A week after they were back at the lab, she awoke to find Collin missing from his chair. "Where is he, Jamel?"
"In his room on the third floor. He is coming back down now."
"He has a room on the third floor? But he sleeps here in that . . ." That chair. Never in a bed. Because she was afraid to be alone.
"He stays here to protect you."
"Protect me from what? Getting lost?"
"From me," Jamel said, his voice dropping.
"But . . . ." But a man dressed all in iridescent sky blue dragon-skin just walked into her room and stopped. His jacket, his trousers, even his boots were the same iridescent sky blue. And he wore a matching hat with a wide brim and some kind of covering over his eyes. "Collin?"
He grinned, his mouth about the only thing she recognized. "Meet Hans Trapper, hunter of dragons and seller of the finest exotic dragon leather."
"Another name," Jamel stated, reassuring her.
"Like my disguise? Can't have a reputable doctor like Alex Collin acting like he knows a thing about dragons."
Kayden slipped out of bed and met him half way between the bed and the door. She rubbed her wrists over the arms of his jacket. It was as soft as she'd remembered the dragon's hide. "I love it. What are the eye coverings for?"
"Sun shield. Gives me a wild, mysterious look, don't you think?"
Kayden laughed at his teasing good humor. "You're wild and mysterious without all the extras." But then she knew what this meant. "You're going somewhere, aren't you?"
"Yep. Right after breakfast, I'm flying some hide over to a tanner in Alexandria. Too much for Angie to take it all since she's got the calves, so I'll probably have to take the rest another day."
"When will you be back?"
"Oh, good. I hate being alone."
"You won't be." He pulled Jamel's black rectangle from his jacket pocket. "Jamel, bring the unit over."
The Jamel she'd talked to earlier, rolled over to him, and then allowed Collin to insert the rectangle inside him. "We can't leave the core lying around, as we have idiots for housekeepers."
"Are you sure it is wise, Collin?" Jamel asked.
"Yep. Wisest move I've made so far today," he said in his teasing voice. He plopped into his recliner as Mauve brought in breakfast.
"But what if . . . ."
"No, but what if . . . ."
Collin laughed. "You worry too much, Jamel. I trust you. You know my rules now."
"But I . . . ."
"He wants to go with you. It's boring here with me." Kayden focused on her food.
"I do not wish to hurt you accidentally."
Kayden rolled her eyes.
"Look, Jamel, you've offended the lady. Now apologize and stop questioning my decision. It is final."
"I'm sorry," Jamel mumbled. "I won't let anyone hurt you."
"No one here but Burgy, Mauve and a few other robots."
"Don't forget Tabitha. Where's that girl been hiding herself?"
"She's got a boyfriend in the stable."
Collin pulled off his sun shades. "She does?"
"Well, he's been in there for about a week, hiding in the hay."
"So we'll have kittens in a couple months."
"I assume so," Kayden agreed.
"I wonder how he got in."
"Same way she gets out. Through the tunnels." Didn't he know about the tunnels in the back of the stable?
Collin grinned. "You really have been spending a lot of time down there, haven't you?" He finished off the breakfast casserole. It was always the same old thing for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And she suspected it was old, re-hydrated food. It didn't seem to bother Collin, but a fresh shipment of something wouldn't hurt at all. She pushed the last of her breakfast away.
"You need to eat that."
"I'm not hungry."
"There's medicine in yours. Gotta finish up."
"No wonder it tastes like puke."
Collin stood and then leaned down, kissing her forehead. "I'll see you tonight, and finish your medicine."
To pass time she played some of the new board games with Jamel that Collin had taught them. He won most of the time, even though early on, Kayden had learned never to play anything but games of chance with him. She also spent time studying the new texts Collin had given her. These focused on all the animals of Aussie with color pictures that Kayden insisted Archive put on the large screen behind her bed as she read.
And then Collin was back, looking just as outrageous and handsome as he had when he left. "Miss me?"
She decided to tease him. "Didn't notice you'd left yet."
He grinned and gave her a one armed hug.
