"Go ahead and court-martial me. I’m not about to babysit some pampered little bastard because he’s bored with cocktail parties!” Major Ember Wyldestarrin glared at the colonel who’d just dropped a serious bombshell in her lap. The smug wanker walked beside her as if he were enjoying the fact she’d been assigned watch duty for some aristocratic playboy whose reputation for hedonism must have set untold intergalactic records.
And if not, that was truly a crime. Surely no one had ever been born with a larger sense of entitlement or ego than the infamous Bastien Cabarro. She couldn’t pick up an e-mag or news feed that wasn’t laced with his latest exploit or misadventure. The only thing larger than his list of paternity suits was the bill for his average dinner party.
Yeah, that was just what she wanted for a wingman.
Colonel Werrin smirked. “Technically he’s a very large pampered bastard. Or pain in the ass. At least for me. Which is why he’s being assigned to you. My least favorite pain in the ass. After your last stunt, I can’t think of a better punishment.”
She scoffed indignantly. “Stunt? I saved twenty-two soldiers! Anyone else would have been given a medal.”
“Yes, had you not brought down half the station in the process of it. And torched Colonel Dayan’s prized fighter.”
“Technically that wasn’t an accident.” She used his words against him to point out the fact that she’d quite intentionally set fire to Syrin’s fighter. After she’d caught the worthless prick cheating on her.
In her own bed.
With her youngest sister.
It’d been a moral imperative. Besides, they should all be grateful she’d only assaulted his ship, given what she’d really wanted to destroy. In fact, it was still a daily struggle not to murder that prick where he stood.
And her sister, to boot.
“Which is why you’re being assigned a new wingman. And you’re lucky. General Dayan wanted me to bust your rank down to private and make you a member of the rank-bust club along with Cabarro, who just went from major to captain two weeks ago after his last stunt—and that by order of his own uncle.”
Note to self, never ever date a man whose father outranks me.
Yet another reason why she wanted to stay far away from Cabarro. His uncle didn’t just outrank her—that bastard was their military. Commander general of the Gyron Force she was a part of, Barnabas Cabarro was also the prime commander for the entire Kirovarian armed services. You crossed him and he could not only bust your rank, he could end your life and no one would question it. The fact he could take his own pampered nephew’s rank without sanction said it all.
No one questioned Barnabas Cabarro when it came to the Kirovarian military. Not even the pampered prince asshole.
But that was neither here nor there. Rolling her eyes, she wanted to scream in frustration. It galled her through and through to be in this mess because of a conscienceless prick who couldn’t keep it in his pants.
Then again, it wasn’t completely Syrin’s fault, really. It was mostly because of her temper that knew no boundaries and her baby sister had no morals.
I will not be that stupid again.
Next time I’ll murder the bastard and hide his body where they will never find it.
And she couldn’t imagine anything worse than to be saddled with a womanizing pig prince for a wingman. He’d be like a kid in a candy store with her all-female family. Never mind what Alura would do if she ever saw him . . .
Yeah, this had all the makings of hell for her.
As they approached the training field, she swept her gaze over the soldiers there. Two dozen were running maneuvers.
Well, almost two dozen . . . one who should be among them stood off to the side with a cocksure grin as he made time with a corporal.
Oh, let me guess. . . .
That had to be Cabarro. He fit what she was expecting to a T. Tall, gorgeous, and more than aware of it. What a scabbing piece of work.
She felt sick just to be this close to him, and he was across the quad. Last thing she wanted was to be near enough to look into what would no doubt be a pair of smug aristo eyes. “Please, Colonel. I’ll do anything to get out of this.”
“Beg all you want. Cabarro is yours till the binary suns of Ritadaria freeze over.”
Of course he was.
Just as she started to curse her CO out loud and get that court-martial so that she wouldn’t have to worry about this, she heard a high-pitched squeal. At first, she thought it her imagination.
Until it came closer.
“Incoming!” she shouted a few seconds before a bomb struck home. And this wasn’t a drill. It hit the building to the east with such force that the percussion and aftershock knocked her from her feet. Fire and shrapnel exploded as the bomb disintegrated the north arsenal and set off every piece of ordnance kept inside its facility—causing even more damage and mayhem.
The playboy cried out and dashed off to hide.
Of course he did.
The aristos would never sully their hands with helping the wounded. Or trying to dig out survivors.
Furious, she ran to the training field, where a number of their younger soldiers had been injured. As quickly as she could, she checked on them and assisted the medics
Until a frantic cry drew her attention toward the offices on her left that had partially collapsed during the aftershocks. “Lieutenant Wyldestarrin? Can you hear me?”
