Thursday, March 23, 2017

December 7, part 2

With attendants in tow who carried all Clan Aslada’s gifts and my luggage as I lugged Anrel, we made our way to the Matara Complex. I was ‘home’ again.

Sweet prophets, my quarters felt like a featureless shoebox after the opulence of Clan Aslada’s home. It was so tiny in comparison! Utilitarian too. All the presents sent with me took up a ton of my cramped space. Where was I supposed to put all that stuff?

I sighed and thanked the attendants as they bowed and left me. I made Anrel my first priority, changing her diaper and putting her in her crib. I spent a few moments watching her sleep, relishing having her all to myself.

Where had the time gone? Anrel was six months old now, growing before my very eyes. She was no longer the tiny baby who’d been born weeks too early. She was still an infant, but a big one, a heavy armful of cuddly sweetness. I’d noted all the clothes Snoy had insisted be made for her, tossing out what I’d brought for her to wear. I thought he’d been spending all of Clan Aslada’s money on dresses and tops and skirts for appearance’s sake. Now I thought perhaps she’d been outgrowing everything she’d had.

To test my theory, I went to some of the shelves in the closet-sized room. I’d left behind some of Anrel’s clothes there, folded neatly. I shook out a shirt and compared it to my sleeping baby.

Holy cats. Anrel had gotten huge in the weeks we’d stayed with Clan Aslada. She was at least two, probably three sizes bigger than when we’d left. At this rate, she’d be as big as any Kalquorian woman.

I studied her, marveling at my beautiful, healthy girl. Her glossy black hair was a cap on her round head and had a tendency to curl. Her cheeks were round, the kind that tempted even the coldest-hearted to pinch. Big eyes, that when opened, resembled sideways teardrops. A nose that reminded me of my own, inherited from my mother. Sweet little rosebud lips that would stretch into the happiest of smiles.

The surge of adoration that hit me was enough to rock me on my feet. Sweet prophets, I love my perfect little Anrel. Love? Oh, what a weak, pathetic word. It doesn’t do justice to the profound feelings I have for my baby. How did I get so lucky? How is it she came to me? I have no answers for those questions. Just profound gratitude.

I feared that if I looked at her for any longer, I’d either wake her by bawling with emotion or picking her up and hugging her breathless. I had to leave her room or be overwhelmed by her.

I went to the kitchen, fixed some coffee, and collected myself. I had to laugh at how hard I’d been walloped by my feelings over Anrel. It’s astounding how love can knock you for a loop sometimes.

With coffee in hand, I commed Candy. “You’re back!” she squealed. “Katrina, Shalia’s home! Katrina’s with me.”

“So I guessed,” I laughed.

“Can we come over?”

“Of course, but Anrel’s asleep. She’s still on Esofu time.”

“We’ll be right there.”

It was so good to see the women I considered to be sisters. Katrina looked good, better than how she’d been when I’d left. I guess the grief at being separated from her clan was easing. Always athletic, she beamed radiant health even as she brandished a bottle of shel.

“You’re letting your hair grow out,” I said, noting her gray, well-styled locks were waving over her ears and down her neck.

She shrugged. “Yeah, well, I need the change. My clanmates keep asking me about trying it out longer. Siko says it’s not fair that I get to do all the hair pulling.”

“He has a point. You might like that kind of action,” I advised our senior gal pal.

“I’m sure I will, but I’m not too crazy about this in-between stage it’s at.”

“Don’t listen to her. She looks good and she knows it,” Candy said. Our resident cheerleader lookalike was her typical blonde and bouncy self. I don’t know of anyone bubblier than Candy. That quality often leads even those who know her to forget the formidable brain she possesses. She’s so girlish and enthusiastic that it’s sometimes easy to discount her.

They had to peek in at Anrel, of course. I let them go in alone, worried I’d get weird and emotional again. I used the excuse that I needed to get glasses for the shel. I bolted down my coffee and returned to the greeting room and poured the bottle Katrina had left behind.

