Quinn awoke with a start. He’d been dreaming of passion, and this time the object of his passion had been Tori Yasuo. Irritated, he threw off his sheet and got up. The sun was just entering his room. It was time to start the day anyway. He didn’t need to be thinking about her. She’d leave with the rest of the tourists. He didn’t need to lose his head and do stupid things because of her. She wasn’t worth it. If half of what Butler said was true, but Cee was sure Butler had lied.
As Quinn dressed he tried to forget Tori, and he focused his thoughts on Cee. Something had been bothering her last night, but she wouldn’t tell him about it. “Cee? Are you upset because I asked about Tori?”
“No. Collin asked about Tori also. I am not upset.”
“Yes you were.” He sat on the bed to pull on his boots. “Why are you hiding from me?”
“You are talking about last night. Yes. Last night I was upset. I had misunderstood Collin’s definition of trust. I spoke with him, and it is resolved.” Then a slight pause. “Quinn, am I your favorite? Do you wish you had Jake?”
Quinn tried not to scowl. For some reason, he wasn’t in the mood to play games. And Jake could hear everything he said also. With statements like this there was no winning answer. “Of course, you’re my favorite. You’re mine, right?”
Cee was silent.
Quinn buttoned his shirt and then ran downstairs. Perhaps if he relieved Collin for a few hours of sleep, he would be pleased with him. Although why had he been asking about Tori? Did he want her also?
He saw Tori slip into the patient guest room as he approached it, and he felt his heart beat stronger. He leaned against the wall beside the doorway, cursing his body. Why was he having such a hard time with this? She was just a pretty girl. There were dozens of pretty girls in the village. But none like her, another part of his mind taunted. None of them moved with that kittle-like grace, and she appeared far more innocent than Butler made her out to be. And maybe she was. Cee had even said that he didn’t think she dated much at all. She was a quiet woman who was always with Charles. Last night when Quinn had asked about Butler’s accusation that Tori and Charles were a couple, Cee had declared that she had never had any indication that was the case. And why would Tori go out with Michael, if she’d been dating Charles? Logically, Cee did not think it possible.
“So, I see you’re awake already,” Collin said softly, his voice holding a gentle humor.
“I was up there five hours,” Tori said. “It’s enough, isn’t it?”
He gave a soft chuckle. “But not sleeping. I suppose it is better than no rest at all though.”
“How is Charles? How may I help?”
“Charles is about the same. Are you serious about being a nurse? Or do you just wish to care for Charles in a general way?”
“I asked him if I could be his apprentice, but we haven’t really had time to learn, since we’ve been traveling, except what I picked up as his assistant. I couldn’t really do both well, could I? I mean, I need to help him any way I can, don’t I?”
“Of course, Tori. Then we will focus on how you can best assist Charles. Come.”
Quinn entered the room to find them together on the far side of Charles’ bed. He watched them as Collin taught her the basics of caring for an unconscious person. Did that mean that he didn’t think Charles would recover? Had he gotten worse overnight?
Tori lifted her gaze from Charles, glancing toward the door. Then she froze, watching him.
Collin noticed Quinn. “Ah, just who I need. Jim is doing much better. He’s awake for us now and ready to take his medicine, aren’t you?”
“Yeah. More of that pain killer, doc.”
“Dr. Quinn Stone will get it for you.”
“How many docs you got here?”
“I have three other doctors assisting me – Quinn Stone,” he touched Quinn’s shoulder. “Par Morrell, and Geoff Napier. And one apprentice – Michael Jamel. And then sometimes Kayden assists as a nurse. But you should conserve your energy so you can show your wife how much better you feel. She’ll be ready to eat breakfast with you in an hour.”
“Breakfast?” He appeared green at the thought.
“Tea, broth, and juice,” Quinn assured him. He went into the pharmacy to prepare his medicine, trying to ignore Tori’s gaze fixed on him.
After Quinn gave Jim his medicine, Collin briefed him about Thom and Charles. Thom had improved slightly, his main vital signs stronger, but he still wasn’t responding to stimuli. Charles had not improved as he should have. But he hadn’t gotten any worse either.
Collin didn’t seem at all upset about his fumbling during surgery, but then Collin never had been one to dwell on Quinn’s mistakes. But Quinn didn’t want to disappoint him again.
