Quinn stretched and winced. The bruised muscles around his cracked rib had stiffened up as he slept. He forced his eyes open and noted that outside his bedroom window the sun was disappearing. He needed to get back up. Collin had sent him up to bed after giving him his warm smile of approval for keeping things together while he had slept. Twelve hours. He’d never known Collin to sleep that long before. He had really needed it. Now Quinn had his allotment, close to seven hours sleep, and it was time to get to work.
He forced himself from the bed and made his way downstairs. By the time he reached the last step, he had mastered the pain and worked the muscles enough to hide his discomfort. He heard voices outside and glanced out the front door.
Jake rested in the front yard. Jim sat in the rocker on the porch. Michael was in the chair beside him. Roger sat on the steps. Kelsi and Kayden were beside Jake, caressing his smooth pelt. Shanika sat on Jake’s back. She saw him first.
“Daddy! Daddy! Come take me for a ride.” She reached toward him but did not attempt to get off of Jake’s back.
Kayden grinned. “Come on, Quinn. Shan’s been waiting all day to see you.”
Quinn gave in, hoping Collin didn’t need him right away. He hadn’t had much time with his daughter since everyone had come, and the guilt pricked at him. He greeted the others as he passed them on the porch, and then stopped before Jake. He took a deep breath and felt the pain in his side. He’d have to grit his teeth and just jump up on Jake’s back. But he smiled at Shanika. “Missed you, Precious.” He grabbed the saddle behind her.
“No, Quinn,” Jake said sharply.
Quinn jerked his head to look at Jake, but he was talking to Kayden in a low voice, and then chuckling with Kelsi.
He was about to conclude he was hearing things, when he heard Jake’s voice again, and he realized he was speaking to him alone through the transceiver, even as he spoke to Kayden and Kelsi openly. “Quinn, you can not ride. Do you realize your rib is cracked? If I hadn’t noticed, you could have been jerked in flight, breaking it and pushing it into your lung.”
“I’m okay,” he mumbled, leaning his head against Jake’s neck to keep anyone else from hearing.
“No. You are not. I do not remember hearing you speak to Collin about this. I thought we both promised to tell him about anything unusual.”
“I’m okay,” he insisted.
“If you do not tell him, I must, Quinn. I promised him. But I think he will be hurt if you do not confide in him, so I will give you until midnight. But I will not betray his trust by waiting longer.”
Quinn clenched his jaw.
“How were you hurt, Quinn,” Jake asked.
“Daddy! Come on up. Please.”
Quinn focused on his daughter. “I’m afraid I can’t go riding right now, but I can read you a story before I start working.”
“But I want to ride. Please.”
Jake swung his head to them now. “Kayden and Kelsi will ride with you, Shanika.”
Shanika glared at Quinn. “Kayden loves me more than you,” she pouted.
“Jake….” Quinn pleaded, feeling the guilt even more because of how Tara had hurt their daughter.
Jake studied Shanika a moment. “Maybe a short ride,” Jake conceded. He flattened himself so low to the ground that Quinn did not need to jump to get on his back. He still stretched his sore muscles though, but he ignored them as he began strapping himself on. Then he realized Kayden was helping to fasten both his and Shanika’s straps. He met Kayden’s gaze and saw her eyes widen a bit. Had Jake just told her he was in pain, or did she see it in his face?
“Quinn….” she whispered.
“When I get back,” he promised, wrapping his arms around Shanika.
It was the smoothest take off and flight he’d ever experienced on Jake’s back. “Thanks for letting me make my little girl happy,” he whispered into the gentle breeze rushing by his face.
“I want you safe so you can make her happy for many years, Quinn. Please don’t ignore this injury.”
“I’ve had a lot of cracked ribs. This is nothing.”
“I see seven mended bones, and it appears you also have had surgery, and you have scar tissue on your lung. You know this is serious.”
“If I’m careful….”
Shanika twisted in his arms. “Who are you talking to, Daddy?”
“Jake!” Shanika shouted to him. “Take us up higher!”
Jake’s voice continued calmly in his ear, and his flight remained the same. “You must tell Collin so he can adjust your duties. Why are you hiding it?”
“He doesn’t need another invalid right now.”
“You will be a greater hindrance to him if that lung is punctured again.”
“Jake! Go higher.” She twisted back to Quinn. “He’s not listening to me.”
“Jake makes his own decisions, Shan. Sometimes he decides to grant us favors, and sometimes he decides that what we want isn’t best for us.”
