Torn between boredom and irritation, Zilrath Nomani walked across the small office and gazed out the only window. Sector 412 of Earth, an area once known as Fort Hood, Texas, had been flat and semi-arid before the Skarilian attacks. Now it was a scorched wasteland filled with bitter memories. Ground transportation was nonexistent, and this small cluster of buildings was the only structure still standing on the sprawling military base. The logistical challenges and seclusion made the complex perfect for Protectorate Headquarters. Those with spaceships and molecular transportation devices did not need roads.
Enraged Ventori warriors founded the Protectorate after the destruction of their home world. They vowed to defend all victims of the Skarilians and eventually end their reign of terror. So the Protectorate raced from star system to star system like the intergalactic cavalry. Their noble goals brought them to Earth eighteen months ago when the Skarilians turned their sights on the human race. The Ventori successfully stopped the devastating attacks, but two-thirds of the planet already lay in ruin.
Zilrath’s planet, Tavor, had been the Skarilians’ target six months ago. His people had been slaughtered or forced to evacuate the only world they’d ever known. As with Earth, the attacks had been unprovoked and senseless, so their plight naturally brought them to the attention of the Protectorate. Many of the refugees were brought to Earth because it was the current location of the Ventori Defenders, aka the Protectorate.
Heaving a heavy sigh, Zilrath turned from the window and glanced around the room. There wasn’t much to it, a rudimentary desk and several mismatched chairs. The unimpressive space was Chancellor Savator’s private office, but the head of the Protectorate didn’t spend much time in this small, unwelcoming space. He had too much to do, and too many demanding on his attention.
The door, which Zilrath had left partway open, was shoved wide and Kellan Styre strode inside. The tall, brawny Ventori looked around with lazy interest before his penetrating gaze landed on Zilrath. “Bron summoned me.”
“Me as well.” Though it was doubtful Zilrath would ever be comfortable enough with the chancellor to refer to him by his first name. “Do you know what this is regarding? I was only told to be here.”
“Me too.” The Ventori shrugged and sat in one of the chairs arranged to face the desk. Like most Ventori males, Kellan had long dark hair streaked with a lighter color. His contrasting strands were sapphire blue, though the most common color was red. Similar streaks of blue marbled his dark eyes, causing them to shimmer when the light hit them just right. He wore the formfitting uniform required of all defenders. His was a dark grayish blue and the intricate design on the upper sleeve indicated his position as commander of the Elizian, the newest and most technologically advanced ship in the Ventori fleet. He had been Chancellor Savator’s first officer for years, and the two were still close. “Have things settled down at Fort Benning?” Kellan asked after a long pause.
“Not really,” Zilrath admitted. “Most of the refugees don’t want to be there. They simply have nowhere else to go.”
Zilrath, along with thousands of other Tavorian evacuees, had come to Earth during, or shortly after, the Skarilian attacks. Family units and groups of orphans had been assigned to settlements scattered all over the U.S., while single males and unclaimed females were divided between Fort Benning in Georgia and Camp Accord in the mountains of Colorado. As the only Tavorian on the High Command, it was Zilrath’s responsibility to ensure that his people had a voice in decisions affecting them. Not an easy task given the vast differences between Tavorian customs and Protectorate philosophies.
Tavorians were separatists. They avoided conflicts, only becoming aggressive when directly attacked. Tragically, their dedication to peace had only made their annihilation easier for the ruthless Skarilians.
The Ventori, on the other hand, were crusaders. Their inherent need to protect and challenge allowed them to stand up to the Skarilians while most other races ran and hid, or surrendered without a fight. Ventori Defenders were aggressive, argumentative, and highly sexual. A fact more human females were learning with each passing day.
“Will it help if you separate the males and females like Bron wanted to do all along?” It was hard to miss the challenge in Kellan’s deep tone.
Zilrath moved closer to the desk but remained standing. He was tired of having others tower over him. Among Tavorians, he was considered tall, but the Ventori were all monstrously big and muscle-bound. “The single males would turn their frustration on humans instead of each other if we deprived them of female companionship. It’s better to deal with their petty squabbles than the sorts of infractions that would arise if we moved all the females to Camp Accord.”
“Have they determined whether or not we can breed with your females?”
The question was so rude that it shocked Zilrath. No Tavorian female would even consider forming a mating bond with anyone other than a strong, capable Tavorian male. “Genetic compatibility is irrelevant. Tavorian blood must be kept pure. It is our custom. Our law.”
“Yeah, well, customs and laws have a way of evolving whenever the Skarilians are involved.” Kellan crossed his legs, resting one booted ankle on the opposite knee. “What about your brother? Didn’t he bond with a human?”
