Today was an important day, and Jet Tindor had done everything in his power to ensure it went as planned. So far, most of his diplomatic assignments had been straightforward. He’d met with various human leaders and representatives of special interest groups, giving them tours of the newly opened embassy and building strong relationships. It was some of the most enjoyable, meaningful work he’d ever done, and he was damned good at it.
Since the bombing of the Gathering at a local sports stadium almost two years ago, keeping open communication had become even more important. His species were here by invitation, and there was always a chance that invitation could be revoked. It wasn’t likely, not when Pyros was sponsoring humanity’s application to the Inter-planetary Counsel, as well as providing them with advanced technology and knowledge they wouldn’t develop for years on their own.
Today’s meeting was different, though. The humans he was meeting today weren’t motivated by planetary trade or political gain. They wanted what was best for the people they represented, which made his job more challenging. There was too much at stake for this to go sideways, and if things went well, it could change thousands of lives, both here and on Pyros.
He spent most of the limo ride to the airport going over his notes so he’d be prepared for any questions Ms. Dewan might ask. His research led him to the conclusion that Hanna Dewan was an exceptional female. She was bright, focused, and from all reports, a skilled negotiator, whose work took her to some of the most dangerous parts of this still somewhat primitive planet. He wasn’t sure if that made her crazy or courageous, but it certainly made her interesting.
She had committed her life to helping women in war zones escape predation and the horrors of the battlefields to start new lives in safety. Today’s meeting was an important step in forging a deal that could see many of those human females, and their children, coming to live on Pyros, where females were rare and children of any species would be welcomed.
His companion stirred in the seat across from him, and Jet pulled himself out of his thoughts. “You ready?” he asked Vykor as they turned onto the road that led to the private airfield where they’d meet their guests.
“If I said no, would you let me stay in the limo with Kyle?” Vykor asked, raising one blonde brow in hopeful inquiry.
“Not a chance. You haven’t left the embassy in a month. You need this, and I need you.”
Vykor shook his head. “I don’t see why.” He gestured to the elegantly appointed vehicle around them. “This is what you’re best at, Jet. Diplomacy and deal-making come naturally to you. I think the future of Pyros is in good hands.”
“For someone who doesn’t think he has anything to contribute, that was remarkably diplomatic. For a Romaki.” The dragon race wasn’t known for their tact. When you wielded magic and could transform into a magical creature the size of a small shuttle, you rarely needed to watch what you said.
“I’m a special case, remember?” Vykor smiled, but the expression stopped before it reached his multi-coloured eyes. They marked him as unique among his species. “When you’re a freak, words are your best defence against fear.” He paused before adding, “Fast-talking is how I avoided getting beaten up more than I did.”
Jet nodded and leaned forward, his hands raised, palms up. “And that’s why I need you. Ms. Dewan and her people are understandably cautious about this plan. You’re good at reading others and putting them at ease.”
“I thought this whole thing was the human female’s idea. Why would she be cautious?” Vykor frowned, then answered his own question. “Never mind, I get it. If this happens, she’ll be entrusting you with the protection of some of the most vulnerable humans on the planet. Ones who have already suffered too much.”
“Exactly.” He grinned at the Romaki. “See, this is why I wanted you along. Plus, your English is better than Karos’. Why that male can’t use contractions is a mystery only the Gods can explain.”
Vykor snorted. “He does it on purpose, to make himself sound more serious. Not as an affectation, but because duty and honour mean everything to him.”
Observations like that were why he’d started mentoring Vykor in the art of diplomacy. Not just because he could use the help, though that was part of it. The fact was, the Romaki had the talent and raw ability, all he needed was polish and a little encouragement. Polish was something Jet knew all too well. As the eldest son of the House of Tindor, he’d spent his life in the refined but dangerous world of court politics. His family had been next in line to the throne of Pyros until Prince Joran had claimed his mate, thus securing his claim to the throne. Jet’s father had had aspirations of one day ruling the planet.
The day Joran had returned with his lovely human mate, his father had raged at the Gods in a fury, while Jet had sent up a prayer of thanks. Soren Tindor craved power for its own sake, which wouldn’t have been good for Pyros. Unlike his father, Jet had never wanted the throne. As far as he was concerned, it came with too many responsibilities and expectations. He far preferred his new role here on Earth. For the first time in his life, he was free to make his own choices, far from the pressures and politics of family and court.
