Beyond the Next Star
Love Beyond Series
Genre: Sci-fi Romance
Publisher: Incendi Press, LLC
Date of Publication: June 23, 2020
ISBN: 978-1-7351499-0-5 (paperback)
ISBN: 978-1-7351499-1-2 (hardback)
ISBN: 978-1-7351499-2-9 (ebook)
ASIN: B0897S23JN (ebook)
ISBN: 978-1-7351499-1-2 (hardback)
ISBN: 978-1-7351499-2-9 (ebook)
ASIN: B0897S23JN (ebook)
Number of pages: 392
Word Count: 91, 815
Cover Artist: Robin Ludwig Design Inc.
Tagline: An intolerable order. A desperate charade. A deadly secret.
“She wasn’t dreaming, in a coma, having a mental breakdown, or in hell.
She was abducted by aliens.”
Before Commander Torek Renaar can return to active duty, he’s ordered to purchase an animal companion to help relieve his PTSD symptoms. But having been a caretaker for and lost a loved one, keeping even one little human alive is a challenge he feels doomed to fail. It doesn’t help that his animal companion is the newest, most exotic breed on the market, demanding constant attention, daily grooming, and delicate handling. If she doesn’t die first in his incompetent care, she’ll be the death of him.
After witnessing the murder of her domestication specialist, Delaney McCormick allows her new owner to treat her like the pet he believes her to be. If anyone suspects she’s more intelligent than a golden retriever, her murder would be next. She endures the humiliation of being washed, the tediousness of being trained to “sit” and “come,” and the intrigue of hearing private conversations. But in Torek’s care, she finds something unexpected on this antarctic planet, something she never had in all her years on Earth while house-hopping between foster families: a home.
As companionship grows to love, must Delaney continue the charade, acting like an animal and hiding from the murderer waiting on her misstep? Or can she trust Torek with her secrets, even if the truth threatens everything he holds dear—and both their lives?
When the lorienok abducted Delaney—after she’d finally accepted that she wasn’t dreaming, in a coma, having a mental breakdown, or in hell—she’d given them a fake name: Jane Smith. Not an exceptionally creative or unique pseudonym by any stretch of the imagination, but having come to grips with the fact that she’d been literally abducted by aliens, her imagination was stretched dangerously thin. Intergalactic kidnapping wasn’t a chronic illness, but for a time—a longer time than she was comfortable admitting to now—wasting away had seemed a preferable fate.
She didn’t accomplish much by hiding her identity. She didn’t have any blood relatives to protect, a criminal record to hide, or a trust fund to safeguard. Delaney Rose McCormick had about as much value associated with her name as did the fictional Jane Smith and left nearly as small a void on Earth. But all Delaney had in those early days directly following her abduction was her name and the hope that everything—the abduction, the tests, the training—was just a big mistake. Which, as it turned out, it was. Her abduction had been the biggest technological mistake in lorienok history, but that didn’t change her circumstances. Days turned to weeks turned to months turned to the abandonment of tracking time. Hope died. She had nothing to her name, but her name, at least, was her own, and she would keep it for herself.
By the time her domestication specialist, Keil Kore’Weidnar, discovered Delaney’s capacity to learn and taught her Lori, his native language, the issue of her name had become moot. He’d already renamed her Reshna, a spiral-shaped handheld tool used to drill into ice. He’d shown her a hologram of it, pointing to the spiral and then to the wild frizz of her unconditioned curls. They had a similar-looking tool on Earth, but they used it to open wine bottles. He’d named her “corkscrew” for her crazy hair.
She’d been called worse names in high school.
She couldn’t say she’d lived in worse places, though. Most of her foster families, with the exception of the Todd household, had been decent people who’d given her clothes, a bed under a roof, and regular meals. Besides clothes, those basic necessities were still being met, so a little gratitude was probably in order. But only just a little, because she also had a cage. And a collar. And if she’d just translated the words and growls of the pet store manager correctly, she had a new owner.
Like most lor, her owner had thick, curved ram horns jutting from his head, and like all lorienok regardless of gender, he was covered head to toe in brown fur. Sasquatch did exist after all; he just wasn’t native to Earth. He was roughly the same size and shape as a human bodybuilder, and in addition to the horns, his nose and mouth protruded slightly into a blunt muzzle, two rows of sharp predator teeth filled his overly large mouth, and pointy bearlike claws tipped each finger and likely each toe on his boot-shod feet.
