Risteard’s Unwilling Empress - S.E. Smith - ebook
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USA Today Bestseller! Ristéard Roald is the Grand Ruler of Elpidios, a planet that is slowly dying without the Blood Stones needed to absorb the radiation gradually destroying its stratosphere. He has sworn to do whatever it takes to protect his world and his people, but time is running out. Hope comes from an unexpected source, the Kassis. They have found a way to replicate the Blood Stones needed to save his world, but his first dealings with a traitorous Kassisan has left a deep distrust for the species. Ricki Bailey is used to dealing with diplomats and handling complex situations. After all, as the daughter of the owners of Cirque de Magik, the most spectacular Circus to the Stars, she spends much of her time organizing their trips to foreign countries. Her life changes when her mother and father decide to take the circus to another star system! If she thought learning new laws and customs was going to be a challenge, it’s nothing compared to the sudden interest she’s getting from a huge blue alien known as the Grand Ruler! Ricki finds herself thinking words she didn’t even realize were in her vocabulary, most of them not in the least polite. Ristéard is stunned when the great Empress, the strange alien female, foretold as his world’s savior, appears. He is even more astonished when she refuses his attentions! With the life of his planet at stake, not to mention his own peace of mind and body, he will do whatever is necessary to ensure she stays by his side. Yet, there are forces working against him and Ricki. Dangers and traitors among his own council threaten them both. It will take all of Ristéard's resources, and a few unexpected allies, to complete the journey ahead of them. Internationally acclaimed S.E. Smith presents a new action-packed story full of romance and adventure. Brimming with her signature humor, vivid scenes, and beloved characters, this book is sure to be another fan favorite! Main Content: 190 (6x9) pages, 63,335 words

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Ristéard's Unwilling Empress

Lords of Kassis Book 4

S.E. Smith

Contents

Acknowledgments

Copright

Synopsis

1. Earth: Twenty-four years before

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Synopsis of Abducting Abby

Sample of Ella and the Beast

Additional Books and Information

About the Author

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank my husband Steve for believing in me and being proud enough of me to give me the courage to follow my dream. I would also like to give a special thank you to my sister and best friend, Linda, who not only encouraged me to write, but who also read the manuscript. Also to my other friends who believe in me: Julie, Jackie, Lisa, Sally, Elizabeth (Beth), Laurelle, and Narelle. The girls that keep me going!

And a special thanks to Paul Heitsch, David Brenin, Samantha Cook, Suzanne Elise Freeman, and PJ Ochlan—the awesome voices behind my audiobooks!

—S.E. Smith

Montana Publishing

Science Fiction Romance

Ristéard's Unwilling Empress: Lords of Kassis Book 4

Copyright © 2015 by S.E. Smith

First E-Book Published February 2015

Cover Design by Melody Simmons

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED: This literary work may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic or photographic reproduction, in whole or in part, without express written permission from the author.

All characters, places, and events in this book are fictitious or have been used fictitiously, and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, actual events, locales, or organizations are strictly coincidental.

Summary: Grand Ruler Ristéard needs Ricki, she is the Great Empress foretold as their world’s savior, and he can’t allow her to keep her distance for long.

ISBN: 978-1-942562-61-0 (paperback)

ISBN: 978-1-942562-24-5 (eBook)

Published in the United States by Montana Publishing.

{1. Science Fiction Romance – Fiction. 2. Science Fiction – Fiction. 3. Paranormal – Fiction. 4. Romance – Fiction.}

www.montanapublishinghouse.com

Synopsis

USA Today Bestseller!

Ristéard Roald is the Grand Ruler of Elpidios, a planet that is slowly dying without the Blood Stones needed to absorb the radiation gradually destroying its stratosphere. He has sworn to do whatever it takes to protect his world and his people, but time is running out.

Hope comes from an unexpected source, the Kassis. They have found a way to replicate the Blood Stones needed to save his world, but his first dealings with a traitorous Kassisan has left a deep distrust for the species.

Ricki Bailey is used to dealing with diplomats and handling complex situations. After all, as the daughter of the owners of Cirque de Magik, the most spectacular Circus to the Stars, she spends much of her time organizing their trips to foreign countries. Her life changes when her mother and father decide to take the circus to another star system!