No . . . please God, no!
Her heart stopped as she realized one of her younger sisters was inside that building. A building that was about to come down completely, which would probably render a rescue impossible.
Then she heard the voice beneath the rubble that begged for help. One that cried out for their mother and father.
Tears welled in her eyes. “Alura!” She ran toward the rescue workers with everything she had as she forgot all about the fact that minutes ago she’d wanted her sister dead. That Alura had betrayed her. All that mattered right now was that her sister needed her and that she couldn’t let her baby sister die.
That was her blood in that hole.
And she was the big sister Alura relied on.
By the time Ember reached them, she saw there were several soldiers trying to dig Alura out of the rubble.
One in particular stood over the tenuous remains with a calm confidence as he secured a line to the ground. “Listen to my voice, Lieutenant, and breathe. I’ll get you out in a few minutes. You with me?”
Alura answered with pain-filled whimpers.
Ember scowled as she saw what the tallest soldier there was planning to do. Dressed in a drab olive-chip battlesuit that kept his features completely hidden, the captain intended to rappel to her sister’s side in the hole where she was trapped. “You can’t reach her like that.”
The captain scoffed at her concern. “ ’Course I can, Major. Been climbing and rappelling my whole life. Certified for rescue. Now, stand back. We don’t need anything else falling in on the lieutenant. Especially not her older sister.”
And with that he literally jumped straight down into the hole at an extremely reckless pace.
Convinced he was going to land squarely on top of her sister and kill her, Ember bit back a scream. But with expert skill, he stopped his descent a few inches from Alura’s position and then, in a most amazing feat, flipped himself upside down so that he could begin shifting debris from Alura’s body.
“Hey gorgeous,” he said teasingly as he huffed to dislodge a beam. “Come here often?”
“Are you insane?” Alura snarled at him.
“Yeah. Good thing for you, too, otherwise I wouldn’t be here right now. I’d be off somewhere where it’s safe.”
Alura laughed, then groaned in absolute misery.
Terrified and shaking, and mad at herself because there was nothing more helpful she could do, Ember tried to see what he was doing, but it was extremely difficult. Instead, she heard the steady, patient tone of his voice as he explained to Alura what he was doing while teasing her with light banter in spite of the danger.
“Now, hold your breath. This is going to pinch a bit. But as soon as it’s moved, we can get you out of here.”
“Yeah, me and the strident voices in my head that are calling me even more names than you are. Much ruder ones, too. ’Cause let’s face it, there are much better places to be this time of year. Ever been to North Beach?”
“No.” Alura sniffed back her tears.
“Well, you stay with me and don’t let anything happen to yourself, and I promise I’ll take you and your husband or boyfriend. Pet gopher. Whatever tickles your fancy. We’ll all go for a nice, long vacation after this.”
Alura cried out in sudden agony.
“What happened?” Ember shouted before she could stop herself.
“It’s fine,” he said in that same calm, even tone. “I got her free and—” His voice broke off as he tilted his head to listen to something. “What’s that sound?”
It took her a heartbeat to hear it.
“Shit!” Ember studied the sky for what she heard. “It’s another run!”
His expletive was much more colorful and vulgar.
Worse? The rope holding them slipped from the additional weight of her sister’s body as he lifted her free and began climbing for the surface. The anchor holding it in the ground started to come loose.
Ember grabbed it and held fast. “I’m pulling!”
He didn’t speak. Rather, he moved faster as he struggled to get himself and Alura out of the hole as quickly as possible.
The rope slipped even more, threatening to send them both even deeper into the wreckage.
“Help!” Ember shouted for assistance with the rope and anchor. But with the new run headed for them, everyone was fleeing to save their own asses.
No one cared that she was in the open or that her sister and her rescuer would die if more bombs fell.
The anchor slipped more.
As if he knew intuitively what the others were doing and that there was no additional help to be had, the captain shot out another line from his belt. “Get your sister up. She’s a lot lighter. Easier for you to pull free.”
“What about you?”
“Don’t worry about me. Get her to safety, Major! Move!”
Ember let go of his rope to pull at Alura’s. He was right. It was much easier to lift her sister up without his extreme muscled weight added to it.
Moving as fast as she could, she got Alura out of that hole and helped her off to the side where the medics had set up a makeshift triage. Without hesitating, she started back for their rescuer. But she’d barely taken a step before the second round of bombs hit.
The ground shook even more than it had during the first run. Alura screamed from behind her as part of the triage came down around them.
Ignoring her sister’s panic and shaken by the day’s events, Ember pushed herself to her feet and ran back to the hole to help their blessed benefactor.
