“A grandmother can always hope.” Iris smiled then stood up and started to clear the table. Iris was dressed in black slacks and her habitual burgundy cardigan, her salt-and-pepper hair short and curly. Her brown eyes were still bright and full of life. Her body, however, was slowing down. Arthritis had begun to fuse her joints, making her hands and feet painful to use. Flora did everything she could to lessen her grandmother’s responsibilities, but Iris was stubborn and proud. They were characteristics shared by most of the members of the Hays family. “I miss sitting down with all three of you.” Iris glanced at Flora as she added, “I miss your mother. Yesterday was her birthday and it hit me especially hard this year.”
“Oh, Grandma, I’m sorry. I was so busy I didn’t realize.” Flora skirted the table and wrapped her arms around Iris. It had been five and a half years since Autumn Hays had died, but the pain still lingered. “We all miss her, probably always will.”
Flora was closer to her grandmother than she had been to her mother. She always had been. Autumn had been devastated by the loss of her husband when she’d packed up could for Autumn as well, but Autumn was a ghost of the woman she had been in her youth. The girls had been too young to fully understand what was happening. All they knew was that Daddy her three daughters and moved back in with Iris. Autumn had withdrawn emotionally from everyone, so Iris had offered the traumatized preschoolers love and support. She did what she was gone and Mommy was sad all the time.
Images in a photo album were all that Flora had of her father. He had been a soldier who’d died in a war her mother didn’t believe in. Flora would love to know more, but Iris had barely known the man and Autumn had insisted that talking about him was too painful. Flora’s birth certificate said she’d been born in Michigan, but she didn’t have clear memories of anywhere but this modest three-bedroom house in Juneau, Alaska.
Following her grandmother’s example, she carried the nearly full stew pot to the nearest counter then opened a nearby cupboard and took out a large storage container.
“Raina had to work tonight, but where is Aspen?” With a grandmother named Iris and a mother named Autumn, Flora wasn’t surprised that she and her sisters all had names derived from nature. She’d seen people roll their eyes in response to the collection of names, but she thought the tradition was charming.
“Aspen is out with whatshisname again.” Iris frowned and handed Flora a zipper bag for the leftover biscuits. “That boy has no ambition and even less common sense. She needs to take this more seriously.”
Whatshisname’s name was Bill, and Flora agreed with her grandmother. Aspen could do better. Of course, dating prospects were limited in Juneau. The city was large by Alaska’s standards, but a large portion of the population was tourists, many of whom got off cruise ships in the morning and sailed away at sunset.
Juneau residents loved to complain about the tourists, but the city’s economy was heavily dependent on them. All three Hays daughters would not have jobs if it weren’t for tourism. Aspen worked for a ‘whale watching’ tour company. Raina was a waitress in a restaurant walking distance from the ships. And Flora worked at a novelty shop selling T-shirts and souvenirs.
“Aspen is just passing time,” Flora assured her grandmother as she rinsed out the bowls and placed them in the dishwasher. “They both know it’s not serious.”
“And what about you, young lady? When are you going to find a nice young man and settle down?”
Flora winced. The problem was she wasn’t attracted to ‘nice’ young men. She knew steady and dependable equaled a happy marriage much more often than dark and dangerous. Unfortunately, the only men who had ever gotten her heart racing were consummate bad boys. The sort of men who featured prominently in the dreams she’d been having for the past few weeks.
The first dream had been surreal, a non-distinctive blending of impression and sensation. She’d felt restless when she woke up, but she hadn’t remembered anything specific about the dream. The second dream was more focused. She hadn’t been able to see her lovers, but she knew there had been more than one. The dreams had grown longer and more detailed every night since. She could never see her lovers’ faces, but she knew their scents, the texture of their skin, and the fullness of their long, hard cocks thrusting into her trembling body at the same time. Just thinking about it made her shiver and ache. She had never even flirted with the idea of going to bed with two men, but her subconscious was having a field day with the idea.
“I know that look,” Iris scolded. “Your mother was a wild child too. Nothing good ever comes from running after trouble.”
“I’m not running after anything,” Flora argued. “I’ve just had some unusual dreams lately.”
The color drained from her grandmother’s face and she turned off the water. “What sort of dreams?”
“The sort you don’t talk about with your grandmother.”
Iris started to say something then shook her head. “If the dreams persist, I want you to tell me. Have you had any other symptoms?”
“Symptoms? Since when are sexy dreams a symptom of anything other than sexual deprivation? It’s been almost a year since I broke up with Jeff. I think it’s time for me to dust off my dating profile.”
“No, it’s time for you to find a husband,” Iris stressed as she turned back to the sink. “You just turned twenty-five. I’d already had my first child by that age.”
Thank God social standards had changed. Being in a stable relationship would be wonderful, but she was not ready for kids. “I have a few years left before my dotage, Grandma.” Flora took the wet stew pot from Iris and dried it off.
“Why did you end it with Jeff?” Iris persisted. “I liked him, which is more than I can say for most of the boys your sisters bring home.”
Flora set down the pot and leaned back against the counter, studying her grandmother. Iris had been acting strangely for the past few weeks and Flora wasn’t sure why. “All right, Grandma, spit it out. Why are you suddenly so focused on our social lives? You always took a hands-off approach before.”
Iris looked at her then glanced away, fidgeting like a guilty child. “There is safety and security in a permanent relationship.”
She understood security, but why safety? “Are you ready for an empty nest? Is that what this is about? You gave up your independence when you invited Mom to move back in. And your responsibilities tripled when she died, leaving you three teenage girls to raise. We would all understand if you’d had enough.”
