Trial and Temptation Now Available at Amazon (and first chapter excerpt)

Posted by on October 18th, 2014 in Excerpts / Freebies | 7 Comments

TrialAndTemptationCoverAs the headline says, the second book in the Mandrake Company series, Trial and Temptation, is now available at Amazon.

I’ve decided to try out Amazon’s KDP Select/Kindle Unlimited programs with this title, because it offers some book-promotion benefits, so it’s only going to be available there for the next 90 days. (Amazon requires exclusivity for books that are enrolled in KDP Select.)

For those who read the first book from another platform and don’t shop at Amazon, I’m still offering free review copies of Book 2 to anyone who leaves a review of the first and sends me the link (email: rubylionsdrake@gmail.com).

Book 3, which will be out in early November, will be available on all platforms. It’s a more direction sequel to the first, as well, giving us Jamie’s story and a little more with Ankari, Viktor, and the pink shuttle. 😉

But in the meantime, here’s the blurb and the first chapter of Book 2 in case you’re interested (a lot of the characters from the first show up in this one too):

After ten years of flying freighter ships from planet to planet, Val Calendula never thought she would apply for a job as a combat pilot in a mercenary outfit. But her brother has gotten himself into financial trouble, and he’s heading to a mining prison if Val can’t pay off his debts. Mercenaries don’t always live long… but they make good money while they’re alive. A few combat bonuses, and Val could earn what she needs. The problem? She might have graduated from the military flight academy, but she hasn’t fought anything more dangerous than dust bunnies on the bridge lately. To make matters worse, the man in charge of hiring pilots was her instructor back at the academy. Commander Thatcher was almost as brilliant as he was arrogant and condescending, and he never seemed to think Val was smart enough to be there. She has no idea if she’ll be able to convince him otherwise now… or if she’ll be able to stand working with him.

 When Gregor Thatcher left the military, he never expected to run into any of his former acquaintances, much less the one he admired and mooned over during his two years teaching at the academy. Back then, he never told Val Calendula he cared for her, partially because officers weren’t supposed to have relations with cadets, but mostly because he didn’t know how to speak of his feelings. He might not have any trouble grasping navigational mathematics and astrodynamics, but people are more problematic. Gregor is elated that Val has entered his life again, but he’s fairly certain she hates him. Worse, he’s responsible for deciding whether she’s qualified to be a combat pilot. How can he judge fairly when his tongue tangles and idiotic words come out of his mouth whenever she’s around?

When the captain sends Val and Gregor on a mission to pick up a military advisor and deliver him to a planet at war, Val hopes she’ll have an opportunity to prove herself capable of the piloting position. Gregor hopes he’ll have the opportunity to improve Val’s opinion of him. But when the military advisor goes missing, and they’re forced to divert to a dangerous moon base, the mission turns into a fight for survival. Val may learn too late that there’s more to Gregor than that aloof exterior… and that inside is a man she could love. 

Chapter 1

Val Calendula had no reason to be nervous. She knew how to fly. She’d been doing it for more than ten years. And yet… a bead of sweat slithered down her ribcage, and her hands shook slightly. Under normal conditions, she wouldn’t be nervous, but she was piloting an unfamiliar shuttlecraft under the watchful eyes of three mercenaries. All right, only one of the mercenaries was watching closely, from the seat next to hers. The other two were strapped into the passenger seats in the back, commenting on some sexually suggestive game they had picked up on the station. Or maybe it was an innocent game that they were making sexually suggestive.

“Hit that, and you get to slide right up into her tunnel of love.”

“Oh, yeah, and she’s open and ready for you too. Slicker than a lubed impact wrench.”

It was just like being back in the military. Nothing to be nervous about.

Except these weren’t Galactic Conglomeration soldiers. They were mercenaries. They might or might not keep things on a professional level. Mandrake Company had a reputation for being an honorable outfit, but she had never encountered them personally.

“What are you two playing back there?” Lieutenant Sequoia asked.

He was the one watching Val’s fingers as they danced lightly across the control panel—actually, they were dancing with all of the grace of elephants crammed into a cargo hold, and she kept leaving sweat marks on the switches. She hoped he hadn’t noticed that.

“Star Fighter’s Revenge, sir.”

“I have that game,” Sequoia said. “I don’t remember a tunnel of love on any of the levels.”

