From the author: Captain Levine set out across the galaxy to deliver cargo to her new fiancé. Instead she finds herself a prisoner of a fiendish Prince of the Jahuul Empire. He decides to make Levine one of his dancing girls. Levine strikes a deal: she’ll find him his one true match in three days or he can keep her forever.
I never planned on becoming a blockade runner. It's safe to say the only way you could get me to run is if one of my sisters chased me with pair of scissors and a flat iron. Now Elias—that would be my husband, of blessed memory—for him, I would have run if he asked. He liked a good chase, my Elias. He thought he could escape me, dodging and weaving his tuchas all over the Kuiper belt before I caught him. He laughed about it afterward, during our honeymoon on Europa, but what should I care if he led me on a merry chase? I had him for ten years—then I lost him. All because some no goodnik had to fly under the influence and...
I can't think of this now or I'll become verklempt. At the moment I have to deal with the Jahuul Empire guards who've arrested me. They even had the nerve to use handcuffs. I'd read a couple of reports of them harassing colonies in the Triangulum Galaxy, but installing a blockade at a jump gate? What chutzpah!
My guards marched me out of the landing bay like any other bipedal species, but I learned long ago you can't make assumptions about what you see. They might resemble most humanoids, maybe even reproduce like us, but who knows? Maybe they lay eggs? Like fish. They certainly have the blue skin and gills of a nice, fat tuna. Of course if there were ever a person who could find out, it would be me. Elias always said he'd never met a klaperkeh like me. I say, he's never tried to have a conversation with any of my five sisters—or my mother and trust you me, there's a reason why I go home only for the High Holidays.
So the Jahuuls put their fancy-schmancy handcuffs on me and haul me out of my ship. Next thing I know I'm marched into a—oy vey—throne room? What else would you call an oval chamber with a dais and a chair on top dripping in jewels and satin? Actually the whole place looks like a fish bowl, with the mood lighting set into wall sconces and silk drapes pouring from the ceiling, all blues and greens. Maybe the Jahuuls could only see blue and green, but for me, I prefer more snap and dash to my decorating. Even my wedding dress had a touch of gold.
The grand chief poohbah of this operation lounged on the chair, but he doesn't look like any of the guards who still had a firm grip on my arms, the schmucks! The guards have faces like mashed gefilte fish, all porous with ears sticking straight out of their skulls and bigger than the meat platter my great-great aunt Fagel gave me as a wedding present. It's the ugliest piece of china ever produced, but who was I to complain? It's not like I had a lot of time to cook while Elias and I built our cargo delivery service—Levine Trans-Galactic Deliveries, I mean. Catchy name, huh? Thought of it myself.
Now the grand poohbah, he has a shana punim, nice and smooth with sharp cheekbones, pointed chin, framed with long white hair and a deep widow’s peak. His eyes caught my attention, though. You couldn't really see the details in the guards' eyes because of all the lumpy skin, but this guy had the amber irises of a leopard. In his left hand he held a chalice, huge and encrusted with colorful gems. He took a gulp of whatever was in the cup as he watched his guards drag me to the bottom of the dais.
This trip is supposed to be my last delivery for LTGD and I have a deadline. You see, at the end of this cargo run is my new fiancé, Doctor Oliver Katzen. Of course, he doesn't know he's going to be my husband yet. All he knows is that he negotiated a contract for me to deliver some zygotes destined to populate his Avalonia Wildlife Preserve, far away from the planetary politics that endangered them. And what negotiations those were. Even across galaxies, that man's baritone voice reminded me I was widowed, not dead. The rest of him was sculpted from a lifetime of wrestling with the animals he fought to preserve.
Won't he be surprised when he gets his cargo and me as a bonus? Anyway, after three months in transit, I'm not about to let a little blockade get in my way. So, first rule of getting myself and my cargo delivered on time is to get in the first word.
"Boychick," I called up the tall dais. "What good is sitting all alone on your throne?"
I hadn't been sure if the trans-species translator I carried on me had been updated to include Jahuulese, but the grand poohbah slammed down his cup and glared. Ach, he understood all right.