“That is not what this is about,” Iris assured her. “This is your home. I would be devastated if all three of you move out. I simply want—”
Thunder reverberated all around them, the sound so loud that it shook the house.
“Holy crap.” Flora ran to the window and pulled back the bright yellow curtains. “Did a tree just fall on a house or something?”
Iris grabbed her arm and pulled her away from the window. “We need to hide.”
Despite the shrillness of her grandmother’s tone, Flora shot her an impatient look. “It was thunder, Grandma, not gunfire. Why would we need to hide?”
As if to answer her question, the kitchen door flew open, smacking against the wall. She jumped back, instinctively raising her arms to ward off whatever was coming. Terror sped her heart and dried out her mouth. Her mind spun trying to explain what was transpiring right in front of her. Three armed soldiers rushed into the kitchen, decked out from head to toe in body armor. Maybe it had been gunfire after all.
She looked at her grandmother and fear gave way to anger. Iris’s face was pale, her features tense, lips trembling. There was no excuse for terrifying an old woman!
“What do you want?” Flora demanded. “You have no right to burst in here like this.”
One of the soldiers walked up to Iris and stated, “Iris Hays, you are under arrest for opening an illegal portal and transporting General Turin’s offspring to a restricted planet without his permission. You are also charged with the kidnapping of Luna Borak and Cara Slanar.”
Flora moved in front of her grandmother, using concern about Iris to make herself brave. “Show me an arrest warrant right now or get the hell out of our house!” It was impossible to gauge his reaction. His helmet had a dark visor so she couldn’t see his face. His form, however, was clearly outlined by the armor. He was well over six feet tall, with broad shoulders, muscular arms, and a sharply tapered torso.
“Move back, Mistress Turin, or I will be forced—”
“My name is Flora Hays. You are clearly in the wrong house.” So how had he known her grandmother’s name? And who was Iris accused of kidnapping?
Rather than argue with her, he motioned one of his companions forward. The second soldier wrapped his arm around Flora and easily dragged her away from Iris.
“Let go of me, you jackass!” She thrashed, twisting and leveraging herself against his chest so she could kick wildly. “You are going to be in so much trouble when you realize—”
“Flora.” Her grandmother’s calm voice cut through Flora’s rising emotions. “This isn’t a mistake. You need to settle down.”
Shocked by the suggestion, Flora stopped fighting. “What are you talking about? This has to be a mistake.”
“Everything will be explained once we are aboard my ship,” the apparent leader told her. “Now, where are the other two?”
“Flora is the sole survivor.” Iris’ answer was immediate and insistent.
He turned his head sharply and said, “You are facing a long and difficult incarceration. Cooperation is in your best interest.” His tone grew gruff and inflexible. “Where are the other two?”
He had to mean her sisters. She wasn’t sure what this was about, but she did not want her sisters mixed up in it. “Grandma’s right. My sisters are dead, just like my parents.”
The leader slung his rifle into the harness strapped to his back then slowly took off his helmet. Each movement was deliberate and intimidating. “I was hoping to talk this over like civilized beings once we are aboard my ship, but clearly you have been on this primitive planet for too long.”
‘Primitive planet’? Did he mean Earth? That inferred that he was from somewhere else. She swallowed hard and focused on the leader.
Closing the distance between them, he cupped her chin. He tilted her head back, ensuring that he had her attention. “I am Commander Draven Aldar and you belong to me.”
“I don’t belong to anyone,” she insisted, twisting out of his hold. The coarse fibers of his glove scratched her skin but she couldn’t drag her gaze away from his face. His skin was so pale it appeared white. Was he wearing theatrical makeup? And prosthetics? The sharpness of his cheekbones was echoed by the rest of his features. He looked human, and yet he didn’t. Long, dark hair had been pulled back from his face and bound at the base of his neck. And his eyes. She had never seen eyes so dark and reflective. There was no difference between his irises and pupils, adding to his alien appearance.
“Your father arranged our union three weeks after your fifteenth birthday, as is the custom on our planet,” he clarified.
“My father died long before I turned fifteen. He couldn’t have arranged anything.” Her mind refused to accept what the visual clues were indicating. She looked at her grandmother, frantically grasping at the last rational explanation. “If this is your idea of a joke, I don’t think it’s funny.” Her grandmother had no reason to arrange this. Still, the alternative was impossible. Real aliens didn’t exist.
Iris licked her lips and looked from Flora to Draven and back. “He could be telling the truth. The custom is real.”
“But he said my father arranged it,” Flora cried, fear sharpening her tone. “What the hell is going on? Do you know this guy?”
Iris looked even more uncomfortable than Flora felt. “Try to stay calm. You need to—”
“If he won’t leave, I will!” She spun around and headed for the front door.
He closed his long fingers around Flora’s upper arm and tingling heat sank into her muscles. It felt electric and intense, stopping just short of painful.
“Don’t touch me.” Confused and afraid of the strange reaction, she jerked her arm out of his grasp.
“There will be time later to correct your rudeness,” he growled out the subtle threat. “Where are Cara and Luna? You will tell me now or there will be consequences.”
“Screw you! I’m not telling you anything.” She couldn’t if she wanted to. She didn’t know anyone by either of those names.
“Flora,” her grandmother cautioned. “He can and will punish you. Altorian discipline is part of why we left.” Iris looked at the commander and said, “Luna works at a local restaurant and Cara is on a date.”
Flora’s jaw dropped and tension banded her chest. The names were wrong, but Iris had just pointed him toward her sisters. Why the fuck would her grandmother help this jerk?
