After The Happily Ever After

Rachel and Eros

 

Rachel knocked on Eros’s office door, then rushed inside without waiting for a response. She didn’t want to interrupt the meeting he was having with Hades, the Dark King, but under the circumstances she had no choice. 

Eros looked up as she entered. His expression changed to concern the moment he got a good look at her. “What’s wrong?” he asked, coming to his feet.

Rachel glanced at the Dark King. “May I have a word with you in private?”

“You can speak freely in front of Hades,” Eros said. “Now what is the problem?”

She glanced at Hades, then back at her husband. There was no easy way to say this, so she just blurted it out. “We’ve been robbed,” Rachel said.

Eros’s confused expression reminded her once again how some things didn’t translate here on Zaron.

Rachel cleared her throat. “The Atlantean crown is missing,” she said.

Her husband blinked in surprise. “What do you mean by missing?”

“I mean someone has taken it,” she said. “It’s gone.”

“What about the warriors tasked with guarding the jewels?” Eros asked.

Rachel shifted on her feet. “They’re missing, too.”

“Locate the children and head to our quarters,” Eros said. “I’ll send out an alert.”

“Okay.” She nodded.

Eros waited until she’d left, then looked at Hades. “Do you think the Slavers have returned?”

Hades slowly shook his head. “I made my stance with them quite clear,” he said. “If they’ve returned, they’ll die.”

Eros nodded, then crossed the room to open a hidden panel. One press of a button would lock down the crystal palace and put everyone on alert.  Just as he raised his hand to press the button, Persephone came bouncing into his office wearing his royal crown on her dark head. Each step she took made the gold and crystal crown slip down and cover her eyes.

She pushed it up so she could see. “Look, Daddy,” she shouted, ignoring the man seated beside him. “This is what I’m going to wear when I rule Zaron with Titus.”

Eros looked at Hades. The Dark King arched a brow, but there was mirth in his aqua blue eyes as he waited to hear the Atlantean King’s response. Eros shut the panel.

“Where did you find that, young lady?” Eros asked. “It was supposed to be securely locked up.”

“Mommy said I could play with it,” Persephone said, but she didn’t hold his gaze.

“Are you sure that’s what she said?” Eros knew his daughter well. She might hold his heart in her tiny fist, but she was quite capable of stretching the truth when it suited her.

Persephone grinned and her lashes lowered. “She might’ve said something else,” she said, toeing the floor with her sandals.

“Who’s Titus?” Hades asked. “A guard?”

Eros smiled. “He’s my Righthand’s son. My daughter is quite taken with him.”

“Ah,” Hades said.

“Does Titus know that he’s going to help you rule?” Eros asked.

Ares’s son had a tendency to go along with anything Persephone wanted, though Eros wasn’t sure if it was due to affection or a sense of loyalty.

Persephone nodded, sending the crown toddling on her head. “I told him.”

“What did he say?” Eros asked.

She shrugged as if his response was insignificant. “He said okay.”

Rachel came rushing into the room and skidded to a halt, when she caught sight of their daughter. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you, young lady,” she said, gliding deeper into the room. “You are in big trouble. Everyone thinks the royal crown has been stolen.”

“It hasn’t been stolen,” Persephone said. “It’s right here.” She tapped the side of the crown with her little fist.

“I can see that,” Rachel said. “How did you get past the royal guard?”

Persephone smiled, showing off deep dimples in her cheeks. “I ordered them to give it to me.”

Eros’s brow shot to his blond hairline. “You did what?”

“I ordered them to hand it over,” she said, as if that were patently obvious.

“And they listened?” Eros asked. He was going to have to have a talk with his royal guards. No one, including his daughter should be able to access the royal jewels without his or Rachel’s permission.

Persephone looked at him as if he were dense. “Yes, Daddy,” she said. “It would be wrong to say no to a princess.”

Hades pressed his lips together to keep from laughing. “She has you there.”

“You stay out of this,” Eros said jokingly. “Unless you want our meeting to last another three hours.”

Hades winced. “No, thanks. I’d like to get back to my mate before the moons rise.”

Eros looked at his wife. “Apparently our daughter has decided that she will rule Zaron with Titus.” 

“Don’t look at me,” Rachel said. “I’ve never suggested such a thing. She’s her father’s daughter.”

“Yes, but she doesn’t get her headstrong nature from me,” Eros said.

Rachel laughed. “Keep on believing that,” she said. “You two are like peas in a pod.”

Eros and Hades frowned in unison.

Rachel rolled her eyes. “Forget it. It would take too long to explain.” She put her hands on her hips and stared down at Persephone. “Give me the crown, little miss, so we can return it and I can tell everyone to call off the search. Once we’re done, we are going to go sit in your room and discuss why it was wrong to take Daddy’s crown in the first place.”

“Mommy.” Persephone screwed her face up in defiance. “But I’m a princess.”

“Yes, you are,” Rachel said. “Which means you have to be good and lead by example. You can’t run around getting Titus into trouble whenever you feel like it.”

“But Mommy, he said he wanted to help,” Persephone said. “Especially after I kissed him.”

“You did what!” Eros shouted.

Persephone turned to her father. “I kissed him.”

“Perhaps your mother should include a few more things in that talk you’re going to have,” Eros said.

Rachel smiled at him. “I’m sure Titus did volunteer,” she said. “But you should never have asked. And you certainly shouldn’t have bribed him with a kiss.”

“What does bribed mean?” Persephone asked.

“I’ll explain it once we get back to your room,” Rachel said. “Now come along.”

Persephone dug in her heels. “I want to stay with Daddy.”

“He’s in a meeting,” Rachel said. “Now apologize to Daddy and his friend Hades for interrupting them.”

Persephone ducked her head and suddenly looked bashful. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s quite all right,” Hades said. “This whole situation has been enlightening.”

Rachel laughed. “Carry on, gentlemen,” she said, then kissed Eros’s cheek. “Sorry for the false alarm.”

“It’s all right,” he said. “I’ll see you soon.”

The second the door closed, Hades looked at Eros. “You have your hands full with that one, Atlantean King. You should take command of her now or she will run over you.”

Eros stared at him and slowly smiled. “When you have a daughter of your own, then we’ll talk, Dark King. Until then, let’s finish hammering out this security agreement.”

Jac and Ares

“I’m off.” Ares leaned over and kissed Jac’s forehead. “Are you going to be okay?”

She forced a smile. “I’ll be fine.”

His green eyes narrowed, but he didn’t say anything. “I should be home early. Contact me if you need anything.”

“I will,” she said.

Ares walked to the door, his loose pants lovingly hugging his trim hips.

Jac drank him in.

The muscles in his back rippled as he paused at the ice green crystal entrance. That view alone made Jac grateful that shirts weren’t fashionable on Zaron. 

Ares looked back and smiled.

The warmth of that electrifying grin made her breath catch. Even after five years, the man still had the ability to stun her senseless, which was remarkable all in itself. Jac had never imagined herself falling in love, settling down, and raising a family. Even now part of her still couldn’t believe it. But she had and it had changed her world…literally.

The love in Ares’ expression made his handsome face even more beautiful.

As if that were possible, Jac thought.

The warrior was stunning and he knew it, but as far as she could tell he only had eyes for her.

“Get going. You’re going to be late.”  She grinned and waved him away.

“I’ll be home as soon as I can.” The second he left her smile faded.

Jac glanced down at her swollen belly and sighed. She missed her trim form. Missed her fighting weight. Missed being able to work seventy hours a week. Okay, maybe she didn’t miss that part, but she did miss work. She’d just been getting the hang of Atlantean law, when this happened. She didn’t relish starting all over again. The baby kicked her bladder and sent her scrambling for the bathroom.

“Thanks a lot,” she said, barely making it in time.

“Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” Titus burst into the room.

“Remember what Mommy told you about knocking first before coming in?” Jac finished her business, then struggled to her feet. She didn’t want a repeat of what happened last time. Titus had caught Mommy and Daddy in a compromising position. One that took quite a while to explain. Ares laughing hysterically hadn’t helped. Of course, he wasn’t laughing when it happened. He’d been ready to throttle his precocious son.

“Sorry.” His chin dropped and he skulked out of the bathroom. A second later, he knocked on the open door.

Jac washed her hands, then said, “Come in.”

Some of his enthusiasm had waned, but not all of it. Her five-year-old son grinned and held out his hands. They were cupped closed preventing something from escape. Jac took a cautious step back. The last time Titus had brought her something she’d gotten stung by a lance beetle. The sting itself wasn’t bad, but the pain afterwards lasted for nearly a week and required a trip to the healers.

