Star Wars meets Robin Hood in USA Today bestseller Amanda Bouchet's genre-bending, sci-fi/fantasy romance!
Captain Tess Bailey and her ragtag band of thieves are wanted criminals. They steal from the “haves” to give to the “have nots.” Even though her heart is in the right place, her actions still get her into trouble – and there’s no trouble greater than the dreaded Galactic Overseer Novalight. He commands the brutal military regime that rules the known galaxies, and Tess is always on his radar.
After stealing a top-secret military laboratory and further inciting Novalight’s rage, Tess and her crew manage to escape—and miraculously survive. Docked on their new planet, Tess encounters the tall, dark, and haughty bounty hunter Shade Ganavan, who has to decide if he wants to turn them over to the Galactic Overseer and be set for life, or if the real payoff is winning Tess’s heart.
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Our heroes are back. From the USA Today bestselling author of The Kingmaker Chronicles, comes the second book in a rip-roaring space opera series about the galaxy’s most wanted
Captain Tess Bailey and Shade Ganavan never wanted to be heroes. Now, revolution is in the wind and the universe on the brink of catastrophic war. Tess, Shade, and the remaining crew of the Endeavor are still the galaxy's Most Wanted.
As their attraction builds and secrets are revealed, Tess and Shade must decide if they trust each other enough to plan their next move together. They could change the course of history…or at least bring hot water to the showers aboard the Endeavor. They'll just have to tackle one crisis at a time.
Amanda Bouchet is a USA Today bestselling author of Fantasy Romance and Sci-fi Romance. She was a Goodreads Choice Awards top 10 finalist for Best Debut in 2016. For more about Amanda's books with equal parts adventure and kissing, connect with her at www.amandabouchet.com.
She is also the author of The Kingmaker Chronicles.
Starbreaker Chapter 1
Where’s Daniel Ahern?
My leg bounced under the table as I discreetly scanned the crowded restaurant for the hundredth time. Our contact wasn’t here. Fashionably late crashed and burned a good forty minutes ago, and I was ready to take care of my own business now instead of his.
“Ahern’s not going to show,” I muttered tightly into my com.
“We don’t know that.” Shade’s deep voice rumbled softly from his wristband into my earpiece. My eyes flicked over to where he sat, meeting his honey-brown gaze from across a sea of heads and indistinct chatter. “Sit tight.”
I took a deep breath, trying to settle my jangling nerves. Movement blurred in my peripheral vision. My lungs squeezed as I darted a look at the door. A soberly dressed unsmiling trio walked in. Not who I was waiting for.
“You look like you’re about to jump out of your skin,” Shade murmured. “Act normal. Eat your soup.”
I scowled. My lunch had a better chance of landing on Shade’s head than in my stomach if he told me to eat again.
“I can’t.” My necklace picked up my almost inaudible whisper, transmitting it not only to Shade but to Jax and Fiona, who were somewhere outside, and to Merrick, who’d stayed on the ship. “We shouldn’t even be on this mission.”
Shade’s soft grunt of agreement didn’t change the fact that we were stuck. “Can’t say it seemed as though we had much of a choice.”
No, and that was just one of the weird things about it. We weren’t spies. The Endeavor wasn’t a ship housing soldiers and moles. We were Nightchasers on a big old cargo cruiser, rebels who brought food, medicine, and other supplies to people who needed it around the galaxy. This wasn’t a mission for us. So why did the head of the rebel council suddenly decide that we were the ones who needed to go meet some guy about freeing his incarcerated wife from the Dark Watch?
I toyed with my soup to look busy, little surges of adrenaline spiking inside me and keeping me on edge. I’d been here for an hour and had worked up a sweat and lost my appetite—the opposite of what you wanted in a restaurant where the food smelled so freaking good.
While Shade polished off his lunch, I used my spoon to poke at a few recognizable vegetables and what the menu called beef. Steak and beef were just generic terms for red meat these days. I didn’t know what kind of cattle—another generic term—they raised on Korabon for food. I’d never been here before, had never planned on coming. Shouldn’t be here now. Time was running out.