"My name is Prince..." then he said a name that sounded like he'd horked up a piece of last night's meatloaf. No worries. I had another perfectly pronounceable name in reserve for situations like this.
"Right, Chaimyankle. Gotcha. Listen, I'm in a rush. I need to get my cargo to its destination before it degrades. Understand?"
He frowned again. "I've claimed these jump gates in the name of the Jahuul Empire and as you can see, I'm not alone on this throne."
He gestured toward a transparent curtain off to his right, one I hadn't noticed because the curtain itself had the same blue-green hue of the rest of the room. The light behind the curtain brightened and I could see the shadow of several women—trust me, even from their profiles I could tell these were women—who swayed their hips and arms in time to quiet music, like the sound of the surf mixed with low chimes and the occasional rumble of a bass. "You'll be joining them shortly."
Not in this lifetime. I had plans and they didn't include the hora. "Dancing girls? Are you serious? Your mama would be ashamed."
Bingo! I hit the right nerve. He had the same look every boy, regardless of species, got when their mamas caught them with their fingers in the rugelach jar.
To give him credit, he recovered fast. "My mother happens to be Queen..." yet another horked up word. "In her name, I claim this region and these jump gates."
Feh! Details, schmetails, I had this guy pegged. "I figured that out," I said, while I yanked my arms out of the guards' grip. "Now, let's negotiate my release." I made the mistake of putting my right foot on the lower step of the dais. The guards yanked me back. I stumbled into the rear guard. "Your mama sent you to collect tolls at the smallest, least-used jump gate leading to the most under-populated region of space? Honey, what did you do to piss her off?"
Prince Chaimyankle's skin turned a darker shade of blue. "How dare you imply—"
"I'm not implying. This isn't the assignment one gives to a prince who has proven himself in battle. This is punishment for failing—" Ooops, I took another step forward in my excitement. This time a different guard, with more leather and less armor, but with the same smooth features as Chaimyankle, stepped from the shadows of the stairway to stop me. This one didn't waste time with restraints. He had a short-tailed quirt he flicked with the intention of slapping it across my face.
"Hold!" the prince called to the new guard, using another horked up name I'd have to substitute. "I don't want her marked. Bring her to me."
Elias would have been proud of the way I held my tongue as the more impressive guard, Shmendrik I mean, dragged me up the steps to stand in front of Prince Chaimyankle, close enough to talk, but not so close that I could clobber him. And trust you me, I wanted to clobber him. Thankfully, marriage taught me the art of patience, not that I employ it often, but it does come in handy when dealing with spoiled-out-of-the-Earth-realm princes.
So I waited for the prince to give me the elevator-eyes. I get that a lot too. Except he didn't. He kept his eyes on Shmendrik, not me. I figured his lack of interest had to do with the company uniform I helped design. It expressed professionalism with a flair for fashion, but none of that cleavage business. Also, no dull browns or grays for Elias or me. The burnt orange pants with gold trimmed white jacket over a black form-fitted shirt, which complemented our shooting star logo. Though judging from the Jahuul uniforms, Chaimyankle wouldn't know fashion if it gave him an industrial-strength wedgie. Black leather in outer space? Never a good idea.
In the meantime, I tried to get a better glimpse of the dancing girls behind the curtain. The closest one had the magenta skin of the Devyat people and the one behind her had four arms of the Tadayma. I couldn't see the four or five others behind them before Shmendrik stepped into my line of sight, still glaring. What's this guy's problem?
"At least this one has a sturdy frame." Chaimyankle finally looked at me instead of his guard. He leaned forward and poked me in the stomach. "She won't break any bones the first time I bed her."
"Excellent observation, my lord," Shmendrik replied with a short bow, but kept his gaze on Chaimyankle.
Sturdy frame? Ooooooh, Chaimyankle was asking for it. "Now see here, there will be no bedding and no breaking of bones."
"...and she has spirit too."
"As you say, my lord."
Enough. I had heard enough. "Not another word out of your mouth, boychick. To think you kiss your mama with those lips."
