I am so incredibly sorry.
Three of a Kind was updated recently, and the copy that was uploaded had a missing chapter. The last one (which makes this all even worse.) I am posting it here for anyone who bought the incorrectly formatted version of my book. (which has now been corrected and re-uploaded and should be available soon)
This is entirely my fault, and I can only apologize and hope you forgive me. The missing chapter is below, along with a free gift as part of my apology.
The time for planning was over.
Blade had so much adrenaline coursing through his veins he was on the verge of vibrating. Ward’s ship had appeared on long range scanners hours ago, and they had the Sprite’s AI tracking his approach and relaying the information to them in real time.
They were gathered near the center of what remained of the automated resupply station, though it was in such rough shape that calling it a space station was a stretch. Phaedra had been right about there being an active AI and breathable atmosphere, but she hadn’t mentioned the AI’s program had degraded to the point it was downright temperamental and prone to fits of irrational behavior.
Even the newest resupply stations were little more than a place to store parts, goods, and supplies until they could be sold to long haul crews who had no other option but to pay exorbitant prices for the simplest items. The station they were on was far from new. It had been abandoned for years, maybe even decades. The AI that ran the place couldn’t even tell them how long it had been in operation.
There were entire levels of the station where the hull integrity had failed, leaving it open to the vacuum of space. Judging by the scorch marks and damage, not all of the failures had been structural. The station had either been used for firing practice, or it had been involved in at least one full-scale firefight.
They’d chosen one of the internal storage bays as the place to make their stand. It was a wide-open space with a pair of massive double doors at one end, and no other access points, at least not once they finally convinced the AI to lock down the ventilation tunnels on the whole level.
They’d spent hours hauling whatever loose debris and furniture they could find down to the bay to form a series of barricades. Everything from tables and chairs to massive pieces of broken machinery and replacement parts had been piled up. The only way they’d managed it in time was by lowering the gravity enough to be able to push the damned things around, but it had worked. The obstacles would act as a funnel, directing Ward to them through a maze that would maximize their chances of ending this without bloodshed.
Their attempt to bring this to a happy end would have been a long shot, but last night they’d received a heavily encrypted message with some good news that gave them hope. Thanks to the work of Lieksa and the others, a way had been found to work around Victor’s program blocks and obtain the override code that would render Ward unconscious. It was nothing more than a couple of innocuous nonsense words, but they’d been assured it would work.
The plan was simple. Get Ward to come to them and find a way to bring him down, unhurt if possible. Alyson would park her ass behind a second barrier at the far end of the bay, as far from the door as possible. She was the cheese in the trap, but there was no chance in hell any of them were going to let Ward get anywhere near her.
“Ship, scan the incoming vessel again and report all life signs.” Dirk had made the same request numerous times since Ward’s ship had appeared on the scanners.
“One lifeform detected.”
The answer hadn’t varied, but they needed to be sure. Ward’s handler was still out there, somewhere, and she was an unknown variable.
“He seems to be alone.” Alyson was pacing the space behind her designated shelter. Her normal serenity was gone, replaced by a need to stay in constant motion. Blade felt the same way.
“She might have left the ship after they left the Drift, or she might have never been on board at all. I wish we knew for sure.” Lance was leaning up against a chunk of rusted machinery. His hand rested on his holstered blaster and his eyes were on the doorway despite the fact they still had a few minutes left.
“Or she could be there with him, and one of them is hidden from our sensors. According to Zura, the Sun Sprite’s cargo bay is specially designed to deflect scans. It’s possible they’re both on that ship.”
Dirk was the only one of them that appeared calm, but Blade knew it was an illusion. He was as tightly wound as everyone else. A calm man wouldn’t be wearing the arsenal of blasters, blades, and weaponry that Dirk, and the rest of them, were outfitted with. Even Alyson was armed. She’d learned basic firearm handling from her grandfather, and after a few quick lessons in how the more advanced weaponry worked, she was ready to go. Their plans didn’t include her ever needing to defend herself, but what plan survived contact with the enemy?
Once they had confirmation that Ward’s ship was docked, they took their positions. They weren’t hiding. Finding them would be easy, and that was the point. Ward’s only advantage was the shield device he carried. With it activated, he’d be damned near invisible. To nullify that advantage, they were forcing Ward to come to them.
Blade’s sole job was to watch the doorway and let the others know when Ward was inside the maze. He would scan for heat signatures and any other sign he could see that their target had arrived.
