Elise felt like her stomach had dropped right out of her body. “James. Oh my God, James! How could I forget?”
“So this is true?” Merrick demanded. “You have a fiancé? You were calling out for someone named Buck, but I thought—”
“No, no.” Elise shook her head impatiently. “Buck was a dog I owned when I was a kid. He had one blue eye and one…” She looked up at Merrick’s mismatched eyes and bit her lip. “And one gold,” she finished in a small voice.
His eyes, one bright blue and one deep gold, narrowed and he stood suddenly, spilling her out of his lap. “A dog? As in, a fucking pet?”
Elise stumbled but he didn’t catch her. She grabbed the rail of the bed and tried to steady herself. “Please, you don’t understand.”
“No, I fucking don’t,” Merrick snarled. “Just a minute ago you were all over me, begging me not to leave you, and now it turns out you have a Goddess-damned fiancé.”
“I forgot!” Elise cried. “I don’t know how I could—we’ve been engaged for well over a year. But somehow I completely forgot him! I swear, it’s true, Merrick.”
“Sure it is.” He ran a hand over his skull-cut hair. “Gods. I’m an idiot. Thinking a female like you could care for someone like me.”
“I do care,” Elise protested. “I swear I do.”
“Right.” He nodded shortly, his face suddenly impassive. “In that case, let’s go meet this James of yours. I want to see what kind of male is so forgettable you can be engaged to him for over a year and not even remember him.”
He grabbed Elise’s arm and dragged her toward the door. Suddenly the blonde nurse, Olivia, was in the way.
“I don’t think so, Merrick,” she said, frowning up at him. “She’s my patient, and you’re not going to hurt her, no matter how angry you are.”
“Hurt her? You think I’m going to hurt her?” Merrick dropped Elise’s arm suddenly. “Don’t worry about that,” he snarled. “I’m not a fucking beater. I just want to meet her male—that’s all.”
“I’ll come with you, just in case.” Olivia took Elise’s arm and led the way. “Come on, maybe it’s all just a mistake.”
“It’s no mistake,” Elise said miserably. “We’re engaged, all right. I just…I don’t understand how I could have forgotten.” The truth was, all she had been able to think about was Merrick. Somehow the huge Kindred had driven everything else out of her mind. But a quick look over her shoulder at his scarred, scowling face told her he wouldn’t want to hear that. He thinks I’m lying, she thought, feeling sick. He thinks I was leading him on all this time—and I don’t blame him! How could I be so stupid? What’s wrong with me?
“You’ve been through a lot, hon.” Olivia put an arm around her shoulder and squeezed comfortingly. “It’s no wonder a few things slipped your mind.” She shot a glare at Merrick who returned it with interest.
“Being promised to another male for over a year is a pretty fucking big thing to slip your mind,” he growled.
They were coming to the end of a long hallway and Olivia turned and pointed a finger at him. “We’re almost here, so keep a civil tongue in your head, Merrick. You need to remember that Elise was the one who was kidnapped and…and hurt. She’s been through a lot of trauma, and I don’t need you adding to it. Am I making myself perfectly clear?”
His eyes narrowed and he loomed over her. “You’re very fucking lucky you’re female, you know that?”
Olivia drew herself up. “Are you threatening me?”
“No,” he said shortly. “I’m saying you shouldn’t be threatening me. You don’t have to tell me what Elise went through. I found her, remember? I saw the bruises and cuts that sick bastard left on her skin. I know what he—”
“Please!” Elise burst out. Her heart was racing and her palms were damp. The vault, she thought wildly. Keep it in the vault. If she let the memory of what had happened on the Fathership come back, she was sure other—worse—memories would follow.
“Elise?” Olivia frowned. “You’re white as a sheet, honey.”
“I just can’t…” Elise took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. “I have to go in there and talk to James,” she said at last. “And I can’t do it with you two fighting like this.”
“Fine.” Merrick crossed his arms over his chest. “I won’t say a fucking word.”
“That’s more like it.” Olivia nodded approvingly and put her arm around Elise again. “Come on, sweetie, let’s go. You’re going to be fine.”
Feeling like her feet were made of lead, Elise forced herself to go into the viewing room. It was fairly large and one whole wall was dominated by a massive viewscreen. But the face on the screen wasn’t James’—it was Pamela, his blonde, curvaceous secretary.
“Pam?” she asked weakly.