Jet nodded in agreement. “Karos is a serious sort, but knowing he’s in charge of security lets me sleep better at night, especially with the Humanity First Movement still trying to cause trouble for us.”
Vykor grinned, his expression faintly sardonic. “Since when do you spend your nights sleeping? From what I’ve heard, you’re out almost every evening enjoying everything Earth has to offer.”
He didn’t deny it. “It’s my job to show the humans we’re friendly, not fearsome. I can’t do that if I never leave the embassy.” He raised an eyebrow and looked pointedly at the blond male. “You know you’re welcome to join me.”
“I know.” Vykor ran a hand over his jaw, scratching idly at the freshly trimmed blonde stubble as he considered. “Tell you what. When we’re done with this assignment, I’ll take a night off and come with you.”
“Good. We’re about as far from our old lives as we’re ever going to get. I don’t know about you, but by the flames of the First Ones, I plan on enjoying every second of freedom I can.” One day, his parents would find a way to haul him back to Pyros. Until then, he was going to live his life his way, rules and expectations be damned.
Jet stood beneath the protection of one of the umbrellas their driver, Kyle, had handed to them as they left the limo. The rain had lightened, but each gust of chill winter wind sent a fresh wash of raindrops over them as they waited for their guests.
The door of the craft swung open, and a female stepped out, her heels ringing on the metallic staircase set in place to help them descend. She took a moment to scan the area, her expression intent, turned, and nodded to someone behind her.
Jet recognized the female from the briefing information he’d been given. She was Hanna’s bodyguard, Megan Richards, and apparently, she took her job very seriously.
Richards moved down the stairs, and another female appeared at the door. He recognized her from the file as well, but by the Flames of the First Ones, the photo had not done her justice. Hanna Dewan was beautiful. The images had not captured her innate grace, or the intelligence that gleamed in her eyes. Eyes she fixed on him. She then offered him a smile that made him forget about the cold, the rain, and even his carefully rehearsed words of greeting.
He walked out to meet her, shaking out the second umbrella he held and lifting it over her head as she reached the ground. “Welcome to Vancouver, Ms. Dewan. I’m Jet Tindor. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”
She turned to him, nodded, and dipped into a slight bow. The western custom was to shake hands in greeting, but embassy protocol discouraged casual contact with unmated Pyrosians here on Earth. A single touch between true mates could trigger the Spark, which would be followed by the rapid onset of the Scorching, an undeniable mating fever.
“We’ve spoken so often I feel like we already know each other, Mr. Tindor.”
This close to her, he could see the delicate lines that touched the corners of her eyes, and he noted there were hints of silver in the shoulder-length waves of her black hair, though she was still a woman in her prime. “Since that’s the case, perhaps you would consider calling me by my first name?”
The lines around her eyes crinkled slightly as her lips curved into a subtle smile. “If you will call me Hanna.”
“It would be my pleasure.” He turned and nodded toward Vykor who was greeting the rest of her party. “This is Vykor Halek from Romak.”
Vykor offered her a quick smile and a nod. “A pleasure.”
“This is my security specialist, Ms. Richards, and my personal assistant, Ms. Ashton.” Hanna nodded to the dark-haired female he’d already noted, then to a quiet female with blonde curls who was busy organizing their luggage.
With the introductions done, they all turned and made their way to the limo, though Jet noted with amusement that Vykor was walking with Hanna’s assistant, holding an umbrella out for her while he held onto a bright pink carry-on case with his free hand, leaving him exposed to the weather.
Hanna glanced back, her soft lips quirking into a brief smile as she saw what was going on. “Chivalry is not a forgotten art on your planets, I take it?”
“It is not.” Jet noted the expression of approval that flashed across her features. “Though there aren’t many females on Pyros, those who remain are treated like the treasures they are.”
“Treasures tend to be kept in vaults,” she pointed out as they arrived at the vehicle.
Jet caught her meaning immediately, but took a moment to think before speaking. Since he’d stepped into this role, he’d spent hours speaking to Princess Maggie and many of the other human females who now lived on Pyros. Their experiences were as different as they were, but they’d all told him the same thing – they valued their freedom above all else. “Not on Pyros. The human females living there made it very clear that they would not be happy locked away. There was a – let’s call it a period of adjustment for everyone involved.”
