Saori settled into a chair across from Rinji in the opulent restaurant that he’d chosen, nodding her thanks at the maître d’ who had held out her chair and scooted it in for her.
“I’ll send your waiter right over,” he said with a polite bow. “Enjoy your meal.”
“Congratulations,” Rinji said as the maître d’ strode away. “Kaa-san told me that you were offered a job.”
The temerarious smile that was already trembling on her lips faded before she could stop it. “Oh, uh, yes,” she mumbled. “It’s a really wonderful opportunity.”
“So, you’ve already accepted it?” Rinji went on, oblivious to Saori’s discomfort. “She said it’s in Morocco, though . . . I’ll miss you, you know.”
“I don’t know if I’ll take it,” she replied quietly. “It’s . . . It’s so far away . . .”
“Are you afraid?”
She didn’t miss the hint of teasing in her brother’s tone. It was how he cajoled her out of her fears. It had worked marvelously when she’d gotten the jitters about going to Russia. This time, however . . .
“Sorry I’m late,” Aiko said as she was seated between the two of them. “I got sidetracked on the project and lost track of time . . .”
“Can I get you anything to start with?” the waiter asked with a bright smile.
“A bottle of your best champagne,” Rinji ordered.
“Would you prefer a Clannar d’ Fleur or a Marcomme?”
“The Marcomme,” Rinji said. “The ladies prefer the chardonnay.”
“Very good.” The man’s smile widened as he offered them a low bow. “I’ll be right back.”
“So, what are we discussing?” Aiko asked, shaking out a napkin and slipping it over her skirt.
“We were just talking about Saori’s job offer,” Rinji explained. “Must be nice to be traveling all over the world at your age . . . Back then, I was already working for tou-san and kaa-san . . .”
“If you wanted to travel, you could have,” Aiko pointed out gently. “You could now, for that matter.”
“And leave tou-san alone to handle everything? That doesn’t seem quite fair, don’t you think?”
Aiko rolled her eyes. “He was able to do it for years before you ever came to work with us,” she reminded him, “and he did perfectly fine on this own then.”
“I don’t know if I’ll take it or not,” Saori said, careful to keep her tone light.
“Why wouldn’t you? It’s an excellent school—highly reputable . . . They say if you work there, you can pretty well write your own ticket anywhere after that . . . Morocco is a gorgeous country with warm people . . . I mean, is there something about it that you don’t like or that you’re not comfortable with? They offered to pay you to relocate, didn’t they?”
“She just got home, Rinji. Maybe she’s not as keen on the idea of moving away again so soon,” Aiko said. “If it doesn’t feel like the right fit for you, then you shouldn’t take it, Saori.”
“If it pays well, then I’d say you’d be a fool not to take it,” Rinji insisted, ignoring his mother’s commentary.
Saori opened her mouth to comment, but snapped it closed when her mother was faster. “It’s her decision. Let her make it on her own,” she chided. “Besides, I heard through the grapevine that the rep from Paris—Levoure-san?—was very interested in you, Rinji.”
To Saori’s surprise, Rinji actually blushed. “She—N-No, that’s not . . .” He cleared his throat. “She was being polite; that’s all, so she asked me out to dinner, yes, but it was all on the up-and-up—and I already had plans with you two.”
Saori leaned toward her mother, but didn’t take her eyes off her brother. “Is this Levoure-san pretty?”
Aiko giggled. “Very . . . She’s very, very French, too, and they say that Paris is the city of romance, don’t they?”
“French kissing . . .”
“The adorable accent . . .”
“All right; let’s move on,” Rinji grouched.
“Romantic walks at night with the Eiffel Tower, illuminated in the background . . .”
Aiko giggled. “Singing Disney songs in the middle of the Notre Dame Cathedral . . .”
“You two need to be separated,” Rinji grumbled.
Luckily for him, the waiter returned with the champagne and crystal glasses, which effectively silenced the giggling women—at least, for the moment. He took his time, presenting the champagne and pouring glasses for each of them. “Are you ready to order or would you like a little more time?”
“Steak,” Rinji replied. The restaurant he’d chosen was a new one that specialized in Western fare, more French than Asian—something he had a great affinity for, ever since he’d discovered that they served whole, huge steaks instead of smaller cuts. They even set the tables with standard knives and forks, so it was kind of a novelty, at least, in Saori’s estimation. However, she couldn’t really complain about it, either, given that she, like her mother, tended to like the steaks, too. “Medium rare for all of us, please, with spring potatoes.”
“Very good,” the waiter said, bowing slightly before he excused himself once more.
“A toast to Saori: may your new endeavors take you far, and may you always remember the path that leads you home,” Rinji said, raising a glass as the waiter walked away. “Otsukaresama deshita!”
