The decision hadn’t been a hard one to make. Rowe flatly hated red. But not every shade of red. This color, the color of his jumpsuit. The dark blood color he now was required to wear because of his new designation.

Unmatched. Unmated.

The words tasted rancid on his tongue.

He watched with thinly veiled disinterest at the crop of graduates heading for the pavilion. There they would receive congratulations from friends, family, and the Academy Administrators. Afterwards they would go into the reception hall to toast each other with good luck at finding their union mates. And then, that night, all of them would go on a wild orgy of unrestrained sex under the guise of finding their Synergistic mates.

Rowe blinked. Five years ago he had been one of them. Like these new graduates, he had gone sexually berserk. After years and years of being celibate, he had gone through his choices like a hot wind. Subconsciously hoping the woman he was laying at the time would turn out to be his mate. But one by one, each female failed to excite him. Failed to electrify him. Failed to sizzle over his skin like a rocket out of control as he had been told it would feel like.

As the years rolled on he had been more selective over whom he approached. The rejections piled up. Then, before he knew it, he was called before the Academy Academia and given the bad news.

"You know why you’ve been summoned, don’t you, Cadet Maine?"

Rowe stared at the table of four men. Yes, he knew why he had been brought before them. So make the pronouncement, damn you all, and cut this short.

"Yes, I do, Master Mintin," he responded quietly. No emotion, no sign of regret must show on his face. It would be a weakness he couldn’t afford to let them see.

"You have completed your fifth full year as a Cadet, but you haven’t found your mate." It was Master Toggert who had been tapped to give the bad news. The man tried to smile, but it came out weak. "We have discussed in length your current assignment, and it’s our decision that your rank be changed to Unmatched." The man gave another watery smile. Obviously he detested this part of his job. Rowe didn’t blame him. "Starting tomorrow morning you will be required to wear the red suit signifying your new status."

The proclamation washed over him like freezing water. Rowe felt his skin shriveling, tightening over his skeleton. Unmatched. It was almost a death knell. Unmated. A Synergian who had failed to find his mate. A potentially powerful weapon now lost.

"Do you have anything to say, Cadet?" Master Forch asked.

Rowe cast his eyes in the man’s direction. Anything to say? Like what? Don’t do this to me? Don’t relegate me to the refuse pile, like a puzzle piece that no longer fit?

"No, Master Forch," he managed to reply. His voice was still strong. Still forceful. He’d be damned if he’d show them any emotion at this time. Curse them all.

"But we do have some good news we hope will off-set the bad," Master Mintin continued. A disk had been sitting on the table in front of him. He picked it up and held it out to Rowe, who took it. "We’ve been following your job assignment ever since you went over to Fleet. Your work at the Academy has been exemplary. In fact, you have surpassed every expectation we had for you, and then some. Our fellow academicians have been impressed beyond words." The man tapped his fingertips together for a few moments, then added, "As much as we hate to admit it, we were rather hoping you wouldn’t find your union mate, Cadet Maine."

The admission stunned him. In the next instant cold fury filled him. He could feel the heat rising to his face, but he twisted his hands into fists and refused to bite. The cool disk bit painfully into his palm, but he ignored it. "Oh?" was all he could manage to say, and that much cost him dearly.

Master Forch took over. "We want you to head our fleet of repellant aircraft."

This news was enough to make Rowe take a mental and physical step backwards. "Master Girdy has that honor," he started to protest.

Master Forch waved it off. "Master Girdy has expressed to us that he wishes to retire soon. You are aware he has been in less than good health recently. And with the uprise in attacks upon our planet, we need someone with a superior head on their shoulders to take over his command."

Rowe shook his head. "Masters Britt and Ambercram are Master Girdy’s seconds. One of them should take the chair."

"Your seating was their decision," Master Mintin bluntly told him. "Your scores are phenomenal. You are in prime physical condition." He tapped the table in front of him with his middle finger. "We need your answer."

"What is my alternative if I reject your offer?" Rowe questioned. To his surprise, the four men moved uneasily in their seats and glanced at each other.

"Well, we had hoped there wouldn’t be a rejection," Master Forch answered. "But in the event you decide not to accept this position, there is a slot in the Academy that you are welcome to fill. It would be teaching the cadets on basic and elementary flight, including tactical skills at the helm. Because you excel in that area, it would make no sense to assign you elsewhere. Either way, your re-classification stands."

