Keeper of the Flame by Stephanie Burke

Keeper of the Flame by Stephanie Burke

Keeper of the Flame

Testrios, Book 1

by Stepahnie Burke

Loose Id

Ebook ISBN: 978-1-68252-029-1

[ SciFi Paranormal Romance, MF ]

A stranger from the stars. An unbelievable birth. A single father and prince. But this is not your mother’s fairy tale… A woman betrayed. A healer who has spent a lifetime caring for others. When you play with fire, you might get burned…in the most amazing ways.

Publisher’s Note: Keeper of the Flame was previously released by another publisher. It has been revised and reedited in this version.

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Chapter One


“Damn that man anyway!” Kendall muttered as she walked through the revolving doors of Johns Hopkins hospital. At this hour the parking lot was empty, but the sound of the nearby traffic told her the drive home would be difficult. The wet asphalt gleamed in the glow cast by the streetlights. The square, empty, black parking pads looked as dead as she felt inside.

The treacherous Dr. Richard Tanner was absent, thank God. That, at least, made her day a little brighter. She had tried so hard to keep a smile on her face, but it had been difficult when all she wanted was to go home and hide. As far as she was concerned, she had no family left to help her grieve. Her sister was probably catting around with the good doctor right at this minute.

“Damn him! Damn them, and damn me!” Kendall slammed open the door to her silver minivan and threw herself into the driver’s seat. She sat there looking out at the bright yellow lines on the parking spaces as tears slowly tracked down her face.

“Damn me for caring.” She wiped her eyes with the heels of her hands, then pushed the key into the ignition. After pulling an eighteen-hour shift on what was supposed to have been the eve of her honeymoon, all she wanted was a little peace.

The radio began to croon nauseatingly sweet lyrics of undying love. “Damn the love songs, too,” Kendall muttered as she reached out to switch the station, but changed her mind. The irony was too good to pass up, even if it was at her expense. Maneuvering her car on to her street, Kendall sang along.

She threw up her middle finger in an uncommon fit of bad temper when she looked up and noticed lights flickering on the waters of the lake behind her house. Late-night boaters, no doubt, out having a good time, while Kendall’s life crumbled around her. They were probably drinking and dancing, enjoying a nighttime cruise filled with all kinds of joy and laughter.

“Damn them for being happy!” Kendall whipped her van into her driveway. Her irrational anger faded into a deep, aching sadness when she remembered the plans that she’d had for many a romantic tryst on that very lake. How different her current reality was when compared to her fantasies.

“A shower,” Kendall murmured to herself. “No, a long hot bath for this old girl.” Absently rubbing the tension from the back of her neck, Kendall popped open the mini-van’s door and wearily headed for the house.

Thanks to last winter’s blizzard, she’d been kept running all day. The combination of four-foot-high snowdrifts and stranded couples always made for crowded delivery rooms nine months later. It was just a quirk of fate that the nine-month span ended around the time her wedding was to have taken place.

The most difficult part of the day had been dealing with the pitying looks and uncertain comments from her friends. What could you say to someone whose heart had been ripped out and tossed away like so many used rubber gloves in an E.R.?

She had smiled at all of her well-wishers and reminded them that at least she was getting an all-expenses-paid vacation this week, courtesy of the good doctor.

She had tried to laugh and joke, but the pain had gotten harder and harder to hide…and now it was almost unbearable. Tomorrow was the start of her vacation and new life, but the night was still her demon, her monster to face and to double fist into submission.

I’ll deal with the world tomorrow! she decided, a little spark of the old Go-get-’em-Kendall shining through her misery. Tonight I get loaded! She did have rum in the house, right? Maybe a bottle left over from when her sister flew in to help her celebrate her engagement. She would have to overlook the irony of drinking her sister’s liquor to help her revel in the joy of her lingering single state. Yeah.

With new determination, she hopped to the ground and gave a small nod to her property. All these double shifts were worth it as long as she could still afford to keep her own house.

The brick-faced split-level was barely within her price range. With careful budgeting, though, she would be able to keep up the mortgage payments by herself. As an added bonus, Richard had no claim on it! She had bought it just after finding out the truth about her fiancé and was proud to say that no memories of him tainted her beloved sanctuary.

Her front yard always made her smile, and tonight was no exception. In the warm, humid air of the late summer night she could smell the roses that grew in abundance around the perimeter of her yard. She had painstakingly planted and nurtured each one like a child, and all of her efforts were paying off. Her flowerbeds were fully stocked. Gladiolas, impatiens, and colorful decorative grass surrounded the house like a vibrant, living welcome mat. The garden glowed softly in the illumination provided by her porch lights. Even the delicate white moonflowers she had planted beside her front door gave off an enticing aroma that teased and pleased her senses.

She paused in the perusal of her organic masterpiece of a front yard when she spied a pile of garbage near her front porch. Her eyes flared in sudden shock before narrowing into angry slits. “Damn the person who left that there!” she declared. She gave a small snort of laughter. At the rate she was damning people, the word would soon lose all meaning. “I need to find some better swears!”