Hanna ducked into the limo, but not before he caught the enticing hint of another smile on her soft lips. “I’m sure there was. Will I be allowed to speak with some of the women on Pyros?”
He joined her inside, claiming the seat beside her so they could continue their conversation. “I couldn’t stop that from happening, even if I wanted to. Princess Maggie and several of her advisors are all eager to speak to you, and if you decide to visit Pyros, I imagine there will be a great many females who will be happy to talk to you about their lives and experiences on my homeworld.”
He leaned in slightly and lowered his voice to a conspirator’s whisper. “Especially if you bring along some chocolate. It’s still a rarity on my world.”
“So, not even Pyros is perfect. Good to know.”
The others joined them, the two females sitting across from them, their backs to the driver, while Vykor claimed the seat on the other side of Hanna.
Jet leaned back in his seat and enjoyed a moment of self-indulgent reflection. He’d prepared for this meeting, things were going well, and soon, this agreement would be finalized.
Flames, he loved this job.
Hanna Dewan was used to men trying to charm her. She hadn’t expected the Pyrosian diplomat to use the same tactics, though she was willing to admit he was better at it than most. He was poised, well-spoken, and ridiculously good looking. His dark suit was perfectly tailored, as was his jacket, and both did nothing to hide his well-muscled body. He had dark brown hair cut short, and while his jaw was shadowed with stubble, it was perfectly trimmed, giving his otherwise composed appearance a slightly rakish air.
She’d seen the media coverage, of course, but she’d learned long ago not to believe anything she saw on the media. Images, like words, could be manipulated too easily to be trusted. Now she’d met him, though, it was apparent that he was exactly as he appeared in various interviews. No wonder the women of Earth were signing up to the Star-Crossed matchmaking service in droves. If she were ten years younger, she’d be tempted to sign up herself.
Not that good looks and charm were factors for the women she represented. They weren’t looking for romance or a fairy tale ending. They just wanted food, shelter, and safety. If the Pyrosians proved trustworthy, then she might be able to give hundreds, maybe even thousands of women a better life.
“Tell me about the ships that travel between our worlds,” she asked, moving into information-gathering mode. They had a lot to cover during her visit, and she wanted to hear every detail in person. “How long does it take? How many passengers do they carry?”
“The ships can make the journey in a few weeks, including the time it would take to shuttle the passengers from Earth. The larger ships can carry several hundred passengers at a time and still provide everyone with their own quarters.”
“Several hundred? So, if the women shared space, we could fit more?”
“Of course. Though vessels that size are all under the domain of the military, which means that the females would be sharing the common areas with soldiers. I imagine some of these females would find that difficult, considering what they’ve endured.”
His insight impressed her. She’d met dozens of politicians and bureaucrats in her life, and none of them would have considered the women’s reaction to a military uniform. Men like that had never been victims. They didn’t understand what it was like to have been abused by those who were supposed to protect them. “That’s a good point. Perhaps a smaller ship would be better. It would also make things easier to process them when they arrive on your world.”
Jet frowned. “Process? In what way?”
“Documentation. Surely they’ll need some? Not to mention time in quarantine, maybe even temporary housing until they can arrange for sponsorship?”
Jet’s eyes narrowed, then widened in understanding. “Ah. Our process would be quite different than what you’re used to. There will be no quarantine. Each female will go through a brief, painless decontamination process as they debark the shuttles onto the main ship. They’ll receive an ident chip and other necessary items before they arrive on Pyros, and permanent housing will already be arranged for each of them. The princess felt that it would be best that each group be settled in the same area, so they can support each other through the transition period, though of course they will be free to settle anywhere they’d like. The human females living on Pyros have already organized job training, and of course, each female would be provided with cognitive augmentation so they are fluent in the various dialects of my species, as well as cultural information and everything they would need to flourish there.”
Hanna blinked, too shocked to speak for several seconds. She’d known the Pyrosians were eager to have more human females on Pyros, but all their conversations so far had been focused on establishing a rapport and ensuring that both sides were trustworthy. “They’ll have housing? Training? No camps? No quarantine?”
Jet waved a manicured hand. “By the time they arrive, each and every female and her offspring will be a citizen of Pyros already. They will be welcomed.”
