Sneak Peek at Marked for Strife

Chapter One

Rissa checked the timer and grunted. She still had ten minutes to go, fifteen if she was serious about burning off that extra slice of cake she’d indulged in before bed. The food on this cruise was the best she’d ever had, and it was worth every extra minute of sweat to enjoy it while she could. In a few more weeks she’d be back to her normal life, where food, water, and even air were carefully rationed commodities.

 Life on a space station wasn’t easy, but it was the only life she’d ever known. If her number hadn’t come up in the annual lottery, she might have spent her entire life on Nanu station. She’d have missed out on discovering the glorious indulgences of spending an entire day at a spa, eating every meal from an endless buffet, and sleeping in a bed the size of a standard living cubby back home.

She also would have gone her whole life not knowing how mind-twistingly terrifying planets were. Not the planets themselves but all the things that came with them—toxic plants, dangerous animals, the inescapable pull of gravity, and worst of all, open sky. Just the thought of it made her miss her footing and nearly stumble off the treadmill.

“That’s it. I’m done for the day.” She kept hold of the rail with one hand as she slowed the machine down to a gentle walk. At least no one was around to see her nearly fall on her face. A few weeks ago, it would have been thronging with fit, trim women obsessed about every ounce of body fat and running on the treadmills as if all the demons of hell were chasing them with ice cream sundaes and extra fudge sauce… and now she wanted ice cream slathered in ribbons of warm, gooey chocolate and caramel.

She still had dessert on the brain when it all went to the hells in nine hypersonic handcarts. The deck beneath her feet shuddered, the hull creaking in ways that set Rissa’s teeth on edge. It was the sound of a ship in pain. She’d heard it plenty of times before, but that had been at the shipyard where she worked, surrounded by teams of professionals with everything they needed to put things right.

They weren’t anywhere near her shipyard right now. They were in open space, not the ideal location for their hyperdrive to fail… But that’s what was happening.

“Shit!” Training had her running for the engineering deck before she could think. It was instinctive, and she made it out the door of the gym and into the corridor before she remembered she wasn’t on duty. She wasn’t even a crewmember. She was a passenger, and she didn’t even have access to that part of the ship. She stopped running, automatically moving to press against the wall so she wasn’t blocking the corridor. With the drive down, they’d have dropped into normal space. That wasn’t a problem so long as they weren’t too close to a planet or a star.

Klaxons erupted, the noise almost drowning out the captain’s orders as she spoke over the ship-wide comms.

Rissa decoded the various alarms. Navigation and proximity alerts screamed as engine failure alarms wailed. Airtight doors slammed shut and locked. That shouldn’t happen. Not unless they were… Fuck.

The gym and other amenities were one deck below the passenger quarters, meaning the escape pods were in a different spot. She’d spent years working on ships like these. Hells, she’d even worked on this particular vessel, and she knew exactly where to go. The only other passenger she ran across was dressed in a spa robe and slippers, and she clearly didn’t have a clue what to do.

Rissa grabbed the younger woman by the arm and hustled her down the corridor. “This way,” she yelled so her words would carry over the alarms.

Hope shot her look of gratitude mixed in with a healthy dollop of fear. “What’s happening?” she called back.

The deck bucked beneath them, hard enough to make both of them stumble, but their hold on each other kept them on their feet.

“Bad shit. Maybe an attack.” It was impossible to convey much information over the noise, and they needed to move, not talk.

Hope’s eyes widened. “Attack?”

All Rissa’s worst fears were confirmed a second later. Another alarm wailed, drowning out all the others. The main lights winked out and were replaced by red strobe lights. Shit. It was time to go. The order to abandon ship had gone out.

“Come on! We need to go. Now!” Rissa knew they were running out of time. The ship was under massive stress, and she felt it twist and ripple beneath her feet. It was damaged, crippled, and fighting against a significant source of gravity… and it was losing.

They reached the evac station. The pod doors were all open and waiting. She pushed Hope to the nearest one.

“Sit down and put the harness on. That’s all you need to do. The rest is automatic. Just hang on, be smart, and don’t go too far from your pod.”

Hope gave her a tight, quick nod and ducked inside.

Rissa waited for three long seconds before moving to the next pod in the row. The first pod sealed before she got inside her own. Hope was as safe as Rissa could make her. The rest was up to her.

