Tori had wanted to run back to the clinic all day and check on Charles, but she couldn’t. Collin had said that her panic was a result of living with the uncertainty of Thom’s revenge and Butler’s destruction for so long. But now Thom was incapable of attack, and Butler was indeed dead. She needed to act on the facts instead of the panic. And if the urge to know Charles’ condition was too great, Cee could send Collin a message for her. It was such a relief to unburden herself to Collin, last night and this morning, that she had joined the group with anticipation.
But it was short lived. Being with Rose and Kelsi as they mounted the small wagon to take them into the Village of Hope reminded Tori of the last time she’d walked through the grass with them. But she persevered.
After she had her new sheepskin fall jacket, she crossed the street away from the wagon, where she could see when the others finished shopping. She whispered, “Cee? Can you hear me?”
“Yes, Tori. I can hear you.”
“How is Charles?”
“He is resting.”
“Is he doing well?”
“Better than Quinn. But Quinn hides his pain.”
“Oh,” Tori raised her hand to her mouth, sinking to the ground to crouch beside the tree. “How is he, really, Cee?”
“He has a cracked rib. He can not fly or ride or go on house calls. He cannot hunt dragons. You have disabled him.”
“Oh, no. How can I help him?”
“You stay away from him.”
“Cee, don’t be rude,” came a voice she didn’t know. “By your report, the injury has been confirmed an accident. There is no need to dwell on it.”
And then the voices were gone.
But she had been right. Cee didn’t like her. She felt like crying again. She should ask Collin about that also. Why was she so weepy when before she had been in such strict control?
She managed to rejoin the group and hide her emotions as they visited an orchard and then a dairy farm.
When she arrived home, Charles greeted her with a warm smile, and he managed to make it to the dinner table. Quinn sat across from her, and when she glanced at him, he was watching her. Tori let her gaze linger a second too long, surprised at his interest. Or maybe he just wondered what she would do next to him.
After dinner they all gathered outside on the porch, and Jake, the friendly, blue dragon, landed before them. He greeted Charles and Tori. “It is good to see you both out here tonight,” Jake said.
Charles started at Jake’s voice, his eyes opening wider. He lifted his right hand toward the dragon, almost rising to his feet. Tori helped him up.
Jake brought his head over the porch rail, his nose inches from Charles’ chest. “Yes, you may touch. I enjoy the sensation of touch more than all the others.”
Collin sat on the railing beside Jake’s neck and vigorously rubbed Jake’s ears. “Charles, I’d like you to meet my good friend Jake. He longs for the day that he can take you up in the clouds with him.”
Geoff chuckled beside them. “He’ll like a nice gentle ride, like me. Not a tornado like Quinn.”
“Do not worry, Geoff. I will not stress Dr. Jamel’s heart. Tori, would you enjoy a ride?”
“Jake?” Charles asked.
Charles rattled off a number. A security code.
Jake chuckled. “I am glad you have fully recovered, Charles. I know Michael worried so about you.”
Michael scowled from the edge of the porch. “Nosy dragon. I’ll talk to my grandfather when we’re alone.”
Charles gave a brief smile as he settled back into his chair. “Thank you, Jake,” he whispered. He focused on Collin. “Thank you,” he whispered again.
“You need to rest again, don’t you, my friend,” Collin said, dropping off the railing. Instead of helping Charles to his feet, he lifted him into his arms. “Back to bed. Tori, take a dragon ride. Have some fun for a change.”
Charles smiled. “Have fun, Tori. A dragon. Oh, when I’m well….”
“Yes, Charles,” Tori heard Collin’s low voice. “When you are well we have plenty of work to do.”
Roscha stared after Charles and Collin, and then walked to Jake. “Where did you learn to talk?”
Jake chuckled. “Where did you? I’m afraid that’s a memory I do not have.”
“Just like a baby,” Par said, holding his new daughter. “He probably learned like all children learn.”
“From his parents? Where are your parents, Jake?”
Jake withdrew his head from the porch. “Come. Do you wish a ride? I can carry Tori, Rose, and Kelsi.”
Rose focused on Par, probably because he seemed the most talkative. And Par talked. “Probably the same place that little pegasus’ parents are. Mammal dragons are about extinct. I don’t think anyone even heard of them until Jake came along.”
