HERE BE SPOILERS!!!
Navigate away NOW if you have not yet read
Well, I decided that since it looks like book two will be a bit later than I wanted, I am going to post not just Chapter One, but also the Prologue and Chapter Two.
There are a few things that I have omitted, mainly because I don't want you to know about them until you read the book, but here it is as it stands right now. Everything is subject to slight changes, pending finalization of the book and subsequent edits, revisions, etc.
This is NOT the final edit, so bear that in mind when reading. :)
For now... ENJOY!!!!
(all work on this page is protected under copyright.
Please do not copy or re-post any of this without my express consent. Thanks!)*******************************************
The stasis gel did its job admirably. When something jolted the spacecraft she was being held in, Stormy barely felt it. Lights flickered. Fires broke out and were quickly suppressed. Frantic movements from the various creatures beyond the clear tube that had been her home for far too long made her wonder what was happening.
She watched, eyes wide, as the spacecraft seemed to separate from its other half. The other section blasted away as though it had never been. Stormy’s heart thundered as she fought to scream one word.
She had friends in that other section. Women who had become sister through their ordeal, though most of them would never remember it.
She wished she could be so lucky.
As the ship seemed to whirl through a vortex of angry green and purple clouds with violent lightning streaking painfully against her eyes, Stormy could only silently mourn the loss of those friends, sisters… and more. She felt tears escape her eyes but they were instantly absorbed by whatever odd gel entombed her body. Had she been in control of her muscles, she would have beat on the glass, or whatever it was.
But she was forced to remain still, her limbs lax as her body drifted in the gel.
The bodies of her captors were ripped from the vessel, their terror touching her though she could not see their faces. A few used their insect-like limbs to grasp pipes or other equipment, holding on for dear life. Electric bolts splintered through the huge compartment, sparking along the tops of various stasis units. Stormy felt the short-lived confusion and horror as some of those units released their captives, spewing the girls out into the maelstrom that was the main stasis chamber.
All Stormy could do was watch as more friends were ripped away from her, sucked from the whirling wreckage to land gods only knew where. In what seemed like eternity but was really less than a minute, the ship slammed into something. The impact was hard enough to jolt Stormy, even in the gel.
More units were dislodged or damaged. More girls expelled onto the mangled floor of the ship. Some screamed as the lightning-heated metal beneath them burned their flesh. Too weak from their long captivity in the stasis gel, the girls couldn’t lift themselves. And the creatures who had held them were no help. The moment the ship stopped moving, those who were still alive had rushed from the craft, their alien thoughts jumbled and frantic.
One by one, the wounded girls either died or managed to crawl out of the ship. One by one, the lights on some of the stasis tubes blinked from the blue of normal conditions to the orange that Stormy knew meant the woman inside was dead.
Within her mind, she heard the thoughts of the dying, the weak cries of the injured, the terrified prayers of those who had survived and were searching for shelter, as far away from the ship as they could get.
And Stormy knew when even those girls were outnumbered by the carnivorous creatures somewhere out there, creatures who had never tasted human blood but were eager to try.
Her tears flowed until she was dry, when she realized that she was alone with her own thoughts once more.
And her memories.
Because of all the women who’d been taken from Earth so many years ago, she was the only one who’d been allowed to retain consciousness the whole time. While her body might have been put into stasis on a regular schedule, her mind was alert and aware any time she wasn’t sleeping or drugged for a procedure.
As the seasons changed before her eyes, Stormy waited. And watched. And learned from the minds of the sentient creatures who visited the strange craft.
She was trapped in the stasis chamber, but she was by no means helpless.
If or when she found a way out of the tube, she’d be ready. She would not meet the same fate as her friends.
She would learn, she would pay attention, and just as she had on Earth, Stormy would not only survive, but thrive.
10.7 AC - .5 THIA
-Years Ishira, AC (after colonization)
-Five Months, THIA (Thorsani/Human Integration and Adaptation)
Arianna Hunter-Jace woke to the very pleasant sensation of being made love to, with one of her mates nibbling on her thigh and the other nibbling on her lips to make sure she was awake her for the fun. Murmuring approval at their methods, she sighed sleepily, rolled onto her back, and stretched. Muscles lengthened and pulled, aches and bruises reminded her that she was still recovering from an attempt on her life. But that was secondary to the palpable intensity of her mates, waiting patiently for her to finish stretching so they could devour her.
“Good morning, little warrior,” Hunter said, rising to one elbow to look down at her. She gave him a sweet smile and wrapped her arms around his neck as he lowered his head to kiss her. Only a thin, soft sheet covered her. It was slowly pulled down her body, the incredibly luxuriant material sliding over her breasts, her belly, and her thighs, as her other mate, Jace, bared her to the pre-dawn light for his delectation.
“Open for me, love,” he urged from his place by her hips, his voice husky with desire. She sensed the need in him, the hunger that he reveled in when he had her in his arms. He loved the taste of her, loved the noises she made, her responsiveness to his caresses. And she loved that he loved it.
Ri willingly allowed her legs to fall open, then sucked in a breath around Hunter’s tongue as Jace’s mouth began worshiping her in the way he most enjoyed. Her body bowed away from the mattress when Jace tongued her clit and tortured it with tiny bites, but Hunter was there to steady her, his big hand on her swollen belly, sliding up to her breast.
She watched him breathlessly as he plumped her flesh in his hand. He stared at her nipple as it gathered and tightened in anticipation of his loving. Ri gasped and wiggled as Jace adjusted himself so that he was lying between her legs, his face buried between them, his tongue, teeth, and fingers doing things that made her want to fly out of her skin. A soft, shuddering cry escaped her as Jace penetrated her with his fingers at the same moment Hunter took her nipple between his teeth.
Ri shivered a gasp, her head arching back into the pillow with Hunter’s delicate bite. Jace’s tongue licked a path down her slit, lodging in her center and diving in to taste her there. He slid his hands down and under her thighs, gripping her rounded bottom and lifting her hips from the bed, giving him better access.
“You are so very sweet in the morning,” Hunter murmured around her nipple, his tongue snaking out to taste the taut, small bud, lapping at it then blowing on it, letting the crisp morning air chill her skin. “So warm and soft from sleep.”
“So good,” Jace agreed, rising up and positioning himself to take her. “I can’t wait. Ri….”
Hunter nodded to his brother, then sheathed his teeth and bit Ri’s nipple with a roughness that she wouldn’t have been able to tolerate at first. She was so very sensitive. At the same moment, Jace slid easily into her warm, slick depths, seating himself fully within her for a breathless minute. She throbbed around his cock, her core eagerly latching onto him, desperate for the pleasure he brought.
They all paused, allowing Jace and Arianna to enjoy the moment of possession before Hunter groaned and went back to ravishing her nipple with his mouth as his hand slipped down to torture her clit. Jace began withdrawing and thrusting in the tempo that he knew would drive Ri out of her mind, his hands still holding her up for the right angle of attack.
When her body arched in helpless reaction, Hunter’s other arm slipped beneath it, bowing her back and effectively raising her breasts higher for his enjoyment. He switched his attention to her other nipple while his fingers danced on her clit, pulling and twisting, tickling and teasing. Using their mental connection, he played her like a master pianist, his fingers pulling every nuance of sensation from her body. Her breathing increased, as did the intensity of her gasps and cries. Jace picked up his pace, taking his cues from her sweet noises.
Feeling the tightening of her body that signaled imminent release, Jace held her hips between his big hands and thrust harder, deeper, drawing low moans, pleas for completion from her throat. Hunter, sensing she was close to her peak, suckled on her nipple, hard, dragging a shivering, gasping cry from her.
“Come, little one,” Jace said through gritted teeth, hunching his body over hers and taking her mouth as his hips ground against her body.
Hunter slid from between them, giving them this precious moment to themselves. Jace fell above her, his hands on either side of her shoulders, his mouth attacking her full breasts. She wrapped her arms around his head, her legs around his waist, and clutched him to her as she plummeted over that peak. Her body shook and shivered with her climax, her hips jerking against Jace, her body nearly bent in half with the power of her orgasm. His body tightened at the feeling of her spasms, and he thrust one last time, falling to her and kissing her ravenously as he came inside her. Her core clenched around him with muscular contractions that milked him almost to the point of pain. He threw back his head and cried out at the exquisite sensations roiling through him, gritting his teeth against the onslaught.