“What do you have in your hands?” Her eyes narrowed.

“It’s a present.” His smile widened and he took a step closer.

Jac held out her hand to stop him. “You know Mommy loves your presents, but she doesn’t like surprises. Does it bite?”

His dark brow furrowed, his expression so much like his father’s. “I don’t think so.”

“Did you show it to Daddy?” she asked.

He shook his head, sending dark hair into his face.

Jac brushed it back behind his ears. It had taken her a while to get used to the Atlantean men sporting long hair. She’d always gone for clean-cut guys back on Earth before meeting Ares. Her son idolized his dad. Wanted to be just like him in every way. Universe help her if that happened. She’d be beating the girls away from the door. As it was, Rachel’s daughter, Persephone already followed him around.

“Why didn’t you show it to Daddy?” she asked. After the beetle incident, Ares had insisted on seeing every gift that Titus ‘found’ for safety sake.

“Because it’s a present for the baby,” Titus said.

Jac’s heart melted. Even if it was another lance beetle, she’d have to take it. She would not break her son’s heart, especially when it was so obviously in the right place. He was looking forward the baby almost as much if not more than Ares. He couldn’t wait to be a big brother.

She took a deep breath. “Okay, show me.”

Titus opened his hands, revealing a bright blue flower with velvety petals and a deep red center. It was one Jac had never seen before.

“Where did you get this?” She carefully lifted the bloom out of his hands and brought it to her nose. Jac inhaled. Honey and lavender filled her lungs. The scent instantly relaxed her.

Titus appeared to be waiting for something.

“Mommy loves it,” Jac said and smiled at him.

Titus grew with pride before her eyes, but he continued to watch her.

“Thank you,” she said. “I’ll get some water to put it in.” Jac started to put the flower down.

His eyes widened and he lunged for it before it reached the crystal counter. “Don’t let it go! It took me forever to find it and catch it.”

Jac blinked. “What? The flower?”

“Yes,” he said.

Jac had never heard of a flower that was hard to catch. It wasn’t like they moved. Even on Zaron that were stationary.  “Honey, I love it, but it’s just a flower.”

Titus shook his dark head. “No, Mommy. It’s not. It’s a nightsail. They normally only come out in moonlight. I found it sleeping in the meadow under the high purple grass.”

Sleeping? Jac looked at the bloom. Tiny wings spread from the petals and rotated like helicopter blades. She gasped and let go. It floated up above her palms twirling, perfuming the air as it rose. Titus caught it. He was careful despite his young age.

“I’m not sure the baby’s going to be ready for this.” Jac didn’t want to disappoint him, but she wasn’t going to let the baby near this thing. She had no idea what this creature was capable of and she wasn’t about to find out via an infant.

He looked at her as if she’d grown a horn in the center of her forehead. “It’s…it’s…” His face screwed tight while he searched for the right words. “It brings luck for the baby and asks it to join us.”

“Oh,” she said, not understanding what he meant. “Join us?”

Titus nodded. His smile was back and he waited expectantly.

“The baby will come when he or she is ready, sweetheart. I don’t think a flower butterfly will change that,” Jac said.

“It’s not a flower butterfly. It’s a nightsail,” he said affronted, then pointed to the petal wings for emphasis.

“Of course, my mistake.” Jac kissed his cheek.  She had no idea what she was going to do with the creature. What did it eat? Where should she put it? A vase filled with water was obviously out of the question.

“Well?” he asked.

“Well what?” Jac asked.

“Aren’t you going to use it?” Titus asked.

Jac arched a brow, then looked at the nightsail. How did one ‘use’ a creature like that? It was obvious it wasn’t decorative. She didn’t want to disappoint her son, but at the same time she couldn’t see how putting a bug on her stomach was going to do anything. Titus’ green eyes sparked in anticipation. Jac sighed. It wouldn’t hurt to go along with his scheme since he’d obviously put effort into getting the creature for her. At least she hoped not.

“What’s Mommy supposed to do?” she asked.

“You put it on your tummy,” Titus said as if that were obvious.

“You’re sure it doesn’t bite?” The last thing she wanted was to have venom delivered directly to her baby. She might not be prepared for another child, but she didn’t want to harm it.

He shook his head.

“Okay, but I’m not going to leave it on there for long.” Jac sat on the edge of the bathing pool and pulled up her shirt to expose her ripe belly. “What now?”

“Put it here.” Titus pointed to her navel. “That’s the best place for the nightsail to talk to the baby.”

Jac tried not to roll her eyes. This was ridiculous, but if it would make her son happy then she’d put the flowery bug on her stomach.  She reached for the creature once more and took it out of his small hands. Jac leaned back and placed the nightsail on her navel. It fluttered its wings once before settling onto her abdomen. The petals tickled, but she kept still.

She waited, but nothing happened. Jac looked at Titus. “When does it talk?”

“It’s talking now. Can’t you hear it?” he asked.

“Do you?”

He nodded enthusiastically.

Jac craned her head and listened. She couldn’t hear anything beyond her strained breathing. Her son stared at her stomach, his attention locked on the nightsail upon it.

“What’s it saying?” she asked.

“It’s talking to her about the world. Telling her secrets. Asking her to come out and play,” Titus said. “Nightsails love to play. That’s how they spend their nights.”

Okay…it took Jac a moment to realize what he’d said. “She? Did you say she?”

“Yes,” Titus said. “The baby is a girl.”

Kids and their imaginations, Jac thought. Atlantean’s rarely had female babies. Boys were much more common. The fact that her best friend, Rachel—now Queen Rachel—had birthed a girl was still considered extremely rare.

“Sweetheart, don’t get your heart set on having a little sister. The butterfly flower may be wrong,” she said.

“It’s not a flower! It’s a nightsail,” he all but shouted.

“Watch your tone, young man.”

“Sorry, Momma.” He ducked his head.

The baby kicked hard. Right where the nightsail lay. It slipped down Jac’s belly. Before it hit the floor, it took flight and rose to the vaulted ceiling.

“I don’t think she liked what he was saying,” Jac said to appease him.

“Yes, she did.” Titus grinned. “She just has a temper. The nightsail said she’s a lot like you.” He giggled.

Jac glared at the plant-like animal. It was a good thing it was too high for her to reach. One good swat and it would be bye, bye nightsail.  The creature floated into the other room. 

“I’ll catch it for you, Mommy.” Titus ran after it.

“That’s okay,” Jac said, but he ignored her. She heard something crash to the ground. “Titus are you okay?”

“I’m fine!” He shouted.

There were more thumps and another crash. She heard his footsteps speed up. He might be fine, but would the house survive his hunt?

“It’s okay, Titus. We’ll catch it later once Daddy gets home.”

“Got it!” he cried out. His footsteps grew louder.

The second Titus walked back into the bathroom to show her, Jac’s water broke.

No way, she thought. It had to be a coincidence.

She glared at the creature and cursed long and hard in her head. Jac looked at her son. His hands were clasped together and he had a look of excitement upon his face. When Titus had said that the nightsail would invite the baby to come out and play, this was not what she had in mind. She’d assumed it was a wives’ tale. It would’ve been had they still been on Earth.

Jac swore again. This time aloud. She knew she should’ve asked more questions before putting that thing on her stomach. 

“Mommy said a bad word,” Titus said.

“Go get your father!” she snarled. “Tell him to bring the healers. The baby is coming.” The first contraction hit and Jac grit her teeth. Once she got through this, she and Titus were going to have a long talk.

He snickered. “I told you it would work. Nightsails always know what to say to make babies come out and play.”

“Now Titus! Now!” Jac shouted, gripping the edge of the bathing pool. 

He took off like a shot.

Athena Jacqueline entered the world two hours later. With a loud wail she announced her arrival to the entire palace and immediately wrapped her warrior father around her little fingers.

Brigit and Orion

The shelves of crystals lining the wall glowed with a purple hue that seemed to pulse with an invisible heartbeat. Any other time, the light emanating from them would’ve been hypnotic, but not today. Nothing could distract her from the pain.

“Push!” Orion shouted and wiped his brown with the back of his hand.

Brigit grunted. “Don’t you tell me to push, you green-eyed, two-toned alien! It’s your fault I’m in the position.”

Another scorching wave of pain struck. Brigit cried out. Orion’s expression morphed from supportive to panic stricken.

He turned to the healer who’d just laid a green crystal on Brigit’s swollen stomach. “Can’t you do something?”

She gave him a sympathetic smile. “It’s all part of the process. It won’t be long now.”

