Starcrossed, Chapter One

Starcrossed, the second book in the Beauty and Her Alien series, is available next month! Here is the first chapter as a preview for you.

I was sitting cross-legged at the foot of my big, beautiful bed in my big, beautiful room in my big, beautiful alien spaceship, and I was feeling pretty miffed.

Joanna made a small noise of frustration. “And you’re sure you wouldn’t like me to give you a rundown…?” If she’d had hands, she’d have been wringing them. Joanna, however, is a being not of flesh and blood, but an amorphous AI who floats about the ship at will, displaying on the walls as a heap of shifting fractals. Right now her fractals were a bright aquamarine that meant, I’m upset.

That made two of us.

“We can talk about the sister later,” I said. I’m sorry to say that my irritation was present in my tone. Normally I am adept at keeping a lid on my emotions when I’d like—years of customer service will do that to a person. But this wasn’t any sort of a normal time. I had just kissed the owner of this spaceship, who was not a human but a rumae, and a rumae prince at that. Lots to think about there—most of it good.

What I didn’t like was being right in the middle of said kissing, which, again, had been good—very, very good—really quite excellent—only for Joanna to cut in, bearing bad news. Jexrah, Del’s sister, was boarding the ship, and she was purportedly frightful.

So now I’d been sent to my room like a naughty toddler, and coming down from the high of the sim-room events had me aching all over, and thinking about Del, and who he was, and what had happened, and what might have happened… well, all of that lumped together was a lot to process, and what I wanted was a little more time to think, without Joanna interrup—

“His sister is on her way over,” Joanna said, her blue going fluorescent. “She’ll be here momentarily. Maybe put Midge in the other room?” Midge, my dog and fellow abductee, was currently seated next to me on the bed, looking at me worriedly. She’s smart, a black, medium-haired mutt, and if I was about to meet the awful sister, then I wanted her beside me.

“I can handle Jexrah,” I snapped, “and I’m sure she can handle my dog!” How bad could the princess be?

Hindsight’s twenty-twenty, they say.

The sister burst into my suite yammering in Ziryahshun to a silvery little drone that buzzed like an oversized mosquito, its flight pattern slightly tipsy. At Jexrah’s heel was one of the server bots, its appendages straining to carry several bulky pieces of luggage.

Jexrah stopped dead when she saw me, and the drone did an excited little loop-de-loop. There were a few dismayed beeps from the overladen server bot as it put on the brakes, just managing to avoid a rear-end collision with the alien princess. Then it performed a deferential shuffle toward the wall and stilled, as if anticipating a long conversation. Meanwhile, Midge had gone rigid, her eyes fixed on the drone, and I swooped her up into my arms as she poised to spring.

I had miscalculated this encounter.

Jexrah and I shared a look at each other as Midge tried to wriggle free. If Del’s sister was anything to go by, female rumae were smaller than their male counterparts, but not by much; she had a good five inches on me at least. She had Del’s same red eyes, but that’s where the similarities ended. Rather than his reddish coloring, Jexrah’s fur was a black-and-brown patchwork, tortoiseshell cat-like. (I made a mental note to have Joanna conjure me up a book on rumae anatomy and physiology—because seeing Jexrah had gotten me curious. I had no other reason for such a book.)

Every part of Jexrah’s look screamed feminine power, from the intricate patterns carved into her long, dark nails to the puffy swell of her mane. The eighties must still be in on Tenctah; I squinted at her hair, wondering if she’d teased it or if all that volume came naturally. Clothing-wise, she was clad in a tight, black, strappy get-up that was more holes than fabric, leaving most of her lean musculature on full display. I guess if you have fur, clothing coverage is more of an afterthought. After hustling back from Del’s sim room, I’d wiped off the gold-dust nanotech and changed back into leggings and a T-shirt, but I doubt Jexrah would have blinked at my sim-room bikini.