“Give me your communications device,” Draven told Flora, holding out his hand.
“Why?” Her pulse accelerated and she instinctively glanced toward the door. She had to get out of here, get away from him.
“Because I told you to.” His gaze narrowed, flashes of red sparking in the black.
Iris walked across the room and dug her phone out of her purse. Without looking at Flora, she held it out toward Draven.
“Call the other two and tell them to return as quickly as possible. If you warn them in any way, I will add obstruction to the list of crimes already awaiting you.”
Flora saw indecision in her grandmother’s gaze and tried to capture her attention. They could not deliver Aspen and Raina into the hands of this arrogant asshole. She didn’t care if he was from another planet or not. He was dangerous.
“I am losing my patience,” he growled. “Summon them, now!”
“I can’t.” Iris held the phone, her hand shaking. “Do what you must with me. I will not call them.”
He snatched the phone out of her hand and shoved it at Flora. “Contact them.”
She glared at him then took the phone. She had no intention of obeying his order. “Why do you need all three of us? What is this about?”
“None of you belong here. I am taking you home. Now stop arguing and summon them.”
Averting her face so he wouldn’t guess what she was doing, she called nine-one-one and pressed the phone tightly against her face to muffle the speaker. Her breath lodged in her throat as she waited for the call to connect.
The dispatcher greeted her and asked the nature of her emergency.
“Grandma collapsed.” Infusing her tone with urgency and fear took no effort at all. She was already on the verge of tears. “She’s barely breathing. Get over here, right now. Hurry!”
“You are calling from a mobile phone. Please confirm your current location.”
How could she tell the dispatcher without alerting Draven? Fuck it. “Nine zero two zero Long Run Dri—”
Draven grabbed the phone and snapped it in two then tossed the pieces onto the floor. “Damn it, Flora. This need not be so complicated.” He turned to the other soldiers and ordered, “Go! Take Iris to the ship.”
Her grandmother was hurried from the kitchen by the two armored soldiers.
“You will learn your place, Flora Turin, and it will be my pleasure to teach you.” Snatching his helmet off the counter, Draven grabbed Flora’s arm with his other hand and dragged her out into the backyard.
She struggled the entire way, but his strength and determination easily overpowered her efforts. Panting harshly, she looked around, half expecting to find some sort of shuttle parked in the grass. There was nothing but an overgrown lawn and the shadowy outline of trees. So much for all the inferences that they were aliens. A real alien would—
Reality bent and blurred, and then Flora felt herself sucked through space. She screamed but the sound was swallowed by the distortion caused by whatever force had grabbed her. For one terrifying moment, she could no longer feel her body. There was utter blackness and the staggering rush of energy.
Gradually, something solid formed beneath her feet. Her knees wobbled, threatening to collapse as she gasped out, “Oh, God. What the fuck just… What is happening?” She looked around for her grandmother, but she was alone with Draven in a tiny, featureless room. The walls were pale gray, almost silver, but the inset lights gave everything a subtle blue glow.
Without a word, he caught her elbow and guided her forcefully into the corridor. She blinked and tried not to throw up as her surroundings continued to undulate. A doorway to her right slid open and she glimpsed the room beyond. It was a compact cabin like on a submarine—or a spaceship. Holy shit, she was on a spaceship.
Her stomach gradually settled, but her mind seized. This couldn’t be real, yet everything around her confirmed Draven’s story. He was an alien from the planet Altor—and apparently so was she.
Her thoughts settled enough to ask, “Where did you take my grandmother? Is she even my grandmother or was everything she told me a lie?”
“Iris is unharmed, and yes, she is your grandmother. She is locked in a comfortable cabin by now, which is more than she deserves.”
She eased her arm out of his grasp and was surprised when he allowed it. “If my mother and grandmother fled to Earth, they must have had a damn good reason.”
He led her up a curving ramp and down a short corridor that overlooked the main hall below. The shorter hallway was lined with doorways on one side. He suddenly began speaking in a language she didn’t understand. There was no one nearby, but he was still carrying his helmet. Was the helmet sensitive enough to pick up his words or did he have a communications implant?
When the conversation ended, she dared to ask, “What was that about?”
“I told my partner to depart as soon as the other two are onboard.”
“Are you talking about my sisters?”
“I am referring to the females you were raised to believe were your sisters. Much about your life has been a fabrication.”
Her heart sank and her steps lagged. She would deal with her grandmother’s lies later. She had bigger concerns right now. “Have your soldiers found them?”
“With your grandmother’s help.”
She glared up at him. “I don’t believe you. Grandma would never help you.” It was an exaggeration and they both know it. Iris had been cooperating off and on since his arrival. Of course, she had a clear understanding of what was taking place.
He shrugged. “She had no choice.”
Did he mean she’d been pressured into assisting them, or something more alien? Could Altorians read minds? Not sure she wanted to know the answer, she let the subject drop.
He stepped in front of the final door and a scanner beam passed over his face. She tried to see around him, but he pivoted to the side and urged her to enter. This cabin was bigger than the one she’d seen earlier. A surprisingly large bed was separated from the living space by a translucent divider. Other than the roomier size, there wasn’t much to recommend it. Everything was utilitarian and well organized, but impersonal. Did he do anything other than sleep here?
The door slid closed behind him and he set his helmet on a stand nearby. Then he pressed some sort of trigger over his collarbone and his armor liquefied. She watched with wide-eyed wonder as the protective layer was absorbed by his black-on-black uniform.
