“Sign.” I tapped the contract with my pen, right below the dotted line. Impatience, fueled by exhaustion, sharpened my voice. “Now.”
“We don’t feel that the terms are favorable enough to—”
There was silence as the small army of lawyers sitting across the table shifted uncomfortably and stared at me. They weren’t happy, but I didn’t blame them for it. They had just taken a beating.
I stared right back at them, slowly arching one eyebrow up. A smile tugged at the corner of my lips. “Well? What’s it gonna be?”
“You drive a hard bargain, Elle.” Sighing, the old man at the head of the pack of angry lawyers grabbed the pen from my hand, and finally put his name down on the contract. “I hope this settlement will be the end of it.”
“You bet.” I grabbed the contract from the desk, put it in my bag, and rose to my feet. “It was a pleasure doing business with you, gentlemen.” I marched out of the room without bothering to look back. Cue the music—another multimillion-dollar settlement was in the bag, and I was one step close to making partner. If only I cared more.
I left the building with my head held high, as my Manolo Blahniks clicked across the marble floor onto the sidewalk. Just another day in the life of Elle Ashby, corporate lawyer and boardroom assassin. This day, though, was significant. After six long years of grinding, I was finally about to become a full partner at Schwartz-Eriksson.
“Where to, Miss Ashby?” Standing beside the jet-black limo, my driver tipped his hat at me as I approached the car. I slid into the backseat as he held the door for me and sunk into the leather seat. “Should I drive you home?”
“Yes, please,” I replied, already grabbing my cellphone to let the firm’s two name partners know that the ink had already dried on the settlement. A mere few seconds after I sent them a text, my phone started blowing up as they tried to call me. A settlement like this would make the headlines tomorrow, and they knew I was already being hounded by headhunters. They were terrified of losing me—as they should be. I pushed the phone into my purse and ignored them. It didn’t matter if we’re talking about seduction or business: hot-and-cold never failed to leave men even more desperate for you.
The limo rolled down Park Avenue at a slow pace, the frantic Manhattan traffic its usual self. The sun had already started dipping past the skyline, bathing Grand Central Station with a warm orange glow, and the shadow of the Waldorf-Astoria stretched over the avenue like a blanket.
New York—corporate arena…and my home.
It’s hard to believe that a country girl like me would make it in the city, but that’s the magic of laser-focus and hard work. I’d glued my backside to a chair when I was no more than a teenager, studied like a maniac, and gotten into Harvard. From there, it was only a matter of being the absolute best and climbing the ranks. I’d set myself a relentless pace, and lately I was beginning to wonder when I would break.
“We’re here, Miss Ashby,” my driver announced, the limo coming to a halt outside my apartment building.
He opened the door for me, and I thanked him with a nod and a smile. Five minutes later, I was kicking off my Manolos and walking barefoot into the penthouse’s kitchen. I opened the wine fridge, poured myself a cold Pinot Grigio, and waltzed onto the balcony.
“Here’s to you, Elle,” I whispered, raising my glass as I took in Manhattan’s skyline with a glance, the skyscrapers rising up into the heights like monuments to human ambition. Suddenly, my phone started ringing again. I smiled ironically: I had sunk the hooks, and now it was time to reel it all in.
Back in my living room, I grabbed my phone from my purse, Schwartz’s name flashing on the screen. I was about to put the phone up to my ear when I heard someone knock at my door. That was odd—no one should be able to come up here without the receptionist getting the green light from me.
I threw the phone onto the couch, then made my way toward the door and flung it open. Standing in the corridor outside my apartment were two men in black suits. Both had short haircuts and a clean-shaven appearance, but despite the fact that they were smiling, their smiles didn’t reach their eyes.
“What’s this?” I asked them, folding my arms over my chest.
“We’re here on U.S. government business, Miss Ashby,” the taller one replied, his formality enough for me to peg them as federal agents.
He flashed his badge, too quickly for me to notice what agency they belonged to, then they simply strolled into the apartment uninvited. Sometimes I wished federal agents were more like vampires—life would be so much easier for everyone if they required an invitation to enter a building.
