Iggy’s grip on her elbow kept her from strangling Tinaria, but only just. When the woman reached out to pat Zora’s belly, he almost got the elbow to his face. Tinaria’s mouth moved constantly. Sound had to be coming out, but all Zora could hear was a rushing in her ears and the distant pounding of her own heart.
The blue lips stretched into a wide smile and a wicked glint sparked in the woman’s eyes. The roaring died. Sound crashed back in as Tinaria’s gaze fixed on Ignatius. “Is THIS the father?”
Zora jerked toward her, intent on murder. She only managed to lunge an inch from Iggy’s side. He’d suddenly developed superhuman strength. Android strength. He was channeling her brother-in-law, perhaps? His voice was cool enough, as level as Rook’s.
“Yes,” he said. “I am.”
Zora stared at the ceiling. A dancer leaned dangerously far out from the top floor, gyrating and oblivious. Their partner dragged them to safety before the force fields came into play.
“Well, Zora,” Tinaria simpered. “Aren’t you going to introduce us?”
“Nope.” A trio of Bomorians ascended the hover stairs, laughing and staggering from step to step.
“I am the Emperor Ignatius Superious,” Iggy said. “The first.”
Tinaria’s mouth flopped open. She made repetitive choking noises that went a long way toward soothing Zora’s panic. She felt a grin stirring somewhere beneath the icy terror in her tummy. Or possibly, it was just the baby rolling about.
“Zora, dear.” Ignatius turned her just enough that she had to face him. He smiled, but the look in his eyes had too many layers to be reassuring. “You looked tired. Shall we?”
She nodded and pressed her lips together.
“You’ll have to excuse us.”
Zora grinned at Tinaria and let the Emperor lead her away. She almost forgot about her predicament until her partner headed for the front doors instead of their table. Her feet stuttered. She tossed a look over one shoulder and tried to catch Murray’s attention or even Rook’s. The throng was too dense. Iggy pulled her along without chance of reprieve, and she had a sinking feeling they were heading for a confrontation instead of a moonlight stroll.
A narrow deck trimmed the dance club, stretching all around the outside and even spiraling up to the higher levels. Ignatius steered her around the first corner and out toward the water. He didn’t hurry, and his grip on her elbow eased to a gentle touch. The Mercur moons danced over the waves, making the whole sea sparkle and flare against the horizon.
“I’m sorry.” She couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Is it true?” He dropped her elbow and leaned against the railing, gazing out at the water before turning a tight smile in her direction.
She turned to the side and stretched the fabric tight across her belly, revealing her big secret to Iggy, the ocean, and the moons it resembled.
“Not that,” he said. His eyes drifted to her midsection, but his expression registered little. “You are good at many things, Zora, but keeping secrets from me isn’t one of them.”
“Not who the father is.” His tone said he still didn’t. His eyes dared her to own up. “Is it me?”
“Really?” He pushed away from the railing and nearly bowled her over. “It is mine?”
“Yeah, but—” She squinted at him. He’d bent forward and now examined her middle at closer range. “Ignatius?”
“I hoped,” he said. “But when you didn’t say anything, and kept not saying anything.”
“Right, but you should know—”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” He stood back up so fast she stumbled away. His face shifted back and forth from delight to concern. She watched his eyebrows dance, up and down. It would have been funny in another situation.
“I wasn’t sure.”
“Ah.” He stepped away from her. Physically put distance between them. “There is another man.”
“No. I mean, there was, but it was before we—before you and I—you know, before.”
“And you were hoping it was him?”
They held still and stared at one another. Laughter rattled in the distance, and the sea slapped a soft rhythm closer by. She felt lighter with the truth floating between them, but also fragile somehow, as if he could shatter her any second.
When he spoke, his voice barely reached above a whisper. “What now?”
“I don’t know.” She bit her lip to keep it from trembling, but her eyes watered and gave her away.
Ignatius nodded once and then wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close. Zora melted into the embrace. Her shoulders sagged and she let him support her full weight. He still whispered, but with more force behind it now. “It’s going to be fine, Zora. We’ll be fine.”
“Of course.” He patted her on the back. “We’ll get you the best doctor in the galaxy. The best hospital. Once the baby’s born we’ll have the clones, all my resources. If I can’t find a good school, I’ll bring in teachers, experts, advisers, whatever the little guy needs!”
“Girl.” She straightened her spine and wriggled out of his grasp. “It’s a girl.” A girl that she suddenly had to share, that his churning brain was already picking out schools for. A girl with three arms and, if she was lucky, her mother’s hair.
She could see his plans shifting, adjusting to the news, but still very much at work.
“I don’t feel good.”
“We’ll need more tailors,” he said. “Daughter of the Emperor.”
“I need to lie down.” She said it twice before he snapped out of it.
“Are you okay? Is the baby fine? Let’s go inside. Is she okay?”
“I want to go back to the ship.”
“Of course. I’ll get us a car.”
“Should we phone a doctor? Maybe there’s a doctor here?”
Zora started back toward the street with an Emperor scurrying at her heels. She came around the corner at a trot, stuck out one arm like a flag and whistled loud enough to stop time. A hover cab dipped out of traffic and slid to a halt, sideways, in front of the club. The side door slid open.
“I’m going back to the ship.” She stared at him until he got the idea.
“Zora, I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”
“You go tell Murray and Rook that I’m fine, everything is fine, and I was just tired. I’ll see you all when you get back.”
She didn’t wait for the protest to escape his lips. Baby belly or not, she could still hop into a cab on her own. She could still get the door shut fast enough to keep an Emperor out. She didn’t wait for the cabbie to ask, just hollered her destination and watched Ignatius argue with no one.
He shrank for a moment, and then the cab turned and a wall of buildings replaced the view. Teachers. Tailors. He had everything covered. She tapped a curt beat against the cab wall with her nails. Everything except where the mother fit in. Everything except what she might want.
Not that she had a clue what that was. She’d just expected to be asked her opinion, in particular when it had to do with her baby.
Her foot joined in on the tapping. Granted, the baby was half his—not quite half his. Maybe she should tell him that little gem right away. Maybe, he wouldn’t be able handle it. Even if he could, it might be a good idea to establish right out of the gate that their parental ownership wasn’t exactly equal. If they were going to pick out a school, by god…well, she didn’t know of any schools. She still wanted some damn input.
The cab had stopped. They hovered just outside the hangar bay and the cabbie stared at her over the seat. Some instinct in his amphibious brain had held his tongue, had warned him not to interrupt the crazy lady. She snorted and rolled her eyes to cement his impression. Then she tossed a handful of cred chits forward and scrambled out of the vehicle.
She’d hoped Iggy would be happy, hadn’t she? She just hadn’t expected him to act like—what? Her steps hammered the ship’s ramp. She stormed through the open hatch and headed for the bridge. She hadn’t expected him to act so much like, like a damn man. That was it. Ignatius had always been different, better somehow.
It was her baby. She’d pick out the damned school. All she needed was a computer and a few minutes alone. She burst into the bridge and flew toward the console, surprising the hell out of the pirates lounging around the room.
They all froze and stared at one another. Pirates on the ship, on the bridge, hacking the computers by the look of it. Zora held her breath. She considered a quick spin, a dart back toward the doorway. The hatch had been open. Shit. She’d waltzed right on in in the middle of a raid.
“Well now,” the drawling voice behind her said it all. Way to late to run, then.
She turned to face him instead. Tall, dark, deadly handsome. “You must be Zander.”
“Well now.” Even his smile was vicious. “This ought to make things much easier.”