Brigit grit her teeth. It felt like she about to lay an egg the size of a bowling ball. Her hand clamped onto Orion’s. She saw him wince as her nails dug into his arm.

“I changed my mind. I changed my mind. Make it stop,” she cried.

Tears swam in his eyes. For a moment, Brigit forgot about the pain, forgot about the growing pressure. Orion looked so helpless, so lost. She squeezed his hand reassuringly...or at least she’d tried to, but another contraction struck.

“Get this thing out of me!” Undignified? Yes. Overreaction? No.

“I see the head,” the healer said and removed the green crystal and replaced it with a red one.

The pain eased slightly, but not nearly enough. How long was this going to take? She’d been at it for over six hours already.

“I need you to push,” the healer said. “Now.”

Brigit curled her body up and pushed for all she was worth.

“That’s it,” the healer said. “One more time and I think that will do it.”

Brigit’s grunt turned into a snarl.

“The baby is coming.” The healer caught her son as he came sliding out. With the baby in her arms, she turned to Orion. “Would you like to cut the cord?”

Her brave handsome warrior took one look at the squirming, blood-covered mass in the woman’s arms and his eyes rolled back in his head. He hit the ground with such force that it sounded like a tree had toppled.

The healer called out for assistance, then snipped the cord and laid the baby on Brigit’s chest. In an instant, Brigit forgot all about Orion splayed on the floor, all about the last few hours of pain, and all about the gross stuff oozing out of her body. Her son now held all her attention.

She’d always heard how seeing your baby for the first time brought a sense of instant love. Brigit had never believed that it could be true, but it was. As she stared down at her son, she knew her life would be forever altered.

“He’s beautiful. Just like his daddy.” She glanced down at the floor. Orion was starting to come around.

His face flushed when he realized where he was.

“It’s okay, honey,” Brigit said. “It’s a common occurrence on earth.”

“Atlantean warriors do not faint,” he grumbled.

“Happens more times than you think,” the healer said under her breath and winked at Brigit.

Brigit grinned.

* * * * *

Orion stumbled to his feet. He’d never live this down. He walked to the head of the bed and looked down at his mate and his child, then suddenly Orion didn’t care what his fellow warriors would think.

He reached out a callused hand to touch his son, but pulled back at the last minute. Brigit caught his wrist and brought his hand back.

“It’s okay. You won’t break him,” she said.

Orion gently touched the baby’s cheek with the back of his knuckle. His son’s mouth immediately moved, preparing to suck.

“He’s hungry,” he said.

“He’ll probably eat like his father,” Brigit said, then shifted him over to her breast.

Orion couldn’t tear his eyes away as his son latched onto Brigit’s full breast. He’d never seen anything quite so beautiful or so humbling.

“You have made me the proudest warrior on Zaron,” he murmured. “Thank you for gifting me with this child.” Orion leaned over and tenderly kissed her lips.

“I think he looks like you,” she said.

Orion stared at the baby, his son. The newborn had a short thatch of blonde and black hair just like his, but he had his mother’s nose and her coloring. His heart nearly burst from the joy and love coursing through his veins.

“He looks like both of us,” he said and would have it no other way.

* * * * *

Brigit looked at the baby. “You’re right. He does.” She smiled. “What do you think we should name him?” Unlike Jac and Rachel, Brigit hadn’t thought about names. She didn’t want to try to name a baby that she’d never met.

Her best friends had thought she was crazy, but they’d eventually understood. They’d shrugged it off as Brigit being Brigit. But she knew what she was doing. So many children were named before they even arrived.

She didn’t want to give her child the wrong name. Brigit didn’t want him or her to be like so many of her friends, who later changed their names or went by nicknames because their given name didn’t fit.

Orion hesitated.

“You’ve thought of a name, haven’t you?” Brigit asked.

“I have, but I want to make sure that you’re okay with it. I know the decision is important to you.” He kissed her palm.

Brigit’s heart fluttered. Orion had taken her breath away the moment she’d laid eyes on him and nothing had changed. She wanted him more today than she had when they’d met.

“Okay, lay it on me,” she said.

“If it pleases you,” he said. “I’d like to call him Apollo.”

“Apollo.” Brigit rolled the name over her tongue, then looked down at her son. He’d fallen asleep still attached to her nipple. He had a strong chin and firm brow. “Apollo,” she said again, this time louder.

The baby struggled to open his eyes. For a second, their gazes met, then he was off again.

Brigit glanced at Orion. “Apollo it is,” she said.

The smile he bestowed upon her curled her toes. Then he leaned over once more and gently kissed them both.

“I cannot wait to share our joyous news with the others, especially Ares.” His blue-green eyes flashed with pride.

“Go tell your brother.” Brigit softly brushed his hand. “I have everything I need right here in my arms.”

Bacchus and Carrie

 

Bacchus awoke as skin caressed his chest. The dream of having a woman of his own was so vivid that he almost believed he could smell her feminine musk. Hair tickled his nose and he brushed it aside. The feel of it brought him instantly awake. He opened his eyes.

Carrie lay next to him, her soft length curled against his chest, seeking warmth. He grinned and pulled her close, tucking her under his shoulder.

How many years had he dreamed of waking with a woman—his woman by his side? One hundred? Two? Bacchus couldn’t remember. All he knew for certain was that the happiness he felt was not an illusion born out of loneliness. Carrie was here and had been by his side for several months now.

She was his one true-mate and she’d quickly settled into work on Zaron. She was fast becoming one of their best healers—a feat that did not surprise him given her passion for the subject matter. Bacchus kissed the side of her head.

“Morning, true-mate,” he murmured.

She snuffled, then muttered, “Is it time to get up already? I don’t smell any coffee.”

Bacchus laughed, hugging her close. He hadn’t been able to convince her to leave Earth without the ground beans she craved so dearly. He’d even had to bring her coffeemaker along, though he had warned her that it wouldn’t work on Zaron. It had taken him a while to create a machine that would replicate the bitter brew, but now that he had, she expected him to make it for her every morning.

She couldn’t drink coffee at present, but she still liked to smell it. His lips brushed her forehead. ’Twas a small price to pay for the joy that she brought to his two hearts and the love she gave so freely. 

“What are you up to today?” she asked.

“I have to meet with the Atlantean King to set up a schedule for visits to Earth,” he said. “What about you?”

She shrugged. “We’ll be in my lab for most of the day.” She lovingly cupped the small, growing bulge below her stomach.

Bacchus kissed her forehead. “You two behave yourselves while I’m gone. I’d better get going. Eros gets grumbly when I’m late.”

“Right.” Carrie laughed. “As if you’re ever late.” She playfully pushed him until he rolled out of bed.

“I’m going,” he said, then stole a kiss before striding to the cleansing room to shower. 

Carrie enjoyed the view. She never got tired of looking at his naked body. He was such a sexy man and he was all hers.

Done in record time, Bacchus kissed her before hurrying out the door. “See you soon.”

She waited for him to go, then climbed out of bed. She was feeling tired today, but it was probably from lack of coffee. Carrie wandered into the cleansing room to shower. It was as she was dressing that she noticed the blood on the floor.

“No!” She pulled a testing crystal off a shelf and ran it over her tiny bump.

Carrie stared at the test results with tears in her eyes. Not again, she thought, praying she was wrong as she ran the scan again. But there was no denying the results. She’d lost the baby. Lost her little girl.

She sobbed. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, rubbing the tiny bump.

How was she going to break the news to Bacchus? He’d been so excited. They both had. The fact he’d been the first Phantom Warrior to go to Earth in search of a mate only made the situation worse.

Unlike the other Earthlings who’d arrived on Zaron, Carrie was having trouble carrying a baby to term. She’d had ever test imaginable done on her and the med team could find nothing wrong. They’d even tested her true-mate, Bacchus, but he—like all Phantom males—was healthy and virile. Which meant something else was amiss. Something they hadn’t considered or discovered yet.

Carrie scrubbed her hand over her face, removing all trace of her tears and locked the pain deep inside. There’d be time for tears later. She had to find out what was causing this. Not just for her sake, but for the sake of the other members of the Phantom Blood Clan. She dressed quickly and hurried to her lab.

She’d been there studying all the data for hours, when there was a knock at the door.

“I thought I’d drop by to take my girls to lunch,” Bacchus said and came up behind Carrie. He placed his arms around her, resting his hand on her stomach.

“I’m not hungry,” she sniffled.

He stiffened and turned her to face him. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“I’m so sorry.” Her voice cracked and the tears she’d desperately held back began to fall once more.

Sadness filled his red eyes and Bacchus crushed her to his chest. “It’ll be okay.”

