Hanna stopped in the middle of the street, shifting the covered cake plate to her other hand so she could wipe her sweaty palm on her jeans. This was what came of three grown women playing truth or dare while watching the new neighbor move in—not that there had been much to see with that big flutter pod squatting in the way. It was gone now, but there was still nothing to see. Watching an extraterrestrial move in ought to be more entertaining.
More than eight years had passed since the first embassy ships landed, but the aliens kept to themselves, evidently preferring to observe humanity from a distance. The few Talessanins who came to Earth tended to stay in the embassy enclaves, and most people still hadn’t seen one of the aliens in person—especially not in small towns like Freebridge.
Hanna glanced over her shoulder at her own little house, where Rachel and Tiffany peeked through the curtains of her living room window.
“Keep going.” Rachel’s voice came from the phone in Hanna’s back pocket.
“I’m going.” Hanna drew a determined breath. “But if you don’t stop talking, I’m taking you off speakerphone and hanging up. This is bad enough without getting caught letting my friends listen in.”
Her pocket was silent.
Hanna made it to the other side of the street before her phone chirped, alerting her that a new text message had been received. She stopped again, juggled the cake back to her other hand, and fished her phone out of her pocket.
The message came from Tiffany’s phone and said:
IS THIS BETTER?
“What is wrong with you people?” Hanna muttered in mock irritation. She didn’t want to admit how reassured she felt, knowing someone would call the police if she screamed. None of them said so, but all three of the women knew this was the real reason Hanna had invited her friends over in the first place. The dare was just her friends’ way of giving Hanna the courage to face the man who had purchased the acreage on the other side of her dead-end country road. It would’ve been hard enough if he’d been merely human. This was so much worse.
But Hanna needed to do this, and she needed to do it alone—needed to know she could do it alone. After all, the guy was going to be her only neighbor; she couldn’t avoid him forever. Best to get this over with.
Squaring her shoulders, she stuffed the phone back in her pocket and marched across the neighbor’s newly sodded lawn and up the steps to the front porch. Not giving herself time to back out, Hanna thumbed the doorbell once, hard, and plastered a fake smile across her face.
He answered the door so quickly that he must have been watching her out the window this whole time, and Hanna abruptly found herself staring at the middle of a broad, well-muscled chest covered in snug black t-shirt. He was tall. Really tall. Hanna’s breath caught in her throat, and her cheeks warmed in a blush that would perfectly complement the fake smile. Oh yes, this was going well already.
“Good afternoon.” His voice was a rich baritone. And apparently he spoke English—that was something, at least, even if his slight accent was a bit unsettling. “How may I help you?”
Hanna steadied herself with another deep breath and looked up into his face. He could almost have been some kind of Latin pop star, all olive skin and high cheekbones with solemn hazel eyes rimmed in dark lashes. His black hair, pulled back into a complicated arrangement of tiny braids, fell nearly to his shoulders.
As calmly as she could manage, Hanna gave the speech Rachel had made her memorize. “My name is Hanna Bradley. I live across the street. I saw you moving in this morning, and I wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood. I brought you a chocolate bundt cake.” She held out the cake plate, hoping he didn’t notice her hands were shaking. What if they didn’t eat cake? What if chocolate was toxic to them, like it was to dogs?
His generous mouth stretched into a smile, and as he reached for the plate, Hanna’s eyes flicked to his hands. Sturdy, flexible membranes webbed the spaces between his long fingers. She’d expected that. Everyone knew what Talessanins looked like; pictures of them were all over the internet and in the media. But seeing one in real life, in broad daylight, was different.
“How very kind of you, Hanna Bradley,” he said solemnly, with a slight bow. “I am Jonantathinel of House Kanestelan Ehr, and I am most pleased to make your acquaintance. Will you come in?” He took half a step back, giving her a little space to breathe and inviting her into his home.
Hanna’s heart stuttered. “Oh,” she said. “I just . . . um . . .” Her phone chirped again; Tiffany was not letting her off the hook. “Um . . . sure, but only for a minute. I don’t want to interrupt your day.”
Her heart pounded harder as she followed the tall alien through a spacious living room and formal dining room and into the kitchen at the back. It looked like a regular house any human might live in—at least, any human with a little more money than average. The floors were all hardwood, the furniture was all new, and the kitchen had mahogany cabinets with granite countertops and high-end appliances. One side of the kitchen opened out into a large, casual family room with luxurious-looking carpet, an enormous television, a sprawling sectional sofa, and a scattering of oversized beanbag chairs. It was a disconcerting kind of ordinariness.
“You have a beautiful home,” Hanna said, feeling a need to make some attempt at conversation. “I’ve enjoyed watching it being built and wondered what the inside would be like.” It sounded stilted. She didn’t care. Just keep breathing.
“Did I hear the doorbell?”
Hanna jumped at the sound of the new voice and felt the fading warmth of her blush deepen again as her heart climbed up into her throat. There were two of them.
The second Talessanin man emerged from a hallway behind them, which presumably led to the home’s bedrooms, and offered Hanna a friendly grin. Considerably shorter than the first and with a stockier build, this alien had short brown hair and an open, freckled face.
The first man hurried to make introductions. “This is our neighbor, Hanna Bradley, from across the street. She has come to welcome us to the neighborhood.”
The second man offered a small bow. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Bradley.”
“Please,” she said, looking back and forth between the two. “Just call me Hanna. There’s no need to be so formal.”
The shorter man grinned. “I’m honored, Hanna. Call me Tomin. And my friend is Jon. I suppose he introduced himself so fast that you have no idea what he actually said?” Tomin’s English had hardly any accent at all.
“W-well . . .” Hanna stammered.
“Jon,” Tomin scolded, “I told you, you have to slow down. Maybe you should let me answer the door for a while.”
The big man grinned and shrugged. “It is my house, and I need the practice.” He held up the cake plate as if it were a rare prize. “Hanna has brought us a . . .”—he looked sheepish—“what did you call it, Hanna?”
Hanna felt her blush deepen even more. “A chocolate bundt cake. It’s a type of dessert.”
Tomin’s face lit up. “I love chocolate cake! Chocolate is definitely one of the things Earth got right without us.” He took the cake plate from his friend and set it on the counter. You’ll have to forgive Jon. He spent a little time here in the early days, but he’s been assigned off world ever since, and he’s still getting used to how things work here.” He took the cover off the plate and eyed the cake with pleasure. “You’ll stay and have a piece with us, won’t you?”
“Thanks,” Hanna said, edging backward, “but I can’t. I need to be getting home.” Her phone chirped. “I haven’t had lunch yet.” It chirped again.
“How very fortunate!” Jon exclaimed. “You must allow us to reciprocate by buying you lunch. I am sure you know which restaurants here are best.”
Hanna’s phone chirped again. “I’m supposed to meet up with some friends for lunch today,” she explained. Again, the phone chirped.
“Do you need to get that?” Tomin asked.
“Maybe I’d better at least check.” Hanna fumbled the phone out of her pocket and looked at the display.
Tiffany’s texts read:
R U NUTS?
TELL THEM 2 MEET US @ MACS. WANT 2 C THEM2.
“Is everything all right?” Tomin asked, and Hanna realized she was scowling at the phone.
“Yes. Sorry about that.” She stuffed the phone in her pocket and pasted the fake smile back on her face. “Um . . . listen, my friends are waiting for me, but why don’t you join us for lunch? Mac’s Bar and Grill is only a couple of miles up the road on the edge of town, and we can save you some seats at our table.”