Linx strode into the dank cavern. Flames lit the walls, casting long shadows over the wet rock. The musty air tickled his nostrils, making him want to sneeze. The ground crunched as the rock beneath his boots crumbled under his weight. Behind him, his mate’s sister, Taylor stared wide-eyed into the darkness. She hesitated at the entrance for a moment, then followed him inside. Her kitten heels tip-tapped on the stone as she rushed to catch up.

“Remember what I told you about the Dark King,” Linx said.

Taylor glanced at him. “I will, stop worrying.” She rubbed her hands over her arms to ward off a chill.

"I know it looks bad, but it's not as bad as it appears," he said.

No, it was worse.

These days Hades loved to rule his Kingdom like some dark lord from the underworld, but that hadn’t always been the case. When he’d first risen to the throne, he'd railed against the voices of dissension. Strove to bring his people together. But eventually he became disillusioned by what the Phantom people were saying and decided to become the abomination they accused him of being. Neither the Phantom world nor the Atlantean one fully accepted him, but very few were stupid enough to challenge him.

Linx looked at the woman beside him. Perhaps her being here would create change. “I’ll bring Tabby as soon as I’m able to petition the Atlanteans for your status upgrade. I have no doubt that once they hear the circumstances under which you came here, they will accept you as a citizen of New Atlantis,” Linx said. “But it will take time.”

Taylor snorted. “Nice to know that bureaucracy exists everywhere in the universe.”

Linx smiled, but his grin faded as a regiment of towering guards came into view. The men were all Phantom Warriors. A bit of a surprise given the King's mixed heritage. The guards stood in front of a massive metal door that looked like something from medieval earth. Linx stepped forward. “Phantom Warrior Linx. I'm here to see the Dark King,” he said in a loud voice, officially announcing his arrival. 

“State your business, Phantom,” the nearest guard ordered. His red eyes glowed in the darkness, but held all the warmth of a glacier. 

Linx felt a clumsy touch in his mind as the Phantom tried to read his thoughts. He fought back a smile, then pictured himself in a state of undress.

The guard's face flushed and his gaze narrowed accusingly, then he straightened to attention.

Linx kept his expression innocent. “I have an appointment with the King. As for what it's about, that is none of your business. Just tell him that I'm here,” he said. If things went well, he'd leave his Royal Crankiness with more than a new charge to care for. It was time the Dark King joined the land of the living again.

The guard's jaw clenched and unclenched as an internal struggle took place. Eventually reason won out and he said, “One moment.” The other Phantoms continued to block the entrance as the lead guard stepped away.

It took fifteen minutes for the guard to return. Linx was sure that he’d kept them waiting on purpose. The Phantom barked an order and the guards slowly parted to reveal another door, this one made of thick stone, beyond the metal one they were blocking.

Taylor had never been more terrified in her life. Not even when the Russians were torturing her sister, Tabby, which was saying something. She had no idea what was on the other side of that great stone door, but if it was anything like the entrance to the cavern, then it wasn't going to be good. Whose idea was it to build a palace—scratch that—fortress inside a mountain? She didn't think things like this existed outside of the movies.

She'd been moved from what amounted to a windowless shipping container straight to Linx’s transport. He had made her duck down to avoid detection, so she hadn't seen much of New Atlantis or the Walled City. Heck, she'd barely gotten a glimpse of the light green sky. What she wouldn't give for a little sunshine. If it weren't for the tanned skin on the warriors they'd passed, Taylor would've thought she was being dropped off in the land of the mole people.

Linx looked back at her. "Ready?"

"As I'll ever be." She took a steadying breath.

"Before we go in, take this. You'll need it if there's any trouble." He handed her a small round disc that looked like a black pebble. 

"What am I supposed to do with a rock? Throw it at him?" From what she'd seen of the Phantom Warriors, she'd need something a lot bigger than a pebble to stop one.

Linx didn't bother to hide his impatience. "It's a communication device. You can reach me any time by touching the top. Your sister made me promise to give you one. I'm pretty sure that Hades won't hurt you, so hopefully you won't have to use the device."

The mention of her sister, Tabby, made Taylor's heart clench, which was why it took her a moment to register what else Linx had said. "Pretty sure?" As in he had some doubts about her safety. "Your lack of confidence in the Dark King is not reassuring," she said.

Linx sighed. "I'm positive he won't. No Phantom Warrior would ever raise his hand to a woman. The punishment for such things is...severe." He eyed her critically. "Besides, you're kind of his 'type'. He has a thing for long hair and full breasts."

Taylor arched a brow. "Don't most men?"

Linx grinned. "Good point. Ultimately his taste in women matters not, since you'll be under his protection and you'll only be here a week tops."

How reassuring, Taylor thought.

"I think the King and I will be able to resist temptation for a week," she said dryly.

Linx's expression turned calculating. “Your sister didn’t last that long.”

She pulled a face. “Ew, too much information.”

Linx grinned.

The hair on Taylor's arms rose. What was that cat up to? And why didn't she think she was going to like it."Thanks for the device." She tossed the communicator into the air and caught it, then shoved it into her pocket.

He stepped forward. She followed close behind. More guards poured out of the shadows, blocking their entrance. Their fierce expressions never wavered as they frisked them, before they were allowed through the stone door.