“What’s this about?” I insisted, closing the door behind me. “Are you with the Securities and Exchange Commission? If that’s the case, I’m telling you that the settlement Schwartz-Eriksson secured today is completely above board and—”
“We’re not with the SEC.” Still with that creepy smile on his face, the tall man sat down on one of my couches, and waved at the one facing him. “Please, have a seat, Miss Ashby.”
“Don’t mind if I do.” Frowning, I sat down, still nursing my glass of wine. Federal agents were never good news, but I wasn’t about to let them ruin my day. I was about to reach the pinnacle of my career, and before my thirtieth birthday. I wasn’t going to let some bullshit federal agents put a stop to it. No way. “Now, care to explain why I have two U.S. government employees inside my apartment?”
“There’s nothing for you to worry about,” the shorter one said, his hands folded in his lap. “My name is Agent Starmer, and this is Agent Krasinski. We’re here because we have a couple of questions we need to ask you, Miss Ashby. It’s nothing you should be worrying about.”
“That’s for me to decide.” Bringing the glass to my lips, I finished what was left of the wine, then set the glass down on the coffee table and regarded them for a moment. This was different. Different enough that some of my constant low-level fatigue faded under a surge of curiosity. “Let’s get this over with, then. What do you want to know?”
“Very well.” Clearing his throat, Agent Krasinski grabbed a notepad from his shirt pocket and flipped through it. “What would you consider most important? A family or your career?”
I opened my mouth to say something, but words didn’t come out. I just stared at the two men and blinked, my eyebrows knitted together. What the hell was this? The government’s live-version of a Facebook quiz? Were these two idiots part of the Bureau of Astrology Investigation and Unrelated Personality Quizzes?
No, this had to be a joke.
“Please, respond truthfully,” Krasinski continued, his tone never wavering. He clutched his pen tightly, ready to note down my answers. So, this wasn’t a joke. They were really expecting me to answer that stupid question.
“My career is more important, evidently,” I finally replied. “I didn’t work my ass off to become one of the best lawyers in New York just so I could end up barefoot and pregnant on some—”
“Interesting,” he said. “Would you say that you have an argumentative personality?”
“What? I’m a lawyer, so I—”
“I see.” Scribbling on his notepad, he only looked back at me once he was done. “What about allergies or health conditions? Are there any that we should know about?”
“Why the hell do you want to know that?” Sighing, I shook my head. “Alright, fine. No, I don’t have any allergies or underlying health conditions. I work hard, but I don’t let my health suffer because of that.”
“You do yoga, right?”
“Yes,” I replied, narrowing my eyes at them. “How do you know that?”
“How do you feel about long-distance travel?” Agent Starmer continued, ignoring my ever-growing confusion. “According to your notes, you’ve been all over the globe. From Tokyo to Dubai to—”
“Yes, I’m used to traveling,” I cut him short, curiosity giving way to annoyance. “My work with Schwartz-Eriksson means that I have to represent a lot of multinational companies, and so I have to travel constantly. Now, gentlemen, you either tell me what this is about, or I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
“Just one more question, if you will,” Krasinski said. “Do you consider yourself an adventurous person?”
“What?” Tightening my lips, I rose to my feet and pointed at the door. “I’m done with these stupid questions. I want you out of my apartment…right now.”
“Very well.” Starmer stood up and exchanged a knowing glance with his partner. “You’re right, Miss Ashby. We’re running a tight ship here, and our schedule doesn’t really allow for delays. I think we have everything that we need.”
“Oh, you misunderstand me,” Starmer continued, his smile finally reaching his eyes, the tiniest hints of crow’s feet showing there. “You’re coming with us, Miss Ashby.”
“How would you like a vacation, Miss Ashby?” He glanced at Krasinski.
The word vacation snagged my attention just long enough for Agent Krasinski to grab something from inside his jacket—some kind of metallic pen with a bright bulbous tip—and place it in front of my eyes. “Just look into the light, Miss Ashby. Just look into the…”
I didn’t hear the rest of his sentence—I was still thinking about vacation.
The red light on his pen lured me in, and I dove straight into unconsciousness.
