“Heeze,” Neeve muttered as she looked around the gilded entrance hall. “I don’t think she’s here after all.”
She turned to look at Mac who was staring up the stairs, his mouth open. “Who are all these women?”
She checked out the six or seven women who were running down the stairs toward them. “Them? Mainly my sisters and some of them are cousins.”
“You have good genes in your family.”
“Or you could say my mother picks great partners.” She braced herself for the impact of a tidal wave of loving concern. “Hi siblings and cousins. This is Captain McNeill. He’s mine, so don’t touch him. Is our mother here?”
Sylvia stepped forward and threw her arms around Neeve. “It’s so good to see you! I’ve missed you. We’ve all missed you.”
“So Aleya told me.” She forced herself to relax her shields a little. “It’s good to see you all, but where is she?”
“Mother’s at the sacred place. It’s the festival of life week.” Sylvia tugged on Neeve’s arm. “But aren’t you going to come in and visit with us? I’m sure we’d all love to hear what you’ve been up to and how you met Captain McNeill.”
“I’m sorry, Sylvia, but I’m three days away from a mating meltdown, and I really need to speak to mother.”
“Oh, I understand.” Sylvia smiled again. “Perhaps you’ll come by when you’ve seen her.
Neeve held onto her youngest sister’s hand. “I’m sorry, I really mean it.”
“It’s all right. Duty must come before pleasure.”
“Exactly.” That wasn’t what Neeve meant at all, but if it worked for her female relatives then she’d go for it. She grabbed Mac’s hand.
“Put your tongue back in your mouth, and let’s go.”
He obediently followed her out and back into the limo Ash had lent her.
“Why didn’t you mention that you grew up in a palace?”
“Why do you think?”
“You weren’t happy there?”
“Did you see those women?”
“Then you’ll know why I ran away with Malke.”
“I don’t understand.”
“They are all happy living there, waiting to meet their mates and live out the rest of their lives on Pavlovan. None of them want to go to college or explore space, or do anything other than maintain a series of religious traditions that go back for centuries.”
“So they do perform a function within your society.”
“Yes, I didn’t say they were useless, did I? I just said I didn’t want to be one of them.”
He sat back and crossed one leg over the other. “What kind of religious traditions?”
“They serve the Oracle.”
“And you didn’t want to do that.”
“And were you prevented from doing what you wanted?”
She sighed. “Obviously not, but it still wasn’t easy. All that love and concern made me feel worse for wanting to be different than if they’d all hated me and prevented me from leaving.”
“I know what you mean. My wife didn’t want me to get involved in the super soldier program because she loved me. I chose to ignore her. While I was away being enhanced she got sick. I didn’t know about it because my superiors told her that taking me out of the program at that point would’ve killed me. Because she loved me, she chose to die alone.”
“That’s love.” He shrugged. “They wouldn’t even let me attend her funeral.”
“I’m so sorry.” She sighed. “And now I feel like an idiot for stamping my foot about being loved too much.”
“You shouldn’t. That’s what I’m trying to say. Sometimes love can be stifling.”
“We’re going to have to find my mother.”
“I got that.”
“Chase will help us get organized. Do you think Kaiden will be all right to stay here with the others?”
“I don’t see why not.”
On their return to Ash’s apartment, Mac made certain to go down to the lower level and visit with his fellow soldiers. He paused in the entrance hall but didn’t pick up anything, but contented thoughts and happy people. Everyone seemed to have settled in far more easily than he had expected.
Bevan and Dec were sitting in front of a screen watching some kind of documentary about Pavlovan. He took a seat on the couch and Dec paused the picture.
“How are things?” Mac asked.
“Pretty good so far. Thanks to Ash, we’ve had a constant stream of visitors asking us about our current careers, prospects, interests, etc.”
“And everyone is okay with that?”
Bevan shrugged. “Why wouldn’t we be? Having been thrown out with the trash on Earth, and left to deal with the shit they did to us without any help, being on a planet where telepaths are valued is a nice change.”
“You’re not missing Earth?”
“No.” Dec sat forward and focused his intelligent gaze on Mac. “Why—are you?”
“Not at all, but I came here because of Dr. Neeve.”
