“Are you sure it’s safe?” Tess Evans-Hughes looked around the Human/Kindred Relations building, or the HKR, as the people who worked there called it. One of those people happened to be her good friend, Di, but what she was suggesting made Tess awfully nervous.
“Safe?” Di raised one silver eyebrow at her sardonically. “Sure, hon—a hell of a lot safer than you are down here in Tampa.”
“But what do I do once I—” One of the massive Kindred warriors walked by and Tess dropped her voice to a whisper before continuing. “What do I do once I get up there?”
“Hide, of course. Until it’s safe to come back down here and move to Hawaii or China or the Moon or wherever you can think of that Pierce won’t follow you.”
Tess closed her eyes for a moment. Don’t bother running, Princess, Pierce’s voice sneered in her head. You’re mine and I never let go of what’s mine.
“There’s no place he won’t follow me,” she said in a low voice. “No place he won’t find me.”
“Correction, hon—there is one place he can’t and won’t find you because he can’t get up there. And that’s the place you’re headed.”
“No ‘buts,’” Di insisted. “My next tour of the Mother Ship leaves in fifteen minutes and it’s a big one—big enough that nobody’s going to notice if we come back with one less tourist who’s dying to check out the Kindred way of life.”
“But I don’t know anything about them,” Tess protested. “I’m not even registered for the draft.”
The draft was an agreement the governments of the world had with the Kindred that allowed males of their race to call brides from Earth. Being something like ninety-nine percent male because of a genetic mutation—supposedly the same mutation that made them all over six foot six and hugely muscular—meant the Kindred were always short of women.
All unmarried women of a certain age were supposed to be signed up for the draft but Tess wasn’t because technically, she was still married. That was because Pierce wouldn’t sign the divorce papers no matter how often she sent them over.
Instead, he just kept coming over to her apartment and talking about how he’d changed and he wanted her back. Tess had been down that road before so she had refused. But now it seemed he was done asking. The last time she’d sent the divorce papers she came home to find…
Tess shook her head. She didn’t want to think about what she’d found inside her apartment. Just remembering made her feel like she might cry or throw up. Poor Gus…
“You don’t have to know anything about the Kindred except they’re good guys and they don’t beat and imprison their women,” Di said, interrupting her morbid thoughts. “Unlike certain ex-husbands I could name.”
“He’s not technically my ex since he won’t sign the papers,” Tess pointed out.
“You wanted him out of your life badly enough to cough up for a divorce lawyer when you could barely afford to pay rent,” Di pointed out. “Just because Pierce is being an asshole about it—like he is about everything—doesn’t mean he gets to win. As far as I’m concerned, you two are splitsville.”
Tess smiled at her friend and pressed her hand.
“Thanks, Di. You know, you’re the only friend I’ve ever had that could see through him. He can act so charming when he wants to—he even had my mom fooled, right up until the end.”
“You mean when he refused to let you go see her in the hospital?” Di shook her head. “Yeah, I see through him all right. Bullshit is bullshit, no matter how you try and dress it up.”
“Thanks.” Tess pressed her hand again and wiped away a stray tear. Even though her mom had been gone for well over a year, it still hurt to think of her. Hurt to think she had died alone because Pierce was too crazy jealous to let Tess go see her in time.
She turned her head for a minute to try and get control and saw her reflection in the shiny smoked glass window to her right. A short, plump girl with long dark hair that was almost auburn and big brown eyes stared back at her. I’m nothing special to look at, she thought, swiping at her eyes and taking a deep breath. I mean, sure I have a pretty face but it’s on a plus-sized body. What is it Pierce sees in me? Why won’t he leave me alone?
It was the same question she had asked herself back when she first met him, when she was in nursing school. What did such a tall, handsome guy want with a short, plump nobody like her? Now she knew that Pierce had seen her for what she was—an easy mark. But back then it had seemed miraculous that he would want her. That was why it had been so easy for him to cut her off from her friends and family and convince her to move away from her mom…
Oh, Mom… Tess wiped away another tear.
“Sorry, hon. I shouldn’t have said that about your mother.” Di looked genuinely distraught. “Me and my big mouth.”
“No, no—I’m fine. Just a little nervous,” Tess protested, trying to smile. “I mean, I don’t even know where I’m going to stay once I get up there.”
“I do,” Di said firmly. “I know the perfect place for you. You’ll blend right in and no one will be the wiser.”
“But what if I get caught? I don’t want to get you in trouble.”