Five minutes passed. Then ten. The tension mounted with every second that ticked past. Where the fraxx was he?
A faint footfall broke the silence. It was barely audible, even to Blade’s enhanced hearing, but it was enough to confirm they weren’t alone. Ward was in the corridor outside.
He tightened his grip on his blaster and waited. A painfully long minute later, there was another noise. This one much louder.
“Did he just trip? Whoever heard of a clumsy assassin?” Lance asked via their internal comm channel, and Blade had to fight the urge to snicker. On the heels of that reaction came another one; this guy was too good to screw up like this. Something was off.
Before he could relay his thoughts to the others, the target appeared in the bay doors. Fraxx. He didn’t have his shield activated. Nothing about this felt right.
Still, he stuck to the plan. It was too late to ad lib now, anyway. Once Ward passed his position, Blade would move in behind him, sealing off his only escape route.
Ward walked into the bay as if he were taking a stroll through a meadow instead of stepping into an obvious trap. As he passed by, Blade got his first real look at their target. He was definitely related to Jaeger and Toro. Same dark coloring, similar features, and there was something about the faint smile on his lips that reminded Blade of Toro when the big man was fighting in the Nova Club cage matches.
It wasn’t a friendly smile.
Two steps into the maze, Ward started to whistle. It was a slow, eerie tune that sounded vaguely familiar. It took a few more bars before Blade recognized it: “Ring Around the Rosie,” slowed down to a dirge-like pace.
“Guy sure knows how to make an entrance. Once he rounds that next bend, I’m moving in,” Lance sent the message to his brothers.
“Stay sharp,” Dirk replied.
They all focused on Ward as he made his way through the maze. Once he reached the designated spot, they went into action. Blade slipped through one of the carefully hidden gap in the barricades, raised his gun and waited.
Lance popped his head up only a few feet away from Ward. “Hey there, Ward. I’ve got a message for you. Your batch brothers, Jaeger and Toro, want you to come home.”
Ward didn’t respond. He turned and fired, but Lance had already dropped back behind the barricade.
The moment he turned and fired, Dirk made his move. In a loud, clear voice he spoke the tongue-twisting override code that Victor had given them. “Uthvas baythad.”
It was as if they’d flicked a switch off in his brain. Ward dropped to the deck in a lifeless heap, and all of them stared in horror. What the fraxx had been done to him? Could they do it to any cyborg?
“We need to secure him. Fast. He should be out for hours, but we can’t be sure,” Lance said, reappearing from behind the barricade.
“Is it over? Are you all okay?” Alyson called out.
“We’re fine. Stay put until we’ve got Ward secured,” Lance called back as he started helping Blade stretch Ward out on the floor so they could bind him.
Alyson breathed a sigh of relief. It might not be over yet, but it should be soon. Her men were safe, and they’d managed to capture Ward without hurting him. Things were working out better than she’d dared to hope.
Somewhere on the other side of her makeshift wall, someone tripped. They landed against the barricade with a muffled curse that sounded distinctly feminine.
Adrenaline dumped into Alyson’s veins. She wasn’t alone. She shot to her feet, snatching her gun out of its holster and pointing it at…nothing.
“This was too easy.” A woman’s voice came out of nowhere.
There was a flash of red light, a searing pain, and Alyson staggered backward into the back wall of the storage bay. Pain tore through her, too much for even the adrenaline to block.
That’s when she finally saw it. A shimmer in the air. A shield. Ignoring the agony radiating from her hip, Alyson lifted her blaster and fired. According to Vic, the shield could only absorb the energy from one shot.
She’d just have to stay alive long enough to shoot her attacker twice.
The shield distorted, flickered, and died, leaving Alyson face to face with a sharp-faced woman with dark hair and a sneer on her lips. The sneer rapidly faded as the woman realized what was happening.
“Stupid fraxxing tech!” She slapped at a small device clipped to her waist, but all it did was buzz and sizzle.
“Don’t move.” It took all her will to push herself off the wall and back onto her feet, but Alyson made herself do it while keeping her gun pointed at the woman standing on the other side of the barricade.
She heard the hammering approach of footsteps as two of her protectors charged across the storage bay.
“Put the weapon down and then raise your hands in the air.” Dirk barked the order as he drew his blaster and pointed it at Ariel.
Ariel didn’t move, but the sneer returned to her face as she uttered two strange words. “Ked Vada.”
“I don’t know what the hell you said, but unless it means ‘I surrender,’ you should probably shut up and put the weapon down. This is your last warning,” Blade said.
