Released July 17, 2017
Daragh is Emma Forester’s last hope.
A corporate colony world on the outskirts of explored space, Daragh is the perfect place for a woman on the run to hide from her terrifying past. All Emma wants is to do her job and be left alone, but before she can disappear into her new life, she attracts the attention and the suspicions of brusque, handsome corporate soldier Devan Rybeck.
Devan is convinced Emma is hiding something, but finds himself increasingly driven to protect the fragile-looking newcomer from the harsh realities of a colony world. Her distracting presence complicates his mission and his feelings, until a vicious attack reveals that neither Emma nor Daragh are all they pretend to be.
Emma’s subsequent flight into the dangerous and unpredictable wilds of Daragh proves just how much steel she’s hiding beneath her quiet exterior, and just how far she’s willing to go to protect her secrets. But Daragh has secrets of its own, and Devan must race against time to bring Emma home before her staggering discoveries trigger a Conclave war.
If he fails, there will be no escape from the coming darkness, either for himself or the woman he would die to protect.Buy on Amazon
Here’s an except from chapter one…
She was almost home.
Emma’s breath caught as she pressed her nose to the glass and took in her first glimpse of the planet that represented all her hopes for a new life.
Daragh. Named for wealth and fertility, the third planet of the Ryu system orbited its yellow-orange star at just over eighty-three parsecs from Earth. Of the sixty-one planets explored by humanity since their leap to the stars, only seventeen were capable of supporting permanent colonization. Daragh was the latest, and perhaps the most Earth-like of the lot.
In appearance, however, Emma saw little to compare with Earth. Reds and browns were the primary colors splashed across the curve of its surface, intermittently obscured by swirls of white. But there was no white on the planet itself that she could see, and very little blue.
Her training vids had mentioned that surface water was minimal, though the water table was high. That—and the lack of sapient native species—had been enough to permit Lindmark Corporation to obtain a Warrant of Colonization from the Corporate Conclave, and the first wave of colonists had arrived on the planet’s surface only a year ago.
Emma was part of the second wave. She could still barely believe she’d been chosen. Every course adjustment, every groan from the ship’s fusion drive, every sidelong glance from curious fellow colonists had started her heart racing, certain she’d been discovered and the ship was returning her to Earth. But it hadn’t, and now she was almost free.
Glancing around the retro-fitted cargo hold, Emma saw her shipmates beginning to prepare for landfall, strapping into their harnesses, talking excitedly with one another. She swallowed a surge of loneliness and took her place by the hull, fingering her grandmother’s jade pendant and casting a glance at her locker as she did so.
Emma Forester. The name on her harness, her bags, and her flight suit seemed to burn red whenever she caught a glimpse of it, as though everyone on board should have been able to sense the lie. But no one had, and there was no one on the ship who had any reason to know differently. She was free now to embrace her new identity—Emma Forester, newly minted agricultural specialist, chosen to accompany the first genetically modified livestock to arrive on Daragh.
Adjusting her blonde braid to rest beneath her chin, Emma tucked the pendant inside her shirt and pulled on the helmet that would close its faceplate and seal to her flight suit automatically should there be a hull breach. It was just a precaution, of course. Their J-9 cargo ship had been hauling freight safely for years, offering no reason to anticipate a problem. And as soon as they landed, there would be no need for helmets, or suits. The atmosphere on Daragh was almost precisely identical to that of Earth, and though the gravity was a tiny percentage higher, most new residents reported that it took only a few short weeks to acclimate.
A woman about Emma’s age dropped into the seat next to her, set her own helmet in her lap, and began adjusting her harness before looking over at Emma with a quizzical tilt to her eyebrows. “How do you and everyone else on this blasted ship just figure these out without even trying? I’ve put this cursed thing on at least fourteen times since launch and I still get the straps tangled.”
Emma swallowed the lurch of fear that always accompanied conversation with a stranger and managed what she hoped was a friendly smile. “It’s a knack, I think,” she admitted. “It took me three or four tries before I figured it out.”
“Trina Ellison.” The short, curvy redhead defied the constricting harness long enough to offer her hand in greeting.
“Emma… Forester.” Emma tripped over the name and returned a tentative handshake, praying she sounded nothing worse than shy.
“Well, Emma Forester, I hope you’ll be willing to share your secrets with the rest of us.”
Emma’s stomach clenched painfully. “I don’t have any… What secrets?”
“We all want to know how you stay so impossibly thin and fit on a three-month journey with no way to exercise and nothing but pre-packed high energy rations.”
Her stomach eased. She could tell her secret, but she didn’t think the other woman would have much desire to duplicate her methods. Months on the run, rarely stopping to eat or sleep, living constantly on the edge of breakdown from fear and stress, had all taken a toll on Emma’s body that she wouldn’t recommend to anyone. Her five-foot four-inch frame had never been bulky, but now it was more like wiry, verging on skeletal. Or it had been when she embarked. If Trina could be believed, after three months of regular meals she had filled out enough to simply appear fit. Her face, she knew, was still thin, and so pale that her dark blue eyes stood out like bruises against her skin, but perhaps she was no longer likely to provoke comment.
“Good metabolism?” she suggested to Trina. “My weight never really changes much, but I’ve always wished I had curves like you. I’m sure you never have any trouble getting men to notice you.” Emma didn’t usually engage in personal conversations, but she needed to divert Trina’s attention, and if the past three months were any indication, the vivacious redhead had a deep and abiding interest in the male of the species.
“Yeah, no.” Trina rolled her eyes. “Getting noticed isn’t the problem. Especially not now that we’re headed to a world where men outnumber women three to one and most of the women are married.”
Emma shuddered. She hadn’t really thought about it like that. Was she going to come under increased scrutiny simply because she was female?
