An Intimate Charade
M/M, Science Fiction, Romance
[187 Pages / 60,000 Words]
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Cargo ship captain Galin Odona is in desperate need of a contract. When a lucrative opportunity comes his way, he invites Addison Valdez—smart, stubborn, and the only Human member of his crew—to join the negotiation.
Anatoria Baell's contract is not precisely legal, and she has unconventional methods for choosing where to put her trust. Galin agrees to pose as a distant relation during a gathering at her private estate. The negotiation takes a complicated turn when Addison proclaims that Galin is not only his captain, but his mate. The hot-headed lie puts them in a tough spot, maintaining their charade for the duration.
But Galin is a terrible liar. Even worse, he's been in love with Addison for years. Now, through tight quarters and an illusion of intimacy, he must win the contract without giving himself away. The task seems monumental, but Galin cannot afford to fail.
Navigation (Gamina Rielle & Laia Keeth)
Coffee (Edda Dak & Addison Valdez)
Poker (Galin Odona & Addison Valdez)
There was no true privacy to be had at this gala. Galin didn't dare test closed doors or veer off into side corridors where waitstaff were perpetually coming and going. Not on the very first night, and certainly not when Baell's suspicions must surely be piqued. He settled for dragging Valdez behind the dubious cover of a tall copse of potted plants, painfully aware that the greenery barely hid them from the room at large.
He crowded close so that even in the surrounding din he could speak quietly, keeping his expression as bland as possible.
"Talk," he ordered grimly.
At this range, Valdez had to tilt his head back in order to meet Galin's eyes. He wore defiance in the jut of his chin, but his tone was sheepish when he admitted, "I may have done something... ill-advised."
A hint of headache throbbed at the back of Galin's skull. "Did you, or did you not, tell Anatoria Baell that we're married?"
"Mated," Valdez clarified. "Not married. Honestly, why are you even asking me this? You already know the answer." Familiar challenge sparked beneath the words, and Galin bit his tongue in an effort to curb his temper. Valdez had always known just how to crack his composure and warm his blood.
Galin had long practice keeping his cool—keeping his distance—and still he required conscious effort to maintain a calm expression.
Valdez was maddening. Galin should never have brought him to this estate.
"Fine." He unclenched his jaw with difficulty. "I'll rephrase. Why did you tell her you're my mate?"
"Because she's fucking horrible," Valdez hissed. Unlike Galin's careful mask, there was no hiding the edge of anger in the wide whites of Human eyes. "I heard her talking shit about you. It was painfully clear she had no intention of working with us. And all because she's got some weird hangup about you not having a mate."
Galin's brow furrowed. "Why does it matter whether or not I have a mate?"
"I don't know." Valdez straightened his spine and glowered more fiercely. "But the way they were talking? She obviously thinks being unmated makes you deficient somehow, and that's such bullshit! I couldn't stand there and not say something."
"So your solution was to lie?" Galin didn't even try to keep the incredulous edge out of his voice. "To hand them exactly the story they wanted to hear and endanger our entire negotiation in the process?"
Valdez froze, and in an instant the fight bled out of him. His posture eased, his glower softened. Every hint of challenge melted away, leaving something startled in its wake. He blinked up at Galin with a look of guilt, of sheepishness at being called out.
Whether or not Valdez had considered the consequences of his actions, it was obvious he now understood exactly how far he'd erred. Valdez possessed a brilliant mind for business strategy, but he was not built for diplomacy. Or for patience. Galin should not have brought him along.
Too late for such regrets. Galin couldn't very well send him away now.
"I... really didn't think this through first," Valdez conceded. "But sir, what else could I have said?"
"You could have said nothing." Exasperation raised Galin's voice to an indiscreet volume, and he quieted with difficulty. "Whatever aspersions they were casting, I'm sure I've heard worse." Baell was not the only member of his own species to imply there was something wrong with failing to take a mate. Solitude was not a path commonly chosen among Remians.
"She's a complete hypocrite," Valdez protested. "Arguing that you're not reliable because you're unattached? She doesn't have anyone hanging off her arm tonight."
"Keep your voice down," Galin hissed.
He risked a glance through branches and fronds, checking to make sure they hadn't drawn unwelcome attention. No one was paying them any mind. When he returned his focus to this private conversation, he found Valdez chewing on his lower lip in obvious frustration. Galin drew a steadying breath.
"She's a widow. She's not being inconsistent. Just close-minded." He shut his eyes for a moment, willing himself calm. No good would come of keeping Valdez on the defensive. It was clear they both understood how precarious a position they now occupied, and it wasn't as though Addison knew the true reasons this lie ignited panic in Galin's chest.
"No." Galin opened his eyes. "I don't need you to defend me. And I certainly don't need you to lie for me."
The words hit their mark. Galin could tell from the flush that spread bright across Valdez's cheeks, and the way he dropped his gaze, all hint of rebellion winking out. A harsh inhale was all the sound between them for several seconds. Galin deliberately did not interrupt the impasse. He let the quiet linger, ignoring the instinctive urge to reassure Valdez that everything was fine.
Everything was not fine. They stood in a new and complicated mire of Valdez's making, and the potential consequences were substantial. Valdez, of all people, knew how badly the Korria needed this contract.
"I'm sorry," Valdez said, soft and sincere. His chin tucked low, and he stared at Galin's chest as he spoke.
"There's nothing to be done for it now." The words were not an absolution, but Galin gentled his voice. He'd made his point; there was no reason to torture Valdez when he clearly understood the gravity of his misstep. "The entire purpose of our presence is for Baell to evaluate us. We're here to prove ourselves trustworthy. If we confess that we've already lied to her, she's certain to refuse us the contract."
"Fuck." Valdez blinked hard and his face flushed brighter.
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Cover design by Aisha Akeju