As the youngest member of her High House, Catarina von Hasenberg is used to being underestimated, but her youth and flighty, bubbly personality mask a clever mind and stubborn determination. Her enemies, blind to her true strength, do not suspect that Cat is a spy—which makes her the perfect candidate to go undercover at a rival House’s summer retreat to gather intelligence on their recent treachery.
Cat’s overprotective older sister reluctantly agrees, but on one condition: Cat cannot go alone. Alexander Sterling, a quiet, gorgeous bodyguard, will accompany her, posing as her lover. After Cat tries, and fails, to ditch Alex, she grudgingly agrees, confident in her ability to manage him. After all, she’s never found a person she can’t manipulate.
But Alex proves more difficult—and more desirable—than Cat anticipated. When she’s attacked and nearly killed, she and Alex are forced to work together to figure out how deep the treason goes. With rumors of widespread assaults on Serenity raging, communications down, and the rest of her family trapped off-planet, Catarina must persuade Alex to return to Earth to expose the truth and finish this deadly battle once and for all.
But Cat can’t explain why she’s the perfect person to infiltrate hostile territory without revealing secrets she’d rather keep buried.
The wineglass shattered in my hand, slicing deep into my palm and fingers. Red blood welled, but bitter disappointment overshadowed the physical pain.
Stupid, stupid girl. The silent words echoed in my father’s voice.
I should not have checked my com at the party, but communication from my brother Benedict was scarce, and I couldn’t resist. Mistake. Benedict’s latest war update painted a bleak picture, and I’d stopped paying attention just long enough to break the glass.
I’d been doing so well, but there would be no hiding this, not with blood dripping down my arm. I glanced around. I’d stepped out into the garden, away from the rest of the party, but the twilight shadows were not deep enough for me to slip away entirely. Susan, my bodyguard, watched over me from the patio, and it was only thanks to the angle that she hadn’t noticed the injury already.
There was nothing for it.
With a sigh, I tripped on the air and fell into the grass, landing with a yell. Glass shards sliced deeper and I didn’t have to fake the next pained groan.
“Lady Catarina, are you all right?” Susan shouted, her voice full of concern. She was the first to notice, as expected, despite the distance between us.
After Ferdinand’s disappearance, House von Hasenberg family members were now assigned bodyguards at all times.
Footsteps approached, and I sat up, cradling my bloody hand. Susan gasped and called for a medic from the backup security vehicle outside. “I’m okay,” I assured her, “but the wineglass didn’t survive.”
She bent down to assess the injury. Her dark suit faded into the shadows, accentuating her pale skin and blond hair. Twenty-eight and happily married, she was one of my favorite bodyguards. She met my eyes, expression worried. “What happened?”
I gave her, and the growing crowd behind her, a bright, vapid smile. “I think I must’ve had too much of House Durand’s excellent wine.”
Twitters rose from the bystanders. No one was quite brave enough to insult me to my face—I was the daughter of a High House after all—but they weren’t laughing with me, either.
Susan, who was used to my antics, didn’t bat an eye, and that was somehow worse than the pitying looks from the crowd. I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t this person, that I’d built this facade when I didn’t know any better and now I was trapped.
But of course I couldn’t.
So I smiled while the medic extracted the glass from my hand and slathered it in regeneration gel. And I smiled as I moved through the crowd of vicious gossips who barely veiled their clever slights behind concerned looks and condescending advice.
At twenty-one, I was the youngest von Hasenberg heir. People thought that made me gullible, so I played into the narrative. I flitted from group to group, bubbly and shallow, more concerned with fashion and shopping than war and treachery. It was an exaggeration of my normal personality, but some days the mask was harder to wear than others.
Lately it had been harder still, especially when I could clearly hear the whispers that trailed in my wake.
None of them were kind.
It didn’t help that I remained stuck here on Earth while all of my siblings went gallivanting off across the universe. They insisted on treating me like a child, never mind that I was an adult in my own right. I loved them to death, but they were smothering me.
Every day the thought of getting in my ship and pointing it at a distant planet grew more and more appealing. Only honor, duty, and love kept me earthbound. We’d all worried after Ada had left, and while her story had turned out for the best, I didn’t want to put my brothers and sisters through another round of anxiety.
Not yet, not when everything was so unstable.
So I stayed at the party, because socializing was the one thing I was good at. I mingled, and laughed, and ignored the barbs. And if it all felt empty and hollow, I ignored that, too. House Durand was an ally, and we needed all the allies we could get while at war. I was here to strengthen that relationship.
It was all I could do.