Familiar resentment tensed Zilrath’s shoulders and gripped his stomach, but the tightness didn’t last. It was hard to remain angry with someone who had just saved thousands of lives. “Azra is a hybrid. His blood is already tainted.”
The Ventori just nodded and shifted his gaze to the window.
Since coming to Earth, the Ventori focus had shifted from pursuing the Skarilians to finding genetically compatible mates. They wanted to establish a settlement or settlements, and start rebuilding their lives. The new direction had grown out of the unexpected discovery that some human females were compatible with Ventori males, an opportunity that had never presented itself before in all their extensive travels.
Tavorian physiology was different from Ventori. Tavorian scientists had been trying for generations to explain when and why mating instincts were triggered. There didn’t seem to be a specific genetic pattern, blood protein, or chemical combination. It was visceral, instinctual. Either a couple was deeply attracted to each other, or they were not. Casual sex was enjoyable, but nothing like a true mating. Mates blended bodies, minds, and spirits, and only mating instincts could facilitate such a bond. To Zilrath’s knowledge, a human female had never triggered mating instincts in a Tavorian male. Besides, with so few Tavorians left, it was more important than ever to keep Tavorian bloodlines pure.
Chancellor Bronson Savator entered a few minutes later, followed by a human female. As always the chancellor appeared massive and mean, his green-streaked hair cut short, the marbling in his eyes flashing with green intensity.
Zilrath shifted his focus to the human female. Any female was more interesting than the brutish Ventori. Pale yellow hair just brushed her shoulders. Both the simple style and light color were very different from Tavorian females. She glanced at him and offered a polite smile, though the warmth never reached her green-gold eyes. Many would consider her pretty, but she was too thin and timid for Zilrath’s tastes. He dismissed her as inconsequential and returned his attention to the chancellor.
“Thank you for coming on such short notice,” Savator said as he sat down behind his desk.
The female dragged one of the chairs around the desk, so she sat more or less at the chancellor’s side. How strange. Was she more comfortable with Savator or was she attempting to make a statement with the position?
Feeling awkward with everyone else sitting, Zilrath reluctantly lowered himself onto the chair beside Kellan. The arrangement was slightly adversarial, but Savator didn’t seem to notice.
“This is Celeste Mortenson.” The chancellor motioned toward the female. “She’s special envoy representing the U.S. Secretary of Alien Affairs, and she has been assigned to oversee the integration of those Ventori who have applied for mates and the Tavorian refugees.”
“What the hells is that supposed to mean?” Kellan looked from the chancellor to the female and back, his rugged features tense and disapproving. “Maybe we don’t want to be integrated.”
“It has come to our attention that the human females are expected to make all the adjustments,” Celeste told him. “You have chosen to remain on Earth and bond with human females. That means these females have certain rights. We’re concerned that these rights are being disregarded by the—”
“You said ‘our attention’ and ‘we are concerned.’ Who the fuck are you talking about?” Kellan’s reaction was amusing the chancellor. He sat back and let his friend harass the envoy, hands lightly resting on the padded arms of his desk chair.
“The Department of Alien Affairs in general and my boss in particular.” She folded her hands in her lap, attempting to hide their trembling. “Several of the mates have sent messages, as well as many concerned onlookers.”
“Ventori customs are very different from human social norms,” the chancellor told her, his amusement beginning to fade. “Expectations are clearly outlined for each potential mate. And if they are unable to adjust to the reality of being courted by a Ventori pod, there is always the thirty-day clause.”
“I’m not familiar with that phrase,” Zilrath said. He wasn’t even sure why he was here. This appeared to be a conflict between human females and Ventori males.
“Once courting begins, each potential mate has thirty days to determine whether or not she’ll allow her males to claim her,” the chancellor told Zilrath, then turned back to the envoy as he said, “The females go into this with their eyes wide open. Forcing anyone to bond results in a corrupted link. Even the attempt can be harmful to all. Our mates are willing participants in everything we do.”
“I’m not implying that the females are forced.” She spoke carefully, clearly searching for each word. “But they are being… coerced into situations they later regret. That is the dynamic I’m here to mitigate.”
“I think a little Ventori discipline would do you a world of good.” The blue in Kellan’s eyes flashed as he glared at her.
She squared her shoulders and scooted to the edge of her seat. “That’s the exact attitude we need to address. Corporal punishment is not the answer to every disagreement. Human females have ideas and opinions that are being completely disregarded by their mates. They are being bullied by a bizarre combination of intimidation and… well, pleasure.”
Before Kellan could return fire, Zilrath said, “This is all fascinating, but what does it have to do with me? Tavorians have no interest in mating with humans, nor do we favor corporal punishment.”
