- Honor and Shadows
- Hunt the Stars
- Eclipse the Moon
- Capture the Sun
First fifty orders will include a bookmark and stickers! Plus, you can also order signed backlist books.
Acclaimed author Jessie Mihalik returns with the thrilling conclusion to her Starlight’s Shadow trilogy. An intergalactic thief must join forces with the charming teleporter who stole her last job—and may now be her only hope for saving her former crew.
As a recovery specialist, Lexi Bowen’s jobs typically require more trickery and thievery than honest work. Her former captain might not approve of her flexible morals, but stealing artifacts for rich assholes pays the bills, and Lexi’s had enough of war and death. The FHP left her to die once; she doesn’t plan to give them a chance to finish the job.
Unfortunately, her latest contract takes her to Valovia itself—and right back into the orbit of Nilo Shoren, a Valovian teleporter who already cost her one payday and nearly stole her heart.
Armored against his clever charm, Lexi plans to get in, get the job done, and get out. But when her former crew goes missing in Valovian space, Lexi will have to work with Nilo to figure out what happened—and stop it—before the galaxy’s two superpowers can use the disappearance as an excuse to return to war.
Coming Spring 2023
Publisher: Harper Voyager
I’d sworn I would never set foot on Valovia again, but I was about to prove myself a liar. That fact had never been in question, but I tried to keep the promises I made to myself. The screen in my cabin gently mocked me, displaying a green and brown close-up of the planet while the atmosphere buffeting the ship’s hull grew denser as we sank toward the surface.
Valovia had burned me twice already. I usually learned from my mistakes, but once again the promise of money had overridden my good sense. I winced. My former captain, Octavia Zarola, would be so disappointed in me. Tavi had a strict moral compass. Mine was a lot more flexible.
And a lot more lucrative.
Case in point: the sumptuous first-class cabin surrounding me, paid for by Besor Edfo, my contact and potential employer on Valovia. It was an obvious ploy for him to demonstrate that he had money to spare, since I hadn’t agreed to take the job yet, only to meet, but it was a nice touch. As was the prepaid first-class return ticket.
Besor had offered me a truly ridiculous amount of money to recover a stolen figurine for him. Apparently, he and a rival had been feuding over the piece of art for close to a decade, and it had switched hands a dozen times thanks to the efforts of a few recovery specialists.READ MORE
Officially, recovery specialists were experts at tracking down items that had gone missing, whether through negligence or theft. But in reality, we were often the reason items went missing.
The latest theft of the figurine had stymied Besor’s longtime specialist, so he’d put out a call for an expert.
An expert like myself.
I’d never been able to resist a puzzle, so despite my vow never to return, I was minutes away from touching down on Valovia once again. I just hoped that my curiosity—and greed—wouldn’t bite me in the ass.
The ship picked up a subtle vibration as the atmosphere thickened. I checked the suite one last time. The porters had already picked up the trunk containing my clothes and other basics. It would be transferred directly to my hotel by the ship’s staff. The trunk’s locks were second to none, but I’d placed the few things I didn’t want a stranger snooping through into an oversize tote I would personally carry.
Everything else I might need, assuming I accepted the job or at least wanted to research it further, was in a crate I’d shipped before I’d left Fed space—and by shipped, I meant smuggled. Travel between the Federated Human Planets and the Valovian Empire was allowed, but only under a very strict set of rules and regulations. Crossing the border with a whole lot of illegal tech wasn’t something either side appreciated. But if everything had gone according to plan, the crate would be waiting for pickup in a warehouse at the edge of the city.
If not, well, it couldn’t be tracked to me. The loss would be a financial hit, but such losses were a part of doing business, which is one of the reasons experienced recovery specialists charged such an exorbitant amount for their services.
Zenzi, Valovia’s capital city, grew larger on the screen. I’d tried to move our meeting to one of the other cities on the planet, but Besor was based in the capital, and he’d been reluctant to relocate. That meant I was returning to the very city where I’d spent my previous two disastrous visits.
The same city where I’d met Nilo Shoren—Valoff, hand-to-hand specialist, teleporter, liar.