“We got an, ah, enhanced version.” Both men snickered.

Val smiled. The banter was starting to relax her, however coarse it might be. Until the lieutenant frowned at a display to the left of her seat and above her head. “Are you keeping an eye on the fuel mix ratio? I know most ships handle all of that manually, but these combat shuttles can be finicky. The ratio has to be precise.”

“Yes, sir,” Val said, falling into the old habit of calling officers sir, even though she had been a civilian for the last eight years. If she got the job—and oh how she needed this job—she would have to “sir” everyone again, at least those of higher rank, and she doubted she would get much rank based on the two years she had spent in the fleet after the academy. “I mean, I wasn’t, but it’s because I was expecting that display to be down here on the panel. I’ll watch it more closely now.”

“Hm.”

She tried not to wince at the faint disapproving note in that single syllable.

“What do you think, sir?” one of the gamers asked. “The girl got what it takes to fly with us? More important than that, she going to be able to land in the shuttle bay without ripping a door off?”

Val held back an indignant sniff. The hatch was in the back, so she’d really have to choke the landing to knock it off. Maybe he was worried about the door to the Albatross’s shuttle bay.

“We’ll see,” Sequoia said neutrally.

She tried not to find condemnation in his tone. She was qualified for this job. Mostly. She had graduated from the GalCon flight academy. So what if it had been ten years ago, and she’d been piloting clunky freighters through the extremely boring and extremely safe inner-system shipping lanes since then? So what if this was a mercenary outfit, and she’d never been in a real battle? Her résumé couldn’t have been worse than any of the others turned in, or she wouldn’t have been invited to come aboard for an interview with the flight commander.

“She’s got a tree name,” the other gamer said. “The captain’ll take her.”

Neither Val’s first name—Valerian—nor her last had anything to do with trees, but she didn’t correct the man. She knew what he meant. She had been born on the now-destroyed druid-dominated world of Grenavine, and Mandrake Company had a reputation for being a refuge for some of its inhabitants, those who had been off-world when it had been annihilated, and those who had skills useful to the mercenaries. Captain Mandrake himself was a native. That was why she had submitted her résumé. No need to mention that she had submitted it to three other outfits—and been rejected—before learning that Mandrake Company existed.

“I hope so,” the other mercenary said. “We need more tits on board. Way too many dicks roaming the halls.”

“Striker,” the lieutenant said, “it’d be nice if you could be a little less crude, given that there’s a lady present, one we’re hoping might want to stick around and work with us.”

“Sorry, sir.” The man—Striker—lowered his voice and asked his comrade, “What should I have said? Breasts and penises?”

Sequoia sighed.

They flew out of the station’s shadow, and the mercenary vessel came into sight, so Val stopped paying attention to the banter. The winged, gunmetal-gray craft, with its sleek predatory visage, looked more like a bird of prey than an albatross, but maybe the name had some historical significance.

She was more worried about the shuttle bay door than the ship itself, and her eyes fixated on that. She forced herself to check the instruments again, making the adjustments the computer suggested and nudging the starboard thrusters to line up the approach. A pilot who wanted to show off might ignore the computer, but she doubted the lieutenant would give her demerits for choosing safety over a chance to demonstrate her skills. Besides, she wasn’t that confident in her ability to show off in a craft she had never flown before. She was still surprised Sequoia had pointed her to the pilot’s seat two minutes after meeting her, but she supposed it made sense that her “interview” would start right away.

The lieutenant waved at a comm-patch on the front of his brown leather jacket. “Bridge, this is Charlie Shuttle. Requesting permission to land.”

“You bring back those chocolate tarts from the bakery on Level Three?” a man asked.

“If I said no, would you let us land?”

“Hell no, I’d send your skinny ass back to the station with my boot print embedded in it.”

After Val made a few more adjustments, the craft came in under one of the ship’s wings, facing the shuttle bay straight on. It hadn’t been established whether the chocolate tarts had been acquired or not, but the doors opened, nonetheless. Other shuttles were parked inside, locked down in the anti-grav environment. They made for very large and very solid obstacles that she would have to maneuver around.

Val wiped her hands on her trousers, saw Sequoia watching out of the corner of his eye, and placed them firmly back on the controls. She guided the craft through the doors without trouble. Good. Almost there.