A couple days later Collin left to stay overnight in Hope. Again Jamel kept her company. When he returned he had several sets of clothing for her, which he then sewed pockets into. Jamel worked on the other tunic. "What are the pockets for?" Kayden asked.
"For Jamel. When we go back, he'll ride in your pocket."
"Yeah. And we'll each have ear monitors so we can hear him, but no one else will be able to. We worked it all out. That way, if I'm busy, but you need me, Jamel can give me the message immediately."
Kayden looked at both of them, clumsily sewing pockets into her clothes so she'd be closer to them. She wouldn't be alone. "Thanks," she managed to say, but she knew she better go see Angie, or they'd know she was about to cry for no really good reason.
Hans Trapper took one more load into Alexandria. When he returned, Collin and Jamel began discussing her surgery. She would be unconscious, and Jamel would assist Collin. Kayden felt excitement and dread at the prospect. She couldn't wait until she was whole again. Well, there were things that would never be whole, she conceded. Her euphoria was suddenly gone. She'd tried not to think about some of the injuries she knew she'd received. But now she couldn't think of anything else.
The silence brought her back to the room. Collin watched her with his sympathetic look. "Surgery is a bit frightening, isn't it?"
"There are other things wrong, aren't there? Things that will never heal."
"You've healed remarkably well."
"But my head isn't right. I remember some stuff, and then other things just won't come. Are you going to fix that?"
"I fixed as much as I could," Collin said softly. "I think the remaining block is either psychological or tiny tears. If the medicine hasn't healed them, any surgery will just be like wingdeer trying to fly low through the forest. More damage than good."
"What does psychological mean? I'm forgetting on purpose?"
"In a way, yes. Trauma does that sometimes. Notice if you really need to know something, like how to read, you have it. I'm almost sure if you ever need the information that's hidden, it should come out."
She hesitated. Should she ask? Yes. He was a doctor. He wasn't just any man. "I was raped, wasn't I?"
"Yes," he stated, simply and with no elaboration.
"It was more than rape, wasn't it? I'm not healed."
Collin left his chair to sit on the arm of hers, placing his arm on her shoulders. "Sweetheart, you are healed for now. Someday we could try a womb replacement, but I felt it wasn't essential right now so I did not even try to make it. Additional abdominal surgery would keep us here another month. You should also know before undergoing that surgery that less than twenty percent of recipients go on to carry a child to term. It may not solve your problem."
"So I'll never get married."
"You can marry. Just let your fiancÚ know before the vows." He kissed her cheek. "Kayden, I have no biological children either, but I've had many surrogate sons as apprentices."
"But you're not married yet."
He stood and began pacing the floor. He was in that mood he went into whenever he talked about the past. Kayden reached out to hug him. He let her and then settled back into the chair, pulling her onto his lap to hold. "I've been married twice. Children are not the only reason to marry."
"So you're married?" She couldn't help the shocked jealousy that coursed through her.
He grinned. "No, Doctor Alex Collin has never been married." He sat beside her again. "I do know what you may face in the future, though, so don't be afraid to talk to your Daddy about it, okay?"
She wasn't allowed to eat anything the day before the surgery, and she didn't miss the food. She was taken into an operating room, and she saw the new hands for the first time in jars of liquid. Whole hands down to the wrists. "But I have part of my hand left." She looked at Collin who was setting out gleaming silver instruments.
"We'll remove that."
Suddenly Kayden was glad she hadn't eaten. They were going to cut her hands some more. "No," she moaned.
Collin was beside her. "It's okay, Sweetheart. You won't even know it. You'll go to sleep and wake up with whole hands. It'll be okay, I promise."
She let him lead her to the operating table because she was too sick to protest. She trusted Collin. She loved him. Why was she so scared? As she lay down she noticed Burgy and Mauve -- the ones Collin called idiots -- were going to help him. She shivered.
"It's okay, Sweetheart. Jamel, you may begin."
She felt her arm grasped by Jamel's metal clamps, and then pricked.
"It's okay, Kayden. You'll be okay. Start counting for me, Sweetheart. Start counting to yourself now."
One . . . Two . . . What was he doing? Three . . . .
Four . . . Five . . . .
