If you only check the blog on Fridays, you might have missed Chapter 4, which was posted on Monday! Go read it then come back. :)
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Valentin and I returned to Arx in the early hours after midnight. I’d planned to stay away all night, but responsibility and worry kept nipping at me in quiet moments. Ardia settled into the hangar with a gentle bump. It truly was a lovely ship.
We walked back to my suite. At the door, Valentin paused, looking uncertain.
I held out a hand. “Join me?” I invited.
He slid his hand into mine and pulled me close. “Always. But I didn’t want to assume or cause trouble for you with your people.”
I laughed. “Our relationship isn’t exactly a secret. There’s a betting pool for when we’ll seal the deal, so to speak. Ari is running it.”
Valentin blinked in shock for a second before a grin tipped up the corner of his mouth. “Did we ruin her chances at fabulous wealth?”
I matched his grin. “Probably.”
I opened the door and we took the private stairs up to my rooms. I hadn’t moved back to the top floor yet, even though we could afford to heat it again. Maybe I would once Adams was no longer a concern.
“Does Luka know that you’re back?”
Valentin nodded, and his grin deepened. “He seemed somewhat distracted when I linked him earlier. And less enthused about my early return than I thought he would be.”
My eyebrows rose. “Him and Imogen?”
Valentin lifted one shoulder. “I didn’t ask, but I told him I’d be sleeping somewhere else tonight.”
“And if I hadn’t invited you?”
“I would’ve circled back and slept on the ship.” Valentin pulled me close, his hands on my hips. “But I was hoping for an invite,” he murmured.
“I sleep naked,” I warned. “And steal the covers.”
He nuzzled my cheek. “So do I,” he whispered into my ear, “and I’ll risk it.”
I woke with Valentin spooning me from behind, his arm wrapped around my waist. I was pleasantly sore in all the best ways. I mentally checked my messages, but nothing urgent had come in overnight. In fact, my inbox was suspiciously light, and I wondered if Ari had warned people to leave me alone.
When I stretched, Valentin hugged me close and pressed a kiss to the back of my neck. His lips weren’t the only thing pressing against me.
“Did you have good dreams?” I asked with hidden grin.
“Mmm,” he agreed sleepily. “I dreamed of you.”
Bright, sparkling happiness spread through me like the sweetest honey. “Was dream me nice?”
“Very.” He shifted his hips, rubbing against me. “Shall I show you?”
I moaned as desire ignited. “Please.”
By the time we emerged from my suite, it was nearly lunchtime. We’d showered twice because the first time had led to more distraction. When we stopped by the guest suite to pick up Luka, we also found Imogen. They both looked coolly professional, but they were standing just a little closer together.
I pressed my lips together to stop the smile. “Have you eaten?” I asked.
Imogen shook her head. “Not yet. We were waiting on you. Of course, we waited on breakfast, too, until it became clear you wouldn’t be making an appearance.” She said it with a straight face, but her eyes danced. She looked happy and relaxed, so whatever had happened—if anything—had been good for her.
“Well, I’m starving, so let’s eat, and then we’ll see what needs to be done today.”
When everyone agreed, I slipped my arm through Valentin’s and led the way to the mess hall. Eddie was on duty behind the counter, and he took one look at our faces, then our linked arms, and scowled playfully. “I owe Stella twenty credits,” he grumbled. “I—”
I slashed a hand through the air. “I don’t even want to know,” I said before he could elaborate.
His grin was sly. “Maybe you can make it up to me. Did you f—”
“Not one more word, Eddie, or you really will be peeling potatoes until the end of time.”
He held up his hands in surrender. “Fine, fine. Did you at least enjoy dinner first?”
“Eddie,” I warned. When he gave me an unrepentant grin that couldn’t quite hide his eagerness to know what I thought of the meal, I relented. “Dinner was exceptional. You outdid yourself. Thank you.”
“Dinner was delicious,” Valentin agreed. “You have incredible talent.”
Eddie’s grin softened into a smile that made him look younger. “I’m glad, and you’re welcome. It’s nice to flex my culinary skills occasionally.”
I took a deep breath, trying to figure out what was for lunch. The air was rich with spices and garlic. “What smells so good?”
“Pasta with vegetables and garlic bread.”
“Is that lunch or dinner? Because it smells amazing.” My stomach growled in agreement.
“It’s lunch. You all eating?”
At my nod, Eddie served up four plates of pasta packed vegetables and topped with cheese. A thick slice of bread slathered with butter and roasted garlic accompanied each plate. Eddie had slowly been increasing the richness of the meals he prepared so that the transition from PRiMeR wasn’t as jarring to the system.