Tori walked down to Jake’s side, still trying to interpret Charles’ behavior. A security code, and Jake had not been confused. Jake had chuckled. Just like Collin. “Are you Jamel?” she whispered.
Jake chuckled again, but the voice was only in her ear and not in the air around her. “Charles is pleased. Now he knows why Michael could never take me back. What do you think, Tori? Collin has given me a beautiful body, hasn’t he?”
“Will Cee get….” She stopped her whisper when she noticed Rose and Kelsi approach.
“It is in planning,” Jake confided. “A female dragon.”
Tori placed her hand over her mouth to contain her surprised laughter. “Oh. Oh, my. Charles must….” She glanced at the other two staring at her.
“He is being told now.” Then Jake was speaking out loud, telling them how to mount, and Michael helped them tighten down the riding straps.
The flight was wonderful. They flew around the village and then back toward the clinic. But as they approached, Tori suddenly felt the panic rise up in her. Butler as an android had almost killed Falice. Cee as a dragon could never be stopped. Except… and as they landed she worked out the execution, just as she’d witnessed Quinn kill the orange dragon. If the dragon’s head was removed, could it still attack as the android did?
She remained on Jake’s back after the other two slid off. “Are you fully flesh?” she whispered.
Jake twisted his head to study her. “Yes, Tori. How did I scare you? No one else experienced the rise in pulse and respiratory rates at that point in our flight.”
And she couldn’t tell him. She slid off his back and then stayed beside him. “When will Cee be a dragon?”
Jake wrapped his wing and neck around her, enclosing her. For a moment, the panic rose in waves.
“No, Tori,” he said soothingly. “I will never hurt you. I will never let anyone hurt you. Cee will only be a dragon when she is completely ready. It will not be for a long time yet, and Collin will not perform the operation if he finds her untrustworthy. Do not fear, Tori. Cee is not Butler. Collin and Quinn will train the child in the way she should go, just as they discipline and train Shanika. Take a walk with Quinn.”
And when Jake opened his wings, she saw Quinn was beside her. Silently he reached for her hand, and she let him hold it as they walked from the group.
“He is fine. I believe Collin has given him a sedative to help him rest after his excitement tonight.”
They walked past the barn and down a worn trail. The sun was disappearing. She knew she should fear dragons in the sky, but not with Quinn. Except Cee had said he couldn’t hunt anymore.
Quinn shrugged. “It’ll be okay.”
“Cee said you couldn’t hunt.”
“If a beast swoops down on me, I think I can shoot a laser. Besides you still have yours, don’t you?”
Tori nodded. “I’m surprised Collin still trusts me with it.”
He rubbed the back of her hand with his thumb. “Collin is a good judge of character.” His mouth lifted at the corner. “You and I have something in common. I hit Michael, thinking I was protecting Kayden. It’s amazing how forgiving he is… of people.”
“Was that before or after you had Cee?” She couldn’t believe he was walking with her and talking to her as if they were actually friends. And the way he held her hand made her blood race. The cool night breeze chilled her hot skin, and she felt more alive than she had in years.
“It was before I knew anything about computers or tech spies. I just knew Michael claimed he knew Kayden from before Collin adopted her, and now she was screaming and hitting out. So I had to protect my little sister from this stranger.”
“And Cee eventually forgave you?”
“Yeah. Eventually.” Quinn stepped closer to her and slipped his arm around her waist as they walked.
Tori tried to stay calm. All her senses were alert. What did he mean by this? She pulled away. “Quinn, about the other day. I was over tired. I didn’t know what I was doing. I….”
He took her hand and started them walking again. “About that. I’m sorry. I knew you were overtired, and yet I let my desire override everything Collin taught me. Can we start over? You’re awake now. And I still desire you.”
Tori pulled away from him and jogged a few paces away, turning to face him. “Are you taking me out here because you hope to have a one night stand? And I’m sure Cee has already assessed my risk of pregnancy.”
“I left Cee with Geoff. We will be out of range at the river. And no, tonight I do not plan to seduce you.”
“Oh. I’m still too fertile for the risk.”
Quinn shook his head and stalked past her along the path. “So what are you saying? You don’t want children?”
“Not by some one night stand. Not by some guy who probably has slept with every swooning girl in the village.”
He whirled around to face her, grabbing her arms. She tensed instead of resisting. She couldn’t risk hurting him again. “I think we have a serious misunderstanding. Shanika’s mother is the only woman I’ve ever been with. I am not looking for a one night stand. I am looking for a loyal, loving wife who won’t call me a coward and a girlbaby in public. If you are interested, I’ll be at the river.” He released her with a jerk and ran down the path.