Shanika plopped back against his chest, her arms folded in front of her.
Quinn tried not to moan as the pain shot through him. Jake gently turned them toward home, but he didn’t say another word about his injury.
They landed before the porch without a jerk, and Jake settled down on the ground. Kayden ran up to them to help.
“It wasn’t long enough.”
“I’m afraid Jake’s given all the rides he will give tonight,” Kayden said. “Sorry Kelsi,” she said over her shoulder. She grabbed Shanika and lifted her from Jake.
Quinn slowly slid off Jake and still his side ached when his feet hit the ground. How come injuries like this always seemed worse the second day after he had a chance to rest?
Jim stopped him as he reached the front door. “Can you help me in, Quinn. I’m about beat.”
Quinn glanced to the other chair where Michael had sat earlier, but he was gone. Automatically Quinn leaned down and helped Jim to his feet.
“Quinn!” he heard Jake chastise in his ear.
Quinn ignored him, briefly thinking that perhaps Michael was right about annoying voices in his ear. He let Jim lean on him, as they made their way into the house.
Michael caught up with them. “Hey, wait. Let me, Jim. I brought you out.”
Jim glanced at him. “I just thought since Quinn was coming this way, and you seemed so deep in conversation with Roger.”
Michael rolled his eyes. “I’d much rather assist you than field questions about what I do all day without tourists. Please, allow me.”
Jim shrugged, and soon Quinn was left standing alone in the waiting room. “Cee did Jake just tell Michael about me?”
“No. But Roger has said several mean things to Michael before. He says that he is going to get him fired. Michael does not like Roger. I do not like him either.”
“I will tell no one until midnight,” Jake said in his ear. “And then I speak to Collin if you haven’t.”
Quinn tried not to scowl. He had no choice. He hated being forced into it. “I am fine!” he whispered fiercely. But he had to determine some way to protect Tori. She hadn’t meant it.
But Collin would now decide that Tori wouldn’t be a good woman for him to date, and he’d give him that same little speech he had about Tara, and then would Quinn do as he did with Tara, date and marry her anyway? Why couldn’t he desire some faithful, loving girl who adored him?
He stepped into the infirmary. Jim was already back in bed. Tori sat beside Charles. Charles lay with his head slightly propped up, but his eyes were closed.
Collin came from Thom’s room. “Aah, Quinn, awake already? Have you eaten dinner?”
“No. But Collin.” He better not put this off. Jake was right about one thing. It would be better coming from him than Jake. “Could we?” He motioned toward the examination rooms and tried to pretend he didn’t see Tori over there biting her lip.
Collin looked a bit surprised, but followed him into the room. Quinn shut the door and then stood before Collin.
“What seems to be bothering you, Son?”
“I had a little accident. Nothing big. I can work. Jake just thought I should have you look at it. Mostly just bruised.” He touched his side.
Collin indicated that he remove his shirt. Quinn did and watched Collin’s neutral expression. He wasn’t showing him what he was thinking. That hurt worse than the ache in his side.
“Up on the table.” He helped him lay down on the table, and he touched the bruised area with his fingers. “How did this happen?”
“An accident. It’s not important, is it?”
Collin took a deep breath and then walked out of the room. Quinn feared he was mad at him. Somehow he knew he’d disappointed Collin. Should he wait, or….
Collin returned with the hand scanner. “I’d ask Cee about the extent of your injuries, but you’ve obviously told her not to tell me about it.”
Collin stood stiff, not facing him, waiting.
“Please don’t be mad,” he ended weakly.
“I am not mad,” Collin said evenly. “I am disappointed.”
The quiet words crushed Quinn. He struggled to sit. “But it was an accident. She didn’t mean it. She was delirious. She thought I was Butler. It was a nightmare. Please,” Quinn pleaded. “Please, don’t hate her.”
Collin faced him then. “How much damage? I’m sure you know.”
Quinn shook his head. “Not much.” But he could see Collin was still disappointed. Collin knew he was lying. “The rib is cracked. But I can still work. I’ll be okay.” Why didn’t he just lash out and beat him to the floor for lying to him? Collin’s anger would hurt far less than facing his disappointment. Quinn felt his eyes stinging. No. He couldn’t cry and disappoint him even more. He was thirty years old; why did he feel like a child?
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “I won’t talk to her again.”
“Tori asked you not to say anything about this?” He felt Collin’s hand rest on his back.
