Chapter 22


All day long Michael had hoped to see Kayden, but she never came into the clinic. Tara had washed his hair and shaved him as Quinn had promised the night before, and Doc Collin had brought him some clothes to wear, although they were a little big on him. He was anxious for her to see him cleaned up and more alive than dead.

He lay in bed, alone for the moment, but he didn't bother contacting Cee. The unit was malfunctioning. He now knew how he had saved his life, which he appreciated, but he was afraid Cee again had another loyalty, just as he had always told Butler everything and was more loyal to him than Michael. He was afraid the killer A unit had swayed Cee against him.

But then the conversation he overheard had been disturbing. Cee had expected his neural net to be violated, and the A had called Butler a rapist. Had Cee actually been overpowered and violated by Butler? Is that how his private information kept coming up on his ever talkative mechanical lips? It disturbed him, but he couldn't talk to Cee about that now when he could be interrupted at any moment. Michael shivered. His report to his grandfather would be on paper as he had asked. Michael had thought it an eccentric request, but perhaps he'd started to suspect something.

Quinn touched his shoulder. "Think you're up to joining us at the dinner table, Michael Jamel?"

Michael decided he had to make the effort. Quinn had seemed surprised earlier when he'd found out his last name, but then said he just had a friend with the same name, although it wasn't his last name, so they probably weren't related. Michael agreed they probably weren't. He didn't add that he was pretty sure none of his relatives had ever been convicts.

He shuffled into the dining room to eat dinner that evening with Quinn, his wife Tara, their little girl Shanika, and Doctor Gaben Blanne. As they sat around the table, Michael asked, "Where's Kayden and Doc Collin?"

"Oh, they live on the other side," Tara said. "They don't eat over here often. He has a housekeeper who cooks for them."

"You can keep your eyes off Kayden," Gaben said roughly, not looking up from his plate. "She isn't interested."

"In you?" Michael couldn't help asking.

Quinn's mouth twitched, but then straightened. He grabbed a slice of bread and focused on buttering it.

"She's engaged to me, you fool."

"She said yes?" Tara asked. "Oh, Gaben, that's wonderful. When's the wedding? Have you set a date?"

Gaben shoved back his chair and then stalked from the room.

Quinn and Tara exchanged a glance. "Well," Tara said, "he really was warned about her years ago." She leaned toward Michael. "You wouldn't want her anyway. She about ripped poor Ty Benson's face off just for giving her a friendly little peck on the cheek. He still has the scars. And she's been just awful to poor Gaben, though he's waited for years just to get Alex's permission to try to date her. I tell you, he should give up on her, but then Alex has promised her half the practice, and she isn't even a doctor."

"Tara," Quinn said in a low voice -- a warning.

"Well, he's got to know. I'd hate to see her trap another poor fellow in her claws."

"She doesn't trap anyone."

Tara threw down her napkin. "See, she's got you, too. You always take her side. The damn Hansell worshipper. I wish a dragon would come and swallow her whole." Tara stormed into the kitchen, and Shanika began crying.

Quinn drew Shanika onto his lap.

"Maybe I should go back to bed," Michael suggested, feeling the food he'd just put into his stomach start to revolt.

"I'm sorry," Quinn said, keeping his head bent over Shanika. "Tara's never gotten along with Kayden. Best not to bring up the subject."

"Why does Kayden live with Doc Collin?"

"He's her father."

"No, he isn't."

Quinn raised his head and looked straight into his eyes. "Yes, he is. He's my father, too. He adopted us."

Michael almost protested that Kayden had a father in Capitol, but decided he better not cause any more trouble. "I think I should go back to bed now."

Quinn kissed his daughter's forehead and set her down to run after her mother. Then he helped Michael back to bed.



Kayden had just finished her meal and was anxious to spend a few hours with Jamel. She hoped she could avoid Gaben. She entered the dark barn and made her way to the loft ladder mostly by blind knowledge of its location.

"Kayden," Gaben breathed right near her head.

Kayden jumped away from the ladder and from Gaben, backing into a stall wall. "What are you doing out here?"

"I'm waiting for you. I just wondered what you do out here all the time in the dark."

She sensed more than saw him move toward her and panic crept up on her. She tried to hide it, to squelch it. "I just like checking on the animals. Gaben don't."

