Chloe had never felt so angry in her entire life. She had never felt so terrified, either, but the anger was pressing up to the foreground as it was wont to do with her. This time, her anger was more justified than most. The country she had been paying all those taxes to her entire life, as well as a president that she had voted for, had decided to lock her up and throw away the key.
Maybe it wouldn’t have made her feel quite this enraged if she had been a conspiracy theorist who had been sticking her nose where it didn’t belong. That way, when something like this happened to her—like seeing a few aliens—she would have been at least emotionally prepared for it. Sort of like storm chasers probably understood what they were getting themselves into.
But Chloe was a pastry chef. She didn’t worry much beyond the yeast in her refrigerator dying. She had thought that, even though she was pretty grumpy even on the best of days, some guy would ignore that about her in lieu of consistent good eating, and she’d get to settle down and start a family one day. It was what her parents had told her they wanted for her before they’d died. But now that future was dying off fast.
When the sliding door of the white padded room opened, an official walked in, looking just as uncomfortable as he had the first time he’d spoken to her and apologized for the necessity of her detainment. He was the sort of person who was so uneasy in his skin that he constantly moved like he had an itch that he couldn’t scratch. She hated that sort of person, but she couldn’t strangle him like she wanted to—there was a guard outside who was easily big enough to throttle her with one hand. “There’s been a hiccup, it seems,” the official wheezed through his nose, “with your deportment off-base.”
“A hiccup?” she hissed, mostly displeased with his lack of vocabulary. This man acted like her banker, not someone working at a top-secret base that made her positive that the Men in Black were actually a thing.
“Upon hearing your grievances, the Lothyrians would like to intercede,” he explained, and judging from his expression, she knew she shouldn’t regard this as something she should be pleased about.
She narrowed her eyes at him, her mind stuck on the word, ‘Lothyrians.’ “You mean, the aliens?”
“Extraterrestrial authorities, yes,” he corrected stuffily. He adjusted his suit as if it was fitting him funny, and continued, “They understand that we can’t release you, but they feel somewhat responsible that you were detained. They would like you to accompany them on their journey permanently.” He held up his hands as soon as her bottom lip dropped to sputter out an argument. “When you stop and think about it, Miss Jergens, you might come to see this from a more optimistic perspective than I’m sure you are. An invitation like this isn’t one that comes along every day! You’d be our first representative to the Lothyrians’ planet when you eventually arrived there!”
She didn’t know what to say to this, so she didn’t say anything at all as her brain tried not to melt from overload. Eventually, she was able to see red again. “Representative? You want me to go across the galaxy as a representative? The only thing I want to represent is how far I’m going to put my fist up your ass!” She stood up quickly, about to march over there and wring his neck.
He stepped back and the bulky guard who’d been stationed outside her door stepped between them. Despite one of his arms being the size of her whole body, the guard brandished his gun anyway. “What is it you tell people you do for a living?” she demanded of the guard as she placed her hands on her hips. “Because I have a feeling saying that you protect annoying, bureaucratic weasels so they can destroy women doesn’t get you a whole lot of dates.”
As she’d expected, the guard didn’t react.
“You are encouraged to bring any appropriate personal items, and we will provide you with a pack of supplies that will help you stay comfortable and in good mental health for your journey,” the official continued, peering around the side of the guard.
“You suddenly care about my mental health now?” she spat.
“We were only going to detain you if we had no other options,” he reminded her apologetically, echoing things he had said previously. “But you made it clear that you planned to make this all public.”
“It should already be public!” she cried, throwing her hands up in the air. She felt like a broken record, but she did feel like the public didn’t deserve to be treated like they lived in a Stargate episode. If there was life on other planets, and the government was actually getting friendly with people on those worlds, then the least they could do was tell someone about it. She would have been the first to admit that she wasn’t one of their most mature citizens, but even she felt she was handling the alien news quite well, and would undoubtedly be handling it even better if it had nothing to do with her.
“Fine,” she said, sticking her hands in her pockets as she tried to look visibly calmer. “I won’t tell anyone.”
“Our psychologists don’t believe you. You’re typed as someone who can’t keep information very well,” he replied, curling his lip like he expected her to literally explode into a million pieces at any moment. “They have decided you’re impulsive with anger management issues.”
She really should have acted differently when she was in that room with the psychologist the week before, this she knew. Unfortunately, at the time she was still so fazed by everything that was going on that she hadn’t thought about blatantly lying. “So my options are to literally be trapped away in some dungeon somewhere—”
“Not a dungeon. A secure facility,” he assured. “We’d give you accommodations slightly better than this and a television, and would provide for you as many years as it takes.” …for you to die. He didn’t say those words, but he didn’t have to.