Rowe could feel the muscles in his arm starting to protest from the strain. Slowly, he forced his heart to calm. Forced his fingers to unclench. They had taken away one reason for living, but were offering him a suitable substitute. Although he knew he no longer could look forward to the warmth and joy of having a mate, at least he could take pride in his ability at the helm of a battle flit.

"I accept your offer, Masters of the Academy," he solemnly said. I accept your offer. Hearing those words, the men at the table visibly relaxed and smiled. And from that moment on he was no longer Cadet Maine, but Master Maine.

Sighing, Rowe forced himself to watch the graduation ceremony. As one of the academia he was required to help chaperone the young men attending. And because he was now signified as being Unmatched, he could also mingle among the free females. They would feel safe, knowing he was there to render aid or answer questions if any of the young men grew overly attentive.

His eyes swept the interior of the auditorium, when he spotted her staring straight at him. He had seen her before on the other side of the transparent wall that divided the school between the two sexes. The first time he had laid eyes on her, on the abundant brown hair with the unusual golden slash running from temple to crown, and her equally rich brown eyes, he had felt something stirring in his gut. At the time Rowe had dismissed it. There was no reason to think any more about it.

Her face was pale. Her eyes were turning glassy. His body reacted with a vengeance. The flash of heat zipped to the top of his head, down to his toes, and out through his fingertips. His fingers literally burned at his physical response.

Worse, he could feel himself becoming physically aroused. Hard aroused. Uncomfortable aroused. It was as though she had sent him a silent signal, and he had answered in kind.

Astonished, Rowe continued to stare at her. It was impossible. There was no way his body could be reacting to a mere glance from the young woman. No way. No... way...

They arose as a group and began walking toward the podium. The woman’s attention was diverted. It was like a switch turning off. Rowe took a deep breath as his body relaxed from the subliminal grip. But his erection continued to torment him. He adjusted his stance, hoping to keep it from being noticed.

He moved to where he could get a good long look at her when she was called up. Where he could hear her name when it was called out and memorize it when he watched her step forward.

"Grey Dansis."

Her eyes shifted, locked on him, and the current between them was like being pumped full of adrenaline. It was so intense Rowe nearly fell to his knees.

This was insane! Insane! What would happen if he touched her? What would he feel if he simply put his hand on her bare skin? What kind of reaction would he get then? More importantly, was she also sensing the same mind-blowing response?

The cadets took their seats and the Administrator resumed his memorized recitation. Rowe found a spot along the back wall where he could see the woman seated in her chair without appearing too obvious. He couldn’t help but realize that she appeared completely uninterested in the proceedings. She kept fidgeting in her seat, twisting her hands in her lap.

The two women on the other side of her had to be friends or acquaintances. They tried to pull her into their conversation but the woman—

Grey. Dansis.

—seemed as eager to have this whole ceremony over with as soon as possible as he was.

Rowe frowned. Why? Was she waiting for the moment when the cadets were allowed to commingle? Was she hot and eager to spread her legs for the first male cadet to swear he was meant to be her union mate?

At the thought of her allowing herself to become a prized plunge for the entire graduating class of males, Rowe felt his heart thud to a complete standstill. Pain flashed through him, burning and twisting like nothing he’d ever felt before in his life. Gasping aloud, he turned away from the group and clutched his chest.

This was insane!

The Administrator gave his final congratulations, and the entire auditorium rose in applause. The clank and clatter of the graduates leaving their seats and filing toward the reception hall alerted him, and Rowe wiped a hand over his sweaty face.

This was wrong. It was wrong on so many planes, it was difficult to know where to begin. But one thing was deadly certain. Grey Dansis affected him like no other woman ever had in his life. Rowe swore to himself he would find out why.

He was a man five years past seeking his Synergistic mate. Five years, the Academy declared, was the limit. The cut-off point. After that length of time, any cadet who had not found his or her union was considered Unmatched. Unable to find their mate. And therefore no longer allowed the option of seeking one.

Five years. Five damn lonely and hopeless years. Followed by a lifetime of them.

But... what if the Academy was wrong?