“Our concerns with Tavorians are different, but just as pressing,” Celeste told him, her voice a bit firmer. “Communities all over the U.S. have welcomed Tavorian refugees, many at great cost to themselves. For the most part, the refugees have responded with hostility and disdain.”
Zilrath tensed, unwilling to hear his people maligned by this pale female. “Tavorians do not associate with other races. We—”
“The refugees have no trouble accepting human hospitality. They eat our food and sleep in our homes, but they can’t be bothered to speak with their host families or assist with anything that must be done to maintain their upkeep. I’m sorry, Minister Nomani, but that’s just plain rude.”
The chancellor chuckled. “Starting to see why so many human females end up face-down over our laps?”
Zilrath and Kellan laughed, but Celeste glared at each in turn. “This isn’t funny. We have serious concerns that need to be addressed and a suggestion that must be given proper consideration. The Department of Alien Affairs is tired of being inundated with complaints. Compromises must be reached, or we will recommend discontinuation of this alliance.”
That snapped the chancellor to attention. “Are you threatening me?”
“Of course not.” But she raised her chin and looked straight into his eyes. “I’m simply asking for the same respect you would offer any other diplomat. I am here at the request of the Secretary of Alien Affairs. In case you’re unaware, she is a member of the president’s cabinet. That’s very much like your High Command.”
“Our mates are not abused,” the chancellor insisted. “If you want me to give the issue any more attention than that, you will need to present specific complaints by specific females. I will not respond to sweeping generalities.”
“Fine.” She harrumphed. “Let’s move on to the suggestion.”
“Fine.” His tone was even tighter than hers.
“The nature of our alliance is a social exchange. You provide protection, and we provide females willing to become carnal companions or mates.”
“I’m aware of the nature of our alliance,” the chancellor grumbled. “I initiated it.”
“Sorry. I’ll get right to the point. It’s our opinion that a series of unions between a Ventori, a Tavorian, and a human would be highly beneficial in progressing our ultimate goal of cultural integration.” Her expressive gaze shifted between the three males as she explained. “If all three species are going to share this planet, we must learn to get along.”
“What sort of union?” Zilrath wanted to know.
She hesitated. Her momentary spark of spirit deflated as quickly as it appeared. “The sort your half-brother formed. Their union incorporated a human, a Ventori, a Partonese, and a Tavorian. It’s quite remarkable, and we would like to encourage more of the same.”
“Azra’s pod consists of hybrids,” Zilrath told her. “They’re all half breeds, mongrels, estenratta. No pureblood Tavorian will tolerate such a union.” He shuddered and looked away. “It’s unthinkable.”
“Then contact another country immediately.” Her voice was suddenly steely and filled with authority. “The United States will not shelter and feed a race of xenophobic bigots.”
Incensed and shocked beyond words, he pushed to his feet and turned toward the door, not sparing the shrew another glance.
“Sit down,” the chancellor snapped. “Ms. Mortenson has a valid point.”
Zilrath returned to his seat and crossed his arms over his chest, staring back at the chancellor in silent defiance. His family was powerful and respected. No. His family had been powerful and respected. Now they were desperate refugees, as were all Tavorians.
“Your people are guests of the Protectorate,” the chancellor reminded him, “so your behavior reflects on me. This office has also received complaints about the attitude and behavior of the refugees. Your planet is a bombed-out ruin, just like mine. Compromises are unavoidable if you’re going to stay on Earth. Every member of the Protectorate has made significant changes since the destruction of Ventor. Now your people must do the same.”
Zilrath drew a long, deep breath in through his nose, then slowly let it out. “I’ll inform our single males of your suggestions and see if anyone is willing to volunteer. But I will not force such an unorthodox relationship on any of our young males.”
“I’ve always tried to lead by example,” the chancellor said. “I asked you each here because I believe a union involving you both and a human female will have the most impact. Zilrath, all the refugees look to you for advice and support. Kellan, the rank and file soldiers idolize you. Besides, Kellan applied for a mate, so his genetic matches have already been identified and prioritized. All you two need to decide is which one of his potential mates pleases you both.”
Kellan looked as horrified as Zilrath felt. “You want me to form a pod with him?”
The utter distaste in the Ventori’s tone made Zilrath snarl. “Unacceptable.”
For some reason, that made the chancellor laugh. “Oh, you two are adorable.” Then his features locked into an unrelenting expression. “I wasn’t asking for input. You don’t have to like each other. You have to like your mate. As Ms. Mortenson said, your only option is to find another host country and another occupation. I happen to agree that these sorts of unions will go far toward stabilizing the situation. Hopefully, you’ll be the first of many.”
“I thought this was a suggestion,” Kellan objected. “Suggestions can be disregarded.”
“She made the suggestion to me. I issued the order to you. You have two weeks to pick a female who pleases you both and convince her to accept your claim.”