“Take Dock Two,” Sequoia said, waving toward the port side.

Applying the minimum thrust, Val turned them in that direction. Her hand twitched when she spotted the shuttlecraft in Dock One. It was pink. What the hell? The rest of the shuttles were the same gunmetal gray as the exterior of the ship, just like everything else in the bay, including the walls themselves.

Her twitch caused the tail to swing farther inward than she intended. She rushed to correct the mistake before they scraped against anything, but flushed in mortification, anyway. This was a simple, simple task. If she couldn’t dock a shuttle in ideal conditions, they wouldn’t believe she could fly one in combat.

Sequoia didn’t comment, but she knew he had noticed. Maybe he would attribute it to nerves. Or maybe he knew how shocking that bright pink shuttle was; she wagered everyone jerked in surprise when they saw it.

Fortunately, Val landed the craft without further mishaps. She forced herself to calmly unfasten her harness and face the lieutenant, not slump down in her seat with palpable relief.

“A little rusty, eh?” Sequoia asked.

Val thought about making an excuse and blaming the pink aberration, but he was probably referring to her whole flight out here. “It’s been a long time since I’ve flown anything except a freighter,” she admitted. “But I can get used to the maneuverability of these shuttles. I trained on all sorts of combat craft in the fleet.” No need to mention that she’d had no real-life combat experience…

“We’ll see what Commander Thatcher says.” Sequoia thumped her on the shoulder and stood up. “Get the door, will you? Looks like the air’s back on, and if I don’t deliver those tarts to the bridge, I’ll be in danger of being taped to my bunk tonight.”

Val’s mind had frozen at the name Thatcher, and she barely heard the rest. She’d trained under a Lieutenant Commander Thatcher back at the academy. The man had been an irritating, arrogant know-it-all, and he had looked for every excuse he could find to fail her. More than once, he’d told her that she should give up on the academy and consider civilian freighters or transport vessels. That pompous ass. Just because he had been some child prodigy who had blown up his first enemy before he’d been old enough for a ground vehicle license on his own world, that hadn’t given him the right to be such an aloof bastard.

“Calendula?” Sequoia frowned. “The door?”

“Sorry, sir,” she blurted, slamming a hand down on the release much harder than needed.

All three men were frowning at her now. But the hatch dropped open, turning into a ramp, and they trudged out, hopefully forgetting about her.

“Get yourself together, Val,” she muttered. “There’s no way it’s the same person.”

Thatcher had been a decorated officer in the fleet; it would be nothing short of shocking to find him working for some smudgy mercenary company skulking about the outer planets.

Val tucked a wayward lock of brown hair behind her ear, stood, and straightened her blouse. She took a deep breath, headed down the ramp, and turned toward the shuttle bay’s exit. She almost crashed into someone waiting by the end of the shuttle. Sequoia was her first thought, but this was another mercenary, a lean angular-faced man in his mid-thirties, one she recognized immediately even if it had been ten years since her classes at the academy. His dark brown eyes bored into her, as cool and aloof as ever.

Oh, hells. Please let him not remember her. Please…

“Lieutenant Calendula,” he said, his tone stiff, almost robotic. A lot of cadets had mused that he might be a cyborg, even if the religious fundamentalists had succeeded in scaring almost everyone out of having such operations done in recent centuries. “Follow me.”

Lieutenant Calendula. He had used her military rank, not a civilian designation. Her shoulders slumped. He remembered her.

* * *

The briefing room was about what Val had expected from a mercenary ship—Spartan with bland furnishings, friction-mat flooring, and a lot more gray—but the big wooden table, with thick, timeworn boards was a pleasant surprise. Her interviewer was a less pleasant surprise.

As she sat, she fought the urge to fidget, even though she felt like an eighteen-year-old kid again, one about to be lectured or disciplined by an overbearing instructor. She wondered if Commander Thatcher was as shocked to see her as she was to see him. He would have had more warning—surely he had seen all of the pilots’ applications—but he might not have been certain she would be the same person he had taught at the academy. Granted, only a Grenavinian would have a name like Valerian Calendula, and there were precious few Grenavinians left in the galaxy. But had he ever believed they would cross paths again? Or maybe he didn’t even remember her, beyond some vague sense that she might have passed through his classes once or twice. But no, he’d had an eidetic memory, hadn’t he? Maybe that, like the cyborg tidbit, had only been a rumor, but she had never caught him forgetting anything, that was certain.

