Aria never stood a chance. Hell, she didn’t even see it coming. The first she knew of the attack was when the gooey gob of applesauce landed on her cheek. “Melody, no! We don’t throw food at mommy.”
Her baby responded with giggles and a sticky-faced smile.
“It’s amazing. She can’t navigate the distance from the bowl to her mouth without dropping half her meal, but she somehow managed to hit you square in the face from halfway across the room.” Haley’s expression was a mix of amusement and horror. It was a common expression for the always-polished journalist when she was around Melody. Haley adored the little girl, but nothing in her world had prepared her for the chaos and mess that came with having a baby around.
“She’s very talented.” Aria Frasier managed to wipe off most of the applesauce from her cheek with a few swipes of the cloth she’d planned to use to clean Melody with once she was finished her meal. She tossed it across the room, banking it off a cabinet door and into a basket she kept in a relatively uncluttered corner, where it joined the rest of her ever-growing stack of baby-related laundry.
“More proof that she takes after her mommy and not her jackass of a father.” Haley filled both their wine glasses before adding, “And I know I’m not supposed to badmouth Danny in front of the sprout. I had a spectacularly bad week and my filters are all broken. Sorry.”
“You’re forgiven. I know it’s been a bad week if you come straight here instead of heading home to change first.”
“On a scale of one-to-ten, this week was a negative forty.”
“Do you want to talk about what happened?” Aria asked.
Haley shook her head hard enough her perfect auburn curls bounced. “It’s nothing new. Dad is still pushing me to prove myself, whatever the hell that means, and Mom is determined to find me a new husband. When I try and tell her I’m not ready, she gives me this confused look, like I’m not speaking English, and goes right back to reciting the income and suitability of the men she’s found for me.”
“I’m sorry. Some people refuse to accept that grief doesn’t have a timetable. And your father…” she sighed. “I’ve got a degree in psychology and I still can’t figure out what he wants from you.”
Haley laughed. “It’s nice to know I’m not the only one. Honestly, I don’t think Dad knows what he wants from me, either. He’s still angry I married Jeff, but now I’m a widow and he doesn’t know how to punish me for my choice without being a monster.”
“He’s still being a jerk,” Aria muttered as she cleared away the remains of Melody’s meal and set some of her toys on the tray to keep her busy.
“Is that your professional opinion?” Haley teased.
“Nope. My professional opinion would use multisyllabic words and come with a bill. This is just me, talking as your friend. And your friend thinks he’s being an A-S-S-H-O-L-E.”
Haley snorted. “How long before your sprout learns to spell and that tactic doesn’t work anymore?”
“Not long enough. She’s starting to mimic what she hears, too, and Piper has even fewer filters than you do. With my luck, my little girl will be swearing like a trucker by the time she gets to pre-school.” The mere thought of Melody heading to pre-school was enough to have Aria taking several drinks from her glass.
“You okay?” Haley asked.
“Yeah. I’m just not ready to think about Melody in school. I still feel like I only brought her home from the hospital yesterday.”
“Time passes, whether we want it to or not.” There was a rare note of sadness in Haley’s voice. She had built up thick emotional walls since losing her husband, and it wasn’t often she let anyone see past the carefully crafted veneer of a polished and professional career woman.
“Yes, it does.” Aria leaned down to press a kiss to Melody’s forehead. “I just wish I could capture these moments somehow, so I could visit them later, you know?”
Haley set her elbows on the battered kitchen table and nodded. “But as my wise and all- knowing therapist would say, the past is a tempting trap. The longer you linger in memories, the harder it is to come back.”
Aria wrinkled her nose and recklessly drained her glass. “Please tell me I didn’t actually say that.”
“I might have adlibbed a little.”
Aria reached for the wine bottle. “Thank god. That sounded like it came out of a fortune cookie.”
She barely got a splash of wine into the bottom of her glass before the kitchen door was flung open and Piper exploded into the room. “Email!”
