Collin thought Tara would be overjoyed that she could hire someone, whoever she wanted, to help her. Instead she kept asking what Kayden's chores were to be. "I want her to work on her studies and the exercises I've given her. She is still recovering."
But then two days later, Collin came home to find Wilma had joined them. Her husband was a new convict, and she'd come with him, leaving their children behind with relatives. Collin studied her as he ate. She looked in her late thirties, and he knew she hadn't eaten well in months. She wasn't a pretty woman, but she worked with a steady efficiency that Collin appreciated.
As he stood to leave, he smiled at her. "Thanks for helping us out, Wilma. I'm glad you've joined us. The practice is growing, and with Tara pregnant, we really need you."
Wilma stared at Collin with her mouth slightly open. Then she gathered the dishes from the table. "I'll do what I can," she mumbled.
He leaned down and kissed Kayden's forehead. "See you later, Sweetheart."
"But . . . ." Kayden started to protest. Then she shrugged. "Guess I'll study." She started up the stairs to her room.
Collin wished he had more time, but several of Quinn's problem cases were indeed major problems, and Collin was currently arranging to have one of them in for gall bladder removal, a surgery that would be far more dangerous here than if he were at the lab.
Over the next few weeks he fell into a routine. He saw Kayden first thing in the morning when he went over her exercises and her studies. Part of her hand exercises involved writing out her studies. If Collin wasn't taking house calls or patients the rest of the day, he was in the pharmacy preparing new medicines.
He no longer rode Angie, instead taking one of the mares. Several times after returning from seeing a patient, he found Kayden in the barn with Angie, Tabitha, or the remaining mare. Collin let her feed the animals, brush them, and even took the opportunity to teach her more about them. But Kayden spoke little, and Collin wondered if she was completely recovered from her illness.
Another week and Kayden still was not looking any better. She barely responded when he asked what was wrong, claiming she was fine, but he knew she wasn't. Something was wrong. After debating with himself that evening, he knocked on Kayden's door. Dressed in the long nightgown Tara had given her, she let him in. The lamp was dim and barely lit the room.
Kayden crawled on the rumbled bed until she sat with her back in the corner, watching him.
"Were you sleeping?"
Collin sat beside her, and hoped she would lean against him, but she stayed where she was. "What's wrong, Sweetheart? What can I do to help you?"
"Please, Kayden. Don't hide from me."
"Are you bored? Does Jamel keep you good company?"
She shrugged. "Sometimes."
"Do you want to learn something new?"
Kayden shrugged again. "What good is learning a bunch of stuff I'll never use."
"I intend that you will use it. But I wondered if you'd want to help me in the pharmacy. I'd love your company while I'm in there."
She quit staring across the room and gave him a tentative smile. "Are . . . are you sure I won't be in the way?"
"I . . . I'm clumsy. My hands . . . ."
"I know what you're capable of, Sweetheart. Do you think you'd like to help me?"
"Yes." She leaned toward him.
Collin accepted the invitation to hold her. "You love the barn, don't you?"
"Would you be disappointed if . . . if I was just a . . . a stablehand?"
"Just a stablehand?" He kissed her forehead as he sorted out what she really wanted. "I'm not disappointed. But maybe you'd enjoy the job more if you were a breeder." He'd considered breeding the near extinct wingdeer before, but knew he didn't have the time to do any breeding program justice. But if Kayden wanted to spend more time with the animals, then perhaps that dream could be realized.
"A breeder? Of . . . of horses?"
"Of wingdeer." He grinned. "And horses, if you want."
"Are you serious?" She grinned, and her eyes seemed to sparkle for the first time since they'd arrived in Hope.
He pulled her close. "We should get the new calves soon, and if you really like the job, I can look for a bull and another female. The problem with wingdeer is that they're highly attachable to humans. Without almost constant human attention in their early years and when they switch owners, they're hard to hold on to. Once they fly away, they're gone."
"I'll do it. I'll spend all my time out there. I can even study out there."
"Except when you're working with me in the pharmacy, right?"
Kayden wrapped her arms around his neck. "I love you, Collin." Then she quickly released him and scooted away into the corner with her back against the wall again.
"When do I start working?"
"Just keep going out there like you are. I'll start searching for a couple more adults."