“How the… what is… how did you do that?” She was too astonished to form an intelligent sounding question.
He shrugged again. “It is a transmorphic polymer called trycinaline, but that is all I know about it. I am a soldier, not a scientist.” Without warning, he grasped her upper arm and dragged her across the room. “Now that we are alone, let me clarify my expectations.” He sat down in one of three tall-backed, yet armless chairs and pulled her between his legs. “When I tell you to do something, you do it. I will not lie to you, but I expect honesty in return. I will not tolerate disrespect or defiance for any reason, is that clear?”
“Respect has to be earned and I am only defiant when—”
He unfastened her jeans before she realized what he was doing.
“Stop it!” She slapped at his hands and tried to twist away, but he worked so fast there was no avoiding his intentions. “Have you lost your fucking mind?” Her jeans were unzipped and down around her ankles when reality set in. Her panties were still in place, but why had he pulled down her pants? She was aboard a ship that he commanded. No one would stop him from doing anything he chose with her. “Please. I don’t want to have sex with you.”
“This is not about what you want.”
Miniature flames flashed hypnotically within his dark eyes. She tugged against his hold but fear was rapidly overtaking her anger. He bent her face down over his leg and held her there with firm pressure on her upper back.
Fear gave way to incredulity. Was this jerk actually going to spank her?
“You belong to me, Flora.” He rested his other hand on her upturned ass as he trapped her legs between his. “You have since you turned fifteen. Earth has made you willful. You must learn Altorian ways.” His hand lifted then smacked down against her bottom.
There was no fucking way she was going to lie here and let this happen. She reared and twisted, punching at his legs, hips, anything else she could reach.
“Fiery spirit is desirable.” As he spoke, he gathered her hands and brought them to the small of her back. “I will help you channel all this energy into something productive.” He grasped both wrists with one long-fingered hand.
She was immobilized now, held in the most demeaning position. He brushed his free hand over her bottom, squeezing the cheeks as if to determine the quality of her flesh.
“You are one twisted fuck,” she sneered, anger flaring again.
He smacked her hard enough to make her gasp, one side and then the other. She gritted her teeth, refusing to cry out. His hand fell again, the interval faster. Her panties dampened the sting, but nothing blocked out the humiliation. She was a grown woman. This was ridiculous.
He spanked her some more, moving the slaps from side to side. “You will be respectful or you will spend a lot of time bent over my lap.” He accented the claim with a flurry of hard spanks.
The discomfort was annoying, but it left behind a sinking heat that made her squirm and press her thighs together.
“If this is how all Altorians treat women, I understand why my mother left.”
He pulled her panties down, baring her bottom. She closed her eyes, refusing to allow the absurd situation to humiliate her. He was the one with issues. Rational men didn’t spank women!
His fingers brushed over her cheeks. His skin was even warmer than hers. “The next few weeks will be hard for you. Our ways are different from the chaos on Earth. We demand order and discipline from all of our people. You, my sweet mate, are no exception.” When his hand connected this time, the sting was sharper, the heat more intense. “You will control your temper.” Whack. “You will stop using profanity.” Whack. Whack. “And you will do what you are told.” Whack, whack, whack.
By the time he’d finished his list, she was shaking with anger and the strangest combination of dread and desire. This wasn’t a game. This alien brute considered her his mate and expected her to obey him. Wasn’t this proof that he could do what he wanted with her?
The spanking went on and on, each slap feeling harder than the last. She tossed her head and yelped, but nothing even slowed his hand. Her pussy ached, throbbing almost as hard as her abused ass. She didn’t understand what one had to do with the other.
The weight of his leg shifted off hers while his fingers played over her sensitized skin. It stung, yet it felt good in a dark, forbidden way that she wasn’t nearly ready to explore.
“Open your legs.”
Had he guessed that this ordeal had made her wet? She pressed her thighs together and fisted her hands.
He slapped each cheek much harder than before. “I do not repeat directives.”
“Go. To. Hell!” She craned her neck, but couldn’t quite see his face.
“Challenging me is foolish,” he cautioned. “You cannot win a battle of wills.”
His hand fell fast and hard, the slaps measured but firm. She cried out and wiggled, unable to avoid the stinging smacks. He was ruthless, clearly intending to spank her into submission.
Anger fueled her struggles, but the insidious heat was much worse than the sting. This was demeaning and painful, so why was it turning her on? “Stop,” she cried out. “Please, stop.”
His next spank became a caress that spread the stimulating heat. “Open your legs right now and I will end the lesson.”
A defeated sob shuddered through her and she let her thighs relax.
He pulled her panties down to her knees then used the toe of his boot to drag them to her ankles. “Wider, mate. Offer me your pussy.”
Teetering between defiance and the need to come, she hesitated. God above, her pussy ached.
“You need my touch. I can smell your arousal.”
She shook her head, not ready to accept that a hard spanking had nearly made her orgasm. Of their own volition, her legs opened and her hips rolled upward.
“Good girl.” He stroked over one hot cheek and then the other before tracing her swollen folds with his fingertips. “You are very wet, my love. Has a spanking ever made you come?”
She shook her head again. “Of course not.” Even to her own ears, she didn’t sound convincing. No one had ever dared discipline her before, so how could she know how she would react?
“Would you like an orgasm?”
Stubbornly pressing her lips together, she kept the words locked inside her mind.
He parted her folds and circled her opening, sliding easily across her wet flesh. “Who does this pussy belong to?” He pushed two of his fingers deep into her needy core. “So warm and snug. I cannot wait to feel this cunt wrapped around my cock.”