As Collin left to go upstairs to rest, Par caught his arm. “Collin please. Come and help me. It’s Gwen. The baby. It’s breach. I can’t do this. She’s in so much pain.”
Collin glanced back at Quinn. “Get Geoff if you need help.” Then he left with Par to the exam room they used for deliveries.
Quinn grabbed the patient records and sat in the armchair to review them, ignoring Tori. He didn’t need to be distracted from his work, and knowing Gwen was having a difficult delivery was enough distraction.
Quinn lowered Charles’ record. “Yes.”
She took a deep breath and lowered her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I won’t bother you again.”
She looked so vulnerable, so hurt, and yet so silent and unmoving, sitting stiffly in the chair beside Charles, holding his hand.
“You aren’t bothering me,” he lied as gently as he could. He didn’t like to see anyone hurting. “What do you need?”
She shook her head. “Nothing. Perhaps Collin is right. I need more rest.” She jumped up and ran from the room.
“What’s wrong with her?” Quinn mumbled.
“Maybe she thinks you are mad at her. You sound mad,” Cee said.
“I’m not mad,” Quinn scowled.
Quinn stood and focused on James Bell. “What can I help you with?”
“Who?” He tried to lift his head to look around the room. “Thought someone else….”
“No. Tori was, but she left.” He’d have to be careful. How could his concentration be so marred by one woman? And she hadn’t even raised her voice. Remember Tara, he reminded himself. He definitely didn’t want another woman calling him a girlbaby coward. He didn’t need the hassle.
He assisted Jim and checked on the others. Tori silently slipped back into the room to sit by Charles’ side, but she did not speak to him, and Quinn resolved not to let her distract him, ignoring her.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Roscha sat on the edge of the double bed in the room she’d been assigned. Sleep had been fleeting, and she was anxious to see how Jim had been through the night. They hadn’t been apart in so long, and now… Why hadn’t he thought to x-ray them? Prisoners were regularly scanned for illegal tech before being taken down. Why didn’t Jim have Thom scanned? Granted things were very rushed that last day. If she wasn’t so concerned about him, she’d be furious he’d let that laser slip through. She was furious, she realized. “When he’s better, he’s going to hear a thing or two….”
A knock sounded on the door. “Rose?” It was Kelsi.
Rose opened the door expecting to join them on their walk downstairs, but instead Kelsi and Roger came into her room and shut the door. Roger leaned against the dresser, and Kelsi sat on the bed. Rose sat back down. “What’s on your mind?”
Roger gave a slight shrug. “Well, what are we going to do now that James is hurt?”
“What do you mean? We’ll stay here until he’s well enough to travel back.”
“And the old man and Thom?”
Rose sighed. “Charles wanted to die with his grandson. Tori wishes to stay with him. Thom… Unfortunately Dr. Collin is correct. We’ll need to take him back for a trial if he survives that long.”
“About Michael Jamel,” Roger continued. “That robot core they killed said that Dr. Collin had regeneration tanks. Something about Kayden’s hands. Isn’t that illegal here?”
Rose tried to keep her irritation from showing. “If you can prove the core wasn’t lying, I suppose I’ll have to make a decision, but right now, I have more proof that the core lied than not.”
“There are other computer cores that need to be destroyed. Michael has two of the same model….”
“Michael had approval to bring one down to help in his work. Do not concern yourself over it, Roger. I will speak to him about their safety.”
“Approval for one? How’d the other one get down here?”
Rose stood. “I am aware of the tech Michael has. It was my predecessor’s decision, and it is in his contract. I am less concerned with inanimate computer cores on a tech dead world than I am about recovering the lasers.”
Roger pushed away from the dresser. “My concern is that Michael does not appear to be loyal to you, but to Dr. Collin. Isn’t it apparent that he has his own agenda?”
Rose placed her hand on Roger’s arm and looked up into his face. She realized he was one of the ones who thought that Jim controlled her and the station. “Do not antagonize our hosts. I will deal with Michael Jamel. You concern yourself with making a report of current medical practice and what humanitarian aid is needed.” She strode from the room, not looking back.