The first time we’d met, he’d flirted with me for a few days then left me waiting for him in a hotel bar like a dumbass while he’d stolen my job. The second time, Tavi had expressly forbidden me from stabbing him, which had saved him a limb or two. After that, we’d settled into a wary détente because rescuing a child had been more important than our petty squabble.
But a mix of anger, embarrassment, and disappointment still burned under my skin. I’d liked Nilo, right up until he’d humiliated me, which made the pain extra sharp, like sand in an open wound.
I was traveling under a false name, so even if he was on the lookout for me—which I very much doubted, my hubris wasn’t that high—he wouldn’t know I was back on Valovia. And Zenzi’s population was over two million, so the odds that we would accidentally meet were incredibly slim.
Still, I crossed my fingers to ward off bad luck.
Nilo had his own gravity, much like a black hole, and in this, at least, I was smart enough not to be drawn in a third time—no matter how much I was tempted by his charming grin and sly wit. It was a mask, same as mine. I needed to remember we were more alike than either of us would prefer.
I slid my feet into the nude pumps that added several centimeters to my height, putting me over a meter eighty. Height could be a weapon, and today I wielded it with precision. I expected to meet with Besor as soon as I arrived at the hotel, and with my heels, we’d stand eye to eye. The sleeveless, midnight-blue sheath dress accentuated my pale skin and chin-length, curly blond hair.
It also made me appear unarmed. I wasn’t—I had two knives and a small plas blade hidden under the ruched fabric—but appearances were important.
My makeup was subtle and flawless. I looked poised, expensive, and untouchable. I tailored my look to each client, and according to rumor, Besor appreciated beautiful things. And perhaps if he was dazzled by my facade, he wouldn’t pay enough attention to our negotiations, netting me a better deal.
The ship settled onto the landing pad with a barely discernible bump. A few minutes later, someone rang the suite’s doorbell, and I shored up my mental shields. Most Valoffs were telepathic, and while they generally didn’t go poking around in humans’ heads for fun, they could.
I refused to have anyone in my head but me.
I opened the door to reveal a young, uniformed Valovian woman. She bowed shallowly, and her pale skin and ash-blond hair contrasted nicely with the deep garnet uniform. Her eyes were light blue, threaded through with streaks of midnight—a common Valovian trait.
“Ms. Stafford, we have arrived at Zenzi,” she said, her tone deferential, as if I really were someone important. “If you are ready to disembark, I will show you to your transport.”
All of my travel documents and IDs were under the name Alexandra Stafford for this trip, because my real identity—Lexi Bowen—was potentially a little too interesting on Valovia. I didn’t know that the empress was on the lookout for me, but I didn’t know that she wasn’t, either. My last trip hadn’t exactly ended in an open invitation to return, so a new identity had been prudent.
I’d been answering to my assumed name for a week, so hearing it now didn’t bother me. I picked up my tote, did a final visual check to ensure I hadn’t left anything behind, then smiled at the woman. “Lead the way.”
She bowed again and then swept an arm to my left. “Please follow me.”
This passenger liner was large enough that the first-class cabins had their own level, and even the hallway was wide and well-appointed, with light cream paint, polished gold fixtures, and faux marble floors. It also had an elevator to a private external hatch, so VIPs wouldn’t have to rub elbows with the huddled masses in the cheaper cabins.
As we waited for the elevator, two more groups joined us, each being led by a uniformed steward. I subtly eyed them. The two middle-aged men—both Valoff—in expensive, complementary suits were obviously a couple, holding hands and making goo-goo eyes at each other while their steward suppressed a tiny smile and politely ignored them. They were adorable.
The human man and woman were not. They were older, dressed in designer clothes, and angry at everything. The third time the woman snapped at their steward, who was doing his very best to maintain his placid expression in spite of his clenched jaw, I stepped in.
“What brings you to Valovia?” I asked in Common, masking my annoyance at them behind polite small talk. I could speak Valovan well enough to get by, but most humans preferred Common.
The woman ignored me. The man next to her shot me a contemptuous look, then followed it up with a slow, leering glance down my body. After he realized I was attractive, a lascivious smile appeared, though he had to be at least twice my age. “I’m here for business,” he drawled, “but I’m hoping to make time for pleasure, too.”