“No,” Trina continued, “the real problem is getting noticed by guys who aren’t just in it for the fun. And who have more sense than god gave a dead goose.”
A gurgle of laughter escaped Emma before she could stop it. “That is difficult, isn’t it?” she agreed. “Are you hoping the pickings will be better on Daragh?”
Trina shrugged as she finished untangling her harness and began fastening it to her suit. “Well, Lindmark did say they were looking for the best and the brightest. Most of us singles were at the top of our respective fields, and even the married ones seem to be pairings where both halves have advanced degrees or specific work history.”
Emma had known they were only accepting colonists from a limited list of professions. It was why she had emphasized her own agricultural experience on her application, but she wasn’t at the top of anything except in Lindmark’s databases. She’d pinned all her hopes on the conviction that no one would go looking very closely at her files once she was planetside.
“What’s your specialty?” she asked Trina, to distract herself from a renewed trickle of fear.
“Comms operations,” her new friend replied cheerfully. “I’m a genius at getting people talking, can’t you tell?”
Emma laughed again, weakly.
“Basically, Lindmark wants a planet-wide comms net, and they want it yesterday. The settlements they’ve already started are scattered pretty far afield, and communication is limited.” Trina sounded almost offended by such an archaic situation. “They need to be able to respond quicker to emergencies and send out new teams to the places that haven’t been fully explored yet, so they’re resorting to ground installations in strategic spots. My guess is we’re a good few years from making it happen, but it’s going to be a hell of a ride for a geek like me!” Her green eyes sparkled with excitement.
Alarms began to blare overhead, signaling the last few stragglers to finish strapping in. Emma closed her eyes and swallowed, willing her heart to stop racing. There was nothing to be afraid of.
Emma’s eyes shot open at the sound of Trina’s enthusiastic greeting, and her pulse kicked up another notch. Two members of the Lindmark Security Forces were walking down the line of colonists preparing for landing—checking harnesses, answering questions, and looking rather intimidating in their armored flight-gear.
Lindmark was a large enough corporation to qualify for the rights to their own private military unit. Once they branched into space exploration, that unit had blossomed into more of an army, and was responsible for protecting all Lindmark installations from both internal and external threats—a combination military defense and civil police force.
In Daragh’s case, they also served as a de facto government. Like the other seven planets owned by Lindmark, Daragh had very little in the way of local oversight, which made its settlers deeply reliant on the whims of Lindmark’s security personnel. There were no courts, no methods of redress, so they were all entrusting their safety to the assumption that Lindmark would assign supervisory roles to officers who were both honorable and fair. Not a comforting thought, in Emma’s opinion, given how seldom those characteristics occurred in Lindmark’s leadership.
One of the security officers paused in front of their seats to smile at Trina’s greeting. “Hey yourself.” He was probably close to Emma’s own twenty-five years, golden-haired and slender, with a confident stride and a face full of wide-eyed enthusiasm. Whether his enthusiasm was for the adventure they were all about to embark on or for Trina, Emma wasn’t sure.
She shot a glance at the second soldier, who had paused to look back at his companion with poorly concealed impatience. Both men were tall and fit, but there the resemblance ended. The second man was a older, perhaps six feet tall, and ruggedly built, with broad shoulders and a trim waist. His short hair was dark brown and his skin lightly tanned, creating a pleasant contrast with the piercing gray eyes that caught Emma’s in a cool, emotionless glance. With the exception of his expression, he might have been the embodiment of everything she found attractive in a man, but it was hard to admire someone who seemed to consider her so completely unworthy of interest. Every time he looked her way, Emma felt somehow dismissed.
She’d seen both men around the ship in the course of their journey from Earth, but had studiously avoided them, along with their fellow security officers and all three hundred of her fellow colonists. It wasn’t easy to keep to yourself under such conditions, but the stakes were high enough that Emma had been determined to succeed. She’d noticed several of the other female colonists flirting relentlessly with the officers and crew, but had not once been tempted to join them or even to learn the names of their uniformed escort.
“Are you boys staying or are you just here to make the delivery?” Trina was clearly on a mission to flirt with someone, whether or not they met her criteria.
The blond soldier’s look of unabashed appreciation suggested to Emma that what he had in mind fell decidedly into the fun category, though how he compared to geese she couldn’t be certain.
“Depends,” he drawled, gauntleted hands on armored hips. “I think I’m staying if you are.”
Trina’s grin grew wider.
The second soldier’s voice broke in, clipped and completely lacking in fun or appreciation. “You’re not staying anywhere if I have to write you up for inappropriate application of authority and failure to execute orders.”
“Oh, come off it, Rybeck. We’ve been on this damned ship for three months. Aren’t you ready to cut loose a little?”
“We’re not here to ‘cut loose,’ Cooper,” the second man reminded him coldly. “We’re here to protect the colony and enforce the regulations. Don’t make yourself one of the things I have to protect the colonists from, or you’ll be headed back to Earth with the trash.”
The blond shot a look of frustration at Trina that he clearly expected her to share. “Maybe I’ll catch up with you planetside?”
“Don’t count on it, handsome,” Trina answered unexpectedly, still grinning lazily. “Not sure you’re my type.”
Taken aback, he glanced over at Emma. “How about you, blondie? Want to check out the barracks after we land?”
Caught off guard by his attention, Emma started and jerked away from him, only to be yanked back by her harness.
“Shut it, Coop!” The older man collared his companion and shoved him further down the row. “And if I catch you harassing colonists again, you’ll be written up and kicked off the mission. Understood?”
Cooper shrugged off his superior’s hand and walked away muttering.
The dark-haired one nodded briefly to both Emma and Trina. “My apologies,” he said coolly. “Please ensure that your helmet seals are functional.”Buy on Amazon