kos and Quint. No one was going to keep me from being with Valentin.
Not even the most dangerous person on the station.