In the year 3817 CE, as Earth collapsed under the ravages of climate change, fleets of spaceships were launched in a last-ditch effort to save the human species. They traveled to far galaxies looking for another world to call home, carrying with them elements of Earth cultures as well as Earth-based plants and animals.
A solar flare scrambled the navigation systems and scattered the fleet. One lone ship drifted aimlessly for months. With the crew on the brink of starvation and their fuel almost exhausted, the captain landed the ship on an uncharted planet where the readings indicated an ecosystem hospitable to human life.
The humanoid residents of Devmaer, of Devmaerean and Kedrant origins, nursed the Earth-born visitors back to health and welcomed them to their abundant planet. The humans quickly assimilated.
Chapter One: Mated
Three hundred years later…
Gael brushed the dirt off her hands, surveying the long rows of mounded earth that lined the hillside. This was the biggest crop of prakinroot herbs she’d ever planted, and it was needed urgently. Word had come from the capital that shipments to other countries had been hijacked.
The Waking Illness that had arrived in the summer was spreading faster than anyone expected. Now, as autumn crept across the countryside, the nation’s reserves of soothing medicines were shrinking. In the continent of Senne’s mild climate, herbs grew all year round, but it was still a race to keep up with the demand. Gael bit her lip, worried that even her best might not be good enough.
As the sun set over the brightly lit castle on the hill to the west, she walked between the cultivated rows, serenading the prakinroot seeds into life. The precious herbs would only germinate with the touch of her hand and the blessing song that she alone could sing.
In a few months, a vast harvest of herbs would be ready. Maybe the illness would be gone by then. Maybe there would be a surplus of the broad-leafed, fragrant plants. That would be so much better than the alternative.
Footsteps crunching in the gravel below interrupted her contemplation. Seconds later her apprentice Juliette burst into view as she ran around the end of the grapevines some thirty feet away.
“Cousin Gael.” Jules stopped, her chest heaving. She bent over, her hands on her knees, getting her breath back before she continued. “I’ve got a message from the queen.”
“Let’s have it.” Gael grimaced, knowing what her mother probably wanted. Her frown turned to a smile at the sight of Jules’s mud-splattered silver sandals. The girl was already dressed for the night’s lavish Harvest Banquet, in a silver gown that was tucked under her elbows to prevent it from being soiled on the garden paths. Her raspberry-colored hair was twisted into an elaborate up-do. She looked well-groomed and ladylike, which just showed how deceptive a pretty dress and a good hairdo could be. Her feet told the real story.
Jules pulled a message star out of her pocket and hurled it toward Gael. It spun through the air in a glittering arc. At Gael’s touch, the star burst into a constellation of sparkles that formed an oval frame. In the middle of the frame, the image of her mother sputtered into life. Queen Vasa’s face, normally composed and inscrutable, was white with rage.
“Damn it, Gael, where are you? This is the most important celebration of the year. I won’t have you embarrass your father and me again. We will be welcoming our guests in the Great Hall in thirty minutes. If you are not in attendance promptly, ready to entertain our company with your dancing, I will give you to the first available man who walks through the door after you arrive.”
Gael froze, her hackles rising at her mother’s imperious tone. Surely Vasa was simply trying to scare her. Gael wasn’t some lowly maid to be threatened with human bondage. Ever since her birthday four months ago, both her parents had been insisting that it was time she took a partner. All royals were expected to mate once they marked their twenty-first year. It had been that way since records began. Gael had steadfastly refused, knowing that Vasa could issue an imperial edict that would force her into a union, but never expecting her mother to be so implacable.
She thought Vasa understood her objection. All her life she’d been told how beautiful and talented she was. Since her early teens people had exclaimed that one day she’d be a great prize for some lucky man.
She didn’t want to be anyone’s fucking prize.
Vasa’s image in front of her crackled again, as if her mother had read her thoughts before they’d even formed. “I am serious, dear daughter.” Vasa hesitated before continuing. “You get here immediately or tomorrow morning you will be tied to the man who will share the next four years of your life.”
Spider chills ran down Gael’s spine. She never wanted to leave the Valley of Rushes and there were no suitable candidates for her hand anywhere near the castle. Nope. She’d stay right where she was, succeed her mother to the throne, and die a very old, unmated woman after a long and productive life. She understood her parents’ concern but, if she didn’t have children, the order of succession would award the crown to her cousin Jules’s offspring. Unlike Gael, Jules greatly desired a mate and babies. An heir would be produced one way or another.