Muttering under her breath about overpriced community association fees and cheap, ineffective security, she stalked over to the pile of refuse. After all her hard work creating a horticulture showcase, she would be damned before she let a litterbug destroy her near perfect view.

She never expected the garbage to move.

With a shriek, Kendall fumbled for the pepper spray in her pocket. Hands trembling, she held her weapon before her. When the pile showed no other signs of life, her heart rate returned to normal. She inched closer to the dark pile and carefully nudged it over with the toe of her nursing shoe. Again she jumped back, barely controlling another shriek of fright.

It was a man.

A big man in obvious pain.

He groaned as a wave of pain twisted his features. “Help me!” he managed, desperation sounding in his voice.

In the face of his unmistakable distress, Kendall’s medical training kicked in. The pepper spray was swiftly replaced with her house keys, and she was squatting to help the man struggle to his feet. It wasn’t easy. He was lying in a fetal position, his back to her as he strained to hold his head up and speak. Kendall placed her hands on his quivering shoulders, only to pull back at the cold wetness. He moaned and she rushed to brush the wet hair from his face in an effort to calm him down. She dropped to her knees then eased her hands beneath his arms.

Muscles straining and screaming in protest, Kendall managed to pull the man the few feet to her porch, grunting and breathing heavily with the effort.

“Come on! Help me here!” Moving him was probably not the best medical option, but something in her gut made her want to get this man out of the night and into sanctuary as fast as possible.

He must’ve been dumped by one of those boats, she reasoned. Maybe there had been an accident and he had managed to make it this far for help. Many scenarios quickly raced through her brain as she helped support the man. Maybe after he’d been dumped, he had managed the swim to safety. Maybe he was as lost as she was.

The man’s slow nod brought her back to the situation at hand. She would contemplate life and its mysteries after she got him to safety. He braced himself and tried to force his body upwards. Working together, they managed to get him upright and attempted a few shaky steps forward. They were a wet, shaking mess as they made their way to the front door.

Once there, he released a tortured groan as his body stiffened further and he began to spasm in her arms. “Come on,” she urged, “you can do this!” She added a bit of command in her voice as she tried desperately to hold him upright long enough to get the key into the lock. His legs trembled, but he managed to take some of the burden of his weight, freeing up her arm for a wider range of movement.

“Shh,” she crooned while searching for the right key, sighing in relief as it slid into the lock.

The key turned slowly and the tumblers clicked loudly, but finally the door slammed open under the combined weight of her scared self and the stranger. Kendall ignored the noise and any possible damage to her walls while she urged him into her hallway. They both let out a sigh of relief when they were inside and she could kick the door closed.

But there were still more obstacles ahead of them, mainly how to make it to the couch that seemed a million miles away instead of across the room. Of course, then the man’s wet clothes would have to come off as he was beginning to shiver in the air-conditioned hall.

“Couch!” was her war cry, and together they gathered their strength and nearly ran the last few feet before his legs collapsed beneath him. Like a puppet with its strings cut, he lay there dripping on her couch as if it were too much of an effort to right himself.

“Are you okay?” she questioned in her best nurse’s voice, dropping to her knees in front of him. “No, you are not,” she answered her own question. She pressed a palm against his forehead, brushing wet tendrils away from his clammy face.

“My babies…”

Babies? She hadn’t seen anyone else out there. There had to have been an accident. Were there other people hurt? “Where?” she demanded. “Where are they?” She was pulling her cell phone out of her pocket when his next action made her freeze.

“My babies…” He reached out for her hand, and she found herself gripping it as his body began to shake in earnest. He groaned, closing his eyes as if agony was ripping though him. “I am in labor.”

“Labor?” Oh, no! He’s escaped from a loony bin, she thought. Why do I get all of the nut jobs? She wanted to drop his hand but his grip tightened, a tear falling from his right eye.

Before she could say anything else or check for some kind of head trauma he pulled aside his long coat to reveal his distended abdominal cavity.

Shocked by what had to be an extreme case of peritonitis or some type of internal hemorrhaging, Kendall jumped to her feet and eased his legs up onto the couch. “I’ll call for help…” She tried to jerk her hand free but his back arched almost off of the couch and he sucked in and held his breath.

In front of her disbelieving eyes, his stomach tightened in what appeared to be an actual contraction. It lasted nearly a full minute before his abdominal muscles began to relax and he started to breathe again.

“Please, Mistress, help me!” he panted, his voice sounding broken and defeated. “I am about to deliver.”

Kendall looked into the grayest eyes she had ever seen—eyes that were now filled with anxiety and pain. Her rich, brown, coffee-au-lait skin paled as she read both truth and sincerity in their clear depths of his eyes…and not a drop of madness. She stared down at his stomach, watched as it rolled and something pressed outward. She pressed her free hand against the mass and choked back a cry as it pressed back. She had felt something like this many times. She knew without a doubt that this was the unique feeling of a fetus pressing against its mother’s stomach. Swallowing hard, Kendall nodded. She believed him. She actually believed him. She was going to help deliver this man’s child.