Whatever he was thinking now, it didn’t show in his dark eyes. His expression probably hadn’t changed in ten years. He might be handsome, his pressed gray shirt and black jacket fitting nicely, but nothing about his aloof expression suggested he would appreciate a snuggle buddy now and then. His short black hair was precisely trimmed and combed, not a single strand out of place. Doubtlessly, he never sweated nor grew flustered and ran his fingers through it.

“Cadet Calendula,” he said. It had been lieutenant in the shuttle bay. Already demoting her, was he? “If you are accepted into the unit, you can expect rank and pay commensurate with your experience and with the position that requires filling, but you will be known as a cadet or trainee during this week of assessment. You will address me, the captain, and every other officer as sir.”

Val wanted to roll her eyes. No kidding.

He looked at her steadily. By the moons of Grenavine, was he waiting for a “sir” now?

“Yes, sir,” she said. That was a lot harder to bite out than it had been ten years ago. She had been the captain and pilot of her own destiny for too long. Even if she had always had to answer to the freighter owners and the customers shipping their goods, they had rarely walked around with sticks lodged up their butts, demanding sirs and ma’ams. Maybe because they had known they wouldn’t get such honorifics from the jaded legions of freighter pilots, most too busy complaining about the cost of fuel, the threat of pirates, and their irregular bowel movements to be bothered with courtesy.

Thatcher’s forehead wrinkled slightly. Maybe that hadn’t been the response he had wanted after all. She raised her brows, inviting him to expand or clarify. Instead, he looked at some display hovering above his tablet, the back fuzzed out to her, since it was in privacy mode.

“We don’t have a flight simulator chamber here,” Thatcher said, “but we do have some training goggles. For the most part, you’ll work side-by-side on the bridge with Lieutenant Sequoia this week. He will act as your mentor and report back to me on your progress and aptitude for learning this ship. If you pilot sufficiently, you will also be run through combat maneuvers on the shuttles.”

“So you won’t actually be teaching me anything yourself?” Val probably shouldn’t have asked that question out loud, but not having him around, commenting and correcting, would be a good thing. Sequoia seemed all right. Not cold and rigid at least. This should make the process less stressful.

“I am working on a project for the captain, so my time will be divided this week. I will monitor when I’m able.”

Goody.

“Do you have further inquiries?” Thatcher asked.

Further inquiries. What a stiff. “Will I be getting paid during this trial period?”

“Room and board will be provided.”

“So that’s a no, huh?” Val hadn’t expected any differently, but she was all too aware of the time limit looming amongst the stars. She only had a few months to earn what she needed to pay back her brother’s debtors and keep him from being sent to Daru Mack. For a quiet, scrawny kid like him, the mines would be a death sentence.

“Cadet Calendula, your record shows that you had a steady job only three weeks ago,” Thatcher said. “Given a simple financial plan and a moderately responsible adherence to budget, your eight years of freighter work should have left you with enough money to cover fiscal obligations.”

Which she had managed just fine when she’d had only herself to take care of. If Yarrow had come to her sooner, she would have had enough in savings to help him, but he’d waited far too long to admit to his problem. Something Val wasn’t eager to tell her new commander about. Complaining about family members wasn’t appropriate, and she didn’t want to disparage her brother, anyway. He’d had it hard after their world had been destroyed; all of the survivors had.

“I’m sorry,” Val said. “I didn’t know being moderately responsible with money was going to be a requirement for this job.”

Being sarcastic to one’s boss probably wasn’t appropriate, either, so she threw in a smile. Maybe that would make the words seem less obnoxious. She’d been told once she had a sexy smile. Of course, the one doing the telling had been one of those old freighter captains, the ones complaining about their bowels. It was hard to take them seriously. Still, she didn’t usually have trouble finding someone to go home with if she was in the mood for some meaningless fun during a stopover on a station.

That faint wrinkle returned to Thatcher’s forehead, the one that always suggested he found people puzzling and distasteful creatures.

“Look, I’m ready to start anytime,” Val said. “I’m a hard worker. I’m responsible on the job even if money’s been a problem lately. You won’t regret giving me a chance here.”