“That is all,” Savator snapped. “You’re both dismissed.”
“That Tavorian hasn’t taken his eyes off you,” Nikki Romano told Jasmine in a hushed, yet urgent tone. Mischief shone in her dark eyes, and color accented her cheeks. She tucked a strand of wavy dark hair behind her ear and grinned as she said, “I wonder what he wants.”
“Same thing they all want,” Erin Dorati joined in, and both women laughed.
Not nearly as amused as her friends, Jasmine glanced at the mysterious Tavorian. Nikki was right. He’d been staring at Jasmine since he walked into the all-purpose room fifteen minutes ago. The social center of Camp Accord used to be a middle school, so this room could be set up as a fitness center, auditorium, or cafeteria. When not in use by the entire community, some of the tables were left up so people could gather to have a drink, play games, or talk.
The stranger sat alone at a round table meant for twelve and openly watched every move Jasmine made. His hair blended black, gray, and blue into a smoky hue that had no specific name. His eyes appeared dark from this distance, but she’d seen enough Tavorians up close to know they were similar to his hair, a subtle blending of multiple colors. In contrast to his darkish hair, his skin was so pale it appeared chalky, unnaturally white. Well, unnaturally white for a human. Tavorians were all pale as death.
She shuddered, unable to help the reaction. Six months ago, shortly after the destruction of Tavor, Camp Accord had been flooded with new occupants. Jasmine and a handful of other genetically compatible females had been part of the influx, but most were Tavorian refugees.
The ungrateful Tavorians resented everything about the Ventori settlement. According to them, their accommodations were inadequate, the food unpalatable, and they wanted nothing to do with the other occupants. Jasmine had tried to befriend several of the single females, but she’d been coldly rejected. They showed up in mass at mealtime, then returned to their assigned apartment complex. They didn’t socialize with anyone who wasn’t Tavorian, barely acknowledged that anyone else existed. It hadn’t taken Jasmine long to conclude that Tavorians were xenophobic snobs.
So what did this male want with her? Unlike the Ventori, Tavorians weren’t looking for mates or even carnal companions.
“I think he likes you,” Nikki teased in a singsong voice. “He wants to bond with you.”
Erin rolled her eyes and handed Jasmine another apple. Lydia, Camp Accord’s amazing cook, promised to make apple pies, but only if they peeled the apples. The three friends had happily taken on the task. “Tavorians only bond with Tavorians and they’ve made damn sure everyone knows about it.” Erin sounded almost as annoyed by their attitude as Jasmine.
“You should probably explain that to your Tavorian mate.” Nikki shook her head.
“Azra is only part Tavorian,” Erin reminded with a dreamy smile. Every time anyone mentioned one of her three mates Erin drifted off to who-knew-where.
“Well, Tavorian or not, that male has it bad for Jasmine,” Nikki persisted. “Lust is universal.”
Rather than participate in the playful argument, Jasmine proceeded to peel the apple. It was possible for both Nikki and Erin to be right, and that’s what worried Jasmine. The Tavorian could be attracted to her, but not intend to claim her as mate. Some of the Tavorian males had already indulged their curiosity about sex with human females. Unfortunately for this one, Jasmine wasn’t interested in a one-night stand.
Four days ago she’d received digital files on nine Ventori pods interested in claiming her. The development became inevitable when routine blood tests identified her as a potential mate for the Ventori. None of the pods could force her to accept their claim, but she had to allow at least three to court her before she would be released from the program.
Seeing her friends’ obvious happiness with their Ventori mates made Jasmine curious, and accented the loneliness that had plagued her even before the Skarilians targeted Earth. She’d always pictured herself married with a couple of kids. Now that adolescent dream had morphed into something more exotic, even kinky by human standards. Still, Jasmine was intrigued enough to explore the possibilities.
So she studied the information carefully, then invited her top two matches to visit her at Camp Accord. As of this morning, neither had responded. She wasn’t discouraged by the delay. The pods likely had multiple invitations so it might take a few days for them to decide. Even so, the possibilities were exciting, yet daunting. Mating with Ventori Defenders was a permanent commitment. She was glad the males were taking it seriously.
She looked at Nikki and then Erin. They had both been through this process and accepted their pod’s claim. They seemed happy and well-adjusted to the new reality. So much had changed since the Skarilians attacked Earth that it felt like a different planet. Many cities had been consolidated or abandoned altogether, and there were currently more aliens than humans. The past had no relevance. The struggle quickly devoured anyone who did not adapt to the brutal changes.
“Have you selected a favorite among your choices?” Erin asked after a lengthy pause.
“Jasmine received her matches?” Nikki tossed her peeled apple into the massive metal bowl and reached for another. “When was this?”