Gael looked at the clock on the frame. It had taken Jules a full ten minutes to bring the message. If only Gael had her own CommBand, she wouldn’t have to wait for messages to be delivered personally. She could have talked to Vasa and asked for an extension. But, no, her parents had been resolute: communication technology was strictly controlled on Senne. If they let Gael have a CommBand before she turned twenty-five or was mated, then other young people from noble families would want one too.
With only twenty minutes left to get to the Great Hall, Gael raced toward the castle, to the door that led to the royal family’s private quarters.
In the half light, she didn’t see the rake stretched across the path near the vegetable garden. She tripped, lunging forward. Her flailing hands caught the side of a wheelbarrow. Covering her head, she braced for her fall and rolled into the ground, shoulder first.
As she lay, a mound of manure tumbling down over her, her temper flared at the indignity. In her mind it was caused by the faceless individual who would claim her hand.
Pity the unlucky man who would be her mate.
Stepping from the shower, Fleet Admiral Kai Grenville looked at his CommBand and cursed. He’d be late arriving at the castle and parking would be a nightmare. He regretted staying so long at the pub, celebrating with a friend.
Kai’d made the journey from his home in the capital city of Grenvilleton to the interior of the continent to visit a former shipmate who’d just delivered her first baby. Because Kai had introduced her to her partner, they’d named their son after him. Kai showered the family with presents before discreetly leaving the mother and infant in the ministrations of loving friends. The new father and Kai went to the inn and lost all track of time.
Once dressed, Kai drove to the castle at breakneck speed. The route was empty, which meant he’d be one of the last to arrive. Almost all the parking was taken so he left his hovercar with all the other latecomers, near the stables, and walked to the forecourt where King Athol was in deep conversation with a grain broker from the coast.
Kai recognized Roderick LaRoche, a merchant often seen prowling the docks. He knew him to be an unpleasant man whose gaunt face and perpetual sneer telegraphed his miserable disposition. He was accompanied by his son Remy who looked like a younger, less angry version of his father. Both LaRoche men were Devmaerean, like Kai. Blue-skinned with amethyst eyes, they towered over the mixed-blood king.
As he approached the men, snippets of their conversation reached him. Waking Illness. Hijacked. No cure. Pirates.
It was an all-too common discussion these days, so Kai shook it off. Tonight was a party and he intended to be in a festive mood. He bowed slightly to the group, but Athol waved him away, turning back to his other guests.
Kai trotted up the stairs to the castle and handed his dress cloak to the footman at the door. The minute he stepped into the Great Hall, announced by the herald, an electric current of tension hit him. Heads turned. Hundreds of eyes drilled into him as titters of excited laughter broke over the gathered crowd. Kai glanced over his shoulder, wondering if a court jester were behind him, mocking him. No, he stood there alone.
Blinded by the lights of a thousand crystal chandeliers, he turned to the receiving line. With Athol outside, Vasa and Gael were the only members of the royal family welcoming new arrivals. The princess’s face was flushed, and her chest rose and fell as if she’d just run a marathon. Her corkscrew curls were still wet from the shower. She had a raw, sensual look that triggered a primal hunger in him.
As Kai approached the mother and daughter, a faint fragrance of honeysuckle and vanilla, soft and beguiling, drifted toward him from the princess’s warm skin. She had the same black and gold tiger-striped hair as her father; the sign of ancient Kedrant bloodlines. In Gael’s case her coloring was the sign of her mixed heritage.
The Kedrants had assimilated with the humans quickly after the Earthlings’ arrival. Pureblood Kedrants were rare these days but most of hybrid race had inherited at least some of the supernatural powers of their ancestors. It was rumored that Gael was one of the gifted ones.
Vasa greeted Kai with a neutral smile; Gael stared at him coldly.
“Welcome, Fleet Admiral Grenville,” Vasa said, dipping her head in acknowledgement. She was a tall woman, small-waisted, with a figure kept trim by years of hard work and diligent exercise.
Looking at the assembly, Vasa clapped her hands and announced, “As promised, we now know which lucky man will take Her Royal Highness, Princess Gael as his mate.”
The guests broke into uproarious applause. People whistled, cheered, and stamped their feet in approval.
Kai stood, dumbfounded, trying not to choke at the unexpected declaration. He blinked rapidly and waited to hear what was coming next.
For a quick second, Vasa’s mask dropped. An expression of victorious happiness lit her face.
Gael studied a point on the wall behind Kai, as if she wasn’t part of this conversation. Kai eyed her suspiciously. Had she been part of this trap?