"Hey, you're waking up for us, aren't you?" Collin said.
She heard his voice but she couldn't open her eyes. Where was she? On seven or eight?
"You have new hands now, Sweetheart. It's all over, and your fingers are even responding to stimuli."
Over? What did he mean over? They hadn't started. She forced her eyes open. Collin was smiling down at her. She reached for him. She wanted to hug him, but her arm missed, and a hand slapped his face. "Ooohhh!"
Collin took her hand and laughed. "Not exactly the thanks I expected."
"Oh, no. I'm sorry. I . . . Was that?" She tried to raise her arm again, and this time she studied the new hand. Splints held her wrist immobile and under the splints she could see a red line. But what held her attention were the fingers. Long, beautiful fingers, like she imagined she used to have. "Oh, Collin, it worked."
His grin widened. "Yes, it worked. Although you should expect that it will be a few months before you are completely comfortable with them. Now why don't you try to stay still and let them knit themselves together for another day."
Four days later, Collin removed the splints. Kayden still couldn't use her fingers much. They didn't grip well, nor could she feel everything. Collin said that was normal and that doing her exercises would strengthen them faster. On the next day, they changed into the clothes for the village, packed up her extra set of clothing and her notebook reader into a pack Collin gave her, and they started for Hope, Jamel in her shirt pocket and a small microdot transceiver behind her left ear.
It was cold out, and even though Collin had given her a jacket and gloves for her new hands, her fingers were freezing. She didn't even think she could move them anymore. But with the wind whipping into her face, she didn't think she could talk to him, nor did she think it would do any good until they stopped anyway. Every so often she saw Tabitha wing in front of them, and for a while the bold cat, after landing on Angie in flight, sat on Kayden's lap and let Angie carry her also. Poor Girl. Angie had both her and Collin and their bags as well as her two calves and now Tabitha. Although Tabitha was probably the lightest of the bunch.
The trees thinned out, and then it was mostly hilly areas, some dark dirt and some grassy. And there were houses, but Angie stopped at none of them. By the time they landed, Kayden was numb. Collin jumped from Angie's back and took his pack as well as her own.
A woman came from the house. "Alex, thank God you're safe." She hugged Collin and reached up to kiss his cheek, her light bronze hair contrasting against Collin's.
Kayden felt an immediate jealousy which warmed a few of her stiff muscles. The adrenaline surge also reminded her that Collin was Dr. Alex Collin here. She'd have to remember that.
"Oh, you've brought the child," the woman continued. She walked up to Kayden. "Come on down here, girl."
Kayden didn't think she could be any stiffer, but her muscles tightened. She wasn't a child.
Collin reached up, and Kayden found the strength to slide off Angie's back and into his arms. She wrapped her arms around his neck as he lowered her to the ground, clinging to him.
"You're safe here, Kayden," Collin said softly.
She let go of him, realizing he didn't want her that close. She wrapped her arms around her chest and tucked her frozen hands under her arms. "No wonder people don't live on planets anymore," she muttered.
"Are you cold, Sweetheart?" Collin placed his hand on her back, directing her toward the house. "Tara, she's freezing. Perhaps she wasn't recovered enough to travel after all. Could you get a warm blanket for her?"
Tara hesitated before the door, blocking the entrance. She looked from Kayden to Collin, and her eyes narrowed. "Yes, Alex. Of course, the child needs a blanket."
Collin ushered her into the living room and before a fireplace with a small fire. He indicated she sit on the couch, and then he grabbed some logs and threw them into the fire, poking it with a rod until the flames jumped up.
He glanced back at her, and then returned to work the gloves off her fingers. He held her ice hands in both of his and blew on them. "Why didn't you tell me you were so cold?"
She shrugged, but she felt ready to cry. She was so exhausted, and that woman didn't really want her here at all. Collin helped her out of her coat and then after she was seated, he held her hands again.
Tara brought a ragged blanket. "Here you go." She handed it to Kayden. Kayden couldn't grab it.
Collin took it and spread it over her. "I must go and tend Angie. I'll be back soon, Sweetheart." He tucked her hands under the blanket, kissed her forehead, and then straightened. "Could you put some broth on for us, Tara."