“Manners!” Aria shot back.
Piper rolled her eyes and stuck her tongue out, revealing the piercing Aria had forbidden her to get back when she was a teenager. She came to a skidding halt by Melody, gave the baby a loud kiss on the cheek, and dropped into the nearest chair.
“This is important. Did you read your email lately, or have you been too busy drinking all the wine before I got here?”
“I haven’t checked it lately. Unlike you, I’m capable of putting my phone down for—”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m an addict. I need to look up and see the world sometimes. I know the speech by heart. This is important, though! Check it out, I got an invite to the Star-Crossed Dating Agency gathering at the end of next month.” She tucked a lock of blue hair behind her ear, unlocked her phone, and then waved it around too fast for anyone to be able to read what was on the screen.
“The alien dating agency? You signed up for that?” Haley gawked at Piper.
“Well, at the time it was just another online dating site. Remember, sis? We signed up together.”
Aria remembered. It was only a week after she had discovered Danny was cheating on her. Piper had suggested they both sign up for the new online dating site, and Aria had consumed just enough wine and ice cream to think it was a good idea. “Wait a second. They sent me a refund and told me there was no match for me in their database. You got one, too. So how come you’re getting an invite?”
“Who cares? I get to go see the alien hotties, and I bet you’ve got an invite, too.” Piper bounded out of her chair again, snagged the wine bottle in one hand and went in search of a clean glass. “You look, while I pour.”
It took a few minutes to track down her phone, and another minute or so to skim through her emails, looking for something from Star-Crossed. “I don’t have an email from them.”
“You sure?” Piper leaned over her shoulder and peered at her phone. “That’s your work email, goofball. Where’s the personal account I set up for you just for online dating and stuff?”
“I forgot it existed.” She handed the phone to Piper. “How do I access that other account?”
Piper tapped the screen a few times. “You managed to unlink your accounts. Here, I …holy shit!”
“Bit!” Melody repeated with a happy chortle.
Haley burst out laughing. “You’re screwed, Ri.”
“More than she knows.” Piper handed over her phone.
“If this is bad news, I don’t want to know.”
“It’s not bad. I think it’s amazing. You…may not feel the same way.”
Aria started reading. It wasn’t an invitation to the gathering being held in Vancouver. It was… “Oh my god.”
“What?!” Haley demanded.
“I have a match. A potential dating match. With one of them. The aliens.” She was still reading and re-reading the opening lines of the email in disbelief.
“No way!” Haley got to her feet and hurried over to read over her shoulder. “Welcome to the most stellar dating experience of your life. Really? That’s their sales pitch?”
“They don’t need a sales pitch. These guys are all gorgeous. And they mate for life! No cheating.” Piper picked Melody up out of the highchair and danced around the room with her. “You’re going to have a daddy from outer space, baby girl!”
“Not likely. I signed up for this before I knew I was pregnant. No man wants to be stuck raising another man’s baby.” Aria pointed to the phone. “Besides, this email was sent a month ago. He’ll have moved on by now.”
“Don’t you dare talk yourself out of this,” Haley said.
“But he’s an alien! What kind of father could he be?”
“You should at least look before you reject him. You have to be open to change, remember, oh wise one?”
Aria groaned. “You’re using my own advice against me?”
“Damn right. Now click the link.”
Piper started chanting. “Click the link. Click the link!”
“I haven’t even read the whole email, yet.” Flustered, she tried to scroll down to keep reading, but her fingers, still sticky with applesauce residue, stuck to the screen and left a smear across the glass. “Dammit.” She tried again, but instead of scrolling down, a new screen opened, displaying a photo of a man too hot to be real. He had to be photoshopped.
He looked like he was wearing a uniform of some kind, the black fabric cut in crisp, sharp lines that only enhanced his hard, lean body. He had short brown hair and dark, serious eyes, but his smile was earnest, almost boyish.
“Oh, wow,” Haley murmured. “Is that your match?”