“Four days ago,” Jasmine told her, then answered Erin’s question. “I’ve narrowed it down to two.”
“Which two?” Erin wanted to know.
“The Nontian brothers are interesting, but the Mars outpost is so remote.” She paused for Erin’s reaction, but she just nodded absently. “And Kellan Styre. His ship tends to stay nearby, and it has transport capabilities, which meant visits home wouldn’t be an issue. His file changed three days ago indicating that he’d acquired a podmate, but there was no information on the other person.”
Erin perked up at the name. “I’ve met Kellan a couple of times. I don’t know him well, but he seems nice, even friendly for a Ventori. The chancellor gave him command of the Elizian, so he must be doing something right.” The Elizian was the best ship in the Ventori fleet. It was a huge honor to be selected as its commander.
“Anyone favored by Chancellor Savator is sure to be extremely strict,” Nikki cautioned. “Can you deal with someone who won’t bend even a little?”
“Like Governor Orellian?” Erin challenged. “Your mate is a regular hard-ass, but you’re certainly happy.”
“Sintar is strict but reasonable. The only time he’s been a ‘hard-ass’ with me was when I put myself in danger. Trust me, that’s not a mistake I’ll ever make again.”
As if hearing their conversation, Kellan Styre walked into the all-purpose room. He glanced around, but quickly spotted the Tavorian and walked over to him. That was strange. For a minute, Jasmine had thought, maybe even hoped, Kellan was here for her.
She took full advantage of his diverted attention and looked him over thoroughly. The images in his file hadn’t done him justice. All the Ventori were big, but he was exceptionally tall and muscular with rugged features and intense eyes. His eyebrows slanted upward without any arch, and his lips were black, contrasting sharply with his pearl-gray skin. Long dark hair was pulled back from his face and bound at the nape of his neck. Strands of blue threaded through the dark mass. Were his eyes streaked with blue as well? She couldn’t tell from this distance, but she certainly liked what she could see from here.
“Oh, shit,” Nikki said under her breath. “Is the Tavorian his mysterious podmate?”
Jasmine’s gaze snapped back to the stranger as her heart began to pound. The possibility hadn’t even occurred to her. She’d presumed Kellan’s podmate was another Ventori Defender. Kellan and the Tavorian spoke for only a moment. Then the Tavorian motioned toward her. Kellan followed the gesture, and his gaze landed on Jasmine. A sexy smile rolled across his exotic black lips, and he said something that made the Tavorian chuckle.
“Oh, no, I think you’re right.” Trepidation gripped Jasmine’s chest, making it hard for her to breathe. The Tavorian rose, and both males walked toward her. She glanced around in panic, looking for an exit or other means of escape. Could she run into the kitchen fast enough to… to what? Hide in the walk-in? She would not run and hide like a frightened child. She’d been looking forward to meeting Kellan until he brought a Tavorian along for the ride.
She stared at the apple, but her hand shook too badly for her to resume peeling the stupid thing. Maybe they’d keep walking.
“Hi, Commander Styre,” Erin greeted cheerfully, and Jasmine wanted to bounce the apple off her head. “It’s been several weeks since I last saw you. How have you been?”
“As well as can be expected.” His voice was deep, well-modulated, and smooth. Jasmine liked the sound a lot, so she sneaked a glance at him. “The rebels, Ramnyth Dulvet in particular, have been running me all over the star system with their attempts at sabotage.”
“You command the best ship in the fleet,” Nikki pointed out. “Why don’t you just blast him out of the sky?”
“I’ve tried, on several occasions,” he assured her. “Yashonty shields are surprisingly effective.”
“The Yashonty are animals,” the Tavorian sneered. “They are nearly as big a menace as the Skarilians.”
Jasmine shook her head. Of course, the first words out of his mouth were incredibly negative. Tavorians were all the same. She sighed as her excitement rapidly faded.
“You disagree, Ms. Aldrich?” the Tavorian asked, challenge rippling through his tone.
She licked her suddenly dry lips and forced herself to meet his gaze. For a Tavorian, he was rather handsome. There was nobility in his features that made her look closer. As she expected, his eyes mixed a variety of smoky hues, yet blue rather than gray was the dominant color. He looked as if he were about to repeat his question, so she replied, “The rebels disrupt supply chains and bomb warehouses, while the Skarilians practice genocide. They’re hardly the same.”
His silky black brows arched and one corner of his mouth tipped upward. “Are you perhaps a rebel sympathizer?” He looked at Kellan then used an overly dramatic tone when he said, “I believe we’ll have to interrogate her. She might even be a spy!”
The silliness was so unexpected that Jasmine just stared at him for a split second, then it hit her that he was joking and she smiled. She couldn’t help it. The Tavorian was charming. And it had been much too long since anyone made her smile. “Sounds like fun,” she responded, “but only if I get to interrogate you too.”