“Of course I won’t.” His statement might have given her hope, except he added, “It was the captain’s decision to give you a chance.”

She snorted and almost asked if it was because of her heritage, but decided she didn’t want to know. Even if she had sought out Mandrake Company because of shared roots, it hadn’t been because she had been hoping for a break… not exactly. She had found the idea of working with people from her old homeland appealing. Besides, she’d like to think her record was satisfactory enough to stand on its own.

“If you are permanently hired,” Thatcher said, “you will then be paid regularly and you will be eligible for combat bonuses.”

Yes, she was counting on those combat bonuses. The base pay itself was much better than she had earned hauling freight—even if she was about to have to endure daily hours of physical training that hadn’t been a part of her life for a long time—but she would need more than that to keep her brother from going from jail to the mines. Oh, Yarrow. Life wasn’t supposed to work out this way…

“After one year of employment,” Thatched continued, “you’ll be added to the pool and can expect a percentage of earnings when the payout is greater than the costs of maintenance, repairs, and salaries.”

“A share in the company, essentially.”

“Yes.”

If that was a year out, she had better not speculate on that money now. “Anything else?” Val nudged her duffel bag with her boot. The ship’s cycle wasn’t synced with the station’s, and it was well after midnight to her body.

“You’ll share Cabin 37 with Private Sahara. It’s on Deck Three.” Thatcher touched something on his tablet. “I’m sending you maps, ship’s rules, pilots’ rules, and meal acquisition data now.”

Meal acquisition data… Who said these things? “Not going to offer to take me on a tour of the ship and show me the sights in person, sir?”

“You would not find the map preferable?”

To spending time with him, yes. But what kind of commander didn’t at least find some off-shift private to give the new person a tour? “Well, I don’t know anyone here, sir.”

He looked at her… in confusion? His utterly bland expression was so similar to his perplexed expression. It was hard to tell.

“It’d be nice to be introduced to people,” Val added, in case he truly was perplexed. Hell, maybe he couldn’t imagine someone wanting to do anything except running off to one’s own cabin to familiarize oneself with one’s new home digitally. And alone. She’d never known anything about his social life when he’d been instructing cadets, but given his aloofness, maybe he hadn’t had one.

“I sent a roster of the ship’s personnel, as well, but if you wish a tour and introductions, that can be arranged.” The words came out calmly and confidently, but he gave her that little perplexed I-can’t-figure-you-out look again. “Do you wish me to give it?”

Hell, no. “Never mind, sir. I’ll ask the roommate you mentioned.” A roommate, after having an entire freighter ship to herself on most runs. Wouldn’t this be fun? “If there’s nothing else…?” She picked up the duffel and hefted it over her shoulder.

“Only one other matter.” Thatcher frowned at her—at her chest specifically. “Captain Mandrake insists that a uniform isn’t necessary for a mercenary company with little more than a hundred soldiers.” Something it sounded like he didn’t approve of… “However, this crew is ninety percent male, some with felonious pasts. You may wish to dress less revealingly.”

Revealingly? Val gaped at him. The only skin showing was that of her face, neck, and her hands. Yes, her breasts filled out her blouse nicely, and maybe the garment was the teensiest bit snug in that area, and maybe she didn’t have all of the buttons done up, but she had butt-hugger skirts and shirts that dipped to her belly button. This was chaste by most people’s standards.

“You’re saying the crew won’t be able to keep from pawing me if I don’t wear a bag? Aren’t there rules against that?” Val held up her own tablet, which had presumably received his files by now.

“There are rules forbidding physical contact. Verbal crudeness is rarely punished.” His lips pursed with… disapproval? That was mostly how things had been in the GalCon military, too, but maybe he found the mercenaries more savage and lawless in comparison. So, what had caused him to leave his cushy teaching job to come here, then?

No, she didn’t care. About his past or about him. The sooner she got away from his uncomfortable presence and went about proving herself capable for this job, the better.

“Thanks for the tip, sir.” Val didn’t bother to add a smile to soften her sarcasm that time.

She wished she could think of some advice to give him on his clothing choice, but his boots were shined, his trousers pressed, and not so much as a wrinkle or a piece of hair plagued his shirt or jacket. Sighing, she walked out the door and strode down the corridor, only to realize she had no idea where she was going. She pulled out her tablet.