“Uh. I think so.”
She tried to scroll down to his details, but her finger got stuck again. Right over the button that read “Accept Match.”
A digitized burst of fireworks exploded across her screen, and the word “Congratulations” flashed several times. It was replaced by a scrolling bit of text in bright red. “Welcome to Star-Crossed dating service. Your mating adventure starts today!”
“Shit! No, no, no. Where’s the undo button?”
‘What did you do?” Piper asked.
“Shbit!” Melody babbled, caught up in everyone’s excitement.
“My fat finger hit the accept button! Dammit, how do I take it back?”
“Let me see.” Piper handed Aria her daughter and then took the phone from her.
“First of all, let me say that as accidental mates go, you won the lottery. He’s gorgeous!”
“Not helping, Pi. Just fix it. Please.” She hugged Melody tight.
“I don’t think I can. There’s no undo option.”
Haley straightened. “That can’t be right. They can’t make Aria marry some random alien just because she clicked a link. That’s entrapment.”
Aria recognized the shift in her friend’s tone. Haley smelled a story. “No one is going to make me marry anyone. From what I’ve read, these aliens—”
“Pyrosians,” Piper corrected, looking up from the screen for a moment.
“These Pyrosians are decent enough. They’ll understand there’s been a mistake.”
“I’m not sure it’s going to be that simple. I read the information, and there’s no way to contact your match until he arrives here on Earth. Something about Earth lacking the technology to communicate over the distance required.” Piper handed the phone back to Aria. “On the plus side, this means you’ll be coming to the Gathering with me. You can explain it to them, or to him. His name is Tarjen, by the way. Maybe if you meet him…”
Aria scoffed and poked at her squishy stomach. “What? That handsome hunk of alien male is going to take one look at me in all my pudgy splendor and decide he can’t live without me?”
“If he’s got eyes in his head, then yes, he will. You’re beautiful, inside and out. I wish you could see that.” Piper poured them all more wine.
“I’m just being realistic. There’s no point in getting myself worked up over something that is never going to happen. We’ll go to this Gathering, I’ll explain, and then we’ll come home.”
Haley cleared her throat. “Does that invitation say anything about bringing a guest?”
“Looking to score a husband that would send your parents into orbit?” Piper asked. “I think I can bring a guest, yeah.”
“I’m looking for a story that will finally impress my father, and I think I’ve found it,” Haley declared.
Aria sighed and kissed Melody’s forehead. “Want to go meet some aliens, baby girl?”
Melody cooed and bopped the phone with one pudgy fist.
“Don’t you start. You’re too young to date.”
The door to the crown prince’s office slid open and Tarjen snapped to attention, assuming that Crown Prince Joran and his princess were on their way to their next engagement. Instead, he was summoned inside.
“Senior Guardsman Tarjen Rix, I need a word with you. Now,” The prince’s normally mellow voice was unusually sharp.
He nodded to the guard standing next to him, pivoted sharply on one heel, and entered the office. He had no idea what Joran wanted of him, but judging by his tone, it was important. He saluted the prince and princess, right arm across his chest, palm over his heart, then came to attention. “Yes, Highness?”
The door closed, and the moment they were alone, the atmosphere changed. Joran rose from behind his desk of smoked glass and polished metal, his serious expression morphing into a broad grin.
Maggie uttered a joyful laugh. She was already standing, one hand resting on the curve of her pregnant stomach. “Breathe, Tarjen. It’s good news!”
“I don’t understand. I’m not expecting any news.” He looked at the two of them in confusion. Beyond them, the window displayed a breathtaking view of the palace grounds and city that lay beyond it.
“Can I tell him?” Maggie asked.
“Of course, seska.” The prince smiled and nodded to his human mate. Tarjen envied them their closeness but having been there at the beginning of their relationship, he knew it had taken work to get to here.
“Star-Crossed has located a match for you on Earth!” Maggie was almost vibrating with excitement as she shared the news.