I set the spoon back in the bowl. A glance toward the basket of thickly sliced trigrain bread made my stomach flip over, rejecting even that. Anxiety killed my appetite as fast as a Dark Watch patrol showing up and barking out “Background checks!” to everyone in the room.
Shade sighed. “Baby, it’s more suspicious not to eat.”
I sighed back at him. “It’ll make the return trip if I try.” The few bites I’d managed weren’t sitting well. “Do you really want a soupatastrophe on your hands?”
His quick smile blazed across the room. It ignited a little flame in my chest that helped ease some of the tightness there. “Given the choice, there are other things I’d rather have in my hands.”
“I didn’t say in, I said on. There’s quite a distinction.”
“Ah. My mistake.” He wiped his mouth with his napkin, probably hiding a grin.
I mashed my lips together and forgot to be nervous for a second. I even managed a bite. Just one, though.
Shade took a moment to look at me hard. I got the message he couldn’t say out loud over the coms. Eat. Keep your strength up. He and I were the only ones who knew I’d drawn more of my unique A1 blood.
Or maybe it wasn’t that unique. Maybe these Mornavail I’d heard about were out there somewhere, healing faster and never getting sick. Like me—an evolutionary step up. And also like me, hiding from the Galactic Overseer, who wanted our blood to create an army of super soldiers.
Fun times across the eighteen Sectors. My grimace had nothing to do with my soup this time.
“My picture was just all over a database for bounty hunters. Now, you have my enormous bounty on your head. How can you eat?” We should be lying low and delivering the food we still had for the Outer Zones, not sitting in a restaurant on a highly monitored rock.
“I may be new to life in the Dark, but I’m a fast learner. Fresh food only comes around so often in a space rat’s life. It’s tragic to waste it.”
“Shade’s right,” Fiona whispered over the coms. “Eat the damn soup,” she hissed.
“Shhhh!” Jax scolded quietly.
A laugh churned inside me. Briefly, my eyes collided with Shade’s again. It was hard not to focus on him. A handsome man treating me to a meal in a not entirely shabby establishment had never happened before today. Too bad we couldn’t sit together and only one of us had an appetite.
“Fine.” I steeled myself and took a bite so that everyone would stop hounding me. “Happy?”
Shade huffed, evidently unconvinced.
I forced down another mouthful, chewing and swallowing carefully. At least my battle with the soup got my mind off Ahern. And the food would do me good. The six bags of blood I’d taken from my own veins in as many days hadn’t totally wiped me out, but I hadn’t been able to completely shake it off yet, either. Beef—or whatever this was—would help.
The two women occupying the table next to Shade’s threw him flirty glances and leaned over to ask him a question about desserts. The waitress immediately joined in, having already attempted to draw Shade into conversation twice. I got it. It wasn’t often that tall, dark, and smoldering sat alone in a restaurant.
They finally left him alone after deciding on a choco seed dessert loaf to share. The waitress went to get it.
“Wow, you really are a wanted man,” I grumbled, a hint of tartness in my voice.
Shade’s small snort vibrated over the com, tickling my eardrum. “I want their dessert.”
“You are their dessert.” He was six foot two of solid yumminess with a healthy appetite, broad shoulders, a square jaw, and scarred knuckles that said I can protect you with my bare hands. I’d even bitten him and knew for a fact he tasted good. “But trust me, neither wants to share.”
Humor sparked in his eyes, and for the first time in an hour, I forgot why we were here.
The happy lapse didn’t last. My heart kicked when the door opened again. An older couple walked in, and the waitress for my corner threw me a dirty look, clearly wanting me to get lost so she could give my table to someone who might actually eat something.
I’d love to, I growled inside my head. If Daniel Ahern would just show up.
If Ahern wanted us to rescue his scientist wife from her extended stay in the imperial prison system, he needed to get his rebel butt in here and give me his new intel before a Dark Watch patrol spotted two of the galaxy’s Most Wanted through the floor-to-ceiling windows, stormed in, and Shade and I were toast.