Once her own pod dropped free of the ship, Rissa got busy. No way would she sit back and let this thing pilot itself. That was fine for someone with no flight training, but she’d been fixing ships most of her life. That meant she knew how to fly them… more or less. Either way, this pod would crash. That’s what they were designed for. Her plan was to make sure it crashed as gently as possible.

*

“And this is why I prefer to fly myself.” Rissa looked around the clearing she’d chosen as her landing site. She and the pod were both in one piece, and the only damage she’d done to the area was a few scorch marks on the grass-covered ground.

She’d maintained the same trajectory the autopilot had determined. She didn’t want to wind up too far away from any other survivors. When rescue came, proximity might make the difference between going home and getting stuck here for the rest of her life. That was not going to happen.

It could turn out to be the nicest planet in existence, but it was still a planet. That meant weather, and animals, and an atmosphere that was only held in place by gravity. No domes, no containment units, and no barriers.

“It’s not natural,” she grumbled. “At least, not to me.” She didn’t do nature. The closest she’d come to it was the bio-dome at the heart of Nanu station, but that small area of carefully cultured trees and plants had about as much in common with this place as a candle flame had to a solar flare.

The clearing was covered in some kind of knee-high plant she thought might be called grass. A current of air moved the long blades of orange and gold, making them hiss and rustle. The sound made her uneasy, though she didn’t know why.

She kept her eyes on the ground with most of her focus on her feet. That way she couldn’t see the sky at all, which helped… a little. She needed to retrieve the emergency supplies stored in the pod and drag them over to the tree line. Under the trees, everything was in shadow, and that meant she’d have another layer between her and the open air.

The trees were strange and nothing like the ones she’d seen in the biosphere. They were the wrong color for one thing. Those trees had been green and blue, but these were very different. Reds and oranges mostly, with a few flashes of golden yellow. The trunks were massive things, gnarled and twisted into thick towers that rose far into the air.

She caught herself looking up, squawked in horror, and dropped her eyes back to the ground again. Vertigo hit, and the next thing she knew, she was on her hands and knees as the world spun around her. She squeezed her eyes shut and dug her fingers into the grass as if that was the only thing stopping her from flying off into space.

When the spinning stopped, she didn’t open her eyes right away. She just stayed where she was and tried not to throw up. “I fucking hate planets,” she groaned as she waited for the queasiness to subside. Once it had, she hauled herself to her feet and made her way back to the pod. She had shit to do, and the faster she got it done, the sooner she’d be inside her emergency shelter. She needed a roof over her head as quickly as possible.

She dragged everything over to the edge of the clearing and arranged the carton with the emergency shelter so the entrance pointed toward the forest. She followed the instructions printed on the side, doing a sweep to make sure the area was clear of rocks and other debris that might puncture the shelter once she activated it. Then she leaned down and pressed the large button below the instructions. First she heard an explosive whoosh followed by a loud, prolonged hiss of air, and then the shelter inflated. It expanded away from her position, just the way it was supposed to.

Once that was done, she lugged a second container inside, sealed the doorway, and sat down on the floor with a sigh of relief. Yellow had never been her favorite color, but right now the garish Day-Glo shelter was the most beautiful sight she’d ever seen. Now she just had to make herself as comfortable as possible and wait for rescue. Surely that wouldn’t take long. Humans weren’t signatories to the Galactic Legion’s Unified Agreement, but they were recognized as sentient lifeforms. Anyone who heard the Bountiful Harvest’s distress beacon would be compelled to offer assistance. It was legion law.

That meant someone would come for them. In fact, they were probably already on their way.

Ready for more? Marked For Strife release May 17th. PREORDER NOW

Marked For Mayhem is here!

Her last shot at love just crashed and burned… Literally.

 Bella signed up for the interplanetary courtship cruise hoping for travel, adventure, and maybe a chance at romance. Now she’s crash landed on a strange planet with no one around but a horned, alien hottie who showed up and laid claim to her gear, her ship… and her.

He’s too brash, too pushy, and much too young for her. He’s also not taking no for an answer…

This wasn’t the adventure she imagined, but it might just be the romance of a lifetime, if she can stay alive long enough to enjoy it.

**Buckle up. This sci-fi romance contains an alien with fur, fangs, horns, and a very possessive attitude when it comes to the woman he’s claimed for his own.

Grab your copy today: https://susanhayes.ca/book/marked-for-mayhem/

And if you missed the prequel – pick up Marked For Rage, too!