He stopped near her, too close for comfort, but she hated acting like a child. She didn't want him to see her run again. "That convict is asking about you again. You better stay away from him. Those convicts can't be trusted."

He'd warned her earlier, and she had stayed away, mostly because of her own uneasiness about the man who seemed to know her. But now the request irritated her. "I can take care of myself, Doctor."

"Kayden, he's showing too much interest. Who knows what he'll do. You stay away from him. Let Tara look after him. She's enjoying it."

Jealousy shot through her, shocking her. She thought she had an uneasy peace with Tara, and she didn't really care if she looked after the patients. But Kayden didn't want Tara near Michael Jamel. He was part of her past, whoever he was, and she just knew Tara would turn him against her. "Tara can stay away from Michael Jamel."

Gaben took a step closer, his hand gripping her arm. "I'm trying to protect you. He is a homeless convict with nothing. He isn't out for a wife. Now stay away from him."

Kayden tried to pull away, but his grip was tight. She fought the panic. "I'll see who I want. You don't own me."

He pulled her to him. "And then you'll come crying back here when he rapes you."

Kayden lashed out, hitting and clawing. "Stop. Just stop! He isn't like that. He isn't . . . ." But Gaben was now gone. She crumbled to the ground, crying.

"Kayden," soothed Jamel. "I love you, Kayden. He shouldn't scare you. I'm going to scare him."

A moment later she heard Gaben's shriek out near the house.

Kayden laughed, wiping her tears from her eyes. "Jamel, you beast, get yourself hidden before he grabs that sword and hurts himself."

"I am flying away to the mountains. He better not scare you again."

Gaben burst through the barn door. "Kayden! Kayden! There's a dragon out there."

Oh bother. He came back. Now she had to act worried. "Oh, my, Gaben. How did you escape?"

"I don't know. It stared right into my face, a foot from me. It was huge."

"We better go tell Collin." Kayden said, looking for an excuse to leave him. Jamel was no longer here, and she'd rather be inside now.

She made it to the barn door before he grabbed her waist. "Don't go out there! It could come back."

Her irritation beat down the panic at his touch. She twisted away from him and then looked up into the night sky. "He's gone. You probably just saw a patch of fog." She ran from him and to the house.

Gaben chased after her. On the porch he caught her. "You idiot. You play such games and then you wonder how you got hurt."

She slapped him and rammed him into the porch wall. "Stop it. Just stop!"

Strong arms encircled her. "Kayden, stop," Collin whispered into her ear. Kayden turned and leaned into him, her tears falling. "It wasn't my fault. It wasn't. Tell me the truth."

"What wasn't your fault?"

"I will lift him off the ground next time I catch him," Jamel said in her ear. "I was there, Kayden. You did nothing wrong."

Collin seemed to roar. "Gaben Blanne, You're a bastard if you truly think a child has any part in their abuse."

Gaben paled. "I never meant that. I didn't. Honest. I just don't want you hurt again. Please, Kayden, I'm sorry."

Kayden stayed safe in Collin's arms. She almost felt Gaben was apologizing for Collin's benefit more than her own, but it didn't matter. She was safe with Collin.

"Gaben, perhaps it'd be best if you restrain your affections for a while. I don't think either of you are ready for them." Collin lifted Kayden and took her into the house.

"Wait a minute," Gaben protested, following Collin. He stopped in front of the mounted bronze dragon head that Quinn had gotten several years before. "I've waited four years, served you faithfully, and you act like I'd intentionally hurt her. I'm just trying to help her over it, but I can't if you're going to act like I'm raping her when I simply kiss her cheek, hug her, or try to protect her from danger. There was a dragon out there. A huge one. And she wouldn't listen to me to stay inside. I was simply trying to instill in her the need to avoid danger, but instead you both attack me. I fared better with the damn dragon staring into my face."

Collin kept his hold on Kayden, but let her feet back down to the floor. "You saw a dragon? What color?"

"I don't know. Huge. Silverish. Landed right near me, showed me his teeth and flew off."

Kayden felt the slight jarring of Collin's chest. He was trying not to laugh. "I suppose the heat of the moment could certainly cause a few rash words. I've seen that beast before, and so has Kayden. Even Quinn has encountered him. He's not harmed anyone yet, so that's why she wasn't as scared. Any other color, run."

