Tail, Dark and Handsome
COMING OCTOBER 5th
Mari has terrible taste in men.
Her ex-fiance? Left her at the altar and ran off with her money. And now she’s mixed up with the reclusive mega-rich, mega-hot alien, Winter Cayne.
That doesn’t sound so bad.
Only rumor claims Winter murdered his first wife. Mari can’t reconcile the stories of a possessive, jealous man and the protective single dad that she met on a tropical planet. He wants to bring her home and claim her as his mate.
With the mystery surrounding the death of his first wife, can Mari risk being wife #2?
Winter lives with shadows and secrets until a human female who is relentless optimism and pure sunshine crashes into his life. His kit needs a mother and he needs a mate to rehabilitate his public image. She needs to pay off a notorious money lender.
One year and he’ll let her leave.
Tail, Dark and Handsome is a standalone book, although some old friends pay a visit. It has a HEA, no cheating, danger, a grumpy single dad with zero chill, a kit too smart for his own good, and a woman with a heart big enough to make them a family.
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Author’s Note: This preview of chapter one is unedited. You will find typos (so many typos) and things will probably be tweaked in editing.
“Not coming,” her brother said. Joseph’s normal tumble of dark curls had been tamed into a ponytail and he looked sharp in his suit. Marigold had just been about to tell him that he cleaned up nice when Joseph blurted out the news.
“Where’s Sandria?” Mari needed her friend.
“About that. It seems Tomas and Sandria left. Together. Like, together-together.” He bumped the sides of two fists together. “I’m sorry,” he added, as if an afterthought. He never liked Tomas and it showed on his face.
She slumped to the ground, the ridiculous dress creating a fluffy white puddle around her. The rose bouquet fell to the floor, releasing a gentle perfume from the crushed petals.
“He and Sandria? How do you know?”
“I swear to all the stars in the sky, if you say you caught them sneaking around and didn’t tell me, I’ll… I’ll…” He brain stuttered. It was too much to process.
“He left a note.” Joseph thrust a piece of paper at her like a shield.
Mari took the sheet of genuine paper, not a note on a tablet or a sheet of reusable digital paper.
She read. Her heart broke. Tomas fell in love with Sandria. They ran away. Together. Like, together-together.
“He’s not coming,” she repeated the impossible words, feeling a touch relieved and not understanding where that came from. Tomas had been so excited for their wedding, insisting on pushing the date forward when a spot opened unexpectedly in the Starlight Chapel.
Wood timbers–actual wood– and incredibly strong, crystal clear glass–not actual glass– formed the chapel, framing the stars and darkness of deep space. Soft lights glowed within, allowing the starlight to filter through the timber and glass walls. Wood chairs were lined in neat rows on either side of a deep red, plush carpet aisle cutting down the stone floor. Again, real wood and real stone, brought to the space station at great cost. Hell, the carpet was probably made from wool harvest during a full moon from sheep that only grazed in fields of wild flowers and sipped the purest spring water. Needlessly expensive, the end result was a stunning and a very, very pricey venue, but Tomas insisted. He told her not to worry about the cost.
He always said not to worry and she liked that, relaxing her grip on responsibility and letting someone else take care of her. For once.
Look where it got her.
The entire time they were planning an extravagant wedding he was falling in love with her friend? Sneaking around behind her back? Mari had felt him pull away but she put it down to stress and pre-wedding jitters.
Joseph rubbed her back in a comforting fashion. This was terrible. The stupid dress. The expensive venue. The crowd of people outside waiting for her to march down the aisle. At least Joseph didn’t make it worse by offering up empty platitudes. He knew she needed a few quiet minutes to gather herself.
She pressed her fingers to the corner of her eyes, refusing to cry. Left at the altar. How cliche.
Silently, Joseph handed her a tissue.
“I’m not crying,” she said, even as the mascara dribbled down her cheeks.
“You’re certainly not crying over that asshole.” Joseph handed her another tissue. She gave him a watery smile, grateful that her brother was also her best friend. When they were kids, they moved frequently from ship to ship. Their mother, Valerian, changed jobs almost as frequently as she changed haircolor, but it was always the same type of ship, luxury cruises that entertained wealthy tourists from starports to exclusive resorts and the most stunning parts of the galaxy. Mostly that meant there were no children on board but Mari and Joseph had each other.
