Authors: Chandra Ryan
She smiled as she filled her glass again. “At the time, the
military couldn’t touch me. It was for my own good. Or so they told me. But I
was made to be a soldier. I could feel it in my bones. The Coalition was my
only choice. Then when Lee said all Coalition soldiers were welcome back…”
He waited for her to complete the sentence but when she left
it with a shrug he decided to finish it for her. “You came in under the
“I forced my way in through a loophole. Pissed a lot of
people off in the process. But I won’t apologize. I’ve worked my ass off to get
to where I am.” She sipped at the drink this time. “A Sub’s gotta do what a Sub’s
“I had no idea.”
“Not many do. And I’d appreciate it if it stayed that way.”
She put the glass down then crossed her arms in front of her chest. “I’m
telling you because I want you to know that when I say I’ll give you a fair
shot, I mean it.”
He did feel more at ease knowing they’d walked the same
path. “Thank you, sir.”
“Harlow.” She smiled at the correction. “And don’t mention
it. Now that we’ve got that all cleared up, I’ve got a lot to do and you’ve got
to get settled into your quarters.”
“Is that my dismissal?”
“It most certainly is.”
“Permission to speak freely?”
“You always have permission to speak freely aboard my ship.”
“You seem very…” He paused, trying to find a tactful
“Laid back,” she finished for him. “You’ll find that things
are different here. Everyone onboard has lost at least one friend in the line
of duty. That gives you a different perspective on life. A different
perspective on rules, station and regulations.”
He stood and put his glass on the low table in front of him.
“So you’re not exactly a by-the-book kind of captain.”
“I’m the kind of captain my crew needs.”
“Then I don’t know how good a fit I’ll be. Since the
military took us back I’ve lived by the book.” It was the only way he could
prove he belonged in the military. The other officers could do their worst but
as long as he didn’t break the rules they couldn’t force him out.
“Then you’ll die by the book out here.”
“A soldier’s gotta do what a soldier’s gotta do.” He noticed
her thin smile as he threw her words back at her. “But I understand if you want
to reassign me.”
“No. I think if you give it a shot, you’ll like it here.”
She leaned back on the desk as her gaze ran down his body. “I’m not the enemy
and this isn’t some test to prove your loyalty. Believe me when I tell you that
I like the book too. It’s a good read. But when you’re holding a man half the
universe wants dead and the other half wants freed, it can get dicey. Now
multiply that by twenty—a hundred on pickup days. Believe me when I tell you,
they didn’t write the book for us.”
He understood what she was saying but rules and regulations
were his safety net. They were an objective measure of his loyalty. Still, she
was his captain. And if she insisted on him staying he had to follow her
orders. “I’ll try to keep that in mind.”
She opened the door and turned to him. “Be sure you do. You
have today to learn your way around the ship, but you’re to report for duty at
0700 hours tomorrow. Don’t be late.”
She was still standing in the doorway as he left, forcing
him to face her in order to squeeze through the space. Her eyes caught his as
he brushed up against her body and he breathed in the faint aroma of jasmine
and cinnamon that surrounded her. “These belong to you now.” She placed
something cold and metal in his hand. Opening it, he saw the brass bars that
would designate him as a lieutenant commander.
“I hope you won’t regret giving them to me, Captain.”
“Life’s too short for regrets.” Her sincere smile chased
away some of the doubts he had. But it was a brief interlude. As soon as the
smile vanished and she’d stepped back into her quarters he began wondering how
this assignment would turn to shit. They always did.
Harlow waited for the door to close behind him to take a
deep breath. Some of his thoughts that’d brushed her consciousness implied he
didn’t think he belonged here. And it didn’t seem as if he felt this way
because she was a Sub or because he expected her to screw him over in some way
but because he simply never had a home. In time, though, he’d change his mind.
She just had to make sure he had the time he needed. Granted it was a rough
start to a captain-XO relationship. But it was better than the other option—no
XO at all.
It’d been two months since her last XO had been promoted to
a different ship and her crew was sick of coming to her with her with every
issue onboard. She couldn’t really blame them. She wasn’t always the easiest
person to deal with. If they found out she’d had the opportunity for an XO and
ignored it after tossing the one Fleet sent, they just might become mutinous.
Despite common opinion, she knew her limits. She could survive a lot of things
but a mutinous crew wasn’t one of them.
After walking down the hallway to her bedroom she grabbed a
set of workout clothes and a towel and threw them into her duffel before making
her way through the maze of corridors to the gym. Dealing with that ass Fleet
sent had left her needing a good sweat. And since she wasn’t due on the bridge
for another hour there was no reason to deny herself the pleasure of one.
Opening the hatch to the co-ed locker room, she grabbed a locker and stripped
down to her underwear.