"Oh, I'm sure you're starved, Alex." She touched his arm and walked with him to the door. "I'll have some stew ready for you by the time you get back in."
Kayden watched until Collin disappeared outside, and then she faced the fire. Whoever that woman was, she wanted Collin. But Kayden couldn't focus on her for long. Her eyes closed and the room seemed to tilt a bit. And then she began shivering.
"So how old are you, really?"
She opened her eyes. Tara stood over her, her hands on her hips.
"I know you're not the child Alex said you were."
She wished the woman would go away and let her sleep. Collin wasn't married, but she'd naively assumed he didn't have a lover.
"Who are you? Who are your people? I bet you're a new convict, don't know enough to stop staring at the pretty colors before you get yourself killed."
Kayden smiled at the second half of her statement. Apparently she wasn't the only one who had admired Collin's handiwork too long.
Tara snorted. "Don't expect you'll play sick with me. I know your type, coming in and playing ill so you can show Alex your skin. You stay away from him. He's too good for the likes of you."
Kayden opened her eyes and stared at her, not feeling all together there in the room. Part of her seemed to be looking down at the picture of her on the couch and this Tara standing over her acting like a jealous shrew. "He's my Daddy," she said, but her mouth was slurring the words for some reason.
Tara stalked away, and Kayden slid down to lie on the couch.
"Kayden," came Jamel's voice in her ear. "Are you all right, Kayden?"
"I love you, Michael."
"I am calling Collin."
In the barn, Collin brushed away the sweat on Angie's hide. She was too pregnant for any more long trips. He wouldn't get back to the lab for months now. If he hadn't come now Angie wouldn't have been able to make it later. But he couldn't forget Kayden's ice cold hands and weakness as he'd helped her inside. Did he rush things too quickly?
The barn door opened, and Quinn walked his horse inside. His eyes widened in surprise and then he grinned. "Alex. You're back. For good this time?"
"Yes. My new daughter is in the house by the fire. I'm afraid I moved her too quickly. We'll have to keep an eye on her."
Quinn put his horse in the stall and unsaddled him. "I'm sure Tara will watch out for her. It's good to have you back. Some of those new convicts have come into Hope, and it's getting busy." Convicts who were green to the planet, sometimes green to any planet, and they often fell ill or were injured in freak accidents while adjusting.
Kayden was green to any planet. She'd probably never been out of a controlled environment. She was going to get sick, especially being run down from her injuries and recent surgery.
"I want her kept safe," Collin said, taking the opportunity to look directly in Quinn's eyes so he knew how important this was. "I promised her she'd be safe here. She's still afraid to be alone, and probably afraid to be with strangers."
Quinn nodded. "I'll watch out for her when you're busy."
"I expect you to even stand up to Burke if he comes causing trouble." He used his most persuasive argument. Maybe it'd give him the strength to stand up for what was right when the time came again. "I'm trusting you to help me keep her safe, Quinn. I know I can count on you. You'll never let a child be hurt, will you?"
Quinn tried to look away, but Collin caught his chin by placing his hand on Quinn's neck in a gentle way that held his gaze toward his. "I need to know I can rely on you. I love her as a daughter, Quinn. Just like I love you. I need your help, though."
"I won't let anyone hurt her."
Collin gave his back a quick pat. "I know I can count on you. You're the son I've always hoped for."
"Collin," came the tiny voice in his ear. "Kayden is delirious."
Collin threw the brush back on the shelf and bolted for the door. He knew Quinn followed, but he didn't try to explain his rash movement. He needed to get to Kayden.
He rushed through the front door only to be stopped by Tara. "Oh, Alex, the stew is ready for you."
Collin ignored her and rushed to the couch, kneeling beside it.
"Oh, Collin, if she's that tired, let her sleep," Tara said.
Kayden screamed. "My hands. No! No! Stop! No," she ended with sobs.
Collin drew her close. "It's all right, Sweetheart. It's all right." He withdrew her hands from the blanket and worked to speed the warming process so the pain would subside.