The women responded in kind, lifting their glasses in response. Saori wasn’t overly fond of champagne, but she drank it since Rinji had gone to the trouble of ordering it. Even so, she couldn’t quite help the slight feeling that her brother was dismissing her own feelings that she may not take the job that was offered. How was that a foregone conclusion? she wondered.
Rinji smiled, his silvery hair, like his mother’s, catching the ambient light, making the strands almost glow. “Even if you don’t take that job, Saori-chan, I know you’ll be offered another one that might be more to your liking, and I must admit, if you did move to Morocco, I’d miss you terribly.”
“Would you?” she countered, her eyes sparkling with
the teasing tone in her voice. “You sounded like you wanted to be rid of me.”
He grunted, sipping his champagne. “I did not,” he argued. “I was trying to be encouraging, like a good nii-chan.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m not sure it’s the job for me,” she said, giving a small shrug. “Something about it just doesn’t feel right . . .”
“If that’s so, then you shouldn’t accept,” Rinji went on, frowning as he considered the situation. “Besides, oji-san seems to like having you work for him.”
“Maybe, but it isn’t like much thought goes into that,” Saori admitted. “I just run errands. It feels like an after-school kind of job . . .”
“You’re still helping him out quite a bit. He’s said before that there just aren’t ever enough hours in the day, and I know that Sierra’s been saying lately that he’s had even less time since his old secretary quit to get married, so even if it doesn’t feel like much, it really is,” Aiko remarked. “It’s even nicer for him, really, given that you’re family, so he can trust you with really sensitive information.”
She wasn’t sure if she bought into it. To her, it sounded more like a pep talk from her mother and brother than anything else. She stifled a sigh. It wouldn’t be so bad, she supposed, if she felt as though she were really needed, but dropping off files? Picking up dry cleaning? Stopping at the market if Sierra forgot to pick up an ingredient for dinner? No, it wasn’t important, at all . . .
“I told Seiji about your job offer earlier when he called,” Aiko went on, smiling at the waiter when he slipped a plate of food before her. “He said to tell you congratulations, but I could tell from his voice that he wasn’t entirely pleased with the idea that you could be moving so far away.”
“Will he be home soon?”
A fleeting shadow passed over Aiko’s pretty features before she summoned a bright smile to cover it up. “Apparently, the man they went to see wasn’t home, so they’re going to stay a little longer,” she said.
“Didn’t they have an appointment? Who puts off Inutaisho Sesshoumaru?” she remarked, only half teasing.
Aiko laughed. “Well, even then, sometimes things come up. I’m sure they’ll handle it and be home as soon as they’re able.”
Saori wrinkled her nose as she cut into the fragrant steak, absently noting the way the juices glistened on the beautiful cut of beef. “It seems rude to me,” she mumbled, lifting a bite to her lips.
“Contrary to popular belief, he isn’t kami,” Aiko laughed. “Rinji, your father asked if you could take care of his meetings until he gets back. He has one tomorrow with the rep from Denzien that he couldn’t reschedule.”
Rinji nodded. “It’s not a problem. I think they’re about ready to negotiate a contract.”
Tuning out the business talk that distracted her mother and brother, Saori concentrated on her food instead.
She’d spent a good couple hours today, trying to figure out a way to get a hold of Toga’s phone. She’d considered asking him, straight out for Fai’s number, but she knew better. Given their overall reactions to her antics in Russia, she highly doubted that anyone would be willing to hand that particular bit of information over to her. It just figured; it really did.
In the end, she figured she’d just have to bide her time until she was able to get access to the phone. She could be patient, even if she didn’t like the idea. She had even considered, calling Zelig Cain to see if maybe he’d give her the number she wanted, but she had a sneaking suspicion that he’d be even less willing to hand it over, too, unless he hadn’t been apprized of the appropriation of the Asian tai-youkai—which she doubted. Sometimes, it really stunk that her family was so close-knit . . .
‘Maybe if you called Gin-oba-chan—if you told her why you wanted it . . .’
Biting her cheek, Saori fiddled with the food on her plate, her appetite conspicuously missing. No, she couldn’t do that. To put her feelings into words? How could she do that without seeming even more naïve and stupid than she already did, especially when Saori herself wasn’t entirely sure what her real feelings were? Even then, even if she could, that would put Gin in an awfully uncomfortable position, and Saori really couldn’t do that.
She heaved an inward sigh. There really weren’t any options available to her at all, but maybe, if she was patient . . . Maybe . . .
‘Maybe. And maybe I’d have better luck if I just ran away, back to Russia . . .’