Linx glared at the guard, who was a little too thorough in frisking Taylor, but he didn’t say a word. She gave him a small reassuring smile, but she was trembling by the time the Phantom finished. Taylor was used to men trying to cop a feel, used to them ogling her. When you take your clothes off for a living, you get used to a lot of things. But dealing with men and dealing with shape-shifting aliens were two very different things.

She thought about the pain and horror Tabby had gone through because of her poor judgment in men. If her twin could live through torture, then Taylor could survive the next week. Tabby may not think she was strong, but she was wrong. Taylor had learned to be strong, learned how to survive. She'd had to when she had gone into exotic dancing, since it wasn't exactly an accepted profession.

People looked down on her, but Taylor refused to look down upon herself. In her mind, she had nothing to be ashamed least not until she hooked up with Sergei. Her mistakes from that day forth had piled up until Taylor was convinced she'd never see daylight again. Fortunately, her sister and the man—make that alien—standing beside her had saved her life, given her a second chance, and she was determined to make the best of it.

No more mistakes. No more screwed up relationships. A proper 'do-over'.

Linx stepped through the door. When she reached his side, he took her hand and placed her palm upon his arm before escorting her deeper inside the room. The move was oddly formal and caused butterflies to attack her stomach.

Taylor frowned, but didn’t say anything. They walked side by side into the Great Hall. Had he not been holding her, Taylor would've stopped, shocked by what lay beyond the cavern door.

The journey in had been all craggy cave, wet walls, and musty minerals, but somehow the stone door had transformed the cave from something out of Middle Earth into a sultan’s palace. Plump red pillows lined the benches that cuddled against row after row of long tables. Rich tapestries clung to the walls adding vibrant color to an otherwise slate room. Thick black rugs brushed the cobbled aisle, giving it a polished look. Taylor visually followed the stone pathway to…she squinted. Was that a throne?

Of course it’s a throne.You’reabouttomeetaKing.

She’d never met a King before. Oh sure, she'd entertained a few Saudi royals at Sergei's club, but she doubted that a King would be expecting a lap dance. Such things were beneath them. Weren’t they?

How did one behave in front of royalty?

Every culture had its own version of royalty. Each with its own set of rules when it came to dealing with them. Taylor had seen Kings and Queens on the television, but were they the same here? Did they even have Queens? She had her doubts. The cultural differences she'd witnessed thus far on Zaron were in stark contrast to the ones she'd left only a few days ago.

Had it only been a few days? It seemed like a lifetime.

Taylor cut that line of thinking off at the knees and dumped it in a shallow grave. She was done feeling sorry for herself.

The door shut behind them with a thunderous boom. Her palms began to sweat as Linx led her forward. She rubbed them over her jeans just in case she had to shake the King's royal hand.

Blood roared in her ears as her heart tried to pound its way out of her chest. This was a mistake. She shouldn't be here. She was a stripper for goodness sake! Wasn't there a hotel or motel she could crash at until Linx cleared up her 'visa' issue?

The empty throne came into sharper relief. Fear and trepidation slowed her steps. The royal seat was neither gold nor silver. Taylor expected to see jewels at least, but there were none. The seat was a spider web of steel with spindly legs and humanoid skulls for feet. If she hadn't been told it was a throne, Taylor would've thought she was viewing a torture device.

Was this some kind of joke? She looked at Linx, but he wasn't laughing. Her gaze slid back to the empty-eyed skulls. Their grotesquely pointed teeth seemed to grin mockingly at her.

This wasn’t the throne of a King. This was the throne of a barbarian. What had she gotten herself into? The urge to turn and run away nearly overwhelmed her.

Linx must've sensed her unease for his grip tightened and he kept her moving.

A tawny-haired man with a fight-carved face lounged insolently against the base of the throne in the shadows. He was a study in muscle, though Taylor doubted that he’d ever stepped foot inside a gym.

Was this one of the King’s private guards? His bodyguard perhaps? He looked the part. Built for sheer brute force without all the frivolousness of subtly. One glance told her that the man could crush skulls with his bare hands until all that remained was bone dust.

His lazy gaze started at the top of her head, resting momentarily on her full breasts until her traitorous nipples hardened in awareness, before proceeding to her toes. He reversed direction without saying a word and stopped when he returned to her face. Taylor shivered under his uncompromising regard and hated that her reaction wasn’t all because of the cool, damp air and fear.

In her old life, he was the type of man that she would’ve been attracted to. His rock hard body and edgy vibe would’ve turned her on. The old Taylor would have wanted to lick and touch every one of his bulging muscles. And even if she didn't surrender right away, the promise of mind-blowing sex would have been too tempting to resist for long.

Taylor would’ve gone out of her way to catch his attention, lure him with her body, and seduce him into her bed…but not anymore. She’d learned her lesson and it had very nearly cost her everything she held dear. Taylor forced herself to meet his eyes. Something odd flared in the icy blue depths before being carefully banked. The man’s unflinching gaze slowly moved from her to Linx.

"What do you want?" His clipped words made the temperature in the room drop.

Linx arched a brow and looked at the guard.

“I thought you said the King was expecting us,” Taylor said in a hushed breath, hoping that only Linx could hear her. Had they come on the wrong day? Had the King changed his mind about seeing them? What if he did? What would she do then? There were only so many places she could hide on Zaron without risking discovery and deportation.

“He is,” the guard said. He rose slowly and walked to the front of the throne, then sat, resting his meaty hands on the thick metal webs.

“Your Highness.” Linx's lips kicked up at the corners in amusement. He gave the man a short bow.