Operation Sunset is here!

book cover. Handsome male standing on a space ship deck. Book title: operation sunset

She’s the woman he can’t forget… and the one he can never have.
Three years ago, Crispen met the woman of his dreams, only to discover they were about to be co-workers, too. Aria had rules against mixing business and pleasure, so he’d taken the next best option and become her best friend… until he had to make a decision that changed the course of both their lives.


Now, what’s left of their friendship will be tested. They’re going undercover to take down one of Nova Force’s greatest enemies, and they’ll have no one to rely on but each other.


She thought she couldn’t have it all. Had she been wrong?
 Aria lost more than her leg in the explosion that nearly ended her career. She’s still counting the costs, but she’s afraid that at the top of the list is the only man who got past her walls and into her heart—Crispen.


Their new assignment puts them in enemy territory with dubious intel, no backup, and a plan that didn’t survive first contact with reality. To finish their mission, they’ll have to risk more than their lives… they’ll have to put their hearts in the line of fire.

Read Chapter One for Free: Click Here

Grab your copy today: https://susanhayes.ca/book/operation-sunset/

Sneak Peek at Operation Sunset

Chapter One

Cris left the Malora’s med-bay the moment the computer announced he was cleared to return to duty. While he still believed that doctors made the worst patients, after a single day of bedrest he was willing to admit that medics were almost as bad.

Or maybe it was just him.

His face was still a little tender in spots and his skin itched in some unpleasant places, but Dr. Li had assured him it would only be a matter of hours before his new medi-bots repaired the last traces of the surgical alterations.

“Don’t poke at it and it will heal faster, Lieutenant,” had been Tyra’s parting advice when she’d left the med-bay a few hours ago. She’d said it was to let him rest, but he was pretty sure she just needed to get away from his grumpy ass. He’d have to apologize and claim it was pre-mission jitters.

She might even pretend to believe it.

His team was a tightknit crew that had grown even closer since circumstances had forced them to live on board the Malora. Astek Station was being decommissioned after the Grays’ last attack, and their new home was still under construction. For security reasons, Dante’s family was on board too. Nico was a key witness in an upcoming trial against Bellex Corp and Tyra was openly affiliated with both Nova Force and the group of rebellious cyborgs currently sitting at the top of the Gray Men’s hit list.

It made for a crowded ship with limited personal space and even less privacy. As the only single team member on board, he knew far more than he wanted to about the sex lives and relationship challenges of his teammates. It also meant they knew why he was on edge these days, and it had almost nothing to do with his surgical alterations or even the fact this might be his last mission with this team.

It was because he’d be seeing her again.

They were on their way to collect the missing member of their crew. Aria had made a full recovery and was ready to reclaim her place on the team, which was wonderful news. The problem was, he didn’t know if her return meant it was time for him to leave. Team Three had been her crew before it had been his. If she couldn’t forgive him for his failures, he should be the one to go. He’d taken enough from her already. He wouldn’t take her family, too.

An excited whoop pierced the air, snapping him out of his broody thoughts.

“I’m going to beat you again! You’re too slow, Mama.”

Two seconds later, a small pair of feet appeared at the top of a nearby ladder and Nico leaped down, trusting the grav-plate to catch him before he landed on the deck.

“One day, one of those is going to fail and you’re going to break both your ankles,” Cris said.

“That’s what Mama says, too, but it hasn’t happened yet!” Nico replied and then turned to look at Cris. The boy’s grin vanished and his entire demeanor changed. He dropped into a fighter’s crouch and raised his fists, looking like a miniature replica of his adopted father.

“Who the fraxx are you?”

Veth. He’d forgotten about the changes to his appearance. “Easy, Booster Rocket. It’s just me, Caldwell.”

The boy’s eyes narrowed. “Lieutenant?”

“Yup. Your mama did a good job making me look different. Didn’t she?”

Nico’s hands dropped and his eyes widened in surprise. “Holy fraxx, it is you!”

The soft hiss of the mag-lift doors opening filled the momentary silence.

“Language, Nico!” Tyra scolded as she stepped into the corridor.

“Busted,” Cris murmured in sympathy.

Nico’s face fell. “Sorry, Mama. But the lieutenant surprised me!”

Cris waved at his face. “The first real-world test of my new disguise was a success.”