“Oh, hello, Elise.” Pam gave her a smile that didn’t quite reach her wide blue eyes. She smoothed the tight-fitting pink cashmere sweater she was wearing down over her ample D-cup breasts and her eyes flicked over Elise disapprovingly. “You look…nice.”
Elise was suddenly aware that she was still wearing the too-loose crimson hospital johnny and her hair was a frowzy mess. “Where’s James?” she asked, trying to sound confident. “I was told that he called me.”
“Working, of course. You can’t expect him to make his own calls—he’s a busy boy, you know.” Pamela laughed coyly, that bubbling, Marilyn Monroe giggle that never failed to get on Elise’s last nerve. “If you’ll hold for just a minute, I’ll go get him.”
“Oh, okay,” Elise said belatedly but the screen had already gone blank.
She stood there waiting in front of the dark viewscreen, feeling like an idiot. She didn’t usually let Pamela bother her but then again, most of the time when she called James, she was dressed in courtroom attire with her hair in a neat and tidy bun. She started to smooth down the cloudy black mass around her head but stopped abruptly when she saw Merrick glaring at her.
Before either of them could say anything, the screen winked into life again and the face of her fiancée was suddenly staring back at her. Looking at his clean cut, handsome face and dark blue eyes, Elise wondered how she could have ever forgotten him. As usual, he was wearing a hand-tailored suit that cost more than most cars and an elegant silk tie the color of dried blood. The color set off his tanned skin perfectly, and when he smiled, his teeth were toothpaste-commercial white. Elise could almost catch a whiff of his expensive cologne as he leaned toward the viewscreen to study her.
“Elise? Is that you, darling? My God—what have they done to you?” His smile faded into a look of concern and horror.
“I’m fine, James.” Elise couldn’t stop herself from smoothing her hair this time. She wished fiercely for some bobby pins or anything else to tame it and pull it back, to make it lie down decently as it should.
“You don’t look fine.” He looked at her uncertainly. “You know, I was most dreadfully worried about you when I heard. You really should have told me you were leaving Tampa.”
“You were away on your business trip, and besides, I thought I could just slip away to Sarasota by myself and relax.” Elise hated the defensive tone in her voice but she couldn’t seem to help it. “I just wanted a day off. Unfortunately, it turned into an extended vacation.” She tried to laugh and couldn’t quite manage it.
“Well, you should have reached me earlier. I just got back into town yesterday and imagine my surprise when I got the news. I was shocked, darling. Simply shocked.” James’ clipped, upper-crust British accent deepened, as it always did when he was upset.
“I…I didn’t want to worry you,” Elise faltered. “I…I know I should have called you. It just…just slipped my mind.” Of course, that wasn’t the only thing that had slipped her mind. She cast another sidelong glance at Merrick to see if he was still glaring at her. But this time, his attention seemed to be directed at her fiancé.
“Why didn’t you call Elise?” he demanded, his promise to “not say a fucking word” apparently forgotten. “Hell, why didn’t you come up here right away?”
James frowned. “I’m sorry…and you are…?”
“Merrick.” Merrick growled.
“Merrick who?” James asked. “You Kindred usually say what planet you’re from. I’ve met quite a few of your people during my business travels,” he added, smiling charmingly.
But Elise could tell Merrick wasn’t in the least bit charmed. “It’s just Merrick,” he said, frowning. “And I don’t claim a home world because none of the Kindred home worlds claim me.”
“Well, how very…interesting,” James murmured politely.
“Merrick saved me.” Elise jumped into the conversation, desperate to end the awkward silence that ensued. “He found me and brought me to the Mothership. If it wasn’t for him, I’d still be—be lost.” The words seemed to stick in her throat. They were true in so many ways—ways she still couldn’t even being to understand.
James’ face cleared at once. “Ah, of course—the intrepid rescuer.” He leaned toward the viewscreen, smiling at Merrick. “I am, of course, eternally grateful to you for bringing my darling girl back to me. If there’s anything I can do for you in the way of a reward…” He reached into the breast pocket of his expensive jacket as though searching for his credit-book.
Elise bit her lip and glanced up at Merrick. Oh, this isn’t going to go over well. “James,” she began but Merrick was already glowering.
“Keep your fucking money,” he snarled. “I’d rather hear an explanation of why it took you so long to find out your fiancée was missing.”
James looked offended. “I was away on the other side of the world in a sequestered negotiation, not that it’s any of your business. I heard about Elise’s ordeal the moment I got back and I took pains—great pains—to be certain she was all right. I didn’t bother her until now because I assumed she’d be resting.”