It’d bothered her to be so naked in front of everyone when
she first came onboard the
. But she’d somehow managed to get
used to it over the years. Besides, nobody saw her as anything other than the
captain now. That hadn’t been the case ten years ago when she’d only been a
tactician with the rank of ensign. Everybody had stared at her back then. She’d
felt like a fish in an aquarium. It’d been the worst sensation ever. But that
was no longer the case. She’d earned her crew members’ respect and no one
stared at her anymore.
She smiled at the truth as she slipped on her workout
clothes. In the gym she stretched and then started jogging at a relaxed pace
around the track to warm her muscles. It wasn’t a full-sized track. Her ship
wasn’t large enough to house a complete one. But it was big enough to work up a
She’d run today and work out on the weights tomorrow. That
was her routine and she did it without fail. It was important to stay strong.
Only the strong survived military service. And she planned on doing better than
surviving. She would excel.
She used that thought as motivation as she began to run
seriously. Taking steady breaths, she forced herself to focus on the track in
front of her. Nothing else existed and nothing else mattered. At least, nothing
did until her lungs burned and her heart raced. And when she was unable to make
herself run another lap at the grueling pace, she slowed down to let her body
cool. Only after another two laps did she finally allow herself to stop.
Gasping for air, she bent over to ease the stitch in her
side. Every inch of her body hurt but the pain was dull and she knew it would
disappear under the warm spray of the shower. She’d lived through worse.
Probably would do so again. So she refused to waste any energy whining about
it. Forcing herself to stand, she made her way toward the promise of relief.
The locker room was almost deserted when she walked back
through the door. Not a great surprise. It was almost time for lunch and meals
were one of the few social activities on the ship. Only a handful of crew members
would choose to work out over catching up with the day’s gossip. But since she
had little use for gossip, this was the perfect time for her.
Taking off the sweaty clothes, she shoved them into her
locker and grabbed the towel before stepping under the warm jets of water. It
was such a small luxury yet the water pelting her sore muscles and then
trailing down her skin felt decadent. It was as if fingers were massaging and
caressing every inch of her body all at once. And she wanted nothing more than
to stay under the warm water all day. But she was the captain and there was a
long list of things that needed done. Ignoring it would only make it grow
She reluctantly turned off the water and then wrapped a
towel around her body before stepping back into the locker room. She’d expected
to find the room completely deserted this time. But she was wrong. Standing in
front of one of the lockers with his back to her was Parker. And he was shirtless.
She cleared her throat softly to let him know she was there
but she instantly recognized her mistake as he turned to face her. Her gaze was
drawn to his strong arms then pulled to his chest. There was a long scar that
stretched over his left side and ended just over his sternum—his heart.
Whatever had caused it had been inches from taking his life. But somehow he’d
survived. He’d won.
Realizing she was staring, she forced herself to look away
from him. “Sorry, I didn’t want to startle you.”
It was a stray thought. One she hadn’t meant to pick up. But
one that left her acutely aware of her near-nakedness and made her feel
vulnerable. Which was an emotion she just didn’t do. She was his captain. His
leader. And she was going to have to make sure he understood their
She forced her spine to straighten as she walked briskly to
her locker and took the towel off without reservation. It was what she needed
to do. She had to stay in control of the situation. Show him that he was nothing
more than a uniform in her mind.
As she grabbed her clothes from the locker she refused to
think about him. Instead she focused on the list of things that needed her
attention as she dressed. Or at least that’d been the plan. But it wasn’t long
before Parker’s image intruded on her thoughts. It was maddening and completely
inappropriate. They had a major run coming up. Soon her ship would be
transporting some of the worst criminals in this quadrant from one side of the
galaxy to the other. She didn’t have time for inappropriate right now. But damn
it all, it was kind of exciting.
The wayward thought made her freeze. That she might actually
be enjoying the attention of a man was bad enough. But a crew member? That had
never happened before. No matter how strong his arms were or how much she loved
scars. And she shouldn’t allow it to happen now. But she couldn’t stop herself
from looking over her shoulder to find him. Bitter disappointment filled her as
she discovered the spot he’d just occupied was now empty.
What the hell was wrong with her? Now dressed, she slammed
the locker shut and grimaced as the accompanying noise echoed eerily through
the room and brought her back to her senses. She knew what was wrong. And it
didn’t matter how many doors she slammed, her new XO wasn’t going anywhere
anytime soon. Was she comfortable with having a man under her who constantly
stared at her ass or came rushing to her defense? Hell no. She was even less
comfortable with how her heart raced whenever she caught him thinking about
her. But she’d read his file. He was good.
Yeah, she’d bet he was better than good—at everything.
A shiver worked through her body at the thought but she
quickly pushed the sensation away. He was good at his job, she corrected. And
she needed a good XO. Nothing more. She ran a brush through her tangled hair
and pulled it back into a bun before setting off for the bridge. Her attraction
to Max Parker would die down once she got to know him a bit better. As soon as
she saw him picking his teeth or heard him whine about the long hours he’d just
be another crew member. She was sure of it. And if not, she was a practical
woman. There were ways to work the attraction out of their systems before it
became a distraction to either of them.