“Maybe he’ll change his mind,” she finally said and flinched for the sake of her battered self-esteem.
“He cleared out your apartment and they left on a ship this morning.” Joseph paused, then cleared his throat. “He, um, used a different name.”
“So it might not be him.” How did Joseph know? Sure, he was friendly with a lot of the crews that frequented the station but he didn’t know. Not for certain.
Hope, bitter and sharp, stirred in her chest, wanting it to be a mistake, even though she clutched a letter that explained exactly how his heart had strayed and how he would not be coming back. Tomas could change his mind. He could.
Something heavy and sour settled in her stomach at the thought of Tomas walking through the doors, exasperated with the funny story that happened and kept him from the most important event of their lives. There was no other woman. There was no running away.
She couldn’t hold onto false hope. Tomas did what he did. There was no going back.
Maybe… Maybe this was for the best. The universe throwing her a course correction. Or maybe Tomas sucked balls and it was better not to be legally tied with that hot mess dressed in an expensive suit.
Mari grabbed the rose bouquet from the floor, threw it to the floor again, then stomped on it for good measure. She hated how desperate hope made her feel. If Tomas was gone, he was gone. She wanted to rip that bandage off and get the worst part over. Waiting and hoping for him to walk in through the chapel doors felt so much worse.
“Love sucks,” she said, leaning into Joseph.
“It does but he sucks in particular.” He picked up the tattered bouquet. “Do we want to salvage this or toss it in an incinerator.”
“Fiery destruction. No question.” She’d toss all Tomas’ clothes, including the fine tailored suits she thought looked so good on him, into the incinerator.
A knock sounded on the door. Mari’s mother peeked her head into the room. “Alright, love? Any word on Tomas? What is going on with your aura?” Valerian frowned and snatched at the air around Mari’s head.
“Mom, not now–”
“Sunshower in a Marigold Field Moonquest, stay still. You can’t get married with all this negative energy.”
Oh no. Valerian used her full, mortifyingly embarrassing name.
Mari turned pleading eyes to Joseph. Somehow she had to be Sunshower Marigold and he got to be plain old Joseph. Not fair. He owed her and needed to save her. Normally he enjoyed watching her being chastised but a grim expression set on his face. He hated this awful situation as much as her.
He informed Valerian of the change of plans. “Gone? This has to be a misunderstanding.” She clutched the crystal pendant that hung around her neck.
“He cleared out our apartment,” Mari said.
“But I did his star chart myself. I was sure–” Valerian trailed off and Mari didn’t know if her mother was more upset about Mari being left at the altar or her star charts being wrong.
Valerian removed her crystal pendant and placed it in Mari’s hand. “You need this more than me. Let it soak up all your negative energy.”
Mari’s hand curled around the crystal pendant. She didn’t believe in all the star-age philosophy–the bitter part of her whispered nonsense–that Valerian embraced wholeheartedly. Crystals, auras cleanses, spiritual node alignments, exercise technique to unblock a person’s life force, and star charts. Valerian happily took the most out there beliefs from several planets and alien species, embracing each new set of metaphysical values and wisdom with enthusiasm. After all, a woman who unironically names her child Sunshower in the Marigold Field also believed in guardian spirits and past lives.
Moonquest happened to be the family name, believe it or not. Way back when humans first left Earth to colonize the stars, some enthusiastic pioneers ditched the old Earth names for new ones. Starbuck, Moon and Polaris were as common as Smith and Jones.
“I’ll take care of the crowd while we figure out what to do. Don’t worry,” Valerian said.
“Thanks, Mom. I don’t think this day can get worse.”
A knock sounded on the door before the chapel’s event coordinator entered. The pinched faced woman clutched her tablet. “The police are here.”
Valerian gasped, then jerked off the crystal and gem encrusted bracelet that dangled off her wrist. She shoved it at Mari. “Don’t tempt the universe. You’ve a powerful shadow over you,” she said.
“I don’t suppose the police are here for a good reason,” Mari said. Unless Tomas was abducted or someone already filed a missing person’s report.
