Michael's duties around the clinic were minimal. Collin worked with him for an hour or so, explaining plants or how to prepare them. He even included dosages and what they were for. As soon as he left, Michael would take out his computer notepad and enter the information. He even wrote a database to keep track of all the different plants, preparations and uses. Then he would do the work Collin assigned him, which he always finished before noon. After lunch he helped Kayden for an hour or so, and then he had the rest of the afternoon free.
He avoided the new art supplies for three days. Guilt made him want to work for them first. But on the fourth day Collin ordered him to paint, and he reluctantly took what he needed outside to watch Kayden. Once he'd started, he lost track of time, painting the picture he'd envisioned earlier -- wingdeer playing circular tag amongst fluffy clouds. And then he found Kayden appearing underneath, dancing with her hair streaming in the wind, hands raised toward the sky and wingdeer as if joining their games.
At dinner though, he realized he'd let down his guard. He could have been eaten without seeing the beast coming. His stomach knotted. How could he live in a place where he was constantly in fear of being attacked? But he had to wait until Kayden was ready to marry him.
Michael watched her across the dinner table, smiling and telling Collin about her training session with one of the young wingdeer. He had to admit she seemed happy here, but he was sure she'd be just as happy off the planet.
He'd made his plans. He would first give his reports to Austin's officials in orbit. Then he'd continue to his grandfather's and make his report, facing his wrath. He was sure he wouldn't protest his leaving when he heard about the A and C units. Then he'd take Kayden to CentiOne. It was a domed community on a planetoid circling Alpha Centauri, and it had the largest zoo off Terran Earth. Kayden was sure to love it. And Michael knew he'd be able to get work doing some kind of programming and computer repair. AI engineers, programming engineers, physic energy core engineers -- they were always needed, and he had enough background to get at least an entry level position.
Yes, CentiOne was a good place to raise a family. It was safe. No flying monsters. Criminals were extradited, and immigrants were thoroughly screened. Even tourists needed to have clean records. He'd take Kayden there where they could safely raise a family.
Collin just didn't want Kayden to leave. He must think Michael had a good chance of winning Kayden's love. Michael studied him as he took another bite of the mutton and rice casserole. The man couldn't possibly think that Michael would want to stay on the planet permanently if he bribed him, could he? What man in his right mind would want to live in a prison with man-eating dragons? Unless of course your choice was a ten by ten foot cell. But Michael could live anywhere, and as soon as Kayden was ready, he'd be going anywhere.
That night as he lay in bed trying to sleep he heard a door shut. Then another door shut. He heard Kayden's low giggle as she passed his door. Then there were noises on the steps.
Michael rose from his bed and slipped on his pants. As he started downstairs he heard the front door close. Michael ran the rest of the way down the steps and then looked out the front door. He stepped onto the roofed porch. Hooking his arm on the post by the two steps to the yard, he leaned out to try to see them. Collin and Kayden were just going into the barn. Michael glanced into the sky and shivered. How could they take such risks? And Gaben had said he saw a silvery dragon hanging around.
Michael turned to go back into the house and ran into Quinn. Michael backed up to let him onto the porch. Quinn slipped into one of the two chairs on Collin's side of the porch. "Nice night."
Quinn stared into the dark, starry sky, lit with one small crescent moon. "Maybe."
How could he relax? "Collin and Kayden went to the barn. It's insane to take risks like that."
Quinn shrugged and put his booted feet up on the railing. "I thought of going out there myself."
"For a friend."
"Friend? You mean your wingdeer?" Michael found the relationships fascinating to watch. He was starting to tell the wingdeer apart, and he could see that there was a special bond between the beast and its primary rider.
"Something like that."
Michael finally eased into the chair by Quinn. "Don't you worry about getting eaten when you go out at night?" Then he leaned back. "Oh, that's right. You're the dragon-killer. How'd you do it?"
"I didn't do it. Didn't you hear Tara?"
Michael heard bitterness and decided to keep staring at the stars. "Sorry. I haven't been paying much attention. I'm either in the pharmacy, in the barn, or in my room. I thought I heard her say you'd killed the dragon."