The invitation was impossible to miss, but I pretended ignorance.
The man edged closer, his smile still firmly in place. His eyes, however, were cold and covetous. If he put so much as a single finger on me, he’d learn a harsh lesson in why touching someone without consent was a very bad idea. It was a message I’d be happy to deliver on behalf of people everywhere.
He must’ve read the danger in my expression because he backed off, but to make himself feel better, he muttered an insult under his breath.
I mentally counted to ten. I was thirty-one, a former soldier, and currently one of the best thieves in the galaxy—dealing with assholes was practically my job description and had been for a long time. And while breaking the man’s nose would be eminently satisfying, it wasn’t worth the hassle. I was trying to help the steward, not cause more trouble.
Luckily, the elevator arrived before my self-control faltered. As we boarded, the steward dipped his chin in gratitude, which was thanks enough.
We arrived at the transport hub without further difficulty. The passenger liner’s gravity matched Valovia’s, which was slightly lower than FHP standard, so the transition out of the ship felt seamless. I slipped my steward a tip, then sighed and added a second one. I tilted my head toward the human couple who were still loudly complaining. “Please ensure this goes to their steward. I have a feeling they are going to forget their manners.”
The young woman bowed deeply. “Thank you, Ms. Stafford. Is there anything else I may assist you with?”
“No, thank you.”
She opened the transport’s door. “Your destination is already programmed. Enjoy your stay.”
The sleek hotel transport was as nice as the suite I’d just left, with deeply padded seats, a fully stocked minibar, and a panoramic tinted glass window to let passengers enjoy the sights. Aerial transportation was banned in Zenzi, thanks to the Imperial Palace, so the vehicle rose a mere meter before gliding forward and merging with the ground traffic.
I poured myself a glass of excellent Valovian red wine out of a tiny bottle and then watched the scenery slide by. Zenzi was a massive city, and the spaceport was on the edge of it. The Valovian Empire spanned at least a dozen known planets—and probably more we didn’t know about. If Valovia was the empire’s heart, then Zenzi was its brain.
And Empress Nepru ruled with a gloved fist from her seat in the Imperial Palace.
After a decades-long war, the Valovian Empire and the Federated Human Planets—commonly shortened to FHP or Fed—had finally settled into a fragile peace for the past three years. But a month and a half ago, the last time I’d been on-planet, I’d learned just how fragile that peace truly was, because either the empress or the FHP was actively working against it.
Hell, maybe they both were. Tavi was attempting to track down what was happening, but I’d left her and the rest of the crew of Starlight’s Shadow behind to pursue my own goals. Guilt filled my chest, but I tried to shake it off. Tavi would be fine. She had the whole crew to look after her.
Of course, I considered half of that crew my family, so it wasn’t exactly reassuring that they were all in danger, but at least Eli, Tavi’s first officer, would be the voice of reason. And even if things got bad, they had a freaking telekinetic in the crew now, and Torran would protect Tavi with his life.
Tavi would be fine, but I wouldn’t be if she found out I was on Valovia without backup, which is why I’d neglected to mention this little trip to her. We communicated fairly often, so I’d have to come clean if I ended up taking the job, but I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.
I settled more firmly in my seat and sipped my wine. Outside, the orange sun was low in the sky and sinking fast. Solar days on Valovia were only ten hours long, but rather than working and sleeping in short increments, the Valoffs had combined two solar days into a single buratbos, a twenty-hour “day” with two sunrises and sunsets. And because the Imperial Palace was on Valovia, the twenty-hour day became the Valovian standard, much like the FHP standard was twenty-four hours thanks to humans starting on Earth.
The ship had timed it so that we’d arrived in the second half of the buratbos, which matched up with evening standard time. The transition wouldn’t be too harsh, but every time I visited, the Valovian schedule fucked with my sleep. I did fine on planets with extremely long days and nights, but the frequent transition between the two threw off my body’s internal clock.
However, never having to wait very long for darkness to descend did tend to make my job easier.
