Chaos Reigning

Interplanetary intrigue and romance combine in this electrifying finale to the Consortium Rebellion trilogy.

As the youngest member of her High House, Catarina von Hasenberg is used to being underestimated, but her youth and flighty, bubbly personality mask a clever mind and stubborn determination. Her enemies, blind to her true strength, do not suspect that Cat is a spy—which makes her the perfect candidate to go undercover at a rival House’s summer retreat to gather intelligence on their recent treachery.

Cat’s overprotective older sister reluctantly agrees, but on one condition: Cat cannot go alone. Alexander Sterling, a quiet, gorgeous bodyguard, will accompany her, posing as her lover. After Cat tries, and fails, to ditch Alex, she grudgingly agrees, confident in her ability to manage him. After all, she’s never found a person she can’t manipulate.

But Alex proves more difficult—and more desirable—than Cat anticipated. When she’s attacked and nearly killed, she and Alex are forced to work together to figure out how deep the treason goes. With rumors of widespread assaults on Serenity raging, communications down, and the rest of her family trapped off-planet, Catarina must persuade Alex to return to Earth to expose the truth and finish this deadly battle once and for all.

But Cat can’t explain why she’s the perfect person to infiltrate hostile territory without revealing secrets she’d rather keep buried…

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Chapter One

The wineglass shattered in my hand, slicing deep into my palm and fingers. Red blood welled, but bitter disappointment overshadowed the physical pain.

Stupid, stupid girl. The silent words echoed in my father’s voice.

I should not have checked my com at the party, but communication from my brother Benedict was scarce, and I couldn’t resist. Mistake. Benedict’s latest war update painted a bleak picture, and I’d stopped paying attention just long enough to break the glass.

I’d been doing so well, but there would be no hiding this, not with blood dripping down my arm. I glanced around. I’d stepped out into the garden, away from the rest of the party, but the twilight shadows were not deep enough for me to slip away entirely. Susan, my bodyguard, watched over me from the patio, and it was only thanks to the angle that she hadn’t noticed the injury already.

There was nothing for it.

With a sigh, I tripped on the air and fell into the grass, landing with a yell. Glass shards sliced deeper and I didn’t have to fake the next pained groan.

“Lady Catarina, are you all right?” Susan shouted, her voice full of concern. She was the first to notice, as expected, despite the distance between us. After Ferdinand’s disappearance, House von Hasenberg family members were now assigned bodyguards at all times.


Footsteps approached, and I sat up, cradling my bloody hand. Susan gasped and called for a medic from the backup security vehicle outside. “I’m okay,” I assured her, “but the wineglass didn’t survive.”

She bent down to assess the injury. Her dark suit faded into the shadows, accentuating her pale skin and blond hair. Twenty-eight and happily married, she was one of my favorite bodyguards. She met my eyes, expression worried. “What happened?”

I gave her, and the growing crowd behind her, a bright, vapid smile. “I think I must’ve had too much of House Durand’s excellent wine.”

Twitters rose from the bystanders. No one was quite brave enough to insult me to my face—I was the daughter of a High House after all—but they weren’t laughing with me, either.

Susan, who was used to my antics, didn’t bat an eye, and that was somehow worse than the pitying looks from the crowd. I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t this person, that I’d built this facade when I didn’t know any better and now I was trapped.

But of course I couldn’t.

So I smiled while the medic extracted the glass from my hand and slathered it in regeneration gel. And I smiled as I moved through the crowd of vicious gossips who barely veiled their clever slights behind concerned looks and condescending advice.

At twenty-one, I was the youngest von Hasenberg heir. People thought that made me gullible, so I played into the narrative. I flitted from group to group, bubbly and shallow, more concerned with fashion and shopping than war and treachery. It was an exaggeration of my normal personality, but some days the mask was harder to wear than others.

Lately it had been harder still, especially when I could clearly hear the whispers that trailed in my wake.

None of them were kind.

It didn’t help that I remained stuck here on Earth while all of my siblings went gallivanting off across the universe. They insisted on treating me like a child, never mind that I was an adult in my own right. I loved them to death, but they were smothering me.

Every day the thought of getting in my ship and pointing it at a distant planet grew more and more appealing. Only honor, duty, and love kept me earthbound. We’d all worried after Ada had left, and while her story had turned out for the best, I didn’t want to put my brothers and sisters through another round of anxiety.

Not yet, not when everything was so unstable.

So I stayed at the party, because socializing was the one thing I was good at. I mingled, and laughed, and ignored the barbs. And if it all felt empty and hollow, I ignored that, too. House Durand was an ally, and we needed all the allies we could get while at war. I was here to strengthen that relationship.

It was all I could do.

For now.

Two days later, I felt like a spring that was wound too tight. My hand had healed, thanks to the regeneration gel, and I hadn’t had any more accidents, but I couldn’t settle. Enclosed in my private office, I paced and worried. I’d designed the space to be soothing, with pale green walls and antique wooden furniture, but right now it felt oppressive.

After months of careful planning, everything was finally coming together, with one tiny exception—I still had to tell my sister Bianca what I’d done. I’d scheduled breakfast with her, so at least I wouldn’t have to carry this anxiety all day. Not that the rest of my schedule was any better. After Bianca, I had to face one of Mother’s official House brunches.

One thing at a time.

I tucked away my restlessness and painted on the face I showed the outside world, then smoothed a hand down my pink-and-blue polka-dot dress. It flared around my knees and made me look young and carefree. My wardrobe tended toward bright colors as a distracting visual camouflage.

I checked my smile in the hallway mirror on my way out. There was too much tension around my eyes. I blinked and tried again. Better.

I didn’t really look like a von Hasenberg. My four oldest siblings had all taken after our father, with strong features, ruddy skin, and light brown hair. Ada and I had taken after our mother, with more delicate features, golden skin, and dark brown hair. Ada had also inherited Mother’s blue-gray eyes, but mine were a more common golden brown.

I joked that my five older siblings had used up all of the good genes, a joke that hit a little too close to home considering how sick I’d been as a child, but I liked the anonymity of not being immediately recognized as a member of my House.

My reflected smile turned wry. I was never anonymous, not really, but sometimes it was nice to pretend.

I continued down the short hallway to the living room. If my office was an oasis of calm, my living room was a riot of color. The walls were white, but large, colorful abstract prints adorned them. My furniture was all brightly hued. A lime green sofa, orange chair, and purple tables somehow formed a beautiful, cohesive design. The interior decorator I’d hired had earned every credit I’d paid her.