"You will leave my mother out of this."
"Clearly, I need to bring your mama into this. You shame her with your behavior. Dancing girls, collecting tolls. Boychick, you need to be matched."
Ach, the translator failed again. The prince's eyes roamed to the light sconces set in the walls. Only then did I notice blue flames, not bulbs, fueled the lights. "No, Chaimyankle, I mean a match. A mate. Your one true love. You need a wife to keep you busy. Lucky for you, I come from a long line of shadchens." Another failure of the translator which hadn't been programmed with Yiddish either. "Matchmakers."
I'll admit, I expected another round of laughter. I'd have laughed myself since the only successful match I had ever made was for myself. Instead, Chaimyankle's eyes narrowed, giving him the cunning gaze of a predator. So, there was more to this prince than a sulky, spoiled, young Jahuul.
"So you think you can find me a mate? Here in the most under-populated region of space?"
Oooops, he used my own words against me. I'll give him one point but no more. "I know I can."
"Assuming you are successful, what would you expect in return?"
The first lesson Elias taught me, outside of the bedroom I mean, was to always do your research before you sign a contract. History told me what fate lay ahead for captives of empires.
"My freedom and the dancing girls."
A small sneer crossed his lips. "What if one of those dancing girls is my perfect mate?"
I bit my tongue before I could tell him what dancing girls think of lechers. Instead, I said, "I won't know until I talk to them."
Chaimyankle reclined on the throne. "Fine. You have three days." He horked up another word, which I gathered was Shmendrik's real name. "See to it, Captain..."
"Levine," I supplied.
"Levine," he said, "has what she needs to find my mate in three days."
"I'll need more time." Hey, it never hurts to bargain.
"Three days," he repeated. "Then there will be bedding and broken bones."
Swell. At least I had one ace up my sleeve. "First, I'll need a genetic imprint from you, Chaimyankle."
"Isn't it obvious? Aside from personality profiles, I need to make sure you're healthy and genetically compatible with your mate. As my husband used to say..."
"You have a husband?" Chaimyankle asked. Why did he sound so surprised?
"Had a husband. Who do you think taught me to remove these?" I tossed the handcuffs into his lap. "Now, if you will allow me—?"
Again with the grabbing from Shmendrik.
"Let her be," the prince said with a put-upon sigh. I get that a lot too.
As I shouldered my way passed Shmendrik, I couldn't help a quick, "Told you so." My tone was universal even if the translator didn't pick it up.
The prince narrowed his eyes as I ran my fingers through his hair. "What are you doing?"
"Just checking for the best strand. Not to worry, I won't mess your 'do too much."
He pulled his head away and yanked up a sleeve with fancy embroidery. "Not the hair. Try one of these."
I ran my hand along his arm, noting his firm muscles as the rough texture of concentric scales scraped my palm. "Are you sure? Won't it hurt?"
He saved me the trouble by rolling his arm so the underside showed. Along the softer skin, a set of fine, silkier fins protruded. From the line where the scales ended and fins began, he plucked one of each and handed them to me. "They grow back."
Fins and scales. This I could work with.
Shmendrik watched my every move with shifty eyes. Never in three years did I think I would touch my youngest sister's equipment. Of all my family, she was the only one who used genetics to make matches. The rest of us did it the old-fashioned way, but she knew I had no interest in returning to the family business once I married. When I announced I had found a match for myself and I was going to travel to another galaxy to catch him, she insisted I take the equipment just to make sure. "It couldn't hurt," she insisted.
In fact, I had offered to use the equipment on the zygotes in my cargo hold. Y'know, to make sure all of the proposed matches among the animals would work. Oliver, who should have laughed his tuchas off, instead flashed me the most adorable grin. "Sure, it couldn't hurt," he had said. I knew then I'd found my match. Now, I just had to get me and my cargo there.
"If you insist on standing over my shoulder, at least make yourself useful." I shoved equipment into Shmendrik's arms. "Have you given me your sample yet?"
"You only require samples from the prisoners."