If she thought learning new laws and customs was going to be a challenge, it’s nothing compared to the sudden interest she’s getting from a huge blue alien known as the Grand Ruler! Ricki finds herself thinking words she didn’t even realize were in her vocabulary, most of them not in the least polite.

Ristéard is stunned when the great Empress, the strange alien female, foretold as his world’s savior, appears. He is even more astonished when she refuses his attentions! With the life of his planet at stake, not to mention his own peace of mind and body, he will do whatever is necessary to ensure she stays by his side.

Yet, there are forces working against him and Ricki. Dangers and traitors among his own council threaten them both. It will take all of Ristéard's resources, and a few unexpected allies, to complete the journey ahead of them.

Internationally acclaimed S.E. Smith presents a new action-packed story full of romance and adventure. Brimming with her signature humor, vivid scenes, and beloved characters, this book is sure to be another fan favorite!

Main Content: 190 (6x9) pages, 63,335 words

1

Earth: Twenty-four years before

The figure dressed in black slipped around the darkened trailer that was attached to the large truck. He held the parcel tightly against his chest, as if afraid that it might disappear. He paused when he heard the sound of a cough coming from the large tent followed by several voices. The bundle in his arms moved slightly, jerking his attention back to his mission.

He didn’t have much time. Stepping up to the trailer, he gently laid the tightly wrapped bundle on the step. For a brief moment, his hand hovered over the pale cheek. Sorrow and regret pulled at him, two emotions that he had never felt before.

“Be safe, my daughter, I will come for you when you are older if I can,” the soothing deep voice whispered in a strange dialect.

His vivid blue eyes darkened with sadness as he pulled an envelope from his shirt and tucked it in the blanket before straightening. He stepped back into the shadows of the trailer when the sound of the voices grew closer. It would be dawn soon and he needed to leave before it became light enough for him to be seen by the figures beginning to move around the clustered group of motorhomes.

He had just stepped behind the side of the trailer when he heard the door to it open. A slow, startled gasp followed by a hushed cry swept through the air. Leaning back, he waited to see if he had made the right decision.

“Walter!” a woman called out. “Walter, come here!”

“What is it, Nema?” the deep voice of the man called Walter asked.

In his mind, he could almost see what the woman had discovered: the same pale, delicate skin, the same vivid golden hair, and the promise of his own blue eyes, the only thing that his daughter had inherited from him that was obvious. Clenching his fists, he forced his body to remain still, silent, as he waited to see if they would accept the precious gift he had laid at their door.

“It’s a baby,” Nema whispered, her voice full of tears. “Isn’t she beautiful, Walter?”

“Now, Nema,” Walter started to say before his voice faded. “What’s this?”

The faint beam of a light came on followed by the whisper of paper. For a moment, only the faint sounds of a dog barking in the distance and the low-pitch croaking of frogs from a nearby pond broke the silence.

“What does it say?” Nema quietly asked.

“Please keep our daughter safe,” Walter murmured. “She needs a loving home where she can be accepted for who she is. Her name is Ricki. I give my heart to you to hold and protect… Please, care for her as if she was your own.”

“Oh, Walter,” Nema sniffed. “She’s beautiful. We have a daughter, a beautiful daughter of our own.”

“Nema…,” Walter started to say before he stopped with a sigh. “She is beautiful, just like you. We’re leaving in just a couple of hours.”

“We aren’t going to…,” Nema whispered hesitantly as she gazed down at the sleeping infant in her arms.

“No, I know of an attorney who can take care of the paperwork,” Walter replied in a gruff voice.

“Ricki,” Nema said tenderly. “Ricki Rose Bailey.”

“Nema,” Walter said.

“Rose wouldn’t mind,” Nema replied. “She would have loved having a baby sister named after her. I know she is looking down on her now and smiling with pride.”

“Ricki Rose is a beautiful name,” Walter replied in a tight voice as he thought of the beautiful daughter that they had lost a year ago at birth. He had come close to losing Nema as well. She had to have emergency surgery to prevent her from bleeding to death. As a result, they would never have the child that they had dreamed of. His fingers trembled as he hesitantly reached out to touch the sleeping infant’s cheek. When he looked up, he saw the hope, fear, and tears in his beloved wife’s eyes. “Just as beautiful as you are, Nema. I love you.”

