It wouldn’t do me any good to curse Ayrie. He sat across from me at the table, so close and yet so far away at the same time. Yelling at him wouldn’t make him love me, and it wouldn’t stop him from pushing me away.
What was the point? It wasn’t Ayrie’s fault that I wished he would love me and he wanted nothing to do with it. He didn’t care for falling in love. He was afraid it would ruin him the way it had destroyed his father.
It made a strange sort of sense to me, but I still wanted to scream in his face. It was because of him I was on a spaceship headed away from Earth — a situation in which I definitely didn’t want to be.
Still, it was clearly better than my life back home, so I supposed my attitude had turned me into an ungrateful wretch. I had left poverty behind and was now part of the royal family of Auxem. I was only a member by marriage, but it still counted. Ayrie would never hurt me. I had more than enough to eat and anything else that I wanted.
Our quarters on the enormous starship traveling toward Ayrie’s home planet were the richest I had ever seen. It was more luxurious than I had imagined in my wildest dreams. It had properly finished walls that made it look like a house, unlike the cold plasteel covering the other rooms. The furnishings alone would have cost me a year’s salary as a spacecraft mechanic.
There was always a fresh scent in the air. Each of the royal apartments had an attached greenhouse that kept the air quality higher in our rooms than in the rest of the ship. The room was decorated in rich purples with yellow accents, making it feel like a man’s space.
In fact, it had been a man’s space...until I moved in. It belonged to my husband, Ayrie.
My husband, the prince. I was married to a prince.
I would never have thought it possible, but the universe works in mysterious ways sometimes. When I had heard the Auxem had come to Earth in search of women and that the President was sending some of us to their home planet, I knew I had to be on that ship. It would take me away from the Districts and my asshole boyfriend, Jarvis.
In my defense, I had never intended to fall in love with Ayrie or anyone else for that matter. The trial to see if Earth women were compatible with Auxem men was a chance for me to leave my problems behind. I was willing to take the risks, no matter what. Ayrie was my only way to get into the trial. None of the other men had looked at me even once.
But Ayrie had stared at me for hours on the first evening. He was tall, blond, and gorgeous. His gaze had burned through me while I was sitting by myself, wondering why I was trying to get out of my situation. My plan was failing. Jarvis would find me somehow, and I might not recover from his punishment this time.
I had hoped Ayrie would come over, but he never moved. Guys like him didn’t talk to girls like me.
Arnon, his brother, later told me Ayrie had never intended to be a part of the trial. He had been at the meet-up to entertain himself. Even though our eyes met several times, sending shocks through my body, I didn’t have the nerve to walk over to him until the evening ended and he stood up to leave. When I saw the one hope of improving my life starting to get up and move away from me, it motivated me enough to talk to him.
I couldn’t remember what I had said. I doubted I had been witty or charming. But something about our conversation had intrigued him. He had agreed to come back again. There had been a couple of hot make-out sessions that must have convinced him it was better to marry than to burn.
The interesting thing about the Auxem was that they mated for life. They created a lifelong bond with their soulmates. Once they bond with a woman, they never desired anyone else. The bond was the primary reason the Auxem men and Earth women needed to mingle. The men had to truly love their partners. If there wasn’t love between the two people who bonded, they ran the risk of Bond Rejection Syndrome. The pair could go crazy or, in extreme cases, die.
But we had gotten married anyway, despite the risks. Ayrie had married me out of pity, and I had married him because he was my only choice.
It wasn’t a match made in heaven, but it had worked for us...in the beginning.
Elle was wearing her thin nightdress again. I felt myself begin to get hard at the sight of her nipples. They peeked through the worn, white fabric like ghosts. In my imagination, I saw the rest of her round breasts but stopped myself right there. I would drive myself insane if I kept thinking about her lithe, sexy body.
I ate my breakfast without noticing what I was shoveling into my mouth. My mind was preoccupied with thoughts of my wife and our pretense of a marriage. I tried to focus on the pretty blue flowers she had placed on the table between us. Maybe that would keep my eyes off of her breasts. She must have picked them from the greenhouse.
They gave off a sweet scent that made me feel slightly hopeless. I glanced back up at Elle. I wondered if I could buy her a new see-through nightdress as a present, or if she would get offended.
Elle had insisted on bringing along everything she owned from Earth, even though her clothes were cheap garments. At this point, they were little more than rags. Taking care of herself had been a point of pride, and I hadn’t insisted she let me buy her a brand-new wardrobe. She was leaving everything behind, and she needed something of her own to bring into a new life.
I studied her across the breakfast table and wondered how she might be feeling. There didn’t appear to be any emotions on her face. She rarely showed feelings when she was with me. I felt like I didn’t know her at all.
Helping her out had seemed like a good idea in the beginning. I thought I could help her and get unlimited sex at the same time. It was a perfect exchange.
