"You look like you could use a swig or ten of something strong," I say to my friend Tazhio as we step onto the crowded observation deck.
This is the first night of the Intergalactic Dating Agency’s inaugural cruise with human passengers, and the effervescent sensation of hundreds of emotions prickle against my empathic senses. The nebula shining through the dome overhead bathes everyone in an aurora of pastel colors, and a small band plays an upbeat Fogarian waltz while people on the dance floor spin and sway.
Tazhio has the worried look of an old man who's lost his way. He snags two glasses of Lensoran bubbly from a passing tray. "Got it covered."
He didn’t want to be here tonight, but he’s a good friend and agreed to be my wingman, a human term for one male who supports another during courting. Like me, he’s Kirenai, but he’s in his Hypawan form, which looks mostly human except for overly large eyes and very thick hair. As part of the crew, he wears a white uniform that stands out amidst the mostly black clothing worn by everyone else.
I smile, take a glass for myself, then turn my attention back to the humans. My human-style finery—a “tux”, the tailor called it—fits my current human form perfectly; broad shoulders, tall straight spine, muscular legs ending on flat feet. The Intergalactic Dating Agency assured us this template is the most pleasing to human females. It took many cycles after Nanaia’s passing, but I’ve retrained my matrix to assume the shapes of other species, and can modify my features to please whichever woman I might find pleasure with this evening.
Many of the females stand in small clusters surrounded by male suitors from every race across the galaxy. The females have so many lovely shades of skin; deep brown, golden, and some who are as pale as starlight. The women all wear different fashions, from gauzy to svelte, though most seem to favor the color black, and the smells of so many perfumes are almost overwhelming.
A light-skinned female strides past me in a knee-length black dress with a cutout back panel that exposes the ridge of her spine. A unique hair clip with a spray of gems that look like stars holds her dark brown hair away from her face. I gaze after her appreciatively until a Kirenai following close on her heels with an enormous case in his arms glares at me, his aura radiating menace.
I understand immediately. It was that way with Nanaia when we met, an all-consuming desire that couldn’t be ignored. The devastating accident that took her from me sent me into a depression that ruled my life for many cycles.
I jerk my attention away from that particular female—I won’t interfere with someone finding a mate. I'm not here to replace Nanaia—that would be impossible. Kirenai mate for life, and finding my true mate had been a one-in-a-million chance, anyway. But my body still has needs, and I can afford to treat any female who wishes to be with me like a princess.
My attention stops on a pretty brunette talking to several other women. Her hair is piled on top of her head, cascading down in a mass of curls. Her lips have been painted with a glistening red substance that reminds me of fruit. A slit in her long black dress exposes a length of golden thigh I’d love to explore further.
I step forward, running my gaze up and down her curves. "Hello, ma’am."
The woman turns to me with an assessing glance, eyes narrowed. “Ma’am? Do I look like a ma’am?”
The IDA told us we should use the term in polite human conversation. Apparently, they were wrong. “My apologies. I was informed the title was honorific. What shall I call you?”
"I'm Amanda, and this is Genevieve and Flora." She gestures toward a tall blonde and a petite brunette. They nod in greeting.
"I'm Kiozhi.” I take her hand, turning her palm up to brush a kiss across her skin. My Iki’i senses the giddy thrill racing through her at my touch, yet she firmly pulls her hand free of my grip. I don’t allow this to stop me—this is most likely why the literature about humans suggests bringing a wingman while courting. “This is my friend, Tazhio. As you can see, he's Kirenai too."
Tazhio is looking out at the crowd, not paying attention to the women at all. I elbow him and he jerks his gaze back to Amanda. "Oh, yes, greetings."
The women all giggle and nod appreciatively at him. I frown. The guidebook said nothing about the wingman competing for female attention. Perhaps I shouldn't have brought him after all.
"So," the other brunette drawls, “what are you two looking for in a woman?”
I seize the opportunity to remove Tazhio from consideration. "Tazhio's not allowed to date the passengers. But I would be happy to explore a night of pleasure with you."