Taylor gaped. This was the King. It couldn’t be. Kings didn’t look like cage fighters. Kings were soft, well-spoken, pampered. She glanced around the room at the lush red pillows. Okay, so maybe he did pamper himself a little, but that was as far as the stereotype went. Her gaze returned to the fierce looking throne and the even fiercer looking man seated upon it. 

“If I grant you this favor, then we are even,” the Dark King said.

“I wouldn't exactly call it a favor, Your Highness. Perhaps a gift."

Gift? What did Linx mean by that?

The King's eyes narrowed dangerously.

"But you're absolutely right, we're even now," Linx said hurriedly before the King could speak. "I will be back to retrieve her within seven days.” He gave Taylor a warning glare and indicated to the King with a jerk of his chin.

Nothinglikebeingforcedonsomeone, she thought wryly.

Taylor dropped down onto one knee. “Thank you for allowing me to stay, Your Highness, and for putting me under your protection.” She recited the words Linx had made her memorize. Taylor must've done it right because Linx smiled at her when she finished.

“What are you called, Earthling?” the King asked, drawing her attention away from her sister's mate.

“Taylor Shelley, but Taylor is fine.” She tittered nervously, then clamped her mouth shut.

“You may call me Hades.”

Taylor stared at him for a few seconds. She couldn’t have heard him correctly. “I'm sorry, did you say Hades?" She frowned. "Like the god of the underworld? Is it because you live inside a mountain?” She indicated to their surroundings.

“No.” He shot a pointed look at Linx. "It’s because it is my name."

“Oh, that’s a good reason, too,” she said.

Linx sighed. “Forgive her impertinence, Sire. She's never been presented to royalty before and doesn't understand our culture. She meant no offense.”

"Fascinating." The King looked at her again like she'd just sprouted ram horns out her ears. It was obvious he wasn't used to receiving 'common' people. He continued to stare, his aqua blue eyes boring into her until Taylor felt naked. Finally, he deigned to speak. “The Phantom Warrior tells me that you have given up your wild Earth ways and plan to start a new life here on Zaron, if King Eros grants his permission.”

Wild ways?Taylor glared at Linx. What in the world had he told Hades? She wasn't wild. Just because she'd chosen an unusual profession didn't make her a slut. She resisted the urge to hit him, then turned back to address the King. “That is correct, Your Highness,” she said through gritted teeth. Why was it when men were 'wild' they were considered studs and when women were proud of their sexuality they were called much, much worse?

The King stared at her, no doubt judging her like so many of the men that she'd met in her lifetime. Would he consider her unworthy to stay in his kingdom? If he did, what would that mean in terms of her fate? She lifted her chin and stared right back at him. Taylor wouldn't let a King or any other man make her feel inferior.

The silence became painfully uncomfortable. Sweat broke out on her forehead as they continued their staring contest. Taylor was about ready to repeat her answer, when he spoke.

“Pity, that you decided to make such a change now,” the King said, clearly bored with the whole conversation. “I had hoped for a distraction.”

Hoped for…what the hell?

Taylor’s temper flared before she could rein it in. She shot to her feet. “Well you won’t find one here,” she spat.

The arrogant jerk!

She should've known by looking at him that he'd be an ass. Taylor had thought that traveling a hundred light years would make a difference. When would she learn to ignore her hormones and see people for what they truly were? Men were the same no matter what solar system they lived in.

Linx’s eyes widened and he glowered at her. "You are speaking to a King," he hissed. "We talked about this. You forget your place."

"My place? My place is a hundred light years from here." But he was right. Hades was doing them a favor by letting her stay here. The least she could do was be gracious. Taylor opened her mouth to apologize, but one look at the King's arrogant expression changed her mind. She crossed her arms over her chest and glared right back at him. He could take her apology and stuff it up his tight butt.

Yes, she'd noticed that he had a great butt.She might be 'reformed', but she wasn't blind.

Hades laughed. “Don't underestimate yourself. I have a feeling you could be quite distracting, if you put your mind to it,” he said to Taylor, then glanced at Linx. “You are dismissed.”

"I thought perhaps—" His words died mid-sentence at the look upon Hades' face. Linx hesitated, clearly torn about whether he should stick around. He shook his head, then gave the King another short bow. "As you wish." Linx took a step back. “Behave,” he grumbled under his breath to Taylor.

She fumed silently. He had started it.

Linx waited for her to respond.

Taylor sighed. “I will," she said reluctantly. “Maybe you should give his ‘Royal Badass’ the same advice. I think he could use it.”

"Nice to see you two hitting it off. I'll give Tabby your best," Linx said, then hightailed it out of the cave like a scaredy cat.

Hades wasn't sure what the cat was up to, but he was grateful to have his debt satisfied.  He sometimes wished that he had taken the knife to the chest. It would have been far less painful in the long run. He didn't like owing Linx or anyone else.

He stared at the Earth woman that he’d promised to keep safe. She was full of fire like the long, flowing dark red hair that framed her pale face. Odd colored eyes, neither brown nor green but somewhere floating in the middle, stared back at him in observation…and defiance. Her looks bore no resemblance to the Atlantean women or the Phantoms, but they were striking in their own way. He felt himself drawn to her, despite her anger and her obvious human shortcomings.

He’d read Taylor's thoughts easily, when she stepped forward into the chamber. She hadn’t believed him to be a King, but that was nothing new, since half the Atlanteans and Phantoms agreed and chose to follow King Eros instead.