She smiled at the thought as she pressed her badge against
the security plate to open the bridge door. It slid back with a soft whoosh.
Smooth as silk. Just how she expected her ship to run.
The bridge seemed warmer than usual as she moved through the
entrance. She guessed it was because she’d just been exercising. Taking off her
jacket, she threw it over the back of her chair and then sat down at her
monitor and pulled up the list of prisoners they were going to be transporting.
There were some high-profile names. But none was more powerful than the father
of Prime Minister Lee. Whoever had managed to finally arrest Ahnal Lee must
have had balls of steel. The man was notorious even before his son became the
Prime Minister. The government feared him for his ability to organize the
people and agitate them into a state of civil disobedience. The people loved
him because he succeeded in enacting political change where so many failed. The
man was a force to be reckoned with. And soon it’d be the Justice Department’s
turn to determine his fate. Better them than her. She was glad she was just
“Security to Captain.”
The voice over her communications badge made her jump.
Taking the badge off her jacket, she clipped it to her cami. “Captain here.”
“We’re experiencing a malfunction in our long-range
“What kind of malfunction?”
“We’re picking up a lot of subspace static.”
“I’m on it.”
Closing the file, she stood and grabbed her jacket off the
chair. She thought about putting it back on but the suffocating heat of the
room was already making her stomach turn. Deciding to just carry it, she threw
it over her arm. She’d put it back on later—when she’d cooled down a bit. “I’m
going to engineering. Lieutenant Barkswell has the bridge.”
The tactical officer took a step away from his station and
saluted at the order. “Captain?”
“Yes, Lieutenant Barkswell?”
“If you’d rather, I could go to engineering for you, sir.”
The odd request made her pause. Barkswell usually loved any
opportunity to be in charge. It was no secret that he wanted to be captain of
his own ship one day. And with the way he’d climbed the ranks she had no doubt
he’d easily make it to the top. Still, he needed to log more hours on the
bridge if he wanted the promotion. “You’re needed here, Officer.”
“Understood, sir.” He went back to his station but not
before she saw the telltale grimace of frustration. Shaking her head, she left
the bridge and started down one of the corridors. She could read his thoughts
easily enough and find out what was bothering him but her crew members trusted
her to respect their privacy and their trust was more important than whatever
was bothering Barkswell. Sure, she heard the occasional thoughts that they
screamed at her. But she never went digging for information. And she didn’t
plan to start snooping on her crew today. She’d just have to let it go and
accept that it was going to be one of those days, filled to the brim with
The corridors were busy as people returned to their stations
from lunch and the extra traffic made it hard to navigate at times. Maybe if it
hadn’t been so busy and if she hadn’t been slightly preoccupied she might have
seen him sooner. As it was she was lucky she saw him in time to avoid colliding
Parker stopped in front of her. His black hair was still
damp from a recent shower and he’d changed from his workout clothes into a pair
black fatigues and a white tank.
“All settled in?”
“Getting there, sir.”
“Good.” She went to take a step away from him but he put his
hand on her arm to stop her. His touch sent a spark through her and his
thoughts tumbled into her mind wildly. It was euphoric to lose herself to him
and his memories yet terrifying at the same time. Hissing, she backed away from
him quickly. “Don’t touch me!”
“I’m sorry, sir.” His face was pale and his voice soft.
She shook her head in an attempt to clear it but his touch
had formed a channel between them. Placing her palm on the cool metal of the
wall, she focused on the empty smoothness. Most people thought of her telepathy
as a gift. They never saw it as the weakness it could become. She could easily
lose herself in another’s thoughts if she allowed it. Thankfully the metal’s
absence of life gave her the strength to break the connection with Parker and
untangle his thoughts from hers. It was the other reason she insisted on the
entire ship being made of metal. Though she kept that one a firm secret.
Finally. She was alone again. Taking a deep, cleansing
breath, she recomposed herself. “It’s nothing. I am needed in engineering,
“But—” This time he didn’t move to touch her.
“Later, Parker. We can talk about whatever it is later.”
She didn’t wait for a reply as she walked around him. The
connection had been broken but his mind was trying to reestablish itself with
hers. He wasn’t doing it intentionally of course but she could feel him
pressing in on her and she needed distance—now.
Engineering wasn’t far from her but it was far enough to
give her a few minutes of solitude, which she spent trying not to process the
remnants of Parker’s thoughts. He was entitled to his privacy just as much as
any other member of her crew. But it was harder to ignore memories and emotions
once they’d been funneled into her head. Of course, having a mechanical issue
on her ship did help. Opening the hatch to engineering, she forced herself to
focus on the crisis at hand. She needed the long-range scanners in tiptop
shape. They were her eyes.
“Yes, Captain?” The balding, middle-aged man stepped out
from behind a large computer station. He was one of the few people who’d been
assigned to the
even before she had. His continued presence was
a comfort to her—a reminder that some things didn’t change.