“Resting. Right.” Merrick looked completely unconvinced.
“Who did you talk to?” Elise asked her fiancé, once again trying to save the conversation. “Was it Harry at the office? Because—”
“No, no—you know I try not to bother anyone at your work.” James shook his head. “Your father got hold of me.”
Elise felt like someone had punched her in the gut. “You mean my stepfather?” she asked in a strangled voice. “I…he called you?”
“I think he was trying to feel me out—to see if I was good enough for his little girl.” James winked, apparently oblivious to her distress. “Luckily, we got along famously. He’s quite a man—built his business from the ground up. You can’t blame him for being a bit protective of the heiress of the Harks empire.”
Merrick raised his eyebrows and even Olivia looked surprised. “So you’re an heiress?” she asked.
“No, I’m not. Not really,” Elise mumbled. “I don’t want his money—he knows that.” Blood money, whispered a voice in her head but she pushed it away.
“Now, darling, Charles told me all about it,” James said. “How you were a rebellious teen—never really took to him after your own father left the picture.” He cleared his throat, appearing to realize that Merrick and Olivia were still listening. “Of course, now isn’t the time to talk about it, but I think it would be nice if you two would get together. Bury the old hatchet. He was most frightfully worried about you, you know.”
“I bet he was.” Elise swallowed, trying to get hold of herself. Now wasn’t the time to go digging up the past—there was never going to be a good time for that. But though she was a coward when it came to facing the ghosts in her own personal vault of horrors, there were some things she couldn’t lie or pretend about. “James,” she said, in a stronger voice. “There’s something I have to tell you.”
“Well, of course, darling. And we’ll have a lovely chat as soon as you get home.” James looked at his vintage Cartier watch. “Which should be soon, yes? I certainly hope so. I want to see you before I have to catch my flight for Japan.”
“Well,” Elise began reluctantly. “They did say I was ready to go home but I really need to—”
“She’ll be on the next shuttle down to Earth,” Merrick interrupted her.
Elise looked up at him, shocked and hurt. She wasn’t sure how it was going to come out, but she had been determined to tell her fiancé about Merrick—about the strange new relationship that had developed between them so quickly. But now it seemed there was nothing to tell.
“Excellent!” James looked pleased. “I won’t even send a car—I’ll pick you up myself.”
“How very fucking noble of you,” Merrick growled under his breath.
“I’m sorry—I didn’t quite catch that,” James frowned.
“Nothing.” Merrick shook his head. “Elise will be down within the hour—as long as she’s cleared to go.” He looked at Olivia who nodded.
“She should be fine. I know Sylvan was doing some research into the post-stasis condition but he hasn’t found any contraindications to Elise leaving. All her vitals are good and strong and she seems to be completely healed.” She looked at Merrick. “Will you be flying her yourself?”
Elise’s heart jumped. If Merrick took her maybe she could explain—they could talk about what had happened and—
“No.” He shook his head. “Find somebody else.” He must have seen the disappointment and hurt in Elise’s eyes because he added, “My, uh, ship’s not quite ready to go yet. I’m still running the last diagnostic.”
“All right, then.” Olivia squeezed Elise’s arm. “Looks like you’re going home.”
“I guess so.” Elise tried to look happy but all she could manage was a weak, wavering smile. Instead of being thrilled that her long ordeal was over and she could go back to her handsome fiancé and normal life, she felt sick with unhappiness. Get over it, she told herself roughly. What were you going to do? Give up practicing law and stay on the Mothership with a man you just met? She glanced up at Merrick—his towering height, his scarred face and mismatched eyes and thought, Yes. Yes, I would if I could.
But it was clear he didn’t want her. In fact, he wouldn’t even meet her eyes.
“Well, then.” James, on the viewscreen, was looking at her sharply. “I guess I’ll see you soon. Are you quite certain you’re all right, darling?”
“Yes,” Elise whispered and then forced herself to speak louder. “Yes, I…I’m sure.”
“Wonderful. I’ll see you within the hour.” He smiled. “I can’t wait to hold you again.”
Such a public admission of affection was huge coming from the normally reticent James. In the past it would have sent a flock of butterflies spiraling through her stomach. This time Elise felt like she’d swallowed a bar of lead. “I…I can’t wait to see you either, James,” she murmured.
He smiled again and the viewscreen went blank.