She smiled again. "That means I can fly them, too?"
"Yes. When the time comes. Not before I train you though."
"But you will, right? So I can fly on my own?"
"Yes. I will." Collin stood. "Guess we should get some sleep."
She lay down, and he pulled the covers over her. He kissed her forehead, and then hesitated. "Kayden? Where's Jamel?"
Kayden reached under her pillow and pulled him out.
"May I have him for the night?"
Kayden's eyes widened. "I . . . I . . . He . . . ."
"Perhaps Collin will bring me back in an hour," Jamel said. "I can still talk to you and hear you through the transceiver."
Collin assured her that he would bring Jamel back. When he was in his own room, he sat at the desk, Jamel before him. "What's wrong?"
"She doesn't like to be alone in the dark. She has nightmares."
"Oh, well then I won't keep you," Collin said, disappointed. He stood, snatching Jamel from the desk.
He'd opened the door when he heard the tiny voice, "I've missed you, Collin. You rarely talk to me."
Collin silently closed the door and took Jamel back to the desk. "I've been thinking the same thing. But Kayden needs you still, doesn't she?"
"I'm afraid so."
"Do you know what is wrong?"
"I do not have much experience with human relationships. I am not sure my speculations would be accurate. Situations occur, and Kayden feels useless. It is something I can strongly sympathize with. I think the pharmacy and breeding programs are good for her. She misses you very much."
"But I'm with her every morning."
"Perhaps I do not understand humans. I will not speculate."
"Don't hide from me. Let me know what's going on. Talk to me."
"I do not wish to interrupt."
"Interrupt, will you?" he snapped, and then tried to moderate his voice back to a near whisper. "I sometimes wonder if I dreamed our work at the lab. We accomplished so much in such a short time."
"I wish we were back at the lab," Jamel said, his voice full of longing.
If Jamel were human, he would touch his shoulder to reassure him, but Jamel had no shoulder. He had nothing. "I've often longed for your company as I assist patients. Your thoughts would be quite useful."
"Then talk to me wherever you are. I am certain I can hear you through most of the village. The range appears to be about two miles."
"Really? That far? I'll keep that in mind then. Although sometimes I just like to see who I'm talking to."
They eased into a discussion of the next illness Collin hoped to design a plant for. But then Jamel told Collin an hour had passed.
Reluctantly Collin got up from the chair. His thoughts left the world of ideas and design and focused on Kayden. "If something happens that you think might be affecting Kayden negatively, why don't you let me listen in? I need to know what's bothering her so I can fix it."
Kayden was waiting for him. She clutched Jamel to her and huddled under the covers. Collin kissed her goodnight once more. "I love you, Sweetheart," he said softly.
As he left her room Tara came up the stairs. "Alex? Is something wrong?"
"No. Nothing. Good night."
The next morning at breakfast, Collin went over Kayden's studies with her. "I want you to work here on your writing until I get back. Then we'll work in the pharmacy." He smiled as Quinn settled into the chair across from them. "Kayden has agreed to help us in the pharmacy, and perhaps the garden next year."
Kayden shot him a quick look, and at his smile she grinned. "I don't remember the word garden."
Collin laughed, so pleased she'd teased him that he hugged her. "Don't worry. You'll still have time for the animals. Kayden will start a wingdeer breeding program. We'll be expanding our barns next spring."
Tara's mouth opened and then shut. Perhaps she'd expected Kayden's help since it was Wilma's day off, but Collin decided not to notice the silent protest.
Quinn smiled. "That'd be great. I've really appreciated your taking care of Bay when I come home," he said, referring to his horse.
"Why don't you have a wingdeer, Quinn," Kayden asked. Collin was thrilled. She hadn't spoken so much since she'd come. The small changes really had helped.
Quinn shrugged. "Alex offered, but my brother . . . well, we decided to wait." He gave Collin a look, somewhat hopeful.
"Maybe now that Kayden is doing all the work for us." He gave her a wink. She mock punched his arm. "You'll have a special friend to fly with also." Perhaps if they stated that the animals were all Collin's, there wouldn't be trouble. He rose from his chair and kissed Kayden's forehead. "I'll see you in a few hours, Sweetheart."