In their eyes, Hades would always be a Half-being, neither Phantom nor Atlantean. A mistake. A ‘Royal Badass’ according to Taylor, though he kind of liked that term. Feared, but not necessarily respected. Their opinions would change quickly, if Zaron were ever under attack. For Hades was good at one thing, better than anyone else on the planet.


He knew how to fight, how to use every weapon. His strategies were beyond compare. He’d been raised as a warrior from the start and did not fear death. Nor did he court his demise. Hades would do whatever he must in order to win, to keep his people safe.

Eros would never be able to say the same. His family made him soft. Weak. Made him forget that he was a warrior first and foremost. That particular failure would never happen to Hades.

He ensured it by keeping his distance from female entanglements. Oh, he enjoyed a good fuck as much as the next man, maybe more so since his dual bloodline gave him an insatiable appetite, but he never let sexual gratification lead to bonding. Hades didn't think with his dick. Never had, never would.

The Phantom people regularly pushed for him to take a mate, but Hades vowed never to do so. His refusal caused strife, but it was a strife that he could live with. He was satisfied with his life. Happy even.

So maybe he got bored on occasion. As King, it was his right. And maybe the women he bedded were becoming interchangeable in his mind. That didn't stop him from enjoying their company. And it certainly didn't mean that things needed to change.

His mood soured as his thoughts switched course. He glared at the human. It was her fault. He wasn't a damn nursemaid. He was King. Kings didn't babysit wayward females. He should call Linx back this instant and demand he come to retrieve her. Debt be damned! Hades noted the rebelliousness in Taylor’s eyes. It sparked something primal inside of him.

Perhaps she was an exception...

She finds you arrogant and thinks you're an ass.

Hades snorted. Her words were strange, but their meaning was clear. She was right. He was an arrogant ass. Those were two of his goodqualities.

Why wasn't she lowering her gaze?

Didn't she know about the beast lurking beneath the calm facade of every Phantom Warrior? He may only be half Phantom, but his beast was strong—and dominant. It didn't like to be directly challenged. Yet, Taylor wasn't backing down or looking away.

Hades continued to stare, shocked and oddly impressedby her brazen display. Something inside of him rose to accept the challenge she unwittingly tossed out.

Taylor Shelley was different. She’d made that abundantly clear with her barely veiled disdain. If he hadn’t sensed her fleeting attraction before she’d realized who he was, Hades might’ve been able to leave her alone for the week.

But he hadsensed it. For a moment, she had wanted him. She had fantasized about stripping him bare. Now he could think of nothing but doing the same to her.

The flash of awareness coupled with her flare of temper intrigued him. Most women fell over themselves to please him in the hopes that he'd make them his Queen or at least bed them, but not Taylor. She wanted nothing to do with him. The question was why?

He knew it wasn't because she'd been forced upon him. He'd read that much from her thoughts. No, something else held her back. Hades immediately strategized, running all the options, evaluating the various outcomes. In the end, the answer was always the same.

He would protect her like he vowed, but Taylor would learn to bow before the Dark King…like all the others who’d come before her. Hades knew his way around a woman's body and took great satisfaction in bringing them pleasure. Taylor would be no different, even if he had to wait for Linx's return to take her.

Who knows, he thought. She might even learn to like his touch.

Hades gave her an evil grin infused with sheer determination. Taylor’s full breasts quivered delectably beneath her shirt. She shifted her long, sensuous legs, which appeared to be poured into the thick blue material she wore, and glanced around as if she’d flee given half the chance.

Perhaps she was smart after all.

He inhaled through his nose and mouth. A rich, spicy scent tickled his sensitive nostrils. Hades’ eyes fluttered closed and his head spun as he drank her in. If Taylor tasted half as good as she smelled, she’d be delicious. His tongue darted out over his lips. He could almost taste her. He breathed in again, this time deeper. Now there was nowhere that she could hide that he wouldn’t find her, but it was going to be fun to try.

“Run!” he ordered.

Taylor squeaked and took off in the direction from which she’d come.

Hades watched her go, her full bottom twitching from side to side as she ran. Anticipation rose as he prepared to give chase. His beast prickled beneath his skin, scraping its claws down his spine. He looked forward to giving Taylor her first lesson in obedience. He had no doubt that when he caught her there would be a battle of wills. Hers cast from Earth’s soft soil and his cast from iron.

He might bend to get his way, but the Dark King would never break.

Hades wondered if the same could be said for Taylor Shelley. There was only one way to find out. He surged up from the throne and roared.



The ear-shattering roar echoed through the Great Hall. Taylor screamed and ran faster. She should've apologized for insulting the King when she had the chance. She was afraid to look back. Afraid of what she might see.

She'd witnessed Linx and Riot in their Other form. Seen them in action, while they fought the Russian mob. Their physical change had scared her silly, but from the sounds of it, Hades was something farworse.

Taylor reached the heavy stone doors and grabbed the carved out handles. Her muscles strained as she pulled on the massive slabs. Linx had made opening the doors look easy. She should've known.

She could feel Hades' heated glare burning through her shirt, searing her back. It scrolled down her body, resting on her ass. The sensation only made her pull harder. The door inched open. She glanced over her shoulder and saw what could only be described as a giant ligercoming toward her.

Taylor screamed.

She put her hands in the door crack and pried it apart, until she could squeeze her body through. She'd barely made it into the hall and shut the door behind her, when something large hit the stone on the other side and made the rock tremble.