This was my public face, shown even to the few friends who were close enough to get to see the inside of my suite. We were all liars, to one degree or another.

Susan waited for me in the hallway outside, wearing her trademark dark suit, today paired with a pale pink shirt. “Going out, Lady Catarina?”

“I am heading to breakfast with Bianca, but I want to stop by a coffee shop on the way.”

She inclined her head in agreement and silently fell in behind me. I liked her because she always instinctively seemed to know if I wanted to be left alone with my thoughts or if I wanted idle chatter to fill the silence.

We stepped outside and I let my gaze drift over the city. Serenity, the headquarters of the Royal Consortium and the only inhabited city on Earth, was just beginning to wake, bathed in the brilliant gold of early morning sunlight.

The city was laid out in a circle and each High House owned a quarter. The quarters were divided into sectors starting from the middle. The Royal Consortium government buildings were in the very center, colloquially called Sector Zero. The family residence for each quarter took up the entirety of Sector One. The other nine sectors contained shops, offices, residences, and all of the amenities found in a large city.

The closer the sector was to the center of the circle, the more expensive it was to live and work there. Also, the buildings closer to the middle tended to be shorter, driving up prices even more due to the lack of supply. It made for an interesting view as the city grew taller and taller in the distance. Sector Ten was almost entirely skyscrapers over a hundred stories tall.

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and let the warmth of the sun shrink my worries back into manageable sizes. There were some benefits to being stuck on a planet.

And being able to go outside was a major one. I spent a lot of time outdoors because my earliest memories were of the white walls and locked windows of a medical center. As a child, I’d spent hours staring wistfully out of the small window in my room. I’d been sickly, despite the nanobots in my blood that were supposed to keep me well, and I still carried side effects from my numerous treatments.

I masked the side effects, like I masked my true personality, but these secrets were much more important to keep.

I opened my eyes with a sigh. Secrets and lies seemed to be all I dealt in these days. It was exhausting.

Susan and I entered the House transport, and I set the destination for Bianca’s favorite coffee shop. The transport lifted into the air with the familiar, soothing thrum of the engine.

My mind drifted and landed on the exact thing it shouldn’t: the unknown man at the club last night. My best friend, Ying Yamado, had persuaded me to go out with her, and I’d caught sight of him as soon as we walked in the door.

A stranger was hardly unusual, but this man had been captivating. Powerfully built and radiating quiet confidence, he was likely a soldier on leave. He wasn’t my usual type, but I’d been drawn to him like a moth to flame. I’d caught sight of him a few times, but before I’d worked up the courage to go say hello, he’d vanished.

And now my mind was stuck on him.

I acknowledged the attraction and then let the thought go. He wasn’t for me, not even for a night. It took a while, but I let him drift from my thoughts and focused on centering myself for the day to come.

By the time we landed, I felt calmer. It wouldn’t last, but I’d take what I could get.

The small coffee shop in Sector Eight of the von Hasenberg quarter bustled with customers, but the line moved quickly. I was meeting Bianca for breakfast at her apartment, but I wanted to bring her something she loved, and this shop served her favorite coffee. And if it helped to soften her up for the news to come, that wouldn’t be a bad thing, either.

After securing our coffees, Susan and I returned to the transport and lifted off, trailed by an additional House von Hasenberg security transport—an unfortunately common sight now.

Ian Bishop was the director of House security, and between the attack on Ferdinand and his relationship with Bianca, he’d become even more overprotective, especially once Father kicked Bianca out of her suite in the main house. She and Ian shared a penthouse a block away from the main House von Hasenberg complex, but you’d think she lived deep in a war zone from the way Ian worried.

It was kind of adorable, unless you wanted to walk to see your older sister—then it was just annoying. In the past few weeks, Director Bishop had made a security team shadow me even for the short walk between the main house and their apartment, so I wasn’t surprised that one followed us now.

Bianca’s penthouse spanned the entire top floor and would have cost a fortune if our House didn’t own the property.

Ten stories tall and situated on the corner of the block, the building was made of smooth gray stone. It had a view of the House von Hasenberg gardens as well as the ornate stone main house itself. Personally, I thought Father let her have the location because he wanted her to be able to see what she was missing.

I didn’t think it had worked because in the last two months she’d been as happy as I’d ever seen her, even after the forced move.

The penthouse had its own private entrance from the street. I swiped the identity chip in my right arm over the reader and the entry door popped open. Bianca had always given her siblings free access to her suite, and that practice carried over here, too.

The entryway opened into a tiny lobby with a single elevator and a set of stairs behind a locked door. On the far side of the elevator, another door opened to an office and lounge for visiting bodyguards. While Bianca might not mind her siblings running roughshod over her privacy, that same attitude did not extend to our guards. Both the elevator and stairs opened only here and in the penthouse, so having the guard wait at ground level had been deemed acceptable.

It didn’t hurt that the person making the rules was deeply in love with my sister and would do anything to make her happy.

The elevator required another identity check. I took the few seconds alone to check my smile in the reflective elevator doors. I didn’t usually hide my true feelings from my siblings, but I didn’t want Bianca to worry about me, not when there were so many other, more important, things to worry about.

Bianca’s living room was a study in retro-industrial looks. Silver chain link curtains spanned the large windows and glittered in the sun. The furniture was sleek and black. Exposed ductwork in the high ceilings added additional visual interest, and a single vivid painting saved the room from being utterly colorless.

The air was rich with the smell of cinnamon and sugar, but my sister was conspicuously absent. “Bee?” I called.

“We’re in the kitchen!” she yelled back.

My smile slipped at the we. I didn’t know anyone else was joining us for breakfast, but if Bianca was yelling like that, then it couldn’t be anyone too important. Maybe our oldest sister Hannah was back on Earth. She had taken some much-needed time away, but I hadn’t expected her back for another month or two.

The living room and dining room were one large, open space, but the kitchen was tucked away out of sight. Bianca liked to cook and her vast kitchen reflected that. It had the full range of high-end appliances as well as two oversize synthesizers.

I took in the scene at a glance. An unknown man and woman sat at the bar while Bianca bustled around. My sister had on a casual outfit and flats. The only time Bianca went without towering heels was around close friends and family. So who were these two and why had I never met them before? They turned my way, and I froze.

It was the man from the club.