Nema looked up and smiled. “I love you, too, Walter,” she whispered before she tsked. “Can you see if Mary has any formula? I need to get the things we had for Rose out. Oh, Walter, we have a little girl!”

Walter gazed at Nema’s tiny figure. At barely over three and a half feet tall, she looked no more than a child from the back. He appeared to tower over her at four feet one inch. A sigh escaped him as he thought of the two boxes hidden in the back of their bedroom closet. She had refused to let him give the baby gifts away, saying she wasn’t ready to let go. He knew she hoped they would one day adopt a baby, but he had doubts that any judge would allow them to.

It wasn’t because of the fact that they were both dwarves, but because of their lifestyle. As owners of the Cirque de Magik, a small but unique circus filled with unique characters from around the world, they were constantly on the move. He had taken every bit of money he had inherited and earned during his own life as a member of the circus to buy this show from its previous owners in the hope of making it one of the best shows ever seen.

A slow smile lit his face when he heard Nema singing softly. “I’m a father,” he chuckled. “We have a daughter.”

The figure standing in the shadows moved silently away as the door closed. The tightness in his chest eased slightly as he strode away from the roadside show he had discovered earlier. He had spent most of the day listening and watching from a distance. Deep down, he knew that this was the most promising place for keeping his daughter safe from those that would kill her like they had her mother.

He paused for just a brief moment to look at the strange collection of tents, trailers, and carnival sideshow exhibits one last time before he turned. Where he was going was no place for an infant. He did not see the two men studying him as he disappeared into the early morning mist.

Chapter Two

Ristéard touched the blood seeping from the cut along his cheek with the back of his left hand. His eyes narrowed on the two men and one woman that were circling him. Shifting the blade in his right hand, he pressed the button hidden in the handle.

His left hand dropped, catching the second blade as it separated from the first. Swirling around when the woman snarled at him and stepped forward, he sliced the blade in his left hand across her neck before continuing the circle to run the blade in his right hand across the upper thigh of one of the males.

Satisfaction coursed through him when the male dropped to the ground as he sliced through muscle, tendons, and veins. The male grabbed at his leg in a desperate bid to stem the blood pouring from the gaping wound. Ristéard knew the strike had cut through the femoral artery and the assassin would bleed to death in minutes without immediate medical attention.

“Who sent you?” Ristéard demanded as he circled the other assassin.

The male just shook his head and grinned, never taking his eyes off of him. He jerked back, blocking the blow when the man thrust his arm outward. A low curse escaped him when the blade of the sword suddenly extended and cut a long, shallow line along his neck.

Cold fury burned through his veins before a chilly calm settled over him. He would wipe the smug grin off the bastard’s face. Stepping back, he slid the short, thin blade in his left hand into a sheath at his waist. Rotating the blade in his right hand, he countered another thrust as he stepped to the side.

“I will get the answers I want and when I am done, you will wish you had been the first one to die instead of your comrades,” Ristéard said in a voice devoid of emotion.

“You’ll be the one dead, Grand Ruler,” the male hissed as he circled to Ristéard’s right. “You should have kept both blades, you might have had a chance.”

“Who says I didn’t,” Ristéard murmured with satisfaction.

He swung the weapon in his hand in an arc in front of him. His finger slid over the second button on the handle, releasing dozens of tiny blades tipped with a slow activating poison. The weapon was one of his own inventions and had saved his life many times in the past.

Surprise lit the face of the other male as the deadly missiles pierced his chest, arms, and stomach. Ristéard knew he would have just a short time to extract the information he wanted before the male died. He had learned from his grandfather’s murder that it was best to eliminate the threat as quickly as possible. His grandfather had died trying to get information out of one of the men that had come to kill him.

The loud clatter of the sword echoed through the long, dark corridor of the palace. He watched as the man sank down to his knees, his gaze glued to Ristéard’s cold silver eyes. The poison was already beginning to paralyze the assassin’s muscles.

“I expected you to resist longer,” the man whispered hoarsely.