She whimpered and grabbed his pant leg, suddenly realizing her hands were free. “My body belongs to me and only me,” she whispered as he slid his fingers in and out.
As if to mock her assertion, her passion-drunk mind expounded on the situation, creating a vivid image to torment her further. She pictured herself on her hands and knees, legs spread wide, ass raised in silent offering. Draven knelt behind her and grasped her hips, then penetrated her aching body with his long, hard cock. She could feel her inner walls opening, burning as they stretched to accommodate his thickness. She whimpered again, hating her own weakness, and confused by the ease with which he had made her desperate.
“The offer is about to expire,” Draven warned as his fingers fucked into her faster.
“Please.” The word slipped out, making her humiliation complete.
“Please what, Flora. Tell your mate what you need.”
Please, please make me come. But all that escaped was a frustrated cry.
He withdrew his fingers, rubbed her clit twice, then lightly swatted her pussy. “You punish yourself with your stubbornness.” He eased her off his lap and onto her knees then stood up. “Right your garments. Your father is waiting for you.”
“My father is dead,” she argued, but she was no longer sure of anything. She struggled to her feet and gingerly eased her panties back into place. The sturdy fabric of her jeans was nearly as painful as the spanking had been, and her pussy ached as badly as her bottom. She moaned and looked at her tormentor. “Is there anything else I can wear? My jeans really hurt.”
“I have other garments for you, but I want you to think about your attitude and what will happen if you do not follow my rules.”
Averting her face before she started glaring, she zipped up her jeans and fastened the waistband.
He led her from the cabin a few moments later and every step she took reinforced the lesson. If she spoke her mind, she would be punished. If she used profanity, she would be punished. If she refused to do something he told her to do, everything ended the same way. With her bent over and her pants around her ankles while he warmed her ass.
No wonder her mother and grandmother found Altor intolerable. What female wouldn’t?
They followed the raised hallway around to the other side of the gallery and Draven stepped in front of the scanner. The door didn’t open immediately as it had at his cabin. Apparently, the occupant had to approve their entry.
When the door slid open, Draven motioned her inside but he did not follow her into the cabin.
She stopped just inside, feeling intensely uncomfortable. The cabin was identical to Draven’s, bed on her left, living area on her right. Iris sat in one of the armless chairs and a male Flora did not recognize stood near her grandmother. He wore a black-on-black uniform that accented his pale skin. His hair was dark brown with just a hint of red. His features weren’t as angular as Draven’s, but he would have a hard time passing for human. Was this really her father? Her hair was closer to red than his, but both shades would be considered auburn. Their gazes locked and her heart missed a beat. She saw the same vivid green eyes staring back in the mirror every morning.
“My name is Azar Turin,” he introduced. “Despite what your mother told you, I am your father.” Without giving Flora a chance to respond, he looked at Iris. “You have ten minutes. Make the most of them.” And then he walked out of the cabin.
Stress and suppressed emotions burst from Flora like a volcano. She rushed across the room, not caring that every step hurt like hell. “What the actual fuck, Grandma! How could you lie to me like this? I don’t even know what species I am. How could you? How could Mom?” She hadn’t even realized she was crying until harsh sobs made it impossible to speak.
Iris stood and wrapped her arms around Flora. “We were trying to protect you. Protect you from exactly what’s happening right now. And you only understand a small portion of it.”
“How did they find us? We’ve been on Earth for two decades. What is different about now?”
“I’m not sure,” Iris admitted. “Have you felt a rush of energy or heard someone’s thoughts?”
The only unusual thing that had happened lately was those erotic dreams and she had no intention of discussing them with her grandmother. “Draven said Raina and Aspen aren’t my sisters. Is that true?”
“They are your cousins. Each of you was born to one of my daughters. They are in the same situation you’re in. That’s why we took them with us.”
Flora had so many questions. How could they possibly get through them in ten minutes? “Is my name different too? I have no idea who I am, do I?”
“You were named after the Altorian goddess of flowers. We just used the Earth equivalent.”
“Is this why you’ve been pressuring us to find ‘mates’?”
Iris nodded. “If you’d found a human husband, it would have invalidated the bonding contract your father established for you.”
Arranged marriages still existed in certain human societies, but she sure as hell didn’t belong to one. She shook away the distraction. Her father had given them ten minutes. She needed as much information as possible before he returned. Forcing her emotions back under control, Flora urged, “Tell me everything.”
“Let’s sit down.” Iris motioned toward the compact sofa against the wall.
“Go ahead. I’m too wound up to sit.” She wasn’t about to admit the truth.
A knowing look came over Iris’ features, but all she said was, “I see.” She went and sat down, then dove right into her explanation. “There are eleven planets in the Altorian star system. Eight are inhabitable, but only four have established populations. Altor and Torret have always been rivals. The rivalry became more contentious as both societies developed space travel and turned their sights toward colonization. Torret attacked an Altorian outpost, but Torret insisted that the moon was in one of the disputed zones so Altor didn’t have the right to be there.”
“All of this happened before you and Mom left?” Flora asked.
“Yes, about two years before. It was obvious that war was just a matter of time, which meant the power triads would become weapons again.”
“Power triads? I don’t know what that is.”
Iris nodded and paused to collect her thoughts. “Power triads were created centuries ago by a team of Altorian mystics and scientists. They found a way to combine the energy of three individuals into a nearly unstoppable force. A triad consists of a source, a conduit, and a controller.”
“Are you talking about technology or… magic?”
