Authors: Chandra Ryan
His hand hit the com badge before he could stop himself. “XO
“Captain here.” Her voice seemed as tight as his.
“Thank you for getting that response to me promptly.”
There. He’d talked to her. It might have been a small step.
But it was in the right direction. And that was all that mattered. Feeling
slightly better, he pushed back on the desk and stood. He didn’t need to
practice his breathing this time as he made his way through the ship. And he
didn’t have to force his body to relax as he stepped into the lounge. The
numbness had settled so deeply in his soul that he couldn’t feel anything else.
“Excuse me, sir.” He sat down on the stool next to Vance and
motioned the bartender. “But can I buy you a drink?”
Vance shot him a confused look. “I don’t know. Depends on
what you’d expect in return.”
“Just a moment of your time. I’m in need of your expert
“Then by all means. I take my whiskey neat.”
The bartender set down the glass and took Parker’s credit
stick with a graceful series of movements.
Vance took a drink and then asked, “So what is it you’d like
“Who aboard the
would have the most to gain
by sabotaging the ship?”
He backed up and looked startled. “Sabotage the ship? No
one. Why? Do you think someone is trying to?”
“The glitches seem too convenient.”
“They haven’t been overly convenient to my department. I can
tell you that much.” He lifted the glass to his lips and took a sip.
“It started with the long-range sensors. Then the fields
that divide the prison cells started flickering and the riot guns
malfunctioned. And just now the nav systems went down.”
“I don’t see how those things are related.”
“They’re all systems that would be high priority if the ship
were attacked. Especially if it were attacked while we had prisoners onboard.”
Vance nodded slowly and took a slightly larger drink. “I
guess I can see that.”
“It got me thinking. Who has the most to gain by sabotaging
the Salaan run?”
“You have someone in mind, don’t you?”
Parker leaned forward so they wouldn’t be heard. “Barkswell.”
Vance reeled back again. “Really? He’s the best.”
“And who better to save us in our hour of need than the
best? If he singlehandedly averted a rescue attempt, wouldn’t that get him the
notice he needed to get his own ship?” It took a few minutes to lay out his
argument but by the end of it Vance looked as though he was starting to come
“I think I see what you’re saying.”
“But the captain doesn’t.” Parker signaled the bartender for
another drink. “So I need some help.”
“Salaan run is in three days.” He swirled what was left in
the glass as he spoke. “What do you think we can do in three days to convince
“We don’t need to convince her. We need to stop him. And
given how much time he spends in engineering, I think you’re the man for it.”
“So you want to get through the run and then dig up the dirt
“I think that’d be the best course this late in the game.”
Vance nodded. “I think I might be able to help you.”
“You’re a good man.”
Vance drank the rest of the alcohol in his glass in one
gulp. “I’m nothing special. We’re all just doing our best out here.”
“No. You’re a good guy. The captain trusts you.”
“The captain trusts every member of her crew. Even
He had a point. But there was a difference between him and
Barkswell. “To Barkswell, the
is no more than a pit stop on his
way to bigger and better things. Everybody onboard knows that. But you’ve been
here longer than the captain. This is your home.”
“Yep. That’s me. Good ole reliable Vance. Predictable and
steadfast.” His voice was sharp enough that Parker wondered if he’d accidently
hurt the man’s feelings.
“I didn’t mean that as an insult.”
Vance put his glass down on the bar and stood. The man had
had enough to drink that he wobbled slightly once he was back on his feet. “I
know what you meant. Appreciate the drink.”
Parker was confused by Vance’s mood shift but nodded
stiffly. “Have a good night.”
He waited for Vance to leave before making his way to his
quarters. He didn’t really want to be alone right now but he’d avoided it for
as long as possible. Fatigue was already starting to set in. If he didn’t make
it to his bed soon they’d find him passed out on the stool.