Carrie shoved at his chest, but he didn’t release her. “No, it won’t,” she said. “Not if I don’t find out what’s causing my infertility.”

He kissed her forehead tenderly. “You have a brilliant mind,” Bacchus said. “I know you’ll figure this out.”

She knew he meant every word, but the sentiment did little to ease the pain echoing inside her heart. Carrie had tested everything she could think of, but nothing had popped. It would destroy her, but she’d even considered finding a way to break the bond with Bacchus, so he could find another true-mate. Someone who could give him the children he longed for.

“You should get back to work,” she said.

Bacchus frowned at her. “I cannot leave you, when you are in so much pain.”

“I’ll be fine.” Carrie wasn’t sure it was the truth. “I have one more thing to check.”

He hugged her. “It can wait.”

“No!” Carrie jerked out of his arms. This time he let her go. “It can’t.”

Bacchus stared at her for a few moments, then slowly nodded. “I’ll be back to check on you in a little while.”

His reluctance to leave was obvious, but Carrie couldn’t have him hanging around. An idea had started to form in her mind. One that could be dangerous. She didn’t want Bacchus to stop her. And there was no doubt that he would, if he had any inkling of what she was about to do.

She kept a weak smile pasted on her face until he left her lab. As soon as the door closed behind him, Carrie walked over to the panel hidden on the far wall. She pressed her hand against it and the panel opened, revealing several vials of thick, milky liquid.

Venom.

Carrie grabbed two of the nearest vials, then shut the panel. On Earth she’d studied to be a herpetologist. She knew all about venom. It had both good and bad properties. For the last several months, Carrie had suspected that Blood Clan venom was the cause of her fertility issues, since it could be used as both a weapon and a euphoric.

Like all the other Earth women on Zaron, Carrie had been transformed by her mate. But unlike the others, who’d had no problems transitioning into the various clans, Carrie had. She’d been able to shift into a lizard-like, vampiric creature, but she had never developed the level of venom Bacchus produced. No one could explain why. They just kept watching, waiting, and hoping the levels would change.

Well Carrie was tired of waiting. She was convinced that missing venom was playing a part in her fertility issues. If she could somehow trigger her immune system, it might cause her body to produce antibodies and more venom. Might being the key word. It was a big gamble, since there was only one way to test her theory. If she was wrong, there was a very good possibility that the venom would kill her.

But what choice did she have? Carrie pressed a trembling hand to her now empty abdomen. Pain ravaged her. She couldn’t keep going through this over and over if there was no hope that things might change. The losses would eventually destroy her. Eventually destroy the love she had with Bacchus. He said otherwise, but she knew deep down in her heart it was true. Each time she told him that she was pregnant, he got excited. And each time she lost the baby his eyes dimmed.

How long before the excitement faded, and only darkness remained?

Carrie glanced at the vials on the table, then walked over to the door and sealed it. She couldn't afford to be interrupted. The Phantoms would eventually get in, but not before she finished what she had to do.

She hurried back to the table that held her notes and went over them one last time to make sure she hadn’t missed anything. Phantom physiology was so different to that of an Earthling. One mistake on her part and she’d doom herself and the entire Phantom Blood Clan.

You have to risk it. You don't have a choice, she thought.

After she was certain that her dosage was correct, Carrie picked up an inoculator. At least she wouldn’t have to jab herself with a needle. Zaron had developed an absorption method that penetrated the skin via light wave.

Carrie filled the inoculator with both vials of venom, then took a deep breath. “I’m doing this for us,” she murmured. “I love you.” She mentally sent the endearment to Bacchus and brought the inoculator to her arm.

“Carrie!” Bacchus shouted. A minute later, he was banging on the glass door.

She fumbled the inoculator but managed to hang onto it. How had he gotten here so quick? Didn’t matter. There was no turning back now.

What was she doing? Bacchus tried to open the door and found it locked.

Carrie looked at him and gave him a sad smile. “Please forgive me,” she said.

His gaze dropped to the inoculator in her hand. Bacchus had no idea what was in it, but the look on her face terrified him. “Carrie, open the door. Let’s talk about this.”

She shook her head and slammed the inoculator onto her arm. Not once did she break her gaze with him. The determination on her face was unshakable.

Bacchus’s two hearts froze as fear enveloped him.

Carrie’s eyelids fluttered, then her eyes rolled back in her head and she crumpled to the ground. He couldn’t tell if she was breathing.

“No!” Bacchus bellowed and slammed his body against the door. The hinges creaked but didn’t give. Fangs burst from his mouth and scales covered his body as he shifted, then Bacchus hit the door again. This time the door buckled, and the protective glass shattered.

He leapt over the mangled metal and glass shards and ran across the room. Carrie convulsed on the floor. It was the only thing that let him know that she was still alive. The inoculator lay beside her—empty.

“What have you done?” He grabbed the inoculator and shoved it into his pocket, then lifted her into his arms and raced out of the room.

By the time Bacchus reached the healers, Carrie was barely breathing. He put her down on the examination platform. A blue beam of light shot out and scanned her from head to foot. The healers examined the readings and their eyes widened.

“What is it?” Bacchus asked.

The senior healer stepped forward. “There is venom in her system,” she said. “A lethal dose. How did it get there?” Her gaze narrowed on him.

He ignored her accusation. Instead, Bacchus stared at his true-mate. Why would Carrie do that? Had she tried to kill herself? His hearts shattered. He loved her. Didn’t she understand that she was the only thing that mattered to him? He reached into his pocket and pulled out the inoculator.

“She injected herself with this, before I could break into her lab.” He handed the inoculator to the healer.

The healer took it over to their diagnostic crystals and ran it beneath them. “It contains the same venom that’s coursing through her system. She will lose the child.”

“She already did,” he said softly. “I think that’s why…” He choked and cleared his throat. “Is she going to be okay?”

“We’ve stabilized her for now, but you must prepare yourself,” the healer said, her gentle face pinching with pain and empathy.

She might have given up hope, but Bacchus hadn’t. His Carrie was a fighter. “What can I do?”

“Nothing,” the healer said. “Now we wait.”

Wait? Bacchus couldn’t just sit here and wait. “There has to be something I can do,” he said.

“Pray to the Goddess,” the healer said. “Now go.”

“I’m not leaving her,” he said.

“Staying here is not going to change anything,” she said.

“I don’t care,” Bacchus said. “I want to be here when she wakes.”

“If she wakes,” the healer replied. “Now get out, Phantom. I am ordering you to leave,” she said. “I cannot do my job with you here underfoot.”

Bacchus stared at Carrie. She looked so small, so pale lying on the platform. All around her, colored crystals pulsed and glowed. Her chest rattled with each breath she took. You can’t leave me, he sent the message straight into Carrie’s mind. I won’t survive without you. I won’t want to. So if you choose to go, I will follow you.

She needed to know that it wasn’t just her life that was on the line. She lived or died for them both. Bacchus pressed a kiss to her cool lips, then stepped out of the room and immediately contacted Buzz. He told him to get to the healing area as soon as possible, then headed back to his mate’s lab.

 

Carrie could hear Bacchus in her mind, feel his bone-deep pain, but she couldn’t respond. The venom burned through her, searing her organs, while leaving a wake of numbness behind. Is this what it felt like to die? She tried to open her eyes, but more pain lanced her. She cried out, but the darkness closing in around her swallowed her screams.

 

Bacchus hurried to the lab. He needed answers. He had to know what had driven her to do such an insane thing. He could not accept that she no longer wanted to be in this world with him. He knew in his hearts that she loved him. After a quick search, he located her notes. When he read them, the color drained from his face.

She’d done this for him. Done this for them.

Didn’t she realize that without her, he had no life?

He gathered her notes and raced back to the healing area. When the senior healer exited Carrie’s room, Bacchus shoved the notes into her hands. “There has to be something you can do,” he said. “If she’s trying to trigger her immune system, there must be a way to stop it or reverse it.”

The woman frowned. “There might be. Let me read over her notes, so I can see exactly what she did and why.” The woman laid Carrie’s notes out on a table and scanned them. Her eyes widened when she reached the last entry.

“Where is she?” Buzz burst into the hall with his mate, Cassandra behind him. “What happened?”

Bacchus only made it as far as the word venom, when Buzz punched him in the face. He fell back against the wall.

“How could you be so careless?” Buzz asked. “I thought all Blood Clan Phantoms could control their venom.”

“They can.” Bacchus rubbed his jaw. He couldn’t blame Buzz for his anger or for holding him responsible. Carrie was his true-mate. It was his responsibility to care for her and keep her safe.

