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By:Lauren Dane

Chapter 1

People scurried out of the way, keeping their eyes down as Sera Ayers stalked into the squat, gray building on the outskirts of the city. Single-mindedly, she made her way through the myriad nondescript hallways at the Federation United Forces. Anger coursed through her as she walked, her boots sounding a muffled thud, thud, thud on the laminate floors.

Halting at the subcommander’s door, she slammed a fist into it several times. Her hand hurt, but she felt a bit better for the small violence of it.


She opened the door and went inside. Noting little more than the fact that two men were seated before Subcommander Yager’s desk, she opened her mouth to speak.

“Whoa! What’s so damned important that you nearly knocked my fucking door down?” Subcommander Yager bellowed before she could say anything.

“I just got your summons. You’ve reassigned me! That’s my problem! I’m the best you have out there. My team is good, damn it!” She shoved a hand through her hair, not caring that she probably looked like a curly porcupine.

“Sera,” Yager sighed, gesturing to the men in the chairs, “you have a new team. This is Commander Ash Walker and Paracommander Brandt Pela.”

At the mention of the names, a roar of white noise filled her ears. In what felt like slow motion, Sera turned and looked into the face of a man she knew all too well many years before. “Ash.”

The palest blue eyes she’d ever seen gazed up at her. Eyes she’d given herself to as he was above her and below her. Eyes that had held her down as he’d bound and collared her to his will. Eyes that had haunted her for the last ten years.

It all crashed down on her; the world began to close in, and she fought with an iron will to hold back the impending breakdown. She fisted her hands to stop them from trembling.

“Sera, you’re looking well.” Ash smiled, his posture relaxed as if she were an old friend he hadn’t seen in years. It appeared he wasn’t affected at all by her presence. Prick.

“Ash?” Sera said sweetly.

He cocked his head. “Yes?”

“Fuck you,” she snarled, landing a solid right hook to his jaw.

“Halt. Gods damn it, Sera!” Yager jumped up and, with the other man, held her back as Ash got up from the floor where she’d sent him sprawling. “What the seven hells is wrong with you?” Yager demanded, his face an inch from hers.

“Why, nothing now. I feel ever so much better.” She hoped her smile was as feral as she felt. At least her hands weren’t shaking anymore.

The other higher-up who’d come with Ash barked out a laugh and stepped back, letting her go. “I’m Brandt. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

Sera looked up at him. Where Ash’s beauty was harsh, savage, this man’s was elegant. He had almond-shaped eyes of a deep brown so dark they were nearly black. The twist of his braid, dark and rich as his eyes, reached halfway down his back. Lush lips and perfect cheekbones, skin in a beautiful olive tone that made her want to reach out and touch him: delicious.

“Look, I have nothing against you, Paracommander. But I am not going to work with Ash Walker. Not now, not ever. I have a team. We work very well together.”

“Stand down, Ayers!” Yager shoved her into a chair. “You want to do time in the brig for attacking a superior officer? I expect there’s an explanation for this—like you’ve gone insane—but you’ll be making amends for your behavior, which you know is horribly out of line.”

“This won’t work, Subcommander. Just put me back with my team.” Sera tried not to sound as desperate as she felt.

“Sera, things with the Imperialists are getting worse. You know that. You see that every day.” Ash tried to stay reasonable, despite the pain in his jaw. He’d deserved the punch, he knew that. And at least the pain kept him focused on something other than how much she still affected him, even a decade later.

“Why is he talking?” Sera jerked her head in his direction, speaking through clenched teeth.

“May I speak with you alone?” Ash asked through his own tightened jaw.

“No. You may not speak to me any way at all, at any time or in any place.” Still stubborn, that much hadn’t changed.

“What the hells is going on here? It’s obvious you know each other. Walker, this is something you should have disclosed to me up front.” Yager looked back and forth between Ash and Sera, clearly unhappy.

“If you’ll excuse me, SC Yager, I don’t need to disclose anything to you but what I determine you need to know,” Ash growled back.

