Michael no longer worked in the pharmacy in the mornings. Instead Collin explained all their tools and equipment to him, quizzing him the following days. He also had Michael see patients with either him or Quinn. Although he still let him have the three hours right after lunch to paint when the light was best.
His days were full, but he still managed to find a few minutes with Kayden alone. He hadn’t tried to kiss her again that night, but the next morning, he greeted her at the breakfast table by leaning down and kissing her cheek before he settled into his own chair. Neither she nor Collin protested. And later that afternoon, Kayden had come to him as he painted, and she let him kiss her again.
He was careful not to let her think he couldn’t control himself. He’d been warned by both her and Collin, so he wouldn’t step over the line, although he teased her that he wanted to marry her right away. He didn’t tell her that was so they could leave the planet together. He didn’t think she was ready for it yet. She didn’t love him as much as he loved her.
When Gaben left for vacation, Michael’s work in the clinic increased, and some days he didn’t paint at all. And then a man came in with severe abdominal pain. Collin said it was his appendix. Kayden joined them. Collin asked Michael to assist him since Quinn was making house calls. Soon Michael watched as Collin sliced into the man’s abdomen with a scalpel.
“Michael,” came Collin’s hushed roar. “I need you to keep this blood clear.”
Kayden came and did the job, her long fingers dipping into the wound with gauze and suction. Michael swallowed the bile in his throat and forced himself to take over. He wouldn’t be weak here. He would do what needed to be done.
Michael had gone up to bed. Collin heard Kayden in the kitchen and decided to go to her. She was staring into the cupboard. He rubbed her shoulders. “Good job tonight, Sweetheart.”
Kayden closed the cupboard without removing anything. Then she turned and hugged him. “Michael did okay, didn’t he?”
“Yes. He’ll do. He overcame his natural revulsion and did the right thing.”
“Are you going to make him an apprentice?”
Collin knew he had to be vague. “I’m not sure if that’s best for Michael or not, yet. Remember, you didn’t want to be a doctor. I won’t force him either.”
She seemed to accept that, smiling up at him. “I love him, Collin. It’s so wonderful! I’m not even scared when he touches me. I never thought I’d want to be touched.”
Collin kissed her forehead. “That’s great, Sweetheart.” He knew he’d made the right decision that night at the river, so why did it hurt like his heart was being ripped open?
She danced away from him. “It’ll be so great. Just the three of us. Do you think I can take him to meet Jamel?”
“Give him more time.” Collin took a glass of water and went to his patient. After assuring himself that the man slept, he settled into his chair.
How could he tell Kayden that Michael’s plans were to leave the planet as soon as they were married? Collin wanted to snatch her away to the lab. Take her to Melbin. Keep her close to him. But he couldn’t do anything except help her become the mature, lovely woman, he knew she would be. And if she decided to leave with Michael, he would be alone.
“Jamel,” he whispered.
“Yes, Collin,” came the voice in his ear.
“You’ll stay if Kayden leaves, won’t you? I need you here.”
“Kayden won’t leave.”
The answer wasn’t what he’d wanted. He should know by now there were no guarantees in life, nothing ever lasted. Although he was tired with the weariness of years, he could not sleep.
“Collin,” came Jamel’s voice. “I’ll never leave you. I am your friend forever. Your mission is mine. I am going now to the cabin to tend the garden for you.”
“Thank you, Jamel.” And finally he slept.
Quinn did not miss Gaben at all during his week long vacation. Even the extra work was welcome in exchange. If only Tara could spend one evening with Quinn without mentioning Gaben’s name. He could tell she respected him as little as she did after Burke had hit him. He wished he’d never told her about the dragon. She’d told Gaben, and she told everyone she met. At least when the people of the village mentioned it, they didn’t act like he was a girlbaby coward.
Gaben returned at dinner time. He didn’t meet Quinn’s gaze when he walked into the dining room. He smiled at Tara and settled into his chair. “I’ve missed your cooking, Tara. You’re the best.”
Quinn clenched his jaw. Shanika smiled. “Uncle Gaben!”