Tori could only stare after him. She wasn’t sure what shocked her most. His confession about the state of his previous marriage or that he asked if she was interested in being his loyal, loving wife. She staggered over to a tree a few feet from the path. Had he really proposed to her?
“Don’t hurt him again,” she heard in her ear.
“Cee, that is harassment. Remember what happened when I spoke to Michael like that. I was angry over his treatment of you, but you didn’t think I should harass him, did you? Leave Tori alone, or Collin will forbid you to speak to her at all.”
“But he can’t marry her.”
“Do you think I wanted Kayden to marry Michael when I heard her crying every night because she didn’t want to leave here? But now they are very happy. It is not our choice. And it is our job to protect the ones they love whether we feel they deserve it or not. Tori, please forgive Cee. She is still learning.”
And then the voices were gone.
She waited and then realized that Jake was indeed watching out for her. He would protect her, and he would protect Charles. “Thank you, Jake,” she whispered.
“Feel free to ask anything about Quinn that you wish. Quinn did ask Cee about you, back when Cee told us you were a very nice person.” He chuckled. “She is pretending she doesn’t remember that now. I see Michael did teach her one thing. He taught her to hold a grudge.”
“Did Quinn just ask me to marry him?”
“He is a good man, Tori. A gentle man. He needs a gentle wife, one who will appreciate him, one who will not compare him to other men, one who will not berate him, and one who will understand his work and his loyalty to the man who saved his life.”
“Yes. Tori, Quinn has cared about you since the night we met you. And I have noticed a mutual attraction. You know Collin’s secrets. Who else could he be so open with? Some cultures practice arranged marriages and some abhor them. In this case, I think that since you are both physically attracted to each other and similarly gifted in agility, the union could not be more perfect.”
There was a slight pause. “Tori? I have not offended you, have I? Tori?” Jake’s voice took on a pleading, panicked tone. “Tori? Please. I’m sorry. Ignore my meddling. Just listen to Quinn. He isn’t thinking anything, but that he’s wanted you since he first saw you. Please, Tori. I’m sorry. Collin! I think I ruined it.”
“No! No, Jake. I’m okay. You just surprised me. It’s okay. Really.” She wanted to reach out, but there was nothing to reach out to calm but the night air. “I just need some time to think.” She walked back to the path and started toward the river.
Jake had been right about one thing. Her father believed in arranged marriages. She had always assumed he’d send for her when he found the right man. She’d hoped at the beginning that he would change his mind about Wend, but that never happened.
She smiled. Jake was right about another thing. She had certainly admired Quinn, and she never thought he’d want her. If she married him, she’d have a home, she’d have family, she’d even have a cute little stepdaughter. And she’d have Cee between them just as Butler came between Falice and Thom, destroying both of them. She fought the panic. Butler was dead. There’d never be another Butler. Collin wouldn’t let it happen, and neither would Jake.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Quinn sat on the bank of the river watching the current in the scant light from the one half moon and two quarter moons. She wasn’t coming. She didn’t want him like he wanted her. He rubbed the ache on his right side with his left hand. Why had he mentioned marriage right away? Why had he assumed she’d be willing to tie herself down to him before she met anyone else. She could have her pick, a girl like that. And he was just a girlbaby coward, no matter that the dragon-hide suit said he was a hero. Collin was Hans Trapper. He was just an apprentice. He was nobody. Maybe she’d even met his family or Henner Foist when she was in the village, and they’d told her what a pathetic excuse of a man he was.
He was about to jump up and run back to the house, when he noticed her standing beside him. She’d moved so silently, he hadn’t heard her come.
When she saw that he noticed her, she gracefully folded her legs to sit beside him. She didn’t speak, simply watching the water, alert.
“I started to think you wouldn’t come.”
“You surprised me. I haven’t received many proposals.”
“But you have had them before.”
She gave a slight shrug. “One. Guess he wasn’t serious though. He married someone else.”
“Because you said no?”
“I said yes. But Daddy sent me to work with Charles, and Wend never came for me like he promised.” She bit her lip. “You don’t really want to hear about that anyway.”
He ran his hand over her shoulders. “Yes. I want to know everything about you.”
“Thought you asked Cee all about me.”
