Kayden wanted to see Michael alone again, but she didn't have the opportunity. Michael slept most of the afternoon, and Kayden needed to be in the barn. But she couldn't forget his soft words. He wanted to marry her! And deep down behind that black hole, she knew she had always wanted to hear that.
They had dinner together. Michael seemed tired, and when he closed his eyes a third time, Collin went to his side. "It looks like you need to see your new room and turn in for the night."
Michael started out of the dining room with him, but then his head lifted up. He pulled away from Collin, going to the front of the house. When he returned he had a beat up, dusty pack hugged to his chest.
"It appears your benefactor found your pack and dropped it off," Collin said. "You don't find many going out of their way to return a pack. Perhaps he kept a finder's reward for himself."
Michael's eyes widened, and Kayden had the impression he wanted to set the pack down right there in the middle of the living room and check. His gaze went from Kayden to Collin, but he didn't move.
Collin touched his arm. "Why don't we go up to your room? You're too tired to take inventory tonight." Collin led him up the stairs.
Kayden went back into the dining room and cleared off the dinner table. Collin joined her a few minutes later. "I want to marry him," she admitted.
Collin sighed. "I thought you might. Let's take a ride out to the river with Jamel and talk about this."
Kayden wanted to protest. She was afraid Collin would tell her no. And then she was afraid he'd say yes. Then she thought about actually being married, and the panic crept in at the edges of her thoughts. "You're right. I can never marry anyone." She slipped from the room.
Collin caught her at the staircase, his arm wrapping around her waist. "We are going for a ride with Jamel. Now put out the lights, and we'll get on with it."
She did as he asked and then walked beside him to the barn and loft. Jamel was ready, and she hugged his neck.
Then they were in the air, Collin's strong arms surrounding her, Jamel's strong body beneath her. She was completely safe with them. She leaned back against Collin, and he hugged her close. The night sky was devoid of moons tonight, and the stars stretched out above them. Out of all the places in the vast universe, she wanted to stay right here with Collin.
Kayden wanted the flight to last longer, but they landed abruptly on the other side of the river. Collin took his arms from her and slid to the ground. Kayden followed him down and then stood facing him, although the top of her head didn't quite reach his chin.
She ran her arms around his waist and leaned against him. "I changed my mind. I want to marry you."
Collin didn't move, and Kayden was afraid to lift her face from his chest. He didn't push her away in disgust. He didn't clutch her tighter. He kept his hands where they'd been, holding her loosely.
She felt Jamel's breath on the back of her neck. Then his huge head rose above hers. "I want to marry you, too, Collin." He touched Collin's face with his nose, his tongue flicking out to wipe Collin's cheek.
Collin backed away, laughing. "Dragon slobber." He bent over, wiping his face with his shirt. Then he swung his pack around and reached inside until he brought out a cloth. He knelt by the river, dipping in the cloth, and then wiping his face again.
Kayden touched his shoulder and crouched down beside him. "I'm serious. Jamel's just being silly. You're the one I love more than anyone. Michael Jamel is just . . . just a childhood infatuation. I was only twelve, he said."
Collin turned and took both her arms in his hands, looking into her face. "I made a vow to be your father, and I will not pervert it."
"But I'm not a child anymore, and for you, you'll always have to marry someone far younger than you."
"No!" He released her and stood in one motion, walking along the river path away from her.
Kayden slumped down, curling up and grabbing her knees. She rocked slightly and stared into the water. She wasn't good enough for him. Of course she wasn't good enough for him. He wouldn't want her.
Jamel's head snaked along the ground to rest beside her. "I love you, Kayden."
She didn't answer him. Why did he have to make that silly marriage comment? Why did she? She felt the hot tears roll down her cheeks, but ignored them.
"Collin loves you, too," he whispered.
"No, he doesn't!" She barely saw him moving along the edge of the river where it made a curve to the east. The bank rose there to a high treeless bluff, and she saw him sit on the bench between the two flowering shrubs, yellow in daylight, but tonight just shapes slightly darker than the surrounding sky. He leaned forward resting his elbows on his knees. He didn't love her.
"Collin loves you more than he loves himself," Jamel whispered again. "His face is wet, too."
The sobs welled up so that she couldn't contain them, even though she didn't want them to reach Collin as he sat there immobile on that ridge. But she couldn't stop the noise or the shaking. She clutched Jamel's huge head to her and rested her face behind his ear.
When she could cry no more, she still clung to Jamel. How come he was always right? She had never doubted Collin's love before. "Why does it hurt so much that he doesn't want to marry me?"
"I am not a human, Beloved. I think he is hurting because he loves you as much as you love him. But he only wants what is best for you. He can not marry you now."
Jamel rolled his head so that she could scratch his chin. "Because he made a promise to you to be your father."
"I don't care about that."