She heard Roger and Kelsi following her down the stairs and to the infirmary. Tori was already by Charles’ side. Rose wondered if she’d left at all. Dr. Stone came from Thom’s room as Rose grabbed her husband’s hand.
Jim opened his eyes and smiled. “Hey. How’s my flower?”
She couldn’t help smiling at the endearment or that he appeared so much better this morning, even though his voice was labored. “She’s a bit angry with station security, but very thankful her husband is alive to yell at.”
Jim gave a slight laugh but then grimaced with the pain the movement caused. “You… so, right, my love. My own fault.”
She leaned down and kissed his cheek. “I missed you so much last night,” she whispered.
He gripped her hand and gave her another feeble smile. “Just glad you weren’t hurt. Thank Tori for me.”
Tori was with them then. “It was Michael who tackled Thom.”
“You shot the laser out of his hand,” Rose countered to set the record straight. “I’m amazed he didn’t hit you. He certainly tried. I’m sure if you hadn’t shot the laser, more of us would have been hurt.”
Tori bit her lip, as if uncomfortable with the praise. Then she left them and returned to Charles.
“How is he?” Rose asked Dr. Stone.
“Charles? Same as yesterday. Thom, a bit improved.”
No wonder the girl was upset. She could just imagine how James would feel if he saved everyone’s life but hers. She squeezed his hand.
“Wilma will have breakfast ready soon,” Dr. Stone said as Michael entered the room.
“Yes, we should not all gather here,” Michael agreed. “Let’s go to the dining room.”
Rose gave Jim’s hand a final squeeze and kissed his cheek before following Michael from the room. He was right about that. Jim was still weak, and Charles was worse. They didn’t need a crowd. Kayden joined them with Shanika at the breakfast table.
“I’m not sure how you feel about continuing,” Michael said. “But I could show you around the village and the stables today so that you aren’t stuck sitting inside waiting. It’ll be better to let Jim rest anyway.”
Rose slowly nodded. “Yes, Michael. That is a good idea, although I don’t wish to take you from your grandfather.”
“Actually, I’m more concerned Collin may need help. Both Collin and Par are tied up with a delivery – Par’s wife. Of course we won’t be far from home, and we can check in often.” He gave Tori a brief smile as she slipped into a vacant seat, but she only ate a tiny section of the omelet and nothing else.
“Will we see the dragon again,” Kelsi asked, glancing at Roger.
“Jake sleeps most of the day, but he may consent to give rides this evening.” Michael stood as a man came into the room. “Mayor Talbert. Welcome.” He shook his hand and then introduced Rose, Roger, Kelsi, and Tori.
The Mayor greeted them and then looked around. “Aren’t there more of you?”
“I’m afraid we had an accident on the way here. Three of our party are in the infirmary.”
The mayor slid into a chair. “Oh, no. Was it a dragon? Where was Jake? What can we do to help?”
“Jake was here, and it wasn’t a dragon attack. I’m not sure there is anything to do but wait until the others have recovered. It will prolong our stay in Hope though. Help yourself to breakfast.”
“No thank you. Already ate. But let us know when you’re ready to tour the village.”
“Actually today might be nice,” Michael suggested. “The patients really do need their rest.”
Rose couldn’t help comparing how genuine Talbert seemed as opposed to Hollis’ bragging manner. Talbert even seemed to be deferring to Michael. Rose wondered when she would be forced to reveal her professional identity and confront Michael about what exactly his role was now. But for now, she’d let Michael lead, and see just how much she could trust him with.
“Hey, is Quinn around?” The Mayor pulled an envelope from the inner pocket of his light jacket.
“He’s in the infirmary,” Michael stated.
“Well, maybe you know. Missy and William wondered if Jake can read.”
Michael shrugged, not meeting anyone’s gaze. “I suppose he can.”
“He can,” said Wilma, the housekeeper. “I went to that church with Dr. Par and Gwen one time, and Jake read scriptures and quoted books. He sounded like a regular scholar.”
Mayor Talbert laughed. “I forgot Jake was a churchgoer. Well, Missy sent him a note.” He handed the envelope to Michael. “Can you make sure he gets this?” He stood. “Whenever you make it into town, Michael, we’ll take that tour. Nice meeting you, Rose, Roger, Kelsi, Tori.”