“She said she didn’t know you well, but you always were nice.” He grinned at her surprise. “That is until you kicked me.”
“Why did you leave her home?”
Quinn took Tori’s hand. “I left Shanika home, too. I’d like to get to know you without my jealous children.”
“Children?” She shook her head.
“Yes,” he said softly. “Cee is just like a child. She longs to please, and she’s still learning about life.”
“She’s the same age as Jake or Butler.”
“But Collin says she’s younger emotionally because Michael didn’t accept any initiative. He has eased up in his condemnation a little in the last six months, but sometimes I think he’s just waiting for Jake or Cee to mess up so he can say he was right all along. He did finally thank them both for saving his life though. Cee was ecstatic. She still loves him, but she’s afraid to speak to him. Neither of them speak to Michael unless it’s an emergency, or he initiates the conversation. That’s the way he wants it.” Quinn refocused on the water, wondering if he was talking too much. He wished she’d speak. But she remained silent.
“Shanika still misses her mother. Tara’s been gone a little over a year now. She only visited once. Kayden’s been great with her though. Just like a mother to her now.”
“And do you want more children?” Tori finally asked.
“Yes.” And then he remembered Kayden. “Well, if children come, I will love them. If they don’t, I would be content with my wife and the child I have.” Although Cee had said the probability was high a few days ago. That seemed to indicate that Tori didn’t have Kayden’s problem or Tara’s ovulating problem. He wondered if Gaben had ever figured out that it was Tara and not Quinn who had the problem. Gaben with his university degree.
Tori had a slight smile. “And what does your wife do? What do you expect from her? Total obedience? A maid and bed partner? What did Tara do?”
The wind blew a fresh batch of leaves to the swirling waters. Quinn rubbed his side as he leaned forward to watch, not wanting to look at her. Was she taunting him? Or was she just curious? “Tara kept the house and cooked. I can hire a maid if you prefer. I realize some women are not suited to it. Kayden isn’t. Although I would expect that you at least loved your children and hopefully Shanika. And yes. I expect my wife would be in my bed at night, and no one else’s.”
She touched his arm. “If I commit to you, I would commit for life, and I would not leave,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “I’m sorry that your wife hurt you so.”
“If you commit?” he asked. He couldn’t focus on the sentiment. She didn’t need to see him get all emotional like a girlbaby.
“You must admit, Quinn, I barely know you. I am very attracted to you, but I’m a little scared. It is a big commitment.”
Quinn relaxed. “Sure. Time is fine. I didn’t mean to pressure you back there anyway. Just came out. Besides it won’t hurt if we wait a few weeks on that honeymoon.” He rubbed his sore ribs again.
Tori’s laugh started out as a low chuckle and grew. “A few weeks? Yes. No need to rush things.” She took his right hand.
He grasped her hand, enjoying the contact. He was almost sure she was laughing in amusement like Collin would and not derision as Tara would. He leaned against the tree and looked up at the moons and the few stars. “So what do you think you’d like to do here?”
“I asked Charles if I could be his apprentice. I assumed that I would assist him until he died. Then…” She shrugged. “I’m not sure. Guess it’ll depend on what options I have then.” She squeezed his hand. “Charles needs family, Quinn. I don’t even think Michael cares that much for him. If we did marry, you wouldn’t be upset about my work for him, would you? He’s just like my own grandfather.”
“I would never forbid you to care for your grandfather. I expect you won’t forbid me to do Collin’s work. If there is ever a conflict, Collin comes first. He is more than my adopted father. He has taught me everything I know. I’d be nothing without him. I probably wouldn’t even be alive.” He stared at the largest moon a moment. “I don’t want to hear you cursing him either. I won’t tolerate it again.”
Tori withdrew her hand. “You are threatening me. I have no plans to curse anyone, but what are your consequences? If I do not meet your standards what will you do? Will you leave me? Will you curse me? Will you attempt to beat me? How loyal is your commitment?”
Quinn closed his eyes. She was angry. And he had no answers. He had not thought through his words. He just didn’t want to fight about Collin or anything Collin asked him to do.
Quinn rolled and jumped to his feet, briefly regretting the quick movement as he stood. “When I make a commitment, I keep it.” He started back toward the house.
“Quinn!” She jogged after him. “Just answer me. How will you react when I fail to live up to your standards?”
He kept walking.
