To save her brother and protect her family’s future, a powerful princess must join forces with a dashing man from her past in this thrilling space adventure, the second novel in the Consortium Rebellion trilogy.
As the dutiful daughter of High House von Hasenberg, Bianca set aside her personal feelings and agreed to a political match arranged by her family, only to end up trapped in a loveless, miserable marriage. When her husband unexpectedly dies, Bianca vows never to wed again. Newly independent, she secretly uses her wealth and influence to save other women stuck in dire circumstances. Information is power and Bianca has a network of allies and spies that would be the envy of the ’verse—if anyone knew about it.
When her family’s House is mysteriously attacked, Bianca’s oldest brother, the heir to House von Hasenberg, disappears. Fearful for her brother’s life, the headstrong Bianca defies her father and leaves Earth to save him. Ian Bishop, the director of House von Hasenberg security—and Bianca’s first love—is ordered to find and retrieve the rebellious woman.
Ian is the last man Bianca wants to see. To evade capture, she leads him on a merry chase across the universe. But when their paths finally collide, she knows she must persuade him to help her. Bianca will do anything to save her sibling, even if it means spending time alone on a small ship with the handsome, infuriating man who once broke her heart.
As the search takes them deep into rival House Rockhurst territory, Bianca must decide if she can trust Ian with the one piece of information that could destroy her completely . . .
Lady Taylor had bugs in her walls and not the kind with jointed legs and crunchy bodies. The tortured piano in the corner whined out something that vaguely resembled music as I fought the urge to pull out my com and track the signals to their sources. Three different broadcast frequencies meant at least three different agencies were interested in what happened at a Consortium ladies’ afternoon tea.
Or perhaps they were just interested in Lady Taylor.
My mind spun down that avenue, looking for motive, before I forcefully reined it in. I had to focus, dammit. If only these events weren’t so dreadfully dull.
A nearby conversation caught my attention. I smiled into my teacup as the two girls behind me debated in fierce, heated whispers whether or not I’d killed my husband. They didn’t realize the terrible piano music wouldn’t hide their discussion.
My youngest sister stiffened at my side as she overheard a particularly exuberant theory. I put a restraining hand on her arm. Catarina’s eyes flashed with fury, but I minutely shook my head and she settled down. She glanced behind us, no doubt cataloging the girls’ faces for future retribution.
Neither the words nor the speculation bothered me, and indeed, they gave me something to focus on. But my youngest sister had always chafed at the daily viciousness of Consortium life.READ MORE
A quick glance confirmed the girls were from one of the lower houses. A brunette with straight hair, tan skin, and a face just a touch too narrow for true beauty sat beside a stunning young woman with ebony skin and black curls. We had been introduced at some point, but memory was fluid and mine more than most. I couldn’t recall either of their names.
This was likely their first social season—they hadn’t yet learned how to subtly skewer an opponent with a smile and a few well-chosen words. Even Catarina could probably send them from the room in tears with little more than a sentence.
Besides, the girls’ speculation as to how I could’ve killed Gregory provided some much-needed distraction. The formal sitting room was almost claustrophobically small, with no windows and heavy, ornate furniture. You’d never know we were in the penthouse of a thirty-story building.
The two dozen impeccably dressed, sharp-eyed women seated in little cliques facing the piano only added to the oppressive atmosphere.
“Bianca, why do you let them continue?” Cat asked in an exasperated whisper. I’d been on the receiving end of many exasperated whispers lately.
“What, you don’t think I paid Gregory’s mistress to get him drunk and push him down the stairs?” I asked, quoting the latest ridiculous suggestion.
Uncertainty flashed across her face as her mask slipped the tiniest bit. “Of course not,” she said stoutly. She shot me a sly smile and continued, “You’re a von Hasenberg—you’d do it yourself.”
That was as close as any of my sisters ever got to asking me what had really happened. And every time it caused a riot of emotions—fear, anger, relief, love—as I waited to see if this time would be the time they would ask.
I set my teacup on its saucer with precise, iron-willed control. The two pieces met without the telltale rattle that would indicate my internal turmoil. The interminable piano piece finally came to an end, saving me from having to respond.
“—was poison—” the curly-haired gossip said into the sudden silence. She choked off the words on a strangled gasp. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her freeze as every person in the room turned her way. Her black curls trembled as she swallowed nervously. The sharks paused, smelling blood.
“What was that, dear?” Lady Taylor asked with false sweetness. She had a daughter—one who could not play the piano for love or money. If these two were shunned, her daughter would have a better shot at making a good match.
The silence stretched as the girl floundered. The second girl, the brunette, sat stone-still, doing her best to blend in to the furniture.
“She was asking if poison was the best option to remove a particularly stubborn weed,” I said smoothly. Lady Taylor’s laser gaze swiveled to me, but as the daughter of a High House, I outranked her, and she knew it.
“Is that so?” she asked.
I tipped up my chin a fraction. Ice frosted my tone. “You doubt my word?” When she took a second too long to answer, I stood. Catarina rose with me.
Lady Taylor paled beneath her flawless makeup as all eyes now focused on her. “Of course I didn’t mean—”
I would feel sympathetic, except she had meant to cause offense. She was conniving, and I’d let her get away with too much for too long because I just didn’t care. I’d already done my duty to my House, my position was secure, and I had no one I needed to impress.
But the moment she’d doubted my word, she’d taken it too far, a fact that was just now dawning on her.
“I realized I have somewhere else to be,” I said. I turned to the curly-haired gossip. She was as young as I expected, perhaps seventeen or eighteen. “Walk with me,” I said.
The girl rose but she kept her head bowed. When the brunette started to rise, too, I shot her a quelling glare. She wilted back into her seat. She hadn’t attempted to bail her friend out, so she would have to fend off the sharks on her own.
I linked arms with the girl and swept from the room over the protests of Lady Taylor. Catarina kept pace beside me. We didn’t speak until we’d cleared the front door.
“My lady, I’m so sorry,” the girl said miserably as I pulled her along toward the transport platform.
“You should be,” Catarina said.
I rolled my eyes. “What is your name?” I asked.
“Lynn Segura, second daughter of House Segura,” she said.