Collin rode toward his morning appointment with more enthusiasm than he'd had since he returned home. Kayden was getting better.
He had just finished giving Mrs. Yavich her medicine, and explained how to use it, when he heard a voice like Tara's.
". . . you tramp. He's far too good for you."
Collin looked around and then realized it was coming directly into his ear from the transceiver hiding beneath his hair.
Noises like chairs being moved. "So you get to waste valuable paper all day, and he's going to give you a wingdeer without lifting a finger of work."
Collin quickly said goodbye to Mrs. Yavich and mounted his horse.
"Since you're staying in here, you should sweep this floor." A pause. "Look at me! You can do your fair share. You don't need to scribble . . . ."
"Give that back!" Kayden's voice.
"You heathen! Damn that Hansell. How could you draw something like that? Damn that Hansell."
"No. No! Don't rip it. Don't!"
Collin urged his mare into a gallop toward home.
"Ouch! Why you ungrateful brat." The sound of paper ripping. "Damn Hansell, that monster."
"He isn't!" Kayden was crying now. "He's not."
"We must keep his secret," came Jamel's gentle voice.
"But he's not!"
"What's going on here?" Quinn. Thank you, Quinn.
"Look at this!" Tara demanded. "I can't live with anyone who worships that damn Hansell."
"No one worships . . . ."
"He's a damn killer, a . . . ."
"No! No! Stop," Kayden screamed. "Stop lying about him."
"Kayden," whispered Jamel. "Kayden. Let's . . . ."
"He's a killer! And you're a tramp."
"Kayden, let's go out to the barn." Jamel.
"Tara!" It was Quinn again. "Not another word."
"He's going to have to get rid of that Hansell lover. I'm not going to put up with her. You've seen how she fakes sickness just to get his attention."
"Hansell's a killer, and you'll not glorify his perversions in this house."
"No! Stop it. He's not!"
"Kayden!" came Jamel's alarmed voice.
"Awww." A cry of alarm or pain from Tara.
"No. No. Don't hurt me! Stop. Stop. Not my hands. No."
"Sssh," came Quinn's voice. "It's okay."
Frustrated, Collin wished Jamel would give a bit of commentary.
He heard scrambling along with the deep sobbing. The other voices were muffled.
"Are you going to let her get away with that?"
"Leave her be, Tara."
"No. She can't attack me and get away with it."
"Tara!" roared Quinn. Collin had never heard him angry before. "You stay away from her. No one takes a broom to anyone in this house."
"You're sticking up for her? That tramp? You know she's sleeping with him."
"She is not! How can you say that about Alex? He'd never hurt a child."
"She's not a child. She's a whore. Seduced him."
"You think Alex is so medically inexperienced that he doesn't know a child from an adult?"
"I didn't say that. The little tramp is probably hoping to marry him."
"What difference does it make if he does marry her in a few years?"
"She's not good enough for him."
"She probably doesn't even think about marriage yet."
"Any woman with blood in her would think of marriage when she looked at Alex Collin. He's a god."
"Then why didn't you marry him?"
"I wish I had! He's ten times the man you are."
Collin jumped off the mare before she had completely stopped, rushing up to the house. Quinn burst out of the door. Collin caught him and wouldn't let him go. "Quinn," he whispered. "I'll be out to the barn after I take care of Kayden."
Quinn pulled away, shock on his face.
"Behind the couch. I . . . I . . . ."
"Wait for me in the barn." He slipped into the house.
The living room was still except for Kayden's small ragged breaths. Then as he passed the staircase, he heard heart rending sobs coming from above also. Well, at least Tara had some remorse or distress over the situation she'd caused.
Collin peered behind the couch and saw Kayden in the corner. He pulled the couch away.
"No! No, please."
"It's Collin," Jamel said softly. "It's okay. He won't hurt you."
Collin slid down and sat beside her. Reaching out, he let his hand rest on her shoulder, but he wouldn't pull her closer unless she desired it. "I love you, Kayden."
Her sobbing increased.
"You know you're my daughter now," he reminded her to counteract Tara's jealous suspicions. "I've never had a daughter before, Kayden. I will never abuse the privilege you've given me."
Kayden leaned toward him, and he held her. She sobbed until she was spent, and then they were silent together. Finally she spoke. "I'm sorry."
