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The Valiant Knox Series
By Jess Anastasi
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2017 Jess Anastasi
All rights reserved.
In orbit around Ilari, Brannon System
Crazy frigging people.
That was Sub-Lieutenant Sebastian Rayne's assessment, as he stared at the Command Intelligence agent and her handler.
"You want me to drop you where?"
The CI handler's expression tightened, making the guy look like he'd gotten a whiff of something he didn't like. "These coordinates. The ones I've just given you —"
"Yeah, I can read the coordinates, buddy. But you do realize they're in the heart of enemy-held territory? Like, I'm talking so far up the proverbial ass —"
"We realize that," the agent interrupted. "They told us you were the best pilot in the Brannon System. So, can you drop me there, or not?" Well now, stroke his ego and then throw down a challenge? This chick had player written all over her.
He rocked back on his heels, hooking his thumbs through his belt holster.
"I don't know. What's in it for me?" He shot her a weighted look full of smarmy innuendo. However, he was just playing her tit for tat. The woman had all artificial looks — straw blond hair, perfect plastic features, and too much makeup. The usual CI agent killer-babe, who used her face and body to charm the unsuspecting enemy ... and then slit the poor bastard's throat before he'd even finished getting his rocks off.
Yeah, there was something too fake about her, all except for those eyes. Those jade green eyes had an expressive openness to them that didn't belong in the face of a consummate fraud. Those eyes made him take a second look, even though she wasn't the type of woman he usually noticed, and made him wonder if there was warmth beneath her stone cold surface.
Impossible. Not someone hard like her.
"Nothing," the agent replied. "There's nothing in it for you except the challenge of taking on a high-risk assignment. But, from what I've heard about you, that should be enough."
Damn, she had it right there. Even now, the idea of getting so far into the heart of territory held by the CSS — Christ's Sunday Soldiers, a group of religious zealots who'd taken over the planet and liked to keep the people in the dark ages with little to no technology — had anticipation pulsing through him with the steady, excited thudding of his heart. In his mind's eye, he could see possible routes and the problems he was likely to run up against. It would be one heck of a ride and had all the hallmarks of a suicide mission.
He'd been in the United Earth Force military for nearly fifteen years, been posted on the Knox for about a decade, and been involved in more than his fair share of risky ventures. But none of them measured up to this little piece of lunacy.
The war — or "peacekeeping efforts" as the UEF liked to label their presence in the Brannon System — had dragged out for over two decades, all because some small-time UEF governor decided he wanted to be big potatoes and declared the three planets under his jurisdiction a sovereign state, then made himself Pontifex — religious leader of the CSS.
Really, he wouldn't mind flying over the old Pontifex's residence in the "holy city" and dropping a missile or two in his lap. Surely, that'd be more effective than the constant, never-ending skirmishes they engaged in. Unfortunately, he wasn't likely to get clearance for that kind of aggressive, suicidal move. So he supposed dropping Killer-Babe Agent to her coordinates was the next best thing. Though it wasn't as if she'd do anything useful while she was in there, like assassinate one or two of the CSS's top echelon leaders. No, it'd be more along the lines of sneaking around and gathering intel. He supposed someone had to do the shady work, except what did it ever really achieve?
"Fine, when do we leave?"
The CI handler looked relieved, while the agent simply nodded.
"We leave now. Commander Yang has already cleared an armed personnel carrier for our use."
Seb glanced over at Commander Yang, leaning on his walking stick. His bad leg — broken and never healed right while in the captivity of the CSS — must have been giving him hell today, because everyone knew the commander hated needing the cane. Yang gave a single nod. Had they all been so sure he'd take on this crazy assignment? When had he become so damn predictable?
He tapped a foot while the agent had a quick, quiet conversation with her handler before she walked over to join him.
"By the way, Sub-Lieutenant." The agent paused in front of him, and that intense jade gaze of hers seemed to be sizing him up, in more ways than one, leaving him a little too aware of how close she stood. "We're short on time, so not only do I need you to get me there in one piece, I need you to do it fast."
He shot her a grin. "Then you've definitely come to the right place. When it comes to ships and jets, crazy and fast is the only way I do things."
As he saluted Commander Yang, Seb caught the faintly exasperated expression that crossed the CO's face. Yeah, his reputation of being a cowboy had been well-earned since he'd received his wings and joined the fighter pilot squadron. But someone in the squad had to fill the role of crazy sonuvabitch, otherwise who else would they give whacky, funfilled assignments-of-death to?
The agent nodded to her handler and then walked out of the wardroom, and Seb fell into step beside her. "I assume we're launching from port level alpha?"
Lips pressed into a thin line, she shook her head. "No, the personnel carrier Commander Yang organized for us is on port level charlie, bay foxtrot-ten."