I blinked and switched into public mode, mind racing. What was he doing here? I had a feeling that the pause hadn’t gone unnoticed by either of them as they tracked my progress into the room.

The woman had pale ivory skin, strawberry blond hair, and a lean build. Her eyes were sharp and neutral. Not unfriendly, more like undecided. The man had light brown skin, dark hair, and heavy musculature. His square jaw had a few days of dark stubble adorning it. His features were too strong for traditional beauty, but he was damn attractive all the same. His expression was even more guarded than the woman’s.

He did not seem to recognize me. That should have brought relief, but I felt a vague sense of disappointment instead.

Both of them wore close-fitting black shirts. I’d bet utility pants and boots hid behind the bar. Not Consortium types, then. Were they Ada’s friends from Sedition?

I realized I’d been staring for a beat too long and turned to my sister with a wide smile. “Bianca, you didn’t tell me you had visitors,” I admonished. “I would’ve rescheduled! And I apologize, but since I didn’t know you had guests, I only brought coffee for you.”

She accepted the coffee with a hug and a grateful smile. “These aren’t guests, these are my friends Alexander Sterling and Aoife Delaney.” She pronounced the woman’s name EE-fa. “They helped me rescue Ferdinand. I wanted you to meet them.”

I turned back to them. “Thank you so much for your help,” I said sincerely. I’d gotten only the barest of details out of Bianca about how she’d found Ferdinand and gotten him out, but based on the introduction, I bet these two were a big part of it. We owed them a great deal.

The woman waved off my words. “Your sister more than paid us,” she said. Her voice was pleasant, with just a hint of a lilt. She was likely lower to middle class from one of the more isolated planets where Universal Standard wasn’t taught as rigidly.

Bianca put a tray of warm sticky buns on the small table in the kitchen’s breakfast nook. “Shall we talk over food?” she asked a little too brightly.

I narrowed my eyes at her. What was she plotting?

While Bianca could have easily ordered food from the synthesizer, she preferred cooking. And, truth be told, synthesized food had nothing on Bianca’s cooking, so I was always delighted to eat at her table. Today she didn’t disappoint. The informal kitchen table was laden with four different kinds of pastries, all homemade, as well as bacon, eggs, and roasted potatoes.

The round table seated four. I sat next to Bianca. Alexander took the seat across from me and Aoife sat on my left. If anyone else noticed the tension in the air, they didn’t show it. I was generally very good at reading people, but Alexander gave me nothing other than that he had good manners. I had to force myself not to stare at him.

“How goes the investigation?” Bianca asked.

My gaze cut to hers, but I couldn’t tell what she was doing. “I don’t want to bore your guests,” I demurred. Why would she bring up House business in front of strangers? I was looking into Ferdinand’s kidnapping. Both Hannah’s husband, Pierre, and House James were involved, and that wasn’t information we wanted shared.

“Not guests,” she reminded me, “friends. And they are here to help.”

I kept the shock and suspicion off my face. “Help how?”

“From what I’ve seen, you’ve wrapped up everything you can do here. What is your next step?”

While Bianca had been chasing after Ferdinand, I’d muscled my way into the investigation here on Earth, and I’d refused to give it up once she returned. Bianca had reluctantly agreed to let me help, but only if we worked together.

No one trusted me to be able to do anything on my own.

We had found the ties between Pierre and House James, but hadn’t been able to tie House James to any of the other Houses or the Syndicate, despite Bianca’s uncanny ability to gather intelligence. Either House James was acting alone or they were being very, very careful.

But so was I.

Over the last two months, I’d slowly expanded my circle of friends to include Lynn Segura and Chloe Patel, the two young women who had been caught talking shit about Bianca. Lynn was a genuine delight. Chloe was not. But both of them were friends with Stephanie James, youngest daughter of House James.

And every year, Stephanie James hosted a summer retreat at House James’s estate outside Honorius. It was part vacation and part informal networking event, but mostly it was a chance to get out of Serenity and have some fun away from censorious eyes. It also coincided with the stunning annual Bouman meteor shower.

When guests weren’t busy trying to steal kisses while watching space rocks burn up in the atmosphere, Honorius had some of the best haute couture shopping in the ’verse. House James also offered an assortment of entertainments on their sprawling estate, including an excellent hover bike rally-cross racecourse.

Invitations were highly coveted in Stephanie’s circle of friends and acquaintances, and this year Chloe was finally old enough to help her best friend host—a task she had taken up with gusto.

Based solely on our brief friendship, Chloe had been cheeky enough to invite me, and through me, Ying Yamado, the daughter of High House Yamado. She was aiming high, which is exactly what I had expected. If even one of us accepted, it would be a major coup for her.

I had let her stew for two days before accepting, and then I’d talked Ying into accepting, too. But now I had to break the news to my overprotective older sister. In front of friends.

“I’m attending Stephanie James’s house party in two days. I will be gone for at least two weeks.”

Bianca smiled, which immediately put me on guard. That was not the reaction I’d expected. “That’s perfect,” she said.

Concern whispered through me—something odd was going on. “I thought you’d be against it,” I said, fishing.

Bianca’s smile softened just a tiny bit. “I don’t love sending you into danger, Cat, you know that, but we need information, and right now, you’re the one best positioned to get it.”

I glanced at our silent dining companions. They were both pretending to focus on their food, but I caught Alexander’s gaze. His eyes were a rich, warm brown. Despite his guarded expression, he had kind eyes, not what I would expect from a man with his build. Once again, I was struck by the fact that he looked like a soldier—or a bodyguard.

And then, like a light blinking on, suspicion hardened into certainty. I turned back to my sister. “Bianca,” I said slowly, “why are Ms. Delaney and Mr. Sterling here?”

Bianca’s smile never faltered. If anything, it got brighter. I was not going to like whatever came out of her mouth next.

She proved me right when she said, “Aoife is going to be your bodyguard while you’re in Honorius.”

“I already have a guard,” I reminded her. “Several, actually.”

“None like me,” Aoife said without an ounce of humility or arrogance. It was less a boast and more a statement of fact, one I was inclined to believe based on nothing more than her attitude and confidence.

I might be the most sheltered of my siblings, but I was still a von Hasenberg. I’d grown up around—and trained with—all types of people until the side effects of my childhood became too difficult to hide. Aoife had the calm self-assurance of someone who knew that she could take anyone in the room and come out ahead.

I briefly wondered how she would fare against me.

