Haley ducked around a corner and then peeked back the way they’d come. It wasn’t an ideal vantage point, but sports arenas weren’t exactly designed with covert observation in mind. “Do you think she’ll be okay?”
Piper nodded, her gaze fixed on her older sister, Aria. “Now that she’s through the gate, yeah. I think so. I really hope she doesn’t turn her match down before she gives him a chance, though.”
“Me too,” Haley agreed. “She’s one of the kindest women I’ve ever known. I’d like to see her happy, even if it means she ends up on another planet.” Aria had once been Haley’s grief counsellor, but over time, their relationship had changed to a friendship. Losing Jeff to cancer had shattered Haley’s world. Aria had been her rock through those stormy times, and now she was the only real friend Haley had.
Piper sighed and swept a stray lock of her bright blue hair out of her face. “I’m afraid that’s one of the reasons she plans to turn him down. She doesn’t want to leave us.”
“I know.” Haley weighed her next words carefully. “Would you be okay if she did go?”
Piper shot her a look of pure frustration. “Of course I’ll be okay. I love my sister, but she needs to cut the apron string and focus on her life instead of mine.”
“She worries about you, Pi.”
“I know. And I know it comes from a place of love and all that, but I’m an adult. Have been for years. When is she going to stop mothering me?”
Haley patted the younger woman’s shoulder. “How does never sound? Because even if she winds up on the far side of the galaxy, you know she’s going to find a way to keep tabs on us both. Caring about others is Aria’s superpower.”
Piper nodded and glanced around the corner again. “She’s headed inside. Guess this means we should go find our seats, huh? I hope we’ve got a good view. I know I didn’t get matched, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the scenery.”
“I’m planning on enjoying the view, too. I don’t want a match, but I wouldn’t mind taking home one of those alien hotties for a few days.”
The two of them followed the mostly female crowd through the corridors, keeping an eye out for signs pointing to their seating area. “You ever think you’ll want more than a few days of fun with a guy?”
“Nope. I found the perfect guy once, and then I lost him to cancer. I can’t go through that again. I’m a solo act from now on.” You only got one chance at a love like that. The thought of dating again made her want to curl into a ball and hide.
“So that’s it? You’re done?”
“I’m not done with men, no. I just don’t want to keep them. I’m sticking with the catch and release approach from now on.”
Piper didn’t comment until they had descended a flight of stairs and found their row. “I’m not sure I want that. I used to, but lately…”
Haley did a careful sidestep along the narrow space between the seats and questioned her choice to wear her new Prada heels today. They were gorgeous, but not exactly practical. “You’re almost out of your twenties. It’s not surprising you’re starting to think longer term. I was a little older than you when I realized that I wanted more.”
“That’s why I took a chance with the Star-Crossed dating thing. It didn’t work out, though.”
“There’s an entire planet of men looking for mates. Don’t give up, yet.” She sat down and scanned the scene in front of her. The domed roof of BC Place was open, allowing the summer sun to fill the space with light. In the middle of the dome was a large, white, elegantly-decorated tent. Sitting beneath it were a large group of women, all dressed up and clearly nervous. None of them could keep still for long, and even from their elevated seats, she could hear their high-pitched voices as they chatted with each other.
“Good point.” Piper sat down beside her and tossed her bag into the empty seat to her left. “Do you think they have firefighters on their planet? I should probably date one in case the next place I get a job catches fire, too.”
Haley winked at Piper. “Best fire insurance a girl can have. Those guys really know how to handle their hoses.”
“Oh my god, I cannot believe you said that out loud. And my sister is worried I’m going to be a bad influence on Melody.” Piper was still laughing as she leaned forward in her chair and looked down at the arena floor. “Do you see Aria?”
“Near the front of the tent, looking like she’s going to bolt at any second.”
“She’s not the only one who looks like they’re having second thoughts. Me, I’d be admiring the scenery already on display.” Piper pointed to where several tall, broad-shouldered men were standing at the edge of the stage set up at one end of the arena.