“I’m sure I don’t know,” the woman sniffed. “I placed them in the groom’s dressing room, since that is not being used.” She drew the words out, like she wanted Mari to squirm. Well, she got her wish because Mari squirmed and wished the wall would open up and vent her right out into space. “There’s also the matter of the bill.”
“You have the deposit,” Mari said.
“Yes, and the remainder is due today,” the woman replied.
“And you have my credit information.”
“That was, unfortunately, declined.” Her words and tone were sympathetic but her expression was gleeful, like she personally called the police on Mari for freeloading.
“It must be a misunderstanding. Tomas and I set up an account just for our wedding.” She had been funneling every spare credit into the savings accounts, as had Tomas. Disbelieving, she dug out her communicator and logged into the shared bank account.
Well, shit. Bet that wasn’t in Tomas’ star chart.
Valerian looked over Mari’s shoulder and made a noise that sounded like a wounded beast. “That man! And to think I aligned his chakras.”
“Do you have an alternate form of payment?” the woman asked.
“Um, hold on,” Mari muttered. Disbelief numbed her. Tomas not only left her at the altar, but he ran off with their savings. She logged into her personal account, only to find it equally empty. “Son of a–”
Joseph grabbed the comm from her, scrunched his brows, and passed it to Valerian. “That bastard robbed you,” they announced together like they had been practicing for such an occasion.
Mari needed a drink. The room was too crowded and she needed to get drunk out of her mind. Mostly she needed this day to end. “How about a refund? The wedding obviously isn’t happening.”
“Sorry, no refunds on last minute cancellations.” The woman grinned like she was having the time of her cold, hateful life.
“Well, I’m obviously not getting married today. I’ve been the victim of a con man. I need to file a police report and… and…” Change all her passwords. Get new accounts. Run a credit check to see if Tomas ran up any debt while using her name. Probably. He always had such nice clothes and expensive tastes, but he also had a good job as a pilot, so he claimed. She never questioned where he got his money.
Oh, and make an effigy of Tomas to toss in the incinerator along with his expensive clothes.
How had she been so trusting? Tomas used to whisper in their tender moments that he loved her trusting nature and that he loved how she viewed the universe with innocent wonder. Those words used to make her melt but now it felt that he had been laughing at her. Silent guardian spirits, he had dropped clues and practically waived his plan in her face like a red flag.
The crystal dug into the palm of her hand as she squeezed tight. There weren’t enough crystals in the galaxy to protect such a naive lovesick fool.
Her stomach rolled with stress. Empty or not, what was in her gut would not stay put.
She dashed for the small toilet attached to the dressing room, her enormous dress barely fitting through the door. Kneeling on the ground, she retched and gagged on the taste of bile.
While she was maintaining her dignity in a completely lady-like fashion, she heard Joseph settle the bill. “I paid for a party, so we’re having a party. We’ll skip the ceremony and go straight to the reception,” he said.
“I’ll inform the staff. And the police?”
“Give her five minutes. This is a shock, you understand.” To put it mildly.
Mari rinsed out her mouth and scrubbed off the ruin of her makeup. She did her best to avoid her reflection, because she just didn’t know if she had the strength to stare into the eyes of the woman who got screwed. Hard. Had Tomas always planned to con her? Or did he run into trouble and stealing from her was his solution? She just didn’t know.
He always seemed to be so glad to be with her, holding her hand even when they were just sitting on the couch watching a show. He smiled and teased her in the sweet, subtle way, like they were the only ones in on a wonderful joke.
Apparently the joke was on her.
Shit. All her money. All their plans–
Were those even real? Had he always been planning to abscond with her pitiful savings or was it a crime of opportunity? She didn’t care about the money– okay, she wasn’t an heiress. Obviously she cared about the money– but she loathed the dirty feeling that crawled over her. Tomas and Sandria violated her home, her trust and her heart. She felt… wrong, like her mother needed to smudge her aura to clean away the negative energy.
What a disaster.
Joseph handed her a glass as she exited the tiny toilet. Valerian snatched at the clumps of bad energy in her aura.
“Thanks, Mom. I hope this is vodka,” she said, taking a gulp.