House Segura was a small house with modest assets, one of the many lower houses that made up the bulk of the Royal Consortium. “How did you manage an invite to Lady Taylor’s tea?” I asked. House Taylor was one of the more powerful lower houses.
“Chloe received an invite and brought me along,” she said. At my blank look, she blushed and elaborated, “Chloe Patel, first daughter of House Patel. She is the woman I was with.”
That made more sense. House Patel was also a lower house, but they had three eligible sons around the same age as Lady Taylor’s daughter. And their interests dovetailed nicely with House Taylor’s.
“Are you going to tell my father?” Lynn asked.
We emerged outside into the sun. The transport platform had tall glass panels to block the worst of the wind, but a breeze swirled gently, teasing the hem of my gray dress. Serenity sparkled under the cloudless sky. The only city on Earth and the heart of the Royal Consortium, Serenity was a hive of activity. Transports and ships crisscrossed the sky, glittering like jewels.
For all its flaws, I loved this city.
I let the girl fret in silence while the three of us climbed into the waiting House von Hasenberg transport. Catarina sat facing backward while I sat next to Lynn. I waved the embedded chip in my left arm over the reader. “Take us to Macall’s Coffee House,” I said. The transport chimed its acceptance, then slid off the thirtieth-floor platform and headed northwest.
The glass panel in the floor showed another transport in House von Hasenberg colors—black and gold—shadowing us from below. Our security detail was a new and unwelcome change, but three weeks ago we’d gone to war with House Rockhurst, so it was deemed a necessary evil.
If the ladies of the House hadn’t presented a united front, we would have had armed guards escorting us to tea. As it was, they escorted us to evening events, but only followed us via transport during the day. Serenity was officially neutral ground, but both Father and our director of security were paranoid.
Lynn practically vibrated in her seat, desperate to know if I’d tell her father but smart enough not to ask again. She had potential.
“I am not going to tell anyone,” I said. “We are going to enjoy a cup of coffee in public and have a nice chat, then we will part on agreeable terms. The next time I see you, I will make a point of saying hello.”
Lynn’s eyes narrowed. “Why?” she asked.
“Because your behavior made a boring tea interesting. And because if I do not, Lady Taylor will destroy you.”
Lynn flinched as the full implication of her actions hit her. She squared her shoulders and met my eyes. “What can I do to repay you?”
I tilted my head as I regarded her. I’d saved her because I could and because I remembered my own disastrous first season. I hadn’t expected anything in return, but I wasn’t so hasty as to turn down a debt freely offered, either. She wasn’t the first girl I’d saved, and thanks to that, I had eyes in many places.
“You do not have to do anything,” I said seriously, “but if you ever overhear anything you think I might find interesting, I would be grateful if you would let me know.”
She nodded, her eyes bright. “Consider it done.”
Macall’s Coffee House occupied a ground-floor corner of a tall office building in Sector Three of the von Hasenberg quarter. Floor-to-ceiling windows wrapped around two sides of the shop, giving those inside a sense of airy lightness.
The cafe was decorated in cream and brown, with real wood and leather furniture—no plastech dared to breach these walls. The tables and chairs were beautifully mismatched with charming, understated elegance. Someone had put a lot of time and effort into making the design look effortless.
House von Hasenberg retained a table with an ideal location: next to the window and slightly separate from the surrounding tables. All three High Houses retained tables, aware that as much business happened here as on the floor of the Royal Consortium. But because we were in the von Hasenberg quarter, our House had received the best location.
After the waiter left with our orders, I activated the silencer built into the table—another perk. By default, silencers only blocked sound in one direction, so we could still hear the people murmuring around us, but no one could eavesdrop on our conversation.
The silencer prevented any sounds or wireless signals in a two-meter radius from transmitting outside that radius, including voices, coms, or bugs. If someone wanted to know what we were gossiping about, they’d have to read our lips.
Once Lynn realized I really wasn’t going to bite, her wit and humor returned. She wasn’t quite brave enough to ask me outright if I’d killed my husband, but the same cleverness that made her spout wild theories made chatting with her entertaining. Saving her had been the right move.
We chatted for forty-five minutes before Lynn took her leave. The door had barely closed behind her when Catarina pinned me with a stare. “This is how you know everything about everyone,” she said. “You have a legion of spies masquerading as young women.”
I sipped my lemonade and said nothing. She was wrong, but she drew the exact conclusion I had intended. Shame slid through my system, soft and sour. I didn’t like lying to family, even by omission, but it was the only way to ensure they—and I—stayed safe.
“How many have you saved?” Cat asked.
“I don’t keep track. A dozen, maybe. I started when I returned home after Gregory’s death.” The true number was twenty-seven, and that only counted the people I’d truly helped, not those like Lynn who had just needed a momentary rescue. If I included everyone, the number would be closer to sixty. And I’d started well before Gregory’s death.
Our prenup had protected House von Hasenberg’s interests, not mine. When my husband died, I inherited nothing. His family wasted no time hustling me out of their lives. Money was far less of an issue than stability and familiarity, so I ran home like the wounded animal I was.
“I can’t believe you’re running your own spy ring,” Catarina said with a laugh. “I bet it drives Ian insane.”
I smiled. Ian Bishop was the director of House von Hasenberg security—an inconspicuous title for a far-reaching power. He had his fingers in House intelligence gathering, security forces, and even military maneuvers. He was the most arrogant man I’d ever met, and that was saying something considering I grew up in a High House.
He was also one of the most handsome, but a trained interrogator couldn’t force the admission from my lips.
One of my few true pleasures these days was beating Ian to a piece of intelligence. It had turned into something of a competition, and I was currently ahead by two. Or, at least, my shadowy, anonymous online persona was. Ian had no idea I was feeding him information from multiple directions.
“Ian doesn’t think the daughter of a High House is capable of anything other than being a trophy wife,” I said. “I enjoy proving him wrong.”
“I thought Ada would’ve disabused him of that notion,” Catarina said. “He tried to catch her for two years and failed.”
My younger sister Ada was exceptional, but even she wasn’t that good—as head of security for a High House, Ian had nearly infinite resources at his disposal. He’d failed because I’d fed him a constant stream of false information, while giving Ada all the info she needed to stay ahead of him.