The girl wasn’t wrong about the view. Haley took a moment to appreciate it for herself. It was the first time she had seen a Pyrosian in person, and the pictures she had seen didn’t do them justice. She pulled out her phone, captured a few pictures of the aliens, and then continued taking pictures of the rest of the arena. Officially, she was here as a friend, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t take pictures and observe as much as she could.
There was a story here, she just wasn’t sure what form it would take, yet. Everything seemed to be on the up-and-up, but any journalist worth her words knew looks could be deceiving. The best stories were always buried deeper. Aria was here because she’d made a simple misclick and accepted a match with an alien. She hadn’t intended to do it, but there had been no undo button. Were the Pyrosians playing fair, or were there other women here who had been tricked into coming to meet their matches?
No one knew much about how the first human women had met their mates, either. Oh, sure, Haley had seen the promotional materials and ads that were all over television and the internet. There probably wasn’t a human on the planet who hadn’t at this point, but ads and copy didn’t tell the truth, they crafted a message.
If she thought there was something truly nefarious going on, she would never have encouraged Aria to come here today. It wasn’t that she thought the Pyrosians were plotting the demise of humanity or anything, but everyone had secrets…and if she kept her eyes open, maybe she could uncover one or two of them.
Her father was constantly demanding she prove herself to him. What better way to do that than to get the scoop of a lifetime about the first alien race to visit Earth? She was a good reporter, even if it wasn’t her dream job. All her dreams had died with Jeff.
Several more men appeared to one side of the stage. One was pale blond, the other had dark hair, and they were both wearing what looked like designer suits. They were accompanied by several serious-looking soldiers wearing dark uniforms, and it was obvious they were there to protect the new arrivals. These must be VIP’s, and apparently they knew how to dress for success here on Earth.
A blonde woman in a flowing sundress of orange and yellow joined them a minute later. She walked right through the guards and up to the dark-haired Pyrosian, kissing his cheek with obvious affection. It was hard to be sure, given the distance, but Haley thought the woman was human. In fact, she looked kind of familiar.
“Is that one of the women from the ads?” Piper asked.
Of course. “I think so, yeah. So the guy she just smooched must be her mate.”
“Too bad he’s taken, he’s easy on the eyes. Then again, so is that platinum-blond hottie beside him.”
Haley raised her phone and used the camera to zoom in on the group just as they turned to greet another group of VIP’s, this one followed by a camera crew. “Looks like the mayor has arrived.”
“Must be getting close to showtime, then,” Piper replied.
Haley took a few more photos and then used her phone to zoom in Aria. She seemed alright, though she was still nervous. She thought about sending her a text message to let her know she wasn’t alone, but Aria had her hands full keeping Melody entertained and happy, so she decided against it.
When she looked back at the stage, things had changed. The crowd of VIP’s had grown, and they were taking their seats in a roped-off area to the right of the main stage. There were more uniformed Pyrosians appearing now, and plenty of organizers running around, checking in with each other and then dashing off again.
It wasn’t long before everyone and everything seemed to be in place. The Pyrosian soldiers were lined up in formation on each side of the stage, the guests were all seated, and a low chorus of gasps filled the arena as a ship descended out of the sky and through the open roof of the stadium. At the same time, more Pyrosians started filing onto the stadium floor. They were all men, all in matching outfits, and Haley guessed they must be the ones who had been matched to the lucky women awaiting them under the tent.
There were feminine murmurs of approval from all over the arena as they marched toward their places. As entrances went, it was damned impressive – until the explosion.
Torel Zinn had worked hard to become the head medical officer for the Pyrosian royal family. One of the benefits of his position was being able to attend to members of the family while they were aboard the fleet’s flagship, the Firebrand. That had allowed him to be present when the first human females were brought on board and given him the chance to watch his friend and commander fall for his human mate, Gwen.
Now, they were in orbit around Earth for the second time. He should be preparing for the arrival of the newly claimed human females assigned to the ship, but instead, he was sitting behind his desk, across from one of the richest males in the galaxy.