Vasa spoke to Kai in a quieter voice. “Your tardiness has won you a great honor.” She took Gael’s right hand and placed it in his left. Closing her long warm fingers around their joined hands, she said, “You have won Her Royal Highness Princess Gael’s first mate-hood. May the two of you be happy together. We will have the Ceremony of Vows here tomorrow.”
She stood taller and addressed the hall, “In these worrying times, we all need something to celebrate, an event to lift our spirits. Dear citizens of Senne, I give you the joining of Her Royal Highness Princess Gael to Fleet Admiral Kai Grenville. To mark this happy occasion, tomorrow every home in the valley will receive a basket of autumn bounty, a gift from King Athol and me.”
The cheering that followed was louder this time.
Kai bowed to Vasa, still struggling to assimilate what was happening. He was being awarded an honor that couldn’t be refused without risking the loss of his head. He didn’t ask why this prize had been conferred on him. No one questioned the queen’s decisions.
Gael dug her fingernails into the back of his hand, signaling her resentment about their mate-ship. So, she didn’t like it any more than he did. That was fine. He suppressed a smile at her show of claws. Although she wasn’t hurting him by any means, this kitten was sending him a message, a message of defiance.
Always one to welcome a challenge, he decided her willfulness was amusing and began to plan how he’d help her come to terms with their arrangement. It would start with her obedience and submission to him. If she failed? He smiled, picturing her bent over his desk with her shapely backside lifted in the air. She’d hold her breath as she waited for his touch, either punishment or penetration. His smile broadened. Penetration could be both.
Before his Devmaerean complexion betrayed his sudden spike of lust, he swallowed hard and reminded himself he didn’t want a mate.
Kai had grown up self-reliant and resourceful. Sent to military school at the age of seven, he’d developed independence early. At the age of nine he started regular tours at sea as a class boy, under the watchful eye of a family-appointed guardian. He learned to adapt to fast-changing situations. That talent, along with the ability to think on his feet, drove his stellar rise in the royal navy. At twenty-nine, he was the youngest person ever to command Queen Vasa’s fleet. He was single by choice and nothing had prepared him for this.
The idea of mate-ship was loathsome to him. He didn’t want to be encumbered by a mate, or children, who might make him hesitate in battle when he needed to be focused and strong.
He said calmly, “Thank you, Your Highness. I welcome this privilege with an open heart. I’m honored to have Princess Gael as my mate and promise to protect and defend her with all that I have.”
He bowed to Gael, hoping his determination to school her in the art of obedience wasn’t reflected on his face. She quickly replaced her hostile look with one of neutral disinterest. Her eyes, one green, one golden, mesmerized him for a moment. He wanted to touch her honey-colored skin and had to force himself not to stare at her.
Vasa brushed both their hands with her soft lips before taking a silk joining ribbon from her pocket. With a few deft twists, she wound it around their wrists as if she’d practiced the movement many times. With that, they were tied together for the rest of the evening.
The suddenness of this great change in his life rendered Kai silent, a rare occurrence.
The princess was equally mute, but her rigid spine spoke volumes about her unhappiness.
After Gael and he made the rounds of the Great Hall, accepting the many congratulations offered, they sat down at the head table on the dais. Once Athol and the last stragglers came in, dinner was served promptly.
With their wrists joined, Kai and Gael had to feed each other. Kai made the first move. Using his right hand, he picked up a spoon and dipped it into the soup bowl. Gael pinched her lips shut when he lifted it to her mouth.
He whispered, “If you don’t want me to spank you for acting like a naughty girl, you’d better open your mouth right now.”
As she opened her mouth and, with obvious reluctance, let him feed her, he marked his first triumph. She frowned when he scraped her chin for drops that spilled from her lips. With each spoonful that he tipped into her unwilling lips, he smiled.
When the main meal—roasted swavbird, crispy, golden patchers, and fresh greens—was set in front of them it was her turn to feed him. Clumsily spearing a chunk of meat with her left hand, she rubbed it in gravy before offering it to him. He winked and opened his mouth dutifully. Gael waved it in front of his face, making him bob and weave to catch it. As he bit it off the fork, she smeared the gravy on his face, letting the excess drip down his chin.
The jubilant guests applauded as Kai quickly raised his napkin before the gravy stained his immaculate uniform jacket. He smiled ruefully at the audience, as if he too had enjoyed Gael’s prank. Picking up his fork, he whispered to her, “Obviously you need to learn a few lessons. Lesson one: you will never embarrass me in public again. If you do, I will ensure that you can’t sit comfortably for days. Do you understand?”