“But there would be no requirement for them to accept a Pyrosian mate, correct?” They’d already discussed this detail, but now they were face to face, she wanted to hear him say the words, even if it meant risking insulting him.
Instead of taking umbrage, Jet smiled, rising several more places in her esteem, and the tiniest flutter of butterflies erupted in her tummy. Oh no. She was not developing a crush on the dashing diplomat. This was work, not play, and besides, he was at least a decade younger than she was. This was no time to turn into a cougar.
“Any female who wishes to do so can add their names to the mating database at any time after they arrive, but per our agreement, it would not be required.”
She hadn’t planned on asking this question yet, but the timing was too perfect. “Why is that?”
This time, his smile made her breath catch. He wasn’t that good looking.
“You’re asking me what we get out of this deal?” the modern-day term rolled off his tongue, accompanied by a roguish smile.
“Children. The women, and their children will be citizens of Pyros. Even if they don’t grow up and take Pyrosian partners, they’ll still play important roles in the future of my species. Our population is dwindling, leaving holes in our workforce and in every other facet of daily life on my world. And if some of those children return to Earth, then they will bring with them a wealth of information, along with what we can hope is a positive opinion of Pyrosians.”
“Future diplomats?” she asked, amazed at the scope of his answer.
“They will be the future, period. For both of our species.”
The answer was diplomatic, but she sensed he was sincere. Beneath the grand words were real hope, and hope was her stock in trade.
She took a moment to compose her thoughts before she spoke again.
Megan was staring out the window, no doubt looking for threats. It was what she was paid to do, but Hanna trusted the Pyrosians to keep them safe. Megan hadn’t been happy to hand over security to the aliens, but it was a necessary sign of trust, even if her bodyguard didn’t approve. She caught Megan’s eye and gave her a hint of a smile, along with a subtle hand sign to confirm that things were going well. Megan raised a hand, and then all her attention shifted to the window again.
“Hold on!” Megan shouted, and Hanna had a split second to grab hold of her seatbelt before the world around her erupted into chaos. The vehicle shook, metal screeched, and she was flung against her seatbelt as they spun wildly. As the vehicle finally came to a halt, rocking on its tires, stunned silence fell, though she could barely tell over the hammering of her heart.
“Everyone okay?” Megan’s voice broke the silence. Her tone was sharp, but her eyes were too wide, her normally ruddy skin too pale. “I’m alright. What happened?” Hanna asked as the others confirmed they were still in one piece.
Megan ignored her question and started issuing orders, instructing Lily to call the authorities then directing Jet to contact the embassy, all while undoing her seatbelt. “I think we were rammed intentionally. I’m going outside to take a look. Everyone else stays here, and lock the door after I’m gone. Vykor, if anything happens, can you transform and get the others out of here?”
Vykor didn’t get a chance to answer before the driver’s partition lowered behind Megan.
“Kyle, you okay up there?” Jet called to the driver.
“Did the other vehicle drive off?” Megan asked.
A man’s hand appeared in the gap above the partition. He shoved something through and then the partition closed again. Before any of them could react, a series of heavy clicks sounded. She knew the sound. Someone had activated the door locks. They were trapped.
Jet was still unbuckling his seatbelt when Megan grabbed the canister that had been dropped into their section. It started to hiss and vapour spilled out of one end.
Gas. The word flashed through her mind even as she pulled loose one end of her scarf and used it to cover her face.
“Everyone cover your mouth and nose,” Megan instructed, her voice confident and full of command despite the insanity of the situation. Everyone around her was trying the doors, but the gas was rapidly filling the vehicle and it was getting hard to see.
Megan pivoted in her seat and started kicking at the window, but Hanna knew it wasn’t going to work. The vehicle was armoured, the windows designed to withstand gunfire. She knew, because Jet had told her about it to reassure her that they were taking her safety seriously.
Apparently, they’d missed something. The thought humoured her, and dark, desperate laughter bubbled up inside her. She clamped her lips tight and tried to think of something she could do, but it was getting difficult to think at all. Her eyes watered, her lungs burned, and her vision was going dark.
She wanted to scream. To fight. To do something, but her limbs were too heavy, and her eyes were closed tight against the stinging, suffocating gas. She sagged, leaning into Vykor, but it was Jet’s voice she heard. “No matter what happens, I will protect you.”
Then the darkness rose around her, and she couldn’t hear anything anymore.
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