Kee Ildez has been many things: hacker, soldier, bounty hunter. She never expected to be a hero, but when a shadowy group of traitors starts trying to goad the galaxy’s two superpowers into instigating an interstellar war, Kee throws herself into the search to find out who is responsible—and stop them.
Digging up hidden information is her job, so hunting traitors should be a piece of cake, but the primary suspect spent years in the military, and someone powerful is still covering his tracks. Disrupting their plans will require the help of her entire team, including Varro Runkow, a Valovian weapons expert who makes her pulse race.
Quiet, grumpy, and incredibly handsome, Varro watches her with hot eyes but ignores all of her flirting, so Kee silently vows to keep her feelings strictly platonic. But that vow will be put to the test when she and Varro are forced to leave the safety of their ship and venture into enemy territory alone.
Cut off from the rest of their team, they must figure out how to work together—and fast—because a single misstep will cost thousands of lives.
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I settled into my usual spot at the galley table with a gently steaming cup of hot chocolate. The rare treat wasn’t enough to break me out of the slump I was in, so I set a timer on my comm and gave myself five solid minutes to brood.
It was often difficult to find time alone in the common areas on a smaller ship like Starlight’s Shadow, especially with eight people aboard now, but it was mid-morning, and the galley was blessedly empty. The large space had seating for twenty around two big tables, and a long bar separated the dining area from the food prep area.
I had just worked up a really terrific moody stare when Tavi swept into the room. The captain’s golden-tan skin was flushed with color, and she’d pulled her long, curly hair up into a messy bun on top of her head. I didn’t know how Octavia Zarola managed to be effortlessly beautiful even when she looked like she’d just rolled out of her bunk far later than usual, but her satisfied smile and glowing joy certainly helped.
At least one of us had had a fun night.READ MORE
In truth, I was delighted that Tavi had found happiness with Torran Fletcher, the former Valovian general who’d lured us into Valovian space with the promise of a lucrative job. Tavi’s hard shell hid a soft heart, and if Torran had broken it, I would’ve broken him. Everyone underestimated me because I was petite and delicate-looking, with my rainbow hair and sunny smile, but I hadn’t survived the war without learning a few tricks.
Not that they would’ve done me much good against a Valovian telekinetic, but I would’ve tried it anyway.
Luna chirruped a greeting from her place on Tavi’s shoulder. The small, fluffy white burbu was part pet, part mascot, and all imperiousness. She rode around on our shoulders often enough that Tavi had fashioned padded shoulder guards for everyone in the crew to keep the burbu’s sharp claws out of our skin.
Luna jumped down and headed straight for her food bowl. A wave of longing pierced me when she found the bowl empty. The small animal, native to Valovian space, was mildly telepathic, much like the Valoffs themselves.
Tavi ignored Luna’s theatrics and stopped to peer at me. “Kee, why are you scowling at the table?”
“I’m brooding,” I explained. Unfortunately, brooding was a lot more difficult with an audience, especially one as cute as Luna. I didn’t know how the Valoffs constantly managed it. Must be genetic—Resting Brooding Face.
Tavi’s lips twitched. She managed to keep her expression serious as she asked, “Is it helping?”
“I don’t know.” I checked my comm. “I have two minutes left.”
This time, Tavi couldn’t quite suppress her grin. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
I gave up on the useless brooding with a sigh. Tavi was one of my closest friends, the sister of my heart if not my blood. “Not really,” I said. “I just had a long night, and I still haven’t found anything useful.”
I did not tell her that during the short amount of sleep I’d gotten, my dreams had been filled with a certain Valovian weapons expert. Varro Runkow had ignored all of my subtle attempts at flirting—and the not-so-subtle attempts, too. After weeks of trying, I’d taken the hint and settled into a teasing friendship with him, but my subconscious still hadn’t gotten the memo.
Neither had my neglected libido. I’d wanted Varro from the moment I’d laid eyes on him, and that instant, fierce attraction had only grown into deeper affection the more I’d gotten to know him. Getting over it was proving harder than I’d like.
