“WHY DON’T YOU say that again,” Raider suggested in a deceptively soft voice. The man who had served at her side for years, through thick and thin, during a war that threatened to decimate the human race seemed calm. Serene even. Unnaturally so, given the life-altering revelation that he had a daughter he’d never known with a woman long since thought dead in said war. It was his eyes that gave him away. They burned with suppressed emotion. Raider was on the brink, and Kira was standing directly in the blast zone. The waif responsible for this whole mess kicked her feet from where she was seated beside Kira, utterly unconcerned over the repercussions of her dramatic revelation. Oh, to be young and convinced of your own invincibility again. Years of planning wiped clean by a few careless words. Kira had known this day was coming. If she was honest with herself, this showdown had been inevitable from the instant Kira learned of Elena’s existence and chose not to track Raider down to inform him that his and Elise’s love bore physical fruit. None of this made the coming explosion any easier to take. You didn’t drop a bomb of this magnitude and expect to walk away unscathed. There were consequences to your actions.
No matter how you struggled, they always came due. This was the calm before the storm. You could see it on the horizon, feel the gathering pressure in the air, but there was no way to outrun it. No way to hide from it. All you could do was batten down the hatches and pray that the storm would leave you battered and bruised, but otherwise alive. Kira’s uncle frowned unhappily from his spot next to the doorway. Piercing golden eyes lingered on Elena. “I’m interested in hearing this as well.” The Overlord of House Roake was built like an armored tank. Power was written in every line of his body and stamped on his features.
A stranger to Kira until recently, even she could admit the family resemblance between them was unmistakable. They looked like father and daughter rather than uncle and niece. The line of their noses and the stubborn jut of their jaws were nearly identical. It was the hair, however, that clinched it. A distinctive deep wine color that verged on burgundy. A vertical scar bisected Harlow’s eyebrow, narrowly missing his eye before dragging down his cheek. Already physically imposing, the scar made Harlow even more intimidating. Kira was betting none who served him ever questioned his orders. One hard stare would have his warriors swallowing any protests. Of those present, Harlow was the one most likely to understand why Kira had chosen this course.
Why she’d made the decisions she had. Like her, he hadn’t lived an easy life. He’d been forced to assume leadership of a broken House when an attack from a shadowy organization left his twin brother dead and his baby niece stolen. He knew sometimes choices had to be made that hurt the people around him, even as it kept them alive. House Roake had not only survived but thrived under his leadership. Already she could see him doing the calculations and arriving at answers that threatened her future wellbeing. Elena frowned. “Auntie, you never told me the sperm donor had a hearing problem.” “Not helping,” Kira told her niece in a sing-song voice. Elena harrumphed, folding her arms over her chest.
Raider pointed at Kira. “Explain. Now.” At that, a mischievous expression crossed Elena’s face. “Didn’t anybody ever teach you that pointing is rude, sperm donor?” Raider’s nostrils flared as he took a deep breath, holding onto his temper by a thread. He kept his gaze locked on Kira, not acknowledging his daughter’s existence. Mistake, Raider. Elena might have biologically come from Elise, but there was a lot of Kira and Jin in her. Evidently, nurture was as important as nature when it came to personality, and a few of Kira and Jin’s less than desirable traits had rubbed off on her, including the fact that none of them reacted particularly well to being ignored. Sensing the danger, Jin inserted himself between the two.
“Let’s all stay calm.” In a universe filled with odd things, Jin’s existence was unique unto itself. Once a Tuann boy in the same hellish camp as Kira, Jin’s soul was now housed in a military combat drone that took the shape of a sphere the size of Kira’s head. Jin was Kira’s best friend, her partner in crime. He’d saved her life and sanity more times than she could count. “Don’t tell me to stay calm, Tin Can.” Raider’s composed mask shredded, leaving him looking vaguely homicidal. “You don’t get to say that to me. Not when you knew about this.” Jin was silent in the face of Raider’s accusation.