“Water, but I understand someone is paying for an open bar. I suggest we put a hurt on the sucker,” he said. He watched her drain the glass, concern evident on his face. She hated that look on her baby brother’s face. Joseph was the fun, carefree one. She was the responsible one. Everyone said so, especially when they were kids. Joe was a great guy. He’d make someone very lucky, when he was ready to settle down. Someone deserved to be lucky.
Sweet celestial bodies, she sounded maudlin. “You sure that was water?”
“I’ll tell the guest about the change in plans. Take your time,” Valerian said, giving Mari and peck on the check and a hug.
Mari leaned into the hug. Mom hugs were the best. “Thanks.” She did not look forward to the pity and condolences of a hundred people, most of whom were her mother’s friends and business contacts.
“And we’re going to eat a very nice meal, eat cake, and dance,” Joseph said. He took the empty glass and handed her another with a sparkling golden liquid. That was more like it.
“I like those things,” she said, taking a gulp of the sparkling wine like a lady, because she had manners, dang it, and only sputtered a little when the bubbles tickled her nose.
“Do you want to wear the dress or not?”
Mari looked down at the confection of lace of tulle. At one point, the dress made her feel like a fairy princess, Princess Sunshower in Marigold Fields. “It’s pretty terrible, isn’t it?”
“Keep wearing it. Go for the full Miss Havisham,” he said.
“Nerd.” She didn’t want to smirk but there it was, a tiny smirk. She’d be okay in the end. Screw Tomas. “Do you still think we can find a pair of costume fairy wings?”
“On it.” He already had out his communicator, ready to order. “We can hang out here until the drone arrives and be mysterious.”
“Or, we can drink.” Mari waved her empty glass at him, then sighed. “Thanks for footing the bill. I’ll pay you back, you know.”
His dark eyes gleamed. “Don’t worry about it. Consider it your future gift for when you get married for real.”
“That outlook is not good,” she said.
“I mean, I don’t understand the compulsion, but I am 100% behind you.”
“You’d have to be in this dress.” He snorted at her snarky comment. Mari couldn’t really explain the compulsion, either. One day she realized that she was thirty and felt like she had a clock ticking down in her chest. Living on a busy space station meant that she met tons of people, but relationship material people? Not so much. Joseph seemed to be content with brief flings but Mari wanted something with substance. She wanted to wake up to the same face not for a handful of days while they hung about the station waiting for a connecting flight or ship repairs, but for years. One face, for the rest of her life.
She really didn’t think it was that hard of a request, but her fruitless dating life proved her wrong. Frustrated by only meeting men who seemed to have a girl in every port, she signed up with Celestial Mates. The agency introduced her to Tomas, a pilot based out of the station.
On paper they wanted the same thing and in person they clicked. He had been charming, sweet and knew all the right things to say. Practice, maybe. Her longing for a commitment made her an easy target and her desire to see the best in people made it easy to carry on an affair, apparently.
“I should go talk to the cops,” she said.
“Hmm? Oh, yes. Them. Are you going to return the dress or can I order these water guns? Because you’re really going to like my next suggestion.”
She should take the dress off and try to get some kind of refund, or at least sell it to a second hand shop. “Do it. I’m feeling like I need to make some bad decisions.”
A grin spread across Joseph’s face. “My favorite kind.”
“Cops now. Then cake.” Her stomach rumbled. So much cake. Enough cake to burst the stitching in the dress. “I can’t believe I gave up carbs to fit into this dress.”
Turns out the men were not cops.
A Tal man wearing an expensive suit waited, sprawled in a chair like he was at home with one leg over the chair’s arm. His tail swept over the floor, back and forth. Behind him stood two bulky males with grim expressions, obviously kept around for their menace.
“He sent his female,” the Tal man said. He straightened in the chair, then leaned forward to rest his elbow on his knees. “Cowardly. I can not abide cowards.”
“I don’t know what business you have with Tomas, but he’s here. He took a ship this morning,” she said.
The man seemed bored by her information. “And where is this ship headed?”
“Do you think I’d be standing here in a wedding dress if I knew? He ran away. He’s not coming back.”