Sera groaned and got up, heading for the door, but Brandt stopped her. “Sorry about this, Lieutenant Ayers, but you’ll need to stay.”

Ash watched in slow motion as she centered herself, rocking back enough to give a side kick to Brandt’s knees and knocking him down. Using his surprise, she scrambled over him and out of the room.

“Sera! Damn it, woman, hold up!” Ash rushed to pursue her.

Even though he was agitated, he couldn’t help but admire her skill. She was quick and limber as she dodged people in the long hallways. Despite his calls for bystanders to stop her, they jumped out of the way and let her pass, indicating a high level of respect for her along with a distrust of outsiders.

Still, he had nearly half a foot on her, and his legs were longer. He caught up to her quickly, grabbing her and shoving her into a room near the front reception area. Slamming the door, he locked it with savage satisfaction. Taking a moment to gather himself, he turned toward her, keeping her only exit through him.

“Don’t try and run from me again, Sera. I’ve had enough of that from you. Just listen to what I have to say.” Ash used the toe of one of his boots to shove a chair in her direction.

“You’ve had enough running from me? That’s rich.” Sera remained standing. Arms crossed, feet apart and eyes narrowed, she looked fearsome and unapproachable.

“Things are bad right now. The Imperialists are gaining the upper hand along the frontier. If we lose any ’Verse in this system, we could lose everything. If they gain a hold here,” he paused for a moment, “well, you know what could happen. I need your skills on my team.”

“I have a team. Find another person, Commander.”

He growled in her direction and ran a hand over his scalp but caught the way she watched his movement. Ahh, she remembered. Once, she had loved to stroke her fingertips over the smooth skin of his scalp, tracing along the tribal tattoos marking his family and position that edged the back of his head. All wasn’t lost just yet.

“Commander? Now you honor my title? Not back before you decided to punch me and be otherwise insubordinate?”

“Commander, I do not wish to be on your team. Period. I do not wish to be in the same room with you. In the same universe with you. I want you to go away. Find. Another. Girl. I’m not interested.”

Gods she was magnificent when she was angry. He took in every part of her. The curve of her waist, the swell of her breasts. The way her bottom lip looked so juicy he always wanted to bite it, to savor her bit by bit. He’d forgotten just how long her legs were. Only Sera could make combat gear look sexy. And oh, how she did.

“I don’t need to find another girl, Sera. You’re what I need. What Brandt and I need. We’re heading through the portal, and we need your language skills. More than that, you’re an excellent fighter, good on your feet and smart.”

“I don’t want this! Why are you doing this to me?” She held herself totally erect, still, her arms stiff at her sides.

His heart constricted in his chest at the anguish in her tone. She was perfect for their team. He hadn’t lied about that. Brandt had run the names through the computer, and hers was at the top of the list. Ash had been surprised to see how far she’d come in the last decade. When he’d been with Sera she’d been a translator in the diplomatic corps. There’d been brief talk of her joining the military corps. She’d certainly had the linguistic and martial arts skills. But after they’d crashed and burned, she’d left the diplomatic job and joined the military. She’d risen quickly and with a great deal of commendation. For a woman of an unranked family to reach lieutenant and to command her own team was nearly unheard of.

All of Ash’s feelings for Sera had rushed back as Brandt had briefed him. He hadn’t kept tabs on her, because he couldn’t bear it. Couldn’t bear knowing she’d gotten married and had children with another man or something else like that. It’d been selfish, but he knew his flaws.

As he stood there, watching her anger and frustration, he knew he’d come not just for his team but to make her his again. Period. He may not have kept tabs on her, but he hadn’t stopped thinking of her over the last ten years . . . no matter how hard he tried.

There’d never been anyone after her. Not like she was to him. There’d been women in his bed, yes. But no one had held his heart, because it belonged to the very angry woman across the room.

“I’m doing this because it’s what needs to be done. You took the oath, Sera. You joined the corps and pledged to do what was best, above your own wishes. You said you’d do what was necessary to fight the Imperialists. We need you on our team. You’re wasted here. And I’m not asking. I’m ordering you to get your gear, because we’re out of here in two turns.”