It was a silly thought because I’d given up real fighting long ago—it was too dangerous for me. But that didn’t mean I was going to roll over. “That may be true, but I’ve worked with my current guards for years. I know and trust them.” I also understood how they thought and how they might be influenced.

Aoife’s flawless composure was impossible to read, but I smiled apologetically at her. She inclined her head slightly, seemingly not offended.

My eyes snagged on Alexander. For such a big man, he had a way of fading into the background that was almost uncanny. If not for my humming awareness of him, I might’ve overlooked him completely.

“And you?” I asked him directly. “Why are you here? Are you Ms. Delaney’s partner?” I glanced between them. “Or husband?”

A slow smile broke over his face and he chuckled quietly. My breath caught. He was utterly captivating when he smiled and for the first time I envied the beautiful woman next to me.

I felt his gaze like a physical weight and fought the prickling awareness trickling through my system. He focused on me intently, but I’d bet half my fortune that he also remained aware of everything else happening in the room and could react in a heartbeat.

What would it take to capture all of his attention?

I shoved the question away. He wasn’t for me. Someday, I would marry for the good of the House, and until then, I preferred my men more manageable.

“We are partners,” he said. His voice was low and delicious, a velvet rumble I felt in my chest. He had no discernible accent.

Partners could mean anything from business partners to romantic partners. Without knowing which, I had to stop mentally ogling him. I didn’t pursue taken men.

I turned my attention back to Bianca. Mischief flittered through her expression before she smoothed it away. “Alex is here for you.”

I forced myself not to react to the tiny thrill of pleasure I felt at the words. I frowned at her, not liking where this was going. “What do you mean?”

“He’s going with you to Honorius as your plus one.”

Chapter Two

“No.” The denial was as flat and hard as I could make it. I knew from the set of Bianca’s mouth that she expected me to argue and that she expected to win, but I wouldn’t be moved. Taking someone was allowed by the invitation, but everyone would assume we were lovers. We would be rooming together, would have to spend all of our time together.

We would have to pretend to be a believable couple.

Alexander was exactly the opposite of the men I’d dated in the past. The others might not know me well enough to question it, but Ying would. She’d want to know why I’d brought a man she’d never met before. Our story would collapse.

“No,” I repeated, just in case there was still any doubt. “If you must, send him with me as a guard.”

“Guards won’t have the same access as guests,” Bianca said. “You could take him places where it would seem odd to take a guard.”

“I’m the daughter of a High House,” I said drily. “If I wanted my guard to jump into the pool with me, fully dressed, someone would run to fetch a towel.”

“You don’t want to give House James any reason to think you are there for more than shopping and relaxation. A secret, illicit affair is juicy enough that it might blind them to your true purpose. And Alex can slip away and search for information while you socialize.”

The pieces came together. “You knew I was going.” No wonder she had capitulated so easily. Alexander hadn’t been checking me out at the club, he’d been following me, on Bianca’s orders. Sharp disappointment mixed with acute embarrassment. Thank heavens he’d vanished before I’d tried to chat him up or this meeting would’ve been a whole lot more awkward.

Sending Alexander and Aoife with me had been Bianca’s plan all along. She didn’t think I could handle it. Something like sorrow tried to rise at her lack of faith in me, but I masked it with a practiced smile.

Bianca grimaced. “Technically, Ian knew you were going. He asked for my advice.”

“Director Bishop needs to stay out of my personal communication.” Bitterness gave my voice bite.

Bianca’s laugh echoed off of the walls. After years of being too subdued, it was a shock when Bianca laughed. The sound of her joy hit me so hard, I almost didn’t mind that she was laughing at me. Almost.

“I told him something very similar about my own communication and it got me exactly nowhere, but you’re welcome to try,” she said. “Good luck.”

I sighed and got back to my main point. “It won’t work. No one will believe it. Where would I have met him? He doesn’t exactly scream Consortium. No offense,” I said belatedly.

Alexander grinned. “None taken.”

“He and Aoife can be my guards,” I said, trying to compromise. “No one will blink if I bring an extra, not with the war.”

Bianca’s expression turned shrewd. “Are you meeting someone there?”

I laughed. “If you think I need to go all the way to Andromeda Prime to get laid, you really have been gone for too long.” Although the thought had definitely crossed my mind. Perhaps a little harmless fun would ease the restlessness I’d been feeling lately.

“It’s settled, then. You and Alex will go as a couple. Aoife will go as your guard.”

“It is not settled,” I countered.

Bianca continued as if I hadn’t spoken. “You and Alex can spend the day together today, get to know each other.”

“Bianca Isabella, do not make me bust out your full name,” I said. “I am not going to meet anyone, but I am not above flirting my way into information, either. That will be impossible if I show up with a companion. I have already thought this through, and I have a plan, let me run with it.”

Granted, it was a loose plan—go to the party, get information—but it was mine. I’d been working on getting an invite to this party for months, and now that the hard part was over, Bianca wanted to swoop in and take charge, because she didn’t trust me to do it. It stung.

My sister deflated, barely visible, but I caught the minute slump in her shoulders and the haunted look on her face. She wouldn’t meet my eyes when she said, “I’m not trying to step on your toes, Cat. I just want to keep you safe. All of my information and I couldn’t stop what happened to Ferdinand. And now my network is sending me mixed signals, but I feel like something big is coming. I don’t want you to be unprotected when it hits.”

If it had been pure manipulation, I would have ignored it, but there was a painful honesty to Bianca’s voice. Restless frustration rose. I pushed it back. It wasn’t Bianca’s fault that I was stuck on Earth. That was my choice.

Still, I bit my tongue against the urge to give in, to smooth the way. I hated causing Bianca pain, but if I didn’t stop this now, I’d find myself in Honorius with Alexander as my fake lover, my own plans in ruins.

Perhaps I needed to leave sooner than anticipated.

“Let me think about it,” I said. “I know you are only trying to help, but you sprung it on me without warning, and my schedule is already jam-packed today.” I gave Alexander and Aoife another apologetic smile. “I really do appreciate your offer to help, more than you know, but it’s an unexpected boon. I’ll need to adjust my own plans.”

“Of course,” Aoife agreed easily. “We have time.”

For once, I was glad that I was expected at Mother’s brunch because it gave me the perfect excuse to leave Bianca’s early. Despite remaining mostly quiet, Alexander was impossible to ignore, and I still couldn’t tell what kind of partners he and Aoife were. Distance was my friend.