I chewed my lower lip, wondering what was really going on. “Why the short notice? Why us?” I murmured. We only just found out about this mission, giving us barely enough time to wrap up the ship improvements Shade had been working on in the Fold, make the jump to Korabon, dig out the old coms I kept aboard the Endeavor, and get a few hours of sleep. We’d arrived in the dead of night here and couldn’t do much else.
“Been asking myself the same questions, starshine.” Shade’s low curse told me he was still livid about not having more time to prepare. “Giving us this little to work with feels like we’re being set up to fail.”
“I don’t believe that.” I couldn’t.
The sudden attention from Loralie Harris and her rebel council didn’t surprise me, even if the last-minute nature of this odd assignment did. We’d just managed the coup of the century, stealing Overseer Novalight’s entire supply of super-soldier serum and bringing it to the rebel leaders in the Fold. We’d dealt the biggest blow in living memory to the tyrant I used to call Dad, and now we were apparently special enough to get “the good missions”—just when I needed to be left alone.
Still, that didn’t explain the lack of information or support tech. All we got from the rebel council was a picture of Ahern and a meeting place. No handy gadgets. Nothing about Korabon or the Dark Watch here. Maybe it didn’t matter. We weren’t tourists, and the military on Korabon would be like anywhere else: all over the place.
Right now, I was more worried about bounty hunters coming after my boyfriend. I probably wasn’t all that recognizable outside of Shade’s ex-circle of elite hunters. Images of the Overseer’s supposedly long-dead daughter popping up on screens across the galaxy would raise questions that even a shut up or blow up dictator might have trouble answering. But Nathaniel Bridgebane, top Dark Watch general and the Overseer’s right-hand man, had threatened to go after Shade with a vengeance—and my uncle always did what he said.
I stole a look through the windows but didn’t see Jaxon or Fiona. They’d hunkered down somewhere discreet and weren’t muddying up the coms with unnecessary chatter like we were.
My mouth puckered. I was more than ready for all of us to get back to the Endeavor.
To hell with it. There had to be a time limit on waiting for informants. I couldn’t sit here anymore, stewing in my own fear about getting where I needed to go with those six bags of blood by tomorrow, universal time, or I’d lose one of the most important people in my life. I was done here.
I wiggled a hand into my back pocket and grabbed some of the currency units Shade had handed me earlier to cover the restaurant charges. I was broke after paying for repairs on the Endeavor. Paying Shade, actually. But he was finding ways to give the money back, such as buying and installing top-notch hot-water tanks for the Endeavor’s kitchen and bathrooms and getting my room a bigger bed.
Four nights together—that was all we’d had since I decided to give Shade a second chance.
Bringing cat toys to Bonk had helped melt some of my lingering reservations after Shade nearly cashed me in to the Dark Watch. On our first day in the Fold, he’d come back from hardware shopping with a pair of rodent-shaped mechanical playthings that did tight little flips. Bonk kept presenting the now half-mangled fuzzy gray robots to me like gifts.
I caught Shade’s eye again, murmuring, “Five more minutes and I’m done.” The coins I’d counted out hit the table with a clink. I put what was left back in my pocket.
Merrick’s voice came through for the first time along with a faint crackle of static. My coms were shit—a hodgepodge of old pieces we’d connected to the same signal. “Something must’ve held Ahern up. You can’t leave until he shows.”
I shook my head in silent rejection. I could, and I would. Either Mareeka’s or Surral’s life hung in the balance while I sat in a restaurant in Koralight Crown, one of the ten most disliked cities in the galaxy—or so I’d read during my negative two seconds of prep for this.
“Easy, partner. You’ve got this.” Crazy as it seemed, Jaxon’s voice helped. I still couldn’t see him—he might be a block away or five—but I could feel him inside me, reassuring me and untangling some of the knots in my stomach. We’d been partners in prison. We were partners on the Endeavor. There was no one I trusted more than Jax.