At least he confirmed the dancing girls' status. "No way. I need to build a template of your species. It's the only way I'll find the prince's perfect match. I want samples from everyone in this fleet. No exceptions. I won't fail because you mucked up the speed dating rotation."
Shmendrik moved to grab his quirt again, but he had an armful of equipment.
"No more delays," I said. "I need to start the interviews. Take me to the dancing girls."
Ten minutes later, I sat on the edge of a plush, blue bean bag surrounded by a dozen dancing girls of a variety of species. All of them lovely, most in a way that would make an insecure human girl jealous. Luckily, insecurity was not one of my failings.
Shmendrik had left the room after making an obvious show of locking the heavy, sliding door.
"Ladies," I said while the girls stared at me, suspicious. "I've been asked by the prince to find him a mate. To be blunt, prisoners make horrible mates, but I have to make this look good."
Well, well. They had been warned. Even as I talked, the girls pulled out hair strands, or small nail clippings, or tuffs of fur (for those without hair). "Now if I do find the prince a mate, I've bargained for your release. You'll come with me to Avalonia. From there, I'll try to get you back to your home worlds."
One of the girls, the Devyati with magenta skin and the boldest personality, spoke for the others. "The Jahuuls have overthrown our home worlds. We can't go back."
This was news to me. How many worlds had fallen during my three-month journey and why hadn't Earth's governments done something about it? Did they know what the Jahuul Empire was up to? Communication between galaxies was possible, as continued conversations with my future husband had proved until I put myself in stasis, but it wasn't always reliable and horribly expensive. "Then you'll stay with me. I'm sure the Avalonians won't mind."
"The Jahuuls will eventually send their fleet to Avalonia," the Devyati girl said. "It will fall, just like our worlds."
Oh, ho. So the Jahuuls thought they could take over my new home world? "Not if I have anything to say about it. Don't worry about what hasn't happened yet. Let's focus on getting you out of here first."
I started threading the hair, fur, and clippings into my equipment. It beeped and chirped while the girls continued to talk amongst themselves.
"It's not so bad here," the Devyati said. "As long as we dance, the prince leaves us alone. And the food is plentiful."
Did I just hear her right? "The prince leaves you alone?"
The girl gestured with her right hand, a slight twist of the wrist. This read as a positive response on several worlds, the equivalent of a nod.
"He hasn't raped you?"
She twisted her wrist in the other direction. No, he hasn't.”
"And he hasn't given you over to the guards?" I had to be sure.
Another negative wrist twist. I looked at the rest of the girls. All of them gave a variation of the negative wrist twist. Well, the prince has certainly put a kink in my assessment of him. The equipment hummed and whirled while I considered the implications.
"If you had the opportunity to leave, would you?" Stockholm syndrome would put another crimp in my plans.
They all hesitated. Scared, and I didn't blame them, but the Devyati once again spoke for all. "It's not so bad here," she repeated.
"I understand, but if you stay here, there's no guarantee you'll remain unharmed. If the prince changes his mind..." I left the rest unsaid. "If I free you, you'll at least have a chance to find your families. Fight back."
A fire appeared in the Devyati's dark eyes. The idea of fighting back appealed to her.
"I need to examine these reports." I picked up the equipment. If I left them alone, they would talk amongst themselves. The Devyati might convince the others to leave. She had spirit, which is why I suspected the prince let her dance closest to him.
Outside the girls' quarters, Shmendrik pounced. "Well?"
"Well, what? I need time to analyze the results," I said, as I pulled the equipment closer to my chest. I didn't like the violence Shmendrik radiated, but since when did a little violence ever stop me from getting what I wanted? When a pirate ship tried to force Elias and me to yield so they could take over our ship and steal our cargo, well, let's just say I gave them three chances to surrender. You can't legally hold me responsible for what happened to Captain Putz when his—no, wait, I'm getting off track here.
"I also need a sample from you too." I held out my hand to Shmendrik. "Prince's orders."
Shmendrik stepped back. I didn't think it possible for his skin to turn near purple, but he managed. Yet he pulled up a sleeve and yanked one scale and fin out of his arm.
