Rafael Abeden stared with jealous eyes at the happy couple. Nicolai, his best friend and future king, swung his new mate around in a circle, both laughing. How desperately Rafa craved what Nicolai had with Abby. Raiden warriors were unable to mate with females of their own kind, too much risk of bearing weak children. When their time came, they must claim a female from another species, as Nicolai had done with Abby.
As Rafa’s time drew closer, he grew more and more irritable every day, the shaprata beneath his tongue beginning to mature, to swell.
“My friend,” Nicolai called out when Rafa stepped into view. “I’m glad you’re here. We have wonderful news.”
Rafa forced a smile, aware little warmth reached his eyes. Nicolai would notice, but Abby didn’t tend to be so sensitive to his moods. Rafa pounded his chest with a fist, tipping his head without lowering his eyes before the crown prince for the House of Nekbet.
Nicolai clapped him on the shoulder, frowning. “What’s bothering you, Rafa? You look like you want to hit someone.”
“Nothing, Nicolai. What is your news?” he asked as Abby stepped up next to his prince. Now was not the time to discuss his problem. Abby didn’t approve of the methods Raiden warriors used to claim a mate.
Abby grinned, her hand rubbing her lower stomach. “I’m pregnant, Rafa,” she said, wrapping her arms around Nicolai’s neck.
Nicolai grinned almost as broadly as his mate. “I hope we have a son first, but a daughter will also be welcome.”
“You better be happy with a daughter or you won’t get another chance for a son,” Abby growled.
Nicolai laughed, tugging his mate up against his side.
“Congratulations, I’m very happy for you both. It will be nice to have young ones in the palace again.” He glanced away for a moment, fighting against his own rising pain, his jealousy. “May I speak with you for a few minutes, Nicolai?” Rafa avoided Abby’s curious gaze when he added, “Alone.”
“Of course,” Nicolai replied.
Rafa glanced up, finding Abby studying him thoughtfully, her bottom lip pulled behind her front teeth. “I’ll be inside,” she murmured, rising on her tiptoes to kiss Nicolai on the cheek. “Come find me when you’re finished talking.”
They both watched Abby walk toward a gate that led to the palace, her long blonde hair braided and woven into a pattern that marked her as a princess for the House of Nekbet. Rafa knew he would never be able to offer his bride such a title. A commander’s mate didn’t receive a title, but it didn’t mean he would love her any less.
“What’s bothering you, my friend?” Nicolai asked. “You know I don’t keep anything from Abby. You could have spoken in front of her.”
Rafa held back a sigh. “Not over this. My shaprata has begun to swell. I don’t have much time left.”
“Oh,” Nicolai said, his eyes widening. “I should have guessed. You’ve been distracted over this past month.” He took a deep breath, clapping his hand to Rafa’s shoulder as they began to walk. “Do you have a specific type of female in mind?”
“I wish to return to Earth.”
Nicolai froze, dropping his hand back to his side. “Abby will fight us over this, my friend. How much time do I have to try to convince her?”
“Three months, no more.” He should have approached Nicolai sooner, but Rafa had hoped he was mistaken. A shaprata only matured once in a Raiden male’s life. If he couldn’t find a suitable bride to claim from another species, he would be forced to accept a Raiden. Either that or die.
Nicolai motioned for Rafa to accompany him as he headed toward the palace. “Call the Qadira back immediately. Arrange to have her stocked for a lengthy journey.” The Qadira was Nicolai’s personal ship. Rafa knew they would be gone for at least four months, possibly longer. “This could work in our favor,” Nicolai continued. “Abby has been asking me to take her home to visit her family. My mate is intuitive, however. We won’t be able to keep our true motive hidden for long.”
“And if she can’t be persuaded?” Rafa asked, knowing how angry Abby had been when Nicolai claimed her.
“Don’t worry about it. She’ll come around, especially when she sees for herself the negative effects a maturing shaprata has on one of our males. Abby has a kind heart, Rafa. She likes you and won’t want to see you suffer.”
He hoped Nicolai was right, though Rafa wasn’t so sure. Regardless, he no longer had a choice in the matter. The shaprata beneath his tongue burned worse every day. Soon he wouldn’t be able to talk or eat. When that happened, a painful death wouldn’t be far away. He had to find and claim a mate, inject her with his essence, and he craved a human, one exactly like Nicolai’s Abby, beautiful in an alien way, but most importantly, strong, intelligent and fun.
Aaliyah Walker pulled her Ford Fiesta into the parking lot of the store at Crescent Lake Junction. She reached with trembling fingers for the door handle, hating going out in public. Though not exactly an agoraphobic, it had never been easy for her, especially after Abby disappeared. Her best friend. Her only friend. She’d gone up in the mountains to hunt mushrooms one day with her dog and never returned. These past months had been a nightmare.