As the door to his room closed behind him, though, he
seriously wondered if the barstool would’ve been the better choice. He’d spent
most of his life on his own. But he’d never felt so alone. He wanted to page
Harlow but knew better. They needed a clean break. It hurt now but it would get
better over the coming days. If he gave in to the desire to hear her voice, it
would only make the pain linger.
But as he closed his eyes he couldn’t stop picturing her
Harlow lived in a shadow world for the next three days.
Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion and she had a hard time
focusing on what was going on around her. It was made worse by how easily
Parker seemed to be taking their time apart. Each day appeared to get a little
better for him but worse for her. And this morning it’d gotten so bad she’d
walked behind his console just to see if she could smell him.
She groaned in misery at the memory and buried her face in
her hands. How had this happened?
“Yeah. Just ready for this run to be over. I think everybody
could use a little shore leave. Myself included.”
But Parker didn’t seem convinced. He studied her for a
moment before turning to one of the other crew members. “Ensign Locke, get the
captain some coffee. Better make it hot and black.”
Damn the man. He was still trying to look after her. But he
didn’t need to. She could take care of herself. “I’m good. Really.”
But Parker shook his head. “No. You’re not. You need a good
meal and some sleep, Captain.”
Her jaw clenched at the title. He never called her Harlow
anymore. But she could play that game just as well as he did. “I need a lot of
things, XO. I need your report. I need an updated prisoner list. I need to work
out.” And she needed a shower. Not that she was going to tell him that.
“We’ve got a handle on this. Why don’t you go get some rest
and I’ll give you my report this evening?”
It was so tempting. If she could just get a little rest she’d
feel so much better. “We’re going to be at Salaan in a couple of hours.”
“I’ll make sure you’re on the bridge when we make contact.”
“Captain.” Barkswell’s voice demanded her attention
“The ion cannons are showing a malfunction.”
She should consider herself lucky that this was the first
malfunction they’d had since the glitch with the nav systems. Still, she didn’t
feel overly lucky right now. They were too close to Salaan. She didn’t have
time for anything to go wrong. Hitting her communications badge, she tried to
relax. “Engineering, this is the captain.”
“Engineering here. Go ahead.”
“Tactical is reporting an ion cannon malfunction.”
“We’re on it.”
Hitting the badge to turn it off, she stood and stretched to
help alleviate the aches and pains from sitting too long.
“Are you going to rest, sir?”
“If I can find the time.”
“Captain.” His concern for her radiated through his
thoughts. And strangely she found that irritating. He worried about her. But
not enough to actually stop by her quarters and talk to her.
“We have a job to do. Sleep will come later.” She shook her
head to end the conversation before addressing the crew. “XO has the bridge.”
As she walked off the bridge she could feel him staring at
her. She couldn’t fault him for it. She had a hard time not watching him when
they were in the same room. Even after everything, she was still attracted to
? She stopped at the thought. Did
what they have—or rather had—qualify as “everything”? She’d only known him for
two weeks. But it felt as though she’d known him forever. How was that
possible? She had to admit it’d been a crazy couple of weeks though. Maybe that
was why it felt longer. Then again, maybe it was because of the spark of
attraction between them. Either way, he’d somehow managed to become a much
larger part of her life than two weeks should allow.
As a crew member he’d done well. She’d give him that. And
competence was a trait she found endearing. She moved around a group of people
as she navigated the passageways. He’d taken over the role of XO with ease. And
under his guidance the ship had run smoother than ever. She hadn’t had to deal
with a single requisition form or crew complaint since he’d stepped into his
Still, competence and attraction couldn’t explain why he’d
become so important to her. God, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d
spent so much time fixated on a man. She actually didn’t think it’d ever
happened before. Unbidden images of him shirtless in the locker room flashed
through her mind, causing her to walk past the corridor she needed. Cursing to
herself, she turned around and began working her way toward engineering again.