Oh God, she had to hide. But where could she go that he wouldn't find her?

"Your Majesty," Opal called out, so she could be heard over the massive claws scratching the Great Hall doors.

She'd watched the flame-haired woman escape the King's grasp and hadn't thought much of it, since Hades was known for having a rather largesexual appetite. He'd be bored with her soon enough. She wasn't the type of woman that held the King's attention for long. It was a pattern Opal had seen repeated multiple times over the years.

Hades continued to claw at the doors, his big paws unable to slip into the carved out handles.

The woman must've really gotten under his skin. He rarely put any effort toward pursuit.  Hades preferred that women chase him, since it kept misunderstandings from occurring. Opal cleared her throat and raised her voice. "Your Majesty!"

As the King's Righthand, a position she fought tooth and claw to reach, it was her duty to give him a daily report on happenings within the Walled City. It also gave her a chance to be alone with Hades. Opal cherished those moments, even though they passed quickly.

Normally, other than minor disputes, there wasn't much to report. Hades didn't tolerate rebellion and most warriors were smart enough not to challenge him in the Pit for the throne. Today was different. A slaver ship had been spotted doing a reconnaissance flight over the area.

Neither the Atlanteans nor the Phantoms could afford to lose any of their women to the Slavers. The fact that the Slavers sometimes sold the women for their 'body parts' only made the situation graver. And if that weren't bad enough, Perseus was up to his old tricks. He'd always been a discontent, but now he was rallying men to stand with him. It wouldn't be long before he presented Hades with a formal challenge.

Opal shook her head. Perseus was a fool. A fool that would get himself killed if he kept up his machinations. He misjudged Hades' tolerance for weakness. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Her gaze narrowed as she focused on the closed door. Was there a connection between the mysterious woman, Perseus' sudden move to take the throne, and the appearance of the Slavers?

For the woman's sake, there better not be. Opal didn't tolerate disloyalty any more than Hades did. And since she intended to be Queen one day, she took all threats to the kingdom personally.

A large paw hit the stone door, sending shards of rock crumbling onto the floor. Even in his half-shifted form, Hades was magnificent. Opal had thought so the moment she had laid eyes on him. Five years later, her feelings hadn't changed. If anything, they'd intensified.

Opal loved Hades. She loved him with both her hearts and knew eventually, if she waited long enough that he would discover that he loved her, too. Or at least respected her enough to make her his Queen. Either way worked for Opal, as long as it ended with her on the throne beside him.

Like all men, Hades was stubborn and blind to what was right in front of him. Opal however was not. She'd worked hard to put herself in her current position. And she'd work even harder to land on the throne. Failure wasn't an option. It's why she let Hades take her body whenever he wanted and why she looked the other way when he bedded other women. A good Queen knew when to overlook a King's indiscretions. 

She watched the muscles in Hades' back bunch, rippling the pale yellow fur with light black stripes. Opal had felt that fur beneath her fingertips and beneath her claws. It was deceptively soft, not at all like the power lurking behind it. Her gaze dropped to his lower half, which remained humanoid. Leather pants lovingly cupped his firm ass, leaving little to the imagination.

Hades was a ferocious lover, passionate, talented, and giving, but he also demanded the same back from his partners. It had been no hardship to spread her thighs for the King. She'd spread her legs for his entire army if it guaranteed her a position at his side.

What was it going to take to get him to mark her? She'd done everything she could think of short of stripping naked in the Pit and challenging him. If Opal knew for certain that he wouldn't kill her, then she'd have done it already. But, the King was unpredictable. Like other Phantoms, she blamed his mixed bloodline, his handicap.

The giant cat let out a loud yowl and tried a final time to open the door. If the King shifted back to his human form, it would be no problem to open, but that would be too easy. Hades was a big cat through and through. Opal waited patiently for him to give up.

When he didn't succeed on his final try, Hades slowly turned to face her. His massive erection filled the front of his leather pants, threatening to burst the seams. Her mouth watered as she recalled the feel of that rigid shaft filling her, stretching her to the point of breaking.

Hades' chest heaved with exertion as he fought his beast for control. He rumbled deep in his throat and his odd blue eyes flashed in frustration as he glanced at the door one last time. The change in color was a quick, but efficient reminder that he was half Atlantean. Not that his thought-reading abilities mattered to Opal. She'd learned to shield herself as a child from all Atlanteans, the King included.

"What is it? Can't you see that I'm busy?" The questions came out garbled as his beast struggled to form words.

"Do you want me to go after her? I could bring her back so that you could fuck her on the throne," Opal said dryly.

Since when was chasing new tailso important that he'd willingly set aside duty to do so? She frowned. The woman's quim must be lined with space blossoms to drive the feline King so crazy. Opal almost laughed aloud, but she didn't think that Hades would appreciate the humor.

His shocked expression was almost comical as he glared at her, then his face closed down. "That won't be necessary."

Hades shifted back to his human form. Muscles in his upper body appeared to fold and shrink before her eyes. It took but a second or two for his fur to fade. When the shift to his humanoid six foot four frame was complete, he stalked toward her. "What do you need?"

He made no apologies for his behavior and Opal hadn't expected any. It would have been more of a shock if he had. "I have the daily report ready for you to go over." She didn't wait for him to respond. She pressed a button on her wristband and a holographic screen appeared in front of her, displaying Hades' kingdom.

"Can't it wait?" He glanced back at the door and rubbed his clawless hand over the furrows he'd carved into the rock. When he turned back toward her, there was a frown on his face.