Abby, the reason why she was sitting in this rinky dink junction. Her friend had called out of the blue, begging Aaliyah to drive up to Crescent Lake and meet with her. Begged her not to say anything to her parents until after they talked.
“Fuck, Abby, what the hell are you doing?” Aaliyah sat for a moment with her feet outside the car door, half surprised there wasn’t more snow on the ground. Though technically spring in the valley, one never knew what would happen at five thousand feet this time of year.
What if she’d been sent on a wild goose chase? It had sounded like Abby, but what if it wasn’t really her who’d called? She would have driven all the way up here for nothing.
Placing her head on her knees, Aaliyah took a few deep, slow breaths, attempting to slow her racing heart, then pushed to her feet, not meeting anyone’s eye as she entered the store. Abby had asked her to bring a couple slices of pepperoni pizza and a Pepsi to the lake, her favorite food and drink. It’s part of what helped convince Aaliyah to take a chance and drive up here.
Setting the Pepsi down on the counter, she tried to ignore the strange looks by the cashier as she ordered three pieces of pizza. The lady behind the counter acted like she’d never seen a black woman before. Aaliyah shook her head as she held out her money, the beads in her cornrows clacking softly.
God, you better be there, Abby.
“You okay, sweetie,” the lady behind the counter asked, a tall thin woman with short dark hair and razor-thin eyebrows. She must have noticed how hard Aaliyah’s hands shook when she passed over the money. “You in trouble? You need me to call someone for you?”
“I’m good,” she whispered. “Just tired.”
“You sure?” she said, counting out the change.
Aaliyah nodded, grabbing up the pizza and pop before she started bawling like a baby. “Are the roads open to the lake?” she asked.
“Yeah, they’re clear. We’ve had a pretty mild winter this year. Not much snow. You should be fine. You meeting someone there, sweetheart?”
“Yeah. Thanks, I better go.” She made a mad dash to her car before the panic could take full control. She got behind the wheel, shutting the door before she broke down completely, trying to ignore the woman who watched her from inside the store, her expression worried. Okay, so maybe she isn’t racist. “I need to get a grip,” she whispered, slipping the key in the ignition.
“God, Abby, what am I gonna say to you? Why didn’t you call a week ago?” Aaliyah groaned, scrubbing at her face with her closed fists before she backed out of the parking lot. She turned down the familiar road to Crescent Lake, the lake only a few miles away.
It took about ten minutes to reach the spot Abby had told her about, the pizza cold by then, but there wasn’t much she could do about it. The roads had been clear of snow, but there were still deep banks where the plows had piled it up over the winter. She had to park hugging the side of the road because the turnout where Abby wanted to meet was blocked by deep drifts. It would probably be okay. Not like there was a ton of traffic this time of year.
Aaliyah grabbed the pizza and pop, shivering as she exited the warmth of her car. She walked carefully down to a picnic table, glad she’d worn snow boots this morning as she struggled to get past the deep drifts. The lake itself was peaceful, beautiful even, and, as she sat at the table, which was thankfully clear of snow, she could almost relax and enjoy the view. There weren’t any boats out on the water, though maybe fishing season hadn’t opened yet. A tiny bit of weight lifted off her chest, allowing her to breathe normally again.
Aaliyah’s stomach growled, and she glanced over at the pizza, tempted to take a bite or two. Abby wouldn’t mind. They’d often shared food in the past. Instead, she cracked open a Pepsi and took a long drink, a few bubbles fizzing in her nose. A light wind kicked up, and she wrapped her coat tighter around her, thinking this better not be someone’s idea of a sick joke.
“Hey there, girlfriend, long time no see. I’m so glad you came.”
Startled, Aaliyah gasped, spilling the pop as she jumped up from the table. She didn’t stop to question where her friend had come from. “Abby, is that really you?”
“Yeah, it’s me.”
Aaliyah slapped a hand to her mouth, shocked. She ran at Abby, throwing her much shorter body into her friend’s strong arms. Then the anger struck, and she stepped back, scowling at Abby. “You ass, I thought you were dead!” she yelled. “How could you do that to us, Abbs? Oh, my God, your mom and dad, Sam. We were all sick about it.” Aaliyah started to shake, and it had nothing to do with the cold.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Liyah.” Abby pulled her back into her arms, squeezing tight. “It’s a long, long story and I’m gonna need some time to get through it.” She held Aaliyah until she stopped shaking so hard. “Is that my pizza?” Abby tugged on one of Aaliyah’s long braids. “Come on, let’s eat, okay. You don’t know how long I’ve waited for a slice of real pizza, even that crummy store-bought stuff.”