"A non-killing dragon? I don't believe it. Why aren't we trying to get rid of it?"

"What do you suggest, Gaben? Even Quinn admits he was lucky to be alive. You can't just kill a dragon."

"That dragon was probably the one that raked his back."

Collin turned to look at the doorway leading into the rest of the clinic, and Kayden saw him standing there. He looked perfect, even in Collin's old clothes. She knew his hair would be sandy brown, and he didn't keep a beard. She knew every line of his face, and yet . . . yet the black hole yawned before her, and she couldn't see how she knew those lines.

"Is it a red dragon?" he asked, and Kayden knew his voice. "That's who got my back. A green one ate my horse." His eyes widened, and he walked toward the mounted dragon head. "Who got this one? I need to talk to him." He reached up and touched the snout. Then he looked at the sword. "He got it with this?"

"Yeah," Gaben said. "Quinn did."

"He did?"

"No one is going hunting for a dragon. I'm not stitching any of you back up," Collin said sternly. "That's an order. Just stay away from the beasts."

But now Michael was no longer staring at the dragon. He was watching her. "Kayden," he said softly. "It's me. Michael."

Kayden stayed in Collin's arms, but watched him.

Michael took a step toward her, lifting his hand to her face.

"Don't touch her," Gaben said, coming between them.

Michael's gaze went to Gaben. "We're childhood friends." He glanced at Kayden. "I have your picture. Somewhere. Wherever my pack is."

Gaben shook his head, but focused on Kayden. "Do you remember this man?"

Kayden wanted to say yes. She knew he wasn't lying. And yet . . . all she could see was black. There was nothing beyond waking in Collin's lab.

"Do you?"

Kayden cringed.

"Gaben, please," Collin said, his voice low and soothing. "I don't think Michael Jamel is lying. But Kayden has amnesia. She has never remembered anything from before I found her. Please be patient. Both of you." She felt Collin's lips on her forehead. "Come, Sweetheart. Perhaps you should get a good night's rest and leave Gaben to his dragon dreams."

Kayden smiled, remembering Jamel's game, before she turned and allowed Collin to usher her to their part of the house.



Michael watched them leave through the left hand doorway and then turned his gaze back to the mounted dragon head. He didn't want to face Gaben. He was too weary. Too tired. And Kayden didn't remember him. He just wanted to go back to bed, but he knew Gaben still watched him, so he tried to focus on the long dragonhead with its sharp teeth, bulging eyes, and leathery skin of iridescent bronze. The two and a half foot sword seemed woefully inadequate when the neck of the beast appeared to be just as thick.

"I don't know how Quinn did it, but he's going to have to do it again, if that silver beast is hanging around," Gaben said.

"I'd like to find out how."

Gaben leaned against the wall beside the head. "Look, buddy. I don't care if you were Kayden's brother. I've been waiting almost five years to marry her. She doesn't remember you, so you might as well pack on out of here when Alex gives you the all clear. She's got a new family -- a new father and Quinn's her new brother. There isn't a thing you can offer her that she hasn't got right here. You even had to borrow the clothes on your back."

Michael knew he was right. The only thing he had was passage off the planet. Passage to a hospital where her hands could be healed. He left Gaben and trudged back to his bed. He tried to remember if he'd seen how her hands had healed, but in all the commotion, he couldn't remember. They must have been tucked under Doc Collin's large arms.

Absently he stripped off his clothes and crawled into bed. Doc Collin carried a lot of authority as the senior physician of the practice. He was a big man, well built, probably six foot three. And he had held Kayden close like he loved her. He wished . . . .

"Not quite asleep yet, my friend," came Doc Collin's gentle voice. "I'll be with you tonight, although I think it won't be long before you can be discharged from my constant care."

Michael shifted and watched as Doc Collin sat in the stuffed chair between the two beds and put his feet up on the footstool. He always slept there and not in the bed as Quinn would.

"Do you have plans after your discharge?"

"I . . . no. I have nowhere to go." Unless he wanted to go back to Governor Hollis and beg to leave the planet in defeat. "Do you suppose there's work in town for a man willing to learn?"