Unlike most, this male wore his hair long. His locks were tied back from his face in a messy bun with a forest-green elastic band. His beard was also long and came to a point at the end, hanging a few inches below his chin. But his eyes were his most striking feature, assuming that one had already become accustomed to the ram horns, claws, abundance of muscle, and close-cropped body fur. His left eye was the same doe brown common to all lorienok—a smidge rounder and larger than human eyes, like calf eyes with those thick lashes and soul-deep stare—but his other eye was ice blue. A thick scar bisected his right brow, eyelid, and upper cheek, slicing directly over that unique, penetrating gaze.
His bearing was regal and confident, the sharp cut of his jawline proud, but his eyes betrayed him. He was sad—horribly sad—and he glowered at Delaney through the wire door of her cage like he was the Greek king Sisyphus and she his boulder, resigning himself to an eternity of labor over an impossible, futile undertaking.
Or maybe Delaney was just projecting because she couldn’t imagine anything more impossible and futile than her current existence. I am not a pet! she wanted to yell. But after witnessing Keil’s cold-blooded murder, she knew to keep her mouth firmly shut. If anyone suspected her more intelligent than a golden retriever, her death would be next.
Accomplishing impossible feats while enduring debilitating injury and sensory deprivation were challenges both expected and anticipated by the young cadets training to enter the combat and strategic intelligence division of the Federation. Qualifying exams were brutal. Training was rigorous. But for the few who didn’t fail, drop out, or obtain an infirmary discharge, the rewards were astronomical. Torek Lore’Onik Weidnar Kenzo Lesh’Aerai Renaar had certainly reaped those rewards many times over, as evidenced by the four property titles bestowed to his name. He’d never been one to flinch when facing a challenge, but this order—the court-mandated appointment of an animal companion to “facilitate mental recovery”—was the challenge that finally made him flinch.
Torek stared at the human—at the beautiful, riotous hair that sprang like coils from its head and would obviously need continual cleaning and grooming, at its tiny stature and lean form that probably couldn’t lift its own weight, at the lovely gray eyes and smooth, bare skin that would need layers upon layers of protective coverings to keep it warm—and he seriously considered the merits of simply retiring from the Federation.
No one would blame him after what had happened. He could return to his home in Aerai and resume the quiet, peaceful, unappreciated toil of plant cultivation he’d abandoned so many seasons ago along with his dreams of filling that home with a family.
The store manager hefted a bound book from the counter and plopped it into Torek’s unwilling arms.
“What’s this?” A tingle of cold dread crept across the back of Torek’s neck.
“Why, it’s your owner’s manual, of course.”
“Of course.” The Federation’s policies and procedures manual was the thickest book Torek had ever had the displeasure of memorizing, and it wasn’t even half the size of this tome.
“You’ll be the envy of all Lorien. The first to purchase a human, our newest species. She’s the pilot for her breed, of course, but her domestication is progressing fabulously. They dispatched a harvester while she was still in transit, so until the next shipment arrives, she’s the only human we’ll have for a while yet, six kair at the least. You must be thrilled.”
As Torek flipped through a few of the manual’s pages and skimmed the table of contents, the tingle of dread that had started at his neck devoured the rest of his body and intensified to nausea. An entire chapter was dedicated to heating and insulating the human’s living quarters. If her rooms dipped below a specific temperature—Torek brought the book closer and squinted, but no, his eyes didn’t deceive him—and the human didn’t have tailored, fur-lined coverings to retain heat, she would sicken and die. If he didn’t provide her with private sleeping quarters, she would become lethargic and depressed, then sicken and die. If he didn’t feed her three meals a day, complete with a cooked protein, vegetables, and some grain, she would sicken and die. She was even allergic to ukok, a simple seasoning. If consumed, her throat would swell, cutting off her air supply, and she would immediately die.
He would kill her.
Not intentionally, of course, but despite the wild popularity of owning foreign domesticated animals, he’d never even owned a zeprak let alone something as exotic, delicate, and temperamental as this human. She wouldn’t survive a week in his care.
His throat tightened. His breath shortened. His chest ached, and suddenly, black starbursts shadowed his vision.
Not now. Not in public. Not again.
A loud bang echoed through the store, startling Torek back to himself. He blinked a few times, breathing past the panic and reorienting his mind. The store manager was silent now and staring.