“There are some things I need first.” She managed to force the words past her suddenly tight throat as she stared, bug-eyed, at the miracle man before her. “Just…just remember to breathe with the pain and try not to fight against it.”

He closed his eyes and seemed to relax a bit as he released her hand and pushed his trembling fingers through his long, wet hair.

She turned and raced to the second floor, mentally reciting the list of things needed for a home birth. Breathing hard, she grabbed sheets from her linen closet along with a few clean, white towels fresh from the laundry. From the bathroom, she pulled her first-aid kit from beneath the sink before rushing back downstairs with her unsteady burden to the man lying on her couch.

“My name is Kendall Moore.” She attempted to implement some kind of bedside manner. “I’m going to try and make you a bit more comfortable.” Never before had she ever had to speak her litany in such unique circumstances, let alone say the words for a man. This was certainly the first time that she had seen a man in this condition. The medical universe was about to be knocked on its collective ass.

She began to strip the man of his clothing, such as it was. “Remember to rest between the contractions and pant when the pain gets bad.” She had to grip the heel of the low ankle boot that wanted to hold onto his foot like a depraved lover. She finally managed to tug it free before his body curled up as much as it could, bending protectively over his stomach. When that spasm passed, she managed to get the second black leather boot off of his foot.

“Doing good,” she praised him as she rubbed his lower back. “Going good.”

He groaned as he slowly uncurled and took several deep breaths, and Kendall continued to remove the rest of his clothing. With his help, she removed the long, many-pocketed black trench coat. It peeled from his body like a banana peel and made a thumping sound as she dropped the wet mass to the floor. After pausing to examine the strange garment he wore, she slid his black shirt over his head, carefully untangling it from the long rope of his wet hair. She reached for the fasteners at his waist, but stopped short. What the hell…

“How do I get these things off?” Kendall had to wait as another contraction stiffened his body. She rubbed his shoulders as he curled up through it, then asked him again how to remove this last article of clothing. The pants were made of some long, flowing material but seemed to have no visible zippers or buttons.

He spoke after another painful-looking contraction passed. “The zip cords are on the sides.” This contraction had seemed to last longer in her estimation, and now his body was covered in sweat from exertion.

Sure enough, there were two tabs at the waist of his pants. With a few pulls, they separated down the sides to his ankles and she rolled the material away.

Kendall covered him with a sheet. It was dry and warm, and any woman…person…suffering with labor needed to be as comfortable as possible.

There really wasn’t time for her to be wishy-washy. This man was in need and she was there to help. Besides, she really didn’t want to see just what he had been hiding beneath his clothes, did she? He was handsome enough, and he looked like he had a great body, but… Really, how could a man conceive a child without a little—odd—equipment? She just wasn’t ready to face the reality of a male vagina.

She had no time to follow that line of thought. “They are coming,” he gasped, his back arching as he closed his eyes and balled up his fists. Kendall whipped back the sheet, ready to do an internal exam, but froze at what she was seeing .A small opening began to appear just beneath his navel. “Holy…” Her eyes widened as the opening grew.

“I am going to disinfect the area. You are covered in lake water…and…and that can’t be good for the baby. So breathe with me,” she coached, taking one of his balled up fists and pressing it between her breasts. “Breathe with me. He-he-ho,” she panted, and offered him a smile as he did his best to imitate her breathing.

“This won’t hurt.” Kendall promised as she opened a bottle of hydrogen peroxide and dumped it over his stomach, blotting the excess with a towel. The shock caused the man to jerk his head in her direction, eyes wide in near-panic. “It didn’t hurt did it?” she asked, letting his hand go and blotting the spilled fluid faster. “Oh my God, I hope that didn’t hurt.”

He shook his head and she relaxed a bit. “It—it did not hurt.”

She knelt beside him when he was disinfected to her satisfaction, wiping his damp forehead with one of the towels. The rules had to be different when a man gave birth. Maybe he knew what to do. How could you check dilation and effacing through a slit below a navel? “What am I supposed to do now?” There was no birth canal, for starters. But the slit was growing wider, and so was her inability to tell fantasy from reality. This was turning into a very strange episode of The Twilight Zone.

“Just catch them.” He groaned as another contraction shook him. He was pale, quivering, and damp with sweat.

“Catch them. Right.” Then suddenly that small slit wasn’t so small anymore. In fact, it was looking like a gaping maw. Kendall stared in shocked silence as his abdomen spread open and a small head crowned. The man bit back a cry of pain as his whole body tensed.

“My God!” she cried excitedly. “Push or do what you just did again!”

He raised his knees slightly and grunted with effort. They were rewarded when a small heap of humanity began to push its head through the abdominal opening. Quickly Kendall moved in to clean the child’s airway, gratified to hear a small wail as the small form in her hands began to breathe on its own.

“Do it again!” she cheered as the sound of new life filled the room. “Again! Again!” This was a miracle she was seeing, bringing into the world. This was a miracle, a genuine miracle.