Opal shook her head. "Not today. One of the guards spotted a Slaver ship in the area and Perseus has started to rumble again. I believe this time his vocal disgruntlement will end with a bid for your throne."

Hades' body stiffened and all sense of playfulness disappeared. "Where? Why wasn't I informed about the ship immediately?" He pushed away from the door and strode down the aisle toward her.

"I came to you the second I received the report," she said. He'd ignored the news about Perseus like she'd expected.

Hades reached her side and dropped onto the throne. "Show me where the ship was spotted."

Opal put her finger on the hologram and the view changed, zooming into a remote mountainous location. She knew the area well, since it was where she'd been born. She pointed to the ship's last known position. "The scout who spotted the Slavers said that the ship was flying low over the trees, keeping to the valleys between the mountains. It was as if they were searching for something."

“Are we missing any craft?” he asked.

“I thought of that, so I checked,” she said. “All ships have been accounted for.”

"Did he notice any other Slavers on the ground?" he asked.

Opal shook her head. "No, only the one. But there could be more. Slavers are like Zaronian spores. You spot one, the next thing you know you have an infestation. Thanks to their advanced shielding tech, they slipped into the atmosphere without detection. Do you want me to alert New Atlantis and King Eros?"

"I can take care of any threats to myKingdom," Hades said. "Or do you suddenly doubt my abilities?"

"No, Sire. Never." She dropped her gaze momentarily. "I was simply concerned that the Slavers might enter Atlantean airspace."

His lips thinned. "We'll notify Eros if, and only if, it becomes necessary. I want to know what we're dealing with first."

"What about Perseus?" she asked.

Hades appeared confused. "What about him?"

"I believe he's going to send forth another formal challenge for your throne.”

Hades scowled.

“This one you cannot ignore, Sire. You've already passed on his first two challenges. There is talk—I'm sure instigated by Perseus himself—that insinuates that the reason you have declined up to this point is because you believe that you will lose."

Another rumble came from his chest. "This wouldn't be happening if I were a pure-blood," he said in disgust. "It's only because I'm a Half-being."

She stared at him. It was the truth, but there was no sense in confirming the obvious. So instead Opal said, "What would you like me to do about him?"

Hades glowered. "Nothing. We must await his challenge, and then I will decide what to do. You and I both know this won't end until one of us leaves our blood in the Pit."

Opal reached out and gently touched his arm. "Do not fear, Sire. Perseus is a fool. He cannot defeat you."

Hades bristled beneath her hand and pulled his arm away. "I do not fearPerseus. I am the Dark King." He slammed his fist onto his wide chest. There was a thick thud as bone met slabs of muscle. "It is my birthright to sit on this throne. Half-being or not, I will hold what is mine."

"I never doubted you, Sire. You just need to know that there are those who do." Opal glanced at the door, staring at the claw marks, her earlier concerns rushing back. Was it a coincidence that the Slavers appeared at the same time as the unknown female? She didn't believe in coincidences. The King couldn't afford any distractions, not when his throne was being threatened. "Who was that woman? I didn't recognize her."

Hades stared at the map, studying the terrain. "Have the scouts check out these two areas." He pointed to a couple of ravines. "Those locations would be easy spots to hide a ship the size of the Slavers' craft. Make sure at least one of the scouts is from the Tooth Clan. Use a member of the Claw Clan as backup."

Opal hid her shock well. He hadn't answered her. In fact, if she didn't know better—and she most certainly did—she could've sworn that the King had purposely ignored her. The question was why?

Normally Hades was quick to name his bed partners, even the future ones he had his eye on, since momentary pleasure was all that mattered to him. He'd spoken with Opal often about how skilled various women were when it came to bed-sport. It was as if on occasion, he forgot that she was a woman, too. His oblivious nature had only made Opal more determined to please him and win his hearts. She was convinced that the way to the throne was through his hearts, but Hades kept them as guarded as he did his prized weapons.

She glanced at him, his face a picture of concentration. What was he trying to hide? This wasn't the first time they'd had Slavers sneaking into the kingdom or someone had wanted to challenge him and it wouldn't be the last. As news went, it was serious, but thus far not a direct threat.

"Sire, the woman?" Opal persisted, her curiosity getting the better of her. Before she'd been mildly interested, but thanks to the King's evasion she felt like she needed to meet this mysterious stranger to find out exactly what her intentions were. Opal would set her straight quickly, if she had her eye on the King and his throne. She'd run off several of Hades' playthings over the years. All for his own good, of course.

But none of them had made Hades want to claw through a door.

The King's jaw clenched and his muscles corded. "I do not appreciate being questioned." His blue eyes flashed ice, when he looked at her. "Not even by my Righthand. Have I not made my orders clear?"

"They're clear, Sire." Opal swallowed hard, but held her ground.

"Good!" Hades said. "Now finish your report, so that we can send the scouts out right away."

"I could go myself. No one knows that area better than I do. I grew up playing in those ravines," she said.

"No! You're needed here," he said.

Happiness swelled within her. He did care. This proved it. Opal didn't bother to hide her changing scent. Hades' pupils contracted as he inhaled and she saw his cock swell once more.

Opal moistened her lips. "I could remedy your condition before I go." She allowed her gaze to linger on the impressive bulge straining his pants.

Hades shook his head. "There's no time. I don't want Slavers believing that they can enter my realm whenever they feel like it with impunity. No one comes into my kingdom without my permission. Now go!"

