Authors: Brenna Lyons
Or as comfortable about how I look.
Alice was wearing a
in deep purple and a pair of soft black Mary Janes with white bobby socks. Sammy wore a baby blue ruffled dress that reached her knees, white tights, and a pair of high-top tennis shoes that matched the dress. Todd wore a pair of infant dress pants with a white shirt and brown boots.
By comparison, Meredith felt more than a little silly in the Disney-style floor-length gown with matching gloves that reached her upper arms.
If it was yellow, I’d be the very image of Belle from
Beauty and the Beast
It wasn’t yellow, of course. It was a rich Hunter green that complemented her eyes.
“Cup.” Alice put her hands out to Meredith, opening and closing them in a ‘gimme’ motion. “Cup, mama. Peeze.” Though she’d reached physical milestones faster than most children Meredith knew, her speech patterns hadn’t evolved yet.
She’s only a year. Next week,
she reminded herself. If her speech patterns didn’t start maturing soon, there was plenty of time to have the Sakk healers work with her to improve it.
Meredith smiled and pulled a cup of fortified almond milk out of the bag between her ankles. In the next minute, it was stuffed in Alice’s mouth, and she twisted the closest curl to her face around her hand.
It was a safe bet all three children would be asleep when they reached Jarem’s home.
“We’ll be there soon,” the man in question intoned.
Meredith nodded in response.
Her apprehension made little sense to her. The message that had arrived from Jarem’s parents the month before made it seem that they weren’t adverse to the less-than-customary additions to their family. Still, she worried that they were being gracious to cover their disapproval.
He reached out and took Meredith’s hand. “They’ll love you. All of you.”
She nodded, though she wasn’t sure that was true.
Jarem cocked his head to one side and seemed to consider her. “Something is bothering you.”
“You’re so sure they’ll like us.”
“Love you,” he corrected.
“They will. The only reason they didn’t meet us at the shuttle was that they have no transport large enough to bring all of us to the ancestral home.” He’d explained that before.
“How can you be so sure?”
“I’ve told you about my family.”
She nodded. He was the only child of a couple who were now too old to have more children. He had two older uncles, widowers who had produced only female children, all of whom had left the nest and mated before Jarem was even adolescent. “There are no children in the house and haven’t been since you were a child.”
And Jarem is thirty years old. That’s a long time without children.
Would his parents and uncles be too old to accept the many changes children would bring into their lives?
As if he heard that question, Jarem shook his head. “You’ve agreed to carry at least two children for me. Even if we don’t have a boy, Todd is able to carry on our family name into the next generation. The worst thing they can imagine is the family dying out and the ancestral home falling to ruin.”
Meredith took a calming breath. “Okay. You know them better than I do.”
That goes without saying. I don’t know them at all.
The miles passed in near silence, and Alice fell asleep. Finally, the transport glided to a halt. Jarem lifted Sammy to his shoulder, and she opened sleepy eyes.
“We home, Daddy?” she grumbled.
“Yes. We’re home.” He stood and lifted Todd’s basket in his other hand.
Meredith placed the empty cup in the bag, looped it over her shoulder, and lifted Alice to the opposite one.
A knock at the double doors seemed to ask permission to open them.
“We are prepared,”
Jarem offered in Sakk.
The doors opened, and Jarem stepped down ahead of her. One of the warriors held out a hand to help Meredith down. She took it, self-conscious though doing so wouldn’t have bothered her on Earth. It wasn’t something Sakk males typically did. Only the fact that Jarem’s hands were full of sleeping or sleepy children excused another male daring to touch her for any reason but an emergency situation.
A ground-shaking cheer went up, and Alice startled in Meredith’s arms. Thankfully, she didn’t start screaming and crying. Instead, she rubbed a fist into her eye and looked around.
One hand went out and cycled in the ‘gimme’ move again. Alice started bouncing up and down on Meredith’s arm. “Ba-oon, Mama. Ba-oon. Ba-oon.”