Guilt and regret filtered through Kira and Jin’s bond, his feelings tangling with Kira’s complicated ones. There was a kernel of hurt that Kira buried almost as soon as it registered—especially in light of all the progress they’d made at rebuilding their relationship in the past weeks. With that hurt came resignation. She knew she deserved his recriminations. She’d made decisions on his behalf that she had no business making. “Are you going to say anything?” Raider snapped at Kira. Emotion clogged Kira’s throat as she sought for the words to make this right. An impossible task. Where would she even start? “She can’t.” Elena kicked her feet, unconcerned by the imminent explosion.
Graydon finally stirred from his place in the doorway. “What do you mean by that?” There was something about the man known as the Emperor’s Face that always made Kira feel like she was standing on the edge of a storm front, watching it roll in, breathless at the magnitude of what she was facing. The cloud formations would be ominous, even as they whispered to the adrenaline junky inside. How much fun would she have pitting herself against its fury? He was handsome. Almost brutally so with the kind of presence that punched you in the chest. Dark hair framed features that contained a harsh edge that drew the eye. It was a good thing he rarely ventured into human space. The paparazzi there would have been all over him otherwise. Photos of him would have spawned a renewed interest in stories about human women falling in love with powerful and dangerous aliens. Graydon didn’t need any more reason to be arrogant.
His ego was already big enough. Kira wasn’t a small woman, but Graydon towered over her. He was six feet plus of pure muscle, not an ounce of fat anywhere to be seen. Memories of how exactly Kira came by that knowledge drifted through her brain before she firmly shoved them into the box marked “things you are to never think about”. Kira looked over in time to see Elena aim a sweet smile at Graydon. “She made a promise. Auntie always keeps her promises.” Faint amusement touched Graydon’s face. “Is that right?” “Elena,” Kira warned. Her niece was getting too close to secrets Kira didn’t want getting out.
Beyond the fact that it could place Elena in danger, there were others Kira protected. A few of whom would stop at nothing to bury the past. Kira wasn’t certain even she could rescue Elena if they decided to move against her. “Please continue.” Graydon sauntered across the room, sprawling in the copilot’s seat opposite her niece. He aimed a conspiring look at Elena. Like a flower drawn to the sun, Elena leaned toward him. The sight snapped Kira into the present. She stepped between the two and shook her head. “Nope.
Not going to happen.” Elena frowned up at her, but Kira didn’t budge. Elena could sulk all she liked, but Kira knew exactly how irresistible Graydon was when he wanted to be. No way was she going to let him charm her niece into revealing dangerous information. That way lay disaster. Kira narrowed her eyes at Graydon as she considered him carefully. What exactly was he up to? There was none of the anger she’d anticipated. The disgust she’d braced herself for, even as she regretted the loss of midnight strolls that lulled her into losing all semblance of reason. The drugging kisses that made her think “what if”. Yet, despite expectations, he was acting as if nothing had changed.
Almost like he’d known all along. Hope tried to bloom before she ruthlessly squashed it. Graydon was the consummate hunter. There was every chance he was simply playing a part and masking his thoughts. Lives other than her own depended on her actions. She couldn’t risk the others because she was lonely and tired and wanted someone to help her shoulder the burden. Not take it from her, but lighten the load when things got hard. Kira shored up her defenses, rebuilding them inch by inch. Only when she felt in control again did she focus on Graydon. She stilled as she caught something in his expression.
Something that seemed to say, “Gotcha. I see you now, and there’s no escape.” Before Kira could react, Graydon’s attention settled on her niece. “You were saying?” Elena answered without hesitation. “The kind of promises people kill to keep.” Kira blew out a frustrated breath as she aimed her eyes at the ceiling. Perhaps this was her punishment for a youth spent purposely antagonizing Himoto and other authority figures. She loved Elena like her own, but lord, the girl could try the patience of a saint. Suddenly, Kira had way more sympathy for the young Himoto who’d gotten stuck raising her. “I suddenly have so many regrets about our youth,” Jin grumbled.
Kira nodded in agreement. “This isn’t possible,” Raider insisted suddenly. “Elise and I never had kids. I would have known.” Elena’s gaze dropped, some of her bravado draining as she shrank in her seat. Regret moved through Kira. Elena had always known about her father. Kira and Jin had each made a point of telling Elena stories about Raider and Elise. Neither of them had had parents or memories to keep them company, and they didn’t want that fate for Elena. Circumstances had separated her niece from her parents, and the least Kira and Jin could do was keep their spirit alive.