I wanted to tell Cat, to let her in on the secret, but one secret led to twenty others, each more dangerous than the last. I held my tongue.
“Oh, I’m supposed to meet Lady Ying in twenty minutes to go shopping. You want to join?” Catarina asked.
I repressed a shudder. Shopping with Catarina was a masochistic endeavor if ever there was one. The girl could spend seven hours in a single store. Seven. Hours.
Luckily for the rest of us, Ying Yamado was always game for a shopping trip. She and Catarina were close friends—as close as the daughters of two High Houses could be, at least.
“I’ll pass, thanks. I’d like to make it home before tomorrow,” I said.
Catarina rolled her eyes at me. “I’m not that bad.”
I just raised my eyebrows until she cracked and broke down into giggles.
“Okay, maybe I am. But you’re missing out,” she said as she stood. She kissed the air next to my cheek and then she was gone. I disabled the silencer, and the communication signals around me rushed in, overwhelming and nauseating.
After all of this time, I should be used to it, but Gregory’s gift just kept on giving. He’d been a brilliant scientist and a horrible husband, wrapped together with a morally bankrupt bow. I don’t think it ever occurred to him to not experiment on me.
Now I could mentally intercept and decrypt wireless signals, whether I wanted to or not, and I had no idea how. Gregory’s lab had been destroyed, taking most of his secrets to the grave.
He had tampered with both my brain and my nanobots, the infinitesimal robots in my blood that were supposed to aid healing. Father would dearly love the tech, so much so that he would absolutely approve more experiments on me if he found out about my abilities.
I’d been a test subject for long enough.
So I kept my secrets to myself and became a grieving widow in public. It kept Father from pushing me to remarry—which I would never do—and covered some of my new eccentricities.
I attended teas and lunches and balls when I would’ve preferred staying home. But staying home would not let me find other young women who could use my help, so I sucked it up and played the idle aristocrat.
At home, I earned my keep by using my network to track down information for House von Hasenberg. Father didn’t know exactly where my information came from, but he knew that if he needed something found, I could find it.
I finished my lemonade and pretended my head didn’t feel like it was being stabbed with stilettos. The headaches were worse when I was in an open public space, as my piddly human brain couldn’t keep up with all of the information flowing to the implant from my modified nanos.
My com lit up in my mind’s eye a second before it vibrated in my handbag. Because I was attuned to it, I knew I’d received a message and what it said without looking at the device itself. Decoding transmissions, even the secure transmissions my com received, was almost comically easy. Whatever else Gregory had been, he truly had been a gifted scientist.
I’d taught myself to tune out most transmissions so they became ignorable background noise. It didn’t help with the headaches, but at least I didn’t have to constantly hear strangers’ messages in my head all day. Now they burbled along like a distant stream in the back of my mind. I could hear individual messages if I focused, but mostly they were white noise.
I was Gregory’s fantasy of an ideal wife, forced to listen to everything without being able to respond. I didn’t know if he’d planned to add transmission abilities later or if he’d designed it this way as a cosmic joke. If it was the latter, the joke was very much on him. I smiled in grim satisfaction.
I pulled out my com to read and respond the old-fashioned way. The message was from Ian. It was short and to the point. You were scheduled to return home, not split from your sister. The security detail followed her. Remain where you are until the replacement detail arrives. I have eyes on you until then.
My smile morphed into a grin as I typed my reply. I was just leaving. I’ll be home before they arrive.
STAY PUT. The reply was so fast, I wondered if he had pretyped it. I’d hate to think I was so predictable.
I didn’t bother with a reply. If he was actually monitoring the cameras, he’d see me leave. Otherwise, he’d certainly notice when my tracker started moving. Either way, I wasn’t going to sit around for who knew how long waiting for his security team. My head ached at just the thought.
The coffee shop was close enough that I could walk home, but that was sure to make Ian apoplectic. And while I didn’t really think Serenity was unsafe, we were at war and some basic safety precautions were prudent.
I ordered a House transport and waited until it arrived before leaving the building. I didn’t see Ian’s second security detail, so he was sure to be livid. I resisted the urge to tap into our House security cameras to see for myself.
The transport dropped me at the private family entrance without incident. I cleared the new security checkpoint then waved my embedded identity chip over the reader at the door. The reader beeped as it verified that my chip and biometrics matched. The door opened, and I let myself into the ornately carved stone building I’d called home for twenty-one of my twenty-five years.
The heavy stone blocked some of the wireless signals, and I sighed in relief. I stepped out of the entryway and a shadow detached itself from the draperies.
I had a blaster in hand before my brain recognized that I wasn’t being attacked by a stranger. No, I was being stalked by Ian Bishop.
I wasn’t sure that was an improvement.
“Lady von Hasenberg,” Ian said in his precise, clipped accent. Fury etched lines in his handsome face, but his deep voice still slid over my skin like cashmere. “A moment, please.”
I’d kept my name during my marriage, one of the benefits of being the daughter of a High House. Instead, Gregory had changed his last name to gain the power of mine. That power felt very flimsy with Ian glaring down at me.
Ian Bishop was tall and lean, with broad shoulders that narrowed to a trim waist. He wore a charcoal three-piece suit with a pale blue shirt and matching tie. I’d never seen him in anything other than a suit or tuxedo, but my imagination was more than willing to try. I’d bet a good deal of money that vast expanses of delicious muscle hid under the layers of fabric.
He was devilishly handsome, with a strong jaw and icy blue eyes. His hair was dark blond, shorter on the sides and longer on top. It was continually tousled, making a woman imagine running her fingers through it to smooth it.
Or maybe that was just me.
I pulled my tattered public persona around me as I returned my blaster to the clutch holster. At a meter sixty-eight, I was the shortest member of my family by far. I made up for it by wearing towering heels. But even with the added height, Ian still topped me by at least ten centimeters.
While I’d never quite mastered Mother’s trick of looking down on everyone regardless of height, I also refused to let him believe that he could look down on me, so I met his gaze head-on. If eyes were the windows to the soul, then, by all appearances, his was a lonely, desolate place. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Ian Bishop was more than met the eye.
“Director Bishop, to what do I owe the pleasure?” I asked, all false innocence.