“Then how come she’s lying in there with her body pumped full of poison?” Buzz shouted.

“She injected herself,” Bacchus said.

Buzz’s lips thinned and his muscles tensed like he was going to hit him again. Bacchus welcomed the pain. “That doesn’t make sense,” he said. “Why would my sister do something like that?”

Pain tore through him. “Because we lost another baby,” he croaked. “I found out this morning.”

And just like that, Buzz deflated before his eyes. “Oh man.” He ran a trembling had over his unshaven face. “I’m sorry. Is she going to be okay?”

Bacchus looked at him.

Buzz swore, then turned and punched the wall, shattering the bones in his hand. Cassandra rushed over to him and grabbed his arm. A second later, a golden light surrounded his hand and Buzz gasped.

“Don’t do that again.” Cassandra grasped his chin to get him to look at her. “Please.”

Buzz pulled her into his arms and held her. His gaze locked onto Bacchus as he did so. “I can’t believe that Carrie tried to kill herself.”

Bacchus ran a hand through his long, dark hair. “I don’t think she did,” he said. “From what I could gather from her notes, she’s trying to fix her infertility issues.”

“By killing herself?”

Bacchus glowered at him.

“I’m sorry, man. I had no idea,” Buzz said. “Why didn’t she say something?”

“Your sister didn't want to worry you,” Bacchus whispered.

“What can I do?” Buzz asked. “There’s got to be something.”

“Pray to your deity,” Bacchus said. “I’m going to convene with mine.”

Bacchus wandered down the hall toward the Goddess Shrine. He didn’t see the faces of the people he passed. Their messages of concern fell on deaf ears. Instead, he focused on sending Carrie encouragement.

The Goddess Shrine sat in a small walled garden, surrounded by blooming plants from around the galaxy and a deep pool of water. Bacchus stripped out of his thin skin suit and took a deep breath, then plunged into the icy pond.

He swam hard toward the bottom. When his feet touched solid ground, he dropped to his knees and begged the Goddess for help. Bacchus stayed down there until his lungs burned and spots floated before his eyes. When he could no longer remember why he was there, he surged upward.

The second his head broke the surface, Bacchus gasped for air. It didn't take long for his thoughts to clear and his pain to return. He climbed out of the pool of water and sat on a rock, waiting for a sign to let him know that the Goddess had heard his pleas. The plants around him rustled as a scented breeze caught their leaves.

All around him life flowed, continuing on its journey of survival. Bacchus listened to the wind, but the air kept its secrets. When he’d first met his true-mate, he’d deceived her in order to find out if Earth females were compatible with Phantom Warriors. Carrie had not only forgiven him, but she'd also selflessly worked to help the Phantom people.

She deserved better than him. Better than this.

Bacchus tilted his head toward the sun. “Take me instead,” he murmured. “I will gladly trade my existence for hers.”

The wind around him picked up, carrying a sea of nightsails toward him. The blue blooms with red centers twirled around him in circles. He watched in awe as the usually nocturnal beings settled on the ground beside him.

Bacchus picked up the nearest nightsail and cupped it in his hands. “It’s a little early for you to be up,” he murmured.

Whispers filled his head. The sound traveling faster than he could comprehend. Even so, by the time the whispers finished, Bacchus knew what he had to do.

If the Goddess wanted an exchange, he’d give her one and be thankful for the opportunity.

He held up the nightsail, so the wind could carry it away, then quickly donned his clothes. Bacchus rushed back down the hall to Carrie’s room. “Any changes?” he asked.

The chief healer shook her head. “She’s getting worse.”

His hearts clenched. Bacchus hurried to Carrie’s side. Before anyone could stop him, Bacchus’s form faded. He heard the healer cry out a warning, but it was too late. He pushed himself through Carrie, sharing even more of his essence, while pulling venom from hers.

Fire shot through his system as the venom struck him. Bacchus seized, feeling himself weaken, but forced his body through her once more. The pain became unbearable. How had she endured for so long? He materialized beside her, in his shifter form, and fell to his knees, clutching his chest.

“You fool,” the healer snapped. “There’s enough venom in her to kill a Phantom.”

Bacchus looked at her through pained eyes. “Not anymore,” he said, then passed out.

 

Carrie’s eyes flew open and she gasped, surprised to be alive. It took her a moment to remember what happened, when she did, she sat up. The room spun like a kaleidoscope.

“Be careful,” a soft feminine voice said. “You’re still weak.”

She turned her head to look at the woman. “Where’s Bacchus? I need to speak with him.”

The woman’s pained expression scared Carrie.

“Where is he?” she asked again.

The healer’s gaze shifted to a room across the hall.

Carrie could see a large, scaly body, lying on a healing slab. Her heart lurched. It couldn’t be. That had been a dream. “How long has he been like that?”

“A day,” she said.

“Help me up,” Carrie said.

“You’re too weak to move,” the healer said.

“I said, help me up or I’ll walk over there myself.” She’d crawl if she had to.

Buzz spotted her and rushed into the room. He pulled Carrie into his arms. “I thought I lost you,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” she murmured.

“Don’t ever do that again,” he snapped. “There’s only room for one daredevil in this family and that’s me.”

Carrie laughed, then immediately sobered. “Bacchus?”

Buzz’s expression flattened. “He saved your life last night.”

“I know, but why is he on a healing slab?” she asked.

“To save you, he had to take some—most of the venom away,” Buzz murmured.

Carrie’s face pinched. “He shouldn’t have done that.”

“He said the same about you,” he said.

“Is he going to be alright?” she asked.

“They don’t know,” Buzz said.

She’d done this for him—for them. Why would he risk himself?

“Take me to him,” she said.

Buzz picked up Carrie and carried her into Bacchus’s room. The healers pulled out another crystal slab for her to lie on and pushed it close to her true-mate. Buzz placed her on the table, then stepped back to give her a moment of privacy.

Carrie stared at Bacchus. Silver scales covered his entire body. His breathing was so shallow that she could barely see his chest rise and fall. Fangs protruded from his mouth, hanging over his bottom lip. The healers had placed tubes over the end of each fang to milk the venom.

“Why hasn't that stopped?” She pointed to the venom.

“We think his body is trying to clear the extra venom from his system, but we don’t know for sure,” the healer said. “No one has ever attempted what you and he tried. And Goddess help us, no one ever will again.”

 “Has there been any change in his condition at all?” Carrie asked.

The healer's gaze dropped. “Not for the better.”

Carrie placed her hand on Bacchus's chest. “What did you do?” she murmured, then switched to their private, telepathic form of communication. What were you thinking? His two hearts thumped beneath her fingers. I didn't risk everything to lose you now.

He took a rattling breath, then his two hearts stopped beating. Alarms went off in the room. The healers pushed Carrie's slab aside and hooked Bacchus up to various crystals. Buzz took one look at her face and hurried to her side.

“They'll save him,” he said. “You have to believe that. He's a tough son-of-a-bitch.”

Tears filled her eyes. Carrie wanted to believe Bacchus would be fine, but she'd never seen him like this. He was so weak. His handsome face so pale. Even his silver scales flaked onto the floor.

“He's not breathing,” the healer said.

A second later, the staff hooked Bacchus up to a machine that forced air into his lungs.

The wait felt like an eternity, then chief healer said, “I have heartbeats.”

Bacchus gasped and his lungs filled.

“He's back,” she said.

Carrie didn't realize she was clutching Buzz's hand so hard until he asked her to let go. All she'd wanted was a family and now her true-mate's life hung by a thread.

Do not do that again. Do you hear me, Bacchus? I am not living in this world without you. I need you to come back to me.

After several minutes the chief healer turned to Carrie. “We have him stabilized for now,” she said. “But we won't know how much damage the venom has done until he wakes.” If he wakes was left unsaid.

They don't think you're going to make it, but I know better. I know you wouldn't leave me. We still have so much life to live, she said. Come back to me. I'm not leaving here until you do.

Carrie looked at Buzz. “Push me next to him,” she said.

Concern clouded his eyes. “You need to recover, Sis. Let me take you back to your room.”

Her gaze leveled on him. “What if that was Cassandra on that slab?”

He gave her a pained look.

“Exactly,” Carrie said. “Now push me back over to him.”

Carrie held Bacchus’s hand and spoke to him, sometimes aloud, but most of the time in his mind. She told him stories about her childhood. Most of which she'd shared with him before, but she didn't care. All that mattered was that he knew she was there. When she could no longer keep her eyes open, Carrie leaned over and kissed him, then gave his hand a gentle squeeze.