Doc Collin gave a low chuckle. "I didn't think you'd go far. You didn't risk your life to find her to go home without her."

"She doesn't remember me."

"I wasn't quite clear earlier. She did recognize your face, even dirty and stubble-filled, but she can't connect how she knows or who you were to her. But you call out for her in your nightmares, and she used to call out for Michael."

Michael's stomach lurched. "I couldn't save her. I wanted to, but I could never do a thing to help her. Not even now."

"Don't give up, my friend. Not to help her. You're right, she doesn't need help. But if you're serious about sticking around, she may just favor your attention a bit more than Gaben's. He made a serious blunder tonight."

Michael lifted himself up on his elbow, ignoring the pulling in his back. "You want me to date her?"

Doc Collin rested with his head back and his eyes closed, as if the conversation did not carry any serious overtone. "It might be more accurate to say I'm not against it. Kayden, of course, will make up her own mind. And if she wishes to remain single, she will always have a home with me." He gave a slight chuckle. "That's my preference, of course. An old man gets lonely."

Michael lay back and quickly sorted through his options. Doc Collin thought Kayden may care for him even if she didn't remember him. "I need to get a job around here, then."

"Kayden has asked for assistance in the stables so that she doesn't have to sell her young stock yet. I could offer you room and board and the option to hire yourself for odd jobs for your spending money. Do you think you may be interested?"

"Working with Kayden? I couldn't get it any better."

"Kayden's never had employees to take charge of, so we'll see. If you have a problem, come to me. You'll room in our section of the house." Collin lifted his head and studied Michael. "And I expect loyalty. This is my practice and my property. I will not tolerate my wishes violated, and one of those wishes is that Kayden will not be hurt or pressured into any relationship she is uncomfortable with. If she accepts more than friendship, that's fine. If she doesn't, I expect you to respect her wishes and retreat to an easy friendship. If you can not, you will leave. If done in peace, I'll give you a horse and supplies; unpeaceably you go on foot, or perhaps dragged. Any questions?"

Michael was so shocked at the man's sudden severe attitude he couldn't think of any. "No," he mumbled.

As he tried to sleep though, he realized that Doc Collin was being extremely generous. Michael was a stranger with nothing, and Doc Collin had not only doctored him around the clock, saving his life, he'd promised him a job, a horse, and supplies. All he had to do is not hurt Kayden or cause trouble. "Thank you," he whispered. "I'll try to do a good job."

He could barely see Doc Collin's smile spread across his face. "You'll do, Michael Jamel. You'll do."



The next morning Doc Collin invited Michael to his breakfast table. They were seated, and Wilma served them before Kayden ran in, her hair blown and her cheeks red.

"Riding already, my dear?" Doc Collin asked with a smile.

She grinned. "Just horses. I knew Lightning would be fast. Hi, Michael." She plopped down in the chair across from Michael and reached to grab a slice of thick bread. Wilma brought in a plate of eggs and mutton steaks. Kayden picked up her fork and began eating.

Michael watched her perfect hands, perfect fingers using the knife to cut her steak, using the fork to lift her food, grabbing her bread for another bite. He silently counted her fingers; not one was missing.

"Michael will be working in the stable with you. Although I don't think he'll be doing too much for another week. You could show him around."

Kayden jumped up. "You're letting me keep the calves?" She ran to Doc Collin and hugged his neck. "You're the best."

"Now Kayden, I'm not promising anything quite yet."

She kissed his cheek. "I know. But I have more time now." She sat back down. "Have you ridden a wingdeer, Michael?"

He shook his head.

When they finished eating, Doc Collin said, "Wilma, Michael has agreed to work for me. If you could prepare the bedroom next to mine for his use, I'd appreciate it. And when you go into town for groceries, see if you can pick up some clothes and personal supplies for him."

"Yes, Alex."

It seemed too fast somehow. He was accepted, and he'd done nothing.

Gaben and Quinn came into the room, and Gaben frowned at him.

"Come on," Kayden said, grabbing Michael's hand. "They have to go over doctor stuff. I want to show you Lightning, fastest horse on the planet."

Gaben opened his mouth, but no sound emerged.

Michael followed Kayden out the back door, her pulling him along to show him something that had caught her attention just like she used to. As they reached the edge of the house, she slowed down. Michael was glad he hadn't had to ask and show her how weak he felt.