Ri’s body was still shuddering when Jace slid from her, panting, and fell to her side. He slid up enough to kiss her as Hunter immediately took his place between her thighs and, hitching them up around his ribs, lifted her butt in his big hands and thrust powerfully into her slick depths. She was still trembling from her first completion, but with Hunter’s penetration, energy speared through them both, rushing outward from their joined bodies and shimmering with each thrust, building with their passion. Hunter held onto her, pumping into her body with the strength and determination of the warrior that he was… his mind, heart, and soul attuned to her every need.
Jace, knowing what was to come, backed reluctantly away for just a moment.
Arianna was weeping with the need to come again, begging incoherently for her mates to finish her. Hunter angled his hips perfectly, long months of making love to his woman having taught him just where she needed him most, how to attack her ‘g-spot’ for the most devastating effect. His eyes were feral and his face tight with need as he hungrily watched her breasts bounce with his thrusts. The difference between her soft, pale body and his muscular, hard form was intoxicating. She was breathtaking in her passion, and it made him feel like a god. His hard grin widened as he felt the quick spasms in her thighs, the uncontrollable shifting of her body against his, her desire to reach that precious pinnacle with him. Gods, he loved this woman! His eyes locked to her shifting breasts, as though mesmerized by their stiff tips and the tight little puckers that surrounded them.
Jace, calmed a bit from his bout with their mate, took charge of those plump beauties, leaning over to do his share of nipping, suckling, plucking and pulling. Hunter slid one hand up from beneath her, his thumb finding and pressing on her clit with exquisite precision.
Ri’s eyes popped open at the multiple assaults on her senses, her body thrashing beneath her lovers.
“Hunter,” she whimpered, pleading. “Now!”
“Fly, little warrior,” he murmured, dragging her body up against his in one powerful move as he sat back on his heels. She was completely surrounding him, her body fully open to his, her arms around his neck. Her head fell forward, resting on his shoulder, her mouth against the sensitive skin below his ear. He was seated as far inside her as he could go and they both pulsed in breathless splendor at the feeling. Using the peculiar rings of muscle that no human man possessed, he moved his cock deep inside of her as he held still. Contracting the ridges of muscle ringing his shaft, Hunter concentrated on dragging those hard bumps over her G-spot. Ri felt as though her body shimmered with each exquisite spasm, the tightness growing until ecstasy burst within her and she fell apart in his arms with a broken cry of joy, her head back.
Her powerful climax and surge of ecstatic energy fueling his, Hunter shouted his release, dragging her head down so that he could kiss the breath out of her as they came in unison. Their energies swelled and combined between them. As though existing in two bodies at once, Hunter felt her elation, the throbbing of every nerve ending in her body, the deep spasms that gripped his cock rhythmically as her hips shook and jerked. She could feel the same in him: the hardness of his body, the power that moved through him as he gave up his seed to her, the hot grip of her core around him, tautness of his arms as his hands curled over her shoulders from the back and he pressed her down on him. She marveled at the effort he expended not to crush her to him like he wanted to. Each felt their own sensations and the other’s, at the same moment. It was like nothing either had ever experienced until they’d met.
Ri shook and shivered, her arms sliding limply from around his neck, her face buried between his shoulder and neck, as they both came down from their peaks.
Knowing that Jace was behind her, Hunter opened his arms and allowed Ri to slide backwards. Jace caught her and eased her to the bed, brushing her long hair away from her face and fanning it over their pillows. Hunter, spent, collapsed beside her, his arm crossing just under her breasts, his hand resting on the other side of her belly.
As the three caught their collective breath, the men murmured softly to her, kissed her, and caressed her, reminding her of how much they loved and adored her. She panted, trembled, and fought to steady her breathing and heart rate as they soothed her. Gods, she loved her warriors!
“Good morning,” she whispered brightly, kissing them both in turn.
“Aye,” Jace said with feeling, his sexy smile tugging at her heart. “That it is!”
On the balcony, only yards away, Sean, eldest son of Aleah-Karl, scowled at the sunrise.
The colors that washed in spectacular streaks across the eastern sky were amazing, the sky itself a study in all the shades of purple one could imagine. Teal foliage, now turning various hues of blue, purple, black, and aqua with autumn’s abrupt arrival, swept across the hills surrounding Ishira Colony. Nothing to frown at in any of that. Had Sean not been so distracted, he would have sworn that this was paradise.
No, the reason for his scowl was currently giggling and sighing her way through her morning love-making session with her mates. His brothers. The team he’d been separated from more than a decade ago and only recently reunited with, thanks to the fierce mental connection he had with Arianna Hunter-Jace. He had been mentally searching for his people when she had found him.
From the moment he’d touched her brilliant, sweet mind, he’d been intrigued. When he’d discovered that the little human woman was mated to his brothers, he’d become hungry. And when he’d seen her in person for the first time, smelled her sweet essence, touched her… the energy that stretched between them became a living spark that sent whips of awareness and desire through both of them. He could feel it in her, even as she tried to deny it. He could feel nearly everything about her.
His body clenched, even now, as he felt her heightening passion in the next room, heard her muffled cries through the thick walls of his brothers’ home.
“Shards of a dantun tree!” Sean muttered, his teeth gritting together. He closed his eyes, clenched his hands around the banister of Hunter’s balcony, and shook as his body fought not to give in to Arianna’s release. He breathed heavily, sweat popping out on his brow, on his chest, his back. His muscles spasmed as though he were the focus of the maelstrom of pleasure emanating from his brothers’ bedroom. And in a way, he was. He could feel a bit of what she was feeling. His skin was hyper-sensitive, his body throbbing in tandem with hers. Though he didn’t feel his brothers’ touches, he felt what those caresses did to her. He felt as though he was involved somehow, it just wasn’t his body reaping the rewards of that passion. He fought his reaction, fought the rising storm as long as he could.
But it was no use. Swept along in the flood of Ri’s energy, Sean’s head snapped back and he groaned to the sunrise, his body shuddering with her release… but not his own. Though he experienced the emotional release, his body remained hard, hot, full and throbbing, aching with the need to bury himself in Arianna. The passionate cries and shouts from the bedroom covered his moans before everything became quiet once more.
Shaking with the aftermath, Sean whispered curses and ran a hand through his long, sable hair. His fingers were trembling, his arm shaking with weakness and pent-up desire. Eyes still closed, Sean fought to get his breathing under control. After struggling with it for only a moment, he gave in to Arianna’s rhythm, synchronizing his intakes with hers, slowing his inhalations even as she slowly came down from the emotional and physical high of her passion.
“I can’t do this,” he murmured after a long moment, his eyes opening to stare with bleak acceptance at the sunrise. “Ri…”
With an iron will, Sean forced his mental walls higher, sought for the power to strengthen them, to shut her out, at least some of the time. But she seemed to be a permanent fixture in his head, in his heart. His only solace seemed to be that she was unable to shield herself from him, as well.
With one last muttered curse, he shoved himself away from the banister, only now becoming aware of the burning, stinging ache in his gut. The wound from the laser blast he’d taken in the belly mere days ago, to protect her, pulled painfully. He’d probably opened the edges of the healing crater again. He pressed a trembling hand to the bandage, felt the sticky patch of blood that had seeped through. He'd have to get Jace to patch him up again.
But not right now. Right now, he needed to walk. He wasn’t supposed to climb stairs yet, but he had to get away for awhile, to gain some distance from Ri and her joy.
He needed to walk. He wasn’t supposed to climb stairs yet, but he had to get away for awhile, to gain some distance from Ri and her joy.
Joy that didn’t include him.
He swore to the rising sun and all the gods of Ishira that he would change that.