Dirk glanced over at her and his gun dropped as he saw she was injured. “Alyson! Dammit, you’re hit. I thought I told you not to let that happen.”
Alyson was still trying to think of a snappy comeback when she spotted Ariel’s blaster move. There wasn’t time to shout a warning, so she didn’t bother. Instead, Alyson snapped her own gun up and fired at Ariel just as the woman took her shot.
More blaster fire sounded, and then everything went quiet. It was over.
At least, she thought it was. Pain made it hard to think clearly, and even the smallest movement hurt, but she managed to stay upright. There was a body on the ground, and it only took a second for her to be sure that it didn’t belong to either Blade or Dirk. Relieved, she sagged against the wall as the last of her energy drained away. The blaster fell from her nerveless fingers and another wave of agony washed over her. This time, she didn’t try to fight it. She let herself slide down the wall until she reached the floor.
Dirk raced to her side and dropped to the floor beside her. “How bad is it?”
“Hurts, but I’ll live,” she replied through gritted teeth. “The others?”
“We’re fine. She missed. You didn’t,” Blade said.
“He stayed behind to secure Ward. He’s fine.”
It was hard to think past the pain, but Alyson needed to know what was going on. “Is she dead?”
“Good.” She should probably feel guilty for killing the other woman, but right now, she couldn’t muster that kind of compassion for someone who had tried to take her life and the lives of the people she loved.
Dirk checked her wound, muttering under his breath at the damage.
“I’ll live, right?”
“Yeah.” He stretched out beside her and eased an arm around her shoulders, drawing her in close. “Nice shooting back there. You know, if you ever decide to give up being a doctor, I think you might have what it takes to be a hell of a bodyguard.”
“Thanks.” She sucked in a breath and raised her head enough to take a look at her injury. She’d taken a blaster bolt to the hip, low enough to partially miss the body armor they’d insisted she wear. A few inches higher, and she’d be in a lot better shape right now.
“She wasn’t much of a shot, was she?” Alyson gently touched the edges of the wound. It was already healing, thanks to her new medi-bots, but it was still going to be painful for the next few hours.
“Apparently not, which is something I will be forever grateful for. If she’d been a better shot, you and Blade might not be with us right now.” Dirk’s voice caught as he looked at her injured side. “We failed you.”
“I’m alive. Ward’s alive. The bitch who messed with us is dead. I’m calling this a win.”
“I love it when you get all bloodthirsty. How you feeling, Doc?” Blade joined them behind the barricade, crouching down at her feet with a worried smile on his face.
“Like I got shot. Any chance one of you wants to go get my medical bag from the ship? I could use a pain blocker.”
His smile widened a little. “If you can still manage sarcasm, I guess that means you’re going to be fine. And your bag’s already here. Lance brought it down just in case things didn’t go according to plan.”
“I owe Lance a kiss for that. How’s Ward?” she asked.
“Out cold and secure. We’ll take him with us when we head back to the Sun Sprite. There isn’t much we can do for him, but we can keep him comfortable until the IAF gets here.”
“I hope they understand he’s a victim in all this. The guilty one is over there.” She nodded toward the corpse of Ward’s handler.
“They know,” Lance assured her, arriving with her bag and handing it to Dirk.
“What was that she said at the end? Did any of you understand her?” Alyson asked as Dirk rummaged through the bag for a pain blocker.
All three of her men shook their heads.
“It wasn’t in any language we’re programmed with,” Dirk said.
Blade’s expression clouded into one of disturbed concern. “I think—I hate to even say it—but I think it was another override command. One she thought would affect us.”
“I think so, too. I saw her face when she said it. She thought something would happen, something that would help her.”
“We’ll talk about this later.” Dirk placed an injector loaded with pain blocker to her thigh and pressed the trigger.
Within seconds, the pain started to ebb, and soon she was floating on a comfortable cloud. She settled back into Dirk’s arms and let herself drift.
“You ready to get out of here?” one of them asked.
She nodded. “More than ready.”
Once Dirk was standing she reached out for Lance and Blade. “I love you three so much. I couldn’t have done this without you.”
“We love you too, sunshine.” Lance squeezed her hand.
“Then take me home.” She liked the way that sounded. Home, to a place where she was welcomed and needed. A place filled with friends who had her back, and three amazing men who were sworn to love and protect her. Home had never sounded so good.
**Note from the Author**
Again, I am so sorry for the error. Please accept this GIFT as part of my apology.