She places a finger against her chin thoughtfully and looks me up and down again. "Oh, I bet you would," she says, her voice heavy with sarcasm. "But we're here looking for relationships, not one-night stands."
I blink, not fully understanding her terminology. She seems to interpret my confusion as confirmation of her judgement and turns away. Kuzara. Finding companionship among these humans isn't going to be as quick and easy as I imagined.
I turn to complain to Tazhio but find he’s abandoned me, disappeared somewhere into the crowd. I sigh. So much for my wingman.
On the dance floor, several beautiful women are moving to the music, laughing, flirting with their partners. I move forward to watch. Each female is divine in her own way, though I can’t help comparing each one to my Nanaia and have to determinedly redirect my thoughts. I divert myself by imagining what it might be like to entwine myself with one of these females, to feel her body pressed against mine, our tongues dancing together in passion. Though my mate is gone, my sex drive is not, and providing pleasure gives me joy and helps keep my lingering depression at bay.
A laugh catches my attention. It reminds me of a clear waterfall chiming against the crystal cliffs on my home planet of Alkavar III. Who is that? A longing rises through me. I want to be the one making her laugh.
Intrigued, I follow the sound and discover a female with ivory skin and the most delightful shade of hair I've ever encountered—a light red-gold that reminds me of a sunset. She's twirling across the dance floor in the arms of a Kirenai my Iki’idoesn’t recognize. Her short black dress is covered in small scales that catch the light with pearly iridescence. The glimmer accentuates her curves in a way that makes my heart pound faster.
She spins past me, brilliant green eyes connecting with mine for an instant. My mating shaft stirs, a long-forgotten ache flaring low in my belly. I stumble back in confusion. I haven't felt this sensation since Nanaia died.
The female tosses her hair and looks away, an amused grin on her face as the other male guides her across the dance floor. Normally, I'd approach her without hesitation, but I need to understand what's happening first. This sensation can’t be normal.
I push through the crowd to keep up with her, trying to remain a mere a shadow in the distance. My breathing quickens as I watch her hips sway. I feel like a youth again, eager and impulsive. She's mine, I know it. I must win her away from this other male.
Chapter 2 - Suzanne
I tip my head back and laugh as I spin across the dance floor in the arms of yet another tall blue alien. So far, I’ve danced with at least six Kirenai, a short, hairy alien called a Fogarian, and a tall, stone-like beast of a man with wings and horns. After seventeen years trapped in a co-dependent marriage, I’m finally free, and I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t dance with the same guy twice—though telling the uniformly good-looking blue aliens apart might be a challenge. I haven’t had this much fun since before I got knocked up in high school, and now that the kids are grown and gone, I’m determined to make the most of this two-week singles’ cruise through space.
The song ends, and I snag a glass of whatever this stuff is that passes for alien champagne from a passing server’s tray. I pull my arm free of my dance partner’s. “Thank you for the dance. I need to catch my breath.”
He opens his mouth to respond, but I duck behind a couple doing a flailing approximation of swing dancing and move away. The room is filled with all sorts of aliens, from handsome blue Kirenai with action figure bodies to short, frail-looking Area 51 beings with gray-green skin and huge dark eyes.
Overhead, multicolored ribbons of light speckled with thousands of glittering stars illuminate the domed ceiling. Sipping the bubbly, fruity drink and smiling at every hot alien who glances my direction, I move back toward where I left my sisters at the edge of the dance floor. I feel self-conscious in my silky black cocktail dress with iridescent sequins but force myself to have positive thoughts about being sexy and keep my chin high.
All around me is laughter and talking in a hundred different languages. I’m still wrapping my head around the fact I can understand them all—alien and human alike—thanks to a translator implant I get to keep when the trip is over. Maybe I can use it to land a job as a corporate translator when I get back to Earth. Wouldn’t that be something?
I pass by a hulking gray dude with wings, horns, and a tail who gives me a once-over before breaking into a sharp-toothed grin. His bod is rock-solid, though his features are a bit too chiseled for my taste, and he carries himself like a conceited asshole. It’s that last part that I turn away from. I’ve had enough of men who think they’re God’s gift to women—my husband used me to get through med school, then divorced me for a hot young blonde he was having an affair with.