“Hello,” I said, forgetting my elementary Ziryahshun. Well, let’s be honest: I didn’t feel much draw to use it with her anyway, alien princess notwithstanding. She wasn’t my princess, and, more importantly, she seemed like trouble. We were going to stick with English.

“Interesting,” she said after she’d gotten a good look at me. Her English was accented, but perfectly understandable, her voice cool. “I’d heard one of you was aboard.” Charming. “And what are you doing in my suite?”

Her suite? And then I remembered the settings of the room’s mirror when I’d first arrived, how they’d been set to full glamour.

“I live here,” I said simply.

“Interesting,” she said again, red eyes glittering as she considered me. Then the drone made a drunken dive-bomb maneuver in Midge’s direction, and I fell back a step. Midge gave a warning bark, her every muscle tense. This was going well.

“Oh, stop it,” Jexrah said. “We wouldn’t want to scare the pet.” God, I hoped she was talking about Midge. “My older sister, Khindrae Lizgamyarah Sharbrit Meervit, by the way,” she said, flicking one of those wickedly long nails at the drone. “She’s just along for the ride.”

“Pleased,” I said with a forced smile and a nod at something-something-something-Meervit. The drone was giving me the oddest feeling of déjà vu. How many sisters did Del have, and were any of the rest of them mechanical?

Meervit buzzed a few squeaky words in Ziryahshun, and Jexrah chortled something in response. I kept my smile on, all while my insides squirmed. I was getting that distinctive middle-school feeling where you know the girls just a few feet out of earshot are talking about you.

“My dear sister’s on the planet,” Jexrah told me, switching back to English. “So do forgive her if she flies a bit off-balance. The connection always takes time to settle in after the snap travel.” She punctuated this with a bright smile that said, that explains it all, doesn’t it? Like her brother, she had many sharp white teeth.

“Ah, right. Great.” I adjusted my grip on Midge; she was heavy to hold for this long, but I couldn’t risk her biting royalty.

“So!” Jexrah continued with a glance around. “It’s a nice space, isn’t it?”

“Sure.” One-syllable words were all I seemed to be able to manage for the time being.

She regarded me for another interminable moment. “It shows high esteem that my brother offered to let you stay in this area of the ship. Myself, I’ve never found the other guest suites on my brother’s ship to quite match the opulence of these quarters.” Then she gave me another one of those looks, the kind where you’re clearly supposed to say that obvious thing.

“I’m very happy Del allows me to stay here,” I said slowly, feeling very much like a kid who’s gotten called on out of the blue in class.

“Del!” Jexrah said, eyes widening slightly. “Well then!” The drone had been cruising about the room for the past minute, but now it buzzed in a wobbly flight path back to us before about-facing toward the door, babbling a tinny stream of Ziryahshun the whole time. Too bad the drone cops weren’t here to give her a DUI. They’re never around when you need them.

“I suppose you’re correct,” Jexrah said to her sister, in English this time. “Different customs and all that.” Again I thought of those middle-school girls—the evil ones who not only are talking about you, but want you to know about it.

Jexrah’s attention swung back to me. “Well, this has been an enlightening conversation. I anticipate we’ll have the pleasure of getting to know each other better soon. In the meantime, duty awaits.” She fluttered a hand toward the door, her mane bobbing. “Del. You understand, of course.”

And with that last mystifying statement she swept away with her drone in tow, the server bot trundling along behind them. Midge gave a little growl as they left, and I hugged her in closer before letting her down to the ground.

“Joanna,” I called out as soon as the door closed. I’d seen wisps of her usual apricot at the edges of the room throughout the whole bizarre conversation. “I need you.”

“I’m here,” she said as her fractals faded in. I’d never been so happy to hear her familiar British tones.

“I need a breakdown. She wants something from me, but I don’t speak alien princess.”

Joanna’s orange grew darker. “She was testing you. She was indicating you should give up your quarters to her. Any Ailoptian would, out of respect. Not that the khindrae much cares, I’m sure—she just wanted to get a sense of your feelings toward her, as royalty. Or lack thereof.”