She looked up, stunned by the sight of not only a massive crowd but further the banners, ribbons, and...sure enough, balloons. Though Meredith couldn’t identify what they were made of, they clearly resembled fully globe-shaped balloons in bright colors and marked with Sakk glyphs in contrasting colors.
Sammy snapped a look at Alice, followed her line of sight, and started making the same request of Jarem. Todd, true to form, slept through it all.
People closed on them from all sides, reaching out to touch the children. Meredith’s heart pounded out a warning. This had the potential to become a mob, if things went badly.
Jarem smiled and greeted one person after another, and she reasoned that he wouldn’t do that if he believed there was danger inherent in this scene.
“Clear a hole,”
a voice thundered in Sakk.
The crowd parted, and a slight, older woman came down the aisle, surrounded by three hulking men. Meredith didn’t have to ask who she was.
It was more difficult to identify the three men, since the brothers looked very much alike. Meredith offered a smile, hoping for the best.
They looked from one baby to the next, seemingly stunned to silence. Completely oblivious to the situation, the two girls continued to ask for balloons.
At last, Arrayanne said something in Sakk Meredith didn’t understand. The male at her back marched back the way they’d come. He returned a few moments later, his hands behind his back. When he reached the others, he said something she didn’t catch.
Arrayanne turned and accepted two balloons from him. She offered one to each little girl.
Sammy hesitated to take hers but did so at Jarem’s urging. One of the brothers reached out and tied the ribbon around her wrist to avoid the usual loss of balloon catastrophe most toddlers suffered. Sammy turned and hugged Jarem, shooting shy looks at his family.
Alice started clapping and laughing. She reached for the bright-colored globe and patted it clumsily.
“It is so good to hear babies laugh again,”
Arrayanne noted wistfully.
Meredith dusted off the Sakk she’d been learning.
“These young ones need to laugh.”
“The whole town rejoices.”
“I can see that.”
Who could miss it? Of course, it made sense. Two little girls meant the possibility of mates for the sons of the families gathered to meet them.
“Are the young ones hungry?”
Jarem answered that time.
“Anyone willing to offer a cake or pie will soon find themselves in favor with the girls. Todd has not progressed to more than vegetable paste, grain mush, and milk.”
Meredith laughed at the rush of people towards what she suspected were food carts. She had no doubts their children were going to be spoiled rotten.
Section Two: Clipped Wings
Hayley and Parrin; Holly and
Hayley smoothed the layers of purple silk over her thighs, her nerves jumping. Two weeks ago, she’d been just another secretary. Then her sister had convinced her to come to the Sakk consulate in Hartford to be tested. Hayley had gone along as a lark, just one more time she would go along with Holly’s flights of fancy.
Only this time, it hadn’t proven to be a wild fantasy. From the moment the testing pad had turned blue, indicating that Holly and Hayley were crossbred human-Sakk females, her life had changed at a whirlwind pace.
Holly’s question—spoken aloud but to no one in particular—that Hayley’s ‘birth defect’ may have been partial wings had sent the Sakk into a frenzy, and they’d all but begged to examine her medically.
There had been no need to ask what the scans had shown. The flurry of wings fluttering in excitement had sent Hayley’s stomach into a similar tizzy. Apparently, though the alien race was winged, and they’d reportedly found a winged Earth-born child, it had never occurred to them that crossbred Sakk, born on Earth, might have stubs of wings that had been surgically removed by doctors who didn’t know what they signified.
In less than an hour, she’d gone from an office drone to something akin to a princess.
Whoever said fairy tales don’t come true?
Reinforcing the mental image of her new status as royalty, the Sakk prince had arrived by shuttle from Arlington, Virginia within an hour of her medical scans, just to meet Holly and Hayley and to welcome them back to the Sakk race.
Of course, his visit hadn’t stopped there. Plans for their ‘coming out’ into Sakk society had been planned meticulously. Their psychological profiles had been dissected, their preferences nitpicked into minutia, and their relationship examined in detail.