A muscle flexed in his jaw and I could practically see him counting to ten in his head. “You ignored a direct order and put yourself in danger,” he said at last.
“No, I ignored a direct suggestion and arrived home unscathed.” I smiled sweetly. “Was there anything else?”
“Am I the director of security for House von Hasenberg?” Ian asked.
I nodded obligingly.
“And are you part of House von Hasenberg?”
“Last I checked,” I said drily.
“So therefore, when I make a suggestion concerning your safety, you would be well-advised to follow it,” he bit out. “I know it is difficult for you to drag your mind away from gossip and parties long enough to pay attention, but I don’t make suggestions for my own health; I do it to keep you safe.”
I stiffened and a fleeting expression crossed his face, too fast to identify. My training solidified around me like armor, distancing me from the fury blazing through my system. If he was cold, then I was ice.
I tilted up my chin. “If your security plan is so fragile that a single change causes it to crumble, that is not my failure.” He started to reply, but I cut him off. “Director Bishop, this has been delightful, as usual, but now I must go. So many parties to think about, you know.”
It was a mistake to let him know that he’d gotten to me, but I couldn’t stop myself. I swept away, the only sign of my anger the staccato beat of my heels against the marble floor.
Anger carried me to my suite before burning out. Ian Bishop wasn’t worth the headache. He’d made it abundantly clear that he was not interested years ago. I still cringed when I thought back to my awkward attempts to flirt with him when he had first arrived as a mere bodyguard.
He’d had a plan, one he wasn’t going to let an “empty-headed princess” deter him from. Even seven years ago he’d been a real charmer. But what he lacked in charm, he made up for in sheer, pigheaded determination.
In just three years he’d moved from bodyguard to director of security—and no one was quite certain how. The position usually only went to someone with decades of experience, not a kid who, at the time, hadn’t even hit twenty-five. Now that he’d entered his late twenties, he was still at least three decades younger than his peers.
I flopped onto my canopy bed and let the curtain fall closed behind me. Custom-designed, the bed acted as an isolation chamber that blocked most wireless signals. The curtains were three layers of a fine metal mesh that connected at the top and bottom to metal embedded in the canopy and under the mattress. The metal cage directed signals around the bed and canceled out the signals in the space inside, leaving me in blissful quiet.
I’d also completely shielded my office on the pretense of security, and the rest of my suite had a smaller amount of shielding hidden behind the paint and plaster. Just because I was a science experiment didn’t mean I had to be miserable in my own home.
I sighed in relief as my headache started to subside. Even when I wasn’t focusing on a signal, my nanos and brain were decoding it, like a computer running in the background. I hadn’t yet found a way to turn it off, but the human body was remarkably adaptable. When I’d first been modified, I couldn’t stand unshielded spaces for more than an hour or two without passing out. Today, I’d been out for eight hours and while my head hurt, I was still functional.
I had stayed out longer than I’d planned, and I had another event tonight. I had enough time for a nap, but then I’d have to get up and dressed for House Chan’s betrothal ball. Their only daughter was marrying a wealthy businessman and rumors indicated she might not be thrilled about her upcoming nuptials. I needed to see if the rumors were true. Plus, I’d already agreed to be House von Hasenberg’s ambassador for the event, and House Chan was an ally. If I didn’t show, there would be consequences.
There were always consequences.
“Alfred,” I said to my suite computer, “wake me up in two hours. Until then, do not disturb me unless it’s urgent.”
A chime indicated acceptance of the command. With my com in the isolation cage with me, my messages would automatically be routed to my suite computer, allowing the system to wake me if something important came through.
With that final thought, I dropped into sleep with the ease of someone who’d learned to grab sleep whenever possible.
The gentle alarm brought me to instant awareness. My headache was gone. I felt good enough that tonight might not be terrible. I stretched and enjoyed the quiet for another minute before I opened the curtain and let in the cacophony of signals.
I dressed with care, aware that I was representing House von Hasenberg tonight. With synthesizers able to turn out faux haute couture in a matter of hours, it became a status symbol to wear gowns made by hand, fashioned from real materials and not their synth equivalents, even though it was difficult to tell the two apart at a glance.
The strapless evening gown I chose was made of purple silk in a shade so dark it appeared black in all but the brightest light. The fitted bodice hugged my chest, while the full skirt hid my heels and made me appear taller. Dresses were the battle armor of choice for Consortium ladies, and this one promised to hold its own.
I swept my long hair up into a complicated twist and pinned it into place with the ease of long practice. My hair was naturally a mousy brown, a shade that did nothing for my fair complexion. I’d endlessly tinkered with the color over the years before settling on my current shade of light brown with subtle blond and red highlights.
Hair done, I considered my makeup options, waving through my presets. Each option overlaid my face in the mirror, showing me a real-time preview of the result, while the individual settings were displayed on the right. The current trend was for gem-encrusted everything—eyelids, brows, temples, and even eyelashes—though I don’t know how anyone could stand it.
Luckily, being a von Hasenberg had its perks—I didn’t follow trends, I made them.
I picked a simple style of deeply lined, dark smoky eyes and natural lips. I altered the eye shadow color to hint at the purple in my dress. Even so, I’d look positively unadorned compared to most ladies tonight, which would make me stand out. I pressed the application button and closed my eyes. Two seconds later, a beep signaled I was done.
A final check in the mirror confirmed I was as ready as I was going to get. I picked up the clutch that held my blaster. It was an unwritten rule that you could bring weapons to a Consortium event as long as you did it discreetly. Showing up with a long gun slung over one shoulder would be gauche—and probably get you barred from entry—but five hidden blasters? Totally cool.
I exited my suite to find Ian loitering in the hall outside my door. He straightened as I approached. He’d changed into a black tuxedo, and I had the sinking feeling that I wasn’t going to appreciate whatever he was about to say.
“Director Bishop, here to snipe at me again?” I asked.
His calm expression didn’t change. It was nearly impossible to bait the man when he wasn’t already in a fury, but that didn’t mean I ever stopped trying. He brought out the worst in me.
“I am here to escort you to House Chan’s ball,” he said.
“Where is Edward?” Edward was my normal evening guard. He was a nice young man with an easy attitude and a quick smile—so, basically, the opposite of the man in front of me.