“What the hell do you think I am trying to do?” he growled at her. But then he seemed to gather control over himself as he began to strain again. With his hands clutching the arm of the couch above his head, tendons straining in his neck, he prepared to deliver his baby into her hands.

Eyes closed tight and jaw clenched, he threw back his head and groaned like a wounded animal. The growl exploded into a cry of what had to be both pain and relief as the opening widened and the baby was expelled from its warm cocoon.

Kendall ignored his outburst as the tiny newborn slowly slid from his body.

“It’s a boy!” she cried as she laid the small body on his father’s chest. He was bluish in tint that was rapidly receding, He was connected by the familiar rope of blood vessels and tissue that made up the umbilical cord. That, at least, was normal. She turned to her first-aid kit, retrieved a package of surgical thread, and tied off the cord in two places. With a grin, she cut in the center of her bindings, freeing the child from his…parent…and watching as it protested its forceful entry into this strange new world.

She flushed brightly with success. Bringing a new life into the world always touched a place within her. But her smile faded as another spasm of pain swept across the man’s face.

“What’s wrong? What’s happening? Are you… are you… Don’t you dare die and leave me with this child!”

“It is the other child, Mistress,” he gasped.

“Other…child?” The slit was opening again and another dark head was crowning. Pushing the first child higher on the man’s chest, Kendall made ready to catch the next one. Within moments, the second child emerged from his body, crying in complaint at being thrust into the cold, outside of the comforts of its parent’s body.

“It’s a girl.” Kendall spoke softly as the man closed his eyes in exhaustion. He seemed to sigh with relief.

For the first time, Kendall actually looked at the man His voice was strange, both the cadence and the accent. It sounded Russian or maybe it was French. It could have been Italian for all that she knew. She just knew that he didn’t sound American.

His facial features were strong—high cheekbones, a straight nose, and a stubborn chin seemed to scream that he was a mixture of cultures, but it was his crowning glory that caught and held her attention. His hair, even wet, was a most startling and unusual shade of red.

Kendall let her gaze roam from his exhausted face to the crying babies he held lovingly on his chest. She could almost feel the love he directed at his offspring. “What’s your name?”

“Flame. My name is Flame.”

Kendall let her hand linger on the baby boy. “Get some sleep now, Flame. You’re going to need your strength. Your children are safe here for now.”

“Yes, Mistress.” The lines bracketing his lips faded as the tension slowly vanished from around his bruised-looking eyes. His face eased into a peaceful countenance as sleep overcame him.
 

* * * *

 
The afterbirth came out in a neat little ball under Kendall’s expert manipulation. With gentle fingers she massaged where his fundus would be if he had been a woman. The tiny placenta was expelled through the birthing…slit.

Kendall tossed it and the sheet that covered him into a red hazardous waste bag that she had brought home from the hospital. They were the perfect size and color for her guest bathroom. She hid that bag in a thick, dark, contractor bag that she used to clean up garden waste; then the whole bundle went neatly into the garbage can out back. As bloodstained as it was, the sheet was a total loss, and as for the rest—well, it had served its purpose. No need to have any messy reminders around the house. If his doctor wanted a peek at it, he could go out back and dig it out for himself.

Since the children had grown quiet, Kendall washed them and placed them in dresser drawers she had padded with sheets. She even sacrificed a few more of her sheets so that she could diaper the tired, red-faced babies. Then she did what she could for the new mom.

He had begun to shake uncontrollably, his teeth chattering as his body was racked with chills. Kendall placed a hand upon his brow, noting with some relief that there was no developing fever. It just wouldn’t do to have him come down with childbirth-fever after this miraculous delivery. Most women had the shakes like this after giving birth though no one knew just exactly why. Kendall noted his condition and vowed to keep an eye on him. There was nothing else she could do. Using warm water and a mild soap, she began to clean him up as best as she could.

He was made like any other man—a trifle on the large side in a romance-novel-masculine-member sort of way, but still normal. The slit that opened in his belly—his pseudo-womb—had closed up tight, and the seam was lost in the line of red hair that arrowed down from his navel. She couldn’t tell that it had ever existed. His stomach was flat as a board. Women should be so lucky!

Shaking her head in awe, Kendall covered the sleeping man with a few extra blankets and went to make herself a pot of coffee. Her mind still struggled to accept the fact that she had just acted the part of midwife for a man.
 

* * * *

 
As Flame drifted in an exhausted sleep, his frightened mind urged him to rise and flee from the house of this strange woman and take his children to safety. But his body refused to cooperate.

And then too, he had felt almost safe as soon as Kendall Moore had decided to aid him. He had never thought to feel this way, this sense of comfort or protection, especially the presence of a woman.

But that feeling was dangerous. He forced his eyes open. Kendall could behave like the very women he was running from in the long run. It meant nothing that she assisted him in a time of need. He didn’t understand her or her motivations. The best thing for all would be for him to gather his strength and depart at once. Unfortunately, his body was failing him yet again.