She sighed as she reached engineering. She shouldn’t have
indulged in her attraction to him in the first place. If she’d known the man
was addictive she wouldn’t have. But she was a telepath, not a prophet. And now
that ship had officially sailed. Opening the door to engineering, she was
greeted by a sea of curious and anxious gazes.
Lieutenant Vance’s voice was strong even as he stared at her
nervously. His eyes were flashing from her to his monitor at such a rapid pace
it made her dizzy.
“Don’t worry, I didn’t come to issues reprimands. We’re all
overworked and under a lot of stress right now.”
“Then to what do we owe the pleasure, sir?”
“I need to speak to you in private.”
“Of course. Just let me log out of my station and I’ll be
right with you.”
“You look sad.” Rowe’s voice from directly behind her
startled her, making her jump.
“Rowe, don’t sneak up on me.”
“Why are you sad?”
Because of their special bond, Rowe’s constant expression of
bewilderment didn’t bother her. “I’m not sad. I’m tired. They look the same.”
“You do too much.” The woman’s gaze wandered over the room
as she twisted a lock of her pale-blonde hair between her thumb and forefinger.
“I have been told that in the past. I’ll make sure I get
plenty of rest after this run is over.”
“If you say so.” Rowe nodded before walking away. Harlow
watched her make her way back to her terminal, her movements so graceful she
appeared to be floating.
“Okay.” Vance nodded to her from his station. “We can go
They made their way to her ready room and closed the door
before either of them spoke again.
“So what did you want to talk about?” Vance sat down on the edge
of the couch as small beads of sweat broke out on his forehead. He was
obviously nervous. Not that she was surprised. She would probably be every bit
as worried were she in his spot. He had to think she blamed him for the current
crisis. But he was far too good an engineer for her to suspect negligence on
“Would you like a drink?” She turned to face the decanters
sitting on a nearby shelf as she took a deep breath.
“No thank you, sir. I’m good.”
“Okay.” She returned her focus to him as she folded her
hands in front of her waist. She’d hoped he wanted the drink so she could have
one. She could use a little bit of alcohol to settle her nerves and to give her
hands something to do. “I wanted to talk to you about the possibility of
“Of what? The ship?”
She walked over and sat on the chair directly across from
Vance. “One of my crew members voiced some concerns and now that we’ve had a
weapons malfunction on the day of the run, I wanted to get your opinion.”
“I can’t imagine why anyone would. What would their motive
“My best guess? We’re picking up a political prisoner who
carries a lot of weight. It wouldn’t be that farfetched to believe someone
doesn’t want him to pay his debt to society.”
“Who are we talking about?”
“That’s classified. But he has connections at the top of the
“The people who would want him free have the power and
influence to promote those who help.”
“Do they have the authority to promote a possible saboteur
to captain and give him a ship of his own?”
“There is one name that comes to mind. Barkswell.”
She nodded. “He’s ambitious.” And did have a connection to
Prime Minister Lee. “Anyone else?”
“Maybe the XO.”
Harlow’s heart froze and her stomach knotted at the
possibility before her mind caught up with her emotional reaction. “No. He’s
the one who started asking questions. If her were the saboteur, the last thing
he’d want is to bring attention to it.”
“Guess you’re probably right. I was just suspicious of the
timing. He came onboard right before the run. Awfully convenient.”
“The same can be said of any of the new blood.”
“You do have a point.”
“Any other names?”
He shook his head slowly. “No one comes to mind, sir.”
“Thank you.” She saw him out before pouring herself two
fingers of whiskey.
“XO to Captain.”
His timing could not have been worse. Well, maybe it could
have been. He could’ve called her while she was masturbating. But other than
that, this was as bad as it got. “Captain here.”
“Salaan will be in range in an hour.”
She didn’t need him to tell her that. She could hear the
clock ticking in her head. “And?”
“Have you eaten?”
This had to stop. “You’re my XO, not my babysitter.”
“It’s the XO’s job to make sure the captain stays of sound
mind and body.”
She growled with irritation. She hated it when he was right.