Finally managing to think clearly again, Ri felt her mates’ hands wandering, as they often did lately, over her swollen belly. She smiled, reaching up to touch first Hunter’s face, then Jace’s, a sweet grin on her lips. Jace leaned down to place a reverent kiss on Ri’s belly, murmuring his love to their children through her flesh, then rose to his knees.
“We have a long day, Hunter. We should probably get moving.”
Ri groaned a weak protest, still floating with contentment from their loving.
“Just another few minutes,” she begged, wanting this moment to last forever.
“I hate to leave you when you are like this,” Hunter said quietly, his big hand splayed over her abdomen. As he held it there, a tiny foot kicked at his hand. The look on his face was priceless, and Arianna giggled up at him. Hunter stared down at her tummy, pressing a bit harder with his fingers, exploring the little foot that shoved against her from the inside. Grinning like a fool, he leaned down and kissed the protrusion. Ri felt the tiny surge of energy from the baby when he did so. Hunter did, as well. When he looked back up at Ri, his eyes were shining and moist with awe.
“I love you,” he breathed, leaning down to kiss her lips one last time.
“And I love you,” Jace said, his hand measuring her belly. He stilled, frowning as his fingers spread over her flesh. “Ri, you’re bigger today.”
“You say that every day,” she laughed, placing her hand over his and entwining their fingers. “It’s okay, love. I’m fine.”
“I’m worried about how quickly the babes are growing,” he reminded her, shaking his head as he drew several lines over her tummy with his fingertip. “You have several new stretch marks since yesterday.”
“That’s what a woman wants to hear,” she sighed, chuckling ruefully at him. She smacked his hand when he realized he was tickling her and grinned devilishly down at her. “It makes me feel like a sexy beast, you know.”
“You are a sexy beast,” Jace growled, leaning down to nip at the tip of her breast. He delighted in the little squeal she emitted and the playful slaps she aimed at his head, but then sobered and pressed his palm against her belly. One of the babies kicked him, softening his gaze, but he still frowned at Arianna. “I want you to come to the med center tomorrow, make sure everyone is okay in there. And just so I’m the last one to say it before we start the day, I love you!”
“I love you both,” Arianna laughed. “It’s not a competition, you know!”
This time when she stretched, she didn’t get attacked, but was able to sink back to the bed for just a moment before moving to get up for the day.
Ri and her mates took a quick shower together. The excuse was to conserve water and time, but it was really just more fun their way. The men were there to wash her back and she made sure they were clean absolutely everywhere. Much laughter and many happy gasps of discovery occurred, but with all three of them already sated, it went no further than mild teasing.
They quickly dressed then her warriors helped Ri get her shoes and socks on. Besides her belly making it harder for her to tend to her feet, she was still a bit stiff from falling in the bathtub several days before, when Amy had tried to kill her. The bruises on her hip, ribs, and the outside of her thigh were a testament to the least of what she had suffered that day. Hunter’s hand lingered on one of the bruises as he slid a hand-knit kimi thread stocking up her leg. She sensed his brief moment of remembered helplessness, when he and his brothers had fought so determinedly to save her life.
If it hadn’t been for Sean…
“Hunter, I’m fine, love,” she whispered, her fingers caressing his cheek. He leaned forward and kissed the bruise, his fingers hovering there.
“I know,” he said, looking at her with troubled eyes. “But we nearly lost you, and the babies with you.”
“I am here,” she assured him, smiling warmly. Her stomach growled loudly, making them all chuckle. “And so are they. And we’re all hungry. Now get up from there, before I get ideas and decide to have my wicked way with you again.”
Hunter looked like he wanted to seriously consider that plan of action. Ri’s libido had been off the charts the past few weeks, pregnancy hormones sending her into a frenzy at the slightest encouragement, much to her mates’ delight. Hunter’s body still hummed softly with the teasing they had done in the shower, and he knew that it wouldn’t take much for either of them to be hot and ready once again.
Jace smacked him lightly on the back of the head in passing.
“We have too much to do today, brother,” Jace growled pointedly, tugging a tunic over his muscular body in deference to the chill in the air. He turned and narrowed a thoughtful gaze on Ri. “Though I do have to applaud our mate’s thought process.”
“Aye,” Hunter said, smiling as Ri hopped down from the bed, her mates there to steady her when she landed slightly off. Her center of balance tended to alter a little each night with the accelerated growth of her babies, and she was having trouble adjusting to it. But her men were always there, ready to catch her if she fell. Love for them threatened to bubble over in joyful tears. Her smile was brilliant and caught both of them off guard as she hugged them to her.
“How did I get so lucky?” she asked softly, rising on tip-toe to kiss each on the chin.
“We are the lucky ones, little warrior,” Hunter chuckled indulgently. “Now, before this goes further, let us see to your hair, then we’ll eat. Whether we come back and finish this flirtation or actually manage to get a bit of work done today, we will all need sustenance.”
“Especially after such vigorous morning exercise,” Jace said, his face sober but his blue eyes dancing at Ri. She grinned helplessly at them, hugged them to her in an excess of happiness, then skipped back to sit on the stool before the dresser so that they could arrange her hair for the day.
She always felt a bit like a princess when her two big warriors brushed and braided her hip-length hair with their own special plaits, as was the custom of the Thorsani. Hunter wove ribbons in his team colors of black, teal, and purple into her long curls, as well, so that anyone catching a glimpse of her would know to whom she belonged. Arianna’s feminist sensibilities were far too content with the men today to quibble with ‘claiming’ and ‘belonging’. Besides, everyone in the colony knew who was really in charge in the Hunter-Jace household, and it was neither of the two big, muscular warriors.
Ri grinned at herself in the mirror, then gazed admiringly at her mates as they worked on her hair.
With his green eyes and olive skin, dark markings that led into his hairline, and the slick black hair that eventually transitioned into soft fur when it reached his nape, Hunter was beautiful in an alien sort of way that managed to steal her breath every time he moved just so or took her into his arms. Except for the very long black hair that was normally pulled into a queue at his nape, he looked like a gray tabby cat from the back, minus a tail. Gray tabbies had always been her favorite breed of cat.
Jace, on the other hand, was all golden… creamy burnished skin, gold markings at his hairline, and long tawny hair that melded into the markings of a gold tabby on his back. His eyes were a sparkling blue that could turn deep and stormy when he was feeling intense emotion but fairly flashed when he was up to mischief… which was often. When he was deep in the throes of a ‘geek-out’ as she liked to call it, his eyes turned bright with wonder and excitement and his entire body hummed with the need to delve further, learn more, discover more. She adored that about him, adored the adventurous nature and thirst for knowledge that stimulated her mind as much as her body. And he made her laugh.
They were both so beautiful to her, her mates. They were such different men, with varied abilities and skills, but they were so focused on loving her, on keeping her safe, on making her happy every day of her existence on this world. How could she not appreciate that, and do her best to return the favor? Each day brought new insight into their minds and souls, and each day she found a new reason to fall a little bit more in love with them both. A tiny shivering sigh escaped her as her eyes filled with happy tears.
She realized that they had stopped brushing her hair and were watching her in the mirror, grinning indulgently at her. Hunter Read her thoughts, knew how close to tears she was and winked at her. Jace just chuckled and arched a tawny brow, crossing his arms over his chest as she blushed at being caught mooning over them. She scowled at him in the mirror and held her chin up high.
“You can laugh all you want,” she informed them both, “But I will not apologize for adoring the two men I love most in the universe! So there.”
That took the smiles from their faces, but in response Jace spun her around and gave her a deep, passionate kiss that left her reeling on her stool. He grinned in triumph when she blinked up at him in breathless confusion. His kisses tended to do that to her, he knew it, and he loved it.
“I’m going to go check on Sean,” Jace chuckled, plucking his physician’s kit from a shelf near the door before hurrying out of the bedroom and into the family’s living quarters. Hunter and Ri left the room more slowly. Hunter strode to the lounge area, where their dad, Geoff, was sitting with a tray of morning tea.
Ri went to the kitchen to help her mates’ mother with breakfast.