Tavi rarely missed anything. Her assessing gaze flickered over me and the hot chocolate that I usually hoarded like a dragon. She waited, expression open, but when I didn’t take her silent offer to talk, she nodded once and changed the subject. “Still no sign of Morten?”
I shook my head. A little over a month ago, Commodore Frank Morten had kidnapped the young heir to the Valovian Empire. We’d rescued the kid—just—but we still didn’t know what Morten’s endgame was. A representative for the Federated Human Planets, commonly called the FHP or Fed, had denied that Morten was still part of the military, but the Valovian Empire wasn’t buying it.
And neither was I.
If Morten wasn’t stopped, he’d push the FHP and the Valovian Empire back into war, but none of us knew why.
What did he gain from a war that would kill thousands, if not millions?
The question had plagued me for weeks. I’d chased down lead after lead, only to run into nothing but dead ends and more questions. The team counted on me for information, and right now there was precious little. Eventually, Morten would slip up, and I would catch him, but I wished the whole process were faster.
Luna had no time for the problems of people. She chirruped demandingly and sent us a telepathic picture of a little Valovian creature that looked something like a rabbit—her idea of food. Tavi tsked at Luna’s impatience, but she still went to feed her.
I grinned at the two of them. Tavi liked to pretend that her heart wasn’t made of marshmallow fluff, but anyone who watched her around Luna would figure out the truth in no time flat.
After the burbu was fed, Tavi poured herself a cup of coffee. She took a sip, then leaned against the bar and returned to the conversation with a sigh. “Do you think Morten’s still on Valovia? Should we head back to Valovian space?”
“No,” a hard male voice answered from the doorway. My eyes were drawn to the sound despite the fact that I knew exactly who I’d find. Varro stepped into the room in dark pants and a deep blue shirt that emphasized his tan skin and short, curly, dark blond hair. It also emphasized the hard expanse of his chest and his muscular arms.
Not that I noticed.
Varro had been in the gym when I’d checked on him earlier. I wasn’t avoiding him, but after my tumultuous dreams, I’d decided to keep my distance for a bit until I could be a good friend again—and nothing else.
But Varro had a habit of silently appearing wherever I was, even when I expected him to be elsewhere.
I dipped my head in greeting and his gaze swept over my face. His mouth turned down in apparent distaste as he caught sight of the deep shadows marring the pale skin under my eyes. Unlike Tavi, my skin tended toward pasty when I spent too much time in space. I looked washed out on the best of days, and today wasn’t exactly that.
I knew he wasn’t for me, but that look still stung. It wasn’t my fault that I hadn’t slept well. He should go grump at someone else.
Except I liked it when he was around, even if he spent the time scowling at me.
I was hopeless.
I redirected my thoughts to the question at hand and asked, “Why shouldn’t we head into Valovian space?” I wasn’t eager to return to Valovia, but it was looking more and more likely that we’d have to.
We’d spent the last month patrolling between Bastion, the last space station in Fed territory, and the wormhole that would spit us out in the Valovian Empire. Staying close to Bastion meant that our information connection stayed fast, but the station itself was too expensive to dock on for longer than the time needed to restock food and supplies.
“The empress has a long memory,” Varro said. He looked at Tavi. “You rescued her grandson, but you also embarrassed her. She will not appreciate your return, and it’s possible she rescinded your bounty because she hopes you will try it.”
“Torran said the same thing,” Tavi agreed with a sigh. “We should save returning to Valovia as a last resort.” She glanced between the two of us, then lifted her coffee cup in farewell. “Keep me posted,” she said as she slid from the room.
I sipped my hot chocolate and waited for the questioning to begin. But Varro wasn’t so easily understood. He moved toward the food prep area. “I’m going to make a snack. May I make you something, too?”
The simple question shouldn’t have made me feel like crying, but my emotions were all over the place today. I summoned a smile and tried my best to make it real. “That depends… is it going to be full of protein powder?”
He shot me a dark look. “Protein is good for you.”
“Maybe, but it’s not good for my tastebuds.”