“And we came because we trust you and Commander Kaiden.” He shrugged. “None of us left anyone important back on Earth. Since being enhanced and discarded we’ve all struggled to readjust to society and maintain any kind of relationship with our families.”
Mac grimaced. “I know.”
“But being here?” Dec smiled. “With all these people thinking along with us? It’s fucking amazing.”
Bevan nodded. “It is.”
“I have to go away for a couple of days, is Kaiden around?” Mac said.
“I think he was out on the deck with Roberts.”
“Then I’ll go and find him.” Mac gave the two men a casual salute. “Good to see you both settling in.”
Dec waved as he returned his attention to the screen and Mac went out onto the deck that spanned the entire side of the apartment. Kaiden was still out there playing some kind of ball game with Roberts.
“Mac.” Kaiden caught the ball and came over, his rare smile breaking out. “How are you?”
“I’m doing fine. I just wanted to check in on you all.”
“As you can see. So far so good. No anxiety issues, no demands to be taken back to Earth and no crying in their sleep. This is a positive thing for these men, Mac. None of them are too stupid to appreciate the opportunity.”
“I noticed.” Mac stared out over the impressive Pavlovan sky scrape. “I have to go away with Neeve for a few days.”
“Do you want me to accompany you?”
“No, I think we’ll be fine—unless you want to come. I was hoping you’d stay here and keep an eye on the guys.”
Kaiden tossed the ball back to Roberts and moved closer to Mac. “You don’t need me as a third?”
He didn’t sound upset and Mac wasn’t getting anything negative telepathically either. “I think we’re good, but thanks for the offer.”
“Always willing to oblige a fellow officer.”
Mac grinned at him. “Thanks, I’ll remember that if you ever need me to fill in as a third for you.”
“I don’t think Neeve would let you.”
“If we’re really mated, I suppose not. But that’s what this trip is about. To find the Oracle and get her decision.”
Kaiden’s cool gaze searched his. “And you’ll abide by what she says?”
“I promised Neeve I would.”
“Good man.” Kaiden slapped him on the shoulder hard enough to hurt. “I wish you luck. I’ll take care of everything here until you get back.”
“Thank you, Commander.”
Two hours later, Mac was on a private shuttlecraft with an increasingly tense Neeve. As the altitude lowered, he looked out of the window onto acres of bright yellow greenness.
“Looks like a tropical jungle down there.”
“It’s very similar. There’s a temple at Quoxor. My mother will be there.”
“With the Oracle?”
“Kind of.” She nodded and pushed her hair out of her eyes. “I’m not the best of companions when my mother is around, so I’ll apologize in advance.”
“What’s the problem?”
“She wants me to be just like her, to be her, and I just can’t do it.”
“I can’t imagine anyone telling you what to do.”
“You haven’t met my mother.”
“Is she a powerful telepath like Ash?”
Neeve shuddered. “Way worse than Ash.” The shuttle set down and the pilot started on the precautionary checks. “Let’s get our stuff.”
He stepped out onto the red soil and inhaled a familiar mixture of humidity, damp soil and rotting vegetation, which reminded him of some of his more hair raising missions in Earth’s jungles. Allowing his gaze to move upward he marveled at the huge bell shaped flowers and hanging vines that almost obscured the skyline.
“Come on. It’s a bit of a hike.”
He grabbed his backpack, hefted it over his shoulder and followed Neeve and the two guides up a path cut into the hillside. Around him strange winged creatures called out and were answered by others and the undergrowth bristled with insect activity. As he walked he breathed deep and tried to relax. Meeting the Oracle and Neeve’s mother was going to be interesting…
They kept climbing until even his breathing was ragged and the air seemed thinner. His shirt was soaked with sweat and so was Neeve’s. He paused to take a drink of water and looked down on the valley beneath him.
“How much further is it?”
Neeve was drinking water as well. “Not too far.” She pointed upward. “Do you see the white buildings up ahead?”
He saw a glimmer of what looked like pearlescent marble shimmering in the dying rays of the sun above him. “It looks like another palace.”
“It’s the Temple of Quoxor.”
“And your mother’s there?”
“Yes.” She hesitated. “Are you still okay with all this?”