"Yes, you do. Collin's promises are all we have, Kayden. They are why we feel safe. We know we can trust him with our lives. Collin wouldn't be who we love if he broke his promises to us." Jamel lifted his head and straightened his body, looking out across the water to the ridge where Collin sat.
Then Kayden saw it -- a black shadow speeding toward him. She drew in breath to yell a warning.
"Silence," Jamel said in her ear. "Step back."
Kayden stumbled away from him, as Jamel's powerful muscles tensed. He jumped into the air, but instead of flying straight to Collin he made a lazy circle. And the shadow was zooming down on Collin.
"No!" she couldn't help moaning.
But then Collin rolled from the bench and a red beam sliced up from him into the shadow. The front of the shadow tumbled down almost onto Collin, while the rest of it continued on to the river. Jamel swooped down and grabbed the large dark shadow before it hit the water. And a whooping cry of victory filled the air.
Jamel dropped the dragon's carcass in the grass behind Kayden. She ran up through the trees to him. "He could have been killed! Why didn't you save him?"
Jamel swung his head to her, dark blood staining and dripping from his mouth to his silvery blue chin. "He didn't need to be saved. He needed to hunt tonight."
"He said he needed to talk to me."
"You changed the rules. Now he has victory."
Collin came toward them carrying a dark dragon head larger than his chest. He lifted it up. "Victory, Jamel! Victory." He threw the head next to the body and gave Jamel's neck an affectionate pounding. "Thanks for letting me get one once in a while. Wow, look at him. Black as night. Ulan's going to love this one." He pulled his tunic over his head and tossed it and his pack toward the tree line.
Kayden stood back, watching as Collin began stripping the hide from the dragon. Collin had such a strong, beautiful chest. He could save her from anything.
Jamel dipped his snout into the exposed muscle and bowel of the dragon. Kayden turned and walked back to the river. She didn't want to watch him eat. She sighed. It didn't matter what Collin looked like. It didn't matter that he was the kindest, gentlest, most intelligent, and probably the strongest man she knew. He was her father, and no one ever had a better father. She glanced back at him and smiled. Yes. It did matter. She had the best father of anyone on the planet -- probably in the whole universe. No one could ever change that.
She lay back and rested while they worked, watching the stars above. She wondered where she had met Michael. Had it been near any of those stars? Did he come all this way just to find her and marry her? Would a guy who studied artificial intelligence be content working in her barn?
Kayden sat up abruptly. She heard a noise and then relaxed when she saw Collin.
He settled on the ground beside her, sitting with his hands on his knees. "What are you thinking about?"
Kayden stared at the river instead of Collin. "How do I know that Michael studied artificial intelligence? He did that with his grandfather, and before that he studied warp engineering with his father. That involved fixing anything that went wrong on a starship, because his dad was 'the' starship engineer on the station. How do I know that? Am I remembering?"
"Sounds that way."
"Then if he's so tech oriented, how's he going to be happy in the barn."
Collin put his arm around her shoulders, and she leaned against him. "That's what I wanted to talk to you about, Sweetest. You've figured it out. Michael Jamel is not a convict, like Gaben thinks. He has secrets of his own."
"He told you?"
"No. I'm guessing. Think about it, Sweetheart. His grandfather is Jamel's designer. Is it likely he sent him to the planet alone? Is it likely he thought you survived and Jamel didn't? Is it likely he plans to stay on the planet once he finds what he's looking for? And lastly, do you think he had to make some kind of arrangement with the government to get here? Perhaps get a job as a tech spy?"
"No! No, he wouldn't." She sat up and looked into his face.
"He wouldn't what, Kayden?"
"But then I could never marry him! I'm never leaving."
Collin's mouth turned up at the corners, but his smile was different now. Instead of a hidden humor, it almost seemed like a hidden sadness had overtaken him. "And I never want you to leave, my dear."
"But what should I do? You don't want me. I don't want Gaben, and . . . ."
"Stop that thought, young lady. I never said I didn't want you. I want you with me until you die of old age. I pray that whatever husband you chose will wish the same, but you do not need to marry anyone. Do you understand that? No matter how many men ask for your hand, you never have to say yes."
Kayden didn't face him. Instead she dug into the ground with her fingers and threw a stone into the water. "Tara thinks I'm a trampy dragon. She thinks I sleep with you and rip other men apart."
"I don't care what Tara thinks." He was silent a moment and when he continued his voice was soft. "I'm sorry, Kayden. I know her venom hurts you. Sometimes I'm tempted to move us to Melbin and open a new practice, leaving Quinn here. Then things . . . well . . . we can't. Quinn has grown a lot, but he still needs me a while longer, I think. If I died and relocated right now, people would be too quick to take advantage of him."
"Not since he killed the dragon. People in town respect him now."
Collin rubbed her arm. "I'm not worried about the townspeople, Love. They know he's a fine doctor. We have ambitious yearnings within our midst."