“He is providing additional coverage for Lord Ferdinand tonight,” Ian said.
“Of course he is,” I muttered. Louder, I continued, “Very well, let’s get this over with.”
Ian offered me his elbow and butterflies took flight in my stomach. I sternly told them it didn’t mean anything, it was just a polite gesture—Edward did the same, usually with a wink and a flourish.
My hand still had the slightest tremble as I took Ian’s arm.
I schooled my expression and let him lead me to the waiting House transport. With the war, we were no longer allowed to take public transports. He helped me into the vehicle then followed and sat across from me. He leaned back and the shadows embraced him.
I glanced away before I became entranced by the play of light and dark across his cheekbones. The man was entirely too handsome for my peace of mind. I needed a distraction.
“Have there been active threats against the House here in Serenity?” I asked, meeting his eyes. “Is that why security is tighter tonight?” I hadn’t come across anything, but I’d been out of commission for most of the afternoon. If new info had come in today, I wouldn’t have seen it.
Ian stared hard at me, but I didn’t look away. Finally, he sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “No,” he said, “nothing credible. Just a feeling I can’t shake.”
I nodded. Ian had long since proven he had good instincts.
“Why do you accept a feeling without question but disregard an order made for your safety?”
I shrugged. “I trust your gut. If you had explained yourself this afternoon, I would’ve listened. I thought you were just being your normal paranoid self. Despite what you think, I am not stupid.”
“I never—” He bit off the sentence and took a deep breath. Whatever he meant to say was lost as the transport settled in front of House Chan’s building. Ian’s mask of indifference slid back into place as if the past few minutes hadn’t happened.
Ian climbed out and checked the surroundings before offering me a hand. I took it and allowed him to help me out of the transport. House Chan owned Sector Four of the Khadela quarter and the towering metal-and-glass building in front of us was their headquarters.
When High House Khadela had fallen long ago, the lower houses had scrambled to claim a piece of the quarter for themselves, moving in from the outer sectors of the other quarters. Since then the real estate was in constant ownership flux. One could tell how well a lower house was doing by their address and the number of buildings they owned—House Chan was doing quite well.
Ian guided me past the guards posted at the door, all of whom were smart enough not to try to demand my invitation. The two-story lobby was dominated by an enormous crystal chandelier that stretched from ceiling to floor, more art than illumination.
The elevators to the upper floors were tucked off to the right, behind another set of burly guards. To the left, wide double doors were thrown open to the ballroom, allowing a glimpse of the glittering spectacle inside.
I squared my shoulders, lifted my chin, and pasted on my social smile. Showtime.
Without a word, Ian dropped back to hover behind my right shoulder. I swept into the room on a murmur of acknowledgment. As I made my way to the hosts, people cleared my path with a quick curtsy or bow. The boldest tried to catch my eye, but most moved aside with bowed heads. Women were swathed in a riot of colors while the men stood as solemn beacons in gray and black.
The hosts’ table was on a raised dais in the middle of the back wall. As I approached, Lord and Lady Chan rose, as did their daughter and her betrothed. The daughter swallowed nervously and slipped her hand into her betrothed’s. He gave her a gentle squeeze of reassurance, and she summoned a smile.
Perhaps my information was wrong after all.
I inclined my head to the table with a genuine smile. “Lord and Lady Chan, thank you for inviting me to celebrate your joyous day with you. Father sends his regards and best wishes for a happy union between Lady Elise and Mr. Ruth.”
“Lady von Hasenberg, we are honored by your attendance. Please, enjoy the dancing and refreshments,” Lord Chan said. He lifted his arm and the string quartet in the corner eased into sound. After a shallow bow to me, he guided his wife to the center of the room to begin the dance. Elise and Mr. Ruth, whose first name I couldn’t remember, followed as the guests of honor.
My official duties now over, I relaxed a fraction. The nap had helped and my head barely ached. With the number of signals flying through the room it wouldn’t stay that way for long, but for now I could enjoy myself.
I had not danced since Gregory’s death, but that did not stop the invitations. Occasionally I longed to join the whirling masses, but as I turned down a leering gentleman old enough to be my grandfather, I remembered why I’d made the decision. I’d declined five more gentlemen and one adventurous lady by the time I made it to the buffet.
“You don’t dance anymore?” Ian asked softly.
Only my training prevented me from startling at his voice, so close to my ear. “No,” I said.
I picked up a dainty china plate and selected a few hors d’oeuvres. Today I felt well enough to eat, but it wouldn’t do for the daughter of a High House to load up a plate, no matter how ravenous she was. Plus, if I snacked all night, I always had something to do with my hands.
“Why not?” he asked.
“You should eat if you are hungry,” I said instead of answering. I snagged a glass of champagne from a passing server and expertly balanced both plate and glass as I nibbled. I put my back to a wall and observed the room. Ian stood next to me, eyes scanning the crowd.
“Tell me what you see,” I said on impulse. It was a game we’d played a lifetime ago when he was my personal guard.
I didn’t expect his eyes to flash to me. “You were worried that Lady Elise was being forced into the match,” he said.
I took a measured breath and masked my surprise. How did he know? More important, how much did he know?
“I haven’t figured out why you care,” he continued, “but I have a few guesses. You can rest easy, though. From what I’ve seen, the two are ridiculously in love.”
I glanced to where the two were dancing while smiling and laughing as if the rest of the room didn’t exist. “I drew the same conclusion,” I said. So why was a rumor of the opposite floating around? I’d have to dig into it.
“Why do you care?” Ian persisted. The man was like a dog with a bone. I’d have to give him something or he’d never drop it.
“Mother was concerned the House would be destabilized if the marriage was unhappy,” I lied smoothly. “She sent me to determine if her concern was warranted.”
Ian didn’t look entirely convinced, but he didn’t push for more. Unfortunately, that probably meant he’d be doing digging of his own when he got back to his office. I didn’t need Ian Bishop sticking his nose into my business.
“What else do you see?” I asked.
“A lot of people who don’t value what they’ve been given.”
I rolled my eyes. “You used to be much better at this game. Getting old?”
When his flashing eyes met my gaze directly, I remembered that it wasn’t the best idea to taunt him. He proved me right. “You are unhappy,” he said quietly.
