Collin leaned against the door, listening for Michael to go back upstairs. He watched his broken son, and he wanted to hold him and take away the pain. This time he knew he could. “Jamel says he’s still functioning,” Collin whispered. “He’ll be all right.”
Quinn leapt out of the chair and hugged Collin, surprising him. Collin couldn’t help feeling a bit of satisfaction. Quinn finally felt free enough with him to let his true emotions show when they were alone. Collin hugged him.
Quinn backed away quickly, not meeting his gaze. Instead he focused on the broken unit, bending over the desk. “Cee. Can you hear me? Cee, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know he’d hurt you. I know you love him, but I’m never giving you back to him again. I’m so sorry.”
“I am okay. I wanted to stay with you. I knew he would not want me if I was broken.”
Quinn’s face lit into an incredulous smile, and his hand hovered over the parts. “You want to be with me?”
“You like me, and I want to stay here.”
Collin grinned. “Okay, now lets get you together, Cee. Quinn, if it helps, Michael wasn’t intent on destroying Cee. He was treating him as he would any machine. He wanted to repair him. He couldn’t see any other reason than a mechanical failure for him not to speak. Don’t treat him too harshly.” Collin carefully replaced the two halves of the unit together. “In fact you should have thrown Gaben across the room instead of Michael.”
“I was angry. I thought he’d killed him. I . . . I’m sorry.”
“Just watch it. You’re letting your anger at Gaben come out at others. You’ve got to make sure you don’t hurt anyone like you wish you had punched Gaben.” He put the unit together. “Okay, Cee? Everything in the right spot?”
Collin took the laser sealer and melted the seams together. “Still okay? See any problems?”
“No problems. Thank you.”
Collin handed Cee to Quinn. “Okay. He’s yours. Don’t let anyone else see him or know he exists.”
Quinn held him close to his chest and still studied the desk. “Do you think I could hear him like you do Jamel, so he could talk to me when other people are listening?”
Collin rested his hand on Quinn’s shoulder. “After I get another doctor in here, I’ll go get a transceiver for you. I don’t have them here, and I’d rather not use Michael’s old one. It requires an incision whereas the kind Kayden and I use doesn’t. You’ll be able to talk to Jamel also then.”
Quinn looked up. “Cee can talk to you?”
“If he wanted to. He hasn’t, but he could.”
“And . . . and could Cee someday be a dragon like Jamel?”
Collin took a deep breath and gathered Michael’s tools back into their case. “It’s a big project, Quinn. And it wasn’t easy. It took a couple years of trust and work. Let’s just say that I’d like very much to attempt it someday, but not right away.”
Michael would have asked how. But Quinn accepted his word, accepted that he could do as he said, and accepted that when the time was right, Collin would tell him. Quinn trusted him completely. Trust like that couldn’t be bought, only earned over time. “I love you, Quinn,” Collin said, realizing he probably said that too little, and right now the boy needed as much love as he could get.
Quinn smiled again, this time a relaxed smile which hid any remaining pain. “It’s great having a father like you. You can fix everything.”
“Not everything, I’m afraid.”
Quinn shrugged. “You warned me about Tara, but you loved me even when I didn’t listen.” Quinn studied him. “What happened to your mother and father? Were they like mine?”
Collin leaned back in the chair. “My father died of old age. His wife . . . .” He shrugged. “I was closer to my nanny.” It was so long ago, he rarely thought about it, but eventually each one close to him had asked, and usually Collin just said they’d died long ago. Why he’d elaborated now, he wasn’t sure, except that perhaps he was preparing Quinn for the day they went to the lab to make Cee’s dragon body. He could tell Quinn didn’t understand his explanation, but he didn’t ask any more questions.
“We should get some sleep, Quinn.”
Dutifully he stood. At the doorway, Quinn looked back. “Gaben wasn’t kicked by Tess.” And then he left for his bedroom.
Collin smiled. So he had stood up to him over the incident at least once. But then Collin also realized that the situation had been brewing between Tara and Gaben and Quinn. If he’d realized it earlier, maybe he could have taken steps to prevent it. But Quinn hadn’t confided in him, and he just hadn’t noticed, too concerned over Kayden and Michael.
Collin let his thoughts go back to Michael now. He hoped he was true to his word. And even if he was, Collin wondered if anything he said in the report Michael wanted could actually bring change. It was what he’d always hoped for, but change would also bring risk, flaring emotions, thwarted dreams and desires. Change was coming. He could feel it instinctively. He just had to determine what he could do to possibly ease that change in the safest direction.
He sighed as he stood to go to bed. He wished he didn’t need to bring an unknown doctor into the mix right now. He’d waited too long to seed Gaben into his own practice, and now they were still the only doctors for forty miles. He felt the responsibility he’d taken on more acutely with each year, as he came to know the people in his care through births and deaths, sickness and heartache. With Jamel and Cee and all the tech floating around here, he’d be wise to plant that other clinic as quickly as possible, keeping others out of the house.
