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The tent flap swished open and Ever shielded her eyes from the glare. Her second-in-command eased inside. "We're behind schedule, Catherine. Where have you been?"
Stripping out of the simple tunic and pants the border guards wore in the desert, the curvy brunette shrugged. "Jaye announced her engagement. It was all I could do to get the other women back to their tents to change." She raised a brow as she looked at Ever. "I'm surprised she gave the news without you there."
"Jaye knows I do not approve."
"Of men or marriage?"
Ever's fingers deftly slid buttons through the decorative loops on her jacket. "I have never discouraged the pursuit of sex. Without some release, we'd all go mad." She twisted her long hair up and pinned it. "Marriage is another matter entirely. A distraction."
Catherine's hand fell on her shoulder. "Queen Lavinia has brought us the closest thing to peace the Badlands has seen since the Union first began sending prisoners into exile. If any of us are to find happiness, now is the time."
"That you equate men with happiness proves you don't understand anything." She shrugged off Catherine's grip.
"Not all men who live here are criminals."
With one hand on the flap, Ever paused. "That is only because we do not provide them the opportunity." She stepped outside, hoping the brutal desert air would scour away some of her irritation.
For seven years, she'd patrolled the borders, capturing the men sent across the Mississippior killing them if necessary. She'd seen the true heart of evil. It made what Queen Lavinia and her predecessors created out of the harsh mountains and deserts all the more precious. Even the natives respected the Badlands and all it stood for: honor, loyalty, obedience, and above all the power of women. Ever would proudly give her life to protect the fragile peace of her homeland.
Divided loyalties had no place along the borders.
Ever paced outside the tents, waiting for her troops to gather. With a grimace, she tugged at her snug formal jacket. The uniform was ridiculous. She could barely move; this wasn't the attire of a Badlands warrior. Even with nothing beneath, it was too tight. At least these state dinners only came around once or twice a year.
Minutes ticked away as sweat began to dampen the fabric. She refused to give the women under her command any longer. It was time to go.
Ever opened her mouth to bellow the order when a shrill noise pierced the still air of the Painted Desert.
Eyes wide, Ever yelled, "Weapons! Now!"
She ducked back into the tent. Catherine had already slid her knives into their sheaths and slung a rifle over her shoulder. "Drill?"
Ever shook her head. Queen Lavinia might have a strange sense of humor, but she would never sound a drill without announcing it to the senior officers.
"The prisoners then?"
Ever hated to consider the implications. The queen's southern fortress housed the worst of the criminals the United States sent over the border. If they'd truly escaped...
She could only hope some overzealous steward sounded the alarm due to an uprising inside the cells.
But she had to assume otherwise.
She tore off the jacket and strapped on her weapons belt. Instinct told her not to waste time with anything elsewith her tight, high breasts, she could fight naked if she had to. Crossbow flung over her shoulder, she dashed from the tent.