“You look awake and happy this morning,” Aleah murmured knowingly, smiling at the daughter-in-law she’d only recently met but already considered one of her own. Since Arianna was not normally much of a morning person, to see her up and about at this hour was note-worthy.
“Your boys make a wonderful alarm clock,” Ri said pertly, offering an impish grin to her mother-in-law. Aleah stared at her for a stunned moment then gave a sly smile in return.
“They take after their fathers, then!” She winked and both women giggled like high-school girls. Aleah sobered first, her gaze a bit troubled as she heard Jace calling for Sean out on the balcony. She sighed and offered Ri a smile. “How are my grandchildren this morning?”
Ri patted her tummy. “Growing like crazy. I think Jace measures me every time he looks at or touches me lately. They’re growing much faster than humans normally do.”
“You’re only two months along, which is half-way there for a Thorsani,” Aleah agreed, her eyes narrowing on Ri’s expanding waistline. “But even for our people, you’re rather big.”
“Hunter felt one of them kick this morning, and was able to see a little foot,” Ri told her.
“That’s wonderful!” Aleah gasped. She went on to describe how Sean, Hunter and Jace’s fathers had reacted when she was pregnant with them, how goofy the men were while trying to communicate with their children in the womb.
As they assembled breakfast and set the grains to simmer, Aleah’s speculative gaze kept returning to Ri’s belly until Arianna finally laughed, took the older woman’s hand and placed it over the babies. For a moment, nothing happened then Aleah sent a wistful shaft of energy through her hand. “Come on, kick for grandma.”
And the babies did. Delighted, Aleah squealed softly and pressed both hands to Ri’s tummy, concentrating hard on letting the babes know who she was and how much she loved them already.
Ri grinned as she watched her other-mother coo and talk to her baby-bump. The older woman certainly didn’t look like a grandmother, with her rich blond hair, bright blue eyes, clear skin, and golden tabby markings. Her face had the barest trace of age lines around her eyes. Arianna hoped she looked as lovely and young at two-hundred fifty. Hell, she hoped she was able to live that long! But Aleah was still young, in the eyes of her people. The Thorsani tended to live nearly seven-hundred years, so it wasn’t surprising that Aleah and her mate looked as young as their children.
“What are you doing, Leah?” Geoff asked, coming up behind his wife and grinning at her.
“The babies are kicking and communicating with me!” Aleah laughed, taking her mate’s hand and pressing it to Ri’s belly. Arianna rolled her eyes indulgently. Thorsani were naturally a touchy-feely people. She was lucky that someone wasn’t touching her tummy at all hours of the day and night. Then she decided that the only reason they weren’t was because they were usually busy running the colony.
Hunter came over to be part of the fun as well and with all three focused on them, the babies were practically doing acrobatics inside their warm home. Ri could feel their delight and curiosity in the energies surrounding them and loving them.
But as Ri laughed at Geoff and Hunter making fools of themselves talking to her belly, she looked up and caught Jace’s forlorn expression before he could hide it. Sobering, she sent the others, Readers all, a gentle command to quiet and back away. Aleah looked up, caught Jace’s scowl before he turned and disappeared out onto the balcony once more. Ri started to go after him, but Aleah held up a hand and shook her head.
“Let me talk to him,” Aleah said softly. “He’s always wanted to be a Reader, has always been fascinated by it. I’m sure he’s feeling a bit excluded right now, though he knows there’s no one to blame for it.”
Hunter watched his mother leave, stricken. He hadn’t thought about how much his brother was missing by not being a Reader. He blinked at Ri, helpless to fix this particular issue. Sensing his turmoil, she wrapped an arm around his waist, holding him and offering him soothing energy to help calm his thoughts. His arm automatically came around her, his hand landing on the side of her belly, gently rubbing there, as though unable to help but touch the lives within. She felt his guilt when he realized what he was doing, what his brother could not do. He started to remove his hand, but Ri pressed it to her, holding him there.
“It’s not your fault,” Ri reminded him gently. “He can’t be a Reader just from wishing it so, from what you have all told me.”
“I just… I was so excited, I didn’t think of his feelings,” Hunter murmured, disturbed by his behavior. “I know the joy of talking to my child in the womb, but Jace can’t know it. That’s …”
“Something you can’t change, love,” Ri interrupted gently. “Which drives you crazy, since you like making things right for people. You need to accept that you can’t fix this and just be there for him.”
Ri sighed, hugging him once more before backing up. “Breakfast is nearly ready. Another ten minutes, and the grains will be done. Would you keep an eye on them while I go see if I can find Sean? I don’t think Jace found him out there.”
Hunter nodded mutely, lost in his own troubled thoughts before she turned away.
“Jace, love,” Aleah murmured as she stepped onto the balcony. Her gaze immediately found her son at the other end of the lovely garden overhang, leaning against a muskywine fruit tree. His face was dark, his eyes brooding and his lips set in that thin line that Aleah knew meant he was feeling sorry for himself. He was such a happy person, normally. If he was any of her other sons, she would chastise him for being so self-pitying, but this was not a normal situation. He had every right to feel left out. Sighing, she wandered over to him, her fingers trailing through the last of the summer blooms that lay against the railing.
“You don’t have to say it, Mom,” Jace muttered, running a hand over his face. “I know I’m being a child, feeling sorry for myself.”
“Jace, love,” Aleah said, sliding her arm around his narrow waist and laying her head against his chest, “You are allowed, just this once, to feel this way.”
“I am?” he asked with an arched brow, one arm coming around her, hugging her to him. They had been separated for so long that both took comfort in the other’s nearness whenever they could. She nodded, watching the sunrise over the mountains.
“You are. I’m sorry that we didn’t consider your feelings when we were interacting with the babies. It just didn’t occur to me, though it should have. I will try to contain myself from now on, when you’re around.”
“It’s okay,” Jace sighed, his body relaxing a bit. “I just… I want to feel the same thing Hunter did this morning. The look on his face when he traded energy with his baby… Hell, it could have been my child he was talking to, for all we know.”
“It could have been,” Aleah allowed, nodding. “We didn’t know which was which when I was carrying Siae and Kale. But Karl, Kess and Geoff sent both babies their love and energy, every chance they got. And the boys knew it. It was truly amazing, and I’ll never forget it. Every single time I’ve been pregnant, my mates and children have been able to exchange energy with the babies.”
“Except for me,” Jace sighed, leaning his head back against the tree.
“Except for you,” Aleah echoed. “But that doesn’t mean that the babies will love you any less, sweetheart.”
“I know that,” Jace said. “I don’t remember much about Kess or Karl, but I know that their energy got to me, even if I couldn’t send it back. I thought of them as my fathers from the start, just as I did Geoff.”
“It is our way,” Aleah nodded. “But I can understand your frustration and your wish to take part. I wish I could make this better for you.”
“None but the Gods of Ishira can bestow the gift of Reading, as far as we know,” Jace reminded her gently. “I am sure that the gods have a reason for denying me the gift.”
“Perhaps,” Aleah said, looking up at her son. “Or perhaps they knew that, had you been born a Reader, you would have taken a path other than medicine, and they did not wish for you to do anything else.”
“I guess that’s a possibility,” Jace shrugged. Sighing one last time, he straightened from the tree and hugged his mother’s slim waist. He frowned when he felt her ribs. “But as my little one often says, ‘it is what it is’. I will survive. You, on the other hand, are still far too thin for my peace of mind. Some of the humans might be naturally slender, but Thorsani women are not meant to be so small.”
“I’ve been eating almost non-stop since I got here, Jace!” she protested with a laugh. He shook his head, the sparkle back in his eyes. Aleah sighed silently in relief. Her other children could brood when the mood struck, but her Jace had always been the sun in her sky, her laughter and joy.
“Not good enough,” he lamented. “I’m afraid I am going to have to prescribe extra helpings, snacks between meals, and Ri’s sticky buns at every available opportunity.”
Aleah laughed, delighted at his quick return to playfulness.
“You only want to be sure Ri keeps the sticky buns on hand, so you’ll have them,” she admonished him. Jace grinned wickedly down at her.