“After coming all this way? The least I can do is say hello before you make me walk back down there.”
She reached down and cupped his chin. “Thank you, Mac.”
They started moving again and within a few minutes they came to the edge of a flat man made plateau tiled with the gleaming white stone with a massive staircase leading up to the next level. Mac wasn’t paying particular attention to the architecture because the area was crowded with half-naked men and women who all seemed to be having a wonderful time.
“What’s going on?” He asked Neeve.
“It’s the festival of life.”
“And what exactly does that entail?”
She raised her eyebrows at him. “What do you think?”
She kept moving and he had to follow her, avoiding the hands that grabbed at his clothing or murmured a sexual invitation for him to slow down, strip off and fuck.
He narrowly avoided having his balls stroked by a female with abundant breasts and mounted the stairs where the crowds thinned out.
“This is the temple, proper. We need to remove our shoes.”
“And our clothes?”
“Not quite yet.” Neeve took an obvious deep breath and reached for his hand. “Let’s do this.”
He let her lead him up into the much quieter inner realm of the temple. Huge stone statues guarded the walls and a thousand lights flickered overhead. He smelled incense and was reminded of a Buddhist temple he’d visited on Earth. As they approached the highest and smallest of the structures, a murmur arose and spread like the sighing of a breeze. Those in the temple began to drop to their knees as he and Neeve passed them, opening up a straight pathway to a golden throne where a figure dressed all in white sat presiding over the room.
The scale of her telepathic power made Mac stagger as her gaze turned toward them. Neeve urged him forward. It took all his courage not to balk when she rose to greet them and her psychic energy roared through him exposing all his pathetic secrets and weaknesses.
He didn’t need her to tell him to kneel. He did it automatically.
It took him a moment to notice that Neeve had remained standing. The magnificent masked female inclined her head an inch.
“Daughter. Do you bring me this male?”
Mac was still trying to deal with the ramifications of Neeve’s mother being the Oracle when Neeve pulled him to his feet.
“He is not of this planet.”
“I know that, daughter, but he is acceptable to us.”
“Are you quite sure?”
The Oracle smiled. “You are the only female alive who would dare to question the word of the Gods.” She turned to Mac and placed a hand on his head. “Ian Fraser McNeill, I designate you First Male to the Oracle’s First Daughter.”
Mac shivered as the Oracle turned to Neeve. “Be at peace, Neeve. I will not be argued with here.”
Neeve slowly fell to her knees. “I’m sorry, but, are you quite sure about this? I mean he’s human and—”
The Oracle held up her hand. “I have spoken. The Gods have spoken. Do you wish to disgrace me here in my own temple First Daughter?”
Mac jumped as a wave of power washed over him and Neeve lowered her gaze to the floor.
“All right. I accept your decree, but I don’t like it.” She reached for Mac’s hand and they were both shaking. “Thank you.”
“You will remain here at the temple until I give you leave to return to the capital.”
Neeve nodded and they both retreated slowly down the steps. Mac retained his grip on her hand as she led him through a series of ornate rooms and then through a small door out onto a long furnished balcony.
“Oh, dear Gods, freking hal.” she whispered and sank down on one of the chairs. “Heeze. I’d forgotten how powerful she was.” She looked up at Mac. “Are you okay?”
He sat down beside her and held up his hand, which was still shaking. “Barely. It would’ve been nice if you’d told me your mother was the Oracle. It also explains why you were able to get us all away from Earth.”
“I didn’t want to tell you. I was too scared.”
“That’s honest, at least.” He flopped down onto his back and stared up at the ornate ceiling where several fans slowly turned. “She’s fricking terrifying.”
She lay down beside him. “I know. Imagine what it was like being her daughter.”
He raised himself up on one elbow to look at her. “Is that why you ran away?”
“Partly. I had three older sisters but they all died and suddenly I was the next in line.” She swallowed hard. “It’s impossible to protect yourself from her. And Gods I tried. I felt like I had to curl up into a tight ball inside my own head to keep her out, to stop her overwhelming me…” She sighed. “And when I did that, I started to lose myself. That’s why I ran away to stop being consumed by her love and her attention. That sounds crazy, I know. But I never imagined I’d be under pressure to take her place as the Oracle one day.”