Kayden had just finished releasing the last horse into the pasture. The sun was up enough to ensure that they’d be safe for the day. She looked at the small paper Michael had slipped her yesterday morning at breakfast. Niles and Marta Pannier. She’d thought about Niles and Marta since Collin had first mentioned them. He must have said their last name then also, because it seemed so familiar -- familiar without context.
Collin had left for Alexandria before breakfast, and Kayden had left a note in the office for Quinn. “Going on business. Be back tonight. -- Kayden.” She knew she shouldn’t leave Michael and Quinn with all the work and Shanika, but it couldn’t be helped.
She mounted Sam’s back and flew toward Capitol. She’d only been there a few times with Collin. She didn’t really like the city. There were too many people, and it felt dirty. But she was supposed to be caring for the animals, and her charges were suffering from neglect. She could at least take care of this small matter for Collin. She just hoped that panic didn’t overtake her.
It was less than two hours to the outskirts of the city. And then she had to fly over the many houses and roads and horses and people. They lived in a section she wasn’t familiar with, but Michael had said it was on the west side, so she stopped at a general store she’d been in with Collin before and asked directions.
“That’s the poor side of town, Ma’am. You don’t want to go there. Mostly new convicts who can’t afford nothin’ else.” But although he protested, he sold her a map of the city and showed her where to go.
It wasn’t far by air, and ten minutes later, she touched down and walked Sam through the blocks until she found the right one. When she came to the house, she double checked the number. It was a tiny little wooden shack with a tiny stable behind it. She’d been in a few houses like it when she accompanied Collin or Quinn on house calls. But this one was a little better kept than some of the ones she’d been in. The owners were at least physically capable of caring for the place. That’s what she wanted.
She slipped off the straps and dismounted. As she walked to the door, she felt the familiar dread. But she was a breeder. She could do anything to keep her stock cared for. And she had to help Quinn with Shanika. She’d never have her own children and little Shanika needed a mother. Kayden could tell by the way she constantly followed her around. There was no way to do both jobs well without help. Collin had his own concerns for the people of Hope. He could trust her to take care of this for him.
There was another reason she needed to get help for Collin, but she tried not to think about it. Michael would change his mind. He would stay. But if he didn’t . . . if he didn’t she didn’t know if she could let him go alone.
She stood on the steps an eternity before she knocked. And waited. She knocked again. After the fourth time she realized no one was home. Sam had left the street, and he now nudged her. She rubbed his neck, and he lowered his head to pull at the scant grass.
She rested against him for a long while, wondering when the couple would be home. She decided not to ask the neighbors. It had been traumatic enough going to one door. She didn’t need to meet a lot of other people. Kayden finally sat on the front step and leaned against the door.
She watched the people riding or walking by. Almost all took a long gaze at Sam. Apparently a wingdeer wasn’t a familiar sight in this neighborhood. A boy ran to Sam, and Sam lowered his head to greet him. The mother screamed and pulled the child away.
“He won’t hurt him,” Kayden tried to say, but she was ignored, and the mother scurried away with her child.
Kayden sighed. People didn’t seem very open here. No one actually said hello, and when she caught their gaze they immediately looked away. She hoped Niles and Marta were friendlier. They had to be if they took Michael in.
A woman approached Sam slowly. She was shorter than Kayden and slight in built. Kayden waited, tired of being snubbed. The woman seemed openly delighted to see Sam. The woman made a clicking sound and then slowly held out her hand, a fresh carrot as an offering. When Sam took the present, she raised her hand to run along his nose. “He’s beautiful.” She looked at Kayden as she spoke. “I’ve always wanted one.”
Kayden stood. “Are you Marta?” she asked hopefully. She knew she could get along with this woman.
“Yes, I am.” She smiled. “And if you want me to care for this fellow, I’ll drop every other client I have.”
Kayden smiled. “Close. I’m a wingdeer and horse breeder, and I’m looking for help. Michael Jamel said you and your husband might be interested.” She caressed Sam’s side as she spoke.
The woman closed her eyes. “I wish . . . I wish . . . Oh, how I wish . . . .” She opened her eyes and focused on Kayden. “Tell me everything. Where are you? You’re close, aren’t you?”
“Hope?” Her face seemed to fall. “I just can’t travel that far.”
“I thought you’d both move. We’d give you a room and all you needed. And . . . and an allowance.” She had forgotten to ask Collin what their pay would be. She knew they’d get some spending money, not that they’d need much, but for clothes and such. “Do you have children?”
“Not yet. Will it be a problem if I do get pregnant?” And then she blushed. “Oh, I’m acting like we can actually do this. We have this house and . . . and Niles’ job, and . . . .”