I plucked the samples from his hands with a cheery smile. Who said I didn't know how to work a client? "Thank you. Now take me someplace quiet where I can think. All of your yammering is haken mi a chainik."
The quietest place in the fleet was my own ship, so I wheedled Shmendrik until he took me there. It gave me a chance to check on my cargo and get something to eat. The food I saw in the dancing girls' quarters looked...not quite kosher.
So far, so good. No one had messed with my ship's systems, so the cargo remained safely in stasis. I couldn't rest on my laurels, though. After three months the cargo would start to degrade regardless of how well I'd frozen them. In all my years of transporting cargo, I had never left a customer unsatisfied and I wasn't about to start now on the cusp of my new life.
After I finagled a peek at my cargo, Shmendrik escorted me to my lab on deck two where he had stacks of cubes delivered. I examined one. It was labeled in what I assumed was the name of the donor in Jahuulese. Thankfully, I had plenty of experience sorting out containers of stuff in languages I didn't speak. This would not be a problem. What was a problem was figuring out the conundrum that was Chaimyankle.
The problem became apparent after I fed the prince's samples into my sister's equipment. I didn't have a template of what normal Jahuul genetics looked like so I had no comparison. Chaimyankle and Shmendrik didn't have the same features as the other Jahuulians so instead of threading the analyzer with Shmendrik's sample next, I choose one of the guards. Then a second guard, then a third. It took about forty samples before a template formed. (My sister is not known for selecting top-notch equipment. She probably found this thing in a garage sale.) Okay, now I could check out Chaimyankle.
Lo and behold what do I find? Chaimyankle is half human. I ruminated on the possibilities as I fed the machine the rest of the samples. A few oddities appeared among the fleet, but by the time I fed Shmendrik's sample into the machine I had pretty well guessed he too was half human, but with different parents than Chaimyankle.
This presented another problem, but nothing I couldn't handle. As Elias would have said, "What good is having all the answers if there are no problems to solve"?
#My insistence at seeing Chaimyankle in his private quarters pushed my welcome to its limits. Not to anyone's surprise, least of all mine, he was alone, lounging on another of those slinky, bean bag chairs. He held a harp in his arms, the staccato rhythm emphasizing his annoyance.
"You have results?" he demanded, putting the instrument aside.
"I have opinions, not results."
"Why does that not surprise me?"
I found my own chair to sit on while we chatted. "Nice harp. Spoil of war?"
I tilted my head to the side and smiled my best, "Don't bullshit me" look.
"It belonged to my father," he said.
"Who was human." May as well put my cards on the table.
He glared at me for a moment, but then turned his eyes on my equipment. He really wanted to get on with the whole "did I find him a mate" business. Eventually, I'd have to tell him the equipment had little to do with actual matchmaking. "He was a slave."
"Like the dancing girls?"
He stood up to pace. "They're more like servants."
"Is that why you haven't bedded them?"
He stopped next to mantle with several monitors set in an angle. "He would sneak into my nursery late at night. He held me. He sang to me. He would tell me stories."
Now we're getting somewhere. "What sort of stories?"
"I don't want to talk about this." He resumed pacing.
"How can I find you a match if I don't know what stories please you?"
He stopped dead in his tracks and looked at me as if I were insane. He was hardly the first person to think so.
"He was caught outside my quarters when I was fifteen. My mother had him executed. She exiled me to the military academy. I'm not allowed to return to the capital."
He turned so his back was to me.
"He obviously had an influence on you," I continued.
"Yes," the Prince said softly. "The more worlds we conquer the more I see of their music, their art, their culture...the more it reminds me of him. My mother thinks I'm weak for caring."
I got it. I saw his problem as clearly as I saw my own. "You don't want a mate. You want a rescue. I counted the samples. The fleet you command isn't big enough to defend these jump gates if someone really wanted to take them back."