An invitation to Maria von Hasenberg’s semimonthly brunch was one of the most coveted in the Consortium social scene. Any event held by a High House always drew intense interest, but Mother knew how to generate the most buzz without any apparent effort on her part.

The draw was so strong that two weeks ago, Anne Rockhurst, matriarch of High House Rockhurst, had shown up to make nice and drink mimosas while our two militaries plotted the quickest way to destroy each other.

The brunches were always intimate, with between ten and fifteen guests. Both men and women were invited, but invitations were per individual—no extra guests allowed—and the guest list was always eclectic. Today’s guests included House members, of course, but also the ambassador to a planet no one had ever heard of, a fashion designer, and an astrophysicist.

Bianca remained cut from the list, much to her delight and my dismay. Mother was upset that Bianca had chosen her own happiness over the House’s best interest. She conveyed that disapproval in the most public way she could without officially banishing Bianca. All of my other siblings were out of town, so that left me to fend for myself.

I hoped I’d be seated near the astrophysicist, so I would have someone interesting to talk to.

With the nice weather, brunch would be outside, one tiny positive. I slipped into the building, Susan on my heels, and made my way to the formal breakfast room. The doors had been thrown open and a small crowd clustered on the terrace outside. A long table had been set up, covered in white linen, glittering crystal stemware, and shining silver cutlery. The gardens made a colorful backdrop, perfectly manicured to look wild and natural.

Never let it be said that House von Hasenberg did anything by half measures.

I smoothed my face into a pleasant smile and stepped outside. The first person to notice me was Tae Yamado, the second son of High House Yamado. He was a handsome man, with light golden skin, short black hair, and dark eyes. When he moved toward me, my smile turned genuine.

Tae was Ying’s older brother and she loved him as fiercely as I loved my siblings. He was the most soft-spoken of the Yamado children. If he hadn’t been a decade older than me and happily married, I would’ve tried to snag him, though as the spare, he was out of my league.

He’d married for the good of House Yamado, but by all accounts, he and his wife were making it work. I kept praying for a rogue meteorite to take out his older brother Hitoshi, so that Tae would become heir, but so far, my prayers went unanswered. Tae seemingly had no interest in House politics anyway. It was too bad Ying was the youngest, because she was the most qualified to lead the next generation of House Yamado.

“Cat, you look lovely, as always,” Tae said. He kissed the air next to my cheek.

“Flatterer. What did you do to deserve getting dragged to this special hell?” I asked, my voice pitched for his ears only.

“Mother is under the weather, so I’m attending in her stead. I tried to con Ying into it, but she already had plans with Elizabeth Rockhurst that she couldn’t break.”

I chuckled at his wary expression, but it was smart for House Yamado to schedule events with both rival Houses on the same day. That way, it wouldn’t seem like they were playing favorites in the war, and they would be able to gather intel from both sides.

“Well, now you get to escort me around and learn all the latest society gossip. Aren’t you lucky?”

He held out his elbow. “I am indeed, Lady Catarina. Lead on, and please don’t leave me alone with the vipers.”

I patted his arm. “I’ll do my best. How’s your wife?”

His face softened. “She’s very well, thank you for asking.”

We both pasted on our social smiles and waded into the fray. Most of the gossip was worthless, but I kept my ears open for anything about the war. I doubt anyone had better information than we did, but it didn’t hurt to pay attention.

Mother stood conversing with a short, spare, older man. Lord Henderson was the head of House Henderson. Rumor had it that he was angling for my hand in marriage regardless of the fact that he was old enough to be my father. I’d been raised to think of the House first, but I didn’t know if I could force myself to marry Henderson. He made my skin crawl.

And I couldn’t help comparing him to Alexander Sterling’s warm brown eyes and muscular build. To say Henderson did not fare well in the comparison was a vast understatement.

When Mother saw me with Tae, her mouth compressed into a tiny frown. I bit back a smile and tucked my hand more securely into the crook of Tae’s elbow. No doubt I would be seated near Lord Henderson for the meal, but for now, I could enjoy my moment of freedom.

Tae and I floated from group to group, charming and bubbly. Well, I was charming and bubbly, Tae mostly just nodded along or offered noncommittal grunts. Still, I was glad of his company because his presence shielded me from having to fend off other suitors, namely Henderson, who watched me with a predatory gaze.

While we were between groups, I noticed a woman in her late thirties standing alone. She fidgeted with her dress and looked like she wished she were somewhere else. I towed Tae in her direction. “Hello,” I said, extending a hand as we approached, “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced. I’m Catarina and this is Tae.”

Sharp, wary brown eyes took our measure from behind the clear lenses of her glasses. Odds were her vision was perfect, thanks to the range of corrective options, but she’d decided to use glasses as a fashion statement—or possibly as camouflage. She had curly dark hair, deep brown skin, and high cheekbones. She was on the striking side of beautiful, but the other guests had taken one look at her glasses and cheap dress and written her off.

After a few seconds, she shook my hand. “I’m Esteri Kryer. I’m an astrophysicist for the Royal Consortium Defense Force.” It sounded like she’d repeated the same phrase more than once and expected it to send us running.

The RCDF, as it was more commonly known, was tasked with keeping the peace in the ’verse. Most people thought of soldiers when they thought of the RCDF, but the RCDF also employed a huge number of scientists and researchers.

Before I could ask her what she did, a tinkling chime indicated it was time to take our seats. Tae held out his other elbow to Esteri and she accepted with a nod and a grateful smile. He led us to the table. Mother always seated herself at the head. The rest of us were scattered along its length, not by order of importance but by Mother’s whim.

My name card put me at the final seat on the side of the table closest to the house. Being at the end meant I could only converse with three people: the person next to me, the person across from me, and the person diagonally across from me. It would’ve been a rare gift, but I doubted Mother meant it that way.

It did not surprise me when Tae was seated as far away from me as possible and Lord Henderson settled across from me. Esteri was seated next to Henderson, and an older lady from one of the lower houses was seated next to me. Mother had neatly boxed me in with who she’d thought were the most boring guests so I’d be forced to talk to Lord Henderson.

Too bad for her, I actually liked talking to scientists.

“Cat, you look ravishing today,” Henderson said with a smile that was half leer.

I hadn’t given him permission to use my nickname or drop my title, but that didn’t seem to matter. I smothered my distaste under a cool smile. “Why thank you, Lord Henderson. How is your grandson? Let’s see, he must be five or six by now, right?” I waited for him to nod before I continued. “How time flies. Your daughter must be so proud and you must be delighted to be a grandfather.”