The Auxem mate for life and don’t have sex outside of marriage. I hadn’t bonded with anyone yet. I wasn’t an old bachelor on the shelf or anything - I was only thirty-one. But that’s a long time to stay a virgin. Elle was tempting. She made me want her in ways no woman had before. I couldn’t bring myself to resist at the time, but I knew now that I had made a mistake.
We had a saying on Auxem that the view was always clearest at ten thousand feet. It meant we couldn’t see the truth of things until we removed ourselves from the situation. Once we had some distance from the problem, solutions became evident, but when we were in the thick of things, everything could be confusing.
When I first saw Elle, her beautiful, pointed little face looked lonely in a big crowd of women. I couldn’t forget her cute, brown hair in a pixie cut. I wanted her from the beginning, but I hadn’t gone to her. I wasn’t supposed to be part of the trial.
I didn’t want to fall in love, either. My brother, Arnon, was doing enough loving for the both of us with Jayne. I had watched my father lose his mind when my mother passed away in the first wave of deaths from the virus. He had never been the same since then.
I loved my brothers. I loved my grandfather. I had loved my mother and other female relatives before they all died. That was enough love in my life. A relationship with a complicated human woman was not on my to-do list.
I knew I would be expected to bond soon, especially if Earth was going to give us enough women to repopulate Auxem. I had no desire to fall in love.
But Elle had been perfect.
She had approached me, looking a little desperate. She had told me enough of her history to make me want to come back. When she had gotten a little tipsy the next night, she spilled everything about making it out of the Districts, only to be sent back because she couldn’t get a job.
The clincher was when I learned about her abusive, cheating boyfriend. Elle didn’t deserve that. She was sweet. She had a sharp tongue, too, but I found that refreshing. I was used to people telling me what I wanted to hear.
The idea of an Earth man beating her up made me sick to my stomach. On Auxem, the men revered women. The thought of touching a woman in anger, intending to hurt her, was unthinkable to me.
I had proposed a marriage of convenience. To my surprise, Elle accepted. We fooled around some and that had been enough to drive me crazy with desire. Elle and I certainly had physical chemistry, if nothing else.
That became a problem.
We had promised each other nothing. We were roommates at best and strangers at worst. Somehow expectations had crept into our relationship. The development was inevitable, but I hadn’t foreseen it at the time.
Now she was sad, angry, and bitter. She looked enviously at Arnon and his wife, Jayne. She looked at me with resentment.
Elle tried to hide her unhappiness, but it permeated our quarters like a bad smell. I couldn’t escape it. Now we were married, and it was impossible to get away from each other.
My previous attempts at peace had failed, but I was always willing to try one more time. I wanted to see anything other than the sad look Elle was giving me right now.
It was like another person was speaking and using my voice. “There’s a movie tonight at the theater.” I tried to sound casual while piling my napkin and utensils on top of an empty plate. “Would you like to go?”
She looked surprised for a second. Elle always had the same expression before she answered me, especially if the answer was going to be no. I thought she might be giving herself permission to contradict me. She built up the courage to give me an answer until the words came flying out of her mouth.
The worst part was the expression on her face. It looked like she was afraid of my response. In my head, I knew it was because of her previous boyfriend, but I wasn’t him, and I never would be.
“I’d...” She hesitated. “I mean, thank you for asking me. But...”
I drew in a deep breath. Elle had a problem saying no. I had to be patient.
“I’d rather not.” She couldn’t even say the word. “I’m a little tired today.”
I frowned. I thought Elle had recovered from the illness that had afflicted half of the women in the first few months of the trip. But she had never seemed to regain all of her zest and energy.
I liked to blame the change on the sickness. I didn’t want to imagine Elle was despondent because of something I did.
“Jayne and Arnon invited us over for dinner tomorrow, though. Are you going to be up for that?”
“Oh, yeah. For sure.” She perked up immediately. I thought Jayne was her best friend on the ship. In the beginning, there was a fight between them I didn’t understand, but their relationship dramatically changed after Elle got sick. I think Elle liked Jayne but sometimes became overwhelmed with Jayne’s perfect life with her husband and twins.
Personally, Arnon was my best friend, but I didn’t like thinking about his wonderful circumstances.
“You’re welcome to get a new outfit if you want.”
She frowned. “Thanks for giving me your permission. Am I so poorly dressed that I’ll embarrass you?”
“No.” I felt irritated. “I thought women liked clothes, and I want you to be happy. Nothing more complicated than that.”
I stood up. What was the use in trying? She never let me in. She thought I was exactly like her loser boyfriend from the Districts. She didn’t trust me now, and it seemed like she never would no matter how hard I tried.
She stared at me, looking confused. “If you want to make me happy...” She trailed off.
I didn’t need to ask what would make her happy. I already knew what she was going to say, and I couldn’t give it to her, no matter how much she wanted it.