“Both, and neither.” She shook her head and sighed. “The development team used technology to edit the DNA of individuals with mystic abilities. Both magic and science were necessary. Does that make sense?”
“I understand the concept, but it is so far beyond human experience that I’m still struggling to understand any of it.”
“You’re not human, Flora. You’re Altorian. That’s the first thing you need to accept.”
And yet her mindset, the entire context for her existence had been developed on Earth. Weren’t those the things that made one human? Rather than wasting time with a nature versus nurture debate, Flora moved on. “You said there are three parts to the triad. Are you talking about equipment or people?”
“People,” Iris told her. “Each triad is made up of three people, two males and a female.”
“And what does each do?”
Iris glanced toward the door then spoke a little faster. “The source is a deep well of raw mystic energy. The conduit is the person through which that energy flows. And the controller holds it all together. Without the controller’s participation the conduit would be consumed by the source. All three parts are necessary for the triad to function.”
“What does this have to do with me?” She already had a pretty good idea. She just needed to know which label they had assigned her.
“Conduits are rare.” Iris’ voice grew hushed, as if she spoke of something forbidden. “They were believed to be extinct for several generations. In truth we were in hiding, living on the fringes of society and meticulously concealing our abilities.”
Her grandmother might be a conduit, but she couldn’t be one. She didn’t have abilities. She wasn’t extraordinary in any way. She sold cheesy souvenirs to tourists. “You are a conduit?”
Iris nodded. “The gift is passed down from mother to daughter. Conduits are always female. Sources and controllers are always male.” Iris paused, giving Flora a moment to absorb what she’d been told. “Your mother refused to allow you to be used to fight a pointless war, so she asked for my help and I gladly gave it.”
“But I have no abilities. How can I be a conduit?”
“We bound your abilities,” Iris rushed on. “We didn’t want them to manifest on Earth. Your mates will unleash your true nature. I’m sure it’s the first thing they’ll do.”
“My mates? As in more than one?” Understanding suddenly unfurled within her, momentarily stealing her breath. “Power triads are life partners. They don’t just work together. This is a polyamorous sort of thing.” Her tone became less uncertain with each statement.
“If you choose to honor the bonding contract, Draven will be your controller. Your source’s name is Noratu Skore.”
“If all I have to do is refuse, why did you and Mom leave the planet?” There was no way it was that simple.
“Bonding contracts are secured with a bride price,” Iris admitted. “According to your father, your price was quite high. If you choose to break the contract, you will be charged the bride price.”
“Are we talking the equivalent of hundreds or thousands of dollars, and how long would I have to pay it back?”
“I don’t know the exact figure, but it would be in the millions. Noratu is elite. The Skore family is one of the richest bloodlines on Altor, and one of the most ruthless.”
“That makes no sense,” Flora cried. “Why would anyone pay the equivalent of millions of dollars to marry me? I’m no one.”
A faint beeping sounded and both women looked toward the door. Shit. Had it been ten minutes already?
Iris made a helpless gesture and blinked back tears. “I’m so sorry we failed you. I don’t know what else we could have done.”
Flora went to her grandmother and leaned down to hug her. “This isn’t your fault. You should have told us the truth, but you risked your life to protect us. It’s hard to be angry about that.”
Azar stepped into the cabin and motioned for Iris to leave. Flora could see the guard waiting in the corridor. If Iris resisted, she would be escorted at gunpoint, no doubt. Flora wanted to object, to insist that Iris be allowed to stay. But Iris silently crossed the room and the door closed behind her.
Strolling across the cabin with his hands clasped behind his back, Azar assessed her silently. “I see more of me in your appearance than your mother.” He reached out and captured a lock of her long auburn hair. “Is that true of your temperament too?”
She snatched her hair out of his light grasp. “How the hell would I know? I’ve never met you before.”
He chuckled. “That would be a yes. Flora is a crude translation of your name, but if it will make you more comfortable, I will continue to refer to you as such.”
“It is the only name I have ever known. Why the hell would I change it now?”
Accepting that with a shrug, he asked, “You just turned twenty-five, correct?”
Shouldn’t you know if you’re my father? She kept the smartass question to herself. “Yes.”
“You were born within months of your cousins, so the other two will be activating soon.”
Her brows scrunched together. What the hell was he talking about? “Raina is twenty, Aspen not quite nineteen.”
Another chuckle rumbled in his chest, though amusement didn’t reach his eyes. “Raina’s real name is Luna. Aspen’s is Cara. Nothing you were told about them is correct.” He unclasped his hands, his posture relaxing as his explanation continued. “Your mother can almost justify taking you off world, but she kidnapped your cousins. To be clear, that means their parents were not informed much less asked for permission. Luna’s father is a prosecutor and intends to try the case himself. Cara’s parents want to avoid a scandal, but they might change their minds once they see how badly she has been corrupted.”
“I don’t care if we are cousins or sisters, or not related at all. We were safer on Earth.”
“You don’t belong on Earth,” he insisted. “Your mother was a self-righteous zealot. She preached pacifism while forcing her beliefs on anyone who didn’t agree with her.”
“I don’t believe you. Mom was selfless and gentle. She—”
“Gentle?” He laughed, a cold, embittered sound. “Your mother was vicious, easily the most ruthless member of our triad.”
“Then she changed significantly when she escaped you, because that was not the woman I knew and loved.”
He ignored the objection. “Your grandmother just explained why you were taken to Earth from their perspective. Now you will hear my side of the story.” He swept his arm toward the small dining table. “Let’s sit down.”
“I’d rather stand.”