“I have nothing to hide.” He held out his hand with a genuine smile, and Jasmine felt comfortable enough to take it. “Shall we walk? The afternoon is cool but sunny.”
“That would be nice.” She set down her knife and handed the half-peeled apple to Erin. After exchanging knowing looks with Nikki, Jasmine stood and allowed the Tavorian to lead her outside. “I have one question before you begin my interrogation.”
His gray-blue eyes narrowed as if he considered denying her, then he dipped his head once and said, “I’ll allow it.”
She glanced back to make sure Kellan had accompanied them. If this was anything other than a prelude to courting, she wasn’t interested. They exited through the front doors and casually walked around the building. “What’s your name?” she asked the Tavorian. “I have a file on Commander Styre, but I don’t know—”
“Kellan,” the Ventori commander corrected. “You’re not a member of my crew.”
“All right. Kellan.” She smiled at him, then turned back to the Tavorian. “And you are?”
“How humiliating,” he continued in his playful way as he strolled along beside her. “I’ve been to Camp Accord numerous times. You never noticed me.”
Did she dare admit that Tavorians all looked the same to her? She was ashamed of the fact, so she kept it to herself. She’d fallen into the age-old trap of stereotyping. Several Tavorian females had been rude to her, so she wrote off all the refugees as cold and unimportant. She knew better than judging an entire race by the actions of a few.
“I keep my head down and mind my own business,” she told him, inwardly resolving to give Tavorians—this one in particular—another chance. “I don’t notice anyone.”
“You noticed Kellan as soon as he walked through the door.”
She glanced at the huge Ventori with a shy smile. “He’s a little hard to miss.”
“Well, I’m Zilrath Nomani. It’s wonderful to make your acquaintance.”
“Nomani?” Her eyes widened. “Are you Azra’s half-brother?” He nodded, and her eyes grew even wider. “Then you’re on the High Command. You’re Minister Nomani.” She looked at Kellan then back at Zilrath. “A ship’s commander and a minister? Have I been very bad or very good?”
Both males smiled, but Kellan replied, “That has yet to be determined. I’ll explore the question through my interrogation.”
The sensual menace in his deep tone sent sensations zinging all through her body. Her nipples tingled, and her core tightened. It was all she could do not to moan. “What would you like to know?”
They’d reached the back of the large brick building and faced the overgrown athletic field. The house she shared with three other human females was in the subdivision beyond the field. She started to suggest they go there but suspected that privacy would lead to intimacies she wasn’t ready to consider. They’d yet to even state their intentions.
“How many files were you given, how many potential mates?” Kellan wanted to know.
“Nine, but I quickly narrowed it down to two. Yours and the Nontian brothers.”
“The Nontian brothers are stationed on Venus,” Kellan mused. “Would you be happy that far out?”
“It’s Mars, but the point is valid. I’m not sure I want to be that isolated.” The nature of his questions indicated that this was the beginning of a courtship, but she wanted to make sure. “Have you two formed a pod?”
Zilrath tensed, his lips compressing before he asked, “Is that a problem?”
“It’s not as long as you’re also looking for a mate. I’m aware that Tavorians generally bond with other Tavorians.”
“The Ventori only bonded with Ventori until the Skarilians slaughtered our females,” Kellan pointed out.
“That’s the difference,” she persisted. “The Ventori don’t have a choice, but the Tavorians do. There are more female refugees than male if I’m not mistaken.”
A section of the perimeter fence was missing, so they had easy access to the field. However, they had to pass through the opening one at a time. Zilrath released her hand and motioned her to precede him, but he didn’t reach for her again once all three were through. She’d upset him.
“We won’t lie to you,” Kellan said as they walked along the jogging track encircling the weedy field. “There is a political aspect to the current situation.”
“Which situation do you mean? The rebellion? Camp Accord, or our possible courtship? You are hinting at a possible courtship, aren’t you?” There. She’d come right out and asked. There could be no confusion now.
“Yes. We want to court and eventually claim you as our mate,” Kellan confirmed. “And the courtship is what I meant. We were asked to form a pod and bond with a human female, so everyone will see that it is possible for Ventori, humans, and Tavorians to interact peacefully.”
The thread of bitterness in his tone made her ask, “You were asked by whom?”
“Chancellor Savator,” Kellan admitted, “and a human envoy from the Department of Alien Affairs.”
Damn. Authority didn’t get much higher than that. “Was it a suggestion or an order? Do you two even want a mate?”
Zilrath chuckled. “Our mate is perceptive.”
“Your potential mate,” she stressed. “I haven’t agreed to let you court, much less claim me.”