He kept his back to me but bowed his head. "I volunteered for this deployment to avoid marrying a Jahuul princess from one of the inner provinces. I can only avoid my mother's directive to marry for so long. If I don't find a mate during this deployment, I'll have to marry that princess, or I believe my mother will have me executed."
I hadn't expected a full-blown confession. "It sounds like you have a decision to make."
"What decision is that?"
I stood up and approached him, risked a hand on his shoulder. "Do you want to spend the rest of your life collecting tolls at the ass-end of the universe, marry a fishy-faced wife, constantly looking over your shoulder for your executioner, or do you want to do something significant with your life?"
He pulled away. "I won't run."
"Who said anything about running? I'm talking about fighting back."
"Fight for what?" He turned to face me, his posture still with a challenge to give him a reason, an excuse.
"For people like your father," I said. "For people like those dancing girls."
He sighed. "I won't fight a battle I can't win."
He tried to turn away from me again, but I was having none of it. I grabbed him by the arm and forced him to face me. "Who said you're going to lose?"
"The Empire is too big," he sneered. "Too well equipped. The current campaign will occupy the eighth, twelfth, and sixteenth sectors of this galaxy within forty tides."
"Those are excuses." I stood toe-to-toe with him now. "You need a backbone, boychick. If you want, I'll loan you mine."
It took him a minute to figure out the translation. "You'll help? Do you have any idea of what I'll be losing? What you'll be losing?"
"I've already lost everything. That's why I'm here. I'm looking for a new beginning."
The cunning look of a prince sitting on his throne returned. "A new husband for yourself?"
"Obvious, huh?" I grinned and hooked my arm through his. "Yes, a husband for myself and a husband for you."
"A husband for...wait, what?"
Oh, the horror of it all. Maybe he didn't know, but I did. "Don't worry, Shmendrik loves you too, he just doesn't know it yet. You're going to have to convince him."
"That's not how this works."
"It's how I work, honey. Don't worry about it. I'll explain the way humans mate after we escape."
"I can't...Jahuuls don't...it's not possible."
I could see in his face the cascade of conditioning to live a life so intrinsically wrong with how he felt crumble to dust. "Why isn't it possible?"
"We'd have to escape. It's just not possible."
Ha! He was more worried about escaping than realizing that he'd fallen in love with his second-in-command. "Sit down, Chaimyankle. I have a story I want to tell you."
He did, not without another heavy sigh. This time, though, I settled myself next to him, my arm firmly tucked around his. "My story is about another boychick. His name was..."
"Is this about one of your matches?" Chaimyankle interrupted. "Is there kissing involved? I've heard about humans and kissing. I not sure it's appropriate for a Jahuulian Prince—"
I jabbed my elbow into his ribs. "No, it's not about one of my matches. And the kissing comes later. For now we'll stick to the epic battle between a kid named David and this other schmuck named Goliath...."
It's one thing to talk about a prison break, but implementing one? Oy vai is mir. As it turned out, Shmendrik already had escape in mind. From what he told me (once Chaimyankle convinced him to trust me, and oy, what a stiff-necked schlub he was about the whole thing), he too faced the queen's decree to marry a fishy-faced Jahuul. He still didn't quite understand why we needed to escape, or why we were taking the girls with us, but once Chaimyankle ordered him to do something, he obeyed without question.
I knew he would make an excellent husband.
So while Chaimyankle issued orders to disperse his fleet to chase phantom rebels and Shmendrik changed the rotation of the internal security guards, I wrangled the dancing girls.
"It's now or never, ladies." The Devyati had done her job. All the girls gathered around me, ready to leave, none looking back. Shmendrik and Chaimyankle met us at my ship with no guards in sight.
"Get your tuchases in gear." I ushered them up the ramp but kept an eye on the Devyati. If she harbored ill will toward Chaimyankle or Shmendrik this was going to be an uncomfortable trip.
I shouldn't have worried. Once on board, I sent the girls down to the passenger deck with instructions to strap themselves into the launch seats. I brought Chaimyankle and Shmendrik with me to the flight deck. Nothing happened once we cleared the command ship.
"We did it," Chaimyankle whispered.