He muttered something in Valovan too low for me to catch. The ache in my chest deepened as he moved around the food prep area with ease. He always took care of the people around him, both human and Valoff. At first, I’d foolishly thought he was singling me out for special treatment, but I’d seen it time and again, the quiet, steady way he helped everyone on board.
He might scowl and grumble, but he wasn’t fooling me.
And it wasn’t his fault that I wished for more. No, that was entirely on me. Perhaps I needed some time away. The thought hurt, for a myriad of reasons, but after our last job, I had enough money saved up for a stay on Bastion, and I needed a better source of information anyway.
The FHP base on the space station would be an excellent place to start. I could track down Morten, take some time to get my head on right, and then rejoin the team for the final hunt.
The longer I thought about it, the more it made sense.
Tavi wouldn’t like it, but she would understand. She wanted Morten found just as badly as I did. The asshole had paraded her around as the Hero of Rodeni for months, despite the fact that he’d left our squad to die on the battlefield. She’d done it, because it was the only way the FHP would let us go.
I knew she still had nightmares about it.
We were due to restock at Bastion in a few days. I could stay on the station until Starlight came back for the next resupply stop in three weeks. While I was there, I would have direct access to the encrypted FHP communication links. If I happened to stumble across the keys, well, no one would blame me for poking around a bit.
The tentative decision lifted some of the restless turmoil I’d been feeling. When Varro set a vibrant blue smoothie in front of me, my smile was easy and real. “Thank you.”
He nodded, then watched me from the corner of his eye until I took a sip.
The fruit—mostly frozen blueberries—masked the taste of the protein powder he’d added. I didn’t eat meat, and despite the fact that there were plenty of vegetarian options for protein, Varro grumbled that I didn’t get enough. I didn’t take it personally because Tavi had worried, too, until she’d gotten used to cooking vegetarian.
“It’s delicious,” I said. “Thank you.”
Varro dipped his head in acknowledgment. He poured the rest of the mixture into a glass for himself, then joined me at the table. My traitorous heart quivered. Varro Runkow looked like he was built for battle. He was the most muscular of the Valoffs who had joined us, and while he wasn’t objectively handsome—his face was too broad, his features too rough—he was everything I’d ever wanted.
Next to him, I felt dainty and delicate and protected. Storms would break upon his back without ever touching whoever was lucky enough to be sheltered in his arms.
But Varro’s eyes were my favorite feature. Deep, tawny brown with streaks of brown-black, they seemed to change with his emotions. The darker streaks widened, and Varro frowned at me.
I dropped my gaze to the table. Usually by now, I’d be chattering at him about my latest obsession, whether it was the newest vid drama I’d pulled from the network or the data I had uncovered while digging for Morten, but with my dreams still haunting me, I was having trouble finding normal.
Eli sauntered in, saving me from having to explain my unusual behavior. His deep brown skin still glistened from his workout, and when he caught sight of Varro sitting across from me, his grin turned teasing. “Ah, there you are. I wondered where you’d vanished to.”
Elias Bruck was the older brother I’d never had. He, Lexi, and I had survived the war thanks to Tavi. Afterward, we’d started hunting bounties as a group. Lexi had since moved on to do her own thing, but Eli, Tavi, and I had stuck together. Eli was our muscle, though most people were so entranced by his gorgeous face that they failed to notice said muscle until it was too late.
Behind Varro’s back, Eli tilted his head in question. “Are you okay?” he asked me over our subvocal comm connection.
I rubbed my cheek self-consciously. How bad did I look? “Rough night,” I responded in the same manner.
Varro had to know that Eli and I were communicating, but he didn’t interrupt. Valoffs tended to be tolerant of simultaneous private conversations because they could all communicate telepathically—one of the skills that had given them a lethal edge during the war.
Luna chirped a greeting at Eli, and his attention transferred to her. “I’m not feeding you more, you little monster,” he said, his voice soft with affection. “You still have food in your bowl.”