Two days later, I felt like a spring that was wound too tight. My hand had healed, thanks to the regeneration gel, and I hadn’t had any more accidents, but I couldn’t settle. Enclosed in my private office, I paced and worried. I’d designed the space to be soothing, with pale green walls and antique wooden furniture, but right now it felt oppressive.
After months of careful planning, everything was finally coming together, with one tiny exception—I still had to tell my sister Bianca what I’d done. I’d scheduled breakfast with her, so at least I wouldn’t have to carry this anxiety all day. Not that the rest of my schedule was any better. After Bianca, I had to face one of Mother’s official House brunches.
One thing at a time.
I tucked away my restlessness and painted on the face I showed the outside world, then smoothed a hand down my pink-and-blue polka-dot dress. It flared around my knees and made me look young and carefree. My wardrobe tended toward bright colors as a distracting visual camouflage.
I checked my smile in the hallway mirror on my way out. There was too much tension around my eyes. I blinked and tried again. Better.
I didn’t really look like a von Hasenberg. My four oldest siblings had all taken after our father, with strong features, ruddy skin, and light brown hair. Ada and I had taken after our mother, with more delicate features, golden skin, and dark brown hair. Ada had also inherited Mother’s blue-gray eyes, but mine were a more common golden brown.
I joked that my five older siblings had used up all of the good genes, a joke that hit a little too close to home considering how sick I’d been as a child, but I liked the anonymity of not being immediately recognized as a member of my House.
My reflected smile turned wry. I was never anonymous, not really, but sometimes it was nice to pretend.
I continued down the short hallway to the living room. If my office was an oasis of calm, my living room was a riot of color. The walls were white, but large, colorful abstract prints adorned them. My furniture was all brightly hued. A lime green sofa, orange chair, and purple tables somehow formed a beautiful, cohesive design. The interior decorator I’d hired had earned every credit I’d paid her.
This was my public face, shown even to the few friends who were close enough to get to see the inside of my suite. We were all liars, to one degree or another.
Susan waited for me in the hallway outside, wearing her trademark dark suit, today paired with a pale pink shirt. “Going out, Lady Catarina?”
“I am heading to breakfast with Bianca, but I want to stop by a coffee shop on the way.”
She inclined her head in agreement and silently fell in behind me. I liked her because she always instinctively seemed to know if I wanted to be left alone with my thoughts or if I wanted idle chatter to fill the silence.
We stepped outside and I let my gaze drift over the city. Serenity, the headquarters of the Royal Consortium and the only inhabited city on Earth, was just beginning to wake, bathed in the brilliant gold of early morning sunlight.
The city was laid out in a circle and each High House owned a quarter. The quarters were divided into sectors starting from the middle. The Royal Consortium government buildings were in the very center, colloquially called Sector Zero. The family residence for each quarter took up the entirety of Sector One. The other nine sectors contained shops, offices, residences, and all of the amenities found in a large city.
The closer the sector was to the center of the circle, the more expensive it was to live and work there. Also, the buildings closer to the middle tended to be shorter, driving up prices even more due to the lack of supply. It made for an interesting view as the city grew taller and taller in the distance. Sector Ten was almost entirely skyscrapers over a hundred stories tall.
I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and let the warmth of the sun shrink my worries back into manageable sizes. There were some benefits to being stuck on a planet.
And being able to go outside was a major one. I spent a lot of time outdoors because my earliest memories were of the white walls and locked windows of a medical center. As a child, I’d spent hours staring wistfully out of the small window in my room. I’d been sickly, despite the nanobots in my blood that were supposed to keep me well, and I still carried side effects from my numerous treatments.
I masked the side effects, like I masked my true personality, but these secrets were much more important to keep.
I opened my eyes with a sigh. Secrets and lies seemed to be all I dealt in these days. It was exhausting.
Susan and I entered the House transport, and I set the destination for Bianca’s favorite coffee shop. The transport lifted into the air with the familiar, soothing thrum of the engine.
My mind drifted and landed on the exact thing it shouldn’t: the unknown man at the club last night. My best friend, Ying Yamado, had persuaded me to go out with her, and I’d caught sight of him as soon as we walked in the door.
A stranger was hardly unusual, but this man had been captivating. Powerfully built and radiating quiet confidence, he was likely a soldier on leave. He wasn’t my usual type, but I’d been drawn to him like a moth to flame. I’d caught sight of him a few times, but before I’d worked up the courage to go say hello, he’d vanished.
And now my mind was stuck on him.
I acknowledged the attraction and then let the thought go. He wasn’t for me, not even for a night. It took a while, but I let him drift from my thoughts and focused on centering myself for the day to come.
By the time we landed, I felt calmer. It wouldn’t last, but I’d take what I could get.