Danforth surveyed the scene with his small eyes like glass beads protuberant on his wrinkle-lined face. “What the hell is going on in here?”
Jeth clenched his jaw, automatic resentment prickling his skin. Danforth’s presence on this job had been one unexpected challenge that he hadn’t welcomed. Once upon a time Danforth had been leader of the Shades, functioning as Jeth’s mentor until he was experienced enough to lead on his own. But Jeth had never liked the man, and he wasn’t about to let him take command of the Shades once again.
“Jeth wants to ditch the job and take me home,” Lizzie said, folding her twiglike arms across her chest.
For a second Danforth looked like he might laugh, but then he fixed his gaze on Jeth, schooling his face into a diplomatic expression. “Why does she need to go back?”
Jeth opened his mouth to respond but then clamped it shut. He had reasons. A ton of them. But deep down he knew he was being irrational. She could remain on tech ops with Danforth and not end up anywhere near danger. His need to protect her was so ingrained that he would’ve locked her inside a plastic bubble if he could. Their parents were dead, and he was all she had looking out for her.
Lizzie huffed. “I don’t need to go back. Jeth’s just being overprotective, as usual.”
“Hmmm,” Danforth said, scratching the patched stubble on his chin. He had a permanently stooped appearance, his shoulders rolled forward at a natural tilt. “The right of an older brother, I think.”
“Yeah, but I’m ready to do this,” said Lizzie. “I’ve been ready. Not to mention I’m brilliant.”
Danforth smiled, revealing yellowed teeth turning to brown. “So I’ve heard.” He shifted his gaze to Jeth. “It’s your decision, naturally, but we are already here, and there’s no way for us to get home and back again in time for the party.”
“I know that,” said Jeth. He also knew that tonight might be their only chance to infiltrate the palace. The emperor was throwing a massive ball to celebrate his granddaughter’s sixteenth birthday. The place would be full of teenagers, making it easy for Jeth to blend in. The plans for this job had been in the works for months.
“And,” Danforth went on, “Hammer will be sending her out on missions soon. There’s no avoiding that. It seems to me this is an ideal one for her to get her feet wet on. She’ll be safe in the truck with me.”
Jeth chewed on the tip of his tongue, thinking it over. He hated when Danforth was right, but he couldn’t deny the logic. That was the curse of being leader: having to make decisions with your head instead of your feelings. The danger for the tech ops on this job was lower than usual, and despite Jeth’s personal dislike for the man, Danforth was good at tech ops. One of the best.
And the money’s too good to let go, a cold, hard voice spoke in his mind. That was why he did this, why he pulled jobs, risking his life and the lives of his crew. Every little bit he earned brought him closer to the only thing he truly wanted: to buy back Avalon from Hammer. The spaceship was all he had left of his dead parents. And she was his gateway to freedom.
An image of Avalon formed in his mind. His beautiful, infallible ship. This job would put her closer to his reach, the dream one step nearer to realization.
Jeth exhaled, forcing the overprotective, big-brother part of himself to be silent. He fixed his fiercest gaze on his little sister. “All right. You can stay. But you do everything you’re told. The first time. No questions, no arguing, or I’ll put you back in that locker and leave you there. Forever.”
“Yes, sir.” Lizzie saluted him, snapping her heels together.
Jeth rolled his eyes, his excitement for this job dissipating like vapor in strong sunlight. He’d been planning to court a little mischief while he rubbed elbows with the rich and ridiculous nobles of Grakkus, but he would have to resist the urge now. He would get in, do the job, and get out. No glitches. No unnecessary risks.
And no fun.
He glared at Lizzie one last time. If he didn’t love her so much, he would kill her. But he could tell by the grin on her face—one that didn’t falter despite the heat in his expression—that she would be having fun enough for both of them.
With a sinking feeling in his stomach, as if he’d swallowed liquid lead just beginning to solidify, he realized she was far too much like him for his peace of mind.
And there was nothing he could do about it now.
A FEW HOURS LATER, JETH MET THE CREW IN THE CARGO bay. Celeste gave a wolf whistle the moment he stepped into full view.
“Sexy,” she said, her gaze taking in his outfit, a shiny silver dress shirt with a V-neck collar that exposed a fair acreage of bare chest as well as a pair of black leather pants so tight he could barely raise his knees.
Jeth adjusted the collar, trying to get it to lie flat. His party getup was on the ridiculous side—the pants uncomfortable and the material of the shirt silky and clingy enough that it could’ve been used for women’s lingerie—but one of Hammer’s consultants had picked it out, claiming it was the height of teen fashion on Grakkus. Jeth hoped to hell the woman wasn’t crazy.
Hiding his annoyance with a smirk, he said, “You’re just jealous I get to wear the cool, sexy clothes for once.”
“Damn straight.” Celeste grimaced as she glanced down at her own black and white tuxedo getup. Jeth thought she had a point. The servant’s outfit made her look boyish—a description he never would’ve believed he would apply to her.