The steady flow of traffic grew heavier, and the interesting architecture of the outer edge of the city gave way to towers encased in glass as we reached the central district. In my experience, cities all tended to look very similar once they reached a certain population density. Zenzi might be a smidgen more beautiful than the FHP’s early utilitarian cities, but physics worked the same everywhere, and there were only so many ways to build a skyscraper capable of housing thousands of people.
My hotel was in one of the tallest buildings in the city, a towering monolith sheathed in glittering blue glass reminiscent of ocean waves. I’d picked it for the design alone—and because Besor was footing the bill.
I drained the last drops of wine from my glass, then put it in the sanitizing receptacle. A moment later, the transport glided to a stop at the hotel’s covered front entrance. A uniformed bellhop waited for my door to automatically open, then bowed in greeting. “Welcome to Oniatsa Tabr, Ms. Stafford,” he said in flawless Common, proving that someone had alerted him about my arrival. “May I take your bag?”
“No, thank you,” I said as I exited the transport. “I only have the one. I believe the rest of my luggage was sent ahead.”
“It was. It is waiting for you in your room. If you have a comm that works on Valovian networks, then you should already have your room information and electronic key. If not, I’d be happy to direct you to the concierge who will give you a keycard.”
“My comm is dual-tech, thank you.” I pulled up my room assignment. I was on the thirtieth floor, which should make for a nice view as long as I didn’t face the building next door.
The bellhop bowed slightly in acknowledgment. “Mr. Edfo requests that you join him in the Mountain Salon.”
I got directions to the room—after waving off repeated offers of a personal escort—and entered the hotel. Inside, a vibrant green indoor oasis, at least three stories tall, flanked the right side of the lobby, and an understated concierge desk hugged the left wall. The main walkway led straight through the room, but clustered seating areas lined each side.
I took in the space with a brief glance. There were a few businesspeople and tourists, including a family with two small children who were doing their best to entertain everyone around them, much to their parents’ exasperation. There were also at least three security agents doing their best to look inconspicuous while watching the entire lobby.
All three had noted my entrance.
They had positioned themselves around the room. The fair, blond woman was wearing slacks and a blouse covered by a jacket. She sat on the left side of the walkway, facing toward the path so she could see both the entrance and the exit. She appeared to be reading on her comm, but she spent more time scanning the surroundings than her device.
The dark-haired man with deep brown skin was wearing a charcoal suit and leaning casually against a column while idly scrolling through something on his slate. Every so often he frowned for effect, but his eyes were too sharp to pull off the ruse.
The final man had brown hair and tan skin. He was wearing a navy suit, and he sat at the far end of the walkway, near the hallway that led to the meeting rooms. He was sipping at a cup of coffee—or some other hot beverage in a mug—while lazily surveying the room.
Icy fingers of trepidation stole down my spine, but I kept my expression open and easy as I moved through the lobby. None of my research had indicated that Besor employed personal security while out in the city. They could be security for someone else, but the way they were arrayed gave them the best view of both the hotel’s entrance and the corridor that led to the Mountain Salon.
And all three were very carefully not looking at me.
My intuition was finely honed, and right now, it screamed danger. I didn’t question it, not even for the lucrative job offer waiting just a few meters away. I’d studied the hotel’s map as a basic precaution before deciding on the location, and I knew the meeting room hallway had several exits.
Bolting would draw too much attention. I moved through the lobby with brisk confidence and entered the wide hallway. The door to the Mountain Salon was closed, and no one was visible, but I still couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right.
I continued past the closed door without breaking stride. If this was a false alarm, then Besor would be upset that I’d delayed our meeting, but I could smooth his ruffled feathers once I figured out why all of my internal alarms were rioting.
A glance over my shoulder proved that the Valoff in the navy suit had entered the hallway, his eyes on me. Shit, intuition won this round. If he was a telekinetic, then I was fucked.
With no better options available, I picked up my pace. Escape was far better than a fight, but I still had ten meters before I’d reach the door that led into a labyrinth of service hallways.
A tall, lean man wearing a long, hooded coat appeared in my path, and I jerked to a halt. He hadn’t stepped out of a doorway or from a hidden alcove, he’d literally appeared from thin air, something no human could accomplish. A teleporter wasn’t as deadly as a telekinetic, but they were much harder to evade.