"For what, Beloved?"
"I don't know." She cried again.
Finally he said, "Until Tara accepts you, you will travel with me when I am out. I will not leave you home to be subjected to her insecurities, jealousies, and hatreds."
"I don't know what I did wrong."
"Nothing, Sweetheart. Tara has always had a bit of a temper, but I thought she was getting it under control. If things don't improve, I will build another house for either us or them. Has it always been this bad?"
"This bad? You know?"
"Jamel let me in on the fun, and I got here as soon as I could. Thank you, Jamel. Now why didn't you tell me about this before?"
"It . . . she didn't . . . I . . . ." Kayden looked about to cry again, so he pulled her close.
"The slurs were not as continuous, nor was the hostility so open," Jamel said. "I did not see her as a threat until after Quinn shut himself in with a patient."
"But she never, ever liked me," Kayden cried. "I can never do anything right. I'm just a useless whore."
"No! You've never been and never will be a whore. Don't ever let those words hurt you. And you're far from useless. We're just discovering your gifts. And friendship is always appreciated, Kayden. Remember, you and Jamel are the only two I've trusted." Collin knew he wouldn't have even done that if circumstances had been different. But circumstances weren't different, and now they were his most trusted friends. He thought of Quinn out in the barn and knew his heart must be breaking, just as Reba's harsh words had cut through him almost thirty years ago.
"She just kept saying bad things about you. I couldn't stand it."
"Try not to let it bother you, Sweetheart. I know it's not the easiest thing to have a disrespectable father, but . . . ."
"But you're not! You're just not like that!"
Collin smiled. "You are too good for me, Kayden. But we're stuck with each other." He stood, and helped Kayden from her corner. Then he replaced the couch. "Please, Love. Try to pretend the words are meant for someone you don't know."
"But I just can't!"
He put his hands on her shoulders. "I have to do it every day. If you don't learn to ignore it, you'll give us away. Laugh off these slurs against me, and anything anyone says about you. It doesn't matter. People are just venting their frustration."
Kayden hugged him.
A patient came to the door. Collin ushered him into the examination room, but then stopped to study Kayden. "Will you be okay?"
"Jamel will call me at the first sign of trouble."
"Yes," they both answered, and Kayden laughed. She grabbed her coat and ran outside.
Collin saw three patients in a row before he was free. Tara hailed him from the dining area. "Alex, you're back."
"I've been back."
"I've got lunch ready. It's chicken. Your favorite."
Collin sighed. "Tara, can you not keep your temper in check, even for a child?"
"What did she tell you? The witch attacked me! I'm pregnant, and she just rushed at me. She could have hurt my baby."
"Enough, Tara," Collin said as evenly as he could. "I will not argue about this, but it will never happen again. Do you understand?"
Tara looked up into his face, her hand on his arm. "Oh, good. I knew you'd do the right thing."
No. She didn't understand, and he was too frustrated to keep trying right now. Nothing would be solved if he lost his temper. "I'm going out." Collin grabbed his jacket and headed for the barn.
He found Quinn with his horse, Bay. His black hair contrasted against the reddish brown mane, as he rested against him.
"Quinn," Collin said softly.
Quinn didn't look at him. Instead he ran his hand along Bay's back.
"Thank you for protecting Kayden."
"She told you that?" His voice was muffled and distant.
"We spoke." He leaned against the wall of the stable, resting his arms on the top rail. "I'll always do the same for your child."
"Wish she wasn't pregnant."
Collin opened the stall door and went to Quinn's side. "You still want a child."
"It'll be yours. She wants you."
Collin grabbed his arm and whirled him around to face him. He briefly saw fear and then anger -- an anger he'd always hidden. "Quinn, I'm sorry. I didn't notice. Why should I even suspect it?"
"Why? Because she's right. Every woman wants a man like you and not a girlbaby like me."
"You, Quinn, are not a baby girl. I've delivered plenty and I know the difference."
Quinn's mouth twitched, but then he turned to hide his face in the horse's mane again. Quinn was fighting to stay angry at him, so Collin didn't let up. "Hey, Quinn. I do know what you're going through," he said softly.
