Star of the Fleet – Excerpt

There he was, sitting behind an imposing desk, looking older and more careworn than Kera had ever seen him before. She stepped forward into the room and heard the panel slide shut behind her.

"Kera! Thank the stars you're safe." He stood, but she remained by the door.

Gustav stopped, obviously sensing her cool and uncertain response. The smile faded from his lips. It hurt to see his eyes lose the sparkle and become flat blue orbs, but she needed to remember all the other times he could have taken a chance on a relationship instead of cutting her off.

She dropped the duffel to the floor. "Permission to sit?" She kept her tone level and professional. He was the senior officer, after all, and she needed to hold on to that thought.

He nodded, and she moved toward the seating. His gaze followed her as she moved, and she wanted to reach out to him and wipe away the traces of stress on his face. Instead, she curled her fingers into a fist, welcoming the small twinge of pain where her fingernails bit into the palm of her hand. This was business. Nothing more and nothing less was imaginable from her behavior.

* * * *

The air around Kera, wound tight and brittle, betrayed her current state of mind as much as the sight of her body. She was more slender than before, with hollows at her cheeks, and while not gaunt, what was missing was the softening of her features. Her eyes carried a distance and chill Gustav had never seen on Kera. The green depths froze him out. He couldn't detect any long-term signs of damage from the torture she had experienced. But he itched to strip the clothes off her to check, needing to be sure she'd healed. The impulse shook him to the core.

Duvall McCord had kept him apprised of her physical condition while she recuperated on the Elector. However, once she'd recovered enough to board the freighter, there had been total silence. He didn't like that. But he was an admiral with a role to fulfill.

How well I understand the restraints of my position, he thought sourly. It kept him from acting on the emotions clawing at him all the time, especially the one telling him Kera was his woman. Instead, he observed radio silence and stewed. His staff had been confused by his slightly irrational behavior during the last months.

Now she was here, vital and alive. He ached to touch the soft, satiny skin of her face. He cleared his throat instead of acting on his desires. "Good to have you back, Commander. How are you feeling?"

He winced at the question, thinking soberly that while she seemed fit enough, dark shadows remained in her eyes. Her beautiful, rich brown hair was tied up in the severe bun she always favored on duty. Her flawless skin was paler than usual. He didn't need to see evidence of the bruising, having already received and reviewed the holographic images Duvall had sent him. Her condition when Raven and Jemma had found her enraged him even now.

"I'm fine, Admiral. The SurgiTech aboard the Elector cleared me to take a leave period. However, I believe I'm well enough to report for duty." Her eyes glinted, and for an instant, he wondered if she meant to disagree with her placement here.

He knew she would argue the medical leave, but he could stonewall until a satisfactory evaluation arrived showing she'd recovered enough to resume duty. He needed her fully recovered before she took over the grueling position she'd accepted.

She had such a fiery temperament. But the one particular hot-blooded trait that had drawn him to her over time seemed muted. The vitality she normally exuded warmed him, and he craved her heat, even now, after all these years. He wanted to see that temper flare within her again.

"Commander, you will remain on medical leave until I have received a clearance from our resident ST."

She started to rise, the lines at the sides of her mouth tightening, and on top of his desk her knuckles turned white. He waited as she drew herself back, tensing like she was ready to argue the point. "With all due respect—"

"No, Commander," he cut her off. "This is a routine requirement, and you know it. Besides which, you need to log in with the accommodation section and obtain a billet. So I have no doubt the time will be welcomed."

Her eyes flashed against her pale skin. She sat back in the seat, obviously understanding this was not an argument she needed. "Sir. Yes, sir."