Well, that was one mystery solved—and a test I had failed with flying colors. “What else? What was all that she was saying about the sister being on the planet?”

“Khindrae Meervit’s physical body is at her estate on Tenctah. The khindrae unfortunately suffers from a disease that makes physical movement quite painful, so she’s come to enjoy spending the majority of her waking hours in drone form. She’s well-known for having many such drones crafted to her exact specifications installed throughout the residences of the royal family and its associates, to allow her to come and go as the khindrae pleases. Long-distance space travel can cause a certain amount of communication lag, though, hence the erratic movements.”

That meant I could give the sister, at least, the benefit of the doubt; she might not have been purposefully antagonizing my dog. “And khindrae means princess? Lady? Something like that?”

“Correct,” said Joanna. “Khindrae Morgvimah Sharbrit Jexrah and Khindrae Lizgamyarah Sharbrit Meervit—Khindrae Jexrah and Khindrae Meervit in common parlance. Vra-khinahar Delklor—you know that one. There’s a lot of official terminology. We could do a little lesson on all the terms, if you’d like.”

“Later,” I said, reaching for Midge’s ball. She deserved some playtime after all the commotion with the drone—what was it about Meervit that felt so familiar?—and I could use some zoning-out time to think about… all that had happened. Not just about right here, right now, but also about what had happened in the simulation room…

Yet Joanna’s words gave me a sudden thought. Vra-khinahar Delklor… official terminology…

“There’s not something… inappropriate about calling Del, well, Del—is there? Just a few things Jexrah said…”

Joanna’s geometries made an uncomfortable little squirm. “That’s the way the master introduced himself to you. Whatever appellation he conveyed to you would be the most appropriate choice, naturally.”

The master this, the master that—always such formality. None of what she was saying was putting me at ease. “Naturally,” I agreed. “But would you say it might raise eyebrows from other rumae? Like, if, er, Mr. Darcy were here, and I called him Fitz…”

She squirmed a little more. “There is some comparison to be made. It would imply to others that you are both quite familiar with each other.”

Great. Lord knew what Jexrah thought about that—hopefully that I was just some human yokel without an understanding of the word propriety. But it didn’t seem like something the so-called “scheming busybody” would overlook. I was increasingly feeling like I hadn’t been set up for success in dealing with Del’s sister.

Which said to me that the best plan was to make myself scarce. It had not escaped me that I’d just put myself in a rather delicate political situation by kissing the heir to the throne of an alien nation of over two billion people. So if Jexrah wanted to go sniffing about the ship, fine. I was just the hapless, etiquette-obtuse prisoner. Nothing to see here!

“Here’s what I need,” I said slowly, pacing the room. “Can you set me a… a princess watch or something like that? Keep tabs on Jexrah’s movements. And Meervit, if she decides to stick around. The goal is avoidance. If it seems like they want to come talk to me, I’m preoccupied—sick, sleeping, taking a bath… whatever sounds best.”

“Consider it done.”

Wonderful. And now that I had mentioned taking a bath, I found that my bathtub was calling to me—the one fit for royalty, I thought with a grim smile as I went to draw the water. I would make sure to enjoy it, princess though I might not be. Hah! And then, after that, a night in sounded just about perfect, to counterbalance today’s val hunt and the—everything else that had happened today. So I would have a quiet night in—fabricate some nail polish and give myself a manicure, maybe a face mask as well, an episode of something fun to watch…

The bath was just getting all nice and bubbly when Joanna cut in. “Khindrae Jexrah is requesting the honor of your presence tomorrow morning at eleven o’clock. She proposes some light refreshments on the top deck—just yourself and the khindrae. Will you accept?”

I gritted my teeth; I hadn’t factored this sort of thing into my princess plan. “Tell her yes,” I said after a moment, then sank back into my bath with a sigh. Problem solved: I was a human woman in her twenties, and I knew how these things worked.

Yes to whatever stupid plans the khindrae proposed—why the hell not? Yes—with every intention to cancel.