“Then let’s start there,” Kellan proposed. “Jasmine Aldrich, will you allow me and Zilrath to actively court you, so we can each determine if a permanent union is something we desire?”
She stopped walking and pivoted to face them. “I have some more questions before I answer that.”
Another soft chuckle rumbled through Zilrath. “I told you she’d make us work for it. This one has spirit. I can see it in her eyes.”
“Good,” Kellan said firmly. “I enjoy spirited females. They’re much more fun to tame.”
Before she could think of a snappy rejoinder, Zilrath prompted, “What would you like to know?”
There was no point in beating around the bush. They’d both responded best to specific questions. She looked at Zilrath and asked, “Do you want a mate or are you being coerced into this arrangement?”
“I want a mate very much.”
The conviction in his gray-blue eyes made her want to believe him. “And are you sure you’re okay with that mate being human?”
“It depends entirely on the human. I find you intriguing and appealing. Both are qualities I have never before felt for a human.”
It wasn’t fair to expect a more emphatic response when she was still noncommittal, but that didn’t keep disappointment from panging her heart. “How long have you two been a pod?”
A strange look passed between them, and Kellan sighed. “This is the third day.”
That’s what she thought, and the fact compounded her doubts. “It was part of your arrangement with the chancellor and this envoy?”
“Yes. Why does that matter?” Kellan was starting to sound impatient.
Too damn bad. Jasmine was not going to rush into something that would profoundly affect the rest of her life without having all the facts. “How well do you two know each other?”
“Well enough.” The commander dismissed her concern with a wave of his massive hand. “Our union will be unusual. I command a starship, and Zilrath’s responsibilities keep him on Earth. You will split your time between the two locations.”
“Like joint custody after a divorce?” Tension rolled across her shoulders as dread dropped like a stone into the pit of her stomach. She had intimate experience with that concept. She’d been bounced back and forth between her parents’ households her entire youth, and it had made her miserable. She hadn’t felt truly at home at either location. “Thanks for stopping by, but I’m not interested.”
“You’re refusing us already?” Kellan sounded shocked. “You haven’t given us a chance.”
“I was my parents’ volleyball for years. They continually tried to hurt each other by manipulating me. I will not do that again.”
“So stay one place or the other, and one of us will commute,” Zilrath suggested, his gaze bright and penetrating. “This is all new. Help us devise a viable system. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, a lasting peace could begin with this joining.”
She sighed. They were right. At the very least she needed to give them a chance to address her concerns. “Before we figure out logistics, we need to determine if we like each other. Tell me a little about you.” She looked at Kellan and added, “Tell me what’s not in your bio.”
“There is not much to tell,” Zilrath began, any hint of playfulness long gone. “My life began six months ago. Anything that came before is irrelevant.”
“I understand why you feel that way, but your old life shaped your personality and determined how you respond to new challenges. I won’t pry into the details, but I need a general understanding of who you were before and how that affects who you are now.”
He didn’t look pleased, but he nodded. “That’s fair.”
“Have you always had power?”
His silky black brows arched dramatically. “You are direct, aren’t you?”
“Would you prefer I not be?”
“No. It’s a trait I share.” He paused, and she thought he might not answer, then he said, “My family is—or was—old and powerful. I understood from a young age that I was quite fortunate. I protect those I love, and I’m more than willing to fight for what’s mine.” The last phrase sounded like a vow, and his strange smoky gaze gleamed with blue intensity. There was a story there, something powerful and painful. Erin had bonded with Zilrath’s half-brother. Maybe she could shed some light on his true meaning.
Rather than confront him directly, she asked, “Were you surprised when your people selected you as their leader?”
Again he hesitated, but he looked at Kellan, seemed concerned with the Ventori’s reaction. “I was the obvious choice, so no, I was not surprised.”
She smiled, pleased by his honesty. Most would have hidden behind false modesty. “I don’t want details, just a simple yes or no. Did you have someone special, a wife or steady girlfriend on Tavor?”
“I did not.”
His answer came without pause this time, and her smile brightened. “Good. It’s hard to compete with a ghost.”
“Are you going to be as forthcoming when we start questioning you?” Kellan drew her attention.
“I’ll answer anything Zilrath asks me. You’ll have to earn the same privilege.” Not wanting to incite his dominant nature, she kept her tone light and playful.
He shrugged, arms loosely folded across his chest. “Ask away.”
“Do you like the chancellor, or are you friends with him because of his position?”
He tensed, arms unfolding as he took a step toward her. “That question is insolent. It infers I manipulate my friends to my advantage.”
“I meant no disrespect.” She took a quick step back, reestablishing the space buffer between them. “I’m just curious about you and the chancellor. I’m friends with his mate, and she told me he keeps himself pretty isolated.”