“Well, now that you mention it, that would mean she’d have to have them around all the time, wouldn’t it? I hadn’t thought of that!” He chuckled as his mother giggled, then steered her toward the door to the suite. “Let’s go see how breakfast is coming along.”
Streaks of purple and pink, orange and red spread across the sky, lighting the valley and the compound with a wash of rosy color. Above him, the sky lightened from star-studded black to dark purple, plum, before finally, with a flash of fuchsia, it settled into its normal amethyst. Scraping his hands across his face with weariness, Sean watched the morning break over the mountains that surrounded the colony.
He walked slowly along the edges of the compound, careful not to step on the multitude of the furry little kimis that seemed to follow him wherever he went. The darn things adored him, just as they adored Arianna, and probably because they were both highly empathic. Sean sighed. The sight of her, laughing as the little creatures nuzzled her and demanded petting, stole his breath and his heart every time. The love she sent out to the creatures, the unconditional acceptance of them, made him want so badly to be part of her inner circle, to be included in that sphere of love that she bestowed on his brothers and the gentle animals that had made themselves part of the colony’s life.
Cursing beneath his breath, he tried to force Arianna from his mind and instead focused on putting one foot in front of the other. How could he long for her when she was the reason he was out here?
Well, to be fair, she was only one of the reasons. He had slept on the balcony, but the couch that was so comfortable for whiling away an afternoon in the sun was not so comfortable for a full-grown, injured Thorsani warrior to sleep on through the night. He had aches in parts of his body he’d never imagined he would, which was impressive, since he’d been known to sleep in some strange places throughout his long and active military career.
Those aches and the pain of his recent laser wound hadn’t awakened him, though. No, it had been the sexual energy permeating the household this morning. The balcony ran the length of the living area of the suite, with his parents’ bedroom on one side and Hunter’s on the other. Between the two bedrooms, Sean was in a state of aching need. Having developed the skill very early in life, he’d managed to shut his parents’ energy out. That hadn’t been a problem.
But he was unable to block Ri. The way her mates made her feel, the way she responded so passionately and sensually, was tearing him apart. Every time he saw his brothers’ plaits in her hair, it hit him again that she belonged to them, but not to him. It felt wrong, on a soul-deep level, that she wasn’t his, as well. Not because he had once been part of his brothers’ team and was again, and not just because he had found himself in love with her.
If she had shown no interest in him, if she hadn’t let him see into her soul the day he saved her, he wouldn’t have fallen so hard and fast for her. But her guard had been down and he had seen the essence of her that day. He’d seen, in an instant, what had caused his brothers to fall in love with her, what made them so very protective of the tiny Earth woman. She was so strong and delicate, equal parts shy and sensual, incredibly intelligent and in some ways naive. She was a small, curvy bundle of contradictions that fascinated the Counselor in Sean and made him want to delve into her mind for hours at a time. He wanted to see how she worked, how she managed to smile when she had every excuse in the world to never be happy again.
But she was happy. She laughed, smiled, giggled, and played as though her heart had never been broken, as though she didn’t know what it was like to lose her entire world, not once, but twice. She had managed to overcome all of the tragedies life had thrown at her, adapted, and found love again. She was thriving in a world that was completely new to her, with mates that were a different species, from a different planet and culture. The light within her was awesome to behold, a golden glow that warmed Sean’s soul each time he touched it. Just being near little Arianna was enough to renew his strength, to bolster his belief that life after the attempted genocide of his people would return to a new definition of ‘normal’.
But he wanted that life to include her. He wanted to be a part of her family before the babies came. He wanted to be there when she gave birth to children that he fervently hoped would one day call him ‘papa’. He wanted to give her more kits to love, children that would call his brothers ‘dad’, as well. He wanted his kids to have the huge, loving family that he’d grown up with. And just like his mother had been the center of their world so many years ago, Sean desperately wanted Arianna to be the center of his and his brothers universe, the shining star around which all of them revolved.
But he couldn’t do that if the damned woman wouldn’t let him in.
Scowling at the sky, Sean determined to figure out why she was being so stubborn and get her past it, so that he could finally complete their family. Then he sighed, frustrated. He knew that she needed time. She’d nearly died a few days ago. They both had. She needed time to recover from that, time to settle into life with her in-laws constantly underfoot, time to get used to him.
“That’s enough self-pity for one morning,” he muttered to himself, disgusted with the emotions roiling through him. He was a warrior of almost two hundred years, not an adolescent in the throes of his first crush. He needed to act like it.
Taking a deep, calming breath, he went through a series of mental exercises to get himself centered and back to a more pacific state of mind.
His belly was killing him, but he was determined to aid the healing of the laser blast he’d taken while trying to defend Ri three days earlier. He shuddered at the memory of Amy, whose insanity had very nearly cost both Sean and Arianna their lives. Amy’s death was regrettable, but Sean had seen into her heart and mind. There had been no bringing the girl back from the depths of insanity to which she’d surrendered.
Recalling the murky, twisted fog of her mind in those last moment, darkness threatened to tug him into its morose embrace. Sean fought it off, searching for the bright light that was his alone, the center of his being. Such darkness often lingered in him after touching the mind of one such as Amy, but he’d never told anyone about that. There were no texts, no archived notes from former Counselors telling of that specific side-effect. He didn’t want anyone else to be affected by such insanity, so he’d kept it to himself. But perhaps he needed to tell Jace. The overpowering feeling of Amy’s sinister spirit remained, though Sean knew she was dead. He’d been looking at her when the top of her head blew off. She was gone.
So why could he not shake the feeling that she was still a threat?
“It’s a beautiful morning,” he reminded himself in a final effort to get back to the present. He took breaths as deep as possible, stopping to lean against a tree in the courtyard, forcing his mind once more to being, instead of thinking. As though sensing his distress, the little kimis chirred and rubbed against him, offering comfort through their small but powerful empathic bond. He let their energy flow into him, accepted their simple gifts and allowed the sweetness of their innocent spirits to soothe his.
Smiling down at the cute little things, Sean sank to a bench just to his left. Every one of the kimis tried to jump onto the bench to be with him or tried to climb his legs to reach his lap. Sean’s spirits lifted and he scooped a double-armful of the things against his chest, letting them nuzzle him and thrum at him in contentment as he buried his face in their incredibly soft fur.
After a long moment, though, they began sending him sweet but insistent demands to be groomed. Sean laughed and gently let them go, to fall onto his chest or against his lap. The little creatures were careful not to scrabble against his bandage, for which he murmured a heartfelt thanks. After the climax that wasn’t his, the muscles of his belly were tight and painful. The wound itself was screaming at a dull roar. He could handle the pain for a bit longer, but it was about time for another pain shot, if he allowed Jace to give him one.
He ached, and not just for Ri, he thought ruefully.
As though they sensed his turmoil and thought it less important than their needs, the kimis began chittering and snapping at him, their soft cries for attention growing, drowning out his black mood.
“All right, all right,” he chuckled, reaching into his boot pocket and pulling out a curved, very fine-toothed comb. Hunter had developed the combs just for brushing the kimis, when it was apparent that they were a marvelous renewable resource for spinning fiber. Most of the inhabitants of the compound carried the combs in little sacks that Ri and her women had made from scraps of material, just so they could collect kimi fur whenever one of the little creatures decided they wanted attention. Or when they simply scampered across the path and left tufts of the fur behind. That happened a lot. The compound’s children found it great fun to startle groups of kimis, just to watch the wildly colored tufts of fur eject into the air as the creatures scattered. Then the kids would gather the fur, separate it into color groups, and dutifully hand it over to the spinners, if they didn’t sit down and spin it themselves.
And yet, the kimis returned time and again, knowing that they would probably be surprised again and again. Of course, they got their own back by dropping from tree branches and hitching rides around the compound, or by crawling up to someone’s shoulder and twitching their soft little whiskers in the child’s ear. They’d run away chittering gleefully, just as the kids did. At least animals and children kept it fair.
“One at a time,” Sean laughed as several of the kimis vied for the honor of being the first one combed. He narrowed his gaze on them, finally settling on one that was very nearly red, with little streaks of gold in its fur. Hunter and Jace were working on a very special gift for Ri, and needed as much of the red wool as they could get for the embroidery on the gown.