“Kazan! Kazan! Kazan!”
“Alright, alright.” Grinning from ear to ear, I waved down the drunken Jorkan guys surrounding me. They patted me on the back, pushing drinks into my hands, and kept on chanting my name as if I were some sort of god-emperor. “Cool your tits, boys. You keep on stroking my ego, soon enough I won’t be able to fit through the door.”
“C’mon, you’ve earned this,” Tarnik shouted, slapping me on the back while raising his shot glass. His scale-covered muscles rippled under his shirt as he moved, his pectorals looking almost desperate to escape from his tight shirt. It always weirded me out to see him outside his tactical uniform, and tonight was no different. “Here’s to another well-delivered kick to the Rippers’ nutsacks.”
“Well, shit, I’ve gotta drink to that.” Laughing, I touched glasses with him and downed my own shot, the alcohol burning its way down my throat. Tarnik was right—after another successful op, we needed to celebrate. My men, all of them elite Jorkan soldiers who hated the Rippers as much as they loved drinking, had proved their mettle once more, and they deserved to let off some steam.
Of course, more often than not, that involved hard drinking, crazy gambling, and the occasional visit to the most expensive strip joints in this part of the galaxy. As their leader, I always did my best to curb their craziness, but…truth be told, it didn’t really help that I was even crazier than they were.
Not that I cared.
I had devoted my life to beating Ripper assholes into a pulp, and I had enough medals pinned on my chest to remind me that I was pretty fucking good at it. Yeah, my life was absolutely perfect, and I wouldn’t change it for a thing. What more could a Jorkan want?
I got to spend my time flying around the galaxy with guys I was proud to call my brothers and, when we weren’t busy mopping the floor with the Rippers, partied hard enough to make an Aurvelian stripper blush.
“Shit,” Tarnik growled all of a sudden, tipping the edge of his shot glass toward the far end of the club. “Suits, dead ahead. You think they’re here to shut this party down?”
Turning on my heels, I narrowed my eyes as I looked in the direction Tarnik was pointing. Two Jorkan bureaucrat-looking assholes were coming down the neon-lit stairs of the club, walking so closely together you’d think they were tethered at the hips.
They had their tails wrapped around their waists as if they were belts, and their curved horns had been polished to a shine, a clear sign that these guys were desk-jockeys. Sighing, I raked one hand over my face. High Command had already warned me more than once, insisting that my team had to calm down when it came to all the partying—especially with us being known Jorkan soldiers, who were supposed to be healthy role models—and I was pretty sure these guys had been sent here to shut us down.
“Leave it to me,” I told Tarnik, cracking the tip of my tail as I moved through the crowd. The clubgoers hopped to the side as I marched through them, my seven-foot stature ensuring I didn’t have to be polite, and I quickly made my way toward the two Jorkan bureaucrats.
They stood at the bar, a pair of bright green drinks topped with umbrellas in front of them. What a damn embarrassment. Moving as automatons, they both turned in their seats as they noticed my approach, their faces masks of pure discipline. They were in one of the most prestigious clubs on the planet, and they looked as if they were bored out of their damn minds.
“Alright, boys,” I started, standing between the two of them and draping my arms over their shoulders. “What’s this about? We’re just having some fun here. We haven’t kicked anyone’s ass, as the High Command recommended, and I must remind you that we’ve just destroyed a Ripper military base on the edge of—”
“Have a seat, Colonel Kazan,” one of them said, his bland expression never changing as he spoke. I remained where I was, not sure if I liked this asshole’s tone. “Please, Colonel. We’re not here to shut down your, uh, party. We have other matters to discuss.”
“Well, spill it, then.” Grudgingly, I pulled over a stool and sat between them. I rapped my knuckles against the counter and, as if by magic, the droid bartender quickly poured me a drink. I looked to the Jorkan sitting on my right, my horns towering over his, and the guy seemed to shrink in size. “What’s this about?”
“Are you aware of the Earth-Jorkan Protocols, Colonel?” he finally said, his lips twitching slightly as a smile emerged. “You must know of them, correct?”