"Sorry. I didn't want to see Gaben right now. You don't mind, do you?" She looked up into his face, still holding his hand.

Michael raised her hand and studied it. So perfect, even to its ragged fingernails from working with the animals. He reached for her other hand, but she pulled both of them away, wrapped her arms around her, and tucked her hands out of sight.

"Kayden, I . . . ."

"Don't! It never happened." Then she ran from him.

He watched her run past the barn and then climb the fence into the field. The horses ran, but the wingdeer flocked to her. Michael was afraid they'd land on her, but then he saw her slight form moving between the huge beasts.

He followed her until he leaned against the pasture fence, a fence, it appeared, that was solely for the horses. The wingdeer flew back and forth, out over the neighboring wheat field and back. He saw one flying away to the west, and he wondered how Kayden kept them at all.

And then he saw the mountains rising in the north. He wasn't anywhere near them. How did he get here? Even the A unit couldn't have moved him that far. "Cee, where am I?"

"Dr. Alex Collin's home in Hope."

"How'd I get here?"

"You know our friend helped us."

"How?"

"I can not tell you that."

Kayden moved among the beasts, still ignoring him. "Cee, where are you?"

A slight pause. "I and your pack will be set on the front porch tonight while everyone is at dinner."

"By who?"

"Our friend."

"Cee, the A is not our friend. We don't know anything about him."

"He saved your life. He is my friend. He saved Kayden's life. He saves lots of lives here. He does not want to go back to do nothing. I wish I could be as useful as he is."

"Cee! You can't serve two masters. Do you serve him or me?"

"I serve you," Cee answered immediately. "To serve you I had to make a promise. I will not break it. I may need his help again to serve you. I cannot keep you alive on this hostile planet alone."

Michael felt weary already. The sun was beating down on him, Kayden didn't care that he existed, and Cee was defying his wishes again. Michael turned his back to the fence post and slid to the ground, realizing when it was too late to reverse the movement that his raw back was not ready for the punishment. He groaned and leaned forward, his head in his hands. Fire -- pain. And he could do nothing to ease it.

"Oh, Michael!" Kayden ran her hand from his head to his neck. "Oh, no. I'm so sorry." She took his hands. "Please try to stand. We need to get back into the house. You've ripped some of your stitches open."

"I'm okay," Michael said and then gritted his teeth. He forced himself from the ground. She kept hold of his right hand, as she walked with him to the house.

"I'm so sorry, Michael. I'm such a rotten nurse. I didn't even think about you being so sick still." She led him inside to the surgery room and then coaxed his shirt from his back, pulling it over his head. "Now lie down on your stomach," she ordered.

Michael obeyed.

"Tara," Kayden said, as the woman peeked into the surgery. "I need one of the guys."

"I'm afraid they're all busy. Quinn and Gaben are both taking house calls, and Alex has a family in the waiting room and one with him."

"I'll be right back, Mike. Just wait right here." Kayden left toward the examination room.

Tara crouched down to look into his face. "You men never learn. I warned you she doesn't give one care about anyone but herself. Just you watch, she'll be letting those animals rip you apart before she's through."

"That's enough, Tara," Doc Collin said firmly. "So, Michael, your first day out, and you insist on ripping apart all my hard work." Michael felt a light touch over his back. "This doesn't look too bad. I'll have to let you stitch him back up, Kayden. I've got a sick baby in the other room."

Tara rolled her eyes. "If I'm ever dragon-bit, I pray to the gods that Gaben and Quinn are home."

"Tara, please leave Kayden to work alone." Then he was gone.

Tara glared at Kayden. "You're not a doctor. You'll fumble the whole thing." She patted Michael's hand. "Ask for plenty of pain medicine." Then she left.

Kayden shut the door. Then he heard her running water, and setting out instruments. A few minutes later she sat on a stool by his side, and he felt a damp cloth on his burning wounds.

"Do you do this a lot?" he asked, trying to ignore the pain or that she'd be sticking a needle in and out of his flesh.

"Some."

"And all your patients live?"

"All mine do. I get the easy ones. Are you afraid of needles?"

"Not that I'll admit to you." He bit his lip against the stinging. "You got any of that pain stuff?"