“You expected wrong,” Ristéard replied, stepping forward. He tilted his head as he ran the tip of his blade along the man’s cheek where the woman had cut him. “Who sent you?”

“I will never… tell… you,” the man hissed out.

Ristéard shook his head. “Wrong answer,” he said coldly, striking the man and knocking him onto his side on the floor. “I will have the answers to my questions before I let you die.”

His eyes flickered to the door that glowed brightly before collapsing inward. Three of his four personal guards, each one carefully selected by him, briefly stood in the entrance surveying the room before stepping inside. Each of them were covered in blood, some of it their own, most of it from whomever they had fought.

They had returned to Elpidios only to discover a trap had been set for them. He expected no less. He knew there were members of the council who thought he was not doing enough to save their world. The fact that the bastards were the reason it was dying was a moot point.

“Ristéard,” Andras called as he, Emyr, and Sadao moved cautiously forward.

“Where is Harald?” Ristéard asked, turning his attention back to the dying man beginning to writhe in front of him as the poison slowly moved through his body.

“Playing with his assassin,” Emyr replied, glancing at the male on the floor before studying the other two dead assassins. “It looks like there were nine of them this time.”

“Find Harald,” Ristéard ordered, turning his attention back to his attacker. “I will meet you in my office once I’m done here.”

Andras raised his hand and the other two men nodded. A faint smile curved Ristéard’s lips. He knew that Andras would not leave him alone again. Bending down, he rolled the writhing figure onto his back.

“Now, you will tell me what you know,” he said, raising his blade.

Two hours later, Ristéard stood looking out the window of his office. The shields were holding over the planet, but barely. Soon, massive evacuations of the cities would be necessary and the secondary shields would have to be activated to protect only them.

The Blood Crystals he had returned with would temporarily help his world, but they needed more, much more, if it was to survive. His species could handle a greater amount of radiation than most, but even they could not survive if the levels increased much more. A knock on his office door drew his attention away from the muted sunlight shining through the tinted windows.

“Enter,” he ordered, turning to face the door.

His hand relaxed on the blade at his side when he saw Andras at the door. He nodded and turned back to study the city below him. Life moved on as if there was no concern that it could all end tomorrow.

The image of a delicate face suddenly formed in his mind. The face of a woman with hair the color of the sun, eyes the color of a newborn babe on Elpidios, and skin the color of the night flowers that only bloomed on the double full moons. Was the prophecy true? Was she the one who would save his world? If so, how? How could a woman, especially an alien from another world, save it when she knew nothing about them?

Andras silently walked across the room to stand next to him. For a moment, neither of them said anything as they looked down on the city. They had brought back a brief reprieve. The crystals the Kassisans replicated worked, but they were smaller and weaker than the ones once found in plentiful abundance on the surface of the planet.

Andras sighed heavily before he spoke. “The assassin Harald was after had no new information. All Harald was able to get from the male before he died was that the new leader would emerge on the anniversary of Elpidios Rising, an event that happened only once every two thousand years. It was a time when the third moon moved out of the shadow of its larger siblings and shone full. That is the same thing each of them has said over the past two years,” he stated. “I fear we are no closer to finding out who is behind the attacks now than we were before your father’s death. I say we kill all the council members and be done with it.”

An amused smile curved Ristéard’s lips at Andras’ comment. “You are beginning to sound like me,” he responded.

“Our world is dying,” Andras murmured, staring down at the movement of people far below. “Even with the Kassisan’s help, there is no way to produce enough to keep the shields active for any length of time. Already, there are parts of the planet that are becoming uninhabitable. It would be better to start the evacuation.”

“And what, seal ourselves below ground so we die a slower death?” Ristéard asked harshly. “No, there is one other option.”

Andras looked at Ristéard in surprise. “What option? Do the Kassisans have more crystals they would give us?” he asked with a puzzled frown.

“No, they supposedly have something much more valuable,” Ristéard replied, turning away from the window and walking over to his desk.

Andras glared at Ristéard’s back in frustration. “What do they have?”