I slid the hem of my dress up, drew the plas knife strapped to my thigh, and activated it. The ten-centimeter energy blade shimmered into existence, glowing red—the lethal setting. The short blade wasn’t a huge threat, but it was better than nothing.
Behind me, a deep voice shouted, “Stop!”
As if I was going to listen to that.
The man in front of me tilted his head, and I caught a glimpse of a familiar one-sided smile. My breath caught. It couldn’t be.
He closed the distance between us. The hood shadowed his face, but I would know those striking, gold-streaked green eyes anywhere—Nilo Shoren had found me even though I’d been on-planet for less than two hours.
A maelstrom of emotion arose—annoyance, anger, desire, happiness, and most dangerous of all, hope.
I kept the blade between us. His smile grew wider, and he murmured, “Going to stab me?”
“Depends. Are you going to betray me again?”
Something fleeting crossed his face, but he shook his head. “Believe it or not, I’m here to help.”
I didn’t believe it, but another shout behind me proved that I didn’t have much choice. Nilo stepped closer, and I deactivated the blade. When I stabbed him, it would be because I’d meant it, not by accident.
“Take a deep breath,” he ordered as his hands clamped around my bare upper arms.
I sucked in a breath to tell him exactly where he could shove his orders, but I didn’t get a chance before cold power washed over me and the world disappeared.
The vertigo was instant and intense. It felt like spinning through zero gravity, where there was no up or down, just endless twists and turns in total, inky darkness. Tavi had tried to explain it, but she’d left out a few pertinent details.
Like how I could still feel Nilo’s taut body pressed up against mine, a tiny reassurance in this hellacious void. And how I could feel his power, sharp and cold, swirling around both of us, binding us together.
The glass of wine I’d drank was dangerously close to reappearing when the world popped back into existence. Nilo stumbled and we both nearly went down. He cursed and steadied me for a second, then let go. My stomach heaved, unhappy with the entire ordeal.
“What were you thinking, coming to Valovia—” Nilo started, his tone furious, but I tuned him out.
I closed my eyes, tilted my head back, and took several deep, calming breaths. It helped. I still felt nauseous, but I no longer felt like I would immediately vomit on Nilo’s shoes. When I opened my eyes, he held out a reusable bottle. I dropped the plas knife in my tote and accepted it.
Nilo still wore a scowl, but it was tempered by reluctant sympathy. “Sorry,” he grumbled. “Humans tend to have a stronger reaction than Valoffs. I should’ve warned you.”
I opened the bottle a took a cautious sip of cold water. When it stayed down, I took a longer drink and looked around. The fading sunlight revealed that we were in a narrow clearing surrounded by a forest of massive coniferous trees. A small house blended into the landscape, with dark brown wooden siding, a curved front wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, and a sloping green roof covered in plants.
There were no other houses nearby. Indeed, with the exception of what was likely a shed or garage, there were no other structures nearby. Just trees, trees, and more trees. Nervousness drifted through me like smoke. Despite our squabbles, I didn’t think Nilo would take me into the woods and murder me, but if he tried, no one would hear me scream.
Of course, if he was stupid enough to try, then no one would hear him scream, either.
Bolstered by that thought, I turned to him and gave him the same slow perusal I’d just given our surroundings. At some point while I’d been trying to keep my wine down, he’d pushed back his hood, giving me a clear view, and one thing remained true: Nilo Shoren was an unfairly handsome man.
Not only did he have a bone structure that would make models weep with envy, but he also had dark hair, tan skin, and stunning eyes. Nilo’s irises were startlingly green—as deep and vibrant as the forest around us—and streaked through with bolts of gold. Valoffs’ eyes always tended to be interesting, but Nilo’s were over the top.
I pulled myself away from the magnetic draw of his gaze and looked at the rest of him. He was looking more unkempt than usual. His hair was too long, and several days’ worth of dark stubble shadowed his jaw. There was a subtle weariness to his expression that even his usual charming facade couldn’t quite hide.
“Are you okay?” I asked with a frown.
That surprised a chuckle out of him. “It’s been a long week,” he admitted. His humor evaporated, and he leveled a glare at me. “And a lot of that is thanks to you. What were you thinking, returning here?”