The warm water that she used to cleanse his sore body combined with the natural fatigue of childbirth had helped cause his thoughts to spin chaotically. So many unanswered questions, so much uncertainty of the future. He looked around her domicile and again felt safe. Before he could even fathom what the next move should be, the relief of deep sleep finally overrode all else.
 

* * * *

 
Flame jumped, sucking in a deep breath as Kendall shook his shoulder. “Hey, wake up!” a soft voice commanded.

Flame fought to open his eyes and was almost frightened by the strange, hazy vision before him. He blinked several times. Slowly his sleep-clouded vision cleared to see the woman, Kendall, rocking his daughter in her arms.

The woman’s skin was the golden brown color of the finest Tarcas stones on his planet, and her eyes were of a color to match—very expressive, very beautiful, and very rare.

“What am I supposed to feed these babies?” she asked. “They have to eat.”

“How…how am I supposed to know?” He meant no disrespect but what did a man know of the care and feeding of a child? His duty was to bear them. His mind reeled in a shock so strong that it erased every ounce of sleep in his body. He was so very ill-prepared for this aspect of fatherhood. Would his children suffer for his ignorance? What was he to do? “What do you feed your children?”

“I don’t have any children and if I did, I would breastfeed.”

Surprised, he struggled to sit up, despite his sore stomach. “Breastfeed? Breasts do that?” He eyed her bust with avid curiosity and quite a bit of wonder.

Kendall stared at him as if she was trying reason through his responses, but only winding up confused. “Okay. Where do you come from?” She was frowning. That could not be good. “Who can I call to get you some help?”

Panic shot through him. “Call no one, please, Mistress, I beg of you. I will leave you shortly. I thank you for your assistance, but I must go.”

“I don’t think so!” She looked down at the child she held and a look of worry suffused her face. It was an emotion he has seen several times in his life, mostly from the male who had borne him. “You are not planning on abandoning the children here, with me? If you are then you have another think coming. You are going to give me some answers, mister!”

Flame froze and dropped his gaze to the floor. How dare he work up the nerve to beg anything from a woman? Alonzid would be furious with him if he knew. Now, he had to make it right before his children suffered from his mistakes. “As you wish, Mistress Kendall Moore.”
 

* * * *

 
Kendall blinked at his quick change from worried, harried father to almost subservience. Had she done that? Who was he, and what was going on here? “Look, Flame. I only want to help you.” She hated speaking to the top of his head, but she was unwilling to push him further if this was going to be his reaction. “Where are you from? Why were you pregnant? Where is the fathe…uh, mother of these children?”

While there had been incredible advances in medicine, and her hospital had always been a leader in research and development, nothing about a pregnant man had ever popped up on the gossip mill. Maybe a government experiment? But then, the government would have killed him before letting a prized specimen like this escape and possibly end up in the hands of an enemy… At least, that was what happened in all the action movies she watched. There had to be some truth to that, right? Then she recalled the horrors of the LSD and syphilis experiments that the government had conducted in New York. Maybe they had done something to him and he had a really great reason to run.

Could he be a victim of radiation poisoning? Nope, she decided. There was no visible loss of hair, glowing blood, missing teeth, or any lesions that might indicate if he was radioactive. Okay, the glowing blood was a bit of a stretch, but had there ever been anything as alien as a man giving birth? And seahorses didn’t count, as they were fish and not mammals.

Then it hit her. The lights on the water, a pregnant man, a baby-making slit that had disappeared as if it had never existed moments after giving birth. There could only be one explanation. She gaped at him. “You’re an alien, aren’t you?”

He raised his head, and she saw defiant red sparkles flashing in his eyes. He wouldn’t melt the woman who had delivered his kids, would he?

Then the defiance was gone, and the sparkles faded from his gray eyes, leaving her wondering if she had imagined them. “I seem to have need of your assistance once again, Mistress.”

His words sounded lost as he once again appealed to her. “Kendall. Call me Kendall.” She gathered her courage again as she looked at the child she cradled in her arms. “Where in the universe are you from?” She really didn’t want to hear his answer, but she had to know.

“Two hundred light-years from your sun. I left my world looking for a safe haven to rear my children, but I fear they have found me.”

“Who?” Was this man some type of intergalactic space criminal? Too much Japanese animation in her life. She blamed that for coming up with a crazy reason and thinking it was a perfectly logical alien criminal plot. It was a trope used again and again and it seemed to fit these particular circumstances. “Who is they?”

“The execution squad.” His voice was growing more flat with every word he uttered. “With my mistress dead, there is no longer a use for her children.”

“What?” Kendall shrieked, the outburst startling his daughter in that shockingly jerky way that all newborns have.

“I will explain.” He raised his arms for his crying daughter. Looking her over with tear-filled gray eyes, he reclaimed his child from her and nestled the infant against his shoulder where she instantly quieted.

Kendall was speechless once again this night. Execution squads were way out of her jurisdiction, but then so were pregnant men and places that were light-years away. She shook her head ruefully. All of those “damns” she’d spat like gunfire had finally come back to haunt her. She looked up and saw that he appeared to be waiting for her attention. Once she made direct eye contact with him, he began to speak once more.