Ristéard pressed a button on the tablet on his desk. The image of a female, the one he had been thinking about earlier, appeared. He stared at the pale alien features, surprised at the instant attraction he felt when he gazed at the vivid blue eyes looking back at him with just a touch of irritation in them. His lips curved upward as he remembered her low, furious words to him a few weeks before.

“The fabled Empress of Elpidios, my mythical bride,” Ristéard replied, looking up at Andras’ shocked face. “The prophecy states she will save our world. I suggest we put it to the test.”

Andras glanced from the holographic image of the woman to Ristéard and back again. His mouth opened and closed twice as he tried to think of how this strange, pale creature was supposed to be the prophesied Empress all young Elpidios’ children learned about at bedtime.

Skepticism darkened his features as he stared at his friend and leader. “Do you really believe it? She doesn’t even look like us. She is very… pale,” he added with a grimace. “Besides, everyone knows the legend is just a tale to give hope to young children.”

Ristéard continued to stare at the image, lost in thought. Yes, it was a tale told to give young children hope. Yet, behind all great tales, there is a thread of truth. He thought of one of his commanding officers, Mena Rue, and her passionate insistence that the ancient tablets her parents found spoke of the first sign telling of the coming of the great Empress.

What concerned him was the fact that so far, what had been foretold was actually happening! The battle against the traitorous Kassisan and the three unusual females who had saved the lives of Torak and Jazin Ja Kel Coradon, two of the three ruling members of the House of Kassis, were too much of a coincidence for him to ignore. Not only were there three great warrior women, they had been instrumental in saving the house of Kassis and they had brought back an unusual group of warriors, including a female that looked suspiciously like…

“Instruct Commander Rue that I want to see her immediately,” Ristéard suddenly ordered, looking up at Andras. “I also want any information Dedeis Rue and his bride have deciphered from the ancient tablets they have found.”

Andras bowed his head before he started for the door. He paused as it opened to turn and look at Ristéard with a frown. His eyes moved back to the holographic image.

“How do you propose finding out if she is truly the Empress that will save our world?” Andras asked quietly. “What if she does not agree to help us?”

Ristéard looked up from the image with a scowl. “She will,” he replied arrogantly.

“How do you know?” Andras asked.

“Because she will have no other choice,” Ristéard responded with a determined glint in his eye. “She will help us, even if I have to kidnap her to do it.”

Andras didn’t say anything for a moment before a reluctant grin tugged at his lips. It would appear that things were about to become very interesting… one way or the other. They were either going to discover they had found the prophesied Empress of the Elpidios Rising, or they were going to be at war with the Kassisans. Either way, life for the people of Elpidios, and their Grand Ruler, was about to change.

“I’ll instruct Commander Rue to come immediately and bring any information she might have,” Andras replied. “And, I’ll warn Emyr, Sadao, and Harald to prepare for a covert mission.”

Ristéard nodded in agreement. He slowly sank down into the large chair behind his desk, his eyes glued to the image of Ricki Bailey. For a moment, a sense of indecision washed through him. Pushing it aside, he leaned forward and tapped a command into the console on his desk.

A second image, this time from the ancient tablets Dedeis Rue had discovered, appeared. He wanted to compare the information Commander Rue brought him with what he had already obtained. For her sake, and the sake of her parents, it had better match or be more in depth than what he currently had on file.

“Who are you?” he whispered, carefully studying the two images. “How can this even be possible?”

The images were almost identical. The color on the stone tablet was faded and a portion of it was missing, but the facial features looked as if Ricki Bailey had posed for the etching on the two thousand year old stone. If there was one thing he did not like, it was unanswered questions.

“Enter,” he called when a soft knock sounded at the door.

The slender blue figure of a woman stepped inside, a sultry smile on her face. She was dressed in the traditional gown worn by most women. It wrapped around her figure and folded over one delicate, blue shoulder before being pinned by a large, black broach. He scowled when she closed the door behind her and reached up to unclasp the pin holding the top of her gown.

“I’d heard you had returned,” she whispered. “I am here to pleasure you, my lord Grand Ruler.”

Chapter Three

Ricki scanned the tent, looking for her father. A smile curved her lips when she saw he was talking with Stan, the computer genius behind many of their shows. Stan was a very nice man and had been trying to get her to go out with him for the past year.