“Just sit tight, Tess. A little longer, that’s all.” His voice lowered to the soothing tones I remembered from when I was nineteen, terrified for my life, and tossed down a mine shaft on top of him. Keeping me safe on Hourglass Mile, both above and below ground, had been the only thing that stopped Jax from totally disintegrating in the face of his grief after just having lost his wife and children. “Fi and I can see you through the windows now. We’ve got your back.”
After a slight hesitation, I gave a quick nod. It mirrored the one Shade gave me from across the restaurant, reinforcing what Jax said.
As much as I wanted to give up on Ahern, they were right. I couldn’t bail on the first job the rebel leaders had specifically assigned to my crew, even if interrupting a prison transfer was an odd choice of tasks for us. Nightchasers weren’t part of the rebel forces. More like the rebel periphery. We pursued our own missions, mostly scouring the galaxy for food and medicine. We believed in a more equitable distribution of both, even if that meant theft. We also believed in training and prep work, so being slapped with our first spy mission only hours ago and just when I needed to be somewhere else really sucked.
Shade wasn’t impressed. I’d heard him mutter earlier that poor planning and shitty gear were how alive people turned up dead.
I wiped my clammy palms on my lap. The need to move spidered down my spine and into my legs. The thought of missing my clandestine—and frankly treasonous—blood exchange with my asshole uncle was eating a hole in my hide.
How much longer do I have to wait? I didn’t want to ask. Everyone would just tell me to stay put.
Merrick would be so much better at this. He’d done some spy work for the rebellion, but then he got caught, shot up against his will with the Overseer’s experimental enhancer, and turned into a seven-and-a-half-foot-tall, faster-than-the-eye-can-blink, barrel-chested, muscle-banded super soldier who’d escaped the Dark Watch. The big black man didn’t exactly blend in.
Soft and low, Shade’s voice whispered over the com again. “You’re on, starshine.”
My head whipped up—the exact opposite of playing it cool. Daniel Ahern walked in, or a man I was ninety-nine percent sure was him. Adrenaline ripped through me. I’d been waiting for this, just wanting it to be over, but now, I didn’t feel ready in the least.
This guy fit the picture Loralie Harris had shown us in the Fold. Tall and slim, with a head of thick silver hair, a long face, and green eyes. Eyes the color of grass, according to the rebel leader. Grass colors varied from planet to planet, and a lot of places didn’t have a single blade, but when people said something like that, they meant green. Generalizations always went back to Earth. It was our one common denominator after generations of expansion across the stars.
Ahern swept a casual glance around the restaurant. Only two people dined alone. His eyes lighted on Shade first but didn’t stop. They got to me and locked on. Someone must have told him to look for a woman.
What else does he know? More than we did wouldn’t be a stretch.
He headed straight toward me, and I took him in as he walked. He was about sixty years old, distinguished-looking, and sharply but conventionally dressed. His brown suit and stiff white shirt matched the plain colors the Overseer favored, but he’d folded a rebellious red handkerchief into his breast pocket. It just peeked out and looked like a bloodstain on his chest.
I swallowed. Logically, there was no reason to fear this meeting—this wasn’t the hard part—but nerves still gripped my throat in a stranglehold.
Had someone followed him here? Could he have made a dirty deal to exchange me for his wife? What if he wasn’t who I thought, or who he said, or a friend at all? Could it all be lies? It wasn’t as though that hadn’t happened before.
I glanced at Shade, a sharp jerk yanking at my heart. I trusted only a handful of people or let them anywhere near my personal space, and Shade—the man I fell for with the speed and recklessness of a meteor on a collision course—had messed with that. In the end, he’d saved my life and was trying to make up for his deception, but sometimes, the hurt and betrayal came roaring back and knocked the air from my lungs.
The silver-haired man stopped beside my table and peered down at me with a pointed look. “It should be a fine night for stargazing.”
Considering I could barely breathe, the required response slid surprisingly easily from my tongue. “The city lights are too bright. You’d have better luck at the Mercury Tides Planetarium. I hear they have a great show.”
He nodded and pulled out a chair. “I’ll try that,” he said, sitting down across from me. “Thanks.”
I exhaled slowly and unclenched my fists, flexing my fingers under the table. I can do this.
