When Lieutenant Ramie Ashdyn is charged with treason and murder, the Coalition sends in Commander Rhys “Rest in Peace” Rykus to interrogate her. He’s the man who’s responsible for turning Ash into an elite soldier…and he’s a man who isn’t, never was, and never will be in love with the woman he trained. Or so he tells himself.
Ash wants to tell him the truth of what happened, but the enemy did more than frame her for treason and murder: they telepathically silenced her mind, preventing her from saying anything that might clear her name. Now Ash is trapped and set to be executed.
Shades of Treason
When Commander Rhys “Rest in Peace” Rykuswalked back into her life, Ash smiled because she knew it would piss him off.He was an intimidating SOB, always had been, and it took an effort not to givein to habit and stand to salute him. It helped, of course, that her wrists wereshackled to the arms of her chair.
Rykusdidn’t say anything when he entered her stale-aired prison, so Ash echoed hissilence. The room’s low ceiling accentuated his height and broad shoulders. Heoutweighed her by forty, maybe fifty pounds now that he’d completely gottenover his old shoulder injury and packed on more muscle. The way his crisp, blackuniform embraced his frame drew her gaze, but she was a bit disappointed thathe was clean-shaven. She’d always liked it when stubble shadowed the planes ofhis face. She’d told him as much once during training, and he’d sent her onextra weighted runs as punishment. Though she’d ended up sore, stiff, and tiredas hell, it had been worth it to get under his skin.
Shehad to get under his skin now because she could already feel his presencescraping away her resolve. The Coalition wanted her to talk, and she’d beenprogrammed years ago to respond to Rykus’s voice. She had to escapesoon—now—because if she didn’t, he’d trigger that brainwashing and command herto give him the cipher the Coalition so desperately wanted.
Keepingher smile in place, Ash turned her attention to the two men flanking him. Thefirst waited beside the door, his gaze locked on her, his hand resting ready onhis gun. The other man wasn’t armed. Instead of a weapon, he carried abio-scanner and med-sack. He dropped the sack on the data-table in front ofher, yanked out a blue aerosol bottle, then sprayed both his hands withliqui-glove. With short, rough movements, he treated the cut on her temple.
Ashlowered her gaze to the table, but Rykus’s stare drilled into her. She didn’thave to look up to imagine his expression. After a year of training under hiscommand, she’d memorized the harsh set of his jaw and the dark,I’ve-been-to-hell-and-back depths of his eyes. The force of his scowl couldshatter heat shielding if Rykus was so inclined, but he usually kept his angerin check. Usually. Ash had a talent for setting him off.
Hesat in the chair on the other side of the data-table, the only piece offurniture in the cell besides her chair and the sleep-slab that was now foldedinto the dull gray wall.
Shetook a moment to steel herself against her loyalty training, then met herformer instructor’s eyes. “It’s been a while, Rip.”
Whenthe medic went still beside her, she forced a laugh. “Guess the commanderdoesn’t go by that name much around here, does he?"
Ah,there it was, the telltale tightening of the skin around Rykus’s eyes. No oneelse called him Rip—at least, not to his face—but she was the one who’d givenhim the nickname back when she was his cadet. She figured she might as well useit, especially if it would throw him off-balance. For the Coalition’s loyaltytraining to fully kick in, Rykus’s words had to be spoken in a precise tone andcadence. When he was angry or—dare she suggest it—aroused, his voice dipped. Itwas a slight, almost unnoticeable change, but it was enough to let her fightand occasionally overcome the compulsion in his commands.
“Still,”she said to the medic, “he is the only man in the entire federated military toshow up alive and well to his own funeral. He never told us anomalies how hemanaged that.” She tilted her head to the side and pitched her last words as aquestion.
Rykusjust sat there staring through her. Her faith in her plan wavered. Maybe sheshouldn’t push him away. Maybe he could help her. If he ordered her to reportwhat happened on the mission to Chalos II, maybe she could break through thetelepathic stranglehold preventing her from explaining everything.
Butas soon as the thought entered her mind, her heart clogged her throat. She couldalmost hear her subconscious cautioning against the idea. Something bad wouldhappen if Rykus commanded her to speak. She was certain of it.
Shemade her tone casual, her expression unconcerned. “Tell me, Rip, how are youliking this plush new command?”
Still,he said nothing.
“Notmuch for conversation these days, are you?”
Hedidn’t even blink. When had he become so fucking impenetrable? Used to be, shecould make him angry with a few take-me-to-bed glances, but maybe his triggershad changed. Or maybe since she was no longer his cadet, he didn’t give a damnabout her anymore.
Herstomach twisted like a transport on a bad reentry into atmosphere. She blockedout the sensation, the odd little mix of hurt and devotion. It was just theloyalty training urging her to please him. It didn’t mean anything. Never had,never would.
The medic finished treating the cut on herhead, then swabbed the broken skin on her knuckles. Even though her escapeattempt had failed, she’d managed to land a few solid hits before she wentdown. Rykus had taught her well.
Themedic put away the disinfectant and picked up a bio-band. He stared at thedevice, then frowned at her chair-shackled wrists.
“Youcan unbind me,” Ash told him, innocence dripping from her tone. “I won’t tryanything. Promise.”
Heglared, shook his head, then stepped back to look at her bare feet. She’dregained consciousness without her boots and without the knife she’dconfiscated from one of the guards she’d taken down during her transfer to theship.
Hestrapped the device to her ankle and switched it on. It wouldn’t do him anygood. Her physical injuries were superficial, and she’d already been scanned adozen times since her arrest. The bio-band wouldn’t tell the doctors what wasreally wrong with her, and she couldn’t tell them herself. She’d tried. Overand over again, she’d tried, but Jevan, the deceitful, manipulative bastard,had screwed with her head.