I barely kept my mask of nonchalance as the verbal dagger slid home with deadly precision. How did Ian know something not even my siblings had picked up on? Nothing to do but bluff my way through. “Of course,” I said lightly, “I lost my husband.”
He shook his head, but I was saved from his response when the room seemed to decide I’d had enough time to eat in peace, never mind that I hadn’t actually finished my plate.
“Lady Bianca,” an older woman I vaguely recognized said, “please allow my daughter to apologize for earlier.” She dragged forward the brunette from Lady Taylor’s tea. Ah, here were Lady Patel and her daughter Chloe.
Chloe simpered at me. “Lady von Hasenberg, I am so sorry for Lynn’s behavior earlier. I had no idea she would behave so poorly or I never would’ve invited her along. I hope you put her in her place.”
Keeping my mask in place took an extreme force of will. This chit thought to betray her friend again? My smile was not nice—Chloe took an involuntary step back.
House Patel wasn’t an ally, but they weren’t an enemy, either. I considered my options while Chloe started to look a little ill. A wave of whispers then a ring of silence radiated out from our little group.
Finally, I said, “It seems House Patel has much to learn about loyalty and friendship.” I waited just long enough to see her eyes widen and her face pale, then I turned and walked away.
“Was that wise?” Ian asked under the cover of excited voices.
In five minutes, everyone in Serenity would know I’d slighted House Patel. But if House Patel thought to come after me for it, I’d level them. Luckily, Lord Patel was known for his cool head.
“Yes,” I said. “And once they calm down, they will realize I could have done so much worse.”
The rest of the night passed in fake smiles and polite small talk. Everyone wanted to know what had happened with Lady Chloe, but when it became clear I wouldn’t discuss it, they moved on. When my head ached enough that continuing to smile became difficult, I decided it was time to wrap up.
“Ian, please call the transport while I say good-bye to the hosts.”
He nodded, touched his earpiece, and murmured to the operator. After a brief good-bye to House Chan, I headed for the door. I was done.
“Wait,” Ian said, touching my elbow before I could exit the lobby. “The transport is still a minute out.”
To distract myself, I let my mind drift to the messages flying through the ether. One communication channel was using a form of cryptography I’d never seen before. Interested despite myself, I began mentally pulling it apart.
I was so immersed in the task that I barely noticed when Ian guided me outside.
I couldn’t consciously explain how I broke encryption. Encrypted data looked like puzzle pieces to my mind’s eye and I intrinsically knew how to put them together. When I did, a void revealed the key and the encryption unlocked.
For most encryption, the entire process took seconds. For encryption I’d seen before, I could do it without thought.
This encryption was far trickier.
The puzzle pieces slid around my mental landscape like nothing I’d seen before. Pain spiked behind my left eye but I refused to give up. Finally, finally I pinned the pieces in place and revealed the key. The encryption unlocked, revealing a second layer of encryption, one I knew well because it came from my own House.
The message unlocked.
Why would someone encrypt a one-word message in one of the most complex encryption schemes I’d ever seen? Was it a test?
We were nearly to the transport when the sound of shattering glass broke through my distraction. I didn’t have time to look around for the source of the sound before Ian tackled me to the ground and shoved me against the bulk of the transport. He shielded my body with his, completely blocking my view.
I tried to push him aside but it was like trying to move a mountain. “What’s going on?”
“Shots fired at Bright. I need an armored transport now. Team Two, sweep the area,” Ian shouted into his com.
The transport window half a meter over our heads shattered in an explosion of glass.
“Fuck,” Ian growled. “We’re too exposed.”
“I can shoot,” I said. “I have a blaster.”
He shifted enough to meet my gaze. His eyes blazed with icy blue fury. “You will do no such thing,” he said. “You will stay down and let me do my job. I will protect you.”
“No. End of discussion.”
My temper woke, but I was smart enough to follow an order that was meant for my own good. Someone was shooting at me. On Earth, supposedly the safest place in the ’verse. The Royal Consortium Defense Force, or RCDF, was the group tasked with maintaining the peace. They must be having a collective aneurysm right now.
If not now, then they would be when Father brought the fury of House von Hasenberg down on them. As patriarch of one of the three High Houses, Albrecht von Hasenberg was one of the most powerful people in the ’verse. When he wasn’t happy, heads rolled—sometimes literally.
“Am I the only target? Are my brothers and sisters okay?” I asked.
Ian refused to answer, which sent my worry spinning out of control. I mentally reached for the messages flying through the air, trying to find my family’s familiar com signature.
The headache slammed into me with the force of a freighter. I’d overextended myself with the encryption. Black spots danced in my vision, and I had to let the search go or risk passing out. What little food I’d managed to eat soured in my stomach.
“Where is my transport?” Ian yelled. “And where the fuck is RCDF?”
Since I couldn’t answer either question, I figured he must be talking to someone on the other end of his com.
Ian popped his head up to look through the shattered transport window. It took all of my willpower not to drag him back to safety. He ducked back down just as another blaster bolt slammed into the door, centimeters from his head.
“Shooter is in the twenty-story building west of House Chan,” Ian said. “Top third.”
A heavy troop transport settled next to us. The doors opened and fully armored RCDF soldiers streamed out. They hunkered down behind our transport, but no more shots were fired. Perhaps the shooter had fled now that backup had arrived.
“It’s about time,” Ian snarled. He kept a hand on my shoulder so I couldn’t sit up.
“Lady Bianca, are you well?” the soldier closest to me asked.
Only years of strict training kept me from offering my true thoughts on the stupidity of that question. “Catch the shooter and I’ll be better,” I said.
“We’re working on it, my lady,” he said.
“Let’s get you into the transport,” Ian said. “Can you crawl in that dress?”
“I’ll make it work,” I said.
“Stay low,” Ian cautioned, as if he thought I planned to stand and waltz to the vehicle.
I rolled over onto my belly. I tucked my toes, planted my hands, and pushed up just enough for the front of my body to clear the ground. My arms protested but held—barely. I’d only recently started going to the gym again, but I’d rather be shot than admit how out of shape I was to Ian Bishop.