I lifted an eyebrow at his tone. “I don’t have to defend my decisions to you.” Even if those decisions often started and ended with money. “Why did you grab me? Where are we?”
He sighed and swept an arm toward the house. “Welcome to my home.”
I glanced between him and the building. It wasn’t what I’d pictured for him, in the brief moments I’d allowed myself to think of it at all, but I supposed a teleporter could live anywhere. Envy nipped at me. How much easier would my job be if I could just flit around with a thought?
“I realize it might not be what you’re used to,” Nilo started, a note of defensiveness in his voice.
I shook myself from my thoughts and interrupted him before he could take offense. “It’s beautiful, just not what I expected.”
His expression lit in interest. “What did you expect?”
“I figured you’d be closer to the city, probably in one of the tall buildings in the central district.” I could almost picture it—a fancy condo with no hint of personality and furniture that was made for looks rather than comfort.
I’d had a very similar place until I’d realized it was a waste of money when I spent the vast majority of my time away on jobs.
Nilo’s mouth twisted into a sardonic smile. “I own a flat on the forty-second floor of the third tallest building,” he admitted. “But this is the better option for now.”
“Because Empress Nepru doesn’t know it exists.”
My blood froze in my veins. “Pardon me?”
“You skipped the meeting room—which was the first smart thing you’ve done this week, by the way—so you had to know something was off, right?”
I ignored the implicit insult as adrenaline poured into my system. My pulse kicked, but danger had always sharpened my focus rather than derailing it. “I saw what I thought were security personnel in the lobby, but they didn’t seem to be guarding anyone in particular. That’s what tipped me off that something was wrong. Were they actually working for Empress Nepru?” At Nilo’s nod, I continued, “How did you know I was here? How did she?”
“Besor sold you out. He didn’t have your real identity, but when he heard Empress Nepru was quietly looking for a recovery specialist, he gave you up. Your assumed identity was solid, but once a team started digging, they matched your boarding photo to your real identity. The empress ordered a quiet pickup at the hotel. And I only knew you were here because I’ve been keeping an eye on who she’s keeping an eye on.”
If Besor truly had betrayed me, then his days were numbered. The risk with hiring recovery specialists was that we were very, very good at getting into places where we weren’t wanted.
Like a lying, double-crossing asshole’s fancy compound in the expensive part of the city.
My eyes widened as the meaning of the second half of Nilo’s sentence broke through the anger. “You have a spy in the palace.”
His chin dipped.
“Why would you step in for me and risk burning your source?”
Nilo didn’t quite roll his eyes, but I could tell that the desire was there. “Because if you get caught by the empress, then your captain will ride to your rescue, and Torran will accompany her. And the last thing the general needs right now is to be within the empress’s reach.”
I killed any disappointment before it could form. Of course he was looking out for Torran. And I should appreciate it, because he was right. If I was stupid enough to get caught on Valovia, then Tavi would come for me, even at great personal risk.
“Thank you,” I murmured. “How far from the city are we?”
“Zenzi is an hour south by transport. There’s a lev cycle in the shed in case of emergency, but I would prefer to port you to town to keep the risk of discovery down.”
I wrinkled my nose at the thought of future teleports, but I understood his caution. “I don’t suppose you grabbed my luggage, did you?”
Nilo shook his head, and I sighed. I still had my tote, so I’d kept everything important, but I needed clothes. This dress was nice, but it wouldn’t be if I wore it for a week straight. Luckily, I had additional clothes in the crate I’d shipped. “I have a package that I need to pick up in Zenzi.”
“Can it wait until tomorrow? Two more ports today will put me on my ass.”
I enjoyed that mental picture for a second, but putting him out of commission for an outfit change probably wasn’t the smartest plan if the empress knew I was on Valovia. “Do you have some clothes I can borrow?”
His gaze flickered over me before he met my eyes again. His expression sharpened in interest and a charming grin pulled at the corner of his mouth. “If I say no, will you keep wearing that dress?”
Little pinpricks of heat raced along my nerves. The man was too damn handsome for anyone’s peace of mind, but he wasn’t the only one who knew how to weaponize attractiveness. I gave him a slow, wicked smile. “If you say no,” I murmured, pitching my voice low and inviting, “I’ll mutilate your favorite shirt.”