“On my world, Testrios, the women rule. The male portion of our society had been captured and forced to labor for the women long before I came to be. Our role is worker, child-bearer, and protector.” He looked down at his daughter and closed his eyes as he inhaled her scent before continuing to speak. “We have no control over our lives. We work because our bodies are built for it. We bear children because the Matriarch decided that men would bear up better under the strain. Some of us were herded and given the honor of being altered. The women who rule us say that we should be proud of this because we were special.” He snorted derisively at that comment, making Kendall smile a little. “I was chosen because of my hair. It is considered special on my world. Usually, I would have served as a member of the Brotherhood, but the woman who wanted me was head of one of the five ruling houses. My family”—the word sounded ugly on his lips—”decided to make an alliance. So, I was sold to increase my mother’s power. I was taken to my new life-mate and impregnated.” He paused for a moment and a tortured expression crossed his face. Kendall wanted to reach out to him, but what could you say to someone that had experienced such slavery? She could try and understand, but guesswork involved in deciphering his life was too heart wrenching to contemplate.

“In the beginning, there were five original ruling houses, and then my mistress…died.” There was no emotion in his voice at all after saying that, so Kendall believed that this arrangement hadn’t turned into a love match. “After scanning revealed that I carried a boy child, my mother claimed my mistress’s house, and then there were four ruling houses on Testrios. Later I discovered the girl hiding behind her brother.” He smiled. “I knew then that I had to escape. By their own laws, the laws of the Matriarch, my daughter would be my mistress’s heir. My family did not want to give up the properties and power that came with my mating.”

“So you ran,” Kendall interjected, but remained calm, listening to his story.

“I discovered their plans shortly after someone—a spy, no doubt—told of my secret. So then I ran, Mistress. The execution squad would kill me and my children when they find me. They managed to track me to this planet and to points near this area. I’ve evaded them for now, but they will find me. They are ruthless.”

Kendall felt cold chills run up her spine as she absorbed his words. There was some very real fear in them.

He turned to look at her once more, his voice urgent. “I must leave soon or they will find me here and then you also will be in danger.” His eyes widened as he spoke, as if such a thing just occurred to him. “I tell you this, Mistress, because you have ordered me to do so. You must be on guard at all times. Tell no one you have seen me. I will disappear from your life.”

Stunned, Kendall stared at the picture the father and child made, sitting wrapped in sheets on her floral-print couch. With him gazing downward with such love in his eyes for his child, he looked like some sort of genderbent, twisted Madonna. “Where will you go?” Kendall knew her voice was giving away the emotions she felt, the fear and helplessness of it all.

“I-I do not know.”

Before Kendall could gather her wits enough to respond to him, the second baby began to cry. Reacting to the newborn’s distress, Kendall reached for the child, cradling him gently against her chest. “Before we do anything, they ought to be fed and named.” Her voice was rather shaky, and she cleared her throat several times before turning to Flame. “They…they and you deserve that much.”

“Ember.” He lifted his hand, large enough to nearly completely cover his daughter’s body and gently ran one tentative finger over her head. He stared at her as If he had never seen anything as special or important. Kendall began to feel privileged just to be in the room while he bonded with his daughter. It almost made her want to leave the room to give him some privacy. She felt like she was intruding in her own living room. “Her name is Ember. And my son”—he tipped his head in the direction of his son—”will be named Spark.”

“I detect a theme here,” Kendall mused, though inside, her mind was blown away by his words. “Such unusual names. Is there a reason they are named after…fire stuff?” Maybe something was lost in translation.

He looked up as he answered, a wry smile tugging at his lips. “My family are known as Keepers of the Flame. It is a talent that we of the red hair possess.”

“Fire, huh?” Kendall rose to her feet and made her way to her immaculate, country-style kitchen with a baby in arms. She needed a little bit of distance so that she could think. Besides, the babies needed nourishment in order to thrive. What did little fire-keeping babies eat anyway? Ever practical, she decided it was easier to cope with the children’s needs for now than to try and deal with the story their father had told her. Flame could be lying, but she doubted it, especially when the proof of his truthfulness in storytelling was beginning to wail in her arms.

“Ah, Flame?” she called over her shoulder. “We need to feed these children. What do the women at home use? Think.”

“I do not know,” he replied with a worried frown. Spark had now joined Ember, and together they continued to wail, almost in harmony.

Kendall eyed her counters filled with useful gadgets, but found none to aid in her quest. Finally, while doing the baby-be-still dance, she opened a cabinet and spotted salvation. It came in the form of a few starter soy formula kits that she had gotten from work for a friend. At the last minute, her friend had decided to nurse her progeny so Kendall had no use for the kits. She was reluctant to throw out food that was still good and had planned on donating them to a shelter for abused women, but hadn’t quite got around to it just yet.