"My Alex, don't torture her."
"Tara, please go into the kitchen," Quinn said. "Alex can't work with you questioning his motives."
"I didn't question his motive!"
Collin sat beside Kayden and drew the blanket over both of them. "Another blanket, Quinn. I think it's her first winter. She's too green."
"New convict, is she? I knew she wasn't a child the minute I saw her. How could you be fooled like that, Alex?"
Quinn grabbed Tara's arm and led her from the room.
"Thank you, Jamel," Collin said under his breath.
"I should have called you sooner. She was shivering and not responding to Tara's questions."
"I wish Tara would learn a little more restraint."
"I'm sorry." It was Quinn. He had reentered the room, and Collin had been focusing on Jamel and Kayden. He'd have to be more careful. Quinn set the blanket over them.
"Thank you, Quinn."
Collin was afraid Kayden would become sicker, but after sleeping the rest of the day and all night, she seemed better the next morning. To be safe though, he asked her not to go outside yet. He went through some simple exercises with her before they went downstairs to breakfast, and it appeared her hands were still functioning as they had been, although the skin was chapped and sore.
At breakfast Tara wanted Kayden in the kitchen immediately. Kayden looked nervously at Collin.
"No, Tara. Kayden isn't to do any work today. She is to do nothing that will stress her hands or wrists."
"Her hands?" Tara asked incredulously. Her gaze went to Kayden, who was painstakingly trying to manipulate her fork into her eggs.
Collin knew he needed an explanation. Tara was a hard working woman and expected it from everyone else. Collin took Kayden's hand and held it out over the table, showing her wrist and the thin red line on it. "Kayden is still healing from injuries. And she was out in the cold too long yesterday. I want the skin to have time to heal. No scrubbing or dousing your hands in cold water, Kayden." Her hands with the sensitivity of a new born child's would be damaged with immediate rough treatment, and although he'd been able to speed the process of the healing bones at the lab, they still needed more time to mend completely.
Tara looked over Kayden's hands and then her own. "How ever did you earn your way? You don't look like you've done a day's work in your life."
Kayden remained silent.
"She's too young to earn her way, Tara."
Tara looked about to protest, but then began gathering plates. A knock sounded on the door, and soon both Quinn and Collin were seeing patients.
He was in and out all day, seeing patients in the examination room, and in their own homes when they were too sick to journey to him. The routine came back as naturally as if he hadn't been gone two months. But by nightfall, he realized Quinn had been busy also.
The house was silent when Collin met Quinn refilling his pack in the pharmacy. "Quinn."
Quinn jumped and whirled around.
Collin placed his hand on Quinn's shoulder to reassure him. "You've done a great job of keeping this up for me."
Quinn shrugged in embarrassment. "Few people I'd like you to look at. Not quite sure what the problem is. Been trying different things, but nothing's working."
"All the same thing?"
"No. Different problems, same frustration on my part."
Quinn began enumerating the people and problems he had, while Collin noted them down and promised to look in on each one between acute cases over the next few days.
As they stood to go upstairs, Collin again stopped him. "I'm serious, Quinn. I do appreciate all you've done. Let me know how I can help you. Do we need to hire some more help?"
Quinn shrugged. "Where will Kayden work? In the kitchen or as an apprentice?"
"I'm not sure. She doesn't seem to have the desire to be a doctor or to do the extensive studying. Her biggest interest is in the animals. I'm still trying to decide how I should steer her studies."
"Tara says she needs help, especially with a baby coming. She planned that Kayden would work with her. She wanted to know when she could scrub floors and dishes and stuff."
Collin knew everyone had to do their fair share, but he balked at Kayden being Tara's maid. His first plan was that Kayden would be his apprentice, and even though that didn't look likely now, he still wanted her to receive as much education as possible. "Perhaps we should look into hiring someone to come in and help Tara. Kayden's injuries are still not fully healed no matter what it looks like. I had to operate several times."
"Alone?" Quinn asked, clearly shocked.
"She'd be a disappointment to Tara in her work. Her hands don't grasp well yet." He made the decision. "I'll tell Tara tomorrow that she can find someone."