“I will be here when you awake,” she murmured.

 

Every muscle in Bacchus's body hurt, even his eyelids. Given the amount of pain he was in, he didn't think he should be alive. He took a deep breath and felt his ribs protest. He tried to swallow, but his mouth was too dry. Bacchus licked his lips and his forked tongue hit a tube.

His eyes flew open. He didn't immediately recognize where he was and almost panicked. Instead, he forced his head to turn so he could look around. The first thing Bacchus spotted was Carrie lying on a table next to him. Terrifying memories crashed down upon him and his hearts squeezed.

He’d done what the Goddess had told him to do, but it hadn't worked. He hadn't saved her. If he had, she wouldn't still be on the healing slab. What was he going to do? He couldn't live without her. Refused to do so.

Bacchus closed his eyes and begged the Goddess to take him. If Carrie wasn't here, he didn't want to be here. He'd join her in the shadow world. 

“You're awake,” Carrie said.

He was praying so hard that for a moment Bacchus imagined hearing her voice. He opened his eyes and looked at her.

Carrie smiled. “I nearly lost you,” she said.

Relief flooded him. “Never,” he croaked. “Where you go, I go. There is nowhere you could go that I would not be able to find you.”

“Good to know,” she said. “But let’s try sticking around for a while. Deal?”

“Deal,” he croaked.

 

A few days later, they were both released to go home. That night Bacchus made loved to Carrie, tenderly holding her in his arms. When she reached her release, Carrie began to cry.

He kissed her tears as they fell. “Why are you crying?”

“I don’t think my experiment worked,” she said.

“Doesn't matter,” he said. “All that's important is that we're alive and we have each other.”

“But what about children?” she asked. “We both want them.”

“Yes, but I want you more.” He captured her lips, drawing out the kiss as he surged inside her again, claiming her soul. “You are my life. You are all I need. We can figure the rest out later.”

 

 

Five months later...

 

Carrie had been wrong about the cure, but right about the lack of venom. It turned out the Blood Clan needed to pass through their mates more times than the rest of the Phantoms to make up for the deficiency. This was good news for everyone.

Pain sliced her abdomen, driving the breath from her lungs. The contractions were coming faster now. The baby would be here any moment. She stared at the monitors, looking for any signs of distress. There were none...except in the man beside her.

Bacchus trembled and the color drained from his face as he held Carrie's hand.

“You're doing fine,” Carrie said, then gasped as another contraction rocked her.

Bacchus nodded, but pink-tinged sweat continued to pour down his face.

“You should sit down,” she said, gulping in lungfuls of air. “You don’t look so good.”

He swallowed hard and took a deep breath, then shook his head. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“One more push,” the healer said.

Carrie inhaled, then pushed hard. For a second, nothing happened, then there was a short gasp, followed by a loud, wailing cry. The healer held up the baby for her to see.

“You have a son.” The woman smiled.

He looked...perfect, Carrie thought. Absolutely perfect.

The moment the healer placed the squalling baby in Carrie’s arms, her big, strong true-mate took one look at them and began to weep. 

“Come here,” she said.

Bacchus leaned over her to look at his son. The child met his gaze and gave him a toothy smile, his tiny fangs were noticeable but wouldn’t be venomous for several more years. Pride welled inside of him. 

“Thank you,” he murmured and kissed Carrie’s lips. He never could’ve dreamed that in such a short time that he of all Phantoms would have a family. Or that it would all be thanks to one beautiful human woman.

The baby squirmed and wiggled.

“He’ll go to sleep if you stop staring at him,” she said.

“I can’t help it. He’s perfect like his mother,” he said.

She smiled. “More like his father. Aren’t you, handsome boy?” 

The baby cooed. 

“Here,” Carrie said. “Hold him.”

Bacchus felt a wave of panic. “I don’t know how.”

“Sure, you do.” She handed the baby to him.

Bacchus clutched his son to his chest. The baby snuggled closer. His two hearts clenched, then seemed to open wide. He nuzzled his son, the downy soft hair on his head tickling Bacchus’s nose.

“Wish I had a camera,” Carrie said.

Bacchus looked up. “Why?”

“To capture this perfect moment for eternity.”

He smiled, letting his love for her—for them to show in his eyes. “We did it.”

“Yes,” she said. “We did. Can I have my son back?”

“Not yet.” His grin widened. “I have some people who’d like to meet him.”

“Honey, he’s just been born. I know he already has teeth, but he’s a baby,” she said.

Bacchus shook his head. “He not just a baby. He is our son and a first in the next generation of Blood Clan Phantom Warriors.”

Carrie laughed, then winced. “Alright, but don’t take too long. He’ll get hungry soon.”

“I won’t, I promise,” he said and hurried out of the room.

Carrie smiled after him. She’d never been so happy in all her life.

Finally, after waiting so long and suffering so much, they had their family.

Kegar and Katy

 

Kegar could smell his mate, but he couldn’t see her. He glanced around at the trees and lifted his head to sniff the air once more. “Katy, I know you’re there.”

 

She giggled.

 

His head snapped to the left and he grinned. Kegar felt his body shimmer and fade. Invisible, he ran through the woods, his footfalls silent as he chased his unsuspecting mate. She’d never know he was there until he was upon her.

 

You just think I don’t know that you’re there, came the smug reply in his mind. You forget that you taught me everything.

 

Not everything. Kegar grinned and switched direction, following the mental path until he caught her delicious scent once more. Where are you hiding, mate?

 

You’re the hunter. Find me.

 

I’m close, he spoke directly in her mind.

 

She didn’t respond. Smart woman. Of course, he wouldn’t have mated her if she wasn’t. He was about to take off, when a second scent reached him. This one darker, muskier—male. Kegar froze, his muscles tense as he tried to identify the owner of that scent. He couldn’t.

 

Katy? Where are you? Kegar kept his voice calm and even, though he felt anything but relaxed.


She didn’t answer.

 

He growled. Tell me where you are, I’m not playing.

 

W-what’s wrong? Her voice was tentative like she still suspected he was trying to trick her.

 

Just give me your location.

 

Not until you tell me what’s going on, she replied.

 

Kegar clenched his jaw. Nothing is wrong.

 

Don’t lie to me. Fear mingled with her sudden anger.

 

He swore silently. We are not alone, he said. Now tell me where you are. Kegar shifted into his cat form, ready to fight.

 

A twig snapped.

 

Katy crouched behind a tree, her protruding belly brushing the thick trunk. She couldn’t hear Kegar any longer. Where was her saber-tooth? Leaves crunched. The sound closer than she’d like. She slipped out from behind the tree and made her way toward the meadow. From there she’d be able to see anyone approaching...unless the stranger was a Phantom. In which case, he could always turn invisible. She didn’t want to think about it. The only thought running through her mind was to protect her baby.

 

She hurried toward the meadow. The area was empty, except for a carpet of wildflowers. The hair on her nape rose and she took off running. Katy stopped when she reached the center of the meadow.


When she turned back to the spot she’d been hiding, a man stood. He was tall like most Phantoms with dark hair, red eyes, and a scar running down his right cheek. He stared at her, his expression inscrutable.

 

I-I see him, Katy said. I don’t recognize him. Kegar?

 

No answer.

 

Subconsciously, she stroked her protruding stomach to reassure the baby growing there. She dare not take her eyes off the man. Kegar had to be nearby. Why wasn’t he answering? Had something happened to him? Had this stranger harmed him? Fear clutched her.

 

“What do you want?” Katy asked aloud.

 

The man tilted his head but did not reply. Instead, he took a step forward.

 

“Stay back!” Katy snarled.

 

He kept coming.

 

Suddenly, a saber-tooth appeared behind him. It reared up on its hind legs and wrapped its claws around his throat. Kegar half-shifted long enough to tell Katy to run, then the two Phantoms were fighting.

 

With her heart lodged in her throat, Katy took off. She didn’t understand what was happening, but knew she needed to get help. The weight of the baby slowed her progress. It wasn’t long before her run morphed into a fast walk. How much time had passed? Five minutes? Ten? It felt like an eternity. She couldn’t hear the men fighting. She couldn’t hear anything other than the blood roaring in her ears.

 

Please be all right, she sent the silent prayer up to whoever might be listening.

 

Strong, invisible arms came around her, halting her progress.

 

Katy screamed and reflexively kicked back, then began to fight.

 

Kegar solidified. “It’s me. I got you,” he murmured next to her ear.

 

“Kegar?” she burst into tears. Stupid pregnancy hormones. “Are you okay?” She turned in his arms to get a good look at him.