She felt a little less tense at this clarification, but still didn’t feel very good about it, either. “Or go with the aliens.”
“I’m given to understand that your accommodations will be quite large and comfortable, and I understand that their planet is quite nice. Think South Pacific,” he replied with a little more pep than he’d had before.
“I am really not in the mood for a brochure right now,” she warned him as she pulled her hands out of her pockets so that she could ball them into fists.
“I’m just trying to tell you your options,” the official said in the same tone she herself had reserved for people who were upset that she’d run out of their favorite donuts. “Personally, I would choose to be in your position. As I said before, no human has ever gotten to go to their planet before. They promise very comfortable arrangements,” he repeated.
“I’m trying to imagine the kind of comfort that would make me okay with this idea, because right now I can’t picture it,” she seethed.
“I’ll let you think about it. You have until morning to weigh your options,” he told her before turning toward the door.
She tried to follow him out, but the burly guard growled at her and stopped her in her tracks. “Oh, real mature,” she huffed. “Growl at me. Go for it. Whatever.” She turned back into her room, stretching her arms behind her back and trying not to have a nervous breakdown. When the guard left her alone, she then really began to weigh her options, but she was quickly realizing that everything she had done in life so far was meaningless.
Her bakery was gone. Sure, it was probably going to be gone next year anyway unless business picked up, meaning that the gluten-free diet taking the town by storm would have to get a hell of a lot less popular. But it was hers, as was the culinary arts degree she’d gone to Paris to earn. And she certainly hadn’t been prepared to leave that or her apartment, which at least had a mountain view that she thought was quite cozy. She had been on a waiting list for three years to get to move into it. All for naught.
She sat down, thinking how good it would be to go ahead and cry about everything that was going on, only she wasn’t certain that she believed it yet. She was still hoping that she was going to wake up from this bad dream any moment. Until then, all she had to do was pinch herself and wait.
“I like her,” Tick decided, turning away from the security video and crossing his arms across his chest. “Excellent mate potential.”
Malo rolled his eyes and replied, “You haven’t seen a female in months. As far as any of us can possibly be concerned, everyone is good mate potential.”
“I don’t like how that asshole made it sound like she had options,” Dax grumbled, sitting back in his seat and narrowing his glare at the screen, watching the girl sit on the cot in her room and stare angrily at the wall. “You made it clear to the humans that we demand that she comes with us, right?” he asked, turning to Malo. “It’s not like they can say no.”
“I definitely pressed them,” Malo assured, nodding. “The psychologist I’d talked to said it would be better if she thought she had a choice about coming with us. Said she’d handle it better.”
“What’s there to handle?” Tick immediately interjected with a huff. He slouched over lazily to rest his elbows on his thighs as he said, “What’s not to like?”
“And what’s going to happen when she decides to take the shittier option?” Dax demanded, gesturing toward the screen. He turned to the humans on the other side of the room, some whom were just sitting around, watching the trio and hoping to get some attention. Dax asked them the same question in their own language.
Branson, who was in charge of the facility, replied with surety. “She won’t choose option B.”
“She looks like an option B type of girl if I ever saw one,” Dax argued, and then rolled his chair close enough to the screen to jab his finger on the image of her. “She’s got a defiant look to her. She might choose option B because the idiot who we had walk in there made it obvious that he preferred her to choose option A. You should have made her think option B was death.”
Malo looked over at Dax with a judgmental gaze. Dax saw it and said defensively, “What?”
Malo replied loftily, “I don’t really want her to think, ‘Go with them or else.’ Hardly the first chapter to a love story.”
“Yeah? And which love story do you know that involves three males? Let’s call this what it is,” Dax replied coarsely. “If I had my druthers I wouldn’t share a female with you assholes.”
“Don’t worry, Malo and I aren’t the assholes of this cozy little trio,” Tick said smoothly, putting his feet up on the table next to him and crossing his legs. He looked up at Branson and added, “You don’t look comfortable about this. You seemed almost more comfortable when you were just talking about making sure she’d never see the light of day again.”
Branson, whose face had deep lines from frowning—and not much else—for the past fifty years, shifted his eyes left and right. “Well, this… whole situation is quite… irregular.”
“What? Handing off a girl to a few guys from your sister planet, or basically revoking someone’s rights just because they don’t have any family and very little social circle?” Tick blinked at him until Malo cleared his throat. “What?” he said absently to Malo, glancing back in his direction.