We all spoiled the adorable burbu, and Eli was just as susceptible to her big violet eyes as the rest of us. With the extra Valoffs on board, Tavi had finally had to set up a treat schedule just so we didn’t overfeed her.
I finished my smoothie, then rose and snagged Varro’s empty glass before he could stop me. Everyone had duties on the ship, and generally, if you cooked, you didn’t have to clean. Varro often tried to do both.
I washed the glasses while Eli puttered around behind me, making himself an early lunch. The familiar routine settled my nerves. Tavi and Eli had been my anchors for nearly a decade, and I would miss them terribly.
But staying on Bastion for a few weeks would give me more time to devote to finding Morten as well as giving me space to sort out my feelings for Varro. It was exactly what I needed.
Decision made, I just had to figure out how to break the news to Tavi in a way that would prevent her from worrying about me. I shook my head with a grin. It was an impossible task.
I took the coward’s way out and decided that I should get my work done for the day before I talked to Tavi, so after breakfast, I returned to the engineering control room, a fancy name for the utility closet I’d converted into my personal workspace. Before Anja, our new mechanic, had joined our team, I’d been responsible for keeping the ship running.
I was no mechanic, but I did know my way around the ship’s electronics. Finding my way into the networked components, figuring out how they worked, and optimizing them for greatest efficiency was something that brought me an immense amount of satisfaction. Starlight’s Shadow was Tavi’s ship, but she’d given me complete control over the systems that kept us alive and moving.
I checked the quartet of monitoring screens as I slid into my chair. The ship would send an immediate alert if anything went wrong, but seeing it on the screen was a comfort that I refused to give up. With a single glance, I could confirm that every element was within spec.
And that the searches I’d left running for news of Morten had not returned any new results overnight.
Tavi and the rest of the crew depended on my ability to unearth information about our targets, and I was letting everyone down. My main job was to find the data Tavi needed in order to plan, and right now, I couldn’t even do that right.
I’d been breaking my way into restricted networks since I was old enough to know what a network was. Both of my parents were engineers, and they’d encouraged my interest in technology and skepticism of authority. They’d also helped me cover my tracks more than once when my ambition had gotten ahead of my skill.
I’d joined the military straight out of school because my family couldn’t afford the fee to avoid mandatory service, and I’d fudged my aptitude scores so none of the conglomerates would be interested enough to offer an indentureship.
Unfortunately, my dismal aptitude scores meant I was put in a front-line unit rather than a tech unit. I wasn’t wired to be a good soldier—or even a mediocre soldier—but the FHP had tried their best to grind me into submission. They might have succeeded had Tavi not accepted my transfer into her squad. I owed her everything, and the least I could do in return was find the Lady-damned information she needed.
In my years of tracking people down, I’d never had someone elude me for so long. I was starting to suspect that Morten had people high up in the FHP covering his tracks. Or maybe someone in the Valovian Empire.
The fact that I didn’t know which was its own annoyance.
But it wasn’t all bad news. The rumors of a big event on Bastion that I’d been seeing for the past couple of weeks had finally solidified. There must’ve been a news embargo date, because now there was a flood of information from a variety of reputable sources.
The reports indicated that the space station would be hosting a high-end fashion exhibition at the end of the week—a first-of-its-kind collaboration between human and Valovian designers that merged fashion and technology. Several very important people, both human and Valoff, had either arrived early or indicated they were on their way.
Bastion wasn’t exactly the epicenter of haute couture, so the exhibition was likely a cover for a more interesting meeting. Perhaps the FHP and the Valovian Empire were renegotiating the peace treaty. Or maybe they were trading threats. Whatever the reason, I wanted to be there to see what sort of data I could dig up, especially with so many Valoffs on the station.
The timing firmed up my intent to stay on Bastion after we docked for supplies. I’d still have to explain my reasons to Tavi—all of them—or she’d send Varro with me as backup. But information recon was something I needed no help for. If I planned it right, I could sift through the data from the safety of my bunk.
I started looking for a room that had the best network access but also wouldn’t break the bank. I lost myself in the data until my comm buzzed to remind me that I was scheduled to help Anja down in maintenance this afternoon. It took two more alarms to pull my attention away, which was why I always set multiple. It was a pain, but it kept me on track.