Pale pink spots rose in Gael’s cheeks and she studied her water glass.
“Did I hear an answer?” Kai persisted.
“Too bad. You have a shapely backside. I would have liked to warm it tonight for the first time.” He smiled. “But the evening is young.”
When the dessert dishes had been cleared, Kai made a move as if to stand. “May I have this dance?” he asked in his most formal tones. Custom demanded it.
Gael threw back her head and laughed in a most un-princess-like way. Then she leaned in close, aware that people were watching their every exchange.
“Me dance with you?” Her voice was teasing, provocative. She batted her eyelashes flirtatiously. The glint in her eyes beguiled him until she added, “What did you have in mind? A catchy hornpipe or some other silly jig that sailors do to pass the hours?”
Hiding his shock at her offensive behavior, he kissed her forehead. He continued in his role of a courtly suitor, hoping their audience would assume they were trading intimacies, not jabs. He whispered, “You haven’t quite mastered stately behavior yet, have you?”
“You don’t like my manners? Too bad. I don’t take lessons from you.” Her dimples creased.
“You got that right, Princess. I only take promising students. I can’t make a silk purse out of a devsow’s ear.” He lifted their joined hands and kissed her fingertips.
At his uncivil words, her jaw dropped. Obviously not many people talked to Princess Gael like that.
Well, she’d better get used to it, Kai decided, because she needed to learn manners. She also needed to learn some respect. If she didn’t know his reputation for strict discipline, she’d soon have firsthand experience.
Despite what he’d just said, he intended to polish this rough diamond.
In that moment, he decided that before the four years ended, she would not just dance with him, she would beg him for the privilege.
Forget that. Before four months were over, he’d have her willing obedience.
The war was on.
Kai embraced the challenge. Fiercer opponents than this indulged princess had learned to respect him.
If he had to be mated, it would on his terms.
As Gael had showered and dressed for the banquet, she’d quelled the terror trigged by Vasa’s words. In its place she substituted a seething ball of anger and resentment, deciding she didn’t care who she joined with. Rich man or poor man, she’d show the unfortunate winner that she’d do just as she pleased after their vows.
She pictured herself being mated to a weak man, one she could manipulate and keep at arm’s length for four years. As long as he was reasonably presentable, the situation would be tolerable.
Then Kai walked into the Great Hall and she felt an odd, hypnotic attraction to him. Not just because he was tall and handsome, or the way his tightly fitted uniform jacket hinted at the chiseled pecs of his chest, but something in his aura made her pulse race.
When it quickly became clear that he expected her to obey him, it fueled her bad temper. It made her want to defy him on principle.
After the meal was over, she watched Kai from the corner of her eye as people filled the dance floor. She tapped her foot in time to the music as the musicians played song after song. Dancing couples glided past where she and Kai sat at the head table.
After the third or fourth number, Kai leaned over and whispered again, “It’s time for us to dance.” It sounded like an order, not an invitation.
When she ignored him, he spoke more firmly. “See how people are watching us, waiting for us to share our first waltz? We don’t want to let them down, do we?”
“Personally, I couldn’t care less.” That was a lie; she cared deeply about her duty, as she had been trained to do all her life, but she recognized a power struggle when she was facing one. She didn’t want this arrogant man telling her what to do.
“I don’t have to live up to their expectations.” She eyed the fruit platter, her pretty face knit in false concentration. “That makes me sound like a spoiled brat, doesn’t it?”
“Are you a spoiled brat?”
“Let me think.” She tilted her head pensively. “Tomorrow I’m going to join my life to that of a man I’ve never met before. A blue-skinned man of predominantly Devmaerean blood. I’m accepting this match because my mother says I must. I don’t think a spoiled brat would do that, do you?” Gael popped a grape into her mouth.
“You have to, don’t you? Isn’t your duty, like mine, to obey the crown no matter who wears it? And isn’t choice one of the first casualties of duty?” He raised their joined hands and kissed her fingers.
Gael smiled. In that moment she liked him more than she wanted to. They’d only just met, and he already seemed to understand some of her challenges. “My parents are fond of saying that great rank brings great responsibility, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it, does it?”
“No, although it could be easier on everyone concerned if you accepted your responsibilities graciously.” The music almost drowned his words.
Gael shook her head, as if he’d just suggested she grow wings and fly to one of Devmaer’s two golden moons. “Look, you landed me as your mate. That’s a four-year commitment but you can’t force me to like it.”