Tara set the plate before Gaben, and then proceeded to give him a quick hug. “Glad you’re back. How did your visit go?”
“Everything as planned. My mom is well. My brothers are fine.” He focused on his food. “But I’m sure tired.”
“Well then you just eat now, and we’ll talk in the morning,” Tara said comfortingly.
“I’m done!” Shanika said. “Are you done, Daddy? Can you play flying horses with me?”
Quinn jumped up at the excuse to leave. He grabbed Shanika, lifted her to his shoulders, and flew her out of the room. He leaned over so she could grab her stuffed pegasus from the chair in the living room. Then they flew out to the porch, and Quinn focused on his little girl until it was time to tuck her into bed.
When he left Shanika’s room, he went downstairs. Tara and Gaben were still in the dining room, laughing. Quinn wanted to go in there, pull Gaben from his chair, and punch him until he ran out into the night and was dragon-eaten. Instead Quinn ran out the door and to the barn. Maybe he was a girlbaby coward. He was letting that fool stay with his wife.
Jamel flew back into the dark loft as Quinn reached it.
“I need to get away before I punch the bastard,” Quinn confessed, grabbing the saddle from the wall.
Jamel turned his head to focus on Quinn as he worked. “Who is the bastard?”
“Is he bothering Kayden again?”
“No, he’s trying to steal my wife!” He tugged the strap tight around Jamel’s waist.
“You are angry, but you do not need to overtighten the saddle straps.”
Quinn leaned his head against Jamel’s neck. He couldn’t do anything right. “I’m sorry,” he mumbled.
Suddenly he was enclosed between Jamel’s wing and his neck in a complete body hug. “It’s okay, Quinn. We’ll ride tonight. You need victory, don’t you? Maybe we’ll find it.” He rubbed his neck against Quinn’s back and then released him. “Check the straps well.”
Quinn mounted, strapped himself on, and gave Jamel the signal to go.
“Fix your waist strap. It’s not secure enough. You must not let the anger cloud your thinking. It could kill you.”
Quinn fixed the strap, wondering how Jamel had noticed the twist. Then he wondered if he had wanted to fall, just as he’d expected to die the night he’d met Jamel. As Jamel took to the air, Quinn realized he didn’t. Shanika needed him. He was a good doctor, and the people were now pleased when he showed up. They no longer looked beyond him for Alex. He wasn’t the scared, stupid little boy afraid of his own shadow anymore. He was Doctor Quinn Stone.
Jamel set off at a fast pace toward the mountains. Quinn had never tried to direct him, and he was a little disappointed that he wasn’t taking him through spirals, dives, and flips. He needed a good heart-pounding thrill. But as they rode on through the darkness lit by two of the planet’s moons, Quinn began to relax. His mind cleared. Gaben probably had no clue that Tara was interested in him, just as Alex never had a single improper thought toward Tara. And when Alex had discovered Tara’s infatuation, he’d fixed the situation. Maybe Gaben would fix things if Quinn just approached him about the problem.
Jamel’s rhythm faltered, and then he was falling toward the ground, his wings collapsing and opening randomly.
“Jamel!” Quinn screamed. What was wrong? How’d he get hurt? The ground rushed at them. “Jamel!” Oh, no. He was dead. He was . . . .
And then right as Quinn thought they were both dead, Jamel spread his wings and glided the last few feet between the trees to the ground. But then he collapsed on the floor of the forest.
“Jamel!” Quinn was trapped, one leg under Jamel’s massive body. He wasn’t in pain, but he couldn’t move. He grabbed at the straps.
“Do not remove the straps!” Jamel commanded, not sounding the least distressed.
“A dragon!” came a tiny voice from his pocket. “Run. Hide, Quinn!”
And Quinn saw the huge rosy silver shape closing in on them.
Jamel rolled and then leapt into the air, clearing the trees. Then he swung his head around toward the beast. Red light streamed from his mouth, slicing through the night, slicing into the beast’s head.
As their momentum sent them in a collision course, the beast passed under them and then tumbled to the trees. Jamel circled and followed it down. He landed beside the huge body. “Victory, Quinn! We got it. Victory!”