"So we're launching from the boondocks, huh?" He made a face, though she didn't see it, the way she was avoiding looking at him. What? She didn't like dealing with the grunt? Well, too bad. If he had to fly her into the stinking armpit of Ilari, the planet the CSS called home, then she could damn well put up with his commentary the entire way. For some reason — maybe the way she blew him off — he wanted to goad her. "I guess that means you don't want anyone to see me flying you off to your super-secret CI business."
She cut him an unimpressed look, sprinkled with a hint of annoyance. "Yes. And I'm sure I don't need to tell you exactly how classified this is, so don't go blabbing your mouth to any of your stick jockey buddies tonight when you're having after-shift beers."
He sent her a faintly mocking salute. "Yes ma'am."
She sighed and glanced away from him again as they reached the transit — the system that took people up, down, and all along the ship. He went to step forward, but she grabbed his shoulder and shook her head.
Now what? He crossed his arms while she hung back, and they stood there watching several loads of people get on and off.
"I thought you said we were in a hurry."
"We are." The transit arrived again, this time empty. "Come on."
He trailed her and then leaned back against the wall while she put in their destination as port level charlie.
"So even our ride down to the launch bay has to be done in secret?" he asked the back of her head. She didn't turn around, didn't even acknowledge his question. How snooty.
"Don't you get sick of the constant subterfuge? It must be exhausting. I mean, I've only been doing it five minutes, and I've already had enough."
Still no answer. She didn't even move a muscle. Well, fine. He was more than happy to entertain himself.
"You heard that new song by Kat Sparkles? It's catchy, right?" He started signing the annoying teenybopper pop song clogging all the music stations across the known-worlds.
The agent turned her head slightly, but didn't even have the gall to tell him to shut up. Damn, how he wanted to get a rise of out her, although he wasn't sure why.
The transit arrived at port level charlie, opening to the almost-deserted launch bay. There were a few maintenance crewmembers around, but no doubt Miss Secret Agent here would avoid them directly.
"Let's take it down to Ilari. I hear it's a beautiful day to defy death." He shot the agent a grin, before brushing past her and heading for bay foxtrot-ten, still humming Kat Sparkles as he walked.CHAPTER 2
Jenna Maxwell followed along behind Sub-Lieutenant Sebastian Rayne as he hummed that maddening song she hated so much. Now it was going to be stuck in her head for the next three days.
The man lived up to every word she'd read in his file — one cocky fighter pilot with stubborn pride, a laid-back personality, and easy charm. She hadn't bothered checking the attached photo of him. When searching for a potential pilot with the skills to drop her undetected where she needed to go, it hadn't mattered what the person looked like. Looks could be deceiving, she knew that better than anyone — with all the appearance-altering tech she used, which changed the shape of her face and hair color. No one on this ship had ever seen her real face, not even her handler and the agent in charge of operations in this system, Stanton. Sure, she still used her own name, though she'd long ago changed her surname so no one could track down her family. Names could be bought and sold easily enough, but her own true face, that was a sanctity she protected at all costs.
So she hadn't quite been prepared for the exact impact meeting Sebastian Rayne in the flesh would have on her.
When he'd first walked into the commander's wardroom and his dark-amber gaze had landed on her, a fission of tingles had shot up her spine and into her brain, short-circuiting her thoughts for a long moment. His face was carved in strong lines, the slant of his jaw angular. But in striking contrast to this masculinity, his lips were full, the top one indented with a Cupid's bow shape. Those lips shouldn't have looked right on a man. In fact, they should have been illegal — so sexy, she couldn't help but think of how his mouth might feel on hers. His russet brown hair was a little longer than standard military cut, but he'd spiked it nonetheless. And she wasn't even going to start on his tall, leanly muscled body, or the subtle, warmly spiced scent of his aftershave.
Yep, a woman would have to be dead not to notice the hotness that was Sebastian Rayne. But she wasn't just a woman, she reminded herself, she was a highly trained CI agent, and was not going to get distracted, even by the admittedly masculine glory of her temporary personal pilot.
They approached bay foxtrot-ten and the sub-lieutenant's steps slowed.
"Are you sure Commander Yang told you bay foxtrot-ten?" He shot the question over his shoulder, not looking directly at her. Probably because he was having trouble taking his eyes off the hunk of junk squatting on the launch pad.
Good. Exactly what she'd ordered.
"Yes, I'm sure, because this is the ship I asked for."
This time he did look at her, his incredulous gaze all but shouting are you crazy?
"Is this tub even spaceworthy? If we explode into a million pieces before we leave the ship, Commander Yang won't be happy."
She shrugged and brushed by him to palm the door control. "We'll be dead, so it won't be our problem."