"No, you did it," I replied. "I never had a doubt."
Later, I locked the duo in the master bedroom, where I hadn't slept since Elias died. I gave them access to my library. By the time I let them out, they'll be well versed in the mating habits of humans, especially the kissing part. While they figured out the technical details, I made my way to the passenger deck, where the girls had already discovered my wardrobe.
For all the time I had put into packing, I couldn't mind if the girls decided to dress in something other than flimsy veils. It was quite the fashion show. I even pulled out a few schmattehs for them to alter to fit the four-armed Tadaymas.
"Oh, what is this?" the Devyati asked, whose name turned out to be just as unpronounceable as Chaimyankle's.
I had stored Elias's clothes down here as well. Close enough for my heart, but not where I could see it every day. He had no knowledge of or use for fashion before he met me. I fixed him up right and handsome soon enough. The Devyati held up a sweater, the argyle I had bought during a run to Titan.
"My husband's clothes. He died."
"Oh," she said, hesitant.
"I should have donated them, but I never got around to it."
The Devyati examined the sweater. "Would you mind if I altered it? So it could fit the prince? And maybe this one," she pulled out a polo shirt, "for his friend? It would be a gift for being kind to us."
"I'm sure the prince and his consort would be grateful for any clothes not related to the Jahuul Empire."
I gave her permission to alter the sweater and any other clothes they found. I did rescue a few outfits for myself. I still had a veterinarian to impress, after all.
Three weeks later Levine Trans-Galactic Deliveries made its final landing. Not even the tri-d photos of Avalonia could do justice to the world itself. An Earth-origin colony, the planet had been selected because it orbited a star similar to Sol and then terraformed to accommodate Earth-based species. Let me tell you, after three months in transit my spirit needed some sunshine.
From the opened cargo hold, I watched spaceport personnel milling about. One individual however, muscled his way past security. His short-clipped dark-blond hair and scruffy chin looked exactly the same in person as it did on the tri-d transmitter.
"Captain Levine," Doctor Oliver Katzen approached. He took my hands into his without hesitation, his obvious concern overtaking the customary formal introductions. "When I heard the Jahuuls had set up a blockade at the jump gate, I was afraid you'd been captured."
I couldn't resist running my thumbs along his knuckles, firm and warm. "Ach, no need to worry. The Jahuuls did capture me, but as you can see, they couldn't keep me. Your cargo is safe."
He briefly broke eye contact as my passengers approached from behind. "Are those Jahuuls?"
I gave a quick glimpse over my shoulder. "Only two, and they're defecting along with former prisoners."
He looked back at my face. His eyes searching mine with nothing but concern. Oy, my heart's k'velen. I chose good, I tell ya. "It sounds as if you have quite a tale to tell."
"Honey, my tales have tales. You won't be bored, I promise."
He realized at this point how close he was holding me, a woman he'd only seen through the grainy trans-galactic transmissions, so he dropped my hands. I allowed it for now only because if things went according to plan (and when do my plans not go according to plan?) we'd be doing a lot more hand-holding before the sun set.
Chaimyankle, who personally escorted Shmendrik down the ramp, passed by me and whispered, "Good luck." I had no doubts my newest match would work out perfectly. I hoped the Avalonians preferred outdoor weddings.
I nodded my thanks but said no more until everyone had disembarked and were out of hearing range. My full attention remained on the tall, broad-shouldered man in front of me. Given the angle of the plank, his sky-blue eyes were at the same level as my own. "So, would you like to review the cargo before we discuss my future on Avalonia?" I asked.
"Of course, captain," he said, but I put up my hand.
"Wait. You can't keep calling me captain. Not if I'm going to live here."
His smile returned. "According to the contract your first name is Dolinda. Shall I call you Dolinda?"
Ha, as if. "No one but my mama and my sisters call me Dolinda. You can call me Dolly."
He nodded, then reached down to take my hands back into his, pressing my knuckles to his lips, his eyes still holding mine as they would for as long as we both should live. "Hello, Dolly."
This story originally appeared in Heart's Kiss.