My friends wore identical expressions of shock when they returned to my greeting room. “What the hell did you feed her while you were away?” Katrina said, sitting down. “I almost didn’t recognize my grandbaby.”

“She’s grown so much!” Candy said, flopping onto the lounger next to her. “I can’t believe how much she’s changed since we last saw her.”

“It’s not just me then,” I said. “It kind of knocked the wind out of me earlier.”

“A toast to our healthy girl,” Katrina said, raising her glass.

“You’ll toast anything,” I laughed, but I lifted my glass as well.

Candy took a happy swallow. “Anything new on your mom?” she asked.

I sank down on one of my floor seating cushions. “Not since our last conversation.” I’d kept them up to date on everything as far as Eve was considered.

“I’m sorry her staying here didn’t work out,” Katrina said. “Are you doing all right with it?”

“I think so, though I can’t deny it still hurts. It was for the best, though.” I was coming to terms with my mom’s recovery needing to be away from me. As she had pointed out, we couldn’t work out our tumultuous relationship until she got herself sorted out. Just because surgery had corrected the chemical imbalance that caused her bipolar disorder, it hadn’t fixed decades of poor coping skills…or our admittedly rocky past.

“What’s up for you next?” Candy asked.

“A sea cruise. Want to come?”

“Oh, Clan Seot, right? Don’t I wish I could go on a cruise.”

“You can. Katrina too. You’re both invited on Cifa’s newest floating paradise for its shakedown.” I was almost as effervescent as Candy as I shared the happy news.

Katrina’s brows rose, and Candy gasped. Blond ringlets sprang up and down as she bounced on the lounger. “Really? When? Can I bring Stidmun? He’s got time saved up!”

I laughed. “I figured you wanted the big stud man along for the ride. He can come along if he can get here by the end of next week.”

“Oh, I’ll have to com him right away then. A high-speed shuttle would make it, but he’ll have to book passage now.” Candy dashed out into the corridor to make her call, tossing a “Thanks, Shalia!” over her shoulder as she went.

I turned to our older friend. “And you, lovely lady? Are you ready to bask under the sun, explore new vistas, and sail the high seas?”

She chuckled. “I think I’ll sit this one out, sweetie. But thanks for thinking of me.”

“Oh, Katrina! Why won’t you come?” I gave her my saddest expression.

“For one thing, I have a job. Remember?”

“You don’t think they’ll give you time off? What if I threaten to break their legs?”

“I’ve only been the liaison here for a few weeks. It’s too early to be galivanting off.”

“I thought galivanting was what you did best,” I teased.

She winked. “I am good when it comes to that. But there’s more to it. I think I’d find it difficult to enjoy myself watching you and Candy being romantic with your paramours. It would remind me of how much I miss my men.”

I deflated. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think that the offer might bum you out.”

She waved me off. “No, no! I appreciate it. It means a lot that you’d invite me along. But I’d feel like a fifth wheel. You know I insist on being the belle of the ball.”

I grinned. “I’ll tell you what. If things work out between me and Clan Seot, I’ll insist Cifa give you and your clan a free jaunt to celebrate when Wotref, Ret, and Sika return.”

Katrina raised her glass to me again. “I’m not going to pretend I’m above taking advantage of my friends in high places. I accept your offer.”

My door opened and Candy came back in. “We’ve got shopping to do, Shalia. Find out how many ports we’re visiting, so I can buy a different soaksuit for each one.”

“Yay!” I cheered. “Stidmun’s on his way?”

“He’s still got to put in for the time, but that shouldn’t be a problem. It’s getting here that will cut it close. But he can always join us at one of the stops, right?”

“I don’t see why not.”

Ahoy, mateys. We’re going to sea.

Monday, March 20, 2017

December 7, part 1

It was getting late when I boarded the private shuttle Clan Aslada had hired for my return to the Matara Complex, my lips tingling from dozens of last-minute goodbye kisses. Jaon had returned in time to see me off. He was the most ardent of the trio as we parted. He’d not been happy to find out I would be gone for the next few weeks, but since he had to head back out to catch another bad guy the very next day, he admitted it was probably the right thing to do.