“Ah. In that case, I suppose we can make an exception.” Tyra wagged a finger at Nico. “But only this one time. We’re going to be arriving at the colony soon and I expect you to be on your best behavior for at least the first three days.”

“Three days?” Nico wailed. “Dad said two.”

Tyra raised a dark brow and Nico hung his head in defeat. “Three days. I can do that.”

“I know you can.” She pulled the boy into a hug that lasted until he squirmed in protest.

“I’m going to be late for my robotics lesson with Magi—I mean Ensign Erben. I need to go, Mama.”

“Go on. Have fun and try not to blow up anything.”

Nico rolled his eyes. “That happened one time.” He waved at them and then took off down the corridor at a speed that would have made some athletes jealous.

     Tyra watched him go with a wry smile. “I’m still not convinced giving him the medi-bot treatment was a good idea. He had too much energy before we dosed him with nanotech.”

“But now at least you and Dante can keep up with him.” Everyone on the team had taken the treatment, and the offer had been extended to immediate family members. Tyra and Nico were the only ones who hadn’t had nanotech already, and within hours of their reunion with Dante, he’d taken them for their injections. It had nearly killed the big man, not knowing if they were safe after Astek Station was attacked.

Cris had gotten a taste of that feeling as well when their last mission had gone sideways. None of them had expected the Gray Men to sacrifice six of their own in an explosion meant to take out his team. When Nyx and Aria were caught in the blast, he’d experienced the worst pain of his life while waiting to see if they made it out. Then he’d gone through something even more painful when Nyx had appeared with Aria’s battered, mangled body in her arms.

Months later, the memory of that day was still enough to make his heart ache. To save her life, he’d had to carve off pieces of his best friend, the woman he’d wanted for years. No one could expect forgiveness for something like that. He’d taken her leg and left her with two choices—leave the job she loved or accept the nanobot treatment and a cybernetic limb to replace the one she’d lost.

She hadn’t quit the team.

“Do you think she’s going to like the new look?” Tyra asked softly.

He didn’t need to ask who Tyra meant. He gave what he hoped was an indifferent shrug. “I doubt she’ll notice.”

“Going against the odds? That’s not like you.”

“What odds?” he asked, but he already had a good idea who to blame.

Tyra laughed. “No one told you? The current odds are seven-to-one she does a double take the first time she sees you.”

“I’m going to kill Magi.”

Tyra’s lips twitched as she tried to stifle more laughter. “It wasn’t his idea. You’ll have to take that up with Nyx. Apparently she got the numbers from Chance, though.”

“Chance. The cyborg who can calculate odds with almost omnipotent accuracy? Why is she involved in…” He groaned and started to bury his face in his hands. Then he remembered he wasn’t supposed to touch that area yet. “The Nova Club crew are taking bets on this?”

She patted his arm. “I’m afraid so. I made my bet before I started your surgery. Now I’ve seen the result, I think I should have doubled the amount. She isn’t going to recognize you.”

“You think surgery changed me that much?” He’d been surprised at the difference in his appearance, but he still saw himself beneath the changes. His cheekbones were higher now, his nose given an artificial bump to make it look as if it had been broken a few times, and his eyes, hair and skin color had been altered. A few other minor cosmetic tweaks and he’d been changed enough that no facial recognition software would be able to connect his new identity to one Lieutenant Crispin Caldwell, known officer of Nova Force.

“The procedures are part of it, but that’s not all that’s changed.” Tyra raised one dark brow and gave him an assessing look. “You’ve spent hours in the gym since you got back. I’ve seen your charts. I know how much muscle mass you’ve put on lately. It’s changed the way you look and move. You’re different now, Trip.”

“Yeah?” He gave her an exaggerated grin and flexed his biceps, puffing out his chest at the same time. “Do you think I’m ready to take on Buttercup?”

She laughed and shook her head. “Not yet. Dante has genetics on his side. But I wouldn’t bet against you if you went up against Sabre.”

“I’m not going to test that theory, but I appreciate the thought.” He had no intention of testing his skills against the team’s second in command. That was a no-win scenario. Either he got his ass handed to him or he wound up on kitchen cleanup duty for a month.

“Probably a wise choice. He’s been grumpy since Bobbi left to start up the new legal team.”

“And once we drop you and Booster off at Haven, Dante’s going to be in a foul mood, too. We better be fully stocked up on ice cream and chocolate or morale is going to crash and crater.”