Stunned once more by his refusal, Opal bowed. "As you wish."



Meanwhile in the city of New Atlantis...

Dr. Rachel Evans, Jaclyn Ward, and Brigit Taylor sat around the communal table, picking at the Zaronian fruit in front of them. Rachel's two children, Loki, a boy who looked just like his father, King Eros and a dark-haired girl, Persephone, who was the spitting image of her mother, played rambunctiously with Jac's son, Titus.

"Not much has changed," Rachel said, glancing at her friends around the table. It was of course an understatement. Their lives had been turned upside down and blended for good measure, before being tossed to the other side of the galaxy.

Brigit looked down at her expanding belly. "Are you blind?" She pointed to her obvious pregnancy for emphasis.

Rachel giggled. "Relax, I was kidding. Maybe a few things have changed."

Brigit snorted, then touched her nose to muffle the sound. She picked up a spear of fruit and nibbled on the end.

"Titus, what did I tell you about hitting Loki?" Jac shouted. "Don't make me come over there."

The dark-haired boy stopped and looked at his mother. His green eyes sparkled mischievously before he replied. "You said, don't hit anyone unless they hit you first."

Jac rolled her eyes and looked at Rachel and Brigit. "I didn’t say that.”

“Sure you didn’t,” Rachel and Brigit said in unison.

Jac grinned. “I swear that boy is his father's son. If I didn't love him so much, I'd throttle his father for getting me into this mess."

Brigit and Rachel laughed. Both of them knew that Titus might 'look' like his father, but his personality was out and out Jac.

"Doesn't it seem like we've done this before?" she asked, indicating to the lunch on the table in front of them.

Jac snorted. "Yeah, but the last time we were sitting in the Met Museum in New York, bitching about your latest boyfriend. What was that loser's name again?" she asked without waiting for an answer. "I still can't believe you fuckingtalked me into leaving Earth." Her voice dropped to a whisper, when the curse slipped from her lips. She glanced over to make sure the children hadn't heard her.

Rachel arched a brow. "I didn't talk you into anything. I askedif you'd come. Besides, you looked pretty willing to me, especially after Ares got you naked. We heard you screaming out your orgasms halfway across the jungle."

"Yeah, well, by the time I found you in that craptastic jungle, Eros had already knocked you up. So you're one to talk, slut!" Jac said, whispering once more.

"You're such a bitch!" Rachel countered, not bothering to be quiet.

"Mommy said a bad word," Persephone said.

"Bad mommy." Brigit burst into giggles. Her laughter was followed by a wave of tears. "Ignore me. I can't seem to control the water works."

"It's okay, Brig. We understand." Jac shrugged off the insult and smiled. "At least I had a good time, before my man came in and swept me off my feet. God, I can't believe I just said that out loud. I'm pretty sure that confession made me vomit a little in my mouth."

Brigit's tears dried instantly and she cracked up again. "You're so gross."

"Hey!" Rachel's brow furrowed. "I had fun."

Brigit rubbed her belly and chortled. "With all the losers you used to date? Doubtful. I remember her mentioning something about small dicks or needing a dick. Don't you, Jac?"

"Yes!" Jac's blue eyes widened dramatically. "Vividly."

Rachel chucked a piece of fruit at Jac's head. Her friend ducked easily. "Okay, fine. Go ahead and gang up on me, but it's not going to get you out of helping me host this Christmas party," she said. "I'm tired of just celebrating Atlantean holidays. I want some of our own."

"God, I was hoping that you'd forgotten all about that idea." Jac slumped in her chair.

Brigit pulled a face. "It's not Christmas yet. Not sure you noticed, but the Atlanteans don't even celebrate Christmas. If it weren't for all their surveillance recordings, I wouldn't even be able to get my horoscope."

"Oh the horror," Jac said.

Rachel sighed. "I'm not talking about horoscopes. Christmas is a major holiday. If more and more human women are going to be living on Zaron, then the Atlanteans and the Phantom Warriors are going to have to do more than learnabout some of our customs. They are going to have to accept them and participate."

"Where are we supposed to find a Christmas tree?" Jac picked up a piece of fruit and popped it into her mouth. "This stuff tastes like crap. What I wouldn't give for a good espresso right now."

Rachel gave Jac the stink eye. "You can't have caffeine in your condition and you know it."

Brigit sat up abruptly. "What? Are you saying... Are you?"

Jac's pale face turned bright pink.

Brigit crossed her arms over her growing chest in mock disgust. "Why am I alwaysthe last one to know? So not fair." She rolled her eyes. "Your horoscope didn't mention anything about an impending arrival."

"I don't want to talk about it," Jac growled.

"You don't have to, but eventually you're going to show," Rachel said. "Then everybody will know that you let Ares 'sex you up' again."

"Still not talking about it," she said. "I thought you wanted to plan a party."

Rachel let her friend off easy. The pregnancy had been a shock to Jac, since they hadn't been trying. Rachel knew that was Jac code for: When Ares returned from routine patrol, we shagged like bunnies and didn't think about the consequences.

Deep down Jac was thrilled. There was no doubt in Rachel's mind. But her friend was still trying to get used to the idea that she was now a mom and not a high-powered shark of an attorney. It didn't matter that Titus was four. Jac had just never pictured herself as domesticated and she was still trying to get used to the idea. Eventually the kicking and screaming would end, but until then, they would continue to show their solidarity.