Clearly the transition period was over.
The food was as delicious as it smelled and conversation was light as we all focused on our meal. I made a mental note to check with Eddie to ensure his assistants could handle the kitchen while he was in CP57 with us.
I had so many things to do to prepare and so little time to do them. The meeting was supposed to be in two weeks, which meant I needed to be in CP57 already. I trusted my team, but nothing beat being there in person. And Adams would be a fool if he waited until the meeting date to arrive. Best case, I’d catch him early and unprepared. Worst case, he’d do the same to me.
And I’d had enough of worst case scenarios where that bastard was concerned.
After lunch, I visited medical with Valentin and our ever-present shadows. It was a whirlwind of activity. Stella stood in the eye of the storm, directing the chaos. Two large duffels were slowly being filled with supplies for every conceivable injury.
“Make sure you leave enough for everyone here,” I advised mildly.
Stella scowled at me. “If you’re just here to cause trouble, go bother someone else.”
“Will you be ready to go tomorrow?”
“I’ll be ready by dinner,” she said. Her expression turned forbidding as one of her assistants nearly dropped an expensive trauma-doc. The man ducked his head with a muttered apology, his pale cheeks bright red. Stella turned back to me. “Is it tomorrow then?”
“I don’t know. I’m checking in with everyone. I would like to go tomorrow, even if a second wave has to follow later.”
Stella nodded. “I’ll be ready. The new schedule is approved and everyone knows when their shifts are. If anything happens here, we’ll have enough doctors and nurses to cover it.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” I murmured. But it was another worry I carried around. What if Adams decided to attack Arx while I was twiddling my thumbs waiting for him on CP57?
Valentin had agreed to move several ships into close patrols around Trigon Three as a precaution. I hated that we needed the help, but I wasn’t stupid enough to turn it down. The same would be happening around Koan on Achentsev Prime. As far as we knew, Adams was on his own, no longer supported by the Quint Confederacy—at least not openly. That meant his access to new ships and weapons was limited.
“I’ll check in later and let you know if we’re on for departure tomorrow,” I said.
Stella waved me off, already back in the controlled chaos that was packing for a trip where you didn’t know how many—or how badly—people would be injured. We hoped for none and planned for the opposite.
I tracked Ari to the main hangar, where she was looking over the available ships with Tasha. The Rogue Coalition didn’t have a huge number of ships—we weren’t a military power. Both Quint and Kos had left us alone because we were small and not sitting on anything valuable, not because we could fight them off.
When Ari caught sight of me, she smiled. “Stella warned me you were on the way. You want to leave tomorrow?”
“Yes. Stella said she’d be ready by tonight. How’s it going here?”
“Our options are limited,” Ari said with a grimace.
Tasha jumped in. “Most of our ships were, umm, acquired.” She a sent a meaningful glance Valentin’s way, and I pressed my lips together to contain the laugh. She continued, “Sending one of them to CP57 is asking for trouble.”
“Last I knew, we have a few ships that should work. Are they all out of commission?”
“A couple of them are undergoing routine maintenance, and the ships with the best offensive capabilities are probably too big. Plus, we need to ensure we leave enough ships behind to protect Arx.”
“I’m going to be take Ardia. Does that help?”
Ari gave me her hard stare, but I refused to back down. After a long moment, she sighed. “Fine. We were planning to take multiple ships anyway, so that will work. But you’re not going by yourself.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” I lied with a sly smile.
Ari barked out a laugh. “I know you better than that.” Her gaze cut to Valentin. “But I feel like I’m going to have backup this time.” When he nodded, she beamed at him.
“Spoilsports,” I grumbled at them. I looked at both Ari and Tasha. “Do you think you’ll be ready by tomorrow?”
“Should be,” Ari said. “We’ve almost agreed on the ships, but I think I’m going to need a crew.”
“Volunteers only. And keep the key details to yourself.”
Ari rolled her eyes at me. “It’s not my first day on the job.” Before I could apologize, she grinned. “But I know you turn into a tiny tyrant when you’re worried. I don’t hold it against you.”
She wasn’t wrong, but I mock glared at her anyway. “Watch it. I’ll lock you in a tower guarded by a dragon and lose the key.”
“Stella will rescue me,” Ari said breezily. “I’ll be out before dinner.”
“And I’ll be a dragon snack,” I conceded with an exaggerated grimace. “You do have formidable allies. I suppose I must reconsider. And I will see what I can do about my tyrannical tendencies.”
Ari’s answering smile was kind. “Don’t worry about it. You keep us safe. If you get too overbearing, we’ll rein you in.”
I would keep them safe.
No matter what.