"Oh, yeah. She told everyone that. But I finally told her the truth, and she's making sure everyone knows that, too. Thought you heard Alex yell at her."
"Guess I miss a lot." He realized he certainly was a rotten spy. Collin had been right. He was not prepared for this job. Maybe he'd never make a good spy. But then he didn't really care anymore about spying. He'd found Kayden. That's all that mattered. Except it would be awful nice to show Governor Hollis that he was wrong about him. He hadn't been, but it'd feel good to hand him a genuine dragon-hide and watch his reaction.
"So how did you get that dragon head then."
"It's not important, is it?"
Michael shrugged and then lowered his voice. Collin had said he could trust Quinn. "Governor Hollis expects me to single-handedly put an end to the dragon population. He expects me to bring back proof of my work." Then he continued at regular volume. "Although right now, I'd planned to admit my defeat. That is unless you've got some sure method I can use that doesn't involve the loss of any more of my blood."
"No. No sure method. I expected to die. Someone else . . . ." He glanced at Michael. "Jamel killed the dragon. Guess he saved both our lives, didn't he?"
Michael tensed. "Just to kill us later. It's a killer, just like those dragons."
Quinn looked at him through the darkness. "Didn't think he killed people."
"More than just Kayden's attacker?"
Michael didn't know.
"If he hadn't, she'd be dead, you know. Took about eight weeks for her to recover enough for Alex to bring her back from the cabin. They don't talk about it, but I think you know. You have the nightmares. He'd have killed her, wouldn't he?"
Michael stood, and the chair clattered back against the wall. He stalked into the house. He didn't need to hear about that bastard computer. If he didn't exist at all, the whole thing never would have happened. Michael stormed into his room and slammed the door. Then he lay face down on the bed.
A soft tap sounded on his door. Michael ignored it. Then his door opened. He couldn't see who it was through the blackness. His desk chair scraped.
"I'm sorry," Quinn said. "I wish I knew how to help."
"Destroy the damn machine."
"Jamel?" His voice held a note of surprise. "I don't understand. Would you kill a child for throwing a tantrum? He apologized for harassing you."
Michael sat up and looked toward his desk. He could barely make out Quinn's form. "He is not a child. He is not human. He does not have feelings. A machine is a machine, and he's never worth the life of any human. He's not worth the suffering Kayden went through. You didn't see those images, how he sliced off her hands little by little, how he ripped into her . . . God, I hate that machine." He raised his hands to his face. If he could only erase the images the A had sent back.
"Her hands are fine, Michael. Your nightmares have embellished the truth. That happens to me. Sometimes I still see my father coming at me, and in the dreams the knife hits my throat instead of the wall beside me. In my dreams the choking doesn't stop when I'm dead, he doesn't stop kicking when all my ribs are broken. It'll always hurt. That's what Alex told me. But the more we live now instead of remembering, the pain is less . . . . 'Cept if your wife keeps talking about how much of a girlbaby coward you are. But Kayden would never think that about you." The chair scraped, and then he heard Quinn's boots cross his floor and go down the steps.
Michael lay back on the bed, stunned by Quinn's confession. The man was strong -- he had felt his punch. And he certainly wasn't stupid to be a medical doctor. Michael had never thought he'd suffered. If he thought about him at all, he'd labeled him the rigid, silent type who did his job and cared for his family. Emotion was foreign to him.
But coward? Nothing in Quinn's demeanor had ever suggested to Michael that Quinn was a coward. How could his wife come up with that? Of course, his wife had also said Michael was a convict and Kayden a tramp, so he guessed she was an even worse judge of character than he was.
Michael thought about Quinn even after he heard Kayden and Collin go to their rooms. He realized one other thing before he drifted to sleep. Quinn didn't know anything about the tech Collin was hiding. He'd stumbled on the robot, but not the rest. The barn . . . Jamel was in the barn. They'd gone to the barn. The other tech must be hidden somewhere in the huge barn also. It wasn't at the cabin; he was sure of it. But Michael didn't really care about the other tech, and he didn't want to see that machine. He loved Kayden, and hearing his grandfather's "well done" was not worth causing her any more pain.