My tone was carefully polite, but in point of fact, his daughter was a few years older than me. His line was secure for two generations. He had no reason to pursue me other than as a tie to House von Hasenberg and because he was a dirty old man.

His smile went tight. “My family is very well, thank you for asking. And please, call me Rupert.”

I made a noncommittal noise and turned to Esteri. “We were interrupted before. Please, tell me about your job at RCDF. What do you do as an astrophysicist?”

“I work on optimizing the equations that the gates use to track celestial bodies,” she said. “My doctoral thesis was on a novel new way to predict orbits, and I’ve taken that research further with the RCDF. Now we’re attempting to translate it into computational improvements.”

Gates were the giant supercomputers that could calculate safe jump points millions of light-years away for spaceships using faster-than-light travel. Even small optimizations in the calculations would mean big gains for the people who relied on the gates every day to safely navigate the cosmos.

“Fascinating,” I said, and I meant it. “So do—”

“Yes, fascinating,” Henderson interrupted, “but we don’t want to bore Lady Catarina with all this talk of work. She’s much more comfortable discussing fashion.” He paused and flicked a meaningful glance at Esteri’s dress. “Oh, but I suppose you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you? Too bad.” He laughed and went so far as to give Esteri a patronizing little pat on her arm.

Esteri’s face tightened into a mask of anger, but she bit her tongue and bowed her head. “Of course, forgive me, Lady Catarina.”

I gave Henderson a bright smile filled with teeth. “Actually, I would like nothing more than to hear what Dr. Kryer has to say. I find her work very interesting, and it is important for us all.” Even you, you misogynistic asshole. I kept the barb to myself. It wouldn’t do to insult one of our potential allies outright while we were in the middle of a war.

Esteri looked between us, but something in my expression must’ve convinced her that I was serious. Her smile turned sly as she launched into a technical discussion of her job. Honestly, I followed less than half of what she said, even though I’d grown up in a High House with the best tutors money could buy. The lady next to me was practically asleep.

I understood gates and the technology behind them at a high level, but Esteri knew them down to the minutia. Listening to her explain her research and how it affected the inner workings of the gates was truly fascinating. She kept talking, I kept asking what I hoped were intelligent-sounding questions, and Henderson kept being thwarted every time he tried to change the subject.

It was a delightful brunch.

Unfortunately, when it was over, Lord Henderson made a beeline straight for my mother, presumably to complain about my behavior, so when Esteri made for the exit, I followed. Susan, my bodyguard, fell in behind us.

“Susan, call us a transport,” I murmured. I could practically feel Mother’s eyes burning a hole into my back. I linked my arm through Esteri’s. “Where are you headed? I’ll give you a lift.”

“You don’t need—” she started.

“You’d be doing me a favor.”

She inclined her head in agreement, and we cut through the house to the family entrance where a House transport waited for us.

We climbed in and Esteri set the transport’s destination to the fiftieth floor of a building in Sector Nine. The transport lifted smoothly into the air, shadowed by another transport in the black and gold of House von Hasenberg colors—our security detail.

I pulled a card from the pocket of my dress and handed it to Esteri. “Lord Henderson is known to be vindictive. If anything happens—anything at all—contact me and I’ll fix it. Even if it doesn’t seem related, like your project loses funding or you get reprimanded at work seemingly out of the blue, contact me.”

“I was happy to help,” she demurred.

“Yes, but I don’t want that help to cost you something you clearly love. That card contains my private contact information. If Lord Henderson acts against you, contact me and don’t let your pride get in your way. Handing him a victory isn’t winning. I can’t do much about him elsewhere, but I can do this.”

“But you’re a von Hasenberg. Surely there’s something you can do to get rid of him?”

My smile was grim. “Not when his attention is in the best interest of the House.”

Esteri’s eyes widened in surprise. I smoothed my expression into a pleasant social smile. I didn’t need to burden a near stranger with my personal feelings. I was extremely privileged. If that privilege sometimes felt like handcuffs, well, that was my problem, not anyone else’s.

I pivoted the conversation back to her research and asked a few more questions about how the gates worked. Now that I didn’t have to worry about sounding smart, I could ask the questions I really wanted answered.

Esteri never once made me feel stupid, even when I asked questions that didn’t make sense. And she was phenomenally smart. This year alone, she’d helped to increase the gate algorithm’s efficiency by 5 percent. I made a mental note to put her on the roster of potential House employees. That way, if the RCDF was ever stupid enough to fire her, we’d be ready to snap her up.

The transport landed and Esteri exited with a wave, still clutching the card I’d given her. When the door closed behind her, I let out a sigh. “Think she’ll contact me?” I asked Susan.

“No, not unless something terrible happens.”

“That’s what I think, too. I’ll have to keep an eye on her.”

Chapter Three

After I dropped off Esteri, I had several stops scheduled. Avoiding Mother was just a bonus. She’d already sent me a terse message, demanding my presence, but if I was constantly busy with House tasks then she couldn’t get angry when I didn’t show up.

Or, rather, she couldn’t get angrier.

I pressed my fingers against my eyes; I was being pulled in too many directions. With the war, marrying Lord Henderson would bring in desperately needed ships, supplies, and troops from House Henderson, which might save Benedict’s life, along with the lives of many of our soldiers.

Benedict would vehemently oppose the union, even with his life on the line, but perhaps it was time to grow up and do my duty. If only that duty weren’t so distasteful.

I swiped my identity chip over the reader in the transport and set the destination to a bakery in Sector Five of the Rockhurst quarter. When we arrived, I bought myself a coffee and Susan a spiced tea. She turned down my offer of a pastry, so I ordered a dozen pastries to go.

We continued to the Khadela quarter, aiming for a tall apartment building in Sector Seven. It wasn’t usually a good idea to drop in on a pregnant woman unannounced, but I happened to know that Lady Pippa August worked constantly, no matter what her condition. As the matriarch of the burgeoning House August, she had her hands full.

She also loved pastries, specifically the ones I’d just bought.

House August had yet to decide who to back in the war. They weren’t solid allies with any of the High Houses and tended to deal with each of us equally. It was my job to charm her to our side, but over the last couple of months, I’d found I also enjoyed her company.

