By: Melissa Landers

A few minutes later, she was in the washroom for her daily sponge bath, as showers were limited to once a week. She’d just finished pulling on her canvas pants and T-shirt when a flash of auburn fur caught her eye, and she turned to find Acorn, the ship mascot, perched above the doorframe, preparing to launch.

There was a time when Cassia would have ducked and run, but now she cupped both hands and extended them toward the sugar glider. Acorn spread her winglike arms and coasted into Cassia’s palms, then scurried up to one shoulder and began seeking her favorite pocket. She found it, the one above Cassia’s heart, and burrowed in headfirst.

“At least you love me, girl,” Cassia said with a smile. “Though you don’t really have a choice, do you?”

Acorn’s breed was highly social, to the point where she could die without enough affection. She’d bonded with the previous captain, and after his death, adopted Cassia as a foster mother. Acorn’s tiny claws still sent the wrong kind of shivers down Cassia’s spine, especially when they were tangled in her hair, but secretly she liked feeling needed.

After handing Acorn a dried lentil, Cassia faced the washroom mirror and unfastened her ponytail. The instant it came loose, she narrowed her eyes at the blond waves brushing her shoulders. She still didn’t recognize herself without her waist-long dreadlocks. If she was lucky, the bounty hunters wouldn’t recognize her, either.

Kane strolled in, rubbing a hand over his own newly shorn head. The act lifted the hem of his shirt high enough to reveal a trail of golden curls encircling his navel and disappearing below the waistband of his pants. Against her will, Cassia’s pulse hitched. She and Kane looked so much alike with their tawny skin and light hair that people often mistook them for siblings, but her body had no such misgivings.

Neither did Kane’s. He kept making that clear.

He moved behind her and laced his long fingers through her hair, holding her gaze in the mirror while his lips curved in an appreciative smile. “I like it,” he said, low and smooth. “I couldn’t do this before.”

Chills broke out along her backbone—the right kind of shivers. But she shut down the sensation and pulled her waves into a sloppy ponytail before things went too far again. She couldn’t afford any more slipups. It wasn’t fair to either of them.

Kane’s grin fell in a way that said she’d hurt his feelings.

“Breakfast will be late,” she reminded him, glancing at her boots because the expression on his face made her insides ache. “I’ll get started while you wash up.”

Then she backed into the hallway and did what she did best.

She left.

Kane scrubbed himself from head to toe and pulled on his shirt one slow sleeve at a time. He combed his hair until his scalp prickled. Twice, he shaved his face with Cassia’s laser blade before checking in the mirror for any spots he’d missed. When he couldn’t stall any longer, he set off for the galley and hoped she had finished her breakfast and gone somewhere else. Anywhere else, as long as he wouldn’t have to spend another awkward meal sitting across from her at the table while the rest of the crew cast sideways glances at them and asked what was the matter.

She’d locked him in the friend zone again. That was the matter.

The instant he crossed the threshold, he scanned the galley and took in three faces, none of which belonged to Cassia. There was no sign of her at all, not even of the jacket she usually left balled up on the counter when working over the burners made her hot. The only proof she’d been there was a vat of porridge left simmering on the stove. He released a breath as the muscles in his shoulders unclenched. He was safe, at least until the next time their paths crossed on this sardine can of a ship.

“Morning,” Renny greeted from above the rim of his coffee cup. Steam fogged his glasses, and he scrubbed the lenses with a cloth napkin before scrutinizing Kane more closely. “You feeling okay?” he added, probably worried about transport madness. “Spending enough time under the lamps?”

“I’m fine, Cap’n,” Kane said. It felt strange calling the former first mate captain, and he wondered if he’d ever get used to it. Renny was a good man and they all loved him, but nobody could replace Phineas Rossi, the crotchety old half-mechanical battle-ax who’d taken them in and made them a family.

“Catch a few watts after breakfast. And soak up all the rays you can when we stop on Vega.” Renny nodded at him. “You’ve lost some pep in your step. I don’t like it.”

Kane didn’t like it, either. He kept his thoughts to himself, but he wondered if a change in sleeping arrangements might help. It wasn’t easy bunking three feet above Cassia every night, listening to the little moany noises she made in her dreams and ignoring the floral scent wafting up from her perfume microbes. That was enough to shake any guy’s screws loose.