Fortunately for the kimis, though, all colors of fur were needed. Sean quickly finished with the little red fur-ball and let it nestle on his shoulder, cleaning his earlobe with its tongue as the others pressed against him, pleading to be combed next. Making up a song about combing kimis at sunrise, Sean allowed his music to center and heal him. He let the kimis soothe him with their affection and thrumming approval as he settled in to his task.
* * *
Ri wandered around the balcony for a moment, though she knew that Sean wasn’t here. She simply enjoyed the lingering traces of his energy. It was potent this morning, more than usual, considering he wasn’t even there.
Opening her senses to search for him, she felt nothing more than the residual energy he and Hunter seemed to shed as they went about their lives. She had only become aware of it in the past few days. Perhaps the intensity of their emotions following Amy’s attack had heightened her awareness of her mate and his brother. Ri didn’t know, but she was learning to accept the wisps of energy, power, and emotion that surrounded her.
When her stroll brought her to the sitting area, she saw that Sean had slept on the couch out there. Again. The crocheted blanket he’d used as a covering was on the stones beside the couch. She stooped and picked it up, unconsciously bringing it to her nose. She wasn’t aware of breathing in his scent, nor of fighting her reaction to it. She was a pro at ignoring emotions she didn’t want to deal with. She’d had far too much opportunity to do so. Memories threatened to cloud her day.
Shaking herself to keep the spiral of grief from beginning, she dropped the blanket on the couch and looked down at the cushions.
The restlessness that had made sleep impossible for him still lingered on Sean’s pillow. Caressing the indentation there, Arianna shook her head with regret. She knew that she was the cause of his turmoil, but wasn’t sure what to do about it.
Well, that was a lie. She did know. She just didn’t want to admit it, either to him or to herself. The simplest answer was the most obvious. She could just take him as her lover, as her third mate. His brothers would welcome him, since the five brothers had been a team long before Arianna had crash landed on Hunter’s world. Two of the brothers, Siae and Kale, had been lost in a Solvari attack shortly before Hunter’s transport had settled on Ishira. Sean had been thought dead for several years before the Thorsani had been forced to flee their home planet.
But once the humans had come, Ri had touched Sean’s mind far out into space, guiding him home, to Ishira. To his family.
Ri, Hunter, and Sean were Readers, psychics by another name. Readers were highly empathic and had special skills to help understand their populace, to know when action was needed to prevent disaster.
Sean was an aberration, though a welcome one to his people, with the ability to see far more clearly into another person’s heart and soul, help them break down barriers and come to terms with traumatic events. He was a Counselor and beloved by his people. But even as powerful as he was, being able to reach into space just enough to beckon to Ri’s mind, he was only a fraction as powerful as Arianna.
Ri’s abilities were above and beyond anything the Thorsani had ever experienced. Jace had tried to measure her energy while she was Reading, but his equipment was not able to record her peaks. By accident, she had discovered that when she combined her energy with Hunter’s, she was able to soar out into the cosmos. She had done just that, finding and touching Sean’s mind.
She hadn’t known that the man she’d been sensing was brother to her mates until the second time she’d contacted him. Through their mental connection, Ri and Sean had talked several times before the Adelphae, the ship carrying him and his parents, landed on Ishira. Their family was now as reunited as it could be, with two brothers lost in battle and their younger sisters commanding ships of their own, possibly wandering in the black of space.
But Arianna had a plan brewing that might change that.
She smiled to herself, thinking how happy they would all be if she could find another ship and bring it home.
Hunter didn’t know about her idea. She was reluctant to tell any of them, in case it didn’t work. Being able to find Sean might just have been a stroke of incredible luck, something that she couldn’t hope to duplicate for distances outside of this star system. And perhaps her ability to touch his mind was solely because of their unique mental bond. She had no idea if she’d be able to duplicate such a feat with anyone else.
She called his name again, stepping further onto the balcony and around the small stand of trees that grew near the railing, just in case he was trying to hide from her. She snorted to herself. As if he could. Neither of them could hide from the other, even if they wanted to. That was the crux of their problem. That connection had saved her life several days ago, but most of the time it was a bit disconcerting. Especially since the attack. Something fundamental had changed between them that day, and Ri had trouble allowing herself to analyze it too closely. For some reason, she was holding herself from embracing what he offered her. Perhaps in the deepest reaches of her mind, hidden even from herself, the reason waited, watching for the right moment to make itself known. She wondered if she would be able to handle it when that happened, or if she’d deny it, turn away, and continue being a coward.
But for now… she opened her mind and reached out, scanning further from the suite.
I am here, kimi, Sean’s mental voice was soft and amused. She followed his energy until her eyes lit on him beneath the tree several stories below the balcony. He was surrounded by kimis. Ri grinned helplessly, leaning on the balcony railing to watch him. He looked up at her, his smile sheepish. Her heart melted a little bit more with each of those dimple-framed smiles, every warm glance from his deep green eyes. So like Hunter’s, but so different, as well.
In Hunter’s eyes, Ri could see herself reflected, only better than she’d ever thought she could be. Hunter took her as she was, saw in her the strengths that she hesitated to acknowledge. He might prod her to more responsibility than she thought she was capable of, but he knew she could do it, and his confidence in her had changed the way she thought of herself.
Jace was the same, accepting who and what she was without conditions or reservation. He was very curious about her inner workings, as any good doctor would be when presented with an alien species. But he also respected her mind and adored her creativity, the delight she took in her new world, the curiosity she exhibited when faced with a new creature, plant, or piece of Thorsani history. The researcher in Jace loved that his mate was just as much of a student of life as he was, just as enamored of what made each living thing different from those around it.
But Sean… perhaps part of her hesitance to accept his suit was that she couldn’t completely hide from him, shield her thoughts when he was around. Her mates allowed her to hold parts of herself back from them, but Sean wanted more than that from her. He wanted her secrets, wanted to light every dark corner of her mind. She blinked at the realization. Below her, Sean’s brow furrowed as he sensed her growing dismay. Reinforcing the walls around the darker parts of herself against his gentle probing, Ri sighed.
Would you like some company? she asked tentatively, hoping to distract him. He hesitated, but then nodded. She could see the warmth in his eyes from here, feel his longing for her.
With you, sweet Arianna, always. He chuckled again, shaking his head. Though you should know by now… if you can’t yet shield from Hunter, how do you hope to shield from me? And why would you wish to? There is nothing about you that I would use against you, nothing that you cannot tell me. Besides, if you keep having those heated thoughts about my dimples, there will not be a need to hide for much longer…
Stop that! She chuckled mentally, though she blushed at his tender words. His grin turned a little wicked and his eyes sparked up at her.
Come down here and make me! he taunted.
She laughed aloud, turned and hurried into the suite. Hunter and Jace, always attuned to her, looked up from their breakfast. They hadn’t waited for the grain mash that reminded her so much of oatmeal.
“Sean wasn’t out there,” Jace said, shaking his head.
“You might have mentioned that when we passed at the door,” she retorted. “He’s down in the courtyard, covered in kimis again.”
“Ah,” Hunter smiled at her. “And you are going to go rescue him from the fierce little beasts?”
“I feel it is my duty, as lady of the house,” she sighed dramatically, hand over her heart. Then she scowled at them both. “And eat your grains. They’re good for your digestion and cholesterol.”
Grabbing an empty basket and another kimi comb, Ri blew kisses at her grumbling mates and hurried down to the courtyard.
“She will be his soon,” Jace murmured, once their mate shut the door behind her. Hunter nodded, not looking at his brother.
“If that is what she wishes,” Hunter said. “It is our way.”
“But how can you-“
“Jace,” Hunter snapped, planting his hands on the kitchen island with enough force to quiet the room. His parents, who had been talking on the couch, blinked up at him in surprise. “It is our way. Isn’t that what you continually told me when Sean first arrived?”
He twitched his shoulders, shrugging his tunic back into place, and forced himself to relax. He went on in a measured tone.