Perhaps that had been a mistake. If they hadn’t, Elena wouldn’t have built this encounter up in her head. She wouldn’t be hurting now as she learned that fantasies rarely matched up to reality. Too late now. Kira cast her eyes around the bridge, hoping for an answer. There were none to be had. It was time for the truth. Kira cleared her throat, forcing her emotions into their respective boxes. “The Gregory detail.” Raider’s lips pressed closed, his expression going blank.
“She was gone nearly six months, remember?” Raider rubbed his head as he stared unseeing at the bridge of the Wanderer. She could see the wheels starting to turn. He had all the pieces; he simply needed to put them together. “She was distant for a month or two before that,” Raider said slowly. “She was always busy; she barely had time for me. I thought it was because of the op tempo.” Kira nodded. Raider wasn’t the only person Elise had avoided in the months leading up to the detail. She’d pulled back from everyone. Even Kira.
“The mission was a cover story. Instead of the escort detail we thought she’d been tapped for, she headed to the planet Rosetta where she gave birth. Afterward, she returned to duty with no one the wiser.” “Why didn’t she tell me?” Quiet devastation lurked in Raider’s eyes. Kira mutely shook her head. She didn’t know. Even all these years later, Kira could only guess at Elise’s reasoning. Kira could understand concealing the pregnancy and giving birth in secret. Elise’s identity had practically demanded such precautions. Keeping it from Raider and Kira, the two people she would have sworn Elise trusted unreservedly? Kira never expected that.
But Elise had, leaving Kira to deal with the fallout all these years later. Raider looked at Kira like she’d betrayed him. Like she’d walked up and sunk a blade in his gut. A part of her shriveled seeing that look on his face, the same one he’d had when he learned Elise had perished in the battle for Rothchild. The worst part was she couldn’t even defend herself. While she hadn’t known about Elena then, Kira also hadn’t taken steps to correct the wrong in the years since she’d discovered Elena’s existence. She’d been too hindered by fear of the Tsavitee finding out about Elena and guilt she’d survived Rothchild when her Curs hadn’t. Even now, Kira wasn’t sure she would have done anything differently. Not when the result was sitting right next to her, disobedient pain in the ass though she was. “It’s because the girl is Tuann, isn’t it?” Harlow folded his massive arms over his chest, leveling a hard stare on Kira.
“You told me you were the only one rescued.” “Technically true. I was the only one rescued.” Well, with the exception of Jin, but Kira couldn’t say that without revealing Jin’s special circumstances. When Himoto and his team saved Kira, they’d also brought with them the drone lying beside her, thinking it would answer some of the questions they had about the smoldering stretch of forest surrounding her. It did, just not in the way they’d expected. Understanding dawned in Graydon’s expression. “The others escaped.” Gold star to the Emperor’s Face. Truthfully, Kira wasn’t surprised he was the one to figure it out.
He was entirely too perceptive for Kira’s peace of mind. Also, he’d had access to a small slice of Kira’s memories. It wasn’t much to go on, but it was enough for a man like Graydon. In the back of her mind, she had to ask herself what else he’d managed to glean from that brief trip down memory lane. At that thought, Kira shot an accusing glare toward Jin, the being responsible for Graydon venturing where he had no business being. Jin whistled to himself, rotating so the primary lens on his casing was facing away from her. “How many survived?” Kira’s expression turned stubborn. Harlow’s eyes narrowed at her refusal. “They’re our stolen children. They deserve to be protected.
” Maybe so. Only problem was they weren’t little kids. They’d grown used to relying on themselves. Kira didn’t think they would react well to the Tuann’s version of love, which could be considered overbearing with a side of patronizing on a good day. “Have we treated you so shabbily that we deserve this level of distrust?” Harlow demanded. The simple answer was no. When she’d first been forced into House Roake, she’d been certain she’d obtain her freedom in short order. Instead, she’d found a place and people that felt astonishingly like home. The Tuann were hardheaded and arrogant, thinking they always knew best. It was something they and Kira had in common.