The problem with that was she had a very strict rule about dating members of the circus. She wanted to make sure that anyone she dated was interested in her and not in her father and mother’s wealth. It would also make life difficult if things did not work out. Since she had no intentions of leaving the circus, it would mean either living with the person or they would have to leave.

Ricki considered herself a very calm, logical person who looked at all possible scenarios. Based on the probability of such a relationship not working out, she had decided the best avenue to maintain a happy and healthy work and home environment was to avoid any type of personal relationships with those that traveled with them. Since that only left dating those not associated with the circus, which was constantly on the move, it meant that she had not had any relationships to speak of. Oh, she had gone out on the occasional date with someone she had met during their travels, but she quickly found they were more enamored with her lifestyle than with her. That realization often turned into death for any promise of a second date.

Now, well… now, she might have to rethink her strict guidelines since they were no longer on Earth. Her gaze moved around the tent, taking in the familiar faces mixed with not so familiar ones. A light blush rose in her cheeks when she saw one of the Kassisan guards she had grown used to being around looking at her with interest.

No, she thought, schooling her face into the serene mask that she always wore when she felt self-conscious, things were not the same as they had been before.

Turning, she smiled at Jo Strauss, or Jo Ja Kel Coradon, as she was now called. Jo was her best friend and the only one who really knew and understood how inadequate Ricki often felt. She wasn’t talented like Jo and her younger sister, Star. She couldn’t fly through the air, or throw knives like River Knight-Ja Kel Coradon, or write complex programs like Stan, or make people laugh, or the hundreds of other things that her friends and surrogate circus family could do. She was good at two things, organizing things and dealing with the hundreds of complex problems that came with moving a circus the size of Cirque de Magik from one place to the other.

The smile on her face grew as she watched Marvin and Martin, the two Mimes who turned out to be aliens, stop Manota Ja Kel Coradon, Jo’s husband. She had always been fascinated by them. They were just so good at what they did that even she often got caught up in their antics. The discovery that they were not human didn’t make her think differently about them. If anything, it made them fit in even more. Her father and mother had welcomed such a variety of misfits and lost souls over the years that they were just part of the norm.

Who am I kidding, Ricki thought with a sigh. I’m just as much a misfit as the rest. Maybe that is why I never want to leave.

Her mom and dad had sat down with her when she was five years old and explained how she had come to be a part of their life. By then, she was almost as tall as her mom. She remembered asking her mom why she looked so different from them.

"Mom, why do I have yellow hair when you and Daddy both have brown hair," she remembered asking. "Star and Jo look like their parents, yet I don't look anything like you and Dad."

Her mother had looked at her dad for several long seconds before she had gently taken her hand and sat her down. Ricki remembered how her mom had told her about finding her on the steps of their trailer. She had listened carefully, nodding as both of her parents told her that she was a wonderful gift to them and they loved her very, very much.

“Do you think they will come back for me?” she had asked, afraid. “If we keep moving, they won’t be able to find me, right? I don’t want them to take me away from you and Dad.”

“Oh, Ricki,” Nema had responded, pulling her into her arms and holding her trembling body. “No, Ricki, we would never let them take you away from us. You are our little girl, isn’t that right, Walter? You are ours!”

“Damn right,” Walter assured her in a gruff voice. “We are your parents, Ricki. And let me tell you, every single member of this circus would fight to keep you with us, too. You are our little girl forever, no matter what!” he declared, throwing his arms out wide.

“You’re damn right, Dad,” Ricki declared passionately with a stubborn tilt to her chin. “I never want to leave you, Mom, or the circus!”

Ricki chuckled softly as she remembered her fierce response. It had taken both her and her parents by surprise, but it had been the moment she knew she would never leave the circus. Every single member accepted her as she was, just plain, ordinary Ricki. They didn’t care that she couldn’t do all the wonderful, magical things they could. They just loved her for being her… shy, logical, organized, practical Ricki.

“Ricki!” Jo called out, snapping her out of her reverie.

“Hi, Jo,” Ricki responded, chuckling when she heard a low snarl from Manota as Marvin pulled a long scarf out of his ear. “I hope Manota doesn’t kill them.”