Aaliyah backed up enough to give Abby room, but she refused to let go of her, keeping her arm hooked tight through Abby’s.
“You want one?” Abby said. “You like pepperoni, right?”
“You go ahead,” Aaliyah said, wanting Abby to hurry up and eat so she could get some answers to her many questions. She still needed to tell Abby about her family, the thought twisting her stomach into knots again.
They sat in silence for about ten minutes, Abby obviously enjoying her cold pizza and Pepsi. When she finally finished, folding up the napkin and wiping her mouth, Aaliyah narrowed her eyes, her anger rushing back again.
“What the fuck, Abby! I mean, What. The. Fuck!” She pushed away from the table, leaving Abby sitting there with her mouth hanging open. Aaliyah didn’t care. “You scared the shit out of all of us. My God, who just goes and runs off like that, not telling anyone anything? Not calling. Your dad thought a fucking bear got ahold of you. You know how sick he felt, thinking he was gonna find a damned half-eaten corpse in the mountains? Where the hell did you go, Abbs?”
Abby bit her lower lip, rolling it under. “I’m sorry. I didn’t have a choice in the matter.”
“What? Were you kidnapped? Abducted? Cause that’s about the only excuse I’m gonna take right now. I’ve been so angry with you. Why didn’t we get a ransom? It’s not like we weren’t expecting one.”
Abby raised her eyebrows, her mouth quirked. “Uh, well, minus the ransom part, that’s about exactly what happened, only probably not in the way you’re thinking.”
Aaliyah stopped her rant, horrified. “Oh my God,” she whispered, feeling faint. “Oh, baby, I’m so sorry.” She wrapped her arms around Abby. “Did they…?” Her voice broke. “Oh, God, did they rape you, baby? Did you get caught up in one of those human trafficking deals? How did you get away? Are you hiding out? Is that why you wanted me to meet you here?”
“No, nothing like that. They actually treated me good. Or most of them anyway. I have to admit it took a bit of time to accept what happened.”
“Accept? Why would you ever accept it?” Aaliyah forced herself to take a step back. She frowned, gazing up into her friend’s pale face. Abby didn’t act particularly upset about being abducted. “They? How many were there?” When Abby started to look uncomfortable, she pressed, “What’s goin’ on here? Are you still in trouble?” Aaliyah took a good look around, but she didn’t see anyone. “We can leave now, go to the police and report them.” Except the police had never been much help with her problems. “Come on, my car’s right there. Let’s just go.”
Abby shook her head, her hair a little stiff with the strange weave job down her back. Aaliyah kept her hair in cornrows, but her kinky hair tended to be a mess if she didn’t. She’d never known Abby to braid her hair, let alone weave it. “Look, Liyah, this is gonna be awkward at first so I’m just gonna jump in here and say it, okay?”
“Yeah, I kinda wish you would. You’re making me nervous here, Abbs.”
Abby smiled, but there was a hint of worry behind it. “I was abducted by . . . oh, shit, this is gonna sound crazy. I was abducted by aliens.”
Aaliyah didn’t react at first, not sure she’d heard right. “Uh, you mean someone from another country, right? Human traffickers? Can’t believe they’d bother stalking the damned mountains. I mean, how many young women would be out hiking alone?” Well, obviously Abby had been. “How did you get free?”
Abby sighed, her shoulders slumping. “I never said it was human traffickers. You did. I’m not talking about human aliens. I’m talking about alien aliens, like from outer space.” She rolled her lip under again, her blue eyes worried.
Aaliyah snorted, then laughed. “Are you seriously trying to fuck with me right now? I am so not amused here.” She sniffled in the cold air, then cleared her throat. “So, let me get this straight, you’re trying to say little green men from outer space abducted you? Oh, my God! Do you have any freaking idea how crazy that sounds?”
“Well, they aren’t green, and they aren’t exactly little, but yeah, that’s about right. Most of them, the men anyway, are over seven feet tall, and parts of their skin kinda resembles a . . . well, a lizard’s, to be honest. No tail or anything like that, but . . . well, you’ll see. I’m hoping you’ll come back with me. I know you don’t have a lot to keep you here and we could have a lot of fun, Liyah. I admit I was pretty freaked out at first, but once I got to know everyone and realized they weren’t gonna hurt me, it wasn’t so bad. It’s hard to explain. You need to see it for yourself. I’m talking Star Trek times a hundred here.”
She’d lost her freaking mind. Whatever had happened during these past few months, Abby had totally lost her shit. Aliyah needed to get her down to a hospital, see what types of drugs her kidnappers might have used on her. She nodded, deciding to play along, and walked over to loop her arm through Abby’s, trying to guide her toward the car. “I love your hair, by the way. You decided to take a few tips from me, huh?”