"Well, aren't you just a bucket of rainbows, seeing the bright side to everything?" he muttered as he followed her inside.
Jenna paused beyond the doorway to survey the interior, which wasn't any prettier than the outside. There were exposed cables and wires hanging in places and snaking across the floor, the screen on the control panel was cracked and patched with a special sensor adhesive so that the touch-screen properties still worked. The craft should have seated eight, but six seats were missing, leaving just the pilot and copilot's chairs intact. And when she said intact, the cushions were stained with she-didn't-want-to-know-what and ripped to expose the padding underneath. All in all, it was a death trap waiting to happen.
She retrieved the bag she'd left on board earlier with the ragged clothes she'd need to wear in order to blend in with Ilari's poor population. What little money the inhabitants could scrape together was usually taken by the CSS as "donations" toward the cause, so the garments she'd sourced to look the part weren't exactly flattering.
In a moment, she'd pulled the coarse material of the pants, loose shirt, and jacket over her shipwear, concealing her belt with a few handy tools. With thermo properties and many pockets, the garments were her standard operational gear, made to conform with Ilari locals, but still functional for an agent.
"Oh, this is just fabulous." Sub-Lieutenant Rayne walked deeper into the ship, kicking an open toolbox out of the way, making tools skitter in all directions. "I love what you've done with the place. It just screams hobo-chic. I mean, look at the detail on the pilot's chair. And you can't get any more authentic than real bloodstains."
Jenna marched forward and dropped herself into the copilot's seat. "This ship was confiscated from the CSS a few months ago. We're flying deep into their territory. You really want to do that in a shiny new ship splashed with the Valiant Knox's emblem and battleship number all over the hull? Be my guest. Personally, I've got an assignment to complete before I get killed through rank stupidity. So buckle in and shut up, cowboy, before I go find someone else to fulfill your obligations."
For a long moment he stared at her, one brow raised. She stared back at him, crossing her arms and arching her own brow in silent challenge. Either Sebastian Rayne would live up to his death-defying, danger-happy reputation, or he'd cut out on her, leaving her with a serious conundrum. Because they both knew no one else had the gonads or skill to fly this mission.
"Fine. One ridiculously dangerous flight in a space-junker coming right up." He slid into the pilot's chair, tapping the screen to life as he sent her a sideways glance. "You're a charming one, Ms. CI Agent."
She sat back and pulled the safety harness over her chest. "It's part of the job description."
At that, he laughed outright. "Oh, I'm sure it is."
Jenna watched in silence as the he turned his attention to bringing the ship online, trying to see him only as a pilot and not the man, but failing miserably. She couldn't remember the last time she'd had an immediate visceral reaction to a handsome face — probably when she'd been fifteen and too young to know any better. She'd certainly surprised herself. Surely, she'd long grown out of such girlish impulses. But the way her pulse skipped as the sub-lieutenant tilted his head and the lights caught the rich color of his eyes told her she definitely hadn't.
When the shuttle vibrated with rough intensity as they started toward the launch bay doors, she wrapped her fingers around the armrests on either side of her, and her breath hitched in her chest. She'd never been a nervous flyer, but then again, she'd never taken a voyage in a trash can of a ship before, either.
As they shot out of the launch hatch, the shuttle gave a violent shake, rattling everything that wasn't bolted down, before the non-atmosphere of space closed around them and everything settled back into a constant rumble.
They rounded out the far side of the Valiant Knox, giving them a brief view of the second battleship, Farr Zero, orbiting in the distance, before Ilari loomed, the swirling greens, blues, and whites of the planet taking up the entire viewport.
"This is some assignment you've pulled." Rayne commented, hands moving over the control screen in unhurried motions as he guided the ship closer to the planet's atmosphere.
She made her fingers unclamp as she glanced from the screen to look directly at him.
"I go where they tell me." The shuttle's quaking increased as they came up against the resistance of heavier atmosphere. "Aren't you going to put your safety harness on?"
He shot her a sideways glance edged in exasperation. "If this junker goes down, no safety harness in the known-worlds is going to make any difference to the inevitable outcome of splatter."
The ghastly image tightened her jaw. "Wonderful, thanks for the visual."
"I know, how about we distract ourselves from our looming demise? Tell me your name. And not your operational name, though I'm sure it's something appropriate like Tatiana Kickass or whatever."
She shouldn't find his irreverent teasing of her profession funny, but the guy was just too charming for his own good, and she couldn't quite contain the smile tugging at her lips.
"My operational name for this mission is Mary Goodman."
He made a face, features twisting into disappointed aversion. "Mary? That's not very glamorous."
She shrugged. "Where I'm going is not exactly glamorous."
Excerpted from Cover Fire by Jess Anastasi. Copyright © 2017 Jess Anastasi. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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