The next day at lunch, Collin said, "I think it's time Michael learned to fly."
Michael lifted his gaze from the stew bowl. "Fly?"
"Oh, this is so great. Today? Can I teach him?"
"That's the plan. Take him up for a ride with you today. Quinn will help you get started."
As soon as lunch was finished, Quinn joined Michael and Kayden at the field behind the barn. Kayden's wingdeer, Sam, flew to them. Kayden caressed and hugged him, murmuring softly. Then she addressed Michael. "Your control over them is determined by how much time you spend with them. They are not a low maintenance animal. They require a lot of attention. That's why I'm going to have to sell those yearlings soon or get some full time help." She grinned up into his face. "Which one do you like best? I'll give it to you."
"You will? Thought they were all Collin's."
"Nope. Actually Tess's two are mine, since Collin didn't give Tess to Gaben until after they were born. And Angie's second pair belong to him, but he doesn't care. You just pick one."
"Why don't we see if I can stay in the saddle? I'll probably fall and kill myself?"
Kayden grabbed the bridle from Quinn and explained how to put it on as she did so. Then she repeated her lecture with the saddle. Then she jumped up, placed a foot in a hanging stirrup, and was astride. Now Quinn explained how Michael was to mount behind her and over the wings. He demonstrated once, and then dismounted for Michael to try. Michael was relieved he made it the first try, and he didn't look as much a fool as when he'd mounted Twilight for the first time. Then they explained and tightened the straps.
"Okay, Mike. Are you ready?"
Michael tightened his hold around her waist. Her closeness caused his mind to forget that he was going up into dragon-realm, up where he may fall hundreds of feet. He tried to savor the feel of her in his arms, the fresh, slightly floral scent of her hair. He lowered his lips to the skin exposed above the collar of her shirt.
The powerful muscles beneath him tensed and then jolted him back as the beast jumped up. Michael wondered if she'd done that to break the slight contact. But then he wondered no more. The wind rushed against him. The wings beat in strong waves, and they were airborne. His heart raced. He tightened his grip and tried to sit straighter on the beast's back. And he saw the ground receding, except it wasn't a gentle receding, like from the window of a shuttle, but a wild, breathtaking and dazzling rush of wind, landscape and wings.
Before he could completely comprehend the whole experience, they were landing. A river flowed south, trees lining either bank. He thought the wingdeer would hit the tops of the trees, but he sailed over them to touch down on the other side.
"Where are we?" he asked as the deer walked along the river.
"Just west of Collin's property. How do you like it so far?"
Michael grinned and rubbed his chin into the back of her braided hair. "You haven't given me a good enough trial."
Instantly the beast was in the air again. This time Michael had enough time to accept that the straps really were going to hold him on the wingdeer when he banked or dived. He wasn't going to slide off into oblivion to splatter into the fields below.
And as he relaxed he could enjoy the feel of Kayden's body in his arms. He'd dated a few times at Thom's urging, and several times he'd felt the lust for more than kisses. Up until now he'd been able to keep Kayden on that plane of purer desire -- the desire to share every part of his life with her. But he hadn't felt the lust, maybe because their relationship had started out as friendship with her much too young. Or maybe because he knew how she'd been hurt. But now his body knew she was healed, and his body wanted her completely.
Sam landed, taking a few running steps before he stopped at the barn door. Kayden slid from his back immediately. Michael came down stiffly. Kayden ignored him, going to Sam's head, caressing him, thanking him for the ride, and removing his bridle. Michael decided to remove the saddle. When he finished he took both items into the barn, but Kayden was still focusing on Sam.
Michael leaned his shoulder against the frame of the barn door and watched her for a few more minutes. "Are you avoiding me, Kayden?"
"No," she said, but she didn't look his way.
He walked to her and placed his hand on her shoulder. "Did you feel the same thing I did? Is that why you're nervous?"
She stiffened underneath his hand. "You were right up to my back. Yeah, I felt you."