“You should come down with us, Torel. I’m taking my mate back to the sea wall where she used to work. It’s a pretty spot--nice views, lots of people, and fresh air. Then, Lisa wants to introduce me to something called poutine. Fried carbohydrates smothered in meaty gravy and cheese. We’re having it for lunch before heading to the stadium. You’re welcome to join us. In fact, it might be handy to have a doctor on hand, just in case this food doesn’t agree with Pyrosian biology. What do you say? Want to stress-test your heart?” Vadir asked, his golden eyes gleaming with an alarming level of amusement.
When Vadir was this happy, he was usually up to something. Often, it was something bordering on illegal. Vadir had enough money, charm, and power to talk himself out of any trouble. Torel didn’t. “Thanks for the offer, but I’ve been invited to join the Prince and Princess on their shuttle. I’ll see you at the ceremony, and I’ll make sure to bring something for an upset stomach, just in case.”
“Got anything that might help a Romaki’s digestion?” Vadir asked casually.
“Why would I need….” Torel stared at Vadir with dawning alarm. “By the Flames of the First Ones, what have you done? Romaki dragons haven’t left their homeworld for hundreds of years. Why would I need to treat one?”
Vadir winked and leaned back in his chair. “One dragon did. He’s been staying out of sight on my ship since we met up with the Firebrand. And before you ask, yes, Joran knows he’s here. We’ve been keeping it quiet, obviously, but he’s attending the ceremony as my guest.”
Well, that explained why Vadir looked so happy. He was about to introduce humanity to yet-another alien species. No doubt he’d be doing all he could to broker more trade deals between the three planets during this visit.
“Do his leaders know he’s here? What if he’s injured? No one knows much about treating a Romaki. There’s no need-- since they’re bound by law not to leave the planet.”
“He’s a dragon. There isn’t a weapon on Earth that could hurt him. Relax, Torel. He’s my responsibility, not yours. And no, his parents don’t know he’s here.”
“Parents?” Torel asked, already thankful that whatever Vadir said next, it wasn’t his responsibility to deal with it.
“My guest is Prince Radek, youngest son of the rulers of the Romaki Snow Dragon clan.”
“Has anyone ever mentioned you’re a lunatic with the ethics of starving paka?”
Vadir laughed. “It’s been mentioned once or twice.” He rose from his chair and walked around Torel’s small office to clasp his shoulder in a firm grip. “I appreciate you making time to see me today, with everything that’s going on.”
“Always. You’re about to become a father for the first time, and your baby will have parents from two different species. Questions and concerns are to be expected. Anything you or Lisa need, you are always welcome to speak with me.” He might never have children of his own, but Torel took great pride in knowing the royal family had expanded his duties to include overseeing the pregnancy and eventual delivery of every child with a human mother. He would train others as plans progressed, but for now, he was the one everyone would come to.
Vadir said his goodbyes and departed, leaving Torel alone. Soon, he’d be on his way to Earth with the rest of the royal party. This was probably the last time he’d have peace and quiet until they returned to Pyros. The entire ship would shortly be full of newly mated couples in the thrall of the Scorching. He was expecting to deal with more than a few injuries, strains, and exhaustion by the time things settled down.
Today was a good day for Pyros. After years of desperate research, they still hadn’t determined why so few females were born each generation. Now, they had the human females to help restore the balance. It was a historic moment, and he was pleased to be part of it. He had no time for a mate of his own, but he didn’t need a mate and offspring to make his mark. The Gods had provided him another way. His study of the human/Pyrosian matings and their offspring would be his legacy. Though that argument had not stopped the queen from insisting he register as a potential mating partner. Thankfully, there was no match for him in the database. His work was too important to allow anything to distract from it, and a mate would be the greatest distraction he could imagine.
He ran a hand over his bearded jaw. He’d grown the beard while on vacation and kept it because his mother had liked it. “You look tired,” she’d told him during their last day together. “Not your body, but your soul. You push yourself too hard. Find something that makes you happy and indulge yourself once in a while. There’s more to life than work, Torel. Your father and I are grateful for all you’ve done for us, and so very proud of you. It’s time to take care of yourself.”