Tyra smiled, but the expression didn’t reach her eyes. “You’ll take care of him for me?”

“Of course. That’s one of the few parts of my job I’m still needed for. But honestly, the best thing for Dante will be knowing you two are safe and well-protected. The colony is about the safest place I can think of. After that last attempt to mess with their nanotech, the entire population is on high alert.” He winked at her. “And besides, you are going as guests of royalty, with a suite of rooms in the palace and everything. Nico might never want to leave.”

“That’s going to take some getting used to. I don’t suppose you have any pointers for me? I heard your family rules a planet.”

Years of practice made it easy to hide his reaction, but he still felt it. The twist in his gut as his past came out of the shadows to sink its claws into the life he’d built after leaving home.

“It’s only half a planet,” he corrected her with a light, bantering tone and a genial smile. “Just be yourself. From what I understand, the prince and his anrik aren’t much for courtly protocols and their mate is a human cyber-jockey with authority issues. You’ll be fine.”

Tyra smiled. “That’s what your sister said, too.”

“She’s pretty smart. Not as smart or as charming as me, of course, but she’s a close second.” He gestured to his face. “I’ll have to message her soon and show her your handiwork.”

“She won’t recognize you at first.”

He grinned. “Then maybe I should make sure her three husbands are home when I message. A little jealousy is good for a relationship… or so I’ve heard.”

Tyra shot him a wicked little smile and then launched an unexpected verbal salvo. “I’ve discovered that the most important thing in any relationship is honesty. You should probably try that sometime.”

She left him reeling from the impact of her words and headed off down the hall toward the med-bay.

They all thought this was something that could be fixed with a few simple words. That if he just told Aria how he felt, things would all fall into place for the two of them.

They were wrong.

Aria knew exactly how he felt about her. Their chemistry had been hotter than a supernova from the moment they met. That hadn’t stopped her from ending things the moment he’d walked into his first team meeting and discovered they weren’t just lovers… they were teammates.

Soon, they might not even be that.

Honesty wasn’t going to fix this. He didn’t know what could. If this was their last mission together, he’d do all he could to keep her safe. He’d failed her too many times already.

****

Want to know what happens next? Pre-order Operation Sunset today and have it delivered to your e-reader on February 1st.

Sneak Peek at Her Alien Forgemasters

Releasing October 5th!

Chapter One

Tra’var glanced out the window of their domicile and then did a double take. Snow? That hadn’t been in the forecast.

“I’m going out back to make sure the forge is secure. It’s snowing!”

Damos grunted from his bedroom but didn’t make an appearance. “Great. Then we don’t need to go out. I’ll give you a hand and then we can pour our own drinks here and let Striker know we’re snowed in.”

“Not happening. We. Are. Going. I don’t care if there’s a blizzard. We promised we’d be there to celebrate.” There was a party for Striker and Maggie tonight to mark their mating and Maggie’s status as the colony’s newest citizen. Since he and his anrik had played a large part in rescuing Maggie from her abductors, Striker had sicced his female on Damos until the big, grumpy male had finally agreed to attend.

“Striker will understand. That male likes parties even less than we do.” Damos finally emerged from his room. Despite his grumbling, he was dressed for an evening out. His hair was neatly tied back, his jaw recently shaved. He’d donned polished boots, pants that had never been near enough to the forge to be damaged or singed, and a collared vest that Tra’var had never seen before.

“I didn’t know you owned anything without burn marks.”

His anrik flipped an obscene gesture at him. “I didn’t. But they have these things called shops. You go there and buy things you don’t have.”

“I’m familiar with the concept. I wasn’t aware you were.” Tra’var pulled on a jacket, arranging the long, heavy garment so his wings could be extended through slits in the back if needed.

“I do leave the house occasionally.”

“Very occasionally, which is counter to our whole reason for coming here.” They’d signed up for the new colony within hours of the announcement as a chance to start over somewhere new. A place where everyone would be judged on their own merits and not on their bloodlines was exactly what they needed.

At least, that was the plan. The reality was more complicated. Not everyone had left the old ways behind. There was still some bias and posturing. Wariness too. It would take time to discover the shape this new colony would take. Tra’var was hopeful. Damos was less so. Getting him out for a night with their new friends would be a major milestone. It would also be a step toward putting their mark on this place. If they wanted change, they needed to be present to make it happen.