“I’d hoped your husband would be willing to work also. Collin keeps saying he needs someone for odd jobs, and it sure would be nice when we get busy.” They were still standing in front of the house, and people still walked by and stared, and Marta still ran her hand over Sam’s neck. “When will your husband be home?”
“Three hours. What did you say your name was?”
“Kayden Collin. My father is Dr. Alex Collin in Hope.” The woman’s mouth opened. “You know my father? He didn’t seem to recognize your names when Michael told us about you. By the way, I’m engaged to Michael, so you would know someone there.”
Marta opened and closed her mouth several times. Then she turned and focused on Sam, reaching over to run her hand down his wing. “How long have you been in Hope?”
Kayden didn’t want to discuss her past with someone she didn’t know. “My father has been there . . . .” And she realized she didn’t know. “I . . . ever since I can remember.”
“You didn’t know Michael before? He said he was looking for a girl named Kayden.”
“Oh.” If Michael had mentioned their history then it’d be silly to hide it. And Michael would only tell someone he trusted. “Yeah. I don’t really remember but bits and pieces of that. More information than real pictures like you normally remember something.”
Marta looked into her face. “You don’t remember? And Michael didn’t tell you that Niles is your father?”
Kayden shook her head. The woman must be mistaken. “Collin is my father. I don’t know what Michael told you, but it’s just not possible.”
“Oh, Kayden, he’s been so worried about you since Michael said you’d been kidnapped.” She put her hand to her mouth. “Surely, Michael told you that.”
“I knew that! I have nightmares about that! But don’t use my amnesia to take advantage of me. I offered you a job and a new home, and I wouldn’t do more even if he was my father. But I can’t stand lies.” Kayden jumped up, catching her foot in the stirrup and lifting herself onto Sam’s back. She urged him into the air without bothering to secure her straps.
She flew straight back to Hope her mind churning. Most of all she was furious with Michael. When she arrived home it was still early afternoon. Her initial fury had subsided, but Michael needed to know she didn’t appreciate his surprises at all. She wondered if Collin knew. And then as she reached the porch, she realized she had accepted that Niles Pannier was her father.
She clutched the post of the porch, half on the last step and half on the porch. She didn’t want Niles Pannier to be her father. She didn’t know him. He was just some convict. Whoever he was, he could never be better than Collin.
A little thought nudged her. If Collin wasn’t her father, there’d be nothing to stop her from marrying him. But the thought was fleeting. Collin didn’t make her feel fluttery with his kisses. And somehow she couldn’t see him as a husband anymore. Not that he wasn’t the most virile man around. But he was, after all, 184 years old, and she knew she’d never be able to yell at Collin the way she intended to tear into Michael over this. He’d always be too much of a god, and she’d be the child. Always.
Quinn glanced out the clinic door. “Is that you, Kayden?” He came out. “Where have you been? Can you please watch Shanika? I have a delivery, Michael is assisting with the other patients, and Wilma is afraid Shanika will hurt herself in the kitchen.”
Kayden followed Quinn inside. He must be stressed to be so talkative. Although Kayden was a bit irritated with Wilma. She was a nice woman, would talk about kittles for hours, but she refused to watch Shanika for more than a few minutes. It made Kayden wonder if she secretly had been happy to abandon her teenage children and follow her drunkard husband to Aussie. But Kayden thought the kids had to be better than Wilma’s husband, who just stayed in their small shack home, claiming illness. Collin had offered his services, but he’d discovered the illness was self-induced with a bottle and a bitter attitude. Wilma always acted as though he was genuinely incapable of any work except an occasional odd job. Stable cleaning was beyond his abilities.
Shanika’s face lit up when she saw Kayden, and she ran to her. “Let’s go see Lightning. Let’s go fly.”
Kayden took her to the stables. Perhaps she’d get a little work done with Shanika’s help.
At dinner, Michael and Quinn were still working. The woman was still in labor. Michael would attend the patients first, find their blood pressure, temperature and what their ailment was, and then he directed them to Quinn. Afterwards he’d prepare and bring the medicine Quinn recommended.
Collin did all he could at the hospital. He couldn’t find anyone who was qualified and who was willing to move to Hope. It appeared that all last year’s graduates had found their niches already. He finally left a request with the placement office, telling them he’d try back again next week.
Since Collin couldn’t do anything else in Alexandria, he decided he had time to look into another matter that had been nagging at him, and it might help a little with the labor crunch.
He knew Kayden was overwhelmed trying to tend her animals, be a nurse, and fill in as Shanika’s surrogate mother. He needed to get her some help. Michael’s suggestion seemed like the easiest place to start, and if her real father was as decent as Michael said, his presence might keep her from temptation. He was afraid she would give in to Michael’s subtle pressure to leave with him, and she’d be miserable in space.