I stood up before shutting off the third alarm. If I didn’t, I would get sucked back into the search. I headed down to the maintenance level before that happened.
The deeper I delved into the narrow access corridors, the higher the temperature rose. When I found Anja, her short, black curls were matted to her head and sweat beaded on her light brown skin. She’d removed her shirt and worked only in her sports bra and pants, both of which were soaked through.
She’d warned me the temperature would be high today, but I’d forgotten. At least my short-sleeve shirt and long pants were lightweight and breathable.
Anja Harbon had joined our team a little over a month ago, but she’d slid into place so seamlessly that it felt like she’d been with us much longer. She was tall and fit, with defined muscles in her stomach that I would dearly love, but not enough to actually work for them.
She was gorgeous, and if I hadn’t laid eyes on Varro and immediately thought Mine!, I would’ve flirted with her as boldly as Eli did.
Anja swiped an arm across her brow and gave me a tired grin. “Sorry about the temperature. I had to close this section off to work on the scrubber and it’s miserable.”
I waved her off. “I made you spend hours wedged under a terminal that was apparently built for teeny tiny children in order to upgrade the processing unit. We’ll call it even.”
She grimaced. “It’s going to be that bad again, unfortunately. The part that needs replacing is a flow control valve at the very edge of the access hatch and it needs two sets of hands. But this is the last one, so hopefully we won’t have to do this for another decade or so.”
I peered in the open panel and spotted the flow valve marked with orange chalk. Thanks to my slighter frame, there was just enough space for me to crawl in and brace it while Anja worked. “You’re lucky I’m not any taller,” I grumbled good-naturedly. “And that I like you.”
“I’ll make you a dozen of your favorite cookies,” she promised.
I grinned at her. “You should’ve led with that. Pull me out if I get stuck.”
Anja had the kind of calm steadiness that soothed my constant need to go and do and perform. She reminded me a lot of Tavi in that way. Even when the flow valve slipped and smashed her finger, she just cursed once, emphatically, and kept working.
By the time we got the new valve installed and tested, I’d been crammed in the crawl space for nearly three hours. I was made of sweat and sore muscles, but we’d upgraded an integral piece of the ship’s life support system, so the pain was worth it. And now I could spend the evening sitting on the couch, binging my newest vid series without any guilt.
Assuming I could get out of this damned hole.
My legs were asleep from where Anja had leaned against them, and my spine felt welded to the deck at an awkward angle. When I didn’t move after Anja had worked herself out of the uncomfortably close space, she poked her head back in. “You okay?”
I waved a tired arm. “I live here now. I’ve become one with the crawl space. You can just deliver my cookies here.”
She grinned. “I’m pretty sure the crew wouldn’t appreciate me letting you slowly roast to death, so out you come. Give me your hand and I’ll help you.”
With Anja’s assistance, I managed to wiggle my way out. We tidied up the work area, then both headed up to the main deck to clean up before dinner.
After a shower and a change of clothes, I felt more like a human, albeit a tired one. By the time I made it to the galley, Tavi was just finishing cooking and the rest of the crew had gathered.
We’d found early on that the ship ran better if Tavi cooked dinner while Eli and I took turns cleaning up. Eli and I could cook, but neither of us had the same passion for it that Tavi did. That tradition had carried over after the Valoffs had joined us, though these days Torran often either helped or cooked the evening meal himself.
Communal dinners built camaraderie, something we’d needed a lot of as the two crews had gotten used to each other, but now it was just a nice excuse to get everyone together once a day to hang out and chat.
My thoughts drifted, as they often did, to Varro. I sat across from him at dinner, and I adored being the center of his focus, right up until I remembered that he was just being friendly, and he treated everyone the same. Then I felt guilty for wanting more.
It was a vicious spiral, and it only firmed my resolve that I needed some time away. Pining for someone who wasn’t interested was not a productive use of my time, but I couldn’t seem to stop. Tavi would understand, just as soon as I gathered the courage to tell her—not that I held much hope that she hadn’t already figured it out.