The gold in his irises expanded, and his grin bloomed into something hot and sinful. “If you want me shirtless, you only have to ask.” When I merely raised my eyebrows, he relented. “I have a few things that should work for you until we can retrieve your clothes.”
Nilo gestured toward the house, and I fell into step beside him. Walking in heels on soft ground covered by tall, thick grass wasn’t the easiest, so after a few steps I stopped. “If I take my shoes off, is there anything that’s going to hurt my feet between here and the house?”
“I could carry you,” Nilo offered with a teasing smile.
“Okay,” I agreed, just to shock him. It didn’t disappoint—his mouth popped open in surprise and his eyes widened. But he recovered quickly, and before I could clarify that I’d been joking, he swept me up in his arms, with one arm braced behind my back and one looped under my naked knees, which put his hand dangerously high on my thigh.
His head dipped toward mine and he murmured, “You didn’t think I’d pass up an opportunity to put my hands on you without getting stabbed, did you?”
I shivered at the heat in his eyes and the husky note in his voice, but I did my best to ignore the effect. “Who said I wouldn’t stab you, hmm?” I asked lightly. I waved an imperious hand toward the house. “Now let’s go before it gets totally dark and a bear comes of the woods and eats us.”
Nilo started for the house. “I don’t know about a bear, since I am not familiar with the word, but there are ditbusia, and they are the reason that the modern Valovan word for demon or ‘monster’ is ditbus…”
He trailed off, and I poked him in his very firm, very close chest. “You can’t just drop something like that and then not elaborate. What do they look like? Will they attack? What should I do if I see one?”
“Trust me, you’ll know one when you see it. They’re all teeth and claws and bad attitude. Yes, they’ll attack Valoffs, so presumably they’ll attack humans, too. They’re fearless. And if you see one, it’s already too late. They’re fast and they can climb, so your best bet is standing still and hoping it’s not hungry.”
I scanned the darkening forest surrounding us. The sun had dipped below the horizon, leaving us shrouded in twilight. Valoffs had better night vision than humans, so if there was a demon stalking us, Nilo would see it, right?
He caught me staring at the trees and gave me a reassuring squeeze. “Don’t worry, I haven’t seen ditbusia around here in years. They tend to stay farther north.”
“That’s exactly what someone in a horror vid says right before the scary monster starts eating people.”
Nilo’s teeth flashed as he smiled, but his tone was serious when he said, “I’ll protect you.”
My heart quivered, ready to believe him, but his actions always spoke louder than his words, so until he threw himself between me and a clawed monster, I’d take his promises of protection with an appropriately large grain of salt.
Nilo opened the glass door without putting me down and carried me into the house. He set me on my feet and made sure I was stable before he moved away to turn on the lights.
I blinked as I looked around. The entryway opened into a small living room with a thickly cushioned sofa in front of a fireplace. On our right, a tiny wooden dining table with two chairs sat in the corner of the room, next to the wall of glass that made up the front of the cabin. Farther back, a compact kitchen had all the modern conveniences. It was open to the rest of the space, but still separate thanks to a long, narrow island.
Everything was soft and inviting and cozy, and it wasn’t what I’d been expecting at all.
I slipped off my shoes, set my tote on the floor, and padded deeper into the room—not that there was anywhere to go. The whole building couldn’t be more than ninety meters square, and this open living-dining-kitchen area took up most of that.
I glanced at Nilo. “How many bedrooms are in this house?”
“One.” He rubbed the back of his neck and looked away. “When I built it, I didn’t plan to bring guests.”
I bit down on the questions I wanted to ask. Learning more about him was dangerous, because knowledge led to caring, and caring led to heartbreak. This was just another challenge I needed to overcome, and the universe loved to test my self-control. I shook my head and eyed the couch. It looked comfortable enough, and even if it wasn’t, at least I’d have a roof over my head and hopefully a blanket or two.
Nilo moved into the kitchen. “Are you hungry?”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “I have a few meal bars that I can eat.”
He pinned me in place with a look. “It’s a simple question. Are you hungry, yes or no?”