Rocking from side to side, Kendall contemplated the tiny glass bottles and the cream-colored fluid they contained. She had never had to prepare formula at work; her job was to assist in getting the little miracles born, but after quickly reading the included instructions, Kendall did a really impressive popping-the-bottle-open maneuver, one-handed, while trying to stop a squalling baby from, well, squalling. Soon she had two bottles ready for the babies and even managed to lift them both without jostling the baby—Spark—too much. She made her way back to the living room and handed Flame one of the little, four-ounce bottles before seating herself on a chair.

“Food goes in here,” she instructed as she carefully placed the nipple of the bottle into Spark’s mouth. Instantly, his heart wrenching cries stopped as he latched on to the latex teat.

“It’s feeding time, Papa.” She nodded to Ember’s open mouth. “Remember to support her head, neck, and back.”

Kendall watched as Flame quickly caught on to this method of feeding his daughter. She immediately quieted down and got to the serious business of eating. Flame looked amazed as his daughter savaged the latex nipple the kit had provided. “And your women voluntarily do this to their breasts?” he asked, as if only a fool would put themselves through this torture.

Unable to help it, Kendall burst out laughing. It did seem a little masochistic but nature had intended the ultimate usage of breasts as feedbags. She motioned to Flame to hold Ember’s head a bit higher while Spark just as violently consumed his first meal. Soon both babies were full and content. She demonstrated how to place a baby on her shoulder and gently pat his back until Spark let out a loud burp. She giggled softly at Flame’s amused face. “Such a bitty noise from such a small baby.” She chuckled. “But he needs to bring up any air that he might have swallowed while feeding.” Flame followed suit and soon both babies were blessedly asleep.

Kendall rose from where she had placed a sleeping Spark in his makeshift bed beside the couch, then sat beside Flame’s legs. He looked almost shy for a moment before he looked at her, concern within in the tight way he was holding his body as he awaited her words. Kendall did not leave him waiting for long. “I want you to come with me on my upcoming trip, Flame.”

When he started to protest, she cut him off. She couldn’t in all good conscience send them all off to die in a strange place, all alone.

“You have no idea what you are going to do next. You’re very weak and your children are too young for you to start wandering around lost and alone. If the execution squad is still after you, then you need a guide. I had planned to leave the area anyway. I was going off to the mountains tomorrow for a vacation.”

There was so much at stake here. She paused for a minute and stared into his eyes, trying to convey her sincere feelings to him. She needed him to understand the importance of her decision. “I want you to come with me. It’ll be much safer than hiding here and you can have some time to decide your next move. But you need to get away if they can track you to here.”

Flame considered her words. She was a woman, but still, she had delivered his babies, his new reason for existence. He looked at his children; safe, fed and content. He would sacrifice anything to keep them that way. He had never loved anything more than the two babies sleeping in their makeshift beds. If the woman would help him he would give her his very soul. “I would be grateful to you for any help, Mistress.”

“Kendall. Call me Kendall.”

All too soon he would have to face the dawn and the problems that it brought with the new day. Flame closed his eyes and let sleep overtake him. For now, at least, he and his children were safe.
 

* * * *

 
Kendall stood by her bedroom window and contemplated the stars through the sheer curtains that provided a thin veil between her and the night sky. There were people living out there! Real people with real problems and real lives and… People so similar to the life that developed here on Earth, yet so vastly different.

She turned slowly, making her way to the canopied bed, thinking about the joys and sorrows experienced by this otherworldly culture. It was almost too farfetched to believe, but it was true. How could she not believe when a man just gave birth on her living room couch?

She looked around the sanctuary of her bedroom and wondered what Flame’s people would make of it. Her bedroom, a contrast to her dogmatic nature, was created to be the perfect Arabian paradise. The sheer white canopy that draped her black iron bed was reminiscent of the tents used by great Bedouin warriors as they wandered the mysterious deserts of their homeland. The walls were painted a pale peach color that picked up the sun’s rays in the early morning and transformed the room into a glowing, sandy desert landscape.

Other than the bed, the only large pieces of furniture were a cedar chest at its foot and a full-size standing mirror draped with dozens of colorful scarves. There were a few abstract photos in warm tones hanging on the walls, but they were pieces that spoke to her as opposed to what some people would consider art. She climbed into the plush bed, rolled to her back, and lay there in the midst of all that was most feminine, in her estimation, and she thought about everything that Flame had revealed.

A whole planet ruled by women. Men giving birth. The power to soar through time and space. What marvels they could teach my people, she thought with excitement, weighing the possibilities. How different the would be if it were controlled by women, she thought as she closed her eyes and let the adrenaline crash from her exciting evening overtake her conscious mind.

As she drifted off into a deep slumber, the soft sound of her door opening caused her eyes to pop open.

“Flame?” she asked as she struggled to sit up. “Is something wrong? Is it one of the children?”

“No, Mistress.” His wonderfully deep voice almost purred as he stepped into the room.

“What’s wrong? You shouldn’t be out of bed!”

“I have yet to thank you properly, Mistress. This is a grave offense among my people.”

“You thanked me once, Flame. That is enough.” Kendall sighed as she relaxed back into her bedsheets. “You really scared me.”