“Besides, had Sean been with us when we found Ri, he would be her mate now, as well, and neither of us would have thought twice about it. In fact we would have used his talents to our advantage, used her attraction to him to help cement our collective claim to her. If she wants him, she will have him. It is her choice. Always.”
Jace stared at his older brother for a long moment, but finally nodded and went back to his breakfast, frustrated to have had his own logic used against him.
“That doesn’t mean I look forward to sharing her with yet another of my annoying brothers,” Jace muttered. Hunter chuckled at that. Jace sighed. “I need to check on him when I am done here.”
“I think I will join you.” When Jace looked at him in surprise, Hunter snorted then grinned a bit mischievously.
“I agree that it is our way. I did not say we had to make it easy for him.”
Jace’s smile was slow but filled with glee as he started contemplating all the ways they could thwart Sean’s courtship.
Hunter was right. Ri and Sean’s coming together was inevitable. But why make it easy for their brother to win their mate? Never mind that it hadn’t been particularly hard for either of them to win her heart… this was their brother, their oldest brother, they were talking about. Certain unwritten formalities must be followed when dealing with older siblings, after all.
Making life difficult was first on the list.
* * *
“There you are,” Ri sighed, settling beside Sean on the bench. Happy chirrings greeted her and half of the kimi immediately swarmed over, begging for a combing. Ri’s delighted laughter rang through the courtyard, clear and bright and echoing off the walls of the buildings and cliffs. The sound brought several of her friends to their balconies to call greetings down to Ri and Sean. He watched her as she returned their calls. She didn’t seem to realize that when she laughed like that, she broadcast her joy and love, which is what drew people to her. Sean was a victim of her sweet song, himself, but a perfectly willing one.
“What a lovely morning,” she said once she’d settled down to combing a kimi.
“It is that,” Sean murmured, watching her as she lavished affection on the ‘critters’, as she called them. She cut her gaze up to his then rolled her eyes at his open admiration of her.
She would never get used to the way these Thorsani warriors made her feel. She was thirty-five Earth years and some days she felt like a veritable frump compared to the college co-eds that had been captured with her. Ri knew she looked her age, but to her immense frustration, the men did not. Hunter, Jace, and Sean all looked to be in their late twenties or early thirties, though she knew very well that Sean was nearly one hundred-eighty years old. They considered her to be quite a young woman, but she could not get used to their frankly admiring glances and their overt sexual advances. What a Thorsani felt, he acted on, as far as matters of the heart were concerned. Realizing that she hadn’t answered Sean’s comment, she gathered herself and smiled at him.
“Are we still talking about our surroundings?” she asked pertly. Sean’s slow smile revealed the dimples on either side of his mouth and the crinkles at the edges of his eyes. Her breath caught softly. She was such a sucker for dimples and laugh lines.
Sean’s eyes narrowed as she let out a shaky breath and he caught the faintest scent of her sudden arousal, barely restraining a pained groan as his body tightened in response.
She liked his lines and dimples that much, did she? He filed the knowledge away for future use. He’d use anything he could to get to her, and smiles were free.
“I am,” he shrugged, winking at her. “My view is beautiful.”
His pointed stare assured her that he was talking about her. She chuckled and shook her head, feeling a blush creeping up her neck and into her cheeks.
“You are a shameless flirt,” she told him. He laughed, the sound rich and deep. It moved through Ri like a wave. When it passed, she felt oddly rearranged, different than she had been only a moment before. She was in trouble, here.
“I am that,” he sighed. Realizing how much he was unsettling her, he decided to relent for now. Resting against the bench’s slatted back he took in the brightening morning and changed the subject. “My brothers have found a lovely place for our people to rebuild our lives.”
“They have,” Ri agreed happily, looking around the familiar area, trying to see it through Sean’s eyes. “Has Hunter told you his reasoning for settling in this valley?”
“Not in so many words,” Sean shrugged then smiled at her. “But I have had much of the same training he has. I have seen the topographical, geological, mining, and weather maps for this hemisphere. I probably would have made the same decision for settlement, as well as a number of the choices he has made in placement and direction of the buildings and gardens. Many of them follow the suggestions in our colonization directives and the way we set up our communities back home, on Thorsan.”
“Really?” she asked, absently combing the ecstatically thrumming kimi in her lap as she looked at Sean. She was so used to grooming the creatures that the motions were automatic now. Comb, swipe the tuft of fur from the teeth, comb, swipe, repeat. When her hand was too full to empty the comb, she dropped the fiber into her basket. She kept that up as he nodded in answer to her question. He squinted against the morning sun over the eastern ridge and pointed toward the residential building.
“Aye. For instance, our balconies face the rising sun, taking full advantage of every moment of daylight. Being situated against the cliffs allows for less weather damage and uses the constant temperature of the ground for heating and cooling. Personally, I would have built further into the cliffs, instead of just against them. I have seen the reports of extreme heat and cold that our men have weathered here, and I think that building alternate gathering halls inside the cliffs would go a long way toward alleviating the ailments that come with both extremes.”
“You think so?” Hunter asked, amused, from behind them. They turned at Hunter and Jace’s approach. Sean shrugged at his brother’s words and Hunter went on. “To be honest, that was the plan for the winter months, now that we have so many more people to house. What else would you have done differently, oh venerable elder?”
Ri barely suppressed a laugh at the good-natured teasing. God, she’d missed having siblings around to bicker at each other. Hunter, Jace, and Sean reminded her almost painfully of her own brothers when they were like this. Hunter stood beside Ri, planting one booted foot on the bench beside her, leaning casually on his knee with his crossed arms, watching Sean with genuine interest. While his pose was relaxed and he wasn’t touching her, his place by her side was clear, as was the low hum of energy that he was broadcasting, subtly warning Sean away from her.
Ri wondered if Hunter even knew he was doing so.
Jace joined them as well, but knelt in front of Sean. He gently shooed the kimis aside so he could pull back the bandage from Sean’s belly and inspect his wound. Sean hissed with pain and glared at Jace when the crusted blood on the bandage opened the wound along the edges, but he straightened his torso and spoke to Hunter while Jace worked.
“Interior chambers,” Sean repeated what he’d said to Arianna, glad to have a distraction while Jace worked on him. “Utilizing geothermal heating and cooling.”
Hunter nodded and rolled his hand at the wrist in a silent gesture for Sean to continue.
“Wind turbines on the cliffs and solar collectors all around. Roof-top gardens would allow for cooler buildings without any additional power sources, as well as provide possible habitats for local creatures. Egg layers, perhaps? The kimis?”
“Go on,” Hunter said, taking mental notes, though some of Sean’s suggestions were already on the duty roster for winter and spring construction projects. Hunter needed to create spaces for the humans to use during the hottest parts of the summer. The temperature had simply been too brutal for them, and they had been miserable, which in turn had meant their men were miserable. He did not wish to go through that again, though the visits to the waterfall had proved fulfilling for all involved, in several different ways. His body stirred in sleepy memory, but he was still too sated from Ri’s wake-up call to be too distracted by the recollection.
“In deference to the women’s issues with the heat, I think that a swimming and fishing pond nearby would be a good idea. If it is big enough, perhaps stock it with aquatic animals for food, if that’s an option.” Sean’s eyes were narrowed in thought as he listed the ideas he’d had so far.
“It is,” Jace put in, frowning as he gently cleaned Sean’s wound and spread a salve over it. “We’ve tested a number of the local species of water-dwellers and they could easily be transplanted and farmed closer to home. We just happen to enjoy the trips through the woods to get to our favorite fishing spots so much that we have been reluctant to give them up. However, it will be problematic to try to transport enough fish now, when we could just install a small farming operation here.”
“I know that the rider beasts are sentient and that you’ve been able to collect milk from them,” Sean went on, his brow furrowing with thought, “But what non-sentient animals are there that could possibly be domesticated for food sources? I, for one, don’t like the idea of eating something that can converse with me.”