Imdiko Snoy was stoic as he handed off Anrel, but I was betting on him sobbing his heart out later. His eyes were too bright with unshed tears as he patted the top of her head and asked me to let him know how she was doing. He made me feel guilty as hell for taking my own daughter with me.

The shuttle they had hired was small but super nice, with attendants and a full bar. I didn’t discover the boatload of presents until we were in the air and away, because Clan Aslada had made the attendants hide them from me until I was gone. My heart thumped painfully to see expensively wrapped packages for both me and Anrel. The guys always spent extravagantly when it came to us. I couldn’t bear to open the first gift yet, feeling too raw in my heart at the moment.

I settled in my seat gingerly, my bottom too sore to appreciate the cozy chair. It was still not recovered from its last spanking. I could have taken a pain inhibitor, but I liked being reminded of why sitting felt uncomfortable. Draped across a man’s lap, his hand falling on my flesh over and over…it got me warm just thinking about it.

That brought the sense of loneliness down on me harder than the emotion that had driven me to leave Clan Aslada behind for the next few weeks. I hoped this momentary break wasn’t a huge mistake.

I knew of one way to allay my sudden plunge of spirits. Well, besides the one drink I allowed myself to sip, my responsibility to Anrel sleeping on my lap foremost on my mind. Feeling slutty—after all, I was leaving Clan Aslada on the posh private shuttle they’d booked for my trip—I commed Clan Seot.

I had high hopes of catching at least one of them at home. They were several hours behind the Esofu Continent. While it was late where I was, I thought they’d have perhaps finished dinner and were settling in for the evening. Lucky me; all three men answered the com after a few seconds. The vid sprang to life before me, giving me an unequalled view of masculine beauty.

“Shalia!” Dramok Seot boomed, his ridiculously handsome face stretched in a wide, happy grin. He cringed a little as he saw Anrel was fast asleep. Fortunately, my child could probably sleep through a hurricane. In a much quieter voice, Seot asked, “Tell me you’re on your way back.”

“Less than an hour before touchdown,” I answered, trying not to be to overt in my ogling. You’d have thought I’d never seen men before from the way my heart beat faster at the sight of the guys. Especially after a diet of Clan Aslada. But Clan Seot is its own category of deliciousness.

Seot himself is everything I’ve ever thought a clan leader should be. Besides panty-melting gorgeous, he’s strong without being dictatorial. I’ve seen him calm his clanmates…okay, and me…with the mildest of looks or tones. He doesn’t flaunt his power because he doesn’t have to. You sense it from the moment you enter his presence. It’s an utterly benign dominion that he exercises, but never at anyone’s disadvantage. He makes everyone’s welfare his priority.

“Perfect!” Imdiko Cifa said, his boyish face too sweet to truly belong to his hulking body. “While you were gone, I decided to put a few more upgrades on our newest ship. It will be ready to launch next week, if you’re able to go. Oh, look at that adorable little baby. She’s so precious when she’s asleep.”

Ha. Cifa thinks Anrel is adorable when she’s got baby food smeared all over her and is in a bad mood. I often think I’m a distant second to Anrel in Cifa’s heart. Not that I mind. I want whatever clan I end up with to think the sun rises and sets on my daughter. Cifa fits that mold. He’s been wrapped around her itty-bitty pinkie from the moment he first saw her. He was born to be some little girl’s daddy.

I winked at him. “She’s been fussed over quite a bit while we’ve been gone. You won’t have to work too hard to pick up where you left off on spoiling her.”

He pretended to be offended. “I beg to differ. I have everything intention of indulging her until no one else can stand her but me. That way I get her all to myself.”

I giggled at him. I know Cifa would never do anything in opposition to Anrel’s best interests. He might dote on her, but I was sure he’d draw the line at letting her become a brat.

