“Stop that!” Tia shifted her new son to one arm and slapped Rork’s hand away from the luscious bunch of Astran grapes he had been picking at, part of the appetizers she had set out on the long dining table. “Our guests will be here any minute.” She paused as a voice met her mental ears. “In fact, Ries is right outside the door.”
“Little sister.” Ries entered the spacious home Rork and Tia had purchased on the edge of Adina, and swept her into a hug.
It was still hard for Tia to believe she had family, but despite their different fathers, she and Ries had become extremely close. They weren’t far from the palace, and she saw her brother almost every day. He squeezed her until she was forced to push him away, laughing. “Hey, you’ll crush your nephew!”
Grale, Amara, and their children arrived on Ries’ heels.
“Why didn’t you wait for us?” Amara admonished Ries.
“I wanted to get here before Rork ate all the food,” he answered with a grin.
Rork turned toward his wife, accusingly. “You told him to say that, didn’t you?” Tia grinned, her face alight. “Telepaths,” he said in mock disgust.
Rork took his son from Tia.
Grale bounced ten-month-old Riall on his lap. Amara wrangled Aleia, no longer a toddler at four, but still a handful, into a chair of her own. “What are you going to name him?” she asked once Aleia was settled with a piece of bread.
“Ser,” Tia answered. “After my father.”
Aleia slid off her chair and ran to Tia, soggy bread waving in one pudgy hand. “Aunt Tia, Aunt Tia, will you turn into a kitty?”
Tia laughed proudly. Rork knew she had been delighted to discover she’d inherited more than her blue eyes from her mother.
“Later, sweetie.” She patted her impish cousin on the back in consolation and offered her a piece of fruit.
“Xowan wanted me to ask if you’re finished with the new starship design he commissioned,” Grale asked Tia.
Tia smiled teasingly. “Tell him all good things come to he who waits. At least, he’s not as demanding as my last client. Whine, whine, whine, day and night. When is my jump engine going to ready? My sleeping cabin isn’t big enough, on and on.”
“Hey!” Grale said. “I thought I was very patient.”
Rork grinned. It had taken Grale some time to get past Tia’s former profession, but now they were good friends.
Rork cradled Ser close to his chest. It seemed like just yesterday he’d marveled at the tiny perfection of Grale’s little son and now this small life was his to protect. He only hoped he could be as good a father as his father had been.
He glanced around the room at the happy faces around him and his gaze lingered on his wife. “I’m a lucky man,” he whispered to his sleeping child.
Tia settled Ser in his crib and turned out the light.
“Ah, what a night,” said Rork from behind her. He joined her at the crib and pulled her back against his chest, nuzzling her hair. “I thought they’d never leave.” Tia shook her head, smiling. Rork was never happier than when surrounded by friends and family.
Thinking of family, she frowned into the darkness. “I’m worried about Ries.”
Rork kissed her ear. “I know, but he seemed fine tonight. He’s probably just tense about leaving the U.S.F.” Ries had inherited a title and a vast estate on Rijya’s northern continent, and now that his term of service was ending, he planned to retire to it.
“Hmmm.” Tia leaned into Rork’s caress. “You’re probably right.”
“Always,” Rork said and swung Tia up into his arms. She muffled a startled cry in his neck, not wanting to wake the baby, and allowed herself to be carried to their bedroom.
As he laid her on their bed, she thanked the stars for the blessings they had bestowed upon her. A loving husband, healthy son, family, friends, and a thriving business doing something she loved.
Never as a lonely child had she ever imagined she could love or be loved like this. This, at last, was belonging.
Now, finally, she was home.