Rose watched the man leave and then frowned. “A dragon reads and quotes? He can talk?”
“He’s really smart,” said Quinn’s little girl.
“And you take messages for him?” she asked Michael.
Michael made a sour face. “Only because the Mayor has asked.” He handed the note to Kayden.
“Actually,” Kayden said, stuffing the note into her front shirt pocket. “Rock Trapper takes messages for Jake Trapper. Quinn’s secret identity is that he’s a reptile dragon-slayer.”
“I thought that was Michael’s job,” Roger said, relieving Rose of calling Michael to task.
Michael shrugged. “He’s faster than I am. Saves Collin the trouble of stitching me back together again. Once under a dragon’s claws is enough for me. Appreciate it if you don’t let Hollis know though.”
“What about Zemmer?” Roger asked.
Michael shrugged. “My contract with Director Raleigh stated nothing about dragon hunting. I don’t suppose it matters much to Zemmer either.” He kept his gaze on Roger, and Rose could tell he didn’t know her secret yet.
“Did you give him your laser?”
“I did not give Quinn my laser. I do not ask him how he kills dragons, and he does not ask me how to repair equipment at the hospital.”
“You repair hospital equipment? Are you supposed to do that?”
“Why not? It’s all legal tech the hospital needs.”
“I’m just wondering what you were actually commissioned to do?”
“Why obviously show us around,” Rose said, cutting off the conversation. She’d told Roger not to pursue it, and he was blatantly disregarding her orders. “Let me check on Jim, and we can do whatever you have planned, Michael. We may never get another chance to see the planet, and I don’t want to miss it. These are the people who gave us all that delicious fruit and vegetables, aren’t they?”
“Oh, that’s right!” Kelsi said. “Do you suppose we can see where it’s grown, the plants, and how it’s processed?”
Michael smiled. “I’m sure they’d love to show you.”
When they’d finished eating and Rose visited James one more time, they were ready to leave. But Tori refused to come along. Instead she sat beside Charles’ bed, holding his hand.
“Tori, we won’t be that far,” Michael said, a bit of exasperation in his voice.
“Go and have fun,” Quinn said. “I’ll be here.”
“I’m fine,” Tori said, refusing to budge.
Kayden entered the infirmary holding Shanika’s hand. “Can I take Shan with us, Quinn?”
Shanika ran to her father. “Can I, Daddy?”
Quinn hugged her and kissed her cheek. “Be good for Kayden.”
“Where’s her mother?” Kelsi asked. “I’m afraid I’m getting everyone mixed up here. Have I met her yet?”
Shanika looked up at Kelsi. “My mommy doesn’t love me anymore.”
Quinn hugged the little girl again.
“Oh, no. That can’t be….” Kelsi began.
Michael ushered the group from the room.
“I love you, Sweetheart,” Quinn whispered to his daughter, and then she ran after Kayden.
Rose squeezed Jim’s hand one last time. “You rest and I’ll tell you all about the village when I get back.” She kissed his cheek and left.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Tori watched Quinn staring after his little girl. What kind of woman would stop loving her child? She was alone in the room with Charles, Jim, and Quinn. He noticed her gaze and scowled. “She divorced me. I don’t want to talk about it.”
“I wasn’t going to ask,” Tori said coolly, although he had satisfied her curiosity. And even though she now had many other questions, she would never be rude enough to ask. It was obviously a painful thing for both him and his daughter.
It was a long day. Charles’ condition did not change. Thom though, had regained some responsiveness in his eyes and his fingertips. His feet were still unresponsive. At lunch Tori could only eat a few bites before the knot in her stomach threatened to send it back up. If everyone wasn’t so busy, she might have asked for an antacid, but she knew Collin probably hadn’t even slept at all. She hadn’t either, just lying on the bed and staring at odd shapes the moonlight and tree branches made on the ceiling of the bedroom she’d been assigned.
It was mid-afternoon, Geoff was sitting with the patients and Quinn had taken house calls. Collin and Par entered the room, Par holding a newborn. “Hey, Geoff. Meet my daughter, Lilly Ann Morrell.”
Geoff slapped his back and congratulated him. Jim roused to send him a weak congratulations and smile. Tori couldn’t help her small smile as she watched the proud father. And then she was horrified to feel the tear leave her eye. She quickly brushed it away and hoped no one noticed.