“You would not find a map more preferable?” she mocked in his stiff formal tone, then glanced over her shoulder to make sure he hadn’t come out after her. He was going to be her commander here if she got the job. She had better keep the attitude to a minimum. Or at least do her best to avoid him.

Chapter 2

Commander Gregor Thatcher had not handled that interview well. He had struggled all of his life to grasp the emotions of others, but in this case, he was certain he had annoyed Val Calendula.

Cadet Calendula, he corrected. He should not think of her by first name, even if he wished to do so. She had not invited any such familiarity, and they were once again in a commander-subordinate relationship.

Strange that the attraction he had felt for her ten years ago should come back and hit him with such force. But perhaps it was not. He forgot little, and he vividly remembered what had drawn him to her back then. She had possessed neither great athleticism, great intelligence, nor great aptitude for flying, but she had never given up and had persevered at the academy despite facing challenge after challenge that had come easily for her more gifted peers. And all right, he might have been drawn to her fine physical attributes, as well. Not the lithe leanness of a born athlete, as many who chose a soldier’s life seemed to have, but feminine curves that had bounced delightfully when she ran the obstacle course at the training compound. She had a pretty and lively face, with dimples that flashed when she smiled and gray-blue eyes that reminded him of the sea on a stormy day back on his home world of Paradise.

Unfortunately, the only smile she had ever given him had been less than sincere. He had always struggled to understand sarcasm when he had been a student and even later as a young officer, but the last five years with Mandrake Company, surrounded with the sharp-tongued and irreverent, he had honed his talent for reading it. What he hadn’t honed was his ability to keep people from resorting to it as a natural response to dealing with him. His rank insulated him somewhat, but he was not deaf. He heard the jokes issued at his expense. The crew might appreciate his expertise at the helm—he had saved the entire ship from certain calamity on more than one occasion—and they even gave him a thump on the back from time to time, but they would never truly be comfortable around him, just as he struggled to find ease when in their presence.

He had certainly struggled to find ease with Cadet Calendula. He had been flummoxed by her beauty—that damnably alluring shirt and the unsubtle hint as to what lay beneath it!—and by his own feelings, feelings he had never dared show when he had been the instructor and she the student. Not that she would have reciprocated them back then, regardless. She had never seemed to appreciate his attempts to advise her, though he had been eager to offer pertinent tips to help her improve. She had seemed horrified when he had offered to put together a remedial study group in which she might participate. At the time, he had been mystified by her disinterest in accepting help from him, for he excelled in all areas of mathematics and piloting, core subjects at the academy. Was he not a logical choice as an offerer of input? Only later in life, during his infrequent and always awkward attempts to woo the opposite sex, had he learned that women sometimes put feelings toward a person ahead of practicality, and that not all of them found his blunt logic appealing.

Unfortunately, if her frostiness today was any indication, nothing had changed for her in the intervening years. She still saw him as… an irritation to be dealt with. Perhaps her disinterest in him would make things easier, since it would be inappropriate for him to pursue a relationship with a trainee recruit seeking a job under his command. Even later, if she was hired, it would be a dubious situation.

Ah, but his concern was premature. She had to pass the assessment first.

Gregor’s comm-patch chimed. Before he could activate the two-way signal, the captain’s words sounded. “I need a skilled pilot who can defy gravity, dodge missiles, and who can be trusted to be discreet about a secret mission. You have any recommendations, Thatcher?”

Gregor frowned. He was the company’s most skilled pilot, as his flight record and biannual proficiency tests proved, but if the captain wished a recommendation, would it be inappropriate to put himself forward for the mission? The idea of passing it up did not sit well with him, but after his difficulty in communicating with Cadet Calendula, he felt more tentative than usual in regard to social situations. To err on the side of inoffensive would be prudent. “Nobody can defy gravity, but Lieutenant Sequoia is qualified for many piloting tasks, Captain. I have not spent time with him outside of work hours, but I have also not heard reports of failings in regard to discretion.”

“I’m talking about you, Thatcher. You still in the briefing room? I’ll be there in thirty seconds.”