My stomach was still a little iffy after the teleportation, but lunch on the ship had been hours ago. When I didn’t answer fast enough, he prompted, “Yes or no?”
“Yes,” I admitted. “But you don’t have—”
He pointed at the chair. “Sit. Relax. I know you don’t want to be here, and I’m sorry that this is how it worked out.”
I shrugged, feigning an ease I didn’t quite feel. “I’d rather be here than a guest of the empress, so thanks for that.”
Nilo dipped his head in acknowledgment, then started pulling out pans and ingredients and whatever else you needed to make dinner. I wouldn’t know—I’d spent most of my adult life eating either rations provided by the military or takeout provided by whatever restaurant was closest to my hotel. My time aboard Starlight’s Shadow was the one exception because Tavi loved to cook, and she always made dinner for the crew.
While Nilo worked on dinner, I checked my messages. Besor had not contacted me despite the fact that I’d missed our meeting. That didn’t necessarily mean he had betrayed me to Empress Nepru, but it was certainly suspicious considering our frequent communication previously.
I might not trust Nilo as far as I could throw him, but I didn’t think he would lie about something like this. Still, I decided to send Besor a note to see if I could get him to give up any more information. I routed it through two proxy servers just like Kee had taught me, so that I wouldn’t accidentally lead anyone looking straight to Nilo’s hidden house.
That done, I put my comm on the table and stood. Nilo was chopping something that looked vaguely like a long, skinny potato into precision cubes. He held the knife with an easy confidence that made the whole process look effortless.
I leaned a hip against the edge of the island across from him. “Can I help?” I asked, then held up a hand. “Before you agree, you should know that I burn water, but I can chop ingredients.”
His smile was warm and soft. It arrowed through me as easily as the knife in his hand would. “I’m almost done with the prep. I don’t have any poultry or fish right now, so I thought I’d do an egg and vegetable hash. Does that work?”
I blinked at him. We had never once discussed my diet preferences, but he somehow knew that I preferred chicken and fish over red meat. On Starlight’s Shadow we’d all eaten entirely vegetarian thanks to Kee’s preferences, so he’d gleaned this information based on the handful of meals we’d had together that hadn’t been on the ship.
Nilo had a sharp, deadly mind lurking behind his charming facade, and I needed to remember that. Very little escaped his notice, so I would have to be extra careful about what I allowed him to see. I pulled out the easy, friendly smile I used when trying to win someone over. “An egg and veggie hash sounds great, but you can make whatever you prefer. Don’t let me mess up your plans.”
An unreadable expression crossed Nilo’s face, but he just nodded and kept chopping.
I watched him work and waited for the silence to become uncomfortable, but the rhythmic chopping was strangely soothing. I stared at his hands and let my mind drift. The return ticket Besor had provided would be useless now. I’d brought enough hard credits to pay a smuggler to return me to Fed space even if I lost access to my accounts, but finding one who was trustworthy would take time. The team I’d used to ship my crate did not accept passengers.
The delay might not be all bad, though. If I could lie low for a week or two, Besor’s guard would drop, and I could pay him a little visit on my way off-planet. But two weeks with Nilo in a one-bedroom cabin was a recipe for disaster.
Hot, sweaty, pleasurable disaster, to be sure, but disaster nonetheless.
Nilo turned to dump the vegetables into a pan on the stove, and I admired the line of his back. He’d ditched his coat, and his gray shirt fit close to his body. He was leanly muscular with broad shoulders that narrowed to a trim waist and a nice ass. He was built like an endurance athlete with no unnecessary bulk, but as he’d proven outside, he was still plenty strong.
And my libido had all sorts of ideas about what, exactly, he could do with that strength and endurance. I shook my head at myself and reluctantly dropped my eyes to the countertop. Resisting temptation had never once been my strong suit. If I stayed here, I was doomed.
Pettiness warred with self-preservation. If I wanted revenge on Besor—and I did—then I needed a new place to stay as soon as possible. The crate I’d shipped had an alternate set of identity documents, so I should be able to book myself into a cheap hotel without arousing too much suspicion.
And I could certainly survive one night in the same cabin as Nilo, right?COLLAPSE