Collin stretched and then motioned her from the room. He shut them in his office. “Tori, I need the laser you acquired from Thom.”
She pulled it from her pocket. She trusted him, but she was curious. “Why?”
“It’s set to kill. I will have it reprogrammed so that it is safe for people.”
Tori frowned and withdrew her own laser. “Somehow my laser was readjusted without my knowledge. I’m wondering if Butler could have done it without touching the reprogram button.”
Collin was silent a moment and then smiled. “But you lost your laser for a few minutes in your encounter with Quinn. Jake hit the reprogram button.”
“And Cee reprogrammed it?”
“Possibly. Either way, it is safe. It will not cut humans, mammal dragons, or wingdeer. I trust you will not attempt to reprogram it either.”
“Charles isn’t getting better, is he?”
Collin sat in the chair before the desk and motioned her into the one beside it. “No. He’s not getting worse either. But every day in bed will make it harder to regain the use of his muscles.”
“Where is Jamel? Maybe if….” She ended in frustration. “He needs to know he succeeded! I’ve heard Cee, but where is Jamel?”
“Hidden where no one can find him.”
“In your pocket, perhaps? Did Michael ever find him?”
“Tori… perhaps you’re right.” He crouched down in front of his safe and after adjusting the numbers he opened it. Then he pulled out two small boxes. “Do you wish a transceiver so that you can hear both Cee and Jamel? I will warn you that they will also hear every word you say, and they will know where you are. I trust them both. Do you?”
Tori hesitated. “This is an implant? Charles and I always used the pins so that spies couldn’t… Well, no one is here but Cee and Jamel, right? But….”
“It’s a surface mount. Easily removed in an emergency.”
She remembered Michael and Kayden in the hotel. “I suppose I should. Everyone has one?”
“I do. Michael and Kayden do. Quinn and Geoff do. Those are the only ones who know about Cee and Jamel.”
The list helped. “And all those four know your real name?”
“Only those four, Tori. Please forget what you know. It is dangerous here.”
And Tori suddenly knew why he was offering her the transceiver. He wanted to keep track of her, to make sure she didn’t give away his secrets. He wasn’t offering her a trust, he was ensuring that he could trust her. “Yes, Sir. I will accept the transceiver.” She had no other family, and she respected this man as much as she did Charles. If he was willing to take her in, she’d do whatever it took to prove she could be trusted.
“It has a two mile range,” Collin said, motioning her to lean over the desk. “It reaches most of the village from here, and not quite to the Reese or the Capitol River, nor the confluence south of here. Of course that depends on where Jamel and Cee are at the time. This will only sting for a few minutes.” He brushed her hair aside, and then pushed the transceiver into her flesh.
Tori didn’t flinch, raising her head when he finished.
“Cee? You may converse with Tori as she desires.”
“Yes, Collin,” came Cee’s voice in her ear.
He reached for the door knob, not meeting her gaze. “If it’s necessary, he will contact you. Cee can meet all of your needs. I must get back to the patients.” And then she was alone in the office, in the dark, as he’d flicked off the electric light as he’d left.
“Cee?” she whispered.
And she didn’t know what to ask. She had so many questions, but how would those questions be viewed by Collin? If she asked about Quinn, Cee was sure to tell him about it. He was her new owner, she was sure of it. Tori leaned back in the chair and tried to remember what Cee had said in her report about her new owner. Not much except that he always protected her. And didn’t she say he knew what it was like to have a father he couldn’t please. Well, they had one thing in common then.
She sighed and stood. No use thinking about Quinn. He had been brisk with her since she arrived at the clinic. She’d imagined his tenderness. She’d created fantasies.
“Tori?” Cee asked. “Did you have a question?”
Tori hesitated, remembering the ending of that last evening with Michael. Cee had announced her probability of pregnancy, which had effectively doused their passion. Perhaps she’d said something about her to Quinn. Her stomach churned. She didn’t want to think about having a “Butler” between her and her lover, as Falice had endured with Thom. It was just as well Quinn didn’t like her. “No,” she murmured. “No questions.”
© 2007 by Deborah K. Lauro. No part of this book may be published in any form without permission from the author.