“I have no idea what you humans do or wear,” he said dismissively. “Tomas owes me a considerable amount of money. Mostly gambling but he does have expensive taste, doesn’t he?” He eyes her in the dress. Mari felt the need to cover herself but remained still. He continued, “I intend to collect. Considering the circumstances, I will forgo my normal interest rate if you can pay today.”
Mari pressed a hand to her forehead, completely unable to process the day’s events. “Yeah, no. He’s not my husband. We’re not legally bound or obligated to each other. Thank the stars. So why don’t you go and have a piece of cake and a drink?”
The man stood, tugging the cuffs of his suit. “That’s adorable but I wonder what gave you the impression that I am a bank. I want my money.”
Mari craned her head back, as the man stood a good few inches taller than her. “What did you say your name was?”
“Nox,” she repeated, because of course Tomas had to borrow money from the most notorious loan shark on the station. “I’m sorry. He ran off with all our savings.”
“Yes, and I will have my money. I don’t particularly care how or from who.”
“But I don’t… I can’t. I’m broke.” First the humiliation of having her brother pay the tab for her not-wedding, now this. If she ever saw Tomas again, she’d shove him out an air lock. “I was supposed to be married today,” she added, her voice small.
Nox made a sympathetic sound and patted her on the head. “I can’t help but feel this is my fault. Tomas does enjoy spending money. Unfortunately, he has a nasty habit of running away and leaving his spouse with the bill. I knew that but still gave him my money.” He chuckled, a cold and brittle sound. “He’s done it three times, you know.”
The news of his three other wives rocked Mari. They had talked about past romantic relationships. He never mentioned being divorced, mainly because he wasn’t. He was a bigamist.
“I’m sure it’s nothing about you. That’s just his pattern,” Nox continued.
“I’m sure if I feel better knowing I was just one person taken for a ride or one of many.” All she could think was that the Interstellar Union had inclusive marriage regulations, but poly-marriages were only legal if the parties knew about the other people and filed the correct form and they hadn’t filed the proper paperwork.
Paperwork? Really? That’s what she was hung up on? Tomas did her a favor running away before they were legally bound to each other.
“I believe it is best to be singular but perhaps you can find some small comfort with the other wives.”
“Lucky me,” she said, numbly, not believing that for one second.
“Shame he did a runner. There’s not many places he can hide from me.”
Corra. Tomas had wanted to move to Corra after the wedding. He had been talking about it nonstop.
Something like realization must have shown on her face, because Nox perked with interest. “Oh,” he purred, “if you know where he ran, I’d suggest telling me now. It’ll go towards the debt.”
“I’m… He never said, but he talked about Corra a lot.”
The ears on top of Nox’s head twitched and fluttered. “Corra may be outside the IU but not it’s not outside my reach. Now, you do look delightful.” He placed a hand on either shoulder and gave her a long look then tutted. “Humans are so strange. All this white when you’re barely beige. It’s so dull. Must be off. We’ll talk about the debt.”
“I’m not paying,” she said, knowing that if the notorious money lender had her in his sights, she’d pay one way or the other.
The guests were polite enough to give her sympathetic looks but tactful enough not to mention how a con man charmed Mari out of her savings, left her holding debt to an unscrupulous man, and stomped all over her heart. Oh, and ran off with her former friend.
She asked the guest to take their gifts back but a few insisted she keep the matching towel sets and new pots and pans. She ate cake, drank her fill of sweet, bubbly booze, and danced until her legs burned with exhaustion. No one questioned the glittery costume fairy wings she wore. Jilted brides were allowed to be eccentric.
In a week she’d board a ship and head out for her honeymoon. Alone. The trip had already been paid in full and she intended to enjoy the luxury resort on a sunny island. Real life and untangling the mess Tomas left behind could wait a little longer.
After all, it couldn’t get worse.
“Almost there. We don’t want to miss the show.” Winter climbed onto the boulder and hauled himself to the top. He and his kit, Zero, hiked through the forest all morning, slowly making their way to higher ground. Behind them, a bot trundled along while the all-terrain treads struggled with actual terrain. The bot navigated it’s way around obstacles easily enough but it’s sensors seemed unable to distinguish the difference between mud and dry ground.