"We can get a tree from the forest," Brigit said.

"They're the size of redwoods, or hadn't you noticed?" Jac said.

Brigit's shoulders slumped. "Don't be mad at me. I didn't let your secret slip."

"That's only because you didn't know it, oh blabby one," Jac retorted.

Everyone knew that Brigit couldn't keep a secret to save her life. It was one of the things they loved about her.

"Okay, so we get a 'baby tree' from somewhere. It doesn't have to look like a pine. As long as it has leaves and branches, it'll do," Rachel said.

"We don't have any wrapping paper," Brigit said. "Or costumes."

Rachel shrugged. "We'll improvise."

"Costumes?" Jac said. "This isn't Halloween."

Brigit pouted and her eyes filled with tears once more. She scrubbed a hand over her face.

"So when do you want to throw this party?" Jac asked, ignoring her.

"In a week," Rachel said.

"A week!" Jac shouted. "Are you insane? We can't get everything together in seven days."

Brigit beamed and her tears slowed to a stop. "I think it sounds like a great time. I'm sure we can put something together in a week. Besides, it isn't like the Atlanteans or the Phantoms are super familiar with celebrating Earth's holidays. We can do anything we wear costumes." She gave Jac a pointed stare and stuck out her tongue.

Persephone caught her. "Mommy says that's not nice." She indicated to Brigit's tongue.

Brigit grinned. "She's right. Don't ever do that." She winked at Persephone when she thought Rachel wasn't looking.

Rachel stood and helped Brigit to her feet. "Good, it's settled then."

"I'm going to be a dragon." Brigit brushed her belly absently.

Rachel and Jac looked at her. "It's a Christmas party."

Brigit waved their concerns off. "I know, but Orion and I have fond memories of me being a dragon."

"Fond memories, eh?" Jac snorted. "I bet."

Rachel stifled a giggle. From what Eros had told her, Brigit's husband had nearly decapitated her by accident, thinking that she was a real beast. If her false head hadn't fallen off, she might not be here.

"Wear whatever you'd like," she said, meaning it. If nothing else, the costume would be a good conversation starter.

"There they are," a deep male voice called out from across the room.

The women turned in time to see two tall Atlantean warriors walk through the door. Unlike most Atlanteans, these men were dark in coloring. One had piercing green eyes, while the other had one blue eye and one green eye.

Separately, they were distinguishable, but side by side there was no doubt that they were related. Though their initial reunion had been tense, the brothers had quickly bonded and now were inseparable.

"Daddy!" Titus shouted and launched himself into his father's arms.

Ares caught him easily and brought him up to eye level. "Have you been behaving for your mother?"

"Yes." Titus didn't meet his gaze.

"What did you do?" Ares glanced at the women standing around the table, waiting for one of them to answer.

"He hit Loki," Jac said.

Ares' expression grew serious, but Rachel noted the sparkle in his green eyes. "Why did you hit Loki? Did he hit you first?"

Titus shook his head, sending his long black hair into his face. Ares gently brushed it back from his forehead. "No, but Persephone did."

"She hit Loki?" Ares asked, his confusion clear.

"No." This time Titus’ headshake was more definitive. "She hit me. You told me never to hit a girl, so I hit Loki instead," he said as if it made complete and total sense. And to a four year old, it probably did.

Rachel turned to her daughter. "Persephone Ann, is that true?" she asked, shocked that her little girl had reverted to violence.

Her daughter looked up and smiled at her. One finger slipped into her mouth and she grinned wider. "I like him, Momma. He's pretty."

Her gaze shot to Titus, who looked as if he'd swallowed a bug. It was everything she had not to laugh. Apparently, Ares didn't feel the same.

He roared with laughter. "I see your daughter has taken after your best friend." His gaze slid to Jac and heated.

Jac flushed as Ares approached. He shifted Titus to his other hip and wrapped one strong arm around his wife. His big hand settled lovingly over her flat belly as he nuzzled her neck. "Come, let's go home before our son is forced to defend his honor."

The women giggled.

Orion reached for Brigit's hand and squeezed it gently. "Are you feeling well today?"

"Super!" She looked into his face, her love glowing brightly for all to see. "Better now, since I get to wear my dragon costume," she said, cheerfully.

His brow furrowed. "Dragon costume?"

"I'll explain everything once we get home. Can we stop by the market on the way? I'm starving!" she said.

"Didn't you eat?" Orion glanced at the remains of the food on the table, then gently cradled her stomach in his palm.

Brigit shrugged. "Yeah, but that was like ten minutes ago."

Ares clapped him on the back. "Get used to it, little brother. Cravings are only the beginning." His gaze slipped to Jac's. "Your life is about to change in ways you never imagined."

Orion smiled. "Can't wait." There was no doubt that he meant every word, as he led his pregnant petite wife away.

"You say that now," Ares said, obviously teasing Jac.

"What do you mean by that?" Jac asked. Her tone left no doubt that she was gearing for a fight.

Before she could get too wound up, Ares kissed her. Jac appeared to melt before Rachel's eyes.

Jac's gaze moved down her husband's rock hard body, settling on the loincloth hugging his slim hips. He'd refused to change his style when they arrived at New Atlantis because he knew how much she loved it. "Something's come up," Jac said. "Got to go. I'll see you later, Rach." She was already dragging Ares across the room.

Rachel stifled another giggle. This was going to be the best Christmas party Zaron had ever seen.


© 2023 by Jordan Summers