He’d dropped the owner’s manual.
Torek gathered the reserves of his iron will. He was not afraid of domesticated animals. He did not shirk his responsibilities. And he did not flounder. He straightened away from the store manager, stepped over the dropped manual as if he’d intended to discard it so carelessly, and eased his fist through the open petting window of the human’s cage, offering the back of his hand for her to sniff his acquaintance. He didn’t particularly want to become acquainted—acquaintance with an animal companion could all too easily flip to a desire for one—but that’s what a normal, well-adjusted lor not on the brink of hyperventilating would do.
So, he did it.
The human stared at his fist, blinking. She glanced up at his face and then back at his fist before leaning in and brushing her cheek affectionately against his knuckles. Her skin was newborn-baby soft.
His chest constricted with renewed panic.
Torek cleared his throat. “She’s an adult female?”
The store manager nodded. “Her name is Reshna.”
“Fitting.” Torek pulled one of those hair coils and watched with amusement as it bounced back into place when he released it.
Her hair left a grease spot on his finger pads.
Torek narrowed his eyes. Her hair, which he’d already noted would require daily maintenance, needed washing.
“How long has she been in store for sale?” Torek stroked the side of her jaw with the back of his knuckle, peeking under her collar as she shied away from his touch. Her neck was chafed and red.
“She’s been the joy of this establishment for most of Rorak. Eh, about two-thirds of the season.”
Torek stared at the manager, taken aback. “She’s been in this cage that entire time?”
The store manager’s smile was placating. “I assure you, animal companions thrive here under my care.”
The skin on her arms, which had been smooth a few minutes earlier, wrinkled in tiny, raised spots. A slight tremor shook her body.
“Is she all right?” Torek’s heart lurched painfully. “I think her collar may be too tight.”
“Hmmm.” The store manager stooped to pick up the manual, licked his thumb pad, and paged through it, frowning.
“You’ve had her this long, and you haven’t memorized her manual?”
The store manager’s face darkened. “Reshna is the newest, most exotic animal companion we currently sell. The few who considered purchasing her weren’t willing to invest in her care after reading the manual. Like most exotic breeds, she isn’t for just anyone. It takes time to find companions like her a home, and in that time, I assure you that I’ve cared for her as I do all our animal companions. As required by her manual.”
Torek might have apologized for giving offense—he didn’t know the first thing about caring for exotic animals—except that the few words he’d glimpsed from her manual screamed at him: adult humans require private sleeping quarters and washrooms complete with…excruciatingly long bullet list of requirements… Without these necessary living conditions, the human will sicken and die.
And here she was, going on nearly all of Rorak in a wire cage so small, she couldn’t rest without curling in on herself. If she remained here, she would sicken and die.
“I’ll take her.”
About the Author:
Melody Johnson is the author of the “out of this world” Love Beyond series and the gritty, paranormal romance Night Blood series published by Kensington Publishing/ Lyrical Press. The City Beneath (Night Blood, book 1) was a finalist in the “Cleveland Rocks” and “Fool For Love” contests.
Melody graduated magna cum laude from Lycoming College with her B.A. in creative writing and psychology. Throughout college, she wrote contemporary love stories, but having read and adored the action and dark mystery of vampires her whole life, decided to add her fingerprint to the paranormal genre.
Melody’s unique perspective on vampires lends fresh bite to a classic paranormal genre. In addition to a reimagined transformation—the requirement of night blood—vampires have gargoyle-looking, vicious day forms, an orgasmic bite, and as the series progresses to Sweet Last Drop (book 2), a mindless, rampaging, zombie-like breed is introduced. Melody is constantly upping the stakes, and Day Reaper (book 4) is no exception.
Beyond the Next Star is an exciting branch from Melody’s paranormal romance roots, keeping the dark grit from her Night Blood Series and taking it to new worlds. Told from the dual perspectives of both human pet and alien owner, Melody’s story weaves a slow-burn romance that explores the bonds of love in all its forms, navigating the main characters’ relationship in delicate stages from oblivious ownership to woke, romantic love.
After moving from her northeast Pennsylvania hometown for some much needed Southern sunshine, Melody now works as a digital media coordinator for Southeast Georgia Health System’s marketing department. When she isn’t working or writing, Melody can be found swimming at the beach, reading at the pool, and exploring her new home in southeast Georgia.