Callum (Seven Brides for Seven Alien Brothers Book 3)
Callum stepped up onto the porch of the ranch house, then paused to shake the snow off his horns. The snow had started falling earlier that day and a white blanket already covered the valley surrounding the ranch. He took a moment to appreciate the peaceful sight. During the ten years they had endured on Vizal, fighting a meaningless war, it had never snowed. Most of the time it was hot and humid and unpleasant. During the brief winter it was just as damp, with a cold mist that seeped into your bones, but no soft carpet of white ever hid the atrocities of war.
But he had grown up on Harkatan, and he still remembered the excitement of the first snowfall. It was one of the few untainted memories of his home world, but he firmly pushed it aside before other, less pleasant, memories had a chance to surface.
The ranch house was unusually silent when he entered, muffled not only by the falling snow but also by the absence of his family – the military brothers who had also been part of that war. Despite the silence, he knew that Artek would not have left his new human bride alone after the events of the past few days. Sure enough, his brother was sitting in the kitchen, frowning at a mug of coffee.
“You look serious,” Callum said as he went to the stove for his own cup of the oddly addictive human beverage.
Artek only grunted and Callum shot him a worried look. He had known the other male since Artek was ten years old and Artek’s father had hired Callum to train the boy in fighting and weaponry. Callum had been twenty-three, already a seasoned campaigner, and he hadn’t expected to think much of the spoiled son of a Kemberian lord. But instead of an arrogant, entitled heir like his own brother, he’d found a quiet solemn child, already bearing the weight of his responsibilities on his thin shoulders.
He hadn’t intended to remain in the position for long, but he’d rapidly grown fond of the boy and couldn’t face the thought of leaving him to his uncaring parents. When Artek reached adulthood and his father coldly informed him that it was his duty to lead a squad into battle, Callum followed him. He’d followed him again when he and the rest of their squad decided to make a new home for themselves on this backwater planet. He hadn’t expected to find restoring the neglected ranch as gratifying as he did, but these past few years had brought an unexpected peace – to all of them.
But right now, Artek did not appear peaceful, and Callum was sure he knew the source of his brother’s distress.
“It wasn’t your fault,” he said quietly.
“Yes, it was,” Artek burst out. “I should have realized that Nelly might be in danger and insisted that someone accompany her at all times.”
“You had no way of knowing. We’ve been on the ranch for almost two years and we’ve never seen any signs of the adyani except near the high pastures.”
The adyani were the only large predators native to Cresca and they usually kept to the high mountain ranges. Unfortunately, one had found its way to the river valley and threatened Artek’s new bride.
“But you saw the signs,” Artek said, his voice heavy with guilt. “I even asked Endark to track them down.”
“Those signs were nowhere near the ranch house,” he reminded Artek. “And Nelly was not injured.”
“Thank the gods that Frantor heard her cry out. I don’t know what I would have done if anything happened to her.”
Callum understood only too well the pain of losing the female you loved, even though in his case that love had not been returned. But Artek had been far more successful with his mating. Nelly was a worthy bride who clearly returned his feelings.
“Especially now,” Artek added, giving Callum a haunted look. “I could have lost both of them.”
“But you did not,” he said firmly. “You have your bride and in the spring, you will have your child.”
An unexpected spike of longing speared through him. He had long ago accepted that he would never sire a child. Artek was the closest thing he would ever have to a son. As much as he valued their relationship, he did sometimes long for a larger family. But it was not to be.
He pushed the thought aside and returned to trying to distract Artek from his guilt.
“And where is your bride?” he asked. “It seems strange to be in the kitchen without her.”
Artek immediately scowled at him, just as Callum had intended.
“I didn’t bring her here just to cook for us.”
“I know. But you must admit that it’s an improvement,” he said, looking around at the sparklingly clean kitchen.