“Can she make you?”
“What do you think?”
It certainly explained why Neeve was so bloody hard to get to know. “Damn. Then why did she just confirm me as your First Male?”
“Because the Oracle can have mates.” She hesitated. “In fact, she can have as many as she likes.”
Mac stared at her. “You’re kidding.”
“I never joke about my mother.” She reached over to pat his hand. “You will always be number one, though.”
“Thanks.” He grabbed her elbow and brought her down over him. “Where are we right now?”
“In our suite.”
“Is it private?”
“As private as you can get in a temple this size.”
He wrapped his hand around the back of her neck, brought his mouth to hers and kissed her until she relaxed and kissed him back. She murmured his name and moved against him rubbing her core against the growing swell of his cock.
“I want you, Princess Neeve.”
“Don’t call me that.”
He smiled at her disgruntled tone. “Right now, right here.”
She wiggled against him and he slipped a hand between their bodies to rub her clit through her damp panties.
“Now that we’re all official…” He slid two fingers inside her and eased them back and forth until she moved with him. “And I’ve met the family and survived your mother.” He pressed his thumb hard against her clit. “And I’m your First Male…”
He flipped her onto her back and shoved down his pants. “I’m going to fuck your fucking princess brains out.”
Much later, Neeve disentangled herself from a sleeping Mac and headed to the shower. When she emerged onto the balcony, her mother was sitting in one of the chairs. Neeve glanced back at the bedroom where she’d finally persuaded Mac to move to, and considered the open sliding window.
“He’s sleeping, Neeve. He won’t hear us unless you start an argument with me.”
“But I always start an argument with you.” Neeve went over to her mother and knelt in front of her. “Oracle.”
“I’m not in the temple now, dear. You can call me Mom.”
“I’ve never called you that, you must be confusing me with one of my other siblings.”
Her mother patted the seat beside her. “Oh, do sit down, Neeve, and stop being so prickly. Just call me Gisele if you prefer. It is my given name.”
“You’d allow me to be so familiar?”
“Only in private. You are my First Daughter now.”
“And I still don’t want to succeed you as the Oracle.”
Gisele’s beautiful mouth turned down at one corner. “I can’t force you to make that choice, but I do insist that now you have returned to us you at least consider keeping up with your studies.”
“I’ll do that if you stop bugging me about it, and you tell all my sisters to stop bugging me, too.”
“I’ll do my best. But you can understand how they worry.”
“Then pick one of them! They’d all kill for the position of First Daughter.” Neeve was aware that her voice was rising. Something about her mother always reduced her to a teenager stamping her foot.
“I can’t do that, Neeve. You know that.” Warmth flowed from her mother’s mind enclosing Neeve in a telepathic hug. “Your male is very beautiful.”
Neeve glanced over at the bedroom where Mac lay sprawled facedown naked on the bed, one long leg bent at the knee and a hand trailing on the floor.
“I suppose he is.”
Gisele smiled. “And I understand he has excellent sexual endurance.”
“You’ve been spying on me on Earth all the time, haven’t you?”
“I have kept an eye on you. Your mating is of importance to me and your nation.”
“Don’t tell Mac that or he’ll be running for the hills. He’s still trying to get his head around the idea of a permanent threesome.”
“As my heir, you can have as many mates as you want.”
“I know.” Neeve forced a smile. “I think I’ll just start with this one, okay?”
Gisele reached for her hand. “I was sorry to hear about Malke’s death. It must have been very difficult for you left all alone on that strange closed-minded planet.”
“Actually, in some ways it was a relief. I didn’t have to guard my thoughts as I grieved as no one could pick them up. I do miss him terribly, though. He was so kind to me, so…understanding.”
“He would’ve made a good Second to your new First.”
“Does that mean our initial triad will remain incomplete?”
“Oh no, I don’t think so. In fact, this evening I’ve arranged for you and Mac to mingle with the revelers who have come to enjoy the festival of life.”
“You think we’ll find a third here?” Neeve frowned at her mother. “What do you know that I don’t?”
Her mother’s silvery laugh chimed like bells. “Oh Neeve, love. I’m the Oracle. What don’t I know?