Michael dropped his hand, feeling his face become warm. That wasn't what he'd meant. He hadn't realized his lust was so obvious to her. He'd just hoped she was starting to desire his closeness. "Sorry I bothered you. I'll try not to crowd you next time." He walked back toward the house. He'd messed up. She didn't want him at all.
Michael stopped at the porch steps and waited, not looking back.
Kayden ran to him and then around him, placing her hands on his arms and looking up into his face. "I . . . Michael . . . ." She lowered her gaze to his chest. "You've never shown me what a real kiss is like," she whispered. She lifted her head timidly to look into his eyes.
Michael caressed her cheek with the back of his finger. She looked so scared and vulnerable, her lips trembling ever so slightly. "I love you, Kayden," he whispered.
He lowered his head and brushed his lips to hers. Then he hesitated, his head still beside hers, his mouth just to the right of hers. She didn't pull away, so he brought his lips back to hers and lingered over them until he felt her lips move beneath his. Responding.
Then she hugged him, bringing her head to rest against his chest. "I'm scared, Michael."
Michael ran his hand over her shoulder and back, holding her with his other arm. "I know. So am I."
She squeezed him and then backed away and up the steps. "I'm sorry, Michael. No sex before marriage. That's what my dad says. And . . . and he's right. You still might leave me. I couldn't bear that." She ran into the house before Michael could protest.
He hadn't planned to undress her on the porch steps, and he never planned to be apart from her again. He walked over to the chairs on the porch and sat in the one he'd used the night before. How could he convince her he wasn't scheming ways to get her into bed? He was willing to wait. Why'd she even bring it up? Did she really think he was that insensitive?
But then he remembered her small, timid voice. "I'm scared, Michael." She was just scared and probably said that as a way to escape.
Michael leaned back and closed his eyes. That kiss was worth savoring, even more than the wingdeer ride.
A few minutes later his reverie was interrupted. Quinn rushed out of the house, pack over his shoulder.
Quinn was down the steps before the question was out, and he whirled around. "I've got some house calls. Want to come?"
Why not? Michael stood, reshouldered his pack and followed Quinn to the barn, assisting him with the saddle. He realized they'd be riding together. "Aah. I sat too close to Kayden. Are these straps adjustable so I don't crowd you?"
Quinn's serious face broke into a slight smile. "Thought you wanted to be close to Kayden."
"Yeah. That part worked out well. But . . . you don't want me kissing your neck," he teased.
Quinn gave Rae's nose another affectionate rub before he joined Michael at his side. "Better put you in front. Teach you how to guide her." He helped Michael up and then sat behind him. After the straps were tightened, Quinn rested a hand on either side of Michael's waist, his body not touching Michael's back at all. "Okay, send her up."
He could hear Quinn's soft instructions near his ear, and felt quite an accomplishment when they landed safely in front of a small, village home, almost the same as when he'd taken his first shuttle out.
"The job of an assistant is just to watch today," Quinn stated as they approached the small, run-down, square house.
So, Michael watched and learned, as Quinn made several house calls. Then they flew home.
Collin met them in the waiting room as they came in from the barn. He indicated they both step into his living room. Collin settled into his favorite armchair. Michael sat on the couch by Kayden.
Quinn perched on the edge of a footstool, looking up at Collin's face. "Is anything wrong?"
Collin smiled. "No. Nothing's wrong. Gaben just asked if he could take a vacation to visit his family in Shade in a few days, so I wondered how Michael liked going with you today."
"I didn't do anything," Michael said.
"Yes, but do you think you'd be comfortable helping as an assistant, as Kayden does occasionally?"
"I'll help wherever you need me," Michael repeated.
"You have no qualms with blood or needles?"
Michael ignored his uneasiness. "Not that it would interfere with my work. You wouldn't need me for really bad things anyway, would you?"
"On the contrary, that's usually when we need more help. Surgery and stitches. If you're comfortable, I'll start explaining our equipment and procedures tomorrow." He focused on Quinn. "Unless you have an objection."
Quinn's eyes widening was the only indication Michael had that he was surprised. "I would have no objection."
Collin leaned forward and squeezed Quinn's shoulder. "Good. I think your dinner is ready." He stood. "So is ours."