The seven of them had been more focused on building up the ranch and restoring the working buildings before Nelly arrived. Since none of them had any skill at cooking, they had allowed the kitchen to deteriorate into a disgraceful state. She had not been happy to discover the state of the ranch house, but once she realized that their neglect was due more to ignorance than laziness, she had set them to work.
Each of them had been assigned chores. He had always been too much of a loner to be the kind of commander that Artek was, but Nelly had a similar skill. She had found tasks for all of them that had complimented their natural abilities.
“I told her to stay in bed,” Artek said firmly. “I am concerned that the stress of the attack and the news that she is with child is too much of a strain on her.”
Callum opened his mouth to comment, then shut it again. He was quite sure that Nelly would not put up with being confined to bed rest for very long, but better to let her address it with Artek. He had every confidence that she could rein in Artek’s overprotective instincts.
He bit back a smile when she appeared in the kitchen a few minutes later. She was an attractive female – tall and graceful – although he personally preferred dark hair and lush curves. Pearl’s image flashed through his mind. The small human female was a friend of Nelly’s and even though he’d only encountered her on two occasions, every detail about her was etched on his mind – from her soft smiling face to the hidden sorrow that lurked in those deep blue eyes.
Not to mention the feel of luscious curves pressed against him when they had accidentally collided. He had automatically put his hands on her waist to hold her upright – and he hadn’t wanted to release her. His cock twitched at the memory, as it did far too frequently. She was human and he couldn’t even expect the type of mate bond he should have experienced with a Harkatan female.
But several of his brothers were enthusiastic about finding human brides of their own. Inspired by a story Nelly had told them from human history, both Benjar and Endark had set off earlier that day to retrieve their brides. Amused by the endeavor, Drakkar had accompanied them although he had no intention of obtaining a bride of his own. Neither did Callum, but he wished them well – or at least he did until Nelly found out about the scheme.
“It was just a story,” she cried.
His reassurance that his brothers would never hurt a female did not seem to comfort her. But then she pointed out the one element they had not taken into consideration – that the females would have families that worried about them. He no longer felt any tie to his birth family, but if one of his brothers went missing? He would never abandon the search.
He saw the same understanding on Artek’s face and rose to his feet.
“I’ll go after them,” he said, refusing Artek’s assistance. “Stay here with your wife and child to be.”
Artek looked torn, but when Nelly asked him to stay with her he agreed.
Callum assured them that he would do his best to prevent any females from being taken and went to collect his horse. Despite his promise, he found himself hoping that he would make it as far as town before he caught up with them. Perhaps he could even stop by and talk to Pearl. Just to reassure her that Nelly is doing well. He headed for the barn with an unusual eagerness in his step.
Pearl slipped through the door of her house and shut it quietly behind her. She looked around at the wide entrance hall, richly paneled in local wood, the imported carpet, and the ornately framed paintings, and sighed. Everything was luxurious and expensive, but the house had never felt like hers. She would rather be back in the tiny two room apartment she’d just left, especially if she could have been there with a baby of her own. Her heart ached at the memory of that small, warm body tucked against her shoulder.
Don’t be foolish, she scolded herself. As much as she envied Kitty for her baby, she wasn’t naïve enough to believe that Kitty was going to have an easy time. The pretty young woman was one of the few newcomers to town. She’d shown up a year ago and taken a job in the saloon only to become pregnant a few months later. The father of the child – who Kitty refused to name – had not stepped forward. And the conservative lifestyle that Josiah Wainwright, the founder of their town, had established made an unmarried woman with a child a social outcast.
Pearl was quite prepared to ignore those conventions, but many of the other inhabitants of Wainwright would not. Ironically, it was the very luxury she despised which enabled her to offer Kitty the limited amount of help she would accept.
“Pearl? Is that you?” Ruby came dancing out into the hall, smiling at her sister. “I’m so glad you’re home. Becky just finished my dress in time for the dance tonight. Isn’t it pretty?”