He tried not to think about losing Kayden to this other man. He was going to lose her either way. It was inevitable now. Loss happened all the time. All he could do was make sure he did what was best for the ones he loved. And maybe the risk would pay off.
He arrived at Niles and Marta Pannier’s house right after dusk. A man several inches shorter than he answered on the second knock. “Niles Pannier?” he asked.
“I’m Alex Collin. I wondered if I could rent your stable for the night, and then we might talk for an hour or so.”
He opened the door wider. “Of course. You’re welcome to use the stable. I’m afraid it’s not stocked with food or hay, but it is shelter from those dragons.” He openly studied Collin. Then he took a deep breath and nodded, as if resigned. A woman joined him. “Come on in. Marta can stable your horse.”
“Oh, you have a wingdeer, too,” Marta exclaimed, squeezing past him on the steps. “She’s beautiful.”
Collin watched Niles, as Niles watched his wife. His gaze was longing. Not for the wingdeer, but for his wife. A longing that wanted to give her what she desired, but he knew he was incapable of it.
Collin turned his attention to Marta. She definitely wasn’t timid with Angie, murmuring, scratching, petting her. He smiled and stepped down from the front steps to show her Angie’s favorite spots. They made their way back to the stable. He let Marta remove the saddle and blanket and watched as she began brushing her with an old brush. She definitely had a love for animals, and her training with horses showed.
Niles watched from the barn entrance, holding the light while they worked. Then they walked the few feet to the house.
“Are you hungry,” Marta asked, as they settled around the kitchen table. “Let me get you something.” She stoked the fire in the cook stove and began going through her cupboards.
“Thanks,” Collin said, realizing she was a woman who was more comfortable with something to do. He focused on Niles. “Actually I’ve come because a mutual friend said you and your wife might be interested in a job I have open.”
Marta whirled from the stove. “You still want us? Kayden was so upset when she left.”
“Kayden was here? When was this?”
“Around noon I talked to her. She became upset when . . . when I told her Niles was her father. I thought she knew.”
Now Collin knew why Niles kept watching him so closely. It had nothing to do with sizing up a potential enemy, but a rival in a daughter’s affections. Kayden had mentioned his name. “Kayden has amnesia. Did it seem she remembered when she saw you?”
“I didn’t see her,” Niles said, his gaze going to his hands on the table. “I was at work.”
“She didn’t remember. She thought I was lying,” Marta said. “I just can’t imagine why Michael Jamel gave her our name without telling her the truth. Did he tell you?”
“Yes. I planned to make the introduction while I could be there to catch any fallout. Sometimes old memories also unlock scenes from her abduction, and those are hard for her.” He felt the frustration boiling. He needed to make sure she was okay. He stood and paced to the back door, going just outside it. “Jamel,” he whispered. “Can you check on Kayden for me? Comfort her if she needs it.”
“Thanks.” He liked having Jamel monitor him in flight. It allowed him to take risks he normally wouldn’t with Angie, such as flying at and after dusk. But he would fly home in bright morning daylight. There would be very little risk.
Collin went back inside and slipped into the chair. “Sorry. I’m a bit frustrated that she chose now to come while I was out of town on business. I hope Michael and Quinn will help if she’s upset.”
“She said you were her father,” Marta stated from in front of the cook stove. Niles lifted his hand to rub his forehead.
“I have adopted her. I found her in critical condition and with no evidence of her family. I was very surprised when Michael told me you were here.” He hesitated. “Did she offer you the job then? Stables and odd jobs help in exchange for room, board, and a twenty-five silver weekly allowance.”
Niles head shot up. “Twenty-five silver and board?”
Marta rushed from the cook-stove, spatula still in her hand and slid into the remaining chair. “Oh, please, Niles. We barely get that now, and we still have all the expenses. Please.”
Collin watched Niles. He could tell he wanted to give in to his wife, but he also wanted her to keep his expenses to herself. “For how long?” Niles asked. “When Kayden marries Michael and leaves, will we still have a job?”
“I’d need you more if Kayden decides to leave with Michael. She has been taking care of the animals, but the situation is changing, as well as our animal population growing. I know one wingdeer and two horses are pregnant. Four wingdeer and three horses need training for riders. And many times I need Kayden in surgery since I just had a doctor leave my clinic.”
They talked about particulars, the animals, Collin’s rules for those who worked and lived with him, and his plans for the stables if he had permanent workers in it. He already had a buyer for one of the yearlings once he was trained, and Collin knew he could easily sell them all if he wanted to.
And Niles relaxed as they talked, responding to Collin’s gentle humor. He agreed to sell his house to a broker and head to Hope within the next week. Collin gave Niles a moving allowance, and then insisted on sleeping out in the stable with Angie. He wouldn’t take their bed.