It was too late.
Nothing remained of where he’d been.
Nothing. Only flaming rubble.
No! Sick to her stomach, she stared at the smoldering remains. That last run had completely obliterated the opening. Flaming chunks of building had crashed down over it. There was no sign whatsoever of the captain.
Not even his helmet. And no way to reach him without heavy equipment or an exosuit.
For a moment, she feared she’d vomit as she remembered the kindness of the unknown man who’d saved Alura’s life.
And hers. She didn’t even know his name. Why hadn’t she thought to ask so that she could at least notify his parents personally? Offer up a prayer for his kind soul?
Had he not sacrificed himself, she’d have been right there when that building came down. Alura, too. How in the name of the gods could this have been his fate for such a noble and decent act?
Someone coughed and wheezed behind her as if trying to clear the smoke from his lungs. “Please don’t tell me there’s someone else we have to dig out of there. ’Cause really, I don’t think I have another good deed in me. At least not today.”
Gaping, she turned to find the captain standing behind her. Granted, he was bleeding and roughed up by the experience. But that tall, gargantuan beast was alive against all odds. Against all belief.
“How?” She scowled at him.
Pulling his helmet off to show her a bruised, yet ruggedly handsome face, he flashed a charming grin at her. “Hard to kill. God knows, my sister’s been trying to do it since birth. Lucky for me, I don’t go down easy.”
“Cabarro! Answer your damn link! Your mother’s going wild and blowing up command because she can’t make contact! She wants to make sure we haven’t killed you. Yet!”
Ember glanced around for the prince.
To her shock, the captain in front of her tapped his ear and adjusted the piece through the blood that was oozing from his injuries before he spoke. “Hey, Ma. . . . Yeah, I’m good. Just lollygagging about as usual. Chasing after hot women and cold drinks.” He paused to grimace and drop his helmet on the ground. “Um, can I call you back in a bit? There’s something I need to see to. Don’t worry. Nothing bad. Love you.”
No sooner had he disconnected the call than his legs buckled.
Ember’s breath left her with a rush as she saw the huge red stain that was spreading over his side from where he’d been wounded. “Medics!” she shouted, running to him. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders to help him lie back, and was momentarily stunned to discover just how ripped he was beneath that suit.
His breathing ragged, he met her gaze as she worked to staunch the blood from the worst gash in his side. “Did the lieutenant make it out?”
“She did. Thank you.”
The med team swarmed him and forced her away so that they could inspect his injuries.
An involuntary gasp left her lips as they cut open his reinforced armored suit and she saw the jagged wound where shrapnel had caught him across his abdomen. More than that, he was covered in scars. This wasn’t some leisurely prince who sat around with servants fetching for him. Or lollygagged as he’d told his mother.
Those scars were from battle wounds.
He shoved at the medic as he tried to cover his face with an oxygen mask. “Hey, Major?”
Stunned that he remembered her, she stepped forward. “Yeah?”
He held his link out to her. “Keep me posted about your sister. I have a promise to keep. This link will get you through to me.”
“Highness, we have to get you out of here.”
Bastien rolled his eyes at the group fussing around him. “I only need one MT. For God’s sake, we got wounded all over the place. Would you bastards tend someone else? Or I swear I’m getting up and walking home. Then you’ll all have shit to deal with when my mom finds out.”
They scrambled away from him as if he were on fire, except for an older MT who shook his head at Bastien.
“Mask now, Highness?”
Grimacing, Bastien returned it to his face. Then he gestured at Ember with their military signs that said he’d be back in action ASAP.
The MT lifted him up onto an air-gurney, and saw him off to the nearest ambulance.
Unsure of what to think of her new wingman, Ember opened his link. He’d not only unsecured the biolock before he’d handed it to her, he’d left her a message.
If you can possibly look past my obvious birth defect of a royal disorder, Major Wildstar, I’d love to have dinner with you. Or at least promise me that you’ll come on that trip to North Beach? Double date? Your sister and her boyfriend as chaperones? And don’t worry. Pretty sure I left my balls in that hole, so you’re safe from my nefarious playboy ways.
Laughing in spite of it all, Ember slid his link into her pocket and went to check on the other survivors. But as she continued to help with the rescues, her thoughts kept drifting back to Bastien Cabarro and those ruggedly sculpted, perfect male features. In that regard, he was exactly what she’d imagined their youngest prince to be. Handsome beyond belief. Charming.
Heroic, however, was a new concept. And completely unexpected.
As was his nonchalance about his injuries with his mother. And the regard he’d shown for those around him.