Besides, he was sick of his anrik’s company. They might be blood-brothers, but if they spent one more night drinking ale and talking shop, Tra’var might just start throwing things. Given their home was also their storefront for the weapons they made, that had the potential to get messy.

Damos donned his jacket and pulled up the hood. “If we’re doing this, we better get going. The sooner we arrive, the sooner we can leave.”

“You agreed to two drinks and a meal,” he reminded Damos.

Another grunt. “I did. I’m still not sure how that happened. Maggie haggles better than half the traders we’ve ever done business with.”

“I noticed. Next time we have to negotiate prices for tarchozin, do you think we could borrow her?”

Damos nodded thoughtfully. “That’s not a bad idea. She’s very good. I don’t even know what I agreed to exactly, except that we have to try something called ‘Almost Heaven’ and Maggie’s signature cocktail. I think it was called an Aftershock? After… something. My head was spinning by that point.” Damos paused at the door and turned back to face Tra’var, though his face was shadowed by his hood. “I don’t know if I should feel sorry for Striker or envy him.”

“I envy him. He found his mahaya. The fact she is a match for him in every way is his own fault for being such a stubborn, growly male.”

Damos was halfway out the door before he spoke again. “Then it’s a good thing we haven’t found ours. I cannot imagine what kind of female the ancestors would send us.”

Tra’var didn’t answer. He flipped up his own hood and followed his anrik outside, his mind full of images of what their mate would be like. Soft. Smiling. Gentle enough to soothe the scars in Damos’ psyche and fill their home with light and laughter. One day, they would find her. They had to. As they aged, the urge to seek out their mate only grew stronger. If they didn’t find her soon, they could begin the transition to onar, those who had failed to find their mate and were destined to spend their lives alone. It was an unpleasant experience, one not everyone survived with mind and body intact.

They needed to find their mahaya before that happened. Then they would be complete.

*

Damos wasn’t sure how he felt about tonight, and he didn’t like it. He preferred to be certain about things. The correct shape for a blade. What temperature the forge should be. When to quench a blade and call it complete. He understood these things. Social cues and the nuances of polite society were far more complicated, especially for an outsider like him. It was easier to avoid them altogether.

They made the walk from their home in what had become the artists’ quarter to the broad bridge that linked the two sides of the colony. Flying would be faster, but the distance was beyond the range of what his imperfect wings could manage. They walked instead. Back on Vardaria Prime, that would have earned him pitying or scornful looks. He was flawed—an imperfect being in a society that valued lineage and breeding over ability and skill.

It wasn’t the same here, but it wasn’t easy to leave the old ways behind, either. Not for others and not for him.

The first snow of the season swirled around them, and he shoved his hands into his pockets before the chill triggered his scales to tighten. The natural armor was protection against attack, but it also made them resistant to heat and cold. In his case, though, it triggered more of the elements that made him different. His body didn’t know the difference between a cold wind and a violent assault, and the last thing he wanted was to arrive at the Bar None tavern sporting talons on his hands and raised scales down his spine.

 This wasn’t the first time he’d been to the bridge that spanned the river. He’d crossed it a few times to make deliveries, but that had always been during daylight hours. The place looked different now. For one thing, it was quieter. The street vendors had packed up their stalls for the night. A few beings were out and about, but they had their heads down and walked with purpose.

It was easy to spot their destination. The tavern was well-lit and noisy enough, and the sound carried on the wind, filling the night with faint laughter and music.

They reached the entrance, both moving to one side of the door to bang the snow from their boots and shake out their coats. It was an old habit, and the pause gave Damos a few more seconds to ensure his more unusual features weren’t in evidence. In a perfect world, he wouldn’t have to worry about it, but Haven wasn’t ready for that.

Neither was he.

They went inside. The first thing that struck him were the differences. This was not a Vardarian place. The walls were painted in dark shades and the furniture, while clearly mass-produced, wasn’t all the same style. Some seating was built for smaller body frames, and others had no back, which was the preferred style for most of his kind.

The main room was large, but it still felt small to him. Only when he looked up did he understand why. Vardarian spaces had higher ceilings, space for the patrons to stretch their wings if needed. The ceiling here was low enough he had to suppress the urge to duck his head.

Bots scooted around the floor, carting drinks and food orders to tables and booths, most of which were full despite the weather. The bar was tended by a pair of droids, and electronic menus sat on every table. Good. He’d be able to order and get served without having to interact with anyone he didn’t know.