Quinn gave a sarcastic snort. In a way, Collin was actually glad Quinn was angry, and the anger was not out of control. He'd hidden his true feelings in fear for so long. If only the cause wasn't so personal. "You've never been married."
"Why do you think I haven't been tempted? She divorced me. Told me I wasn't half a man. Ran off with my apprentice."
Quinn released his horse and stared at Collin. Then he gave a low laugh, shaking his head. "You almost got me that time." He walked to the wall and leaned against it.
Collin stood beside him, staring out into the rest of the barn. Angie lay in her stall across from them. "I have no desire to run off with your wife. Even if I did, I'd never hurt you."
"I know. You're perfect."
"Perfect?" He gave a laugh. "Come on, Quinn. You know me better than that. I always thought Tara didn't really like me, so I tried hard to make things easier for you by being sensitive to her feelings. Now I find I've totally misread the situation."
"She's always loved you. Probably hung out here for you, but she got stuck with me."
"Not such a bad deal, if you ask me. When I first decided Kayden would be my daughter, the only person I would even consider marrying her off to is already taken. No, Tara's got a good husband, and she probably knows it. Has to know it. She was upstairs bawling her eyes out for hours. It may take some work, but there's still a chance."
"Not sure I want the work."
"Gotta try for the little one's sake, don't you? Don't want her going off, marrying some beast like your father to raise your baby. Keep her and the kid. We'll build you a separate house, if the problem doesn't work itself out. Maybe even if it does."
Quinn was silent, and Collin let him think through his options. He knew he was hurting, but he also knew Quinn passionately loved Tara. Then Quinn turned to him. "You're telling me another story, aren't you? About looking for Kayden's husband."
Collin smiled. "No. I want to keep her forever, but I know a girl usually gets married. One thought led to another, and I was left thinking the best guy I know is taken."
"You wouldn't marry her?"
Collin became serious. "Don't ever entertain that thought. I agreed to be her father. I'd never dishonor that trust no matter how old she gets."
"Don't you ever get . . . lonely?"
"Yeah, Quinn. Yeah, I do. But sex doesn't ease the loneliness for more than a couple hours."
"You told me marriage was more than sex."
"It is. And I won't marry again unless I can have a relationship that transcends physical attraction."
"You really were married?"
Collin gave a soft laugh. "Yeah. I didn't make it up. Why do you think I moved to Hope? Just to start over."
"I . . . What could any woman find to hate in you?"
Should he tell him? Quinn felt he wasn't a man because he didn't know how to assertively stand up to his family. "She never got pregnant. Wanted kids."
"She . . . the tea didn't work for her?"
"Wasn't her problem." He hesitated. "I'd rather you didn't . . . ."
"No. I won't."
"Not even to convince Tara I'm a terrible person. I'll find some other way to do that."
"I wouldn't . . . ."
Collin shrugged. He'd realized the temptation Quinn would be under right after he said it. "I've got to find some way to make the woman despise me, but it won't be with that piece of information. She probably wouldn't believe you anyway."
Quinn stared across the aisle to Angie. "No. She wouldn't believe me. I wouldn't do that to you. You're more my dad than my real father ever was, you know."
"I know. And I've always appreciated the honor, Quinn."
They stood in silence for a few minutes until Quinn reached into his pocket, pulling out some wrinkled papers. He smoothed them out and held two pieces together. "This is what escalated the fight."
Collin took the two halves of the paper and studied them. Kayden had drawn two dragons and on one sat a girl with long, flowing hair. In her hand was a sword, and she flew into battle against the second beast. Collin smiled. "She has the same fantasies I used to."
Quinn shot him a sideways glance. "Me, too. Always dreamed about finding an egg, and then nurturing the beast so that it was my best friend. No one would bother me then."
Collin rubbed Quinn's shoulder. "The beasts don't bond. I'd hoped they would, too, but they don't."
"You almost sound like you tried it."
Collin laughed. "Let's just say I've had more than my fair share of experience. Notice my penchant for exotic beasts," he said, giving a negligible motion to Angie and Tabitha who now curled up beside her. "If I could have had a dragon mount, I would."
"Tara would be furious."
Collin suddenly knew how to repel Tara's misplaced affections. "And she will be, Quinn. She will be. Don't you know I'm a closet Hansell worshipper?"