But pride was a funny thing, and I had more than my fair share.
As if summoned by my thoughts, Varro appeared at my side and handed me a tall glass of icy water with an irritated grunt.
“Thank you,” I said, then greedily gulped down the cold liquid. I was parched after spending the afternoon in maintenance, but I had no idea how he always knew what I needed. It was impressive and infuriating in turns.
Varro had impeccable manners, so I wasn’t surprised when he grumbled, “You’re welcome.”
We lapsed into a silence that I was too tired to fill. A glance around proved that Anja had gotten ready faster than me, and she was deep in conversation with Eli, Havil, and Chira.
Chira Pelek, the Valovian first officer, had pale skin and natural silvery-white hair that made her the most distinctive looking of the Valoffs who had joined our crew. She was beautiful, with a sharp mind and a backbone of steel. Next to her, Havil Wutra, the Valovian medic, had deep brown skin and a kind face framed by straight black hair.
The four of them—Eli, Anja, Chira, and Havil—flirted shamelessly with each other. Well, Eli flirted shamelessly, and the other three were a little more discreet. I was pretty sure that it had recently moved past flirting, at least for Eli, but I was doing my best not to pry, especially in the delicate early stages of a relationship.
Looking around, I kept expecting to see Lexi’s pale blond hair. She was the fourth member of our military squad—the fourth surviving member, at least. Before she’d joined us for the job on Valovia, it’d been nearly a year since we’d seen her.
And as soon as the job was finished, she’d had to return to her own contracts.
I still felt the hole she’d left behind. I hoped it wouldn’t be another year before we saw her again, but her jobs took her all over the galaxy and our paths rarely crossed.
When we’d let Lexi off at Bastion, Nilo—Torran’s second officer—had disembarked as well, heading back to Valovia to be Torran’s eyes and ears on the ground. Without the two of them, the room felt a little emptier, even when filled with people.
I pushed away the sadness. They both knew what they were doing, and just because I preferred to stick close to the people I loved didn’t mean everyone was the same.
But it would certainly make my life easier.
Torran helped Tavi move food to the table. The former Valovian general was tall, lean, and muscular, with short black hair and lightly tanned skin. As a telekinetic, he was the most dangerous person on the ship by an order of magnitude—or ten.
But tonight his face was soft with affection as he gently teased Tavi about her cooking. She glared at him, but a smile kept trying to break through her stern expression.
“They are so happy together,” I murmured.
“They are,” Varro confirmed, startling me. I’d almost forgotten that he was beside me.
“I would like to be that happy.” The wistful words slipped out before I thought about who I was talking to. I winced internally, but there was nothing to do but brazen it out.
I could feel Varro’s gaze, but I resolutely kept my eyes on Tavi. “Are you unhappy?” he asked, his voice surprisingly soft.
Yes. The certainty of that answer surprised me. I could usually find the upside in any situation, but the cycle of guilt and longing had worn me down. I wanted to be a good friend, but my feelings refused to cooperate.
I turned to him. He was close, and I had to tip my head back to meet his eyes. His dark gaze swept over my face, his eyes oddly intense.
“I’m happy,” I lied with a smile. I vowed I’d make it true, just as soon as I had some time to get my head on straight.
Varro’s expression didn’t change, and I worried that he’d seen through me. But before he could call me on it, Tavi announced that dinner was ready.
I thanked the Blessed Lady for the lucky break and headed for my seat. My resolve firmed. After dinner, I would tell the captain that I planned to stay on Bastion, and why. She would be loath to send me off on my own, as would Eli, but as much as they wanted to protect me, they knew I could take care of myself, at least for a little while.
But I wasn’t so sure about the silent Valoff sitting across from me. He tended to hover, as if overprotectiveness was built into his DNA. If I told him that I was going to stay on Bastion, he would insist on accompanying me, which was exactly the opposite of what I needed.
So I wouldn’t tell him.
He was going to be so mad.COLLAPSE