The waitress appeared, flashing a welcoming smile at Ahern as she brought up the menu on a lightweight portable screen. He ordered a coffee, and she left with a frown. The corner table in the back wouldn’t be a profitable one for her this afternoon.
“Are you who I think you are?” Ahern asked.
That depended. Who did he think I was? “Tess Bailey,” I answered. I’d been using the name for eighteen years. I certainly wasn’t going to say Quintessa Novalight and open that whole can of worms.
Sitting back, Ahern folded his arms across his chest. “Captain of the Endeavor, right?”
He’d heard of me? And my ship? I might have blushed.
“She’s old and beat up but gets us where we need to go,” I confirmed with a nod.
The corners of his mouth lifted, a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I understand the Demeter Terre refugees can thank you for feeding them.”
In our four-and-a-half-minute briefing with the rebel leaders, we’d learned that Daniel Ahern and his wife, Reena, were DT natives. There weren’t that many left. Ahern and his wife had gone farther afield and risen in the rebel ranks, but most survivors of the Demeter Terre massacre had stuck close to their ruined home and colonized its nearby moons.
“We’re not the only ones,” I said. Plenty of Nightchasers brought food and supplies to the barely inhabitable rocks orbiting the ex-agricultural giant of Sector 18. From what I understood, Reena Ahern was the only scientist in the galaxy who’d come anywhere close to figuring out how to decontaminate Demeter Terre after the Overseer poisoned the atmosphere.
“Did you know that Sector 18 lost ninety percent of its population?” Ahern asked.
I nodded. I was too young to have lived through the final Sambian War, but I knew my history. When the imperial hammer pounded down with extreme violence and a total disregard for human life, it obliterated the strongest resistance to military rule. Sectors 17 and 18 finally fell, and the Overseer—a.k.a. thank-the-Powers-that-man-wasn’t-my-father-after-all—only stopped when my mother bargained her future and her body away for the safety of what was left of the Outer Zones.
Ahern wasn’t the only one who wanted his wife back. If Demeter Terre could produce again, Sector 18 could repopulate.
The waitress arrived with Ahern’s coffee, and we kept silent while she set it in front of him with a couple of compacted sugar disks and a self-heating tube of milk—luxuries we couldn’t afford aboard the Endeavor.
Well, maybe Shade could, but sweetening and creaming my coffee with Dark Watch earnings might ruin my favorite drink.
Ahern picked up a spoon and stirred in a bit of both milk and sugar.
He smiled at me again, seeming to sense my anxiety and wanting to put me at ease, but a bleakness remained in his features, somehow etched in. I knew enough about the DT survivors to know they didn’t sing lullabies to their children. They sang songs of revenge. But while I relished the idea of the Overseer toppling from his imperial throne probably more than just about anyone in the galaxy, I hated the idea of another generation drowning in bloodshed. That reservation had made it very hard to turn over the lab full of enhancers to the rebel leaders, despite wanting to give my friends and allies an edge in this seemingly endless fight.
“How’s the soup?” Ahern asked.
I frowned at the bowl of congealing food. What a mundane question. It seemed out of place. “Cold.”
He chuckled, erasing a decade from his face. “I apologize for being late.”
“It’s fine.” It totally wasn’t. I was a nervous wreck.
He tipped his head to one side, studying me. “My sister has three children. They’re alive thanks to you.”
My brows drew together in question. “I’m sorry… I don’t know what you mean.”
Ahern leaned forward, lowering his voice until the din of the restaurant nearly swallowed up his words. “That first haul you brought in? About five years ago? You had a few dozen cure-alls, too. You passed them over to the food coordinator on Mooncamp 1 along with a huge supply of canned goods. Said to give the shots to whoever needed them most. Said you were sorry you didn’t have more.”
I nodded. I remembered. Who forgot their first heist? It was a big one. The DT Mooncampers couldn’t believe their eyes when the never-before-seen Endeavor suddenly showed up with three cargo holds’ worth of food. With that delivery, we became Nightchasers in more than just name. I had a ship, a crew, and a purpose—everything I’d dreamed about while hacking unstable minerals from the disgusting bowels of a prison mine.