Yeah, she couldn’t reconcile the rumors she’d heard with the man who’d risked one hell of a charmed life to jump into that deadly hole and calmly rescue her sister. She’d been expecting the kind of spoiled shit who whined over a hangnail and demanded three days of leave until it healed.
She was still contemplating that thought five hours later when she finally made it to the hospital to check on Alura.
Their other four sisters were already there, hovering and gossiping outside the room while their parents visited inside.
“So . . . you met the prince. . . .” Ashley’s voice was grating in its probing, teasing tone. Much taller than her, Ash had their mother’s light brown hair and vibrant blue eyes.
Ember growled at her. “What do you know?”
“Is that Ember?”
She peeked through the cracked door to see Alura sitting up in the bed. “Yeah, babe, it’s me.”
Even though it was against hospital regulations, Alura waved her in so that she could take her hand. Her dark blond hair was covered with a bandage, and her face was a bit scuffed, but only Alura could look that attractive in a surgical headdress and wearing bruises.
“Did you get his number?” she asked excitedly.
Wow . . . can’t even ask if I’m okay after I saved your worthless ass . . .
Thanks, sis. Love you, too.
Ember scowled at her sister and her weird concern given the near death experience they’d just gone through. Given the number of casualties they’d lost in the bombing. She, alone, would be attending the funerals of seven good friends. Two of them had been school and playmates both she and Alura had known the whole of their childhoods. “His?”
“The prince! Didn’t you hear what he said? He invited me to his palace at North Beach!”
Ember choked as she passed an annoyed smirk to their parents. “That’s not exactly what the man said. The invitation was for you and your boyfriend.”
“I don’t have a boyfriend. . . .” She gave their mother a sneaky, calculated wink. “Yet.”
And the self-serving harita was off and running . . .
Fury cut through Ember so fast that she was grateful her sister was in a hospital bed. It was the only thing that saved Alura, since Ember was still raw over the fact that Alura had been the one her ex had been in her bed with when she’d come home from maneuvers.
That betrayal and rage still burned her to the bone.
And Alura’s excuse? That she’d done it for Ember’s own good. After all, Ember didn’t need to be with someone who would cheat on her with her own sister.
Yeah . . . Let’s hear it for Alura logic.
Ember crossed her arms over her chest. “Don’t get too excited. He’s already asked me out and I accepted.” A slight lie, but she fully intended to accept his offer now.
Just for spite.
Alura’s jaw dropped. “You? Don’t be silly, Lu-Lu. You know as well as I do that he didn’t mean it. Besides, I’m going to marry the prince. You’ll see.”
Oh, yeah . . . her sister’s ego was second only to Bastien’s. And she’d had enough of Alura thinking she owned the universe and could take anything she wanted. She wasn’t all that and a bag of friggles.
Ember cleared her throat. “I think Bastien has something to say about that.”
“Ember.” Her mother’s tone was sharp with warning. “We almost lost Alura today. Why don’t you go outside and wait with your sisters?”
“Fine.” Take her side. Her mom was good at that. Her father, too. It was what had made Alura so hard to deal with. If ever someone had been born more spoiled than Bastien—Alura would be her name. Why their parents had chosen to dote on that brat, no one knew.
Of course, their parents denied it. They didn’t see it. Laughably, they thought themselves fair and impartial.
Yeah, right. As if.
The rest of them had always known that in any dispute Alura won and they had to apologize and give the baby what she wanted. It was sickening, but there was nothing she could do. So she headed for the hallway and the sanity of her sisters who knew the bitter truth.
But before Ember could evac the room, Alura was already off and running with her plans for how she intended to rope the unsuspecting prince in for a wedding.
Wanting to sock her where she lay, Ember entered the hallway and almost walked into her eldest sister, Kindel.
Her sister tsked at her fury as she tucked a strand of her riotous, dark curly hair behind her ear. “Simmer down, Em. Not like the playboy’s going to settle down with anyone, anytime soon.”
She growled at the patronizing tone. “Aren’t all of you sick of her doing this?”
With a shrug, Brandy snorted. “What difference does it make? Not like you’re going to date him, anyway. You already told me how much you hate the aristos.”
Before Ember could respond, Bastien’s link rang in her pocket, as if he had a sixth sense that he was their topic of conversation and sought to interrupt them.
Without a word to her sisters, she stepped away and answered it. “Major Wyldestarrin.”
“Hey, Major, this is Cabarro. Wanted to check in and see how you’re doing. Make sure you weren’t hurt in the additional runs. And that your sister pulled through. Is the rest of your family safe? You need anything?”