I slid one leg forward, dragging the bottom of my dress up as I did. I reached forward, then pushed off with my leg, like I was climbing a wall. I repeated the motion on the other side and crawled forward on my hands and toes.
My progress was slow but steady. The dress hampered me, and I envied how easily Ian crawled in his tuxedo. To his credit, he didn’t try to rush me, he just kept pace beside me.
When we reached the troop transport, Ian pushed himself up into a crouch then picked me up and swung me into the vehicle in one smooth motion. His easy strength stole my breath, but he took my silence as offense.
“You can yell at me later,” he said as he climbed inside. “For now, stay on the floor. The windows are reinforced, but the floor is safer.” He slammed the transport door closed, then swiped his right arm over the chip reader. “Take us to House von Hasenberg’s private entrance.”
The transport lifted off. I closed my eyes and didn’t try to get up. My head felt like I’d gone several rounds with my old self-defense tutor, and that lady had packed a mean right cross.
“Are you injured?” Ian asked, his voice laced with concern.
“No,” I said. It sounded like a lie, mostly because it was a lie. I worked on pulling my tattered public mask back on. Once I was certain I could maintain the facade, I opened my eyes and met Ian’s gaze. My voice was cool when I asked, “Are my siblings okay?”
Ian glanced away. “As far as I know,” he hedged.
“Who?” I demanded as I sat up. My head swam, but I refused to show weakness. When Ian didn’t answer, I asked again, my voice knife-sharp.
I had an older brother and sister, a twin brother who was younger by thirteen minutes, and two younger sisters. We were all close despite our parents’ attempts to drive us apart. If any of my siblings were hurt, the rest of us would rain hell and damnation on whoever was stupid enough to do it.
“I haven’t heard from Lord Ferdinand’s team yet,” Ian admitted.
Ferdinand was my oldest brother and heir to House von Hasenberg. He had done his best to shield the rest of us from the worst of Father’s fury, and although he hadn’t always been successful, we adored him for it.
I pulled out my com and checked our sibling group channel. Everyone except Ferdinand and Ada had checked in. Ada was off-planet and wouldn’t get the messages for some time, so I wasn’t worried about her.
I let the others know I was okay and the channel blew up with questions. No one had heard anything from our oldest brother and worry lurked behind every message.
“I’m assuming you have additional units en route to Ferdinand’s location?” I asked Ian.
His jaw tightened. “Yes, Lady von Hasenberg.”
The title gave away his irritation with me for questioning his ability to do his job, and I smiled internally.
“Where was Ferdinand tonight?” I asked.
“He had a private dinner scheduled in the Yamado quarter,” Ian said.
“I am not at liberty to say,” Ian said. His tone said he wouldn’t budge, so I turned my questioning elsewhere.
“Care to explain how someone was able to shoot at me tonight?” I asked.
“I intend to find out,” he said with a scowl. “Do you know of anyone who wants you dead?”
I raised an eyebrow. “No, Director Bishop, I can’t think of a single soul,” I said sweetly. Ask a stupid question…
He sighed. “Anyone in particular?”
That was a harder question. No one came to mind, but that didn’t mean no one wanted me dead. I was the daughter of a High House and suspected of killing my husband. Before that, I’d publicly worked for Father, gathering information on our rivals using whatever means necessary. The list of people who wanted me dead was far longer than the list of people who preferred me alive.
“I haven’t had any active threats,” I said at last. “And despite what you and Father think, I don’t think House Rockhurst is stupid enough to bring the war to Earth.”
“You’d be surprised,” he said darkly.
I wouldn’t, actually. I’d seen the same data he had, and I saw nothing that indicated a Rockhurst attack was imminent. Of course, I hadn’t seen anything that indicated any attack was likely, so someone was playing their cards very close to their chest.
“Are you sure they weren’t shooting at you?” I asked. It would make sense because as the head of House security, he would be the first person tracking Ferdinand.
Ian shook his head. “The shooter had a clear shot at me from the time we stepped outside, but he only took the shot when you moved slightly ahead of me. He misjudged your speed and shot in front of you. You were the target.”
I swallowed. It wasn’t the first time I’d had a close brush with death and it probably wouldn’t be the last. But it never got any easier.
The transport landed. Ian waited a second, then slid the door open. House von Hasenberg glowed like the sun. Floodlights turned night into day and soldiers patrolled outside the walls.
“Expecting another attack?” I asked.
“Someone is welcome to try,” he growled.
He bent over to pick me up but I stopped him with a hand on his chest. Firm muscle hid under the fine fabric of his suit. He was so close that I could see the darker blue ring around the outside of his irises.
“You cannot carry me,” I said, my voice quiet but adamant. “Weakness is a vulnerability. I’d rather not become a target for every moron with a grudge if you don’t mind.”
He paused for a long second then nodded. “I will assist you out,” he said.
Ian stepped out of the transport and then offered me his hand. When I grabbed it, he pulled me out and helped me stand. Vertical, my head rang like a gong. My dress was a little the worse for wear, but it still covered me, so I ignored the damage and pretended all was well. I excelled at pretense.
“Steady?” Ian asked under his breath.
Rather than answering, I inclined my head and dropped his hand. I walked to the door without so much as a wobble, although the effort had cost me. I swiped my arm over the reader and the door unlocked.
Ian pulled the door open for me, and I swept inside. “Contact me as soon as you know anything about Ferdinand,” I tossed over my shoulder.
After the door clicked closed, he caught up to me and pulled me to a stop. “You should see a doctor,” he said.
Over my dead body. And if I had it my way, not even then. I didn’t say it aloud, but some of the sentiment must’ve leaked through in my expression because Ian frowned.
“I am fine,” I said. “I will be better when Ferdinand is safe at home, so I suggest you get to it.” I sank enough dismissive condescension into that sentence to founder a battle cruiser.
Ian stiffened and his face smoothed into a polite mask. He bowed slightly. “As you wish, Lady von Hasenberg,” he said. “Do not leave the house without notifying me.” He turned and stalked down the hallway toward his office.
Once he was out of sight, I breathed a silent sigh of relief. Ian could be damned persistent when he set his mind to it, but I’d found that just the right tone would cause him to storm away in a fury. And like it or not, I’d had plenty of practice being a condescending bitch thanks to my status as daughter of a High House.