The bot bumped into the boulder, backed up, then bumped into it again. He’d have to recalibrate the sensors.
With minutes to spare, Winter and Zero made it to the overlook.
The island spread out below them, greenery and scrub on the mountain, the boxy structures of the village, and the thin band of white sand beaches. Beyond that, the blue ocean surrounded them, an endless stretch of blue. Sunlight gleamed off the water. Salty wind ruffled his hair and his legs ached from exertion. From their perch, there was only birdsong, sun and the wind.
While Winter craved the solitude of life aboard his ship, the sterile environment no longer agreed with him. He had spent years in his workshop, sitting front of screens and hunched over prototypes. After the accident, Winter hungered for dirt, sun and sweat. The soreness in his muscles reminded him that he was alive.
Unfortunately, Zero did not agree and complained mightily. He was more than happy to spend his adolescence with his nose in a book and parked motionless in front of a screen.
Zero flung himself down on the rock beside Winter, groaning dramatically. “I’m gonna die…”
“You will recover,” Winter said, handing the kit a bottle of water and a pair of specially created sunglasses. “Put these on. Do not damage your eyesight.”
Zero complied, his dark hair both plastered to his forehead from sweat and standing straight up from the wind.
With an amused huff, Winter plucked a leaf from his kit’s hair and then put on his own pair of sunglasses.
A comfortable silence fell between father and son. His body ached in a pleasant way. Some morning his joints moved stiffly as he lumbered out of bed but he was still able to hike and appreciate the natural world.
The bot whirled and beeped below them. “That really is the dumbest thing Uncle Chase’s ever built. Like give up, stop bashing the rock,” Zero said.
Winter could order the bot to cease but he was meant to test it in the field, which he had to allow the bot to batter itself to pieces. Hopefully the sensors and programming kicked in to tell it to stop, unless it was locked in a loop. Even a worse case scenario where the bot destroyed itself provided usable data.
He sighed. It really was an unintelligent bot. He had hoped to keep production costs down. The small size and versatility of the bot would make it instrumental to colonists and those individuals on isolated, far flung homesteads. The military, of course, would be interested in anything that had explosives strapped to it. He considered that a neutral use of his research, as the botas much potential to save lives as it did harm. Chase, no doubt, would insist on marketing it as a personal servant, ideal for glamorous camping, to the idly wealthy, the exact sort who travelled three weeks in a private space yacht for rare mushrooms that only sprouted once a decade and had to be harvested by moonlight or they turned toxic. That sort.
“Dad, pay attention.” Zero nudged his shoulder.
The moon drifted across the sky as if pulled to the sun. Strange how it hung almost unmoving in the sky all day but now the eclipse approached alarmingly fast.
“Look!” Zero pointed to the ground. Leaves from nearby trees scattered shadows of the eclipse on the ground.
The sky dimmed to a dark red as the moon eclipsed the sun and the light took on an ethereal quality. A ring of golden fire, encircled the moon. Winter held out a hand, letting the refracted shadow dance across his skin. He traveled light years to witness this moment. His heart hammered in his chest, partly from a mix of exertion and awe.
Mostly awe, he decided.
Zero squirmed beside him.
“The wonders of the universe bore you?” Winter asked.
“No,” Zero said too quickly, which meant he was hiding something.
“And it has nothing to do with the note cards in your pocket?”
Zero’s ears flattened as he shifted to pull out the battered note cards. “Can I?”
“Please.” Winter turned his gaze back to the vista stretching before them, waiting patiently for his kit to gather his thoughts. This was hardly a conventional location for a presentation but he could not think of a better spot.
“Thank you for agreeing to meet with me. I know your schedule is busy.” Zero shuffled the notecards before tapping them against his thigh. “I believe my presentation,” he made an awkwardly stiff sweep with one hand, “will convince you that my proposal is advantageous to both our interests. There was supposed to be a whiteboard. Imagine the whiteboard.”
“Consider it done.” Winter’s tail swished with amusement as he watched his son stumble awkwardly through his presentation. He found Zero’s copy of The Art of Persuasion and Arguments, so he had an inkling this was coming. Zero had an analytical mind and researched everything thoroughly, especially before venturing into unexplored territory.