“Ididn’t train a traitor.”
Rykus’svoice rebounded off the walls and struck Ash in the center of her chest. Shekept her focus on the medic, hoping the bio-band didn’t pick up an increasedheart rate.
“Tellme what happened.”
Hedidn’t command her to speak, thank God. He never did at first. If his habitshadn’t changed, he’d ask her once more before he tried to force a confession.
Shemade her hands loosen their grip on the chair arms. “Guess you’re not as goodat reading people as you thought.”
Alow blow, one that should have hurt, but Rykus didn’t even twitch. Damn it. Hadshe lost her touch?
“Youneed to start talking.” His tone turned brutal, bruising. “The Coalition issending their best man to interrogate you. He won’t be gentle.”
Ashsaw her opening and made her voice a low purr. “You know I like it rough,Commander.”
Asharp and sudden inhalation was the only sign he’d heard her words. Ash kepther half smile plastered on her face despite the painful twist in her stomach.She’d already lost her comrades, her career, her reputation, everything. Shemight as well act like the arrogant bitch he’d always thought her to be.
Rykusleaned forward. “This is the last time I’ll ask. Tell me what happened.”
“Tellme what you believe.”
Shehid a grimace when the words left her lips. She didn’t want to know if hebelieved the accusations. If he did, it would hurt. If he didn’t... Well, itwould make it that much harder to push him away.
Secondsticked by. Ash wanted to slouch in her seat, but she kept her chin lifted, hereyes on Rykus’s. Finally, he came to a decision and jabbed at the data-table.
“Let’sstart with your team.”
Theirimages appeared on the table’s surface. The universe pitched into an angle thatwas all wrong. It didn't feel like they were dead. It felt like she could callthem anytime, especially since the pictures had been captured weeks ago, justdays before they’d left for Chalos II.
“You’reaccused of executing five men each with a single shot to the head. You workedwith them for the last year, some even longer than that. Yet when asked why youmurdered them, you gave no comment.”
Emotionscraped Ash’s throat raw. Those men were her family. She would have given herlife to save them. Instead, they’d given their lives to save hers. And to savethe Coalition. They’d all taken an oath to preserve and protect it.
Rykusflattened his hand on the table, and the images changed to show a series ofdecoded transmissions. “Your file contains over thirty records of communicationswith known Saricean agents. In them, you reveal classified information. Yourleaks ranged from incidental supply shipments to the name and coordinates of ashuttle carrying Senator Ben Playte.” Rykus pinned her with one of hisdestructive glares. “Playte was assassinated three days after the Sariceansreceived this document. When asked if any of these were forgeries, you gave nocomment.”
Heswiped his hand across the table’s surface, flinging her service record in herface.
“Sinceyour graduation, you’ve received top reviews from every commander you’ve servedunder. They’ve stated that you’re ‘a superb soldier,’ ‘unwavering in yourmission,’ and ‘dedicated, if a bit cheeky.’” He looked up. When she raised hershoulders in a shrug, his expression hardened. “There are some blips in yourattendance the past six months. Times when you didn’t answer your summons,showed up late to debriefings, or didn’t make an appearance at routine,required meetings. When your interrogators asked your whereabouts, you gave nocomment.”
Sixmonths ago. That’s when this had started. That’s when she’d met Jevan andbecome a fool.
“Youstill have no comment?” Rykus asked.
Shestared at the table. She’d deny it all if she could, but she knew better thanto try. She couldn’t speak of anything that had happened since she met Jevan.When she tried, she blacked out. No one noticed. She always stayed upright, hereyes never blinked, never lost focus, but seconds, maybe minutes passed beforeher brain started functioning again. If someone was interrogating her, theyassumed she was ignoring their questions.
“Doyou know why you were brought to the Obsidian?”Rykus asked.
Shepressed her lips together. The Coalition wanted the information her team hadcopied from the Saricean databanks on Chalos II. That had been theirassignment, and they’d completed it without a hitch. It wasn’t until after theywithdrew from the planet that Trevast, her commanding officer, had sat down andanalyzed what they’d stolen. He’d cursed. Then he’d looked at his team and toldthem telepaths existed and that they’d infiltrated the Coalition’s government.
She’dlaughed. They all had.
Telepathywas a fiction, a farce, a fabrication for the gullible. It didn’t exist.
Shelooked back at Rykus. His mouth tightened into a frown, a frown which gave herflashbacks to the harsh, hellish days training under him on Caruth. “Did youchange the encryption on the files, Lieutenant?”
Thetruth clawed at her throat. A private yacht had intercepted her team’s shuttlebefore they made it to the rendezvous point. It hadn’t broadcasted an ID or aMayday, and they hadn’t been near any mapped routes. There was only one reasonfor the yacht to be there, and when it fired upon them without any provocation,Trevast had shoved a com-cuff with the stolen data into Ash’s hands. He knewshe was an anomaly. He knew what she was capable of doing. He knew she was theonly person on the team who could re-encrypt the Sariceans’ files with adifferent cipher before their attackers boarded, and that’s exactly what she’ddone. It was in her head now, and both the Coalition and Jevan would doanything to rip it out.
“You’llbe charged with treason if you don’t cooperate.” Rykus’s words were softer thanhis expression, and the loyalty training pulled at her again. She was damn surethe medic’s bio-band was picking up the thudding of her heart. She had to getcontrol of this conversation and get rid of Rip Rykus.
Sheleaned forward as far as her restraints would allow, waited until Rykus did thesame, anticipating her confession. Their heads almost met in the center of thetable, and Ash breathed in deep, exhaled slowly.
“I’vealways loved the smell of your aftershave.”