Jo snorted and glanced over at Manota with a loving gaze. “Are you kidding me? After what those two turned into a few weeks ago? I don’t think anything could kill them.”

Ricki smiled when Martin turned to look at her. Her gaze softened at his intense, questioning look. It was as if he were trying to see her reaction. She bowed her head slightly to let him know that she was okay with his and Marvin’s new status as resident aliens of the circus.

“How is Thea doing?” Ricki asked quietly. “She was very upset. Has she forgiven them yet?”

Jo shook her head. “I don’t think so. She isn’t saying much, but I don’t think finding out the two men that she loves are something much different than she thought is what has her upset. I think it is the fact they didn’t tell her that is bothering her the most,” she replied with a sigh.

Ricki nodded, watching as the two brothers turned and silently walked out of the huge tent. “I think they are finished teasing your husband,” Ricki chuckled.

“I asked them to hold him off if he came after me,” Jo admitted with an amused twinkle in her eye. “Ever since he found out I was pregnant, he has been trying to keep me under lock and key. He is terrified of me doing anything.”

“Go to him,” Ricki murmured with a slightly sad smile. “He only wants to protect you. It is obvious he loves you very deeply.”

She watched as Jo turned to look at where Manota stood staring at them, worry and love in his eyes as he ran them over Jo’s slightly rounded figure. She nodded when Jo murmured she would see her later. Something told Ricki that Jo probably would be very occupied. Just thinking about that brought another faint blush to Ricki’s cheeks. She wondered what it would feel like to be loved so totally.

“You are as beautiful as ever, Ricki,” Stan commented, walking up to her. “When are you going to give in and let me take you to dinner?”

Ricki turned in surprise. She studied Stan for several long seconds before deciding that she needed to make a decision. She was no longer on Earth. If she was going to have a relationship, wasn’t it better to be with someone she knew, trusted, and respected? Stan was all of those things. While he did not make her pulse speed up like…

“How about tonight?” Ricki suddenly responded, jerking her thoughts away from where they were going. “That is if… “

“Tonight is great,” Stan immediately agreed with an easy grin. “I’ll come by your trailer just before dark. There is this great place in town that I’ve found.”

Ricki tilted her head in agreement and pushed her glasses up. “That sounds lovely,” she said with a nervous smile. “I look forward to seeing you later this evening. If you’ll excuse me, I have a few things to discuss with my father. Until later.”

Ricki nodded and gave Stan a shy smile, watching as he turned and walked over to where one of the clowns was working on some of the rigging and needed some help. She refused to acknowledge the flutter in her stomach. It was past time that she made a decision on what she wanted to do with her life. Stan had proven he was dependable, nice, caring, and now it didn’t matter about her parents' wealth; she highly doubted Earth currency was accepted here.

“Dad, I need to talk to you about a few things if you have a moment,” Ricki called, turning back to her father.

Walter glanced at Ricki and felt a wave of pride and worry before he turned his attention back to Marcus. The ‘Magician Extraordinaire’ was really a master pickpocket and street hustler who had learned his trade on the streets of Las Vegas. He was just one of dozens of people that had gravitated to the circus, looking for a way of life that both protected them from their past and gave them the rush they needed.

“I’ll be right there, Ricki,” Walter responded with a nod. “Marcus, work with Stan to check how everyone is doing tomorrow. This is still new to everyone and I know that some of the scientists are coming tomorrow to check the animals we have.”

Marcus grimaced. “You know how protective Katarina is about her cats, Walter,” he groaned. “She is just as likely to tell them to eat the aliens than allow any of them near one of her babies.”

“Well, make sure she doesn’t,” Walter grunted as he turned away. “Tell her to keep those damn cats under control, that eating our hosts won’t help them accept us.”

“Damn it,” Marcus grumbled, turning away. “I hate dealing with that crazy Russian. She always sends one of those damn cats after my ass.”

“Yeah, well, she wouldn’t have if she hadn’t caught you trying to stuff the ocelot cub in one of your magical disappearing boxes,” Stan observed, wiping his hands from where he was helping one of the clowns with some equipment. “I warned you she was protective of them.”