"Gaben wants the practice." Kayden knew that was true. A breeze blew up over the water to her, and the stars lost their brightness. "I thought you liked him."
"I do like Gaben. He's a hard worker and a good doctor. But as you noticed, he covets Quinn's apparent inheritance."
"Which isn't really, because you won't die."
"Oh, I may. Life is never certain, but you are right. In reality I will most likely outlive you all."
"You think he wants to marry me because I'm Quinn's equal heir?"
"Part of it," Collin admitted to her surprise.
"Then why did you even act like he was a good husband?" She stood and stalked to the edge of the river, grabbing on to a sapling and staring out into the rushing water.
"My Love," Collin said, standing beside her, his hand on her shoulder. "He has some faults. All men do. Frankly if you were to marry, I'd rather you with someone who would stay with me. He was the best option for you so far, but I had no intention of giving you to him. In fact, I'd hoped the process, if it were to be a process, would take years and years, and I'd be able to enjoy your companionship for quite a while longer."
Kayden slipped into his arms. "If you don't want me to marry, I won't. I love you more than anyone."
Collin kissed her forehead. "Explore your options with Michael Jamel. Just remember he's hiding things from you."
"But . . . ."
"He may help you remember your parents and all the things you wanted to know when you first came to me. Just remember I need you to protect me and the lab. So does Jamel. He doesn't want to go back, and I need him to remain with me, even if you decide to return to your family with Michael."
"I'll never leave you, Collin. Never."
He kissed her forehead again. "Perhaps you can convince Michael Jamel that this is the most wonderful planet in the galaxy, and that he would love to live here. Perhaps you can convince him to use any influence he or his grandfather might have to help us change things for the people of Austin. He's seen the worst the planet has to offer. You could show him the best."
As she rested against Collin's chest, she thought about his words. Perhaps Michael Jamel held the fate of the planet. And Collin believed she held the keys to Michael's heart and his help. If she and Collin disappeared to Melbin, they'd be happy, but nothing would change. If she courted Michael, perhaps many lives could be changed with the restrictions he might have lifted -- restrictions on communications and medical equipment and travel.
But then the strange jealousy returned. Michael Jamel said he loved her. He'd come for her. But he had a bigger agenda. The reality stung. She nestled closer to Collin. She wished he'd take her away from Gaben and Michael and whatever was lurking in that black hole in her mind.
The eastern sky became a soft grey. "We better get back," Collin said. He helped her up the slight incline, past the shrubs and trees to Jamel. Then he hooked the large bundles of dragon hide to the back ends of Jamel's saddle leaving the dragon's head and what was left of its body on the ground to feed the scavengers.
They climbed up on Jamel's back, and he took off. They finally walked from the barn to the house. Romantic childhood love was an illusion, Kayden thought. It didn't happen. "I'll do what's best, Daddy. Just like you always do."
He hugged her, right there on the front porch. "I love you, Kayden." When he pulled away, his face was again wet, but so was hers. Silently they made their way to their own rooms to get what little sleep they could.
Everything was there, in tact, in his pack. Even all his money. Michael counted the gold and silver coins twice, spreading them out on the desk in his room to make sure. After Doc Collin's comment last night, he was certain someone, probably Doc Collin himself had taken his money and most of his tech. But no one had, and Doc Collin's comment was just a fact of life on this hellhole of a planet.
"Who had my pack, Cee?"
"You know who."
"But the A just can't roll around out there. People would see him. He'd be taken for his parts, his lasers. Who claims him?"
"He is independent."
"Independent?" Michael shrugged and replaced the items in his pack, slipping Cee into the pocket of his tunic. "Good. We won't have to fight anyone for ownership details. He's mine."
"I am not yours," said the voice he'd heard Cee arguing with.
"I am not 'the A', I am Jamel. And I am never leaving the planet."
"You are mine and . . . ."
"I would never consent to be owned by a man who doesn't love me. Cee loves you. You treat him like he's a mere diagnostic unit. I will not leave the planet, so you can give up and go home."
"Jamel!" Cee said, his voice alarmed.
"I'm sorry, Cee. Michael, if you do not love Cee, give him to Kayden. She will love him."
"What are you talking about? Love is for people, not machines. Now where are you?"
Michael heard a chuckling and whirled around, but no one was in his little room. It was the A! "You will never find me. Search the planet, but this time look at its beauty. It is more than death although proper medical equipment and medicine would enhance the experience for humans."
And then there was a knocking on his door. "Is everything okay, Michael?" It was Doc Collin.
Michael grabbed his pack and opened the door. "Yeah. It's great. I just realized nothing had been stolen. Not even my money." He followed Doc down the stairs. "I might be able to pay my bill for all your help. Or at least some of it."