Quinn was numb. “What . . . what did you do?”
“We killed it. Come on. Now we have to skin it.”
“But . . . .”
“Come on. Look at the colors on that hide. Beautiful.”
All Quinn could see were shades of grey in the darkness. Dutifully he removed the straps and slid off Jamel’s back.
“Collin usually takes off his shirt to keep the blood from it.”
“Does he?” Usually? How many dragons had his friends killed without him? “What does he do with the hides?”
“Sells them to a guy in Alexandria.”
“He’s Hans Trapper!” came the tiny voice. Cee was talking again. “I must tell Michael.”
“Yes, why does Michael want Hans.” Jamel swung his head to focus on Quinn’s pocket.
Quinn placed his hand over his pocket and waited, but Cee didn’t speak again.
“Cee, answer me!” demanded Jamel. “Why is Michael searching for Hans Trapper? I thought he just wanted me and Kayden.”
Quinn reached out to touch Jamel. “Michael asked me about getting a dragon-hide also. I’m sure he doesn’t mean to harm anyone.”
Jamel snaked his head back to the dead dragon. “Cee is hiding again. Let’s get this work done.” He curled back his lips and opened his mouth in a threatening grimace. Then the red beam shot out again, severing the head from the neck, and then the wings from the body.
Quinn shivered, although the night was not cold. He’d had a hard time seeing Jamel as a killer or Jamel as having a computer brain, but the red light kept cutting and cutting in a precise narrow beam around the flesh of the whole dragon.
Jamel swung his huge head back toward Quinn. Quinn jumped back into a tree. The red beam wasn’t coming from Jamel’s mouth anymore, but Quinn wondered if it hurt to die that way.
“Quinn?” Jamel snaked his head to him and rubbed against Quinn’s chest. “I love you, Quinn. We have victory. You don’t need to punch Gaben.” He pulled away and turned his head at a forty-five degree angle. “You wanted victory, didn’t you?” And then Quinn saw his friend again, puzzled and wanting to please.
He remembered his desire for a heart-pounding experience. Quinn laughed. He couldn’t help it. Jamel had more than given him what he needed. “Let’s get that hide stripped.” He walked to the beast and tried to remember what Alex had done on Quinn’s only experience of dragon-skinning. He pulled off his shirt and almost tossed it to the forest floor when he remembered Cee. He carefully folded his shirt and set it beside the tree he’d bumped into.
He’d left his pack at home, forgetting to snatch it as he’d left. But then the only valuable things he had were his medical equipment and medicine. “I’m afraid I have no knife with me, Jamel.”
“Aah. I didn’t take that into consideration. But I’ve done this by myself. It will take less than an hour.
Quinn put his shirt back on and sat on the ground by the tree. Jamel was indeed efficient. And then he paused to eat. “Does that taste good? The meat?”
Jamel kept eating, but his voice was clear, giving Quinn another odd glimpse into Jamel’s strange nature. “I was designed to enjoy the taste. My job is to destroy reptile-dragons so that less people are hurt by them. Collin, however, says that most people don’t enjoy dragon-meat. Humans prefer herbivores, and dragons are carnivores, which changes the taste and texture of their meat.”
“How did you become a dragon if you were like Cee?”
Jamel chuckled, ripping into the dragon’s muscle again. “I am not at liberty to tell you, Quinn.”
“Could Cee become a dragon?”
“Cee is behaving in an untrustworthy fashion at the moment. A dragon is a powerful animal even without a laser. I am not the one who decides the fate of the planet.” He chuckled again. “Of course, the fate of the planet really rests on the One who decides the fate of universes and created them for His pleasure. Cee, if you dare, you should peruse and analyze a text that has been translated into more languages than any other. Find it, and discover for yourself why humans deem its message so important.”
“Are you talking about God?” Quinn asked in disbelief.
“You know Him?”
“Every time my father was drunk. He’d talk about him as he smashed his boots into my ribs.”