Zero cleared this throat. “I could bore you with the statistics for adverse outcomes for child prodigies who receive exclusively private tutoring–”
“Were you able to find any statistics?” Winter leaned forward, the uneven rock digging into his ass. The shadows of the eclipse scattered over Zero’s face and the notecards.
“Anecdotal and nothing recent.” Zero shuffled the notecards, which meant no. He most likely wanted to open with soft data that would put Winter in a defensive position. Tricky, tricky kit. Zero continued, “As you know, my education has been extensive and intense.”
“You’ve had the best private tutors that currency can supply.” Winter would know. He sat atop a considerable fortune and poured a staggering sum of it into his kit’s education. In their private spaceship, they traveled from city to city, planet to planet, to attend lectures and workshops given by a variety of leading experts in whatever subject currently interested Zero. Mathematics, music, philosophy, literature, history, archeology, they all interested him to some extent, though Zero seemed to lean towards mathematics and music.
Currently, Zero’s attention was caught by political rebellion expressed in music. They would soon travel to Earth to allow Zero the chance to watch human operas performed in original human languages. Apparently Earth operas were quite seditious. What other kit could say they had the same opportunities?
“I have worked hard and my test results have exceeded the general requirements to graduate from primary education according to Interstellar Union guidelines.” Zero moved the card to the bottom of the stack. “But I believe this is one area of my education that is lacking. Remove cloth. Oh.” He looked up from the card, blinking, then “Pretend this is the whiteboard.”
He passed the card to Winter. Neat blocky letters spelled out “Be a Normal Person” at the top of the board. Underneath were six points.
1. Hire a tutor for social skills.
2. Live in one place for at least a year.
3. Attend a regular school.
4. Do a sport.
5. Make friends.
“You are a normal person,” Winter said.
Zero scrunched up his nose and his ear flicked. “I’m not.”
Winter’s fingers itched as his claws threatened to unsheath. The last six years had been a tangled mess. He lost so much time to grief, blame, anger and physical pain, that he left his kit to find his own way through the darkness. How badly had he failed Zero that he believed he was not normal?
“Who said you were abnormal? Was it Chase? I will–” Winter bit off his words. He wanted to threaten violence but he did not want to utter words that could be misconstrued, even in the privacy of his own home.
“No one. I just am.” Zero hesitated, his ears pressed back. “I can tell.”
“No one? What about that last tutor? He was a rude fucker.” Winter paid a small fortune to supply Zero with the best tutors in the galaxy. Always precocious, Winter let Zero’s curiosity guide his education. As he flitted from interest to interest, he gathered books and tutors. They travelled vast distances between stars to attend lectures and visit museums. Winter hired experts to give guided tours and private one-on-one sessions. Any other kit might be spoiled but Zero soaked it all up. No one single kit had such a lavish education, as fact which pleased Winter. That Zero’s interest kept returning him to music pleased Winter less, but the kit seemed to be equally drawn to mathematics as music.
If Winter could burn every piano in the star system, he would.
Zero rolled his eyes. “Because I found an error in the textbook, which he wrote.” His tail swished in amusement. “My five point plan,” he said, tapping the card to redirect Winter’s attention.
Zero leaned forward to regard the card, upside down. “It may fluctuate once the plan is in motion,” he said, then shuffled his cards again. “Point one. Socialization opportunities with my own cohort have been limited. This creates a gap between my cohort and myself. There is much I do not know about kits my own age.”
Winter softened. A hard life of disappointments created a protective barrier around him. He had little room for anyone in his heart except for his kit.
If Zero wanted to socialize with kits his own age, Winter would not argue. Fourteen was too young to not have friends and too old to awkwardly figure out how to make friends. It was a tremulous age and Winter needed to protect his kit from the many hurts others inflicted. Zero was brilliant, as brilliant as his mother had been, but he missed social cues. He relied on crutches, like tips on small talk from self-help books, and Winter knew that was his fault. Isolated on their ship, Zero’s only companions were the people hired for his education. His kit had no friends his own age, just adults paid to see to the needs of his intellect. Zero would either flourish once he reached adulthood or flounder, and the outcome would depend on the skills he developed now.