Kai squeezed her hand. “No, but I can make you dance with me.”
“You can?” She sat up straight, inching away from him, as far as the binding ribbon allowed.
“Let’s put it this way, you can get up and dance with me or I will throw you over my shoulder and take you outside. I will find a dark and private corner on the balcony and there I will raise your skirt and warm your curvy little bottom until it’s on fire, burning with the pain of a thousand bee stings. I will paddle your backside until you apologize for acting like a brat and start begging me to dance with you. Do I make myself clear?”
“Perfectly.” Gael touched her throat defensively as they stared at each other for a minute. Her mouth was suddenly very dry. Beside him, she looked petite and felt more powerless. She wanted to resist the force of him, but cool logic told her that would be a futile effort. Parts of her were reacting to his strength and energy in ways she couldn’t explain. Her panties were damp and her pussy was clenching.
A hint of purple flashed over Kai’s face. Something cold and determined glittered in his amethyst eyes. Red sparks fired in his blue hair momentarily. As fleeting as they were, Gael recognized the signs of a Devmaerean temper rising, finding it both intriguing and arousing.
More than that, as a sympathetic she felt his rage as clearly as if he’d sworn at her. Not that he was attempting to conceal it. However, she knew if that anger went unchecked, other witnesses would see it too and speculate on their conversation.
While she loathed the idea of having to give in to Kai’s demands, she worried about an open display of discordance between them. As a public figure, she knew the importance of hiding what others weren’t meant to see.
Her mother’s grim announcement earlier that Gael was going to be joined in mate-hood was enough humiliation for one night. She couldn’t bear the thought of Kai embarrassing her in public for the second time in one evening.
She had no doubt he could and would carry out his threat. Even though she was tall for a human-Kedrant mix, five feet seven inches, and trained in all aspects of self-defense, he was built like a typical Devmaerean male. At six and a half feet he towered over her. His broad shoulders and muscular arms created a feeling of helplessness around him, as though she couldn’t refuse him anything.
She ran her hand down the blue dress that fit her like a second skin. The choice of color now seemed unfortunately coincidental. It was the same tone of blue as Kai’s skin, only five shades lighter. Probably some people thought she’d known all along what was going to happen tonight. They were enjoying the surprise announcement regardless.
Another thing she hadn’t planned on was dancing. Her choice of gowns featured a hobble skirt that bound her at the knees. It forced her to walk in small mincing steps, exaggerating the swing of her hips. Called a speed limit skirt by some people, it restricted her range of movement like a fashionable piece of bondage equipment.
“Yes. I’ll dance with you. One dance.” She turned on her most blinding smile as she stood. “As much as my gown allows.”
“That’s a good start for a spoiled brat.” He smiled as he led her to the dance floor, walking in long strides so she had to scamper behind him like a puppy. He turned to her, placing a firm hand on her waist. In his arms she felt small and slightly vulnerable. She smiled up at him, wanting, for a minute or two, to foster peace between them.
Kai was a strong lead and Gael’s exceptional dance skills allowed her to follow him as they found their own orbit among the many couples swirling around the room in an easy waltz. Forced to take rapid, hobbled steps to keep up with him, she never made a false or awkward move. Still, taking two or three steps for every one of his soon raised a sheen of perspiration on her forehead.
“It seems your wardrobe selection was inappropriate for the evening,” Kai remarked as they swept around the dance floor.
“It was a deliberate choice,” she said. “I didn’t want my mother demanding that I put on a show for the gathered masses. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to dance to entertain others. I’m tired of performing like a windup toy dog for anyone who is remotely bored.”
“Your movements are more feline than canine, Princess.” The warm hand on her waist drew her closer. “You should be proud of your gift. You probably don’t remember me visiting the castle as a teenager. I ate with the adults in the Great Hall while you still sat at the infants’ table in the kitchen. Even then you were stunning with those large solemn eyes and your graceful movements.”
“Are you trying to win my good humor with flattery, Admiral?” Because she mistrusted compliments, her tone was defensive. All her life she’d been told how beautiful she was. Most people never saw beyond those gifts, as if she was an ornament to be fawned over.
She didn’t hear his answer because a couple on the far side of the room caught her eye. Jules was dancing with a tall attentive partner, another Devmaerean, whom Gael had never seen before. To the world at large he appeared to be a handsome man.
Gael’s sharper senses told her he was treacherous, and that Jules, with her trusting heart, was falling in love.