Beyond the Next Star Love Beyond Book 1
by Melody Johnson Genre: SciFi Romance
An intolerable order. A desperate charade. A deadly secret...
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 for 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.
Melody Johnson is the award-winning author of the “out of this world” Love Beyond series and the gritty, paranormal romance Night Blood series published by Kensington Publishing/ Lyrical Press. She graduated magna cum laude from Lycoming College with her B.A. in creative writing and psychology.
Earning the 2021 Maggie Award of Excellence, Beyond the Next Star (Love Beyond, book 1) 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. Her first published novel, The City Beneath (Night Blood, book 1), was a finalist in the “Cleveland Rocks” and “Fool For Love” contests.
When she isn’t writing, Melody enjoys swimming, hiking, reading, and exploring her new home in southeast Georgia. Stay in touch with Melody on social media or her website: authormelodyjohnson.com
I began what I consider “seriously writing”—writing in the pursuit of publication—during the summer of 2010 for my college honors project. In the twelve years since, I’ve written ten full-length novels, four of which have been published traditionally, one of which was published independently, another which was picked up by an agent, and my most recent which is scheduled to release this January. All of which to say that I’ve been writing a long time, yet I’m constantly learning something new about the industry and myself. When I first began writing, indie publishing had only just begun to legitimately take hold of the market, and now, NYT Bestselling authors are going hybrid (publishing some books independently). Like never before, authors have the opportunity to enjoy full creative control of their story. With twelve years of writing, ten books, and nearly six publications under my belt, this year, I suddenly felt like a baby taking her first steps all over again, because as usual in the constantly growing publishing industry, I had the chance to achieve another first: producing an audiobook of my sci-fi romance novel, Beyond the Next Star (Love Beyond, Book 1). Venturing into unfamiliar waters can be thrilling and exhilarating, if a little scary. Luckily for me, a friend and fellow author of mine is extremely experienced in producing audiobooks, so I could lean on her for advice on the process and guidance on what to expect (shout out to the fabulous S. E. Smith!). Even with her support, however, I still experienced a few surprises along the way.
The process was easy
I never would have expected the process of producing an audiobook to be so easy! I don’t know if it’s because of the upfront financial investment that audiobook production requires, but I feel like no one talks about how simple producing an audiobook truly is. As an author, you’ve already done all the heavy lifting up front—writing/editing/publishing the book and designing a cover. All that’s left to produce an audiobook is a few business decisions on budget, royalties, and distribution; claiming your book on the production platform of your choice; preparing a three-page script; choosing a narrator; providing feedback; approving the final product; and resizing your cover. In comparison to the time and effort it takes to write the full-length novel to begin with: Easy!
Listening to auditions was fun
My version of “fun” is binge watching Bridgerton over a pepperoni pizza on a couch date with my best friend. I absolutely did not expect to “have fun” while producing an audiobook. Probably because I don’t necessarily find writing “fun.” For me, writing is rewarding, cathartic, frustrating, and necessary, but I had a blast listening to auditions for my audiobook. Once I set Beyond the Next Star as “open for auditions,” the submissions came pouring in. Some were a little extra, which was hilarious. Some were a little robotic, which was also entertaining. But most blew me away. I had so many fantastic options that after having whittled them down to my top five, I shared them with my reader’s group, friends, and family to consider their opinions as well. Normally, I’m pretty decisive about what I like and don’t like, so for me to reach out for feedback, you know I was torn.
The unexpected thrill of it
Hearing my story come alive in a completely different format was unexpectedly thrilling. It’s an inkling of what I’d expect to feel while watching my story on screen if I’m ever fortunate enough to have the pleasure of adapting my book for TV or movies. Hearing my book, as opposed to reading it, brought the story and characters to life in an entirely new way that I hadn’t anticipated. It made me laugh and blush and feel all the feels. Several times I had to remind myself that it’s my book. I know what’s going to happen, yet something about the audiobook (probably due to the talent of my wonderful narrator; thank you Michelle Sobeski!) made the story fresh and exciting even for me.
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