“Are you always this obstinate?” His gaze narrowed then he moved to the table and pulled out one of the chairs. Rather than sitting at the table, he swung the chair around to face her. He didn’t bother with further pleasantries. Instead, he began his defense. “As I’m sure Iris told you, Altorian flames, like all power triads, are powerful weapons.”
“There is more than one kind of triad?”
“There are four. I will explain the details after you understand the basics.”
She nodded. “Sorry to interrupt.”
“The destructive power of the triad cannot be denied. However, they are not used to win wars. Their primary purpose is, and has always been, to avoid them.”
“How can a weapon avoid a war?” She hadn’t meant to sound quite so belligerent, but challenge rang through her tone.
“On Earth the concept is called mutual assured destruction. When the program began, the four inhabited worlds in our star system all possessed the same number of power triads. This discouraged any planet from unleashing the weapon.”
“Because the other planets would retaliate in kind?” Nothing he’d said so far contradicted what Iris had told her. It was more like a different perspective of the same events.
She wasn’t sure what she expected from her first interaction with her father, but this history lesson wasn’t it. She moved closer to the table, then carefully lowered herself onto one of the chairs. The worst of the heat had subsided, but her butt was still tender. “Your last few sentences were in the past tense,” she pointed out. “Was that intentional?”
“It was.” He shifted his chair so they faced each other again. If he’d noticed the stiffness of her movements, he didn’t react to it. “Triads were originally created to end a devastating war. All four of our inhabited planets were involved and they were on the verge of tearing each other apart. So, a group of scientists worked with Altorian mystics to create the triads. There were a total of twelve initially; three were assigned to each planet.”
“Why was that enough to end an interplanetary war? It certainly wouldn’t have been on Earth.”
He crossed his legs, looking calm and comfortable. “This is where things become more complicated. The mystics wanted the triads to balance each other out, so they were empowered with similar yet opposite abilities.”
Flora felt her brows scrunch up so she smoothed out her expression. “How can something be similar and opposite at the same time?”
“The triads all manipulate elemental energy, but the specific element is different. Altor was assigned fire, Torret water, Pyron air, and Houkdi ground or in their case sand.”
It was an interesting tale. She had yet to see any evidence that any of it was true, but it was semi-entertaining. Rather than slow down his rambling story with more questions, she just nodded.
“The triads were sent not to their own planet, but to the planet of their opposite element.”
“Fire to water, and sand to air?”
His head dipped as he said, “Exactly. The triads were a powerful deterrent. It took a few demonstrations of their abilities, but the war ended within the year. The deterrent continued to work for centuries, but then one of the triads was killed. This unbalanced the equation and the war resumed until a new triad was created and trained.”
“Grandma insists that I’m a conduit. Was I created by these mystical scientists or was I born with whatever abilities I’m supposed to have?”
“As the first set of triads began producing offspring, many realized that their children had been born with their abilities. This was a pleasant surprise to the originators. They had not realized that the alterations made to the participants’ DNA would become hereditary traits. The gene pool had to be expanded and carefully managed, but creating the abilities is no longer necessary. To answer your question, you were born with your abilities. Your bloodline is one of the strongest in existence today.”
“Why are conduits so rare if the abilities have been incorporated into our genetics?”
He uncrossed his legs and scooted closer to the table. He was starting to look impatient. “Conduits have always been outnumbered, and the genetic manipulation responsible for the abilities made them more likely to bear male offspring. By your grandmother’s generation, it was believed that the gift had gone extinct. And then we learned that they had been hiding from us, intentionally avoiding their destiny.”
A chill raced down her spine and something in his tone made her ask, “How did you meet my mother?”
His dark brows arched and a calculated gleam flashed through his eyes. “She was recovered during one of our raids and taken to the Citadel. I first saw her there.”
“What is the Citadel?” She knew what the word meant, but he’d said it with obvious specificity.
“Triads receive their formal training at the Citadel. It is a space station centrally located in our star system. It is a country unto itself, with its own governing body and law enforcement. Once your mates have determined that your bonding is secure, you will venture there to learn how to use your gifts.”
Her mates decided she didn’t belong on Earth. They decided they would claim her. They would decide when she was ready to be trained. Was there anything about this that she got to decide? “You’re a controller, aren’t you?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Your mannerisms remind me of Draven.” When he just stared at her silently, she lashed out, “Did my mother ever love you?”
She’d meant the question as an insult, but he seemed amused instead. “Love is not necessary to function as a triad. She was fond of Otal. With me and Autumn it was intense but often combative.”
He was trying to make her understand his point of view, but all she knew for sure was that her mother and grandmother had been completely justified in running away. “Was she allowed to choose which triad to participate in or if she wanted to participate at all?”
“You must stop thinking like a human. Humans are selfish and frivolous. You must rise above your upbringing. You have been born with an extraordinary gift. Is it wrong that we expect you to use it to save thousands, perhaps millions of lives?”
She licked her lips and gazed past him for a moment. “How do I know that any of this is true?” She dragged her gaze back to him as her anxiety started to rise. As soon as this conversation was over, he would take her back to Draven. She had no intention of giving in without a fight, so that likely meant more pain and humiliation.
“Which part of it do you doubt?” he asked. “You are on a spaceship and your grandmother told you about the triads before I did. Do you not trust her?”
How had he known what her grandmother told her? Was this cabin under surveillance? Probably. “I’ve heard about these mystical powers, but I’ve never seen any evidence that they exist.”
He said something in a language she didn’t understand. She thought she heard the name Noratu. Wasn’t that the other member of her triad?
“He will be here momentarily,” he told her without explaining who he meant.