“Oh, so then you ignore me. Would that mean separate beds?”
Quinn whirled around. “I will not leave my wife so she may sleep with some other man. If you cannot accept Collin’s work then we should not get married.”
“I never said I couldn’t accept his work. I would never ask you to move from your mentor. That isn’t what this is about.”
Quinn whirled around to face her. “Then what is it about?”
“I am not perfect, Quinn. When I disappointed my father as a child, he denied me his love for weeks. As an adult, he disowned me. I will not meet your standards. What are you going to do when I don’t?”
“Which standard will you not meet?”
Tori raised her hands and shook her head. “How should I know? I don’t even know you that well. Just forget it. I can’t live like that anymore.” She walked quickly away from him.
Quinn stared after her. What did she mean? Had she never been forgiven anything as a child?
“You don’t need her,” Cee said in his ear.
“Yes, I do.” He ran after her. As he approached she turned around and briefly he braced himself for another attack.
But she simply stood still until he stopped beside her. Her face glistened, wet from tears that had been wiped with the back of her hand.
“Oh, Tori,” he whispered, as he caressed her damp cheek. “I will always forgive you. And I will never withhold my love when you need it.” He drew her into his arms, and lightly touched his lips to hers. She didn’t resist, and he deepened the kiss. She wrapped her arms around him, and he caressed her back as her kisses intoxicated him. He want to pull them both to the ground and run his hands under her jacket, but suddenly she pulled away.
Her gaze stayed on his chest. “We better wait until that rib heals a bit more.”
“I love you,” he whispered, pulling her closer to rest his face against the side of her head.
“Quinn, she hurt you,” Cee said in his ear.
Quinn pulled away from Tori. He was going to have to make this clear, and the sooner he did so, the better it’d be. “Cee, you are not to question my decisions. Especially this one.”
“But she hurt you!”
“Relationships are filled with misunderstandings and hurt. I don’t want you interfering in this. If you are concerned, speak to me when we are alone, but do not attempt to control me.”
“I’m not! I just don’t want you hurt again. I’m trying to save you. She could kill you.”
“She will not kill me. Why aren’t you listening to me?”
“You’re mad at me. You hate me. You’re going to give me away.”
Quinn sighed. “I’m not going to give you away,” he said moderating his voice. “But you must learn this. Tori is not the enemy. Even if Tara was to come back, I don’t need you trying to protect me from people.”
“You don’t love me anymore.”
“You sound just like Shanika, you know.” Quinn saw Tori watching him, and he took her hand in his to start them walking again. “Sorry, Love. I have to do this.” He changed his tone. “And was Shanika right? Had I stopped loving her?”
“Cee, was she right?”
“No,” came the meek reply.
“And I won’t stop loving you. But you must not interrupt me when I am alone with Tori, unless it is with emergency information. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Quinn,” she said meekly.
Quinn refocused on Tori, squeezing her hand. “Children. Now where were we?” He drew her into his arms.
Tori resisted when he tried to kiss her, but she stayed in his arms. “You yelled at her for me?”
“For me,” he admitted. “I don’t want to stop kissing you.”
“Do you do that often?”
Quinn dropped his arms and took her hand. Obviously the moment had been ruined. “No. This is the first time I’ve had to be so firm. I hope it’s the last. She’s just scared of losing me, like she lost Michael. She’ll learn, just like Shanika will, that I won’t stop loving them when I get a new wife.”
Tori squeezed his hand. “So you think your little girl will be upset?”
“Actually, I’m not sure. She is upset because I’ve been so busy since you arrived.”
“Maybe we can do something with her. A picnic or… well, you know what she likes better than I do.” They reached the porch, and Tori hesitated outside the door, looking up into his face.
Quinn loved the fullness of her lips, the smoothness of her skin. He ran his thumb over her cheek and then kissed her. “I’ll think about it.” He drew her into his arms and kissed her again.
The door opened. Geoff grinned. “There you are, Quinn. I’m going up to bed. Michael’s got duty, but he’s to call you or Collin if there’s trouble. Shan’s waiting for you to tuck her in.” He handed Cee to him.
Quinn slipped Cee into his pocket and gave Tori’s hand one last squeeze. “Guess I better get up there.” And he left Tori in the waiting room with Geoff, wishing he could take her up to his room tonight.
© 2007 by Deborah K. Lauro. No part of this book may be published in any form without permission from the author.