“A cruise next week, huh?” I had been looking forward to the prospect of playing on one of the oceangoing vessels owned by Cifa and his siblings for months. It was supposed to be the height of luxury. Of course, after staying in the grandiose Clan Aslada mansion for several weeks, my idea of luxury had been expanded quite a bit. It’s made me suspect I might be more of a beer and burger kind of gal, rather than champagne and caviar. Yet Clan Seot seemed so laid back despite their wealth. I’m a bit dazzled by their life, but not overwhelmed.

“Right. I told you my brother and sister are bringing their clans too, and we’d hoped your mother would join us. How is she?” Being a natural caregiver, Cifa switched from what he wanted to the needs of others in a flash.

“She’s doing well in the Galactic Council’s rehab facility. She sounds almost like a different person now that she’s away from all our drama.” I kept hidden the twinge of hurt I felt.

“Excellent. It’s too bad she won’t be on the trip. Do you have anyone else you’d like to bring? There are still two cabins available for your friends. They can bring along any clan they are considering too.”

“I can ask Candy and Katrina,” I said. The idea made me happy. “Though Katrina’s clan has gone back to Earth, so she’d be solo. By the way, you have to stop calling Candy ‘Matara Hubba-hubba’. I think it embarrasses her.”

Cifa slapped his hand over his mouth to keep from laughing too loud and waking Anrel. His first encounter with Candy and her vocal appreciation of Clan Seot’s physical attributes was always fodder for amusement.

Speaking of appreciation of physical attributes, I turned my attention to the dark and silent third of the clan. “Are you like most Nobeks in that a relaxing vacation is not something to look forward to?”

When Larten smiles, which is often for a Nobek, it’s like looking at pure decadence. Sort of like the biggest, most luscious hot fudge sundae that has ever existed. You know it’s evil, that you’re better off backing away from it, but you’ve got to indulge anyway. He was wearing that smile as he looked at me, making my insides all twisty-turny.

“Actually, any chance to get away from my meathead trainees is greatly appreciated,” he said. “Especially if it means seeing you in a soaksuit. Or less.” He leered without shame.

I laughed. Larten always makes me laugh, despite the fact he looks like danger personified. He trains young Nobeks in camps allotted for the ferocious breed. He never misses a chance to insult them. His scorn is usually hilarious in nature, as long as one isn’t the trainee he’s smearing the reputation of. I think he’s thought up a billion uses for the skins of useless students: from Tragoom loincloths to his personal toilet paper.

Cifa had his handheld out, tapping on it like the world’s fastest typist. “Do you think Candy will bring a potential clan?”

I gave him an uncomfortable smile. “Um, maybe. I have a feeling it might be just a Nobek, if he can take the time off.”

That got raised eyebrows from all three men. “Oh, this is sounding like good gossip,” Cifa enthused. “Go on.”

I told them about Nobek Stidmun and Candy’s suspicion that she was a one-man woman. “They’re crazy about each other. I thought it was just infatuation at first, but I think Candy might be right. He might be the only man she can love.”

“Hmm. That will present a few problems down the road,” Seot mused. “I don’t envy them that, given our society’s norms. Still, who’s to tell them they’re wrong if they love and want only each other?”

“Earther ways,” Cifa said, his gaze a little distant. “One man and one woman. Seems kind of lonely to me. But romantic too. Imagine that, to be someone’s one-and-only.” He gave Seot and Larten sly looks.

“I’ll check my food and drink for poison from now on. Seot, leave a note to be found in the event of our sudden deaths, detailing our suspicions that Cifa wanted Shalia all to himself,” Larten deadpanned.

Cifa laughed and nudged him. “You know better than that, my Nobek,” he said. Adoration shone in his eyes as he looked at his clanmate. Seot shook his head and chuckled at the pair. Those three are so good together.

Because I can never seem to shut up around them, we talked all the way up until the shuttle reached the landing pad. We promised to see each other in person soon.