I dodge another alien who’s looking at me with a proprietary gaze and search for my sisters. I want to see if they’re having fun too. Lifting my chin, I locate Jennifer fiddling with her telescope at one edge of the observation deck. She’s insisting on using this trip to gather astronomy data for her doctoral thesis and is somehow successfully ignoring the constant stream of alien men asking her to dance. It probably helps that the tall, bald Kirenai who’s been hauling her equipment around glares daggers at anyone who comes near.
I’d prefer not to be dragged into one of my brainy sister’s dissertations about random star systems, so I keep looking. I spot Tamara’s copper curls among the crowd. She’s heading to the dance floor with an alien who looks like a dwarf who’s been dipped in red paint. Good for her. She’s usually so shy, I’m glad to see she’s having fun.
That only leaves our baby sister, Bethany. I know just where to look for her—near the kitchen, stalking an alien chef she wants to host on her cooking show. Spotting her next to the service doors where tables are laden with appetizer trays, I swoop over and take her hand. “God, I’m having such a good time. Take a break and dance with me.”
"Stop, Suzanne." She yanks her hand away, planting it back on the hip of her deep wine-colored cocktail dress. “There’s a Nebula Chef on board, and I’m waiting to speak with him. I wish they’d just let me go talk to him in the kitchen.”
I sigh. Just like Jennifer, Bethany has a one-track mind when it comes to her career. I examine the alien appetizers on a nearby table and pick up something that looks exactly like a small red penis. "Maybe they’re not letting you in the kitchen because they don't want you to find out their alien dicks aren't fresh." I waggle my eyebrows suggestively.
One of the small Area 51-looking servers stumbles slightly, obviously overhearing me. I flash him a naughty grin, sure his cheeks turn pink underneath all that gray skin before he turns and scurries away.
“Quit joking around. This is serious.” Bethany scowls, snatching the food out of my hand and taking an aggressive bite. She waves the other half in my face. “You’re the only one who insisted this trip was all about meeting hot aliens. Dance with one of them." She gestures toward a nearby Kirenai.
Most of the blue aliens look similar, but there’s something about this one that makes my engine rev. Perhaps it’s the magnetism of his midnight dark eyes. I’m not sure if I’ve danced with him before, but he’s hot enough I might consider a second turn around the dance floor, promise to myself be damned.
He moves forward and holds out a hand. “I noticed you from across the room.” His rumbling voice cuts below the music. Ok, I know I haven’t danced with him because I would’ve remembered that voice. “My name’s Kiozhi. Would you care to dance?"
“Sure.” I shrug, trying not to appear eager as I start past him toward the dance floor.
He stops me with an arm around my waist. Pulling me closer, he starts to sway to the music. Maybe it’s the slightly crooked way he smiles, or the subtle, almost chocolatey scent of his cologne, but I find myself looping my arms around his neck. "Something wrong with the dance floor?"
Guiding me in time to the music, he leans close to my ear. "There are too many people there. I want you all to myself."
Oh, boy. That deep voice really makes my girly parts flutter. The TV shows on Earth make Kirenai out to be mind-bogglingly awesome lovers, which I always assumed must be fiction. Now’s my chance to find out for real.
I’ve never had a one-night stand, but I’m starting to think tonight is the night. It’s a big step for me. You are allowed to have fun. I repeat the self-talk my therapist encouraged me to use.
Tilting my head back, I meet his gaze. “That’s hard to do in a room full of people.”
He pulls me tighter against him. Heat pools between my legs as I feel the throbbing length now trapped between our bodies. “Yes, very hard.”
I don’t even recall his name, but I don’t care. I close the distance between our lips. His arms fold around me like a cloak as his kiss ravages my mouth. His fingers toy with the hair at the base of my neck, sending shivers down my spine. I wrap both arms around his ribs and let my hands play up and down the broad muscles of his back. Our tongues tangle until I’ve lost all sense of space and time.
I’m panting with desire and my nipples ache inside my dress by the time he pauses. I want him to touch me all over, skin to skin. Voice raspy with need, I ask, “Should we take this back to your room or mine?”