He chuckled. It was a chuckle very similar to the A's throaty chuckle. Michael rolled his eyes, how could a black box have a throaty chuckle. But Doc was chuckling. At the desk in the small office behind the waiting room, he pulled down a book and opened it, flipping through its hand written pages. He stopped at one and ran his finger down a column of numbers. "Let's see. Ah, Gaben already added it up for us. Wasn't that thoughtful?" Collin turned the book toward Michael and pointed to the bottom of the page.
Michael read the total and winced. Then he scanned the list which itemized every thing that had been done for him, every medicine he'd received, every bag of intravenous fluid, blood transfusion from . . . from Kayden? Michael glanced up at Doc Collin. "She normally gives blood to strangers?"
"It's part of the job. Whoever matches the type and is closest when we need it. Even Tara has been known to donate. You'd spilled almost all of yours before we got you."
The amount of his bill suddenly seemed extremely reasonable. Michael dug into his pack and pulled out his money bag, spilling it onto the desk. Then he withdrew five of the coins, replacing them back in his bag. He was broke. "I think that covers it."
He looked up to see a smile of appreciation on Doc's face. "You are not quite the beggar we made you out to be, are you?"
Michael gave a shrug and a sheepish grin. "I am now, but at least I'm alive to earn more."
Gaben entered the office and stopped. He gave Michael a hard glare. "Alex, I need to talk to . . . Where did all that money come from?"
"Michael just paid his bill in full. Some kind stranger brought his pack back last night, money included." Doc sat at the desk. "I better get this put away. You can go join Kayden for breakfast, Michael." He took a pen from the vase on the desk and scribbled on Michael's page. "Paid in Full -- A.C."
Michael left him to find Kayden. He was anxious to see her. He hoped that today he wouldn't require her medical services like he had yesterday.
"Where'd he get all that money?" Gaben asked, sitting in the chair beside the desk. "He's a convict. He must have stolen it."
"I am not going to question a paid in full bill. We don't get enough of them to quibble about it." Collin counted the money into a bag to store in the safe.
"Look, something's not right about this guy. No one in town even saw him come through."
Collin faced him. "Gaben, I've talked to Kayden. I didn't think it right of her to lead you on if she's not interested. She admitted that she is not. I'm sorry."
"What? What do you mean, she's not interested?" His voice rose as he spoke. "I've been here for years, joking with her, and working with her, and suddenly some thief comes along and tells her he's her long lost boyfriend, and you're okay with this."
Collin knew it hurt to be rejected. He'd felt that pain too many times, so he tried to keep his voice even. "Gaben. I can hear you. Tara and Quinn do not need to. I did not say I was 'okay with this'. I am telling you the facts of the situation. Kayden is not interested in your affections, and it'd be good for you to find someone else. I know there are several nice girls in the village who are eager for . . . ."
"I don't want a nice girl. I want Kayden. I waited for her. You can't just give her to that convict."
"I can't just give her to anyone. She makes up her own mind. If you want the truth, I think it is your view that she can be given and owned that has set her against you."
"You . . . ."
"I wanted nothing better than to have you tied to this clinic and the people of Hope, but I cannot use Kayden to further my own desires in the community. Now, I've told you how she felt. I will expect no more tense scenes between you." He locked the money in the safe and straightened.
"Didn't you tell her that he . . . ."
"Yes. I gave her my impressions. She desires time to make up her own mind about him. I do not think she'll jump into marriage tomorrow. But that is not your concern, Gaben," Collin said as firmly as he could. "Now don't you have a patient to visit?"
"You didn't have to give him a job here! You could have sent him away."
Collin walked from the office, his pack slung against his back. "My decisions are not open to debate. I'll be back before noon."
At the barn, Collin whistled for Angie, and she flew to him. He nuzzled her muzzle and rubbed her neck before saddling her. Then he flew toward town to his patient, the sick baby from the day before.
Even though he'd told Gaben he wasn't going to use Kayden to advance his plans for the community, he wondered if he still was. He loved her, maybe even as much as he'd loved Vita, and at her first confession he'd been so tempted to fly her away to Melbin where they could both start a new life.
But for all that she was a woman, she was still a child, and he knew she came to him with the confused expectations of a hurting woman/child. She didn't need the father-daughter relationship violated, no matter that she wasn't really his daughter. All those things had gone through his mind as he stood regretting that he could not accept her offer and wondering how he'd fix the breach it had caused.
But the nagging question remained. Had he unintentionally burdened Kayden with his own ambitions? How could he have given her an accurate picture of Michael without sharing his thoughts? She knew his hopes and wishes already. In fact, it was not sex that tempted him to marry her, but that he'd not been so free to speak with anyone before. Even with Vita, he had needed to hold back his past life and his visits to the mountain lab. But he could have that communion with a daughter as well. He did not need to violate a child who had been hurt so much already.
Michael better not hurt that girl, Collin thought as he landed before the sick baby's home.