Her sister twirled in front of her, showing off the pretty blue dress adorned in lace and ruffles. Somewhat over-adorned in Pearl’s opinion, but it was what her sister wanted and she hadn’t had the heart to say no.
Ruby was the other reason her momentary desire for a small apartment was foolish. Everything she had ever done had been to make sure that her sister could be this happy and carefree.
Pearl had been eight years old when her sister was born, and she’d loved her since the first moment she saw her. The birth had been hard on their mother and she’d never really recovered. Despite her youth, Pearl usually ended up taking care of the baby, even before her mother died two years later.
Her father tried to hire household help, beginning with a very efficient and well paid housekeeper. As his funds had diminished, so had the quality of that help but it made no real difference. He had driven them all off with his outbursts of temper as his drinking grew worse. By the time he died, shortly after Pearl’s eighteenth birthday, she had been managing the house and looking after her sister for years.
Alone and frightened, overwhelmed by her father’s debts and worried about her sister, she’d finally agreed to marry William Bennett. He’d been pursuing her for over a year and while she wasn’t in love with him, he was a good looking, charming man and had assured her that he would take care of both her and Ruby. From a material aspect, he had kept his word. In every other way he had failed. She shuddered at the memory and focused on her sister instead.
“You look beautiful. The color really brings out the color of your eyes.”
“A blue dress would bring out the color of your eyes too, if you ever wore anything other than black,” Ruby insisted. “We look just alike.”
“Not exactly,” she said, smiling.
“Of course we do.” Ruby dragged her over to the big mirror in the foyer. “Look.”
“I know what we look like.”
In the soft light of the fall afternoon, they did look alike. They had the same coloring – the same blue eyes and the same dark hair, although Pearl’s was finer and straighter. They were even built along similar lines, although Pearl’s curves were far more pronounced. But a harsher light would reveal the fine lines and the sorrow she did her best to hide. Her sister looked radiant in comparison and she found herself wondering if she had ever been that young and carefree.
“What’s the matter, Pearl?” Ruby asked softly. “You look tired.”
Ruby’s gaze was unusually penetrating. Pearl had a tendency to forget how perceptive her sister could be when she focused her attention on someone.
“I’m fine,” she said automatically, determined not to worry her sister. “I was just visiting Kitty and remembering when you were that small.”
“You should have let me go with you.”
“It’s not a good idea.” She wasn’t concerned about her own reputation, but she had every intention of protecting her sister’s. “Besides, you said you weren’t interested in babies.”
Ruby shrugged. “They don’t seem very interesting – they can’t do anything.”
Except love you, she thought wistfully, then firmly pushed the thought aside and changed the subject.
“Do you want me to put your hair up for the dance?”
“No, I think I’ll leave it down. You should let yours down too.” Ruby poked playfully at the neatly arranged bun that was Pearl’s usual hairstyle.
“I don’t think so. I’m too old for such nonsense.”
“Would you feel the same way if a big purple alien was going to be at the dance?”
Callum. Pearl knew that she was blushing and quickly turned away from her sister.
“Would you like something to eat before we leave?” she asked, heading for the kitchen.
The question diverted her sister, just as she hoped it would, but it didn’t prevent her own thoughts from returning to Callum. He was one of the small group of aliens who had bought Josiah Wainwright’s ranch after the town founder’s death. For the past two years, she’d only seen him from a distance when he accompanied another alien male on their rare trips to town, but something about that big figure always attracted her attention. She even found the deep purple skin and the massive horns that curved up and back over his head oddly appealing.
Then she encountered him in the general store run by her friend Nelly. Despite his size and his alien features, there was an odd feeling of connection as soon as their eyes met. She recognized the sorrow she could see in his striking green eyes – she had seen the same haunted expression on her own face. If they had been alone she might have found the courage to talk to him, to find out what lay behind that solemn gaze. But his companion Artek was obviously there to talk to Nelly, and Ruby was a little too interested in both males.