She received me in the informal sitting room, an upgrade in friendliness since my last visit. She started to rise when I entered, but I waved her off. She was young for a matriarch, not yet forty, and had a delicate, petite build. She had golden-brown skin and big, dark eyes set in a face that was more cute than stunning, but her fragile appearance belied an iron will and a mind sharp enough to cut. This close to her due date, her stomach was as big as she was.

Her eyes widened in delight when she caught sight of the box in my hands.

“Lady Catarina, those had better be what I think they are or I’m going to have to ask you to leave. Junior here,” she motioned to her rounded stomach, “has been kicking my kidneys for the last hour. If those aren’t pastries, I’m going to cry.”

I handed her the box with a flourish. “See for yourself.”

“You are a saint,” she vowed, tearing the lid in her haste to open the box. She grabbed a pastry, took a large bite, and groaned in delight. “Delicious. Help yourself to the tea. Susan, you, too,” she said over my shoulder. “I need a minute with this eclair. How did you know this was my favorite bakery?”

That was Bianca’s doing. I didn’t know where my sister got her information, but it was spookily good, as evidenced by this morning’s ambush. It was all fun and games until she turned her skill on me.

“Lucky guess,” I answered with a grin.

Pippa wasn’t buying it, but she was too busy with her sugary snack to press harder.

We chatted for half an hour, catching up on gossip and news. We both knew I was here to try to win her to our side, but we didn’t talk politics or war. She told me how her husband had started hovering as she entered her final month of pregnancy and how it was driving her crazy, but her tone was fond. They were a rare love match, and it was obvious he worshipped the ground she walked on.

I reluctantly took my leave, aware that the rest of the day was not going to be as much fun as my time with Pippa. I crisscrossed the city, running errands for special delights and delivering them along with my bubbly personality. The next three Houses all had older, crankier members, but I kept my smile fastened to my face and didn’t let them rile me, no matter how sly their comments.

Bianca had dubbed this my charm offensive, and she was right. As the youngest, there wasn’t a lot I could do for House von Hasenberg right now—other than marrying—but I could socialize. I could ensure that other Houses thought of us fondly.

And so I did, but it was draining as all hell.

When I finally returned home, my face hurt from smiling and a tension headache clamped my temples. I wanted to crawl into bed and stay there, but tonight’s gala required a House von Hasenberg representative and I was it.

I entered my suite and headed straight for the bedroom. I’d already procured the two trunks I would take, but I wasn’t yet sure how to get them to my ship without tipping off Director Bishop that I planned to leave early. That was a problem for future me—too bad the future was mere hours away. For now, I had to pack before getting ready.

One might expect a summer house party to be a casual affair, but apparently Stephanie James and Chloe Patel did not agree. Guests had been advised that the James household dressed for dinner. Every night. Who did that? Psychopaths, that’s who.

I quickly selected two weeks of fashionable outfits with the ease of long practice. Dresses, skirts, slacks, blouses, and all of the various undergarments and accessories were carefully packed and placed in the first trunk. More utilitarian clothing went into the second trunk, along with a selection of weapons and other handy gadgets. On top, I packed a few specialty outfits: swimsuits, riding habits, hiking gear, and a cold weather coat. Most of it probably wouldn’t be needed, but I liked to be prepared.

And the extra clothes also nicely concealed the weapons and gear.

I locked both trunks and hoisted them onto the narrow cargo sled I’d used to retrieve them from storage. When I picked up the paired beacon, the sled lifted from the floor and floated after me. I parked it in the living room, just out of sight of the door.

Now I just had to spend a few more hours socializing, come home, grab the sled, and make it to my ship before Ian or Bianca realized I was on the move. I huffed out a laugh. No problem.

Tonight, I represented House von Hasenberg at a charity gala for the families of fallen soldiers. With the war, it was a little too on the nose, but no one seemed to care. Elizabeth Rockhurst had also attended, representing House Rockhurst. She’d raised an eyebrow at me during the opening speech. At least I wasn’t the only one who saw the irony.

My gown was a deep, bright pink that complemented my golden skin and dark hair. The skirt flared around my knees and the modest cut made me appear younger and more innocent than I was. It was effective camouflage in a crowd of jaded socialites.

I glided from group to group, renewing acquaintances and making new connections. One of the benefits of being the daughter of a High House was being welcome nearly everywhere. And I had superb recall where names and faces were concerned.

Ada was excellent with numbers and Bianca unearthed impossible-to-find information, but I could remember the name of a person I’d met once two years ago. My skill was a lot less practical, but it was fantastic for building a large social network and keeping up my charm offensive.

My circuit of the room brought to me to an elderly woman clad in the deep black of mourning. She acknowledged me with a short nod. Wilma Sollorz had lost her beloved wife less than a month ago. Their adult daughter had taken over the House—with Wilma’s blessing—but I knew Wilma must feel unmoored after so many changes.

“Lady Sollorz, how are you this evening?” I asked gently. “Can I get you anything?”

“No, thank you, child.” She patted my arm. “You always were the kind one. Don’t lose that.”

“I will do my best,” I murmured as a sliver of guilt stole through my system. In my opinion, kindness was selfless. My actions were decidedly not. I enjoyed socializing and brightening people’s days, but I did it with the full knowledge that they were likely to think better of House von Hasenberg because of it.

I was the worst kind of hypocrite.

“I heard Lord Henderson is aiming for you,” she said with the complete lack of tact that only advanced years and a secure place could bring. “Are you going to accept him?”

“He hasn’t asked me,” I hedged.

She leaned close, her dark eyes shrewd. “If you ever need help, you only have to ask. I may not be as powerful as a Rockhurst or a Yamado, but I will help you. No one should have to endure that cad unwillingly.”

Warmth softened my expression into a genuine smile of gratitude. “Thank you, Lady Sollorz. I appreciate it. But if it comes down to it, my sisters will have my back.”

She nodded knowingly. “It’s good that you have someone to look out for you, but my offer stands.” She peered over my shoulder. “Speak of the devil.” She looped her arm around mine. “Actually, I do feel a need for some fresh air. Escort me?”

“Gladly.” I’d been dodging Lord Henderson all evening, and I was perfectly happy to continue the trend.

When he caught my eye, Henderson smirked. Anxiety tightened my stomach. His smug expression boded ill for me, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it right this second.

I escorted Wilma out onto the balcony while Susan quietly shadowed us. We were in one of the taller buildings in Sector Six of the Yamado quarter. A gentle breeze drifted around the tall glass panels that had been installed as both railing and wind block. The gorgeous view glittered with lights below us and stars above us. I could stand out here all night.