Malo shook his head. He wished he was the only one with orders to speak to humans. They were a very skittish race, and he had worked very hard to get the humans to give them the girl rather than ‘detaining’ her. All she had done to deserve any of this was to have her car break down close enough to the landing site to see everything. Could have happened to anyone; Malo, who felt he himself was constantly in the wrong place at the wrong time, sympathized with her.
However, the three of them weren’t due to arrive home for a few more years, at least, and they had decided that a female on the long, multi-stopped diplomatic journey they were on wouldn’t go amiss. They still had several missions and meetings to settle—twenty-five in the next four years to be exact—and with such a tight schedule, it would be impossible if they had to actually court or seduce a life-mate. In any case, due to the fact that the male–female ratio back home was approximately five males to every one female, it had become pretty customary to secure a female for several men. It was also quite common to choose a female from a sister planet, as most of the main species were sufficiently similar.
“It’s all pretty irregular,” Branson grumbled in reply. “Don’t you even want to meet her? What if she doesn’t even mesh well? We can’t be held responsible for whatever displeasure she causes you or your people. I just want to make that clear, up front.”
“Sir, I’ve been instrumental in fifteen different military operations. You think I can’t handle a twenty-four-year-old girl?” Dax immediately asked snappishly. His tone, and probably his size as well, was making Branson sweat. Malo had never seen a man more relieved than when Branson’s secretary came in and informed them that the president was on the line, giving him an excuse to exit the room.
Malo stood up, straightened himself, and turned to Dax and Tick. “I need to be in on that call. You guys oversee to make sure her personal things are handled. I want to leave on time tomorrow morning. We’re running late as it is.”
Tick gave him a snarky salute and Dax just sat there and grumbled at him.
When Malo joined Branson out in the hallway, Branson sparked up a conversation, as if the dead air between them was too painful to endure for another few minutes. “The other men seem a little… over-eager.”
“That remains to be seen. At the moment, I feel they’re experiencing a justified amount of eagerness. We’ve all wanted a life-mate for years now. It’s the girl I’m more worried about. I don’t want her to feel spooked. It’s going to be bad enough with our social customs. I’m sure she expects something different from her mates than we’ll provide. I have no time to research how to act toward an Earth female,” he admitted. “If the decision hadn’t been made so rashly, I would have at least studied some more of your customs.”
“I’ll get you a book about it,” Branson offered.
Malo stopped. “A book about social customs written by a human… for themselves?” he clarified with a confused drawl.
Branson frowned again. “They don’t do that everywhere? We sort of have large sections in bookstores devoted to that…”
Malo grunted. Humans were weird. Luckily they had been making contacts with other species that would hold their hand and keep them alive. “No, that’s unique to your planet,” he said. “Everyone else has instincts.”
“What are you reading?” Tick asked as he walked into the room and pulled a jug of cow’s milk out of the fridge.
After he had a multi-hour conference with the human heads of state, Malo had looked into what Branson had talked about. There were a lot of guides, movies, and discussion groups about how to ‘understand’ human females. He was getting just as weary as he was intrigued; they seemed like fickle creatures. “Information about human females,” he replied. “It seems like they have a great deal of control over human males despite there being plenty of females available as mates. I keep thinking that one of these advice columns is going to talk about physical chastisement, but they never do. It seems to me it would solve a lot of their turmoil in their private lives.”
Tick came up behind him and looked at the Internet screen over his shoulder. Malo was just thinking how impressed he was that Tick was actually reading something for a change until Tick broke the silence with, “Can we go to a site with pictures?”
Malo sighed and rubbed his fingers against his forehead, feeling a headache coming on, even as Tick laughed and slapped his shoulder. “Don’t worry!” Tick told him. “Ladies are easy to handle. That’s what my fathers all said.”
“Right, but she’s going to be more stubborn than we’re used to. Her psychological write-up states that she’s impulsive and—”
“Pshh,” Tick snorted dismissively. “Impulsive, hot-headed chicks are the best in the sack. Everyone knows that. Besides, as you said—the obvious thing would be to just keep her in line, right? So come on, we’ve got this. We caught some luck with this trip—how often does a planet just have a normal female they want to give up?”
Giving a laugh, Malo nodded. “That’s true.”
“Now all we have to do is meet our little lady, and welcome her into our humble home. Oh—and keep Dax from scaring the life out of her.”
“You’re right,” Malo yawned, pushing himself away from his work desk. “I don’t know why I’m so worried. We’ve done more complicated things than keeping a female happy and content. What can be so tough?”