Abby reached back to finger her braids, refusing to take a step. “Uh, actually, Nicolai did this. It’s sorta tradition with his people, a royalty thing. I don’t think you’ll have to change your hair style, though.”
Aaliyah smiled, nodding. “Okay, that’s good, I guess. I like my hair just the way it is.” She took a deep breath and looked around. Maybe for the first time in their long friendship, it wasn’t Aaliyah in trouble. “It’s pretty up here and all, but maybe we should drive down the mountain before it gets dark.”
Abby sighed. “You don’t believe me, do you?”
“Well, you have to admit it’s a bit much to take in.” God help her, Abby was obviously having some sort of mental breakdown. Now wasn’t the time to say anything about her family. Her sister, Samantha, would be happy to see her if they didn’t end up keeping Abby in the mental health ward at the hospital. “Come on, Abbs, let me take you down to see Sam.”
A pained look entered Abby’s eyes. Okay, maybe she already knew. Aaliyah rolled her bottom lip with her teeth, a nervous habit she’d picked up from Abby and Sam.
Abby turned to walk down by the water. Given no choice, Aaliyah slowly followed. She’d left her cell phone in the car, though she wasn’t sure there would be a tower up this high. They were both quiet as she fell into step beside Abby. Every now and then, Aaliyah would reach down and pick up a flat stone, skipping it across the water.
Finally, Abby stopped and turned to face her. “I guess I’m just gonna have to prove it to you.”
“Prove what?” Aaliyah reached up to rub the back of her neck, feeling like someone was watching her. But no one else was here except Abby. Then it dawned on her that there wasn’t another car. “Uh, exactly how did you get up here, Abbs? Did someone drop you off?”
“No, we were . . . beamed, I guess is the easiest way to describe it. I can’t say I’m thrilled with that sort of travel, but we thought you might freak out if we flew a shuttle down. They’re quite large and hard to hide. I was afraid you wouldn’t get out of the car.” Abby looked up at the sky, a few fluffy clouds hanging in a bright blue sky. “We came on a ship called the Qadira. It’s a spaceship, Liyah, and it’s absolutely huge. I swear the thing is as big as a small city.” She chuckled. “Guess it needs to be big though. You’ll understand when you meet them.”
“What? You’re not making any sense.” Did she honestly believe she’d been abducted by aliens? Obviously so.
“I brought two guys down here with me. They’re from a planet called Raiden. One of them is my . . . husband. The other one is his best friend. I want you to meet them.”
“Your what?” Aaliyah glanced around again, not seeing anyone. “Uh, where are they?”
“They can camouflage their bodies, blend in with the trees and brush around us. It’s why you can’t see them right now.”
“Oh, Abby, you’re starting to scare me here. Let’s just go, okay. I wanna go home now. You need to go see Sam.” This story sounded crazy, yet Aaliyah could swear she could feel eyes on her, watching her every move. She rubbed at the prickly sensation on the back of her neck.
“Nicolai told me it would probably be easier to just take you up there, but I wanted to try talking to you first.” Abby stepped forward and grabbed both Aaliyah’s hands. “Baby, I want you to know that we won’t force you. If you decide you want to go back home, then I’m gonna let you go, okay? I want you to come with me to the ship. Just check it out.”
“Abby?” Aaliyah said, trying to tug her hands away. Movement over Abby’s shoulder drew her attention to one of the large pines, small piles of snow around the outside edges. She blinked, seeing the outline of a man form against it. A huge man. It hadn’t been there before, she felt sure of it. Then another took shape a few feet away, this one against some heavy brush, both gigantic men, much taller than Abby, and definitely more muscular. “Abby!” she cried out, jerking one hand loose to point, her body primed to run. “What the fuck is that?”
“Please don’t be scared, Liyah. You’re killing me here. Let me introduce you to them. I swear they won’t hurt you.”
“I want you to let me g-go, now. I w-wanna leave. You promised you’d let me leave.”
The two men remained blurry, just vague outlines until they stepped up beside Abby. They weren’t human, their faces not ugly exactly, but definitely not human, the brows more pronounced, the cheekbones too sharp, their mouths too wide. Eyebrows weren’t made of hair, but some type of raised colored scales. The eyes were weird, coal black with slitted red pupils. Their black hair was worn long and loose over broad shoulders, the texture courser than a regular person’s. Their skin coloring was mainly bronze, though they also had these strange patches of beaded black skin with a diamond-shaped pattern that matched the color of their eyebrows, one of the men with red and the other dark orange. It ran down the sides of their necks, their shoulders, and….
Aaliyah screamed, her eyes starting to roll as one of them moved quickly around Abby to her side. She didn’t feel the ground when she started to fall, just a tiny prick to her neck before everything faded away, leaving behind a feeling of weightlessness.