Walter shook his head as the two men walked out of the tent. Marcus was right, Katarina Danshov was extremely picky about her assortment of feline companions, to the point she was never without one or more of them by her side. He didn’t question how she kept them under control. Now that he knew aliens actually existed, he decided that it wasn’t so strange after all.

“What do you need, love?” Walter asked, looking up at her. “I swear you grow more beautiful each day. When are you going to find you a young man? You know your mom is itching to have a grandbaby.”

Ricki rolled her eyes and pressed her lips together to keep the groan from escaping. Now that River, Star, and Jo were expecting, her mom had been dropping hints about how she would love to have a grandson or granddaughter to cuddle with.

She just kept pointing out that in order to have a baby that it helped to have a husband first. That led to her mom posting a long list of eligible men on her tablet this morning. Shaking her head at her dad, she stared down at the tablet in her hand instead.

“You are just as bad as Mom,” Ricki grumbled under her breath.

Walter huffed and folded his arms across his chest. “We aren’t getting any younger and neither are you,” he stated before his gaze softened on her flushed cheeks. “We just don’t want you to be alone, Ricki. If something should happen to your mom and I…”

Ricki’s gaze quickly focused on her dad’s face. Concern and fear darkened her vivid blue eyes as she stared down at him. For a moment, she bit her lip in worry. Was either one of them sick? She could schedule an appointment with the healers here. The medical staff seemed much more sophisticated than back on Earth. Surely if something was wrong, the doctors here could cure it.

“Are you or Mom sick?” Ricki asked in a husky tone. “I can schedule an appointment with Shavic immediately. River says he is wonderful.”

Walter’s arms fell to his side before he reached over and gripped Ricki’s hand in reassurance. Shaking his head, he led her over to the aluminum stands and waited for her to sit down. Nema had asked him to have a talk with Ricki.

“Uh, Ricki, I’ve been meaning to discuss something with you,” Walter began in an uncomfortable voice as he paced slightly back and forth in front of where she was sitting. “Your mom and I… well… She thought it might be better if I talked to you about this, to give you a little of a man’s point of view and all.”

Ricki’s eyes widened before she lowered her eyelids to hide the amusement and mortification in them. Something told her she wasn’t going to like what her father had to say. Her eyes flickered up to his face again when he cleared his throat.

“Now, Ricki,” he started out gruffly. “There are some things in life that happen naturally. Take for example, a man meeting a woman or vice-versa. When a man finds a woman attractive, he will show it in many different ways. If he knows what is good for him, he’ll do the right thing and come ask me for permission to court you.”

Ricki watched her dad with rounded eyes when he suddenly stopped in front of her and glowered at her with a fierceness that had sunk men four times his height. She had discovered it wasn’t height that made a man, but the way he carried himself. Her dad was taller and fiercer than any of the alien warriors… even the big blue one, in her personal opinion.

“And if he doesn’t?” Ricki asked in curiosity, tilting her head to look at her dad. “What then?”

“I’ll roast his balls over an open flame and feed the rest of his ass to Katarina’s tigers,” her dad growled in a low, fierce tone. “If the man respects you, he’ll come ask me first. If he doesn’t, he isn’t worth Tony’s elephant piss, if you ask me.”

Ricki blinked several times before she bit her lip and looked toward the opening of the tent. “I… Stan,” she started to say before looking back at her dad.

“Stan already asked me if he could court you,” Walter replied with a sigh. “He has been bugging the hell out of me for over a year now.”

“Dad, you don’t think that, maybe, courting might be a little old fashioned, do you? I mean, I am twenty-four,” Ricki replied in a gentle, soothing tone. “I’m old enough to make my own decisions.”

She set the tablet that she was holding down on her lap when her dad reached his hands out to her. Grasping his smaller, thicker fingers with her long, slender ones, she felt his reassuring squeeze. Her face softened with love when she saw how worried he really was about her.

“You may be twenty-four, Ricki, but you’ll always be my little girl,” he said. “I’m an old-fashioned father, if you haven’t noticed. I promised your mother’s parents the day I asked for her hand in marriage that I would always protect her. I made that same promise to your mother when she found you. Personally, I don’t think any man is good enough for you, but if I had to choose one, Stan would almost be. He can be a goof-ball sometimes, but his heart is in the right place.”