“Fine. I’m headed to the mess hall now.”
“I’ll join you there.”
“I don’t recall inviting you to dine with me.”
“This is my first run. I’d kind of like to know what I’m
Damn it! Must he be right about everything tonight? “Okay.
Meet me in the mess hall in fifteen minutes.”
She had ten minutes. Dashing to her bathroom, she ran a
brush through her hair before changing into a fresh uniform. Her eyes had dark
circles under them and her complexion was sallow from the lack of sleep and
stress but it was nothing a touch of makeup couldn’t fix.
Looking her best had nothing to do with meeting Parker and
everything to do with keeping up appearances with her crew. If a captain looks
like hell, the crew starts to worry. Or at least that was what she told herself
as she left her quarters.
It wasn’t far to the mess hall but it was long enough for
her to organize her thoughts. If she was going to make it through the evening
without falling asleep on her feet, or worse, finding an excuse to touch
Parker, she had to stay focused on the goal. She needed to brief him on the
Salaan run. That was it. She’d successfully done it with each of her XOs in the
past. This time wouldn’t be any different.
She took a deep breath and forced a smile as she entered the
mess hall. She was early but she wasn’t surprised to find him already there and
waiting for her. As soon as their eyes met he stood and moved over to pull out
a chair for her. The gesture would be romantic if they were on a date. But they
weren’t. This was a business dinner.
If it were a date, however, it would be exactly like this.
He looked rakish in his uniform. And that image was only enhanced by the shadow
of stubble that darkened his jaw. The man appeared dangerous. She was
momentarily overwhelmed with the desire to feel its coarse texture scratch
against her skin. Shaking her head, she forced herself to turn away and take a
So much for keeping a tight rein on the hormones.
As she made her way over to him she was stopped several
times by crew members. Most nights the interruptions wouldn’t bother her but
tonight wasn’t any other night. She was already irritable and wanted the dinner
over as quickly as possible. But there was nothing she could do but address
each person cordially and smile warmly. The act took an emotional toll however.
And by the time she finally managed to make it over to his table, her heart was
beating hard in her ears and she was sure her cheeks were flushed.
“Captain.” His voice was warm as she sat down.
“XO.” Hers was tense.
He sat back down as she placed a cloth napkin over her lap.
“Thank you for joining me.” He held out his hand in welcome
and she took it before she could think better of it. When she found herself lingering
to feel his touch for a moment longer than necessary, though, she came back to
herself and pulled back with forced a smile. “I know this isn’t easy for you
and I appreciate you making the time.”
“Just doing my job. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t remember
it was your first run on my own.”
“I’ll take that as praise for my current job performance.”
“As you wish.”
He leaned forward and whispered, “This is nowhere near what
I would’ve wished for.”
A sharp pain punctured her chest and made her breath catch. “This
is not the time or the place.”
He sat back in his chair and nodded. “I apologize.”
She waited in silence as their food was delivered. When they
were alone again she said, “I think it’d be best if we stick to work.” She took
a bite of food before continuing. “After we make contact with the guards at
Salaan, I’ll take a security detail via a shuttle to the planet’s surface. Once
there we will be on total radio silence. I’ll be gone for no more than a half
hour. If I’m not back onboard the
within that half-hour time
frame, you are to assume my team has been taken hostage and set a course for
the nearest government outpost.”
His jaw clenched but he seemed to relax after a second. “I
could go to the planet’s surface in your place.”
“No you couldn’t. The scanners are programmed to respond to
my genetic helix. If I’m not there, no one gets in or out.” She saw him open
his mouth to argue with her but stopped him before he could speak. “And we can’t
both go. As XO, you need to stay on the bridge. Unless you want to leave the
bridge to Barkswell? The last time I checked, he wasn’t your favorite person.”
“I’ll stay on the bridge.” But the rigid set of his jaw told
her he wasn’t happy. Well, that was too bad. He didn’t need to be happy.