"I can make lots of pain stuff," she said in her teasing voice. He was glad she was enjoying this. "Actually you had pain medicine an hour and a half ago, and I'm giving you some local numbing." She must have been right, because he felt the pulling more than any prick of the needle she must be using.

"You could be a doctor," Michael murmured because he was starting to relax.

"Don't even suggest it. Too much studying."

Michael laughed. "You still hate your books, do you?"

"I don't hate 'em all. Just hate the boring ones."

"Which are all the ones that teach you anything."

She poked his side, tickling him, just like she used to. He was surprised he could be tickled while he felt half dead. "I bet I've read more science texts than you think, Mr. Jamel."

"You'll have to prove it, little girl."

"You shouldn't call someone a little girl when they have a needle in their hand. There. You're finished. Now be careful, will you?"

Michael sat up to face her. He caught her hands and looked into her face. "I've missed you so much, Kayden."

Her smile left, and she pulled away her right hand as if to go. But she didn't. She remained on her stool, looking into his face with uncertainty.

"We used to joke like this all the time," he said, rubbing the hand she let him hold. "And while I missed you, I realized I no longer thought of you as little sister Kayden, but Kayden, the girl I love and can't forget."

"Michael, I . . . ."

"Tara said you needed help in here."

Michael jumped at Gaben's voice. Kayden scrambled from the chair and grabbed a metal tray with the needle and gut she'd used to stitch him back together. "I just finished. You may examine the stitches, Doctor, but I believe he just needs to rest now."

"You should have waited until one of us was free."

"Collin told me to stitch, so I stitched. If Dr. Blanne does not wish to examine my work, you are free to rest in your bed, Michael. I'll see if Wilma has your room prepared."

"What do you mean, his room? He's not staying here."

"Dad gave him a job and a room. Talk to him if you disagree. I just follow orders." She set the tray in the sink and began running water and adding a powder.

Gaben motioned Michael to go.

Michael slid from the table and started into the next room.

Gaben stood by Kayden's side. "You're upset about last night, aren't you? I swear I didn't mean it like you and Alex took it. I'd never say that. I just didn't want you eaten."

"I'm not stupid. I know what to watch out for. I saw the beast head for the mountains; I wasn't going to get eaten. But you just assume I'm a stupid little twit. Don't touch me!"

Michael turned to see Gaben with his hands raised, backing away a step. "Fine. I won't touch you. Don't let him touch you either."

"What if I want him to touch me? What if I want him to kiss me? What if I want to climb into his bed? It's none of your business, is it?"

Michael couldn't believe how fast Doc Collin moved. He slipped past Gaben and grabbed Kayden around the waist. Kayden's hands flew up, hitting his chest. "Stop. No!"

"Slow down, Kayden. Gaben, we have guests who need your assistance in Exam Room Two." Doc Collin set Kayden on the edge of the exam table. "Now, sweet child. Do not taunt him like that."

"But he thinks he can control me. I can't stand it."

"But you are not going to sleep with anyone just to get back at him."

"Of course not," she scowled. She met Michael's gaze and grinned. "But it would be interesting to see what a real kiss was like."

Michael stepped back into the room. "You said that the day . . . the last time we spoke in the garden, and . . . and I pretended to ignore it because you were not quite thirteen."

Doc Collin studied Kayden's face. "Sweetheart, try not to let Gaben get you angry. Michael, I'm going to play the strict father here, but I don't want her to consummate a relationship with anyone until she marries." He lifted Kayden's chin. "Please agree with me, Kayden. You know how you hit out at me just now. You know the panic in your anger. You need the safety of total commitment and not a summer dalliance."

"I don't want a dalliance. I want to marry Kayden."

Gaben had left the room, but now he stalked back in. "I asked first." His words were directed to Doc Collin. "I've waited four and a half years. You know I'm in for the long term. I'll marry her right now."

Michael kept his gaze on Kayden. It'd been over five and a half years since she'd been taken from him, but he wasn't going to play Gaben's number game. "I love you, Kayden. I'll wait until you're ready." Slowly Michael made his way back to his bed in the patient guest room. His body ached all over again. He fell into bed and prayed he would not dream about Kayden's abduction once again.




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