I headed for the family wing, unsurprised to see guards posted along the hallway and outside my suite. Thanks to some careful nudging on my part, my suite had turned into the gathering spot for sibling meetings. It worked well because these days I was the only sibling who consistently stayed on Earth. Everyone else was usually off on some errand for the House. When they were home, my brothers and sisters had access to come and go from my suite as they pleased. As a bonus, the additional shielding in my room meant it took longer for my headache to worsen.
Catarina and Benedict were waiting for me. Sitting next to each other, no one would guess they were siblings. Catarina had Mother’s dark hair and golden skin. Only she and Ada had been lucky enough to take after Mother. The rest of us shared Father’s lighter hair and ruddy skin.
Benedict, my twin, jumped to his feet. Even with my heels, Benedict towered over me. I often claimed that he’d stolen all of my height because he was the tallest of all of my brothers and sisters.
“What happened?” he asked. He pulled me into a hug before I could answer.
“Someone shot at me outside House Chan,” I murmured into his chest. The reality sank in as I crashed from the adrenaline high. Someone had shot at me. On Earth.
A rock settled in the pit of my stomach. This was the first time someone had tried to kill me on Earth. The world shifted as my one sanctuary crumbled to dust.
“Was the shooter caught?” Catarina asked.
Benedict pushed me toward the sofa. “Sit, I’ll get you a drink,” he said.
I sat. The adrenaline crash had made me shaky and nauseated. “I don’t know if the shooter was caught,” I said. “Director Bishop ordered RCDF troops to the location, but they were late. Have either of you heard from Ferdinand?”
“No,” they said in unison.
“I pinged his com with an emergency message, but he didn’t respond,” Catarina said.
Worry pressed on my chest. It was unlike our serious older brother to fail to respond to an emergency, no matter what he was doing.
“Do you think it was Rockhurst?” Benedict asked. He handed me a martini and I took a grateful sip.
“Are they that stupid?” Catarina asked. Because she was the baby of the family it was all too easy to forget that she was a von Hasenberg in her own right. A razor-sharp mind hid behind her innocent face.
“I don’t think so,” I said, “but Director Bishop doesn’t agree.” I paused for a second, then clarified, “Well, I don’t think Lady Rockhurst is that stupid, but who knows about her children.”
Richard Rockhurst certainly hadn’t shown the best judgment when he had decided to go after Ada. My younger sister was far too clever for him.
“I was under the impression that House Rockhurst went on lockdown after Richard’s stunts,” Catarina said. “Lady Rockhurst was livid that he lost one of their prototype ships and forced them into premature war.”
“I’ve heard the same,” Benedict said. “But holding the von Hasenberg heir could swing the war in their favor if she thought she could get away with it.”
“Yes, but if she’s caught, then she has to face the RCDF as well as House Yamado and the lower houses,” I said. “It’s a risky move for potentially little reward. House von Hasenberg has six children. Father is ruthless enough to write one off, even if Ferdinand is his favorite. You know it, I know it, and Lady Rockhurst certainly knows it.”
Benedict and Catarina nodded. Father would fight to get Ferdinand back because anything else made the House look weak. But if he decided it was a lost cause, he would cut our brother loose.
The suite door opened and our oldest sister Hannah stormed in. Her pale blue gown flattered her complexion but did nothing to hide the thunderclouds in her expression.
She flopped down next to me, stole my martini, and drained the glass. “Sorry I’m late,” she said. “I left a dinner party in my honor. Pierre tried to stop me. He is furious,” she said with grim satisfaction.
Pierre was Hannah’s husband. Much like my own marriage, Father had arranged everything and left Hannah no choice. It was not a happy match. Now she lived to infuriate the man who had bought his way into our House.
“What do we know?” Hannah asked.
Benedict got her up to speed. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long because we didn’t have much to go on.
“So why Bianca and Ferdinand and not the rest of us?” Hannah asked.
“Perhaps they’ve heard that Bianca has a legion of spies,” Catarina said before I could answer.
Hannah and Benedict turned to me in unison. “Do tell,” Hannah drawled.
Once again Cat jumped in before I could speak. She told them about our morning with relish. It wasn’t too often that our baby sister got the drop on one of us, so she enjoyed their surprise.
“Had you heard anything about an attack?” Benedict asked.
“No, nothing,” I said. I didn’t mention the message I had decrypted. That would lead to more questions than I could answer.
No one knew that I could break encryption. Gregory had been as paranoid as he was brilliant, and as far as I could tell, he had kept his research secret. His lab—and our house—had been on a tiny, distant planet that wasn’t exactly a tourist destination. His family had long since moved away, but Gregory had kept the family seat because he liked the isolation. And the lack of prying eyes.
It was much more likely that I was a target because someone knew I dealt in information.
“Director Bishop said Ferdinand was in the Yamado quarter at a private dinner. He wouldn’t say with whom,” I said, “but I intend to find out.”
My siblings stayed for a little while longer, then began to trickle out. Hannah was the last to leave. She stopped me before I opened the door for her. Her expression was serious.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“If anything happens to Ferdinand,” she said slowly, “I plan to abdicate my place in line. I refuse to become heir.”
I blinked at her, thrown. If something happened to Ferdinand, and then Hannah abdicated, I would be next in line.
I did not want to be next in line. I barely managed my current responsibilities.
“Why?” I finally managed to ask.
“Pierre,” she said shortly. “I refuse to give that bastard any more power, over me or anyone else.” Fury darkened her face. “Do you know what he said when I told him about the attack on you and that Ferdinand was missing? He made a joke about how his lot is improving now that he’s married to the heir. He’s lucky I didn’t punch him in front of all of his so-called friends.”
She took a deep breath and shook her head. “I have every confidence we’ll find Ferdinand, but I wanted you to be prepared, just in case. Please don’t tell anyone else.”
“Does Ferdinand know?”
“Yes, we’ve discussed it.”
“Do you want me to do something about Pierre?” I asked seriously.
She pulled me into a hug. “No, but I appreciate the offer. I’ve got it under control.”
I thought about her words long after she left.
– – – – – – –
Aurora Blazing by Jessie Mihalik. All rights reserved. Available October 2019 from Harper Voyager.