Though Holly and Hayley had never been apart, they’d agreed that living in the same town would be as palatable to them as being married...
into the same household. That pronouncement had pleased the Sakk immensely, because it meant spreading the genes farther than they would with the two sisters marrying two close male relatives.
An attack of nerves had Hayley turning toward the floor-to-ceiling mirror to survey her image. She hardly recognized herself. Beauticians had pampered and primped her, leaving her feeling very much like a bride on her wedding day.
That’s what I will be today...if I choose to be.
In mere moments, Hayley and Holly would be introduced to hundreds of Sakk men in the hopes that they would choose mates from among them.
As if thoughts of her younger sister summoned her, Holly bounced through the door into Hayley’s quarters without so much as a knock. That wasn’t a new thing for Holly; she’d been doing it since they were toddlers.
The green of Holly’s dress matched both her eyes and her name. Her sister’s golden hair fell in curls around her elfin face. And her heels were high enough that Hayley wondered how she could walk on them at all, let alone with such grace. Holly stopped short and spun, showing off the short, strapless confection she’d be wearing to the ‘meeting day’.
By comparison, Hayley’s dress was sedate. It reached to her ankles and had wide straps of wispy material that nearly covered her scars. Her shoes were moderate heels that reminded her of Cinderella’s glass slippers.
They were as different as night and day. Hayley was level-headed, and Holly was prone to flights of fancy. Hayley was as dark as Holly was fair. Holly’s heels brought them nearly even in height, compensating for the more than half a foot difference in their heights. And they were both supposed to find mates? Something told Hayley that would be easier said than done.
“Well...? What do you think?” Holly demanded.
Hayley made a show of her consideration. “You look great.”
She only wished she felt as secure about her own appearance. When the Sakk had suggested something backless or strapless for her, Hayley had balked. A lifetime of hiding the scars on the back of her shoulders was hard to squelch. In the end, she’d agreed to this dress as a compromise. Anyone looking closely enough would be able to see the scars, but the men weren’t supposed to get that close.
“You’re thinking about it again,” Holly chided.
“I know.” There was nothing more to be said about it. There was no reasoning that the scars were a source of pride now. Hayley wasn’t proud of them and probably never would be.
Holly enfolded her in a hug. “They’re going to love you. You’ll see.”
Though Hayley doubted it, she nodded her agreement.
Half an hour later, Hayley and Holly entered the large room set aside for meetings of Sakk males with Earth-born females, each of them on an arm of the Sakk prince—or Sakkra, as he preferred to be called. There were fewer men than she’d anticipated—perhaps three dozen in all, suggesting they might be arranging the meetings by locality the males lived in instead of performing a mass meeting of all the males at once.
It would make both of us finding a man in the same area easier.
Men stopped speaking and turned to look at them. The hunger in their eyes stepped up the tension in the room several notches, and Hayley shivered in response.
In a flash, one of the closer males whipped the cloak off his back and offered it with a tip of his head. Hayley stopped and stared at him, wondering what it meant.
Sakkra’s voice was calm and sounded of amusement. “I am certain Ms. Harrison is not chilled. Perhaps the closeness of all the males has unnerved her.”
His head came up, his eyes wide, and the young man stepped back, seemingly chastised.
Hayley’s face heated at the response. “It’s all right. Really. Thank you for the offer.”
He smiled like a teenaged boy whose crush had noticed him and tipped his head again. “Any time, Ms. Harrison.”
Sakkra led them down the center of the room to the plush chairs set up for them. Sandwiches and canapés were set on a small table between the two chairs, and an additional chair was set to the outside of each of theirs.
Most probably for the men to sit in while they meet us.
There was a door behind the chairs, and Hayley wondered about it. If there was a close door, why were they walking between the two rows of men?
Maybe it’s some sort of tradition.
Considering the Sakk culture, that made sense.