“Get the fuck out of here,” I exclaimed, the words slipping out of my mouth before I could think it through. “I don’t want to have a part in any of that bullshit.”
Jumping to my feet, I was ready to leave these two morons to their umbrella drinks. Surprisingly, one of them reached out and placed one hand on my shoulder.
“No so fast, Colonel.”
“Yeah,” he repeated, the smile he had on his face slowly fading. “I’m afraid your participation in these procedures isn’t going to be optional. We have found a genetic match for you on Earth, and you are obliged to follow the protocols. There’s a mandatory thirty-day period, during which you’re obliged to work with us and your potential mate.”
“Fuck me,” I muttered under my breath. “You guys are lawyers, aren’t you?”
They exchanged a glance, and that was the only answer I needed. Of course these bastards were lawyers, both working on behalf of High Command, and they were here to ensure that I complied with whatever bullshit the Earth-Jorkan Protocols mandated.
“Colonel, I understand your hesitation, but this has to be done,” the one sitting to my left said, his nasally voice adding to my annoyance. “As you’re aware, the entire Jorkan civilization is still reeling from the biological weapon used on us by the Rippers, and as such—”
“Yeah, I know about that,” I cut him short.
Who didn’t know about it?
Fifty years ago, the Rippers were on the verge of finally being defeated by the Jorkan, and they decided to start thinking long-term. Instead of going toe-to-toe with us, they unleashed a biological weapon that made all the female Jorkan infertile. No more babies, no more soldiers to feed the machine.
Tests have been conducted these past decades to counter those effects, but to no avail. That was, of course, until the Jorkan military jumped in to save Earth from being obliterated by the Rippers. Although the majority of the humans remained unaware of the intergalactic war happening on their doorstep, their top officials worked closely with Jorkan High Command, and a pleasant surprise was discovered in that partnership.
As it turned out, human females were genetically and biologically compatible with the Jorkan. Just as long as there was a genetic match, a human female would be able to carry a Jorkan child, and that resulted in the Earth-Jorkan Protocols. In order to repay the Jorkan for their assistance against the Rippers, a matching program was created, its purpose to bring together those who could ensure the Jorkan genetic heritage could live on.
In short, space dating on steroids.
I’d never really paid much attention to any of that, truth be told.
I’d never met a single Jorkan who was genetically matched with an Earthling, and I sure as hell hadn’t thought it would happen to me. I mean, children? I’m a fucking warrior, an intergalactic thunderstorm whose sole purpose lies in defeating the Rippers. I couldn’t give any less of a shit about playing house with some delicate human female.
“I’m sorry, guys, but I’ll pass.” Reaching inside my pocket, I threw a couple of hard credits onto the counter and turned my back to the two lawyers. “Buy yourself another round. I’m sorry you’ve wasted your time.”
“We didn’t waste our time.” Again, I felt one of them holding me by the shoulder. Instinctively, I turned on my heels, my hands balling into fists. “This is the law, Colonel, and you’ll have to adhere to it. There’s already a shuttle waiting for you on the rooftop, and it’ll take you to a ship that’s waiting in orbit. Earth and the Jorkan have a small station on Pluto, and you are expected there.”
“What if I say no?”
“In that case, you’ll be stripped of your military rank and court martialed.” The answer came in a deadpan tone, and I had to make a very conscious effort not to punch these two assholes into oblivion. “Again, this is the law. All Jorkan have to obey it.”
I gritted my teeth. “Thirty days, right?”
“Thirty days,” the lawyer replied. “After that, you and your genetic mate will be free to go your separate ways, if you haven’t reached a mating agreement. That’s all we’re asking of you, thirty days.”
“Alright,” I sighed. “Let’s get it done.”
I jolted awake, a little like waking up hungover.
It felt like a hand grenade had gone off inside my head, and now it was time to be conscious. God, I thought to myself, I really have to find a wine that doesn’t have this effect on me. And the dream I’d had—I’d never dreamed anything like it. Whenever federal agents decided to visit me in my dreams, I was usually the one tying them in knots, making them uncomfortable.