Her explanation seemed to pacify him. His stance relaxed and the blue streaks in his eyes gradually faded. “Positions of power require a certain level of separation. As Bron’s mate told you, he does not have many friends, but the few he has he trusts implicitly. Bron and I grew up together. We were friends long before he became chancellor.”
More than ready to move on, she asked, “Have you ever had a long-term romantic relationship?”
“I have not. Have you?”
She shrugged. “I dated a guy for over a year once. Some consider that long-term, but we were never serious.”
“Good,” he countered. “I will not need to purge him from your memory.”
If the sudden intensity in his expression was any indication, she wasn’t sure she would have minded. “Do you have family among the Protectorate?” It was the most delicate way she could think of to ask who survived the destruction of Ventor.
“I have a younger brother and two cousins. Why? Were you hoping for a larger pod?”
Her jaw dropped before she realized he was teasing her. “I didn’t even consider any pod with more than two members. Having two mates is stretching my comfort zone farther than I ever dreamed I’d go. Believe it or not, I’m quite… old-fashioned.”
“Well, thanks to the Skarilians, fashions have changed for all of us.” Kellan looked at Zilrath, and a subtle undercurrent rippled between them. They weren’t openly hostile toward each other, but there was something there.
They walked for a while in silence. Jasmine had many more questions, but Kellan would doubtlessly find them rude. And she didn’t want to experience Ventori discipline before their courtship was even official. Unless they were pretending to be someone they weren’t, she already liked their basic personalities. They were honest and accomplished, intelligent and personable. They had risen to the top of their respective societies, and they each had a good sense of humor. She enjoyed talking with them, and she’d have thirty days to make her final decision. One question remained that needed an immediate answer. Were they passionate?
She trusted her instincts, had always listened when her inner voice urged her toward or away from people or situations. Couples either had sexual chemistry or they didn’t. Affection could develop over time, but that spark, the animal attraction that made passion combustible was either there, or it was not. If either of these males didn’t curl her toes, she’d walk away.
With that in mind, she stopped walking the track and crept closer to Zilrath. He watched her silently, clearly not sure what she was doing. She ran her hands up his chest and pushed her fingers into the back of his hair. Then she rolled to the balls of her feet and pressed her mouth against his.
It took a moment, but Zilrath wrapped his arms around her and took control of the kiss. His lips brushed over hers, caressing and teasing before settling into place. His tongue swept over her bottom lip, then eased deeper, sliding against hers.
She groaned as she welcomed him with the sensual movements of her tongue. He tasted slightly spicy, yet somehow smoky too. The combination made her want more.
Soon his hands moved up and down her back, pressing her against his body and revealing the distinct ridge in the front of his pants. Oh, yeah, they had chemistry. Reluctantly, she pulled away from Zilrath and turned toward Kellan.
He hooked his hands under her arms and lifted her off her feet before she could close the distance between them. She wrapped her legs around his waist and her arms around his neck. Their faces were level, and she stared deep into his eyes.
“Did he pass your test?” He punctuated the question with a cocky smirk.
“He gets an A-plus. That means he set the bar pretty damn high, Commander.”
The smirk turned into a grin. “Sir will suffice, sweet little mate. As I said before, you’re not on my crew.”
“I will not call you—”
He silenced her with his mouth, and her surprised gasp only worked to his advantage. His long fingers tangled in her hair and his tongue was in her mouth before she could even think of resisting. His rich, tangy taste spread across her tongue, ratcheting up her pulse. Zilrath smelled good and tasted nice, but Kellan was intoxicating.
She returned the kiss with helpless enthusiasm, unable to resist the silent call of his pheromones. He shifted his hands to her ass and rubbed her against his hardened cock. She rocked her hips, accenting the subtle slide created by his hands.
Kellan broke the kiss with a moan. “Which house is yours? I need you, mate.”
She shook her head, panting like a long-distance runner. “Not so fast.”
“I can make it nice and slow.” He pressed his face against her neck and inhaled deeply.
“Put me down. I can’t think with you this close.”
“Don’t think.” He nipped her, then sucked on her skin. “Just let me fuck you.”
Tingles raced down her spine, and she shivered. “I mean it, Kellan.” She tried to push him away, but he ignored her efforts and squeezed her butt. “Put me down.”
“Kellan,” Zilrath snapped. “Let her go.”
With a snarl, Kellan set her on her feet and took a step back. His gaze still burned into hers and his hands clenched and unclenched as if he was struggling not to grab her.
Passion? Check. They had that in spades, but the subtle tension she sensed between them still concerned her. “You’ve both given me a lot to think about.” She barely got the words out past the tightness in her throat. “I’ll give you my answer in the morning.” Then like a freaking coward, she ran back toward the school.