Mac held tight to Neeve’s hand as they wandered through the temple. She was attempting to explain what the architecture and art meant to the Pavlovans and he was doing his best to take it all in. People who wanted to congratulate them on their union or simply to bow down at Neeve’s feet kept interrupting them. Luckily, she seemed to find it as uncomfortable as he did.
A soft command flowered in Mac’s head and he instinctively turned toward the dais where the Oracle sat on her throne, smiling and waving at the crowds. He’d woken up to find the Oracle, or Gisele as she’d asked him to call her in private, sitting with Neeve on the balcony discussing something about potential new duties. It had taken him a moment to realize he was stark naked and that she was happily commenting on the magnificence of his erection before he had the sense to wrap a sheet around his loins and join them.
Neeve squeezed his hand. “She wants us to go up there.”
“I got that. Are you okay about all this?”
“The mating with you part is fine, the rest of it? I’m not sure. I never wanted this, Mac. I don’t know if I can bear such immense responsibility.”
He looked down at her. “Whatever you chose to do, I’ll stick it out with you, okay?”
She reached up to kiss his cheek. “That is the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me. Thank you.”
They walked toward the flower-strewn dais and ascended the steps at the rear. The Oracle stood up and came toward them. She wore a headdress that glittered with colored gems and a white silk robe that concealed very little of her still youthful figure. She stood between them and took their hands in hers leading them toward the edge of the platform.
Her voice rang out over the crowds both physically and telepathically commanding complete attention.
“I give you my First Daughter, Neeve and her First Male Ian McNeill!”
Mac just managed to blink as a shower of flower blossoms were thrown straight at his head The crowd’s upturned faces were full of joy as they roared their approval. Mac had the weirdest sensation that he was standing on the edge of a precipice and that his life would never be the same again. Which when he came to think about it, was true. He could never go back to Earth now unless Neeve came with him…
“Are you okay?”
He looked down into her anxious hazel eyes. “Yes, it’s just different, you know?”
“My mother wants to give you a gift. She asks us to follow her into her chamber.”
He followed her through into the private guarded rooms of the Oracle where Gisele awaited them. She snapped her fingers and six males appeared and went down on their knees before Mac.
He looked at the Oracle. “What’s this?”
“Your personal guard.”
“With all due respect, I’m a super soldier. I can take care of myself.”
The Oracle snapped her fingers again, and the men withdrew.
“Neeve’s life is still in danger and now that you are her acknowledged mate, so is yours. The Etruscans would like nothing better than to assassinate the Oracle and her newly acknowledged heir. I would ask that while you are with me in the temple that you accept this arrangement.”
“You fear for her life here on Pavlovan?”
The Oracle shrugged. “She is the fourth of my daughters to be proclaimed my heir. I doubt all her siblings died naturally. It’s the only reason I allowed her to go to Earth for three years.”
Neeve put her hands on her hips. “What do you mean, you let me? I ran away!”
“Only because I didn’t stop you, love.” The Oracle smiled and returned her attention to Mac. “I need you to be on your guard.”
“Then I will do my best to protect her. I’m still not sure if I need extra help.”
“Then you will consider these men your guides for this area and for any trips you intend to make to explore the interior of our country.” The Oracle fixed him with a penetrating gaze. “In fact, I have arranged for you to take a trip up the Goachuqu River while Neeve and her siblings spend a few days together.”
“You’re getting rid of me, already?”
She smiled. “It is necessary.”
“But, we’ve only just been mated.”
“Neeve will be fine for the next week. She will need you when you return.”
“You know this.”
Beside him Neeve stirred, but he didn’t take his gaze off Gisele.
“I am the Oracle. I know when a female goes into her breeding cycle.”
Neeve sighed and took his hand. “I’ll be fine, Mac. You should go and enjoy yourself.”
“Are you sure?”
“I have to deal with my sisters at some point. It might as well be now.”
“Then I’ll do as you wish.” He brought her hand to his mouth and kissed her fingers. “When do you want me to leave, Oracle?”
He released Neeve and turned to bow to his mate’s mother. “You are efficient, I’ll give you that.”
Her smile was benevolent. “Only because I knew you’d say yes.