 

Blood smeared one cheek and he was drenched in sweat, but other than that, he looked fine. 

“What happened?” she asked, using her sleeve to wipe away the blood. “How did you find me?”

 

He rubbed her ripe belly. “You know I’ll always be able to find you. Both of you.”

 

“I know,” Katy laughed through her tears. “Who was that man?”

 

“A Phantom who’s been living off world,” he said.

 

“Off world? I thought all the Phantom people lived here on Zaron,” she said.

 

He rubbed his chin on top of her head. “Most do, but some chose to travel. He had just landed and was drawn by your scent.”

 

Her brow furrowed. “Shouldn’t your scent keep him away?”

 

Kegar’s expression darkened. “It should have. But when he saw you were alone, he assumed your mate had been killed and that you were ‘available’.”

 

“Well he thought wrong!” she snapped.

 

He kissed her cheek. “Yes, he did. He will not make that mistake again.” Kegar gave her a feral grin. “How’s our girl this morning?”

 

Katy cradled her stomach. “She’s fine, but I don’t think she appreciated our jog. She’s been kicking me in the bladder for the past ten minutes.”

 

“We can’t have that.” Kegar dropped to his knees. He pulled up Katy’s shirt and pressed his cheek to her bare skin. “Hello, baby girl, I hear you’re giving mommy a hard time.” He kissed her belly. “Do you miss daddy’s visits?”

 

Katy put her hand on the top of his head. “You don’t have to do this. We’re fine. Just a little winded.”

 

“Of course, you are.” He winked at her. “But she’s not the only one who misses the visits.”

 

She smiled at him. “I love you.”

 

“Always,” he said, then his eyes glowed red and Kegar disappeared.

 

Katy knew the moment that he entered her body because her skin warmed like she had a sunburn. She also felt the second that he merged with their child because their daughter began to kick excitedly. She always did that when her daddy visited. The kicking slowed and eventually stopped, letting her know that their child had fallen asleep. A moment later the air glistened and Kegar reappeared. 

 

“Thank you,” she said.

 

“You’re welcome.” He rose to his feet and kissed her tenderly, passionately. “Please don’t ever do that again.”

 

“Do what?” she asked.

 

“Scare the life out of me,” he said, planting a kiss on the tip of her nose.

 

Katy grinned. “Sure, no problem...if you promise me the same thing.”

 

His eyes narrowed, but there was warmth shimmering behind the mock scowl. “You know I can’t do that,” he said.

 

“What a coincidence.”

 

Kegar growled and pulled her close. “You will always be a handful.”

 

“Yes, we will.” Katy glanced at her belly. “Is she just about ready?” She knew what the healers had told her. They’d said another week or so, but Kegar had firsthand knowledge. 

 

He smiled. “Our daughter will be here any day now. She knows that the family is looking forward to meeting her, especially her big brother, Davi. Speaking of the wild, little beast, we’d better get back. Who knows what he’s gotten up to while we’ve been gone. The Dark King may have banished us for creating such a handful.” 

 

“He wouldn’t dare!”

 

Kegar laughed and threaded his fingers through hers. He brought her knuckles up to his mouth and pressed a kiss to them. “You can hide from me some other time.”

 

“One of these times I’m going to win,” Katy said.

 

Kegar flashed his startlingly white teeth. “Only if I let you.”

Hades and Taylor

 

Taylor rolled out of bed and promptly threw up on her stilettos. Not another pair. She scowled. This made four mornings in a row that she hadn’t been feeling well. How long did food poisoning last anyway?

She glanced over her shoulder. Hades side of the bed was empty—thank goodness. Nothing brought an end to the romance quicker than barfing in bed.

Taylor wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and stumbled to the bathroom. She turned on the tap and splashed some cold water over her face.

Between shoring up their defenses against the Slavers and pounding out a treaty with Eros, the Atlantean King, Hades had been working long hours. When he finally made it home, often late at night, he’d made sure that they never left the bed.

Her big cat was insatiable and seemed to be even more so lately. It was like he couldn’t get enough of her, but Taylor wouldn’t have him any other way.

Her stomach gurgled ominously and she gagged. She shouldn’t have eaten that fish-like creature. She thought it had smelled funny. Taylor ran for the waste basin and barely got her head over it in time before she barfed again. This was getting old—fast.

After several more minutes of tossing her cookies and a lot of dry-heaving, Taylor was able to climb into the shower. She needed to pull herself together.

The Dark King wasn’t the only one who had meetings to attend today. Thanks to her new position as Queen of the Phantom Warriors, Taylor had her own set of required duties.

With the nausea behind her, she got dressed in a pencil skirt and semi-conservative blouse. Taylor pulled her long red hair back and tied it at her nape. She smoothed her clothes and glanced at her appearance. Other than her complexion being a lovely shade of light green, she looked okay.

Before she left for her office, Taylor cleaned up the mess she’d made on the floor. It pained her to do it, but she had no choice but to dump her stilettos in the trash. She sighed and tried not to think about the cost.

Her first appointment started in ten minutes. If she hurried, Taylor had just enough time to make it.

A group of Phantom women were already seated around the conference table at the far end of the office by the time Taylor arrived. Hades had set the office up for her after he’d made her his queen. It was the first time she’d worked in an office, but it didn’t take long to get the hang of it.

The women seated around the table handled the bulk of the trading that occurred within the Walled City. Today’s agenda would cover expanding the trade market to include the Atlantean’s Crystal City. If successful, the move would bring in a lot of revenue to the Walled City and its people.

The women rose to their feet and bowed their heads when she walked into the room. Taylor blushed. She still wasn’t used to her new position, even though it had been a couple of months since Hades had claimed her as his mate.

“Please be seated,” Taylor said, then grabbed the back of a chair to steady herself.

The woman seated next her glanced up. “My Queen, are you well?”

Taylor waved away her concerns. She wasn’t the first woman to fall ill and she certainly wouldn’t be the last. “Just a little food poisoning.”

There was a collective gasp from the women around the table. “Someone is trying to harm you?”

Their eyes glowed red and claws sprang from their fingertips. Suddenly they looked less like business heads and more like predators.

“No! No, no.” Taylor held out her hands to quell their need to shift. “That’s not what I mean.”

“But you said you were poisoned,” the dark-haired woman said.

Taylor sighed. There were still some things from Earth that didn’t translate well on Planet Zaron. She mentally added food poisoning to her growing list of terms.

“Please ladies, take a seat,” Taylor said. She turned to the woman next to her. “What’s your name?”

The woman straightened. “I am called Mari.”

“Mari,” Taylor said. “On Earth, when food gets old or has not been properly handled and prepared, it can cause what’s known as food poisoning. If you eat food like that, it’ll make you sick.” She paused. “It’s not done deliberately. It just happens.”

Mari watched her closely. “So you are saying that the food caused your illness.”

Taylor smiled weakly. “Yes.” She nodded, grateful that the woman understood. “That’s exactly what I’m saying.”

Mari’s dark brow furrowed, then she glanced at the other women around the table. They seemed to reach some kind of silent consensus.

“My Queen,” she said. “That’s simply not possible.”

Not possible? The endless fountain of vomit said otherwise. “I beg to differ,” Taylor said. “It happens all the time on Earth.”

Mari slowly shook her head. “No, I beg your forgiveness, but tis’ not.”

Taylor rubbed her forehead. Maybe she hadn’t been clear. She’d thought for sure that Mari had understood.

“Why not?” Taylor asked, while she tried to come up with a different way to describe what she meant.

“All food eaten on Zaron has been treated to destroy the kutza. Nothing harmful can survive the process,” Mari said.

What was a kutza? Taylor’s stomach gurgled and churned. Was that the fish she ate the other night?

“Maybe something slipped through the cracks,” she said. There was nothing else it could be. She’d hardly eaten a thing since that particular dinner.

The women’s gazes dropped to her abdomen as the gurgling and rumbling noises increased in volume.

“Excuse me,” Taylor said, covering her stomach.

“Even if it wasn’t the law,” Mari said. “No Zaronian would allow untreated food to be consumed. The kutza makes its home in your intestines. It devours all the waste your body produces and...it grows. It grows so large that eventually your body cannot produce enough waste and it has to eat its way out.”

Taylor’s stomach flipped and she swallowed hard to keep from throwing up on the table. “Are you telling me that I have an alien growing inside me?”

Her mind leapt to the old movie where the alien burst out of unsuspecting chests. Taylor glanced down at her well-endowed physique. She didn’t want any alien breaking her ribs to escape.