Tarjen’s heart skipped a beat. “What?” He couldn’t speak more than a single syllable, but inside his head, his thoughts were whizzing around like a meteor swarm. The Gods had granted him a mate! Flames and fury, it didn’t seem possible.
“You have a potential mate waiting for you on Earth. Her acceptance of the match only came through this morning. Her name is Aria. She’s even from Vancouver, the same city where Joran found me. I’ll send you her file as soon as you’re off duty.”
He blew out a breath and looked from Maggie to Joran. “A human female? For me?” He was still struggling to believe it. He had come to accept that he would never experience the joy of the mating bond. Female births had diminished to the point that the Pyrosian species was at risk of extinction. Even after the discovery of potential mates on the distant planet Earth, he hadn’t expected to claim a mate. Only the prince and a handful of young males from rich, powerful families had been permitted on that first desperate journey.
Joran came over to stand in front of him, all decorum forgotten as he slapped Tarjen on the shoulder as if they were both fellow soldiers again. “Congratulations, my friend. I hope you are as happy as I am with my Earth-born mate.”
Maggie laughed. “And I hope you have a better first meeting than when Joran met me.”
“I’m not likely to ditch my guards and run off to meet my match before I was supposed to. When I make a plan, I do not deviate from it.” He gave his friend a playful smile. “Unlike a certain prince we both know.”
“It worked out in the end,” Joran protested.
“Only because I am a patient, forgiving woman.” Maggie joined them, slipping her arm around her mate and leaning into his side.
“I would ask a favour of you, if I might, Princess?” Tarjen asked.
“Please tell me you’re going to ask me for dating advice. I would love to help you woo your match!”
Her response didn’t surprise Tarjen. Maggie had a kind and generous spirit that had won over even the most doubting minds among his race. “I would appreciate any help you could give me. I intend to broom this female off her feet and give her every reason to accept our bonding.”
“You mean you’re going to sweep her off her feet,” Maggie corrected. “My first bit of advice is to refresh your English language skills with more cognitive augmentation, especially the idioms and slang terms. We’ve prepared new programs for all the males heading to Earth to meet their matches. This time, everyone will be better prepared, and the females will know better what they’ve signed up for.” She frowned slightly. “But they won’t know everything.”
Joran hugged his mate. “You know why it has to be this way.”
“I do. That doesn’t mean I agree with it. You’ll still have some explaining to do, Tarjen. Be gentle with her.”
He nodded, already starting to make plans. There was so much to prepare for, and not much time to get it all done. “I’ll do that tonight, once I am off-duty. In fact, I will make a list of everything that I need to do before we depart.”
“I’ll have someone over at Star-Crossed send you an information package. It should help,” Maggie offered.
Tarjen saluted again, his chest swelling with unexpected emotions. He was going to be a mated male! “Thank you, highnesses. You have no idea what this means to me.”
“I think I do, my friend.” Joran squeezed his shoulder again before stepping away.
Tarjen glanced at Maggie, who was smiling at Joran like he was the center of the galaxy. One day soon, he would have a female who looked at him that way. “Thank you. It’s thanks to you and your friends that males like me are now permitted to seek matches with the females of your planet. To be one of the males matched…It is an honour and a gift without price.” He bowed his head. “I will be forever in your debt, Your Highness.”
Maggie’s expression softened. “If you want to impress Aria, all you have to do is say things like that.”
“I can do that.” He’d do whatever it took. Tonight, he would memorize her file to learn everything he could about her. Her likes and dislikes, her favourite foods, her hobbies. Then, he’d formulate a plan. She may be his destined mate, but Tarjen intended to give Aria every reason to choose him willingly. He’d seen firsthand what happened when human females were denied a choice, and he had no intention of repeating the mistakes of the last mission. This time would be different.
The rest of the story will be released on Sept 27th, 2019, but you can pre-order it today and have it appear on your e-reader on release day.