Quinn dared to lift his gaze to Collin’s. “No. I don’t know if she remembers. She was delirious.”
Collin sighed. “Will you allow Cee to relate the whole incident to me?”
“Yes,” he whispered, knowing Collin would hear how he’d kissed her, how he’d taken advantage of the moment. He grabbed his shirt from the table beside him, took Cee from his pocket, and thrust her at Collin. Then he ran from the room, leaving his shirt behind. He ran through the infirmary and house and outside. It was now dark, and he ran past the barn, ignoring his burning chest. He ran until he reached the river.
He collapsed on the bank and let his wet face rest in the leaves beneath the trees. He’d failed Collin. He’d promised him loyalty, and he’d lied to him. He wasn’t worthy of a dragon. He wasn’t worthy of Cee’s friendship, and he wasn’t worthy to be Collin Hansell’s son.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Collin watched Quinn bolt from the room.
“Don’t leave me!” Cee shouted. “Quinn!”
“Where is he going?” Collin asked.
“Quinn!” Cee called frantically, out loud, once more, and then was silent.
“Quinn is running past the barn toward the river,” Jake said in his ear. “I will stay with him. Do not worry, Collin, Cee. I will keep him safe.”
“What did I do wrong? What did I do? Why did he give me away?”
“He didn’t give you away,” Collin said in his most soothing voice. “Jake, ask Geoff to stay with the patients.” Collin carried Cee through the office and up to his room. Then without turning on the lamp, he sat in his chair. “Okay, Cee. I need your help.”
“What did I do wrong? What did I do?”
“You didn’t do anything wrong. Quinn has agreed that I may know what happened when you were with Tori. Please tell me.”
Cee was silent.
“She hurt him! It wasn’t his fault. He didn’t do anything wrong.”
“I wish the actual events. That is why I’m asking you and not Quinn. I do not wish emotionalized impressions.”
“She hurt him. That is all that is important.”
Collin couldn’t help his exasperation. “Cee, you have pledged loyalty to me also, haven’t you? Now, relate the incident.”
“She started to run away. Quinn chased her. She kicked him. He fell on the ground. She came to him and cried. Then she couldn’t walk, and it hurt Quinn to help her up on Rae and bring her home. She hurt him.”
“Why did she run away? What was she running from?”
“I don’t know. She claims she thought Butler was chasing her, but Quinn is nothing like Butler.”
Collin felt he wasn’t getting anywhere. He was used to Jake’s logical reports. Jake would even replay actual scenes for him, but Cee seemed as biased as any human witness.
Jake broke into his thoughts. “Quinn has reached the river and is now lying down. If I go to him, I will be out of range. May I offer comfort?”
“Yes, Jake. Thank you. Keep him safe.”
“I will.” And then he knew Jake was out of range.
Collin tried to go back to Cee’s truncated version of events. “What happened before Tori began running away?”
“We took her on a picnic as you requested. Quinn and I were discussing something 89 feet away when she jumped up and ran.”
“What were you discussing?”
“That is irrelevant.”
“That is what I want to know.”
“I am not discussing Quinn’s private information. You will have to order Jake to invade my neural net. I will not risk Quinn’s hatred as Michael hates me. You may take your laser to me.”
“You’re angering me, Cee. Quinn gave permission for you to relate the events. You have both pledged loyalty to me.”
“I related the events of his injury. The conversation is private.”
Collin rose and ran downstairs. In the infirmary, he handed Cee to Geoff.
Charles turned his head on his pillow to focus on Geoff.
“Quinn’s busy,” Collin said briefly. “Tori, I need to speak to you.”
Geoff slipped Cee into his pocket. “I’ve never known Quinn to be this busy before.” He glanced toward Jim whose eyes now opened. “But then we usually don’t have this many seriously ill patients. I suppose I can take over his shift tonight.”
“Thanks, Geoff. Tori,” he repeated.
The girl now squeezed Charles’ hand. “I’ll be back in a moment, Sir.”
“No need to come back,” Charles said, his voice little more than a whisper. “Go on up to bed. It’s late.”
“I will be back,” Tori said.
Collin led her into the first examination room and shut the door. “You listen to him as well as you listen to me, don’t you? Since when does the apprentice second guess the master? Sit down.”
Tori sat on the wooden chair, as Collin settled into the other across from her. Tori bit her lip. “You’re right, Sir. I should sleep. I just wish… Is there a way to stop nightmares? I think I only slept last night because I was too exhausted to dream. But then this morning it was back.”
