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.
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