I stretched my arms over my head and squeezed my eyes shut. Damn, I was going to need a good hour of yoga to shake off this night. An hour of yoga on a remote beach, preferably with cocktails after, and no work to come home to. The company of a sexy distraction wouldn’t go amiss, either.
As I raised my hands up, I hit a padded headboard.
Something was wrong. Something was very wrong. I opened my eyes and was nearly blinded by crisp white everywhere I looked. Crisp white curtains and crisp white bedding, a crisp white lounge chair next to a light wood TV table. The room was impossibly luxurious and impeccably clean, although a little small for all its expensive taste. I was under a lightweight, tufted bedspread and a beige throw blanket, as if someone had no idea how I liked to sleep.
Where the hell am I? Some sort of luxury hotel? The room seemed so…devoid of personality, yet full of expense. Was this some sort of partner hazing? There had been no hazing when I became a junior partner. My mind was racing, jumping from thought to thought, trying to work out where I was and what the hell was happening.
I had no patience for uncertainty. I grabbed my growing fear and panic by the throat and stuffed them back into a mental box. No problem could be resolved through panic. I could sit in the middle of the floor and have a fit once I was safely home.
Finally, I flipped back the blankets and swung my legs to the side of the bed. I was barefoot, but otherwise still wearing my pencil skirt and white button-up shirt I had used the day before, two pieces which I had picked out specially for the day I would finally become a full partner.
Was it just the day before?
Suddenly, I wasn’t so sure anymore.
In a way, though, I was relieved to be in an outfit chosen for power. I needed to feel powerful right now. Standing up, I smoothed the wrinkles carefully, knowing they would stay wrinkled, but I found a sense of grounding in the movement. Wherever I was, I was Elle Ashby and I was in charge. It didn’t matter who else knew it or not—I knew it. A mantra for this crazy day.
I noticed that in front of me was a large window with curtains drawn tightly together. All I needed to do was open those curtains, let in the sun, and find someone to explain to me why any of this was happening. Determined, I crossed the room and threw open the curtains.
Staring back at me was the deep, dark blackness of space. I really had never seen anything like it. It was darker than any night, pinpricks of starlight faintly in the distance. Nothing, nothing, and more black nothing for as far as I could see.
I felt bile rise in my throat.
I can’t handle this, I thought, I can’t handle any of this. I must still be dreaming—this was a nightmare because of all the stress of making partner. I found a small beige trashcan tucked in the corner and reflexively bent down over it. I was going to throw up, I was sure of it.
Instead, I just spit into the can.
NO! I was Elle Ashby and I was in charge.
I spat out the last thought of throwing up and shoved the can back in the corner.
I jumped up and smoothed the wrinkles again. If it worked once, it would work again. I would be grounded. I would find someone to explain all of this. Just in that moment, I heard the sound of a door opening behind me. I turned, and nearly fainted. My physiology was being pushed to its limit, and I was pretty sure that my mind had already broken.
This wasn’t a dream—it was a goddamn hallucination.
In the doorway stood a giant, scaly man at least seven feet tall. Well, he had the outline of a man. The face of a man. Plus horns. He was blue, with scales scintillating in the overhead lights, and as he walked through the doorway a tail swung behind him. A very big, quite long tail, I should say.
“Hello, Elle, did you sleep well?” the alien slash hallucination slash man asked. “Sometimes the loss of consciousness affects the rest of the body and that can be unpleasant.”
“I… did I sleep well? Are you fucking kidding me?” A seven-foot blue man was asking me if I had slept well after I had been drugged, kidnapped, and woken up in deep space. “NO, I DID NOT SLEEP WELL!”
“I understand you’re frustrated, but please, try to calm yourself. Things will—”
“Calm myself? Calm myself? You calm your fucking self!” I was frozen with rage. Rage was more dignified than gibbering fear. If I moved a muscle, I would destroy the room and twist that blue bastard’s neck.
“Things will go more smoothly and easily. I promise, I will tell you what is going on.”
The words clicked in place—words I shouldn’t understand. I did want to know what was happening. Rage wasn’t control. The name’s Elle Ashby and I am in control, I reminded myself. I took a deep breath through my nose and let it out through my mouth.