Jamel’s head swung around to face him, blood dripping from his mouth. “Quinn,” he said, his voice now soft. “My friend. The true God would never condone such a thing. He has sustained you and kept you safe to grow into a compassionate doctor.”
Quinn didn’t want to talk about gods with a beast dripping blood from his fanged mouth. “Are we almost ready to go home?”
Jamel took a deep breath and then began rolling up the sections of hide into two big balls, using strips of the new hide to tie it together. “Okay. Let’s go.”
Quinn mounted and tightened his riding straps. Then Jamel rose into the air, carrying the two bundles of dragon hide as he flew.
When they reached the barn, Jamel took the balls of hide to a corner back behind the ladder and wall. Quinn had never gone back there, but he hadn’t brought a lantern. He removed Jamel’s saddle and placed it on the hook.
Back in the house, all was silent. He slipped upstairs and into his room. In bed, Tara scooted away from him, just as she’d done every night since he’d confessed he hadn’t killed the dragon. He wondered if he’d ever win back her affection. Maybe if he brought her the bloody dragon-hide Jamel had just killed he’d have a chance.
The next morning at the breakfast table, Tara chatted breezily to Gaben. Quinn could barely eat his food, but he finished it and stood. “Gaben, could I speak to you in the office?”
Gaben glanced up at him and leaned back in his chair. “Got a bit behind while I was gone?”
“We’ll speak in the office.” Quinn kissed Shanika’s head, and then left the room. He sat in the office almost twenty minutes before Gaben showed up.
“So what needs to be done,” Gaben said, leaning against the wall.
“I want to talk to you about Tara.”
Gaben raised his eyebrows. “Oh? Marriage trouble?”
Quinn wanted to punch him. “I think it would help if you didn’t spend so much time talking to her,” he tried to say neutrally.
Gaben shrugged. “I like talking to her. I learn all kinds of interesting things.”
“Just stay away from her!”
Gaben laughed. “You’re not threatening me, are you? Not Quinn the coward.”
Quinn couldn’t stop his fist in time. It slammed into Gaben’s chin as if it was not a part of his body. And then it struck him again before Quinn could force his legs to run from the room.
Quinn ran to the barn. Kayden was already working. And he noticed Angie was gone. Alex was gone. He wouldn’t know what he’d done until he got back from his house calls.
“Do you need Rae?” Kayden asked, her mood upbeat. She’d been extremely happy lately, and so had Michael.
“Yeah.” He needed to get away for a while.
When Quinn returned he expected that Alex would chastise him. He expected him to demand an explanation. He expected something. But Gaben joked and laughed with Alex and Michael like nothing was wrong at all.
Gaben’s cheek and jaw were bruised, but instead of condemnation, he saw Alex grin. “Hey, Quinn. Make sure you have a tight hold on Rae, if you’re checking for a stone in her hoof. I thought Gaben knew better, but we’re all caught off guard sometimes.”
Quinn could only give a slight nod. Gaben had lied to Alex and Michael. Why would he do that? But Quinn wasn’t anxious to admit he’d failed to keep his temper under control. Alex had such harsh words for both his father and Burke about lack of control and temper, and Quinn didn’t want Alex to think he was like them. Maybe he’d regret taking him in, training him, and adopting him. He didn’t want to take that risk. So he let Gaben’s lie stand.
Gaben said nothing to him when they were alone. And at dinner no one spoke except Shanika. Tara glared at Quinn, though, so he guessed that Gaben had told her the truth.
Up in the bedroom that night, she turned on him. “Just get out of here. You disgust me. I can’t believe you hit Gaben. What’s wrong with you?”
“I thought you wanted me to fight back.”
“Gaben never did a thing to you!” She pounded his chest.
Quinn covered his pocket with his hand. “Hey, stop it.”
“Then get out. Out!” she screamed.
Quinn hesitated. No. He wouldn’t leave her alone to go to Gaben. He slipped off his pants and tunic, setting his tunic on the night stand. “I’m staying with you. You are my wife, not his.” He got into bed.
“I hate you.” But she didn’t leave. She didn’t undress either, instead sleeping fully clothed on the far edge of the bed.