Gregor’s frown deepened. If the captain had meant him, why hadn’t he said so? He was a man who usually spoke bluntly, and rarely employed levity. Gregor appreciated that about him. Perhaps this new… blitheness had something to do with his acquisition of that civilian girlfriend. Gregor hadn’t spoken with the woman often but knew she was responsible for the pink shuttlecraft in the bay. Granted, the captain had leased the shuttle to her for her business, but Gregor couldn’t help but feel affronted at the color. Spacecraft deserved more seriousness, more respect.

The door slid open, and Captain Mandrake strode in. As usual, he wore no sign of rank, and his long brown leather jacket and black and beige clothing were of a civilian style. But between his hard, grim face, scarred hands, broad shoulders, and the sureness with which he carried himself, he had the aura of a veteran soldier. People never questioned that he was in charge, whether they were familiar with the company or not.

“Sit,” he said, though he leaned against the wall himself, folding his arms across his chest. Whatever humor he had been attempting to practice earlier was not evident on his face now.

This made Gregor more comfortable, and he perched on the edge of a chair, leaning forward attentively. Thoughts of Cadet Calendula drifted out of his mind as he wondered what mission was coming up that could challenge his skills. He was always eager to do so, whether it meant pitting himself against a single pilot or a squadron.

“I’ve just accepted a new assignment,” the captain said. “We’ll be flying to Icesphere—you’re aware of the world’s status?”

“A glacial planet on the edge of the habitable zone, it has two major continents Orenka and Malbak. Their respective governments have been warring off and on for generations over the ore and gems in the tunnels where the majority of the population dwells. In recent years, Orenka, the larger continent, has grown more aggressive, perhaps in response to particularly rich new veins discovered deep within Malbak’s land mass.”

“Yes, the war has been bloody these last two years, with space forces being brought in as well as ground troops. The Orenkans have decided to hire mercenaries in an attempt to finally finish off their enemies. The Death Rush Fleet.”

Gregor had expected to hear that they had been hired, but he quickly deduced the captain’s next words. “We are to fight against them.”

He held back a frown. Aside from the shuttles, Mandrake Company had a single ship, and it focused more often on smaller missions that might require a couple of squadrons of well-trained soldiers, rather than getting involved with planet-scale attacks or defenses. They had occasionally turned the tide in wars, but usually by stealth, kidnapping, and assassination rather than by confronting armies. Even Gregor’s piloting skills would be tested if he had to dodge an entire fleet.

“Ostensibly,” the captain added.

Ah, so there was more to it than first suggested. Not surprising. Mandrake wasn’t one to throw his people against an artillery line for no reason. Or even with a reason.

“The Albatross and I and most of the company will appear to engage Death Rush, but we’ll be providing a distraction for a pilot to pick up an important person from the space base orbiting the planet. Our pilot—you—will then deliver this person to a protected location on Malbak. Their own military won’t send a ship up, because they’re worried it would be watched and shot out of the air. Though the Malbakians hope to keep this all a secret, this passenger grew up on the planet and his return won’t be unexpected. The Orenkans will want to ensure he doesn’t arrive, even if it means risking pissing off the GalCon army.”

“Am I allowed to know who it is?” Gregor asked.

“Admiral Douglas Summers.”

Gregor sucked in a surprised breath. Summers was a legendary strategist. Thatcher had studied his mission briefs at the academy and read all of his publications in the intervening years, since so much of it applied to space flight. Summers had been a pilot himself before being recruited to the command track. Gregor had never thought to meet the man. When he had been in the fleet, he would have considered it a great honor. He would still consider it an honor, except… now he was a mercenary, not a respected GalCon officer. If the admiral knew that he had walked away from the fleet for this life, what would he think? That Gregor was a failure? A coward? No, he had resigned his commission while he had been on leave, not during the heat of battle. No one would think him a coward, but… to give up all he’d had for this, what would the admiral think?

“Will the mission be a problem?” The captain was watching his face.

Gregor didn’t know what his face had been doing, but he straightened in the chair and smoothed his features. “No, sir.”

“You can take some men along and another pilot, in case there’s trouble. The pick-up shouldn’t be problematic, but getting down to the planet and dropping Summers off may be challenging. We’ll take a look at the aerial deployment before I send you out, but you’ll probably need to go in at night and dodge some bogeys.”

“I understand, sir.”

“Good.” The captain pushed away from the wall but paused before leaving. “You get the new pilot trainee on board?”