“I am calm,” I said, throwing all of my lawyerly poise into the sentence. “Please, tell me everything you know, starting with why I can understand you.” The words coming out of the alien’s mouth weren’t English, but my brain reformatted the syllables into the language I understood.
“We took the liberty of fitting you with a translator patch for ease of communication. I assure you, there are no known side effects with human physiology. We are the Jorkan, a race of what the humans might call ‘aliens’. Earth has a treaty with our people, as we are protecting your planet from what are known as the Rippers.”
“What kind of bullshit treaty is this? One that entails kidnapping?”
“Not exactly, but… yes.” He took one step toward me, and I instinctively stepped back. “You see, the Rippers have made all of the Jorkan females unable to conceive children. And so, we need genetically viable women to mate with our men. It just so happens that some Earth women are able to bear Jorkan children. So, we struck a deal in exchange for continued protection of your planet. We call this the Earth-Jorkan Protocols. When we find a genetic match for a Jorkan male, your government helps set up the match. We have a mandatory thirty-day period in which you spend time with your potential future mate.”
I could hardly believe what I was hearing.
“After the thirty days are up, if you and your mate accept your union, you two will be joined together by the Signing Day. We expect you to become pregnant and bear a child. While we can’t force you to, we very much expect you to. The future of our entire race falls on your choice to bear our children.”
The man grew very solemn as he said these last words. For once in my life, I was absolutely speechless. For a moment. Then I was filled with words.
“And so, what am I supposed to do? Fall over and spread my legs for someone who looks like you? Just like that?”
The alien man flushed a pale blue that I supposed must have been him blushing.
“That’s what the thirty-day period is for. We simply hope that, after thirty days together, you’ll find enough attachment to bear a child.”
I laughed. I mean, what else was there to do other than laugh?
He turned a dark blue color and scowled.
“You will meet your mate soon. We suggest freshening up from the long journey here. We thought you might like some fresh clothes.” He walked over to a small door and opened a closet. “I hope you’ll find something to your liking.” Then he walked to the other side of the room and opened another door. I could see sparkling white tile and the lip of a high-end tub. “In here, you’ll find the bathtub.” With that, he strolled out of the room, leaving me in a stunned silence.
I don’t know how long I stood there. After I worked through my rage, my sense of injustice, the total what the fuck that this was happening to me, I took a deep, cleansing breath. What could I control? Right now, nothing but my emotions and reactions.
So first things first. A bath would help calm the fight-or-flight hormones rushing through my blood so I could think clearly and begin to prepare a strategy. And lacking a coherent strategy, the appearance of compliance never hurt anything.
I mustered up the resolve to examine the bathroom. It was gorgeous. A pity. Under normal circumstances I would have loved it. White tile, white tub with jets lining the edge of it. It did look relaxing. Maybe I could enjoy a steamy bath. Maybe. But first, I had to find out about those clothes.
Hanging in the closet were three different outfits, all dresses. One was a little black thing, thin spaghetti straps and flowing, just long enough to graze my butt. Another was a red tube dress, sleeveless with a deep V cut out, again just long enough to leave a man guessing and wanting more, but not long enough to cover my thighs. What did these assholes think I was? A space stripper?
Gritting my teeth, I looked at the third dress.
It was a laughable attempt at modesty. A floral dress, tight on top and cut like a tank. It at least looked comfortable, and the dress would come to the top of my knees. Despite the faux modesty, it remained a sexy dress. It seemed that every piece of clothing in here had been cut out from a lingerie magazine, outfits to express sexuality with every curve, from overt sex with the red number, to the soft femininity of the floral dress.
Whoever these people were, they had another think coming. I felt the determined energy rising up in me again. I would not be pushed around by some aliens. They thought a little time would have me falling for some tall and hunky alien man?
I didn’t have time for this kind of ridiculous game.
But, if I was being forced to remain here, I sure as hell would make sure nobody would play me for a fool. I stared at the floral dress again, narrowing my eyes. It was the least slutty dress, and I figured it’d help. Men always expected the least from you when you played into their expectations, so it was time for me to turn the tables.
This “future mate” had no idea what he was in for.