“We’ve been hunting various non-sentient animals in the forest,” Hunter said, his furrowed brow so like Sean’s that Ri gulped. She ducked her head to hide her flaming cheeks and continued combing the kimis, hoping that none of the men noticed her attraction. Hunter went on, “Until now, we have not needed to think about corralling and keeping them, but we will obviously need to advance to level-two colonization directives.”
“I was surprised that you weren’t already at level four,” Sean admitted. “You’ve been here more than ten years.”
Hunter shook his head, grinning a bit ruefully.
“I held off because we were initially a small colony and I wanted to keep our environmental impact low, especially since there was a good chance we would die without progeny. It’s one of the reasons we didn’t burrow into the cliffs. Until recently, once we were dead and dust, the buildings could crumble and decompose naturally, with little impact. However, with the influx of the women I have already set a number of level two plans into motion. Now that your ship has arrived, I will need to add even more to the duty rosters and implement new plans. But we can talk about all that at the next officers meeting.”
Sean nodded and started to say something else, but was interrupted by Jace’s annoyed voice.
“Crap on a cracker,” Jace muttered. Ri chortled at his use of her Earth saying. A sweet chorus of kimi chitters mimicked her laughter, which only made her giggle harder. He grinned up at her and winked.
“What is it, love?” she asked. He held up his hands, covered with a film of the gel he’d been applying to Sean’s wound.
“I forgot to put a towel in my kit last time I used it. My hands are covered with the salve and I need to bandage Sean again.”
“I’ll do it,” Hunter bit out, seeing that Ri was about to offer her help. Sean glared at him.
“I don’t trust you,” Sean growled. “You tickle.”
“Tickling is for children,” Hunter scoffed. Ri raised her eyebrows at him.
“You didn’t seem to think that last night,” she reminded him with a saucy grin. “Or do you see me as a child, my love?”
“Tread lightly, brother,” Jace said in a sing-song warning voice. Sean grinned openly at Hunter’s dilemma.
“Tickling is for children and love-making,” Hunter amended quickly, then got back some of his own as he tilted Ri’s face up, his gaze burning into hers with sensual heat. “Especially when the object of one’s love-making is tied up and can’t do anything about it.”
Ri glared at him for that as her cheeks went hot with memory and the fact that Hunter decided to reveal such an intimacy in front of Sean. Beside her, the older brother’s eyes widened with discovery.
“She likes to be restrained, does she?” he asked, his eyes narrowing on her with approving speculation.
“Stop it!” Ri protested, laughing and trying to hide her deep blush by hunching her shoulders up and her head down. “All of you! This is not about me. We need to get Sean bandaged.”
“And I will do so,” Hunter said, grabbing the roll of bandages from Jace’s kit and making quick work of wrapping Sean’s belly. He tied off the end. “See? Done.”
“I would have had more fun,” Ri murmured, her eyes locked to Sean’s muscular torso for a long moment. Did she just imagine that he flexed his pecs at her, or had he actually done so? His completely angelic smile assured her that he’d done it on purpose.
“Which is why I did it,” Hunter informed her with a wicked grin. Ri blinked at him, then stared.
“Are you trying to keep me from getting to know him better?” she asked with sudden understanding, stunned that her mate would do something to frustrate her when he’d already as much as given his blessing on the match. He shook his head, chuckling.
“Nope,” he said. “I’m trying to keep him from making you fall in love with him.”
Ri snorted and rolled her eyes.
“Is that how it’s going to be?” Sean asked quietly, glaring at his brother.
“Would I thwart my beloved older brother?” Hunter’s eyebrows went up in innocent question, his hand over his heart even though he’d just admitted that was exactly his plan.
“In a heartbeat,” Sean bit back.
“Definitely,” Jace nodded, his grin absolutely devilish as he teamed up with Hunter to face Sean. “It’s much more fun that way.”
“You are all idiots,” Ri announced, glaring at them as she got to her feet. She deposited her kimi comb in the basket, along with all the fur she and Sean had collected, and stood up with a fierce scowl on her face. She had no idea how she was keeping herself from laughing, but her men thought her adorable when she tried to look mean, so she gave them her best growl. “I’m going home to eat breakfast. You guys stay here and be brothers, if you must. When you can be human beings… er… adults again, you may join me.”
“Awww, but we were having fun!” Jace called after her plaintively as she threw her chin up and stomped off, basket in hand. As she went, three little kimi heads popped up over the edge of the basket.
“We’re going to have more kimi poop for the garden,” Hunter sighed, shaking his head. Sean grinned, thinking about the mess the little creatures were sure to make.
“Too bad I’m not allowed to bend over to pick stuff up yet,” he lamented, shaking his head in mock regret as his hand touched the fresh bandages on his belly. “Looks like you’re on your own for poop duty.”
Hunter scowled at him. Jace shrugged.
“He’s not wrong.” Turning back to his patient, Jace held up a syringe. “No bending, no lifting, and once you get back upstairs I want you to stay there for another day or two. No stairs. Pain killer?”
“No,” Sean sighed. “I’m fine for now.”
“You’re not healing as quickly as I’d like,” Jace sighed, then shook his head and, without warning, jabbed the needle into Sean’s arm. Sean grunted and gave his brother a look that should have burned him alive. Jace grinned and arched his eyebrow to make his point. “Mainly because you won’t hold still. So you’re going to take it easy and rest for the next few days. If I have to make it an official order and send two of my medics up here to keep you sedated, I will. Or better yet, I’ll put you in the med center and strap you down.”
“I’d like to see you try that,” Sean said, an eager smile spreading his lips. Jace laughed.
“Right now, all I’d have to do is thump you in the belly and you’d be begging for mercy,” Jace snorted. “These kimis could take you, if I asked them to. So stay still and let the nanos work.”
“Then give me something to do while I’m convalescing,” Sean begged, relenting. “I’m going crazy with boredom.”
Hunter blinked at him in surprise then exchanged wry glances with Jace and chuckled ruefully.
“What?” Sean asked, glaring at his brothers.
“You sound just like our little warrior, when she was wounded and confined to quarters,” Hunter revealed. “You two are quite a pair, you know.”
“Then why try to slow my courtship of her?” Sean asked with frustration. Hunter shrugged and hung a long arm around his older brother’s shoulders as the three made their way back to the suite, Sean massaging the tender injection site.
“Because you’re my brother, and thwarting you is my job,” Hunter said gravely.
Since he’d been the one to teach Hunter that ‘duty’ in the first place, Sean couldn’t really argue. He was sorely regretting that he’d been such an excellent big brother, such a thorough teacher in how to annoy a sibling.
“Now, have you any ideas about what to do when winter comes?” Hunter asked as they walked. “We have had trouble keeping the greenhouses warm enough for fresh food during the snows. I’ve had to augment natural solutions with the precious fuel cells from the Trephinia, but that can only last so long. I didn’t get as far in my studies of alternative energy sources as you did, so your input will be greatly appreciated.”
“Let me see the reports from the past winters, and I’ll see if there’s anything you’ve missed,” Sean said, glad to be of use in some small way. “And I’d suggest a new geological scan. You haven’t had one in ten years. New fissures or chimneys may have opened up that we can tap into for free heat.”
“We haven’t been able to scan because the necessary equipment was damaged when the ship was hit by lightning,” Hunter reminded him.
“The Adelphae’s systems are working,” Sean said speculatively. “We should see about cobbling together an entire working system between the two ships and your command center, and take new scans of everything. I understand the Trephinia’s were damaged, but we have the shuttles from the Adelphae that we can use, if we want to explore.”
“We’ll add new scans to the duty roster,” Hunter nodded, taking mental notes. “We’ll be overrun with volunteers to fly the shuttles for that, though. My men have been land-locked too long. What of your medical facilities? Is the equipment there working well enough to perhaps establish a new compound further away?”
“Hunter, I don’t have the manpower yet for another med center,” Jace protested, scowling at him. “Whether we have the equipment or not, if we don’t have the medics, we can’t support another settlement.”
And that was how the great Second Site debate began. Talking about the coming cold weather and provisions that they needed to consider for their people, the three brothers strolled home.
Storms of Ishira
Book Two in the Hearts of Ishira saga