It was a sad state of affairs when an aristo had better manners and heart than her useless sister. “All good. You?”
“Bored out of my mind.”
She found that hard to believe. “What? No adoring fans?”
Laughing at her question, he sent over a request for a video feed.
Ember accepted, expecting to find him with a packed ward full of admirers. To her shock, he scanned the sterile hospital room to show her that he was there all alone.
Not even a guard kept him company.
“I can tell by your expression, not what you were expecting.” Bastien turned the camera back on his features, which were scraped and bruised from his injuries, but still stunning. Even more so because he’d gotten them while doing her a favor. “You should probably never gamble with no better poker face than that, Major. Your opponent would clean house.”
She felt heat sting her cheeks at his teasing. “Sorry. I just assumed you’d be surrounded by groupies and family.”
“Yeah . . . no. My father’s giving an address to the people after the bombing to reassure them and allay their fears, while the rest of my family is running around tonight stomping out other fires over it. And my mom’s at a rally for the families of the soldiers we lost to raise funds and aid for them—which is where I’d be if the damn doctor would release me. Or I’d be at the barracks.”
She scoffed before she could stop herself.
“Hey, now!” he said, offended. “Believe it or not, I spend most of my nights in the barracks with my squadron. You can check my tracer logs and see. The vast majority of those stories you hear about me in the news feeds are complete fiction. A handful of the wilder ones notwithstanding—and those I proudly own up to, and will be more than happy to tell you all about. And show you the pictures that are too risqué for prime time.” He rubbed at his eyebrow. “Anyway, so what about that dinner?”
Leaning against the wall, Ember scowled as she tried to understand this strange enigma who was talking to her for reasons she couldn’t even begin to fathom. While she wasn’t a ghastly goat of a human being, she was a far cry from Alura’s great statuesque beauty and she knew it.
At five-six, she was average height for a Kirovarian woman. And many a potentential dating prospect had commented on the fact that she was a bit more muscular than she ought to be and tended to walk like she was going to war, armed for the Andarion Ring. Her only remarkable feature came from her father—a pair of sharp, penetrating green eyes. Sadly, most guys never noticed those. Except to say that the intensity of her gaze made their nuts and guts shrivel.
Though to be honest, she doubted if anyone or anything could ever intimidate Bastien. Indeed, he seemed to have an ego smelted from titanium.
“Why are you asking me out, Cabarro?”
That devilish grin warmed her a lot more than she wanted it to. There was something about this man that was way too delectable. She could easily see him charming her pants right off her. “You think I’m a spoiled asshole. I strangely find that admirable in a woman. Shows you’re a good judge of character. I like that even more.”
She laughed. “You’re ridiculous.”
“Ah c’mon,” he teased. “You’re Gyron Force . . . I’m Gyron Force. We both think I’m ridiculous. We got so much in common already.”
Scoffing, she shook her head at him. “We are nothing alike, Your Highness.”
“Fine, Major. Have it your way. But my father’s about three and a half seconds from declaring war on a neighboring empire. What if this is the end of our world as we know it? What if everything you cherish perishes tomorrow? Wouldn’t you like to say that you got to date a prince, just once, before it all goes to hell?”
Damn, he was a lot more endearing than he needed to be. And it wasn’t because he had a title. He was just an affable ass. That alone would serve to get him into all kinds of trouble. Along with those incredibly handsome features and that edible physique. It was the most dangerous combination ever created and she could see herself getting into all kinds of trouble.
Every instinct she possessed told her to run as fast as she could in the opposite direction.
Then she made the mistake of looking at his sweet face.
Yeah, he was lethal.
And she was done for.
“Fine. One date. But only because of your father and his war.”
He winked at her. “Hey, I’ll take that yes any way I can get it. Just don’t break my heart, Major. It’s a terribly fragile thing.”
Ember snorted at the very idea of that. “I find that hard to believe.”
“Don’t. I might be spoiled with sociopathic tendencies, but I’m never insincere.” And with that, he signed off.
Ember froze as she realized that all four of her sisters were gaping at her. Worse? They’d heard every single word of her exchange with Bastien.
That sobered her humor fast. “What?”
Ashley scoffed. “What do you think you’re doing? You can’t even be contemplating a date with him. Are you out of your mind? Alura will kill you!”
“Why did you say yes to going out with that reprobate?” Brandy stood with arms akimbo.
Ember’s gaze went back to where Alura sat laughing with their parents, and an image of her in bed with Syrin went through her mind. In that moment, she knew exactly why she’d accepted his invitation.
“Simple. This is war.”