“I wish only to please you.” He stepped further into the room, stepping away from the shadows that hid his form, and Kendall caught her breath at his beauty.

“Oh my…”

Flame was naked, totally naked.

The moonlight danced with the shadows that alternately covered and revealed his form as he walked toward her.

His bright red hair draped across his shoulders and framed the massive chest that rose and fell with his deep, even breaths.

His eyes glittered, the bright sparks growing in intensity until they exploded into a sea of red as he approached the edge of the bed. His stiff cock glistened in the darkness, clear drops of precum on its tip shining as it brushed against his navel. The man was hung.

“For your pleasure, Mistress,” he purred as he ran his large hands over his well-defined chest to his thighs and then up again. He nibbled on his full bottom lip as if deciding on some new course of action then jerked the covers away from her nude body. She could almost feel like a physical caress the way his gaze slid over her body. He didn’t seem to care about the scars from past surgeries, the fact that her thighs were a little too big and her calves were a little too skinny. He didn’t seem to see any flaws in her naked form at all. In fact, his lips slid into the sexiest smirk she had ever seen on a man before he spoke to her again, his voice rough with his arousal. “All for your pleasure.”

Before she could agree, protest, give him any input at all, Flame was sliding between her legs, forcing them open so that he could explore her suddenly wet womanhood with his eyes…and then his…

“Wait!”

Before she could acclimate herself to his new situation or even protest further than that gasped word, one large, rough finger was running across her rapidly swelling clit. Her teeth clamped down on her lower lip as he tore his gaze away from her more intimate places and his face tilted up to hers. The expression that crossed his face was one of extreme pleasure.

“Flame!” She bit out as she tossed her head back, groaning out her passion as she fought to stay somewhat upright on her elbows. She wanted to watch what was going on but didn’t really think she would have the strength to do so. With just a few caresses, he’d managed to make her head spin and nearly shut down her thought processes.

“I thank thee, Mistress,” he breathed as his fingers parted her wet, slick folds to expose her engorged pink opening. “I thank thee, and I take thee.”

“Flame!” she groaned as she shuddered with need, her toes curling and her legs lifting in an effort to expose more of her sex to his caresses.

She was one to enjoy sexual contact and wasn’t shy about knowing what her body needed to get off, but this—this whole Flame thing was amazing. The man but touched her the way she wanted most, and she was wet and raring to go. Fire coursed through her body, up her spine, teasing her nerves as she managed to open her eyes to stare at him again and saw him lower that fiery red head towards her sex.

First his breath touched her, hot and damp; grazed against the moisture that was pouring from her body. Then there was the lightest brush of his tongue, as if he were testing for flavor.

Finally, with a sigh of pleasure, Flame settled his mouth against her and began to feast in earnest. Kendall shrieked as his tongue lashed at her, invaded her feminine space, exciting her senses as her back arched off of the bed. With a skill that Kendall had never thought possible, Flame inserted his tongue into her, laving at her inner walls.

Kendall’s hands reached down to grab at his head, to fist his hair, to find a center in the vortex of swirling heat and desire that he sent her plummeting through, but the touch of his hair almost seared her with its power.

She reached another level of lust as this new sensation poured over her, though her, inside of her. She wailed as he began to nibble tenderly on the petals of her feminine lips, lapping up her moisture as if she were spun candy and growling his pleasure as he went back for more. His hair sizzled her where it caressed the damp skin of her thighs and stomach.

One stiff finger began to penetrate as his lips latched onto her clit, gently but firmly holding it captive in the hot cave of his mouth. His finger speared her, filling an emptiness that had begun to grow within her, making her long for more.

“Yes!” she breathed as she writhed on the bed, lost in total ecstasy. “More.”

Another finger joined the first, stretching her, preparing her for his possession, the lubrication her body gushed easing his way. Just as she thought she could take no more, he began to hum as he pressed his tongue against her captive clitoris.

His power flowed around her. Her muscles clenched; her body strained and began to quiver from deep within. She felt her emotions spiral out of control, fighting for release. Her inner walls tightened as the tension increased until it snapped.

“Yes, Flame, yes!” she roared, her inner walls clenched rhythmically, her release poured over her in waves…

Then she jerked up in bed.

Breathing harshly, she ran a shaky hand through her tangled hair as she eased out of the dream state, her muscles still quivering from the primal release that her dream had forced upon her.

“Oh Lord,” she panted as she eased back to the bed, struggling to regulate her breathing and return to the sleep state.

Still wondering about her mysterious visitor, she realized that it had been a long time since she’d reacted that way to any man, let alone the perfect stranger who had just given birth on her new couch!

“I need to sleep!”

That said, her mind filed that fantasy away for future personal use, and she closed her eyes, forcing herself to calm. Having Flame around might be a good thing!

She fell asleep with visions of stars and rockets swirling through her head. She scarcely remembered that tomorrow should have been her wedding day, or that the man with whom she’d be sharing the day or her fantasies with was not Richard.

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