Uh-huh! No way! She wasn’t about to lose her best asset because of bad fish. Her mouth watered. Taylor gulped, then gulped again. It took great effort to keep everything down.

“Someone should notify the Dark King that the Queen has been poisoned,” Mari said.

“No!” Taylor let go of her stomach and straightened. Hades was stressed enough without adding her tummy troubles to his problems. They were overreacting. “I’m sure it’s just a bug. Not a kutza,” she added quickly. “Just a regular old virus. I’ll be right as rain in a day or two. Now please everyone calm down and let’s get back to the meeting.”

* * * * *

Two days later, Taylor felt even worse. She’d had no choice but to cancel her appointments. The women might think that food poisoning didn’t exist, but Taylor wasn’t convinced. It was either that or she had the flu.

She pressed her hand to her forehead, but her skin was cool to the touch. Okay, so no fever. Other than the occasional nausea, she felt all right. So maybe it wasn’t the flu after all.

Whatever was plaguing her certainly hadn’t dampened her appetite. She’d eaten the Zaronian equivalent of a chicken and a box of earth chocolates, and Taylor was still hungry. If she kept this up, she’d be as big as the Keep.

On earth, not having a fever or body aches would mean something, but this was Zaron. The bugs here were different. Taylor had no way of knowing if illness behaved the same way here as it did at home.

She sat down in a comfy chair and closed her eyes. She just needed to rest for a minute, then she’d be okay. An hour later, a roar rattled the walls.

Taylor’s eyes opened in time to see the picture of her and her sister, Tabby fall to the floor. A door slammed, then a giant Liger-looking cat prowled into the room.

“I take it the meeting with Eros isn’t going well,” she said, climbing to her feet.

A warm glow surrounded the beast’s pale fur. It grew brighter and brighter until Taylor had to look away. When the light faded, she glanced back and saw the Dark King standing in the doorway.

Hades was naked.

Gloriously so.

His muscles flexed as he ran a hand through his tawny hair, leaving it disheveled. “The Atlantean is as stubborn as a Zaronian boarram,” he snarled. “He refuses to listen to reason. Maybe I should try ripping his head off and shouting in his ear.”

Taylor laughed and closed the distance between them. “You have to remember that he’s not as adept at war as you are. You must be patient with him. Eros doesn’t fully appreciate the threat the Slavers bring. He needs more time. He’ll come around.” She brushed her hand over his cheek.

Hades caught her fingers and brought them to his lips. “I didn’t think you’d be here.”

Taylor hesitated, then said, “I finished early.”

Hades’ nose twitched. “You smell good. Did you put something different on your skin?”

“No.” She shook her head. “I just showered.”

He growled. “You smell really good.” Hades pulled her into his arms until their bodies were flush. He rubbed his head against hers and pushed his nose into her neck.

A hard ridge pressed against Taylor’s abdomen.

“I can’t seem to keep my hands off you,” Hades purred. He nibbled on her ear.

Taylor felt her bones melt. It was like this every time they got together, fireworks and puddles. “You’ve never been able to keep your hands off me,” she reminded him. And Taylor was grateful for it.

“I know.” Hades kissed her nape. “But now all I want to do is tie you to the bed and have my way with you.”

Taylor giggled. “Didn’t we do that last week?”

Hades’ purr turned into a growl. He ripped his mouth away from her neck and captured her full lips. His hands seemed to be everywhere at once as bits of her clothing fell to the floor. He never cut her with his claws, not a single scratch. It always amazed her how accurate he could be with those deadly weapons.

Taylor’s body softened to counter his growing hardness. By the time he backed her into the bedroom, she was naked.

Hades’ hands slid past her waist to knead her bottom, then they continued on their journey south. His rough palms settled against her thighs, his fingers stroking her sensitive skin. He suddenly grabbed her and lifted.

Taylor tumbled onto the bed.

He clasped her foot and kissed the inside of her ankle, then slowly made his way up her inner thigh. “Your scent is driving me insane. It’s so sweet that it makes me want to devour every inch of you.” He licked her to prove his point, then parted her legs and made good on his promise.

His rough cat tongue had Taylor clawing at the covers as he sent her soaring into the air. Hades didn’t stop feasting until she was limp and panting for breath.

“You are a very bad kitty,” Taylor said.

His aqua eyes flashed, then slowly smoldered. “You love it when I am.” He licked her juices off his lips and grinned.

“Yes,” she said. “I do.”

“I’m not finished,” he said.

Taylor laughed. “I’d be disappointed if you were.”

Hades crawled between her legs and positioned his large shaft at her moist entrance, then slowly impaled her.

Taylor would never tire of the feel of him. He filled her like no other could. It was sheer ecstasy. He was sin incarnate.

Hades rolled his hips. The move took him even deeper.

Taylor groaned and clasped his back, wrapping her thighs around his waist. Blindly, she sought his lips, then rose up to meet him thrust for thrust.

The slow beginning quickly devolved into a frenzied mating. Hades grunted in her ear as he rode her body into oblivion and beyond. Taylor shattered in his arms once more.

“Mine!” Hades bellowed as she went boneless beneath him. One final plunge and he followed her over the edge.

A short time later, Taylor awoke to soft kisses being placed upon her stomach. She smiled as one particular kiss tickled and ran her fingers through Hades’ soft hair. He purred and arched his neck so she could do it again. She closed her eyes, enjoying the simple pleasure of touching him.

“I’d love to lay here all day, but Eros is going to be mad that you’ve kept him waiting,” she said.

“He’ll get over it.” Hades kissed her again. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Taylor opened her eyes.

Hades looked up and their gazes met. The emotion swimming in his aqua depths made her breath catch. His thumb lazily circled her navel as he stared at her.

Taylor’s fingers stilled. “It’s no big deal—”

“No big deal!” Hades leapt to his feet naked, angry, and aroused. “How can you casually dismiss such a thing?”

“Did Mari tell you?” Taylor’s temper rose to match his. She’d told the women not to bother him. Obviously one of them had gone behind her back and blabbed.

“You told others, but you didn’t think to share the news with me?” Some of his anger faded. It was quickly replaced by hurt.

Now Taylor was confused. “Surely people here on Zaron don’t have to report to the Dark King every time they get sick.”

“Of course not,” he said.

She scrambled to her feet. “Then why should I?”

They stood in the center of their massive bed, facing each other.

Hades’ tawny brow furrowed. “You’re ill?”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you,” Taylor said. “I’ve had a little stomach bug. It’s not a big deal. You’ve been so busy. I didn’t want you to worry. It’s nothing. I am sure it’ll pass soon.”

Hades blinked, then his blue eyes widened. A second later, he threw his head back and roared with laughter.

Taylor went from confusion to anger. He was laughing at her. She didn’t think there was anything funny about throwing up and ruining perfectly good shoes.

“Sometimes you can be a real jerk! You know?” Taylor tried to climb off the bed, but Hades caught her before she could escape.

He gently clasped her face and drew her to him, then his lips tenderly touched hers. “You continue to surprise and delight me, mate,” he said, then kissed her again.

Taylor frowned at the change in his demeanor. “I do?” What was he up to now? She didn’t trust this sudden turnabout. This was Hades after all.

He brushed his nose across hers, then nuzzled her ear. “Yes, you do,” he said. “My love for you grows stronger every day.”

Tears welled Taylor’s eyes. Why was she crying? She wasn’t a crier. “I love you, too.” She sniffed.

His hand slid from her cheek and settled on her belly protectively. “Thank you for giving me the gift I did not know I needed or even wanted until now.” Hades brushed his thumb over her bare skin.

“What?” Gooseflesh rose as warning bells went off in Taylor’s head. She swayed and her legs threatened to give out. “You mean I’m...I’m...I’m pregnant!” She couldn’t be. It wasn’t possible. Okay, it was possible, but she wasn’t ready.

Hades’ feral grin widened. “Mine,” he snarled and spread his fingertips.

The room spun on its axis. If it kept that up, Taylor was going to be sick. “I can’t be pregnant,” she sputtered as panic set in.

Hades dropped to his knees and buried his nose in her abdomen. He inhaled deeply. “There’s no mistaking the scent—my scent,” he growled. “Our child grows inside of you.” His tone was fierce, but when he looked up at her it was love that shone in his crystal blue eyes.

In an instant, Taylor’s fears vanished. She wasn’t in this alone. Hades wouldn’t abandon her like the men had in her old life on Earth. He was different. This was not a man kneeling at her feet. This was a warrior.

Looking at the fierce determination on his handsome face, her heart knew that she’d always have the Dark King by her side.

 

# # #

© 2023 by Jordan Summers