“Yes, sir. She’ll need to be tested thoroughly to ensure she’ll meet company standards, but she went through the flight academy several years ago. She should be able to fly a combat shuttle and the Albatross, as well. That’s why I selected her.” Yes, it had nothing to do with the fact that he had known her and had once spent much time fantasizing about her saucy smirk and her alluring physical attributes. He swallowed, hoping Mandrake didn’t question him further on this topic. He would not care to lie, both because he respected the captain and wanted to deal honestly with him and because he was abysmal at lying.

“Calendula is the name?” the captain asked.

Gregor blinked, surprised he had remembered. He had glanced at the résumés Gregor had given him and waved in approval, but he had also said that selecting a new pilot was in Gregor’s hands. The captain had given the impression that he wouldn’t particularly care until someone had been selected, most likely because Gregor had already interviewed and dismissed seven prospects—amazing how many would-be pilots had such meager grasps of the academics of flight. One impertinent young man had even proclaimed that flying was like scratching an itch—he might not know what caused the itch, but he could always satisfy it. Gregor didn’t even know what that meant, but the man had been far too much of a bumpkin to trust at the helm.

“Yes, sir. Valerian Calendula. She had just made lieutenant when she left the fleet eight years ago, reason not stated in her discharge record.”

Mandrake snorted. “If she’s Grenavinian, I can guess. That’s the same time I left GalCon.”

His interest finally dawned on Gregor. Of course. The captain was Grenavinian and so were many of his original crew members, people who had formed the company with him. With the planet destroyed, people who could claim it as a homeland were rare, and though the captain wasn’t obvious about showing favoritism, it was well known that he wouldn’t take an assignment that pitted him against a Grenavinian, and he might more closely consider the résumé of someone from his planet. That was good. If Calendula performed satisfactorily and Gregor was able to recommend her, it meant the captain shouldn’t object to her placement in the company.

“Yes, sir. She is.”

Gregor thought the captain might say more, ask for special consideration for her or even a slackening of Gregor’s stringent standards, but he merely nodded and walked out. That was as it should be; if Calendula earned a spot, it would be hers, but not unless she earned it. And, just as the captain wasn’t going to let feelings about her heritage influence his decision, Gregor could not allow feelings about her to influence his.

~

Available at Amazon.

7 responses to “Trial and Temptation Now Available at Amazon (and first chapter excerpt)”

  1. Lola says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed Mercenary Instinct. The hero was rugged and just enough of a bad boy. The heroines were all likable and showed some grit. I hate heroines who just whine and clasp their hands in dismay. Ankari, Lauren and Jamie were all interesting. I can see how each can have their own book easily. Your book was also well edited, no typos, misspellings or horrible grammar. Some of the books I have read lately could have used a good editor. I couldn’t put your book down and read it straight through. I am looking forward to the next!

    • Ruby says:

      I’m glad we caught most of the typos! Even with beta readers and an editor, it can be tough to get them all. Thanks for reading!

  2. Lola says:

    It’s always fun to watch the hero and heroine start out as antagonists. It makes the getting together so much more fun and interesting. The fact that Gregor is the one that gets flustered and tongue tied is priceless. I can’t wait to see how much he screws it up before they get together!

  3. trim torrejos says:

    Just read the first and second chapter.. Excited to read some more!

  4. Naomi says:

    Just wanted to let you know that I have read all three of the books in this series, and this one was my favorite. Gregor is the absolute best. He sort of reminds me of Don from The Rosie Project which was such a charming book. Add in the science fiction element, and I am in love. I may have grinned like a fool when I read that you are planning to write more stories in this world. Thanks so much!

    • Ruby says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed the books, Naomi! I had fun with Gregor, and he’s coming back as a side character (Val, Tick, and Striker too) in Book 4. I read the Rosie Project–it was really cute, and I see that there’s going to be a sequel next year. 🙂

  5. Les Jackson says:

    Howdy, (…from West Texas.)
    I’ve enjoyed the sample, and was wondering if there is a way to send you the notes that were made as the story was being read. As I read, I usually note type-o, spelling, and other types of things that’break the spell’ of the flow of a story. Is there any way to forward this type of info from Kindle Fire tablets to you…? (…if you’re interested…?) Thanks! Les

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