They stripped off their coats and added them to the racks that lined the wall by the door before looking around for Striker and Maggie. The pair wasn’t hard to spot. They were seated at the back of the room, surrounded by a group of familiar faces. Damos relaxed. He knew them all.

They even saved us seats,” Tra’var sent the subvocalized message directly to Damos’ implanted receiver.

He just grunted in response. Maneuvering in the crowded space was tricky for someone of his dimensions, and the last thing he wanted was to bump someone and trigger an unwanted fight. It probably wouldn’t happen here on Haven, but a lifetime of avoiding attention wasn’t easy to move past.

They were only a few steps from the group when a scent brushed against his awareness. Something… delicious was in the air. He took another breath. Yes. There. Behind him. Achingly familiar yet entirely new, the scent called to him. He turned and inhaled deeply.

She was here.

Tra’var. Taste the air and tell me what you sense.” He was already scanning the room as he messaged his anrik, looking for the source of that elusive scent. Vardarian females were seated around the room but they weren’t right. Cyborg females were present too, but his gaze moved over them all until they landed on a solitary female behind the bar.

Behind it. Not seated at it. Was that the female who owned this tavern? The human? Forge and flame. Was their mahaya human?

He drew in another breath and arousal hit him like a speeding meteor. It was her.

Tra’var spun around. “Her?”

“Yes.”

“She is beautiful,” Tra’var said, his tone reverential.

“And human.”

“Older,” Tra’var said.

“And ours.”

They walked toward her, barely noticing silence as the entire room watched this moment unfold.

They’d found her. Their mahaya. Their mate.

*

Anya had enjoyed a string of good days since coming to Haven, but this one was even better than usual. Her bar was packed, the patrons were all behaving, and everything was working the way it should.

The moment she had that thought, she rapped her knuckles three times on the top of the bar to ward off any bad luck that might be tempted by her open invitation to cause havoc. She’d had more than her share of chaos before coming here, and she had no doubt more would be in her future. Just… not right now. Tonight they all wanted to celebrate.

Every citizen of Haven knew the story of how this place had come to be and how many factions would like to see them fail. Torex Mining Corp wanted their planet back so they could tear it apart to reach the rich veins of tantalum buried beneath the surface. Darker forces wanted to reclaim their lost “property,” the cyborgs they had imprisoned and experimented on in their mad quest to build a better soldier.

And then there were the Vardarians. Thousands of them had followed Prince Tyran to Haven to start a new life far from the boundaries of their empire. She didn’t have to know the details to understand there was a reason so many beings uprooted their lives to travel across the stars and start their lives over again.

One thing she’d learned in her life was that beings were the same the galaxy over. It didn’t matter what sect, class, or species they were, intelligent life all seemed to follow the same patterns. Most of them tried to be good, even if they often failed, and some of them always reached for more than they should have. Power, wealth, influence. When it reached a certain point, the decent ones always left and tried to start over somewhere new… and then the whole dance started over again.

That’s what Haven was—the first steps in a dance that might end in a year, a decade, or a few millennia. There was no way to know, and that was part of the magic. All she could be certain of was that here and now was her best chance to be a part of something special. It’s what Phaedra had offered her, along with the unvarnished truth about the challenges Anya would face if she came. Unstable cyborgs who distrusted humans, a new species no one knew much about, and a new world that hadn’t even been surveyed properly.

She’d said yes in a heartbeat.

Now she had a booming business and a sense of community she’d never known before. These beings weren’t just her customers. They were her friends and neighbors. And tonight, they’d gathered to celebrate the newest addition to their ranks. After being claimed by Striker, Maggie was now officially a citizen of Haven and the first of the human refugees to reach that status. As far as Anya was concerned, no one deserved happiness more than Maggie. It made her heart happy to hear her friend’s laughter and watch her lean into Striker’s side, her joy an almost tangible thing that lifted everyone around her.

“She glows,” Saral said as she placed a plate of snacks in front of Anya. “It’s nice to see.”

“It is.”

“So would seeing you eat. You work too hard and don’t take care of yourself. You need to find a good male or two to make sure you are well cared for.”

“That is your answer to everything. Males are not the cure to all the troubles of the universe.”

“No. True. They are also the cause of many of them. But the orgasms help.” Saral laughed and touched her hand. “You’ll see when you meet your destiny.”