“What trouble?” Di shrugged. “If anybody finds out we’ll just say you got lost from the tour and wound up spending the night. Nobody has to know how long you’re up there.”
“But what if Pierce comes looking for me? What if he figures out I’m up there and he comes up with a tour to find me?”
Di put a hand on her hip. “Do you have any idea how long people wait to get on one of these tours now that the Mother Ship is finally accessible? Years. And once their name comes up, they have to be approved by the senior tour director. Which just happens to be…”
“You,” Tess finished for her with a little smile.
“Me,” Di agreed, patting her neat cap of silvery hair. “So guess who is never going to get approved to go up there.”
“What if he says it’s police business?” Tess countered.
“Oh, please!” Di scoffed. “What police business? No Earth agency of any kind has jurisdiction on the Mother Ship. He’d have to go through the Kindred High Council to get approval after I’ve turned him down.”
Di nodded firmly. “Really. And even then he’d have to have a damn good reason to go aboard. Somehow I don’t think the Kindred High Council is going to think ‘hunting down my ex-wife so I can continue being an abusive asshole to her’ is a good enough excuse to let him go up.”
“Well…” Tess could feel herself wavering.
“Tess…” Di looked her in the eye. “Stop making excuses and listen to me—more than fifteen hundred women a year are killed by an abusive husband or boyfriend. You’re one of my dearest friends—don’t make me watch you become a statistic. After what you found in your kitchen when you came home yesterday—”
“All right, all right!” Tess held up a hand to stop her. “Please don’t say it—I’ve been trying really hard not to think about it.”
“Sorry, hon,” Di said steadily. “But you know it’s true.”
“Yes, I know.” Tess took a deep breath. “All right, I’ll do it.”
“You don’t have to, if you really don’t want to,” Di offered. “You can always stay with me.”
“And put you in danger too? I don’t think so.” Tess shook her head.
“I told you before—I’ve got a gun and I’m not afraid to use it. Especially on an asshole like Pierce.”
“He’s got a gun too. He’s a cop—remember? No.” Tess sighed. “I guess…I guess this is the only way.”
“Good. You’ll be fine.” Di grinned at her, obviously delighted.
“And who knows—maybe you’ll meet a tall, dark, handsome Kindred who can pound Pierce into the ground for you while you’re up there.”
Tess shook her head. “You know I’m not looking to meet anyone. Honestly, after these last few years with Pierce, I might just swear off men all together.”
“Ah, but these guys aren’t just men—they’re Kindred.” Di winked at her. “It’s too bad all the ones my age are already spoken for but you’re plenty young enough, honey. You could—”
“Di…” Tess raised an eyebrow at her.
“All right, all ready—I’ll stop. Just go on over and join the tour group at the far end of the lobby.” Di gestured to the small crowd milling around, ooing and ahhing at the various Kindred warriors stationed around the HKR building. Many of them had whipped out cameras and cell phones and several of the younger, obviously unmarried girls, were posing for pictures with the warriors, who didn’t seem to mind.
It was a perfectly innocent sight but Tess still felt her stomach knotting into a fist as she watched. Supposedly there were three main types of Kindred—Beast Kindred who had golden eyes, Blood Kindred who had pointed fangs, and Twin Kindred who always came in pairs. But honestly, all she saw when she looked around were a bunch of big, muscular, potential threats.
Pierce was a big guy—not quite as big as a Kindred but big enough to have played football in college and he was still an intimidating specimen. Tess ought to know—he’d used his size to intimidate her often enough. It was scary to see guys who were even bigger and more menacing than him walking around.
Di could talk all she wanted about how the Kindred never battered their women but after what she’d been through, Tess found it was hard to trust that was true. Or at least, hard to trust it enough to go up and live among the huge alien males on their home turf. For her, right now, every male was suspect. Every one of them could turn out to be just another Pierce waiting to hurt her.
But if she didn’t go up to the Mother Ship, where else could she go? Where else could she disappear to that Pierce couldn’t find her and drag her back? She’d thought about the battered women’s shelters but Pierce being on the Tampa PD complicated things. The shelters were hidden from prying eyes but her ex had a way of finding things out…
I’ll just have to take a chance, Tess thought unhappily as she watched another smiling girl take a picture with a grinning Beast Kindred. There’s no other way.
Trying to look inconspicuous, she wandered over to the gathered tour group and took a place in the back. Mother Ship, here I come.