“Such a beautiful city,” Wilma murmured, “with such a dark heart.” She shook herself. “Don’t listen to this old woman’s raving. Enjoy the night air and remember what I said.”

“I will, thank you. Have a good night.”

She headed back inside. I let her go, content to remain for another minute. A few other people were enjoying the outside air.

“Incoming,” Susan warned quietly.

I turned around and found Lord Henderson making his way toward me, smug look still firmly in place. I couldn’t quite summon a smile, but at least I didn’t actively grimace at his approach. That was as much as I could do.

“Lord Henderson,” I said flatly.

“I told you to call me Rupert, darling,” he said.

“And I told you to call me Lady Catarina. It seems neither of us will get what we want.”

“Au contraire, darling. I had a very fruitful talk with Lady von Hasenberg this morning after our brunch. She gave me permission to court you openly. You will attend the symphony with me tomorrow night.”

Long practice kept the distaste out of my expression. “I already have plans, and then I will be traveling for two weeks. Perhaps we can schedule something when I return.” I got the whole sentence out without a single inflection that expressed my true feelings. I should get a gold star. And a stiff drink.

Henderson’s face clouded with anger. “Lady von Hasenberg said you would clear your schedule for me.”

I smiled sweetly. “She was wrong.”

He stepped threateningly into my space. “Listen here, you little c—”

In a heartbeat, Susan had switched places with me. “Threaten Lady Catarina again, and I will be forced to defend her,” she said calmly. “Return inside. Now.”

Henderson’s hands clenched, his face livid with rage. “This discussion is not over,” he snarled at me over Susan’s shoulder.

“Yes, it is,” I said. “Run back inside before I forget that you’re an ally.” I bit back all of the other insults I wanted to lob at him. The less I said, the less likely he’d be to run back to Mother and tattle on me.

He turned and stalked away.

“He’s going to be trouble,” Susan predicted. “We should return to House von Hasenberg before he rallies.”

I sighed. I hated ceding ground, but I was done here anyway. “Very well. Let me say my good-byes. Please call us a transport.”

She nodded, and then stayed closer than usual while I found the hosts and made my excuses. She didn’t relax until we had settled in the transport and it lifted off.

“Thank you for defending me,” I said. I could’ve handled him myself, if it came down to it, but she didn’t know that.

She waved me off. “I was just doing my job.”

“You were doing more than that. You could’ve let it slide until he physically harmed me. You didn’t. I appreciate it. And if he tries to come after you, let me know. I will hire you myself if I need to.”

“Thank you.” She paused, seemingly debating something. Finally, she said, “Will you accept his suit?”

I stared out of the window. Even the sparkling lights of Serenity offered no comfort. “I don’t know. I find him revolting, but every day the war drags on, my brother is in mortal danger. And if I spurn Henderson, he could align with Rockhurst just to spite me.”

We made the rest of the trip in silence. Susan saw me to the door of my suite and then retired for the evening when I told her I’d be staying in. I didn’t want her to get in trouble when I disappeared.

My best chance of success would be in the early hours between midnight and dawn. I really should sleep for a few hours, but the chances of that happening were nil. Instead, I changed into dark pants made of sturdy material, a stretchy black top, and heavy boots. Then I double-checked my packing, paced, and thought about what I was going to tell Bianca once I was in the air.

Hours later, I still wasn’t sure what to do about that last one, but it was time to leave anyway.

There was no point in subterfuge—I would either make it or I wouldn’t—so I headed straight for the secondary hangar where my ship waited. Confidence was key in cases like this, so I sailed by the barely awake hangar guard without a backward glance.

Chaos sat right where I’d left her, a tiny little spaceship covered in mottled black-and-gray camouflage paint. The name was an inside joke. My older siblings had lovingly dubbed me a chaos monster when I was young, thanks to my ability to slip away and get into mischief whenever I was feeling well enough. While the nickname had finally died, I’d thought it was perfect for my ship.

It didn’t hurt that the ship was smaller, faster, and stealthier than most of the ships in our fleet—the perfect agent of chaos.

I swiped my identity chip over the control panel and unlocked the cargo door. The ship only had two levels. The cargo bay in the aft spanned both, but didn’t have much horizontal area. The sled with my two trunks stacked vertically took up a third of the floor. I wouldn’t be running any resupply missions in this ship unless I turned off the gravity and stuck supplies to the walls.

I closed the cargo door and retracted the ramp, then headed upstairs to the flight deck. The top level also contained my quarters and the mess hall. The bottom level contained the medbay, guest quarters, exercise room, and maintenance access.

Because Chaos was so small, I’d forgone the traditional three-station layout on the flight deck. I’d kept the captain’s station, but I’d merged navigation and tactical into one station. I rarely had guests on my ship, and I could control the whole ship from the captain’s console. I would’ve omitted the second station, too, but some small part of me still hoped to find someone who wanted to go on adventures with me.

I slid into the captain’s chair. The window shutters were closed, but the displays showed an empty hangar. Time to see if my ship had been grounded or not.

Chaos, take us into orbit.”

The ship chimed an acceptance and I felt the subtle vibration as the engines engaged. The engine noise ramped up and the ground dropped away in a dizzying rush. I laughed with joy. I was flying.

Chaos rocketed upward and the vast expanse of space opened before me. Something loosened in my chest and I felt like I could breathe again for the first time in months. I’d missed this.

I plotted a course for Honorius and the ship requested a jump point from the gate. Because it was stupid early, we were fifteenth in the queue. Earth’s gate was blazing fast, so in less than a minute, the engine noise changed as the FTL drive ramped up. My stomach dropped, then a heartbeat later, the noise peaked and fell silent.

The emptiness of space had been replaced by the distant view of Andromeda Prime. The planet hung suspended in the inky depths of space, sparkling red and blue in the sunlight. Andromeda Prime was one of the oldest occupied planets outside of the Milky Way and every House had a large holding here.

My com chimed with a message. I checked it and cringed when I saw Bianca’s name. The only reason my sister would be awake now was if she’d been told that I’d left. Damn Ian for not letting her sleep until a decent hour.

And damn me for not sending my explanation sooner.

I opened the message and frowned. Rather than demands, anger, or disappointment, it was just three short sentences: Be careful. I love you. Forgive me.

I was still trying to puzzle out exactly what she meant when the door to the flight deck slid open.