Despite that—or maybe because of it—they called to the lost, broken pieces of her. But the others weren’t like her. They weren’t looking for a home or friends. Those who wanted those things already had them, and the rest were so broken that trying to fit them into the Tuann rules would cause them to lash out. If she revealed who they were, the Tuann would spare no effort in reclaiming their lost progeny. She didn’t have to be a fortune teller to know how that would end—with blood and mayhem and a whole lot of hurt feelings on both sides. Better if that never happened. Elena planted a boot on the deck and swiveled her chair side to side. “It’s not her decision. The others don’t want to be found right now.
” Harlow’s gaze dropped to her niece. “What do you mean?” Elena sat forward eagerly. “Shall I tell you a story?” “No.” Kira sent her a warning look. Rebellion flared in Elena’s expression. “You made promises, Auntie, but I didn’t.” “Don’t you dare,” Kira growled. “Let her speak.” Raider’s gaze held Kira’s, a silent dare there. “You owe me.
” Kira shook her head. He didn’t know what he was asking. Elena ignored Kira, bouncing in her chair with excitement. “It all began long ago on the night Auntie and Uncle Jin were rescued.” Kira held in a groan. Why, why, why, couldn’t she have raised an obedient child? A soft rumble of amusement came from Graydon. Kira stiffened but didn’t look his way. “The others had planned their escape for weeks. That night Uncle Jin failed a test and was thrown into a punishment cell. The rest knew escaping from there would be impossible.
They regretted his loss but not enough to postpone their plans. Only Auntie was willing to sacrifice herself for him.” Harlow had a frown on his face as he studied Kira and Jin, suspicion moving through his eyes. Kira’s expression smoothed out, no hint of emotion revealing what she was thinking. This right here was reason number one why she would have preferred this story remain buried. Someone smart would be able to take what was revealed and read through the lines, arriving at a truth that only a handful of people had ever touched upon. Because Jin hadn’t always been a machine, made of metal and spare parts. Once he’d been flesh and blood, just like her. Kira readied herself, prepared to defend Jin and Elena if Harlow or Graydon decided they were monsters to be exterminated. It’d kill something inside of her to hurt either one of them, but she’d do it.
Blissfully unaware of the danger, Elena continued, “When the others fled, Auntie and Uncle Jin made their own escape. For years, each group suspected the other had perished that night, but they had no proof. Then the war with the Tsavitee came, and out of its ashes a woman known as the Phoenix rose to acclaim. Hearing the stories, the others sent someone to investigate.” “Elise,” Raider said flatly. Elena nodded happily. “Yes, Mother.” Kira’s expression was carefully blank as Raider studied her. “They feared this unknown woman would expose their existence—or worse, that she was a trap laid by their former captors,” Elena continued. “Never in their wildest dreams did they think they’d find the two they’d abandoned.
” Nor were they entirely happy when they did. By then, Kira and Jin had made a name for themselves, drawing attention from the very sort of people the others wanted to avoid. “Mother had orders to stage the Phoenix’s death and bring her into the fold where it was safe. Only, the Phoenix refused to go, and not even Mother could force her.” Raider focused on his daughter as he compared Elena to the woman he’d once known Physically, Elena was an almost exact replica of her mother. Enough so that Kira had been tempted to think she was a cleverly designed clone when they’d first met. Jin had been the one to assure her he’d found genetic material in her DNA that could only have come from Raider. Her ears were as pointed as Elise’s and Kira’s had once been before they were docked. She had the same delicate features, complete with a pert nose, lips in the shape of a cupid’s bow, and a pointed chin that only made her look more mischievous. “Mother struck a deal with the rest.
No matter how bad the war got or how much she needed help, the Phoenix would never reveal their existence by word or deed. She would face her enemies alone with no help from the rest.” What Elena left out—because she didn’t know—was the fact that Elise had tried to kill Kira a time or two before they came to that happy compromise. While Elise was the sister of Kira’s heart now, she hadn’t always been that way. Not that Kira blamed her or the rest. At that time, she’d been an unknown entity, and their existence was precarious. None of them had wanted to chance being someone’s science experiment again. Kira understood.