It was good advice, but he’d spent most of his adult life working toward two goals: excelling in his career and making sure his parents would spend the rest of their lives financially secure. Now he’d achieved those goals, he had no idea how to switch gears. Not that he planned on trying. He knew what he had to do next- ensure his race continued. It would be the work of a lifetime.
A few hours later, Torel was on a shuttle headed to Earth. It was his first visit, and he was curious to experience the place for himself. He’d been studying the planet and its inhabitants for more than a year, but there were some things data couldn’t tell him.
The scenery displayed on the wall monitor was breathtaking. The city of Vancouver was nestled between soaring mountains and one of Earth’s many oceans, and he had a brief pang of regret he hadn’t taken Vadir up on his offer.
The shuttle slowed its descent as they approached the city, and several military craft fell into formation around them. “I didn’t know we were getting an honour guard,” he said.
Commander Denza glanced over at him and shook his head. “We’re not. They’re our security escort, assigned by the humans for our protection.”
Torel sat up straighter in his chair. “Why do we need protecting? And what do they think their craft can accomplish that ours couldn’t do better?”
“Apparently, not all the humans are celebrating our arrival. A small faction has formed decrying our arrival as a threat. They are also opposed to the agreement with their governments allowing us to claim human females as mates. We were only made aware of this issue upon our arrival in orbit.” The commander’s frown deepened. “If we had known, we would have changed plans, which is why we weren’t informed.”
“I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about, Kash.” Maggie, Joran’s Earth-born princess, said. “Security was doubled at your request, and almost everyone there today will either be part of the gathering or be hoping for a match of their own someday.”
“I still don’t like it,” Kash grumbled.
“I know you don’t, but that’s because you take your job seriously.” Gwen, another human female, leaned over and kissed her mate on the cheek. “You really need to try and smile, though. You’re terrifying when you get all grumpy and fierce, and that’s not the message we’re going for today.”
Torel laughed. “If you want him to smile, just give him Hope to hold. He’ll be grinning in seconds.”
“And making silly noises, too. I like this idea. It will show the humans we are as devoted to our children as we are to our mates.” Joran reached out to take Maggie’s hand. “Make that happen, will you, Gwen?”
The banter continued for the next little while, but Torel retreated from the conversation. While he was on friendly terms with everyone present, things had changed since Joran and Kash claimed their mates. It wasn’t that he was being deliberately excluded, but he didn’t quite feel like he belonged in their circle any longer.
He turned his attention back to the monitor and almost immediately spotted the white dome of the stadium where the Gathering was happening. The shuttle slowed and began its final descent a few seconds later, and he watched as they made straight for the opening at the top of the dome.
An air of anticipation took hold as everyone peered at the monitors.
“Almost home,” Maggie said, quietly.
Joran cleared his throat. “That is not your home any longer, my seska. You are of Pyros, now.”
They were all laughing at her slip when a deafening boom tore through the air. Before he could move, the shuttle started to shake and pitch, throwing him against his safety harness. The cabin filled with grunts and curses as the overhead lights flickered and several more explosions rocked the ship. The shuttle banked hard to the left and started to climb so quickly the inertial dampeners couldn’t keep up. The g-forces pressed him down into his seat, and by the time Torel could move again, they were clear of the stadium.
He glanced at the monitor and his stomach twisted. A plume of dark-grey smoke spiraled up out of stadium’s open roof. He looked over at Kash, who was already barking orders into his communicator, trying to find out what had happened. Torel pulled out his own communicator and accessed the medical emergency sub-channel. What should have been a joyous occasion had just been transformed into a nightmare. He sent out an alert, notifying the medical officers on every ship to man their posts and dispatch medics to the surface as soon as it was safe to do so. Soon, he’d be back on the Firebrand, awaiting the first casualties. Until then, all he could do was prepare and pray for the wounded.