Pearl quickly tried to whisk them both out of the store and in the process she collided with him. He caught her – his big hands briefly clasping her waist – and a spark of arousal traveled through her body at the feel of that tall muscular body against hers. A spark she’d never experienced during the torturous years of her marriage.
She’d done her best to keep her face composed and when she attended Nelly’s wedding the next day as the maid of honor she’d tried equally hard not to look at Callum as he stood with Artek. But despite her efforts, she found her eyes being drawn to him over and over – and every time she looked at him, he was looking back.
They had returned to her house for a brief celebration after the ceremony and she’d hoped they might have a chance to talk. But she hated seeing him here, in the house her husband had built. She felt as if somehow he could sense everything she had endured, and it was almost a relief that Artek was impatient to be alone with his new bride.
The last time she had seen him had been when he and Artek and Nelly had ridden out of town, heading for the pass that led to the ranch – the pass that would soon be closed by snow until the following spring. She’d had the strangest impulse to run after him, to beg him to take her with him, but Ruby was far too interested in the idea of alien males and her first responsibility was always to her sister.
She did her best to dismiss him from her thoughts, but his memory continued to haunt her as she escorted Ruby to the harvest dance. Each time a man came over to ask her to dance, she couldn’t help comparing him to Callum and finding him lacking. Perhaps it was just because she knew too much about the men in town. She knew who gambled and who drank and who cheated on their wife. She knew that Mr. Potter had buried two wives in part because of his parsimony and neglect. Of course, he was more interested in Ruby than in her – he was looking for a younger victim to be his third bride.
She had shut him down as decisively as she could – a fact she was happy to share with Mrs. Watson when the older matron joined her. She knew the other woman had her eye on Mr. Potter as a potential husband for her own daughter and she pooh-poohed Pearl’s frank assessment of his character.
“It’s easy for you to say, sitting there in that big house with all that money that William left you. You don’t need to worry about finances.”
Pearl bit back her instinctive protest. It wouldn’t do any good, and indeed, Mrs. Watson’s husband had left her far better off. But Emma Watson was one of those women who was never satisfied. She always wanted more.
“Now you know your house is the finest in Wainwright,” she said, and Mrs. Watson preened herself.
“I did insist on only the best even though it takes such a ridiculously long time to obtain anything from Port Cantor.”
Josiah had deliberately founded Wainwright in the most isolated location he could find, determined to re-create an idealized version of the simpler times in Earth’s past. As a result, importing goods was a lengthy and expensive process.
As Mrs. Watson began bemoaning the delays in obtaining all the expensive items with which she had furnished her house, Pearl found herself once more thinking of Callum. She couldn’t imagine him at an event like this, not only because of his alien appearance, but because she suspected he would despise the hypocrisy as much as she did. She immediately berated herself for the uncharitable thought. There were many good people in town, and it was foolish to focus on their flaws rather than their strengths.
Mrs. Watson had moved on to complaining about her daughter when Ruby reappeared at Pearl’s side. Where had she been? Guilt immediately swamped her. She had been so distracted that she hadn’t noticed her sister’s absence. Her guilt increased when she noticed the false gaiety of Ruby’s smile. Had her sister snuck off with one of the young men in town? And who could it have been?
She couldn’t think of a single man she thought would be a good fit for her sister, and the knowledge worried her more every day. Ruby was ready for love and romance, and Pearl was desperately afraid that her search would lead her to making the same mistake that Pearl had made. Her worry deepened when Ruby was not only ready to leave the dance before it was over but had little to say about it afterwards.
When they went upstairs for the night, she was quite sure that something was wrong, but she decided not to press the matter. She would let her sister come to her.
As she snuggled down under the covers, the events of the day tangled together. Kitty’s baby and the dance and the memories of Callum that had haunted her. Would he be a good father, she wondered, and found herself dreaming of a baby with Callum’s purple skin and her own dark hair. An impossible image, but she smiled as she drifted off the sleep.
|September 25, 2022
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