“The kids were in bad shape. My sister, too. Some kind of lung infection had gone around the DT moons and hit their household harder than most. Those vaccines saved them. Four people are still in my life thanks to you.”
The shock of heat that seared my eyes from behind took me by surprise. I blinked away the burn. I didn’t know what to say, but I was glad Jax and Fiona could hear this. “I’ve got a great crew. It’s a team effort—every time.”
Ahern acknowledged my words with a slight dip of his chin. “Then you can thank them for me also.”
A white-hot stab of grief speared me. If only I could. Half my crew was gone. Miko and Shiori weren’t listening in from the ship. Miko would never hear anything again, and we had no idea where the Overseer had locked up Shiori, or if she even lived.
I inhaled and exhaled with deliberate evenness. Emotion in. Carbon dioxide out. We needed to get to the point of all this. “I hear I can maybe help you again.”
Ahern’s cautious green gaze darted around the restaurant. No one was paying attention to us, but his voice stayed barely audible in pitch. “It’s not a transfer, like I thought. That already happened days ago, and I just found out. That’s why I was late. But I know where she’s being held. I’ve got someone on the inside who can help.”
A bad feeling sank through me. Interrupting a transfer would be easier than breaking into a prison. There was potential chaos in movement. It didn’t require sneaking into a lion’s den. “Where?”
His features tensed. Lines bracketed his mouth. “Starbase 12. Somewhere on the lower prison levels.”
I felt the blood drain from my face. He couldn’t be serious.
In my ear, the tiny com transmitted someone’s soft curse. Jax’s maybe. Shade’s eyes met mine for a startled split second. Both of us looked away fast. Reena Ahern was in the most secure place in the known universe. This was an impossible task. A death sentence. No one broke into Imperial Headquarters and lived.
I’d been there before. Of course I had. It orbited my birth planet, and the Overseer had shuttled us back and forth between Alpha Sambian and Starbase 12 all the time. Mom had hated it—said the place stank like doom. At the time, I didn’t understand what she meant. I’d liked the trips up. They got me out of our prison of a home with the basement lab where the man who was supposed to love and protect me strapped me down and stole my blood.
A boulder of sheer dread pinned me to my chair. For the first time in about eighty minutes, I stopped fidgeting and stared. “We’re supposed to break her out. How?”
Ahern drifted closer, his crisp white shirt nearly hitting the rim of his untouched coffee mug. He drummed long fingers against the table—a sound that went straight to my nervous system and exploded there. “Ten days from now, my contact will deactivate the plasma shield alarm on Landing Platform 7 at nineteen hundred hours, universal time. Slip in, slip out. The alarm will reactivate three hours later. Be out, or you’re done for.”
I gaped at him. We ran stolen food around the Dark. We pilfered cure-all vaccines from the military to give to children. Sometimes, I stole books. We’d rescued a few rebel prisoners from the Dark Watch, but that had mostly been dumb luck!
Panic surged up with an acid burn of half-digested soup. I’d made the decision to bring the enhancers to the Fold. I’d spouted off about free will and choices, trying to make sure the rebel leaders didn’t force the body-altering serum on anyone like the Overseer had. A few days later, they handed us a suicide mission. What the fuck?
My voice shook. “There must be a crew more qualified for this.”
“You’re here. I’m here.” Daniel Ahern dropped a few coins on the table for his coffee and stood. “Someone chose you, and I’m counting on you to get my wife back.”
I stared at him in utter shock. Had I condemned us all? Were the people I’d believed shared my values and ideals really no better than Simon Novalight? Ready to flatten any bump in their road without a second thought?
Ahern adjusted his suit jacket, his back to the room, his voice hushed, and his grass-green eyes cutting into me like chips of glass. “Break into Starbase 12. Bring Reena back to me. She’ll save Demeter Terre, and the Outer Zones will be free again.”
With that bold statement, he turned and strode out the door while I choked on my own dry throat and my heart pounded like the drums of war.