“What was back,” he asked softly, leaning forward. Tori now appeared to be confiding in him, and he wanted to encourage her.
“Every time I drift to sleep, I see Charles being attacked by Thom or Butler, and I wake up, and I feel panic. I never felt panic during an attack before. It is part of my training to avoid such unnecessary and debilitating emotions, but now… now it is there.” Tears entered her eyes. “I really do want to do what’s best, but I just know someone will kill him.”
“Tori, my child, you did not fail Charles.”
“Sssh. Listen to me. Do you believe Charles is responsible for what Butler did to Thom?”
“No! How could he know.”
“How could you know? Tori, you cannot be everywhere. If a man is dragon attacked in the village tonight, will it be Jake’s fault because he is down at the river protecting Quinn? He can’t be everywhere.”
“Quinn? Is he okay?”
“Will you tell me what happened, Tori? Tell me everything you remember.”
She bit her lip, and her tears fell. “I am a little confused, but I will try. I remember being angry that you sent me away. But then I knew I’d failed you and Charles. I just keep failing all the time now. You really don’t want me here.” She trembled. “I’m just in the way.”
“No,” Collin said softly. “I do want you here, but I want you well. I do not want you sick. But I think you understand why now.”
She bit her lip and nodded, fresh tears running down her face.
“What happened first, Tori?”
“I tried not to cry. I can’t control anything anymore. My father would be so disgusted.” Her voice caught, and it was a moment before she continued. “He saw me crying, and he tried to comfort me. He’s such a gentle man, and I… I….” She shook her head.
“Every detail, Tori. I need to know everything.”
She bit her lip yet again. “I… I’m not sure how it happened. You were right. Sleepiness made me… I don’t usually. I’ve never, actually… well, except Wend years ago, and one night with Michael which Cee stopped, like she did yesterday. She hates me.”
“What happened, Tori? I need facts.”
She shrugged as her tears continued to fall. “I really don’t date much. I didn’t mean to kiss him. But then… well I’m sure he must have hundreds of girlfriends. I meant nothing to him. Why did his wife leave?” She shook her head. “I’m sorry. It’s all my fault. Ever since I met him on the beach, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about him. I’ll never have anyone love me like Michael loves Kayden, and when Quinn was close, for a moment I thought he loved me.”
Collin brought his chair beside her and rubbed her back. “He does care for you, Tori. Tell me, what happened next.”
“Cee told us that I had a 79% chance of pregnancy, and Quinn jumped away from me as if I was poisonous. Just like it happened with Michael.”
Collin held up his hand. “Wait. I was not aware that you dated Michael. Does Kayden know?”
“I think so. Thom has always made more of it than ever really happened.”
Collin decided he’d talk to Kayden later. “So then what happened?”
Tori shrugged. “They stood over there talking about me. I thought maybe Cee was telling him not to like me. I’m not sure. That is when I began to feel strange. I knew I had to get back to Charles and I tried to, but then… then I thought Butler was after me again.”
“Did he ever chase you before?”
“Not exactly chase. We had a confrontation when Charles tried to recall him. He killed Thom’s unborn child, broke his wife’s back, and somehow got my hand.” She flexed her right hand. “Charles insisted on the reconstructive surgery, even though it was my own fault. I failed him.”
Collin rubbed her back. “You didn’t fail him. You must tell me what you remember next.”
“I… I kicked at Butler, to keep him away from me, but then I saw Quinn on the ground.” She shook her head, and brought both hands to her mouth. “I’m so sorry. You were right all along. It’s all my fault. I don’t know what to do. Everything is wrong.”
Collin held her as she cried. “Did anything happen after that?”
“I vaguely remember him helping me home. I don’t think I could walk. Is he okay? Cee said his rib….”
“His rib is cracked.”
“I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to do. There is no where else to go.” She shook her head. “Please, tell me what to do.”
Collin rubbed her back and squeezed her shoulder as he stood. “You will take the medicine I give you, and then you’ll go up to your room and rest until morning. Tomorrow you will report as to how it helped with your nightmares. You will also eat whether you feel like it or not. Now go say good night to Charles while I prepare your tea.”
Tori stood, hesitating a moment.
Collin drew her into a chaste hug. “I am sure that everything will work out for the best.”
Tori slipped from the room when he loosened his hold.
© 2007 by Deborah K. Lauro. No part of this book may be published in any form without permission from the author.