They lapsed into silence as they waited for whomever Azar had summoned. The door slid open a few minutes later and an Altorian male walked into the cabin. He wore the same black uniform as everyone else, but his appearance was strikingly different. Where Draven’s and Azar’s skin was chalk white, this male’s skin was golden. His features were more rounded and his hair was the most fascinating combination of yellow, orange, and red. Their gazes met and locked. Flora felt surrounded by liquid gold. He was… beautiful.
“Noratu, your mate does not believe that our power exists. Would you mind giving her a small demonstration?”
Without breaking eye contact with her, Noratu ambled over to the table. “It is wonderful to finally meet you, Flora. As you heard, I am Noratu.”
She held out her hand without thinking. Did Altorians shake hands? He wrapped his long, golden fingers around hers, but didn’t shake her hand. Instead, he raised it to his lips and pressed a kiss to her knuckles. Tingling heat swirled up her arm, hardening her nipples and making her clit twitch. She snatched her hand back, disconcerted but not surprised. She’d felt a rush of awareness when Draven touched her too.
“Are you alright?” His voice was deep, yet smooth. It lacked the rumbling growl of Draven’s.
She nodded, still unnerved.
He glanced at Azar as he began the demonstration. “Altorian fire is real.” He held up his hand and the color of his fingernails darkened from gold to red, then miniature flames burst to life on the tip of each finger.
She rolled her eyes. “I’ve seen human magicians perform that trick.”
He grinned, holding his hand so his palm was flat at just below her eye level. The tiny flames floated down his fingers and joined in the palm of his hand. The joined flame became a ball that gradually grew in size and intensity.
Mesmerized by the churning sphere, she stretched out her hand. She could feel the heat on her fingertips, but part of her needed to believe it was some sort of trick. Her hand inched closer and the heat intensified.
Noratu quickly made a fist and shook his head. “Until we are bound, my flames can seriously burn you.”
“The triad must be balanced,” her father reiterated. “Without the controller, the source consumes the conduit. And without the conduit, the power cannot flow out into the world.”
When Noratu uncurled his fingers, the fireball had become shimmering energy. It fluctuated from yellow, to orange, then red, yet it no longer radiated heat. “I manifested at eight. Draven sensed his power even earlier. With your family history, we are hoping to do amazing things together.”
She looked from Noratu to Azar and back. “I don’t know what that means. What is my family history?”
“I was not quite finished with my explanation,” Azar told Noratu. “You can wait in the corridor. It will only take a moment or two.”
Noratu dispersed the energy then lowered his arm. “As you wish, General Turin.”
Had he meant to sound sarcastic or was she just freaked out by all of this? Tension built with each step Noratu took. She wasn’t sure what else her father could possibly say, but she suspected she wouldn’t like it.
“I am career military.” He pushed back his chair and stood up as he went on. “Despite my humble birth, I have acquired respect and acclaim because of my abilities as a controller and because I’m a damn good soldier. Negotiating a bonding contract with Noratu’s parents was a nearly miraculous accomplishment. The Skores are one of the premier families on Altor. They could have bound their son to whomever they wanted, but they chose my contract over hundreds of others.”
“Why?” He was all stern-faced, cold-eyed controller now. He was no longer trying to be personable.
“Your mother was exceptional. She was a skilled conduit, but she also had source energy. It was like having an axillary fuel tank whenever Otal was running low. It gave us a level of control and an intensity of output that no other triad had ever achieved. We had you tested at four and both gifts were already detectible. The Skore family was determined to claim the most sought-after female on the planet for their only son, so they offered the largest bride price in history.”
“I guess if I have to be sold, I’m glad I went for a high price.” She was anything but flattered by the information. The highest bride price in history was what it would cost her if she broke the bonding contract.
Rather than commenting on her snark, he continued his explanation. “Needless to say, when your bitch of a mother disappeared with you and two other conduits, I wasn’t the only one who was furious. Bonding contracts are not finalized until the conduit is fifteen, but verbal agreements are often entered into at birth. The Skores paid half of the bride price up front. Luna and Cara also had preliminary agreements with potential triads.”
“None of that is my fault,” Flora objected. “Why should I be punished for the decisions my mother made?”
His eyes narrowed and his voice dropped to a menacing growl. “The only ones who were punished for your mother’s decisions were Otal and me! You are being offered a phenomenal opportunity.”
Arguing with him was pointless, so she asked, “How were you punished?”
“Not only did your mother reject her triad, she rejected the other families. Elite Altorians do not take that sort of insult lightly. They retaliate. Otal and I failed to control our mate, so we were publicly ridiculed. We were excluded from polite society and humiliated. I no longer belonged to a power triad so I was stripped of my command. My new assignment was a routine patrol in a deserted sector of our star system. If it weren’t for the war with Torret, I would be there still.”
Flora looked up at him silently. She’d yet to hear the ultimatum, but she had no doubt it was coming.
“One of two things is about to happen. One, you honor the contract and willingly submit to your mates, thereby restoring the good name of your family.” He paused for effect. “Or two, you continue to pretend that you are human. You argue and fight, you defy your mates until they are forced to punish you. If you choose the human option, I will prosecute your grandmother to the full extent of the law and insist that the other families do also.”
She gasped. “You’re blackmailing me?”
“No, I am explaining your choices. Don’t human females like choices?”
“And if I submit, what happens to Grandma then?”
“I will drop all charges against her and encourage the other families to do the same.”
She bit back a string of vile names. What a manipulative bastard. “I understand exactly why my mother ran away.”