There was only one answer. “I agree,” Winter said.
“You do? Of course. Very good.” He shuffled to the next card. “We need to hire a specialist for social skills.”
“Is there even such a thing?” Winter scratched behind an ear. He could think of maybe a motivational speaker on winning friends but that did not seem correct.
“I was thinking of another nanny.”
“A nanny? You’re too old.” Fourteen was too young to be unsupervised but definitely too old for a nanny.
“Not to supervise, but to coach me. Help me be normal around people.”
“Are you saying I don’t know how to be normal around people? No, don’t answer.” A recluse for the last six years, Winter did not know how to be normal around anyone. Not that he ever excelled at sociability. He lost his polish and with it the social niceties like being polite and refraining from growling when someone shoved a camera in his face.
“We’ll revisit. Point two. I want to stay in one place for at least a year, to maximize social investment.”
“Our ship is not good enough?” Their private yacht had all the luxuries a person needed to cruise the stars in comfort.
“Dad, you don’t understand,” Zero whined, suddenly sounding very much a teenager. “I want to live on Corra.”
“No.” Absolutely not. He would never return to that horrid place.
“That’s it? No reason, just do as I say?”
“You know the reason,” he growled.
Zero’s ears went back but he lifted his chin in pure stubborn determination. “I want to visit Mamma’s memorial.”
“She is not there.” Winter closed his eyes, recalling the dark skies as the storm swallowed their vehicle and tossed it about like a toy. For a moment, they had been weightless, then the vehicle slammed into the ground. When he woke, he suffered a career ending fracture in his hip and legs and Rebel had vanished. Her body had never been recovered.
While Winter’s broken body healed and he learned to walk with an artificial hip, his reputation had been shredded from trial by the media. The official investigation deemed Rebel’s disappearance an accident and declared her legally dead. Winter fled the planet that moment he could and he never wanted to return.
“I know, I just want–” Zero reached for his tail, spilling the cards onto the ground.
“Would you consider an academy? You could stay there for the entire school year?”
Zero’s ears went back, disliking the idea. “Then you’d be alone.”
“I’ll be fine.” He had kept his mind occupied for the last few years by traveling the stars in his private ship. He had shown his kit many wonders but there were more places to visit. He could explore on his own. It was not running. And he always had his work.
“I just want to be regular.” Zero slumped down, leaning back on his hands and his tail dangled at his side like a limp noodle.
Winter’s heart ached for his kit. He would do anything for Zero but what the kit wanted… He was too young to remember the media storm after the accident or, if Winter were being honest, the constant rumors before the accident. Staying in one place for too long brought attention, even now. There were always those who wanted to stick a camera in his face and discuss Rebel, hoping to get a reaction. Always moving protected Zero from that.
But it left his kit feeling rootless and without friends. It pained Winter to see make friends a goal. Seclusion may have been right to him but it harmed Zero.
And it had to be Corra, because his kit needed to see a hunk of polished granite engraved with his mother’s name.
“One year,” he said.
Zero immediately perked, his tail vibrating with excitement. He threw himself at his father in an increasingly rare display of affection. “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! This is going to be the best year!” He rubbed his cheek to Winter’s, a soft kitten purr in his throat. “But–”
“The house may be in disrepair,” he cautioned. Harboring too many painful memories, he left the property–and all his research–to a caretaker. Other than the occasional update and request for repair, he knew nothing about the condition of the house. “It will not be as comfortable as the ship.”
“I don’t care! I’m so excited. When? Can we go now? Let’s go now.”
The journey to Corra would take a solid month from their current location. “When my project is concluded.”
“And I’ll find a nanny,” Zero nodded, as if he settled the matter.
Ah, that blasted nanny.
“I would prefer to do the interviews myself.” Zero opened his mouth to protest but Winter held up a hand. “No. I must have confidence in this person if they will be with us until we reach Corra.” Avoiding media attention and simply being the child of his parents would make Zero’s plan difficult enough. Having a nanny follow him around would further ostracize him from his peers and potential friends.
“This will be great. You’ll see!”
Copyright 2020 Nancey Cummings
What do you think of Chapter One?