“Bah. My destiny is to grow old and rich running this place, or one like it. Which won’t happen if my best cook is out of the kitchen much longer. Shoo!”

The Vardarian female retreated to her domain again, still laughing softly. As happy as Saral was with her mates, she couldn’t see that not everyone was destined for that kind of love. Some, like Anya, just didn’t seem easy to love, and that was fine by her. She knew her flaws and accepted them because they were part of who she was. She’d been around long enough to learn to like the woman she’d become.

“And I don’t have time for a man, anyway. I barely have time for me.”

The droids had the orders covered, so she took her plate and retreated to the end of the bar to eat. Not long after, the door opened and two new faces walked into her bar. She’d never seen either of them before.

Single she might be, but she wasn’t blind. If she’d laid eyes on either of these males before, she’d remember. They were both Vardarian, one silver-skinned and the other golden. The silver one was slightly taller than his companion, but the golden one was larger in general, a veritable mountain of a male nearly as broad as he was tall.

When they removed their coats, she got an eyeful of powerful shoulders and arms that dwarfed even the other Vardarians present. No arm bands either, which meant they were unmated. The taller one was blond with a broad smile and rugged features while the golden one kept his expression guarded and moved with care between the tables, avoiding even the slightest contact with the other patrons.

She knew the look. He was used to having to work to avoid trouble or notice, though with his size, she couldn’t imagine who or what would dare to take issue with him.

They were almost to the back of the room where Maggie and Striker were holding court when the dark-haired one stopped and turned around. He took a deep breath, his massive chest rising as he sucked in a lungful of air.

Fraxx. She knew what that meant. The male had caught a scent that intrigued him. It might be the roasted gharshtu on special tonight, or it could mean he’d detected the scent of his mate.

When he started looking around the room, she knew dinner wasn’t what had his interest.

“Here we go again.” She watched, curious to see who it would be. Several Vardarian females were present tonight, along with a large group of cyborg women who were celebrating with Maggie. Who was about to have their lives turned upside down?

When the big male’s gaze landed on her, she expected him to take one look and keep moving.

He didn’t. His amber eyes brightened, and he took another breath.

Oh, hell no.

A second later, the blond spun around to stare at her, too.

Anya took a step back. This was not happening. She’d known when she agreed to come here that as a single female this was theoretically possible, but she’d never for one second thought she’d be some Vardarians’ mate.

Both males stalked toward her, their skin gleaming like newly minted coins as their scales tightened, a sure sign they were agitated.

So was she.

Mahaya,” the blond one said, his voice a deep rumble.

“Ma-hay-nope,” she retorted, stepping back from the bar to put more space between them. “I serve the food, but I am not on the menu.”

“But you are our mahaya,” the dark-haired one spoke this time, and his voice was pitched like rolling thunder.

Damn. He was sexy. They both were. If they’d been looking for a night of no-strings-attached sex, she might have been tempted. But this?

It had to be a mistake.

Both males stepped around to the opening at the end of the bar at the exact same moment. As they reached out to her, she noted they bore a matching pair of circular scars on their wrists. They were anrik, a blood-bonded pair.

“I can’t be. There has to be a mistake.”

“No mistake,” the blond said. “I am Tra’var. This is my anrik, Damos. What is your name?”

“Anya. Anya Hutchinson.”

“Anya.” Damos spoke the word with all the intensity of a prayer. “Shining star. It suits you.”

“It does?”

“Oh yes.” Tra’var reached for her again.

“Come. We have a lot to discuss and not much time.”

To her surprise, Anya stepped out from the bar and took their hands as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do. She was even smiling for fraxx sake, despite the fact that every sensible cell in her brain was screaming at her to run for the hills before it was too late.

“Finally!” Saral exclaimed from the kitchen door, her smile as bright as a binary star system. “Go with them, Anya. We’ll take care of this place. You… enjoy yourself. Oh, your mother will be so pleased!”

“Do not tell my mother anything!” She didn’t want or need Hezza to cut short her cargo run so she could stick her nose into Anya’s business. If this was happening, the last thing in the galaxy she needed was her mother’s help.

When it came to relationships, she didn’t need anyone’s help, especially not a woman who had more romantic shipwrecks in her past than anyone else in the galaxy. Anya had enough wreckage in her own past to know how this was likely to go. If past was prologue, plenty of evidence suggested she could screw this up all on her own…

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