Tapping his foot impatiently as he waited for someone to answer the hulking door of the impressive Inutaisho mansion, Fai let out a deep breath, scowling at anything and everything in the near vicinity.
He wasn’t entirely sure that he’d get any help at all from Sesshoumaru—at least, not for what he wanted—but he was out of options, out of ideas, and pretty well fast approaching the end of his patience, too.
It was maddening, really. For a family as prominent as theirs, one would think that someone would know where they lived, yet they didn’t. Everywhere he’d asked, he’d gotten the same answer: no one knew. It was entirely by luck that he’d managed to find this place. Wandering around, he’d caught the vague yet slightly familiar scent of Sesshoumaru’s mate, and he’d trailed her here. As for believing that Kagura would actually tell him what he wanted to know? He rather doubted it. Even so, he had to try.
The door opened, and he blinked at the waif-like woman who answered. ‘A panda-youkai . . .’ Dressed in a serviceable black outfit, she pushed a long strand of light brown hair behind her ear.
She greeted him in Japanese, and Fai slowly shook his head.
The woman didn’t recognize Russian, either, it seemed, and Fai gritted his teeth.
“May I help you?” she asked in heavily accented English.
“I’m looking for Sesshoumaru or Kagura,” he replied, thankful that the impasse was averted. “I’m Fai Demyanov.”
She didn’t appear to recognize his name, but she nodded, stepping back to allow him to enter the home. “I will fetch Kagura-sama,” she said. “Please wait here.”
He watched her go before turning his attention to the bright and airy foyer. He stood on the tile entryway, but didn’t step up onto the raised floor. All things considered, he wasn’t entirely sure whether or not he ought to take off his shoes since he wasn’t sure exactly how he was going to be received. He was saved from his own debate, however, when Kagura stepped out of the high archway.
She didn’t smile or look all that welcoming even when she offered him a shallow bow. He returned the gesture, figuring that it was the polite thing to do, given the situation.
Kagura crossed her arms over her chest. “Demyanov-san, what brings you here?”
Fai made no move to step forward, but he couldn’t help the grudging sense of gratitude that Kagura had remembered and that she had spoken in English. He figured that was fair enough, too. “I . . . I don’t mean to intrude. I just wondered if I could ask you for . . . for Saori’s address.”
“Saori,” she repeated, her eyes narrowing slightly. “Why?”
The entirely rehearsed sound of his words was not lost on him, but there wasn’t much he could do about it. After all, he’d practiced what he wanted to say the entire trip over here . . . “I want to offer her a job, and since Toga wouldn’t give me her phone number, I thought that it’d be best to come here instead.”
“A job?” she echoed, raising an artful eyebrow. “Would you care for a cup of tea?”
Blinking at the abrupt change of topics, Fai saw no other choice, but to go along with it, even if the beating around the bush feeling wasn’t one that sat well with him. “That would be nice,” he replied instead, slipping off his shoes and stepping into the pair of slippers that were obviously there for guests. Then he stepped up onto the raised floor and followed Kagura through the archway and into a very well-appointed living room.
She gestured at the sofa and pressed a button on the wall panel beside the doorway. Then she said something in Japanese before taking her time, wandering over to sit in the plush chair across from him. “You want to offer Saori a job? What kind of job would that be?”
“I need someone to help me try to find placements for some of the orphans, and I thought that she would be the best choice. She understands the need, obviously has some connections that might come in useful, and she knows the children, so she’d be very helpful when it comes to matching up families, should it come to that.”
Kagura leveled a very no-nonsense look at him. It reminded him of one of his first tutors and the way she was able to see right through Fai’s excuses if he’d been late for his lessons for any reason. “Is this some kind of ploy to get her back to Russia so that you can have her arrested again?”
Fai’s mouth dropped open for a full minute before he snapped it closed again. He could feel the blood, flowing to his cheeks, but it had more to do with his rising temper than it did anything else. “I assure you, that’s not my intention,” he grumbled. “If that were the case, I wouldn’t have to lie. I would have every right to demand that you turn her over to me.”
Kagura didn’t reply as the same woman who had answered the door slipped into the room with a tray of very delicate tea cups and a hand-painted, porcelain teapot. She poured the drinks before bowing and backing out of the room once more, leaving Fai, scowling at Kagura, who didn’t seem impressed at all with the idea that she had just insulted him. In fact, she was the very epitome of calm, serene, as she picked up a cup and handed it across the coffee table to him. “So, you have no intention of punishing her further for what she did?”
“No,” Fai replied, struggling to keep his tone even, flat. “That was never my intention.”
“If it was never your intention, then why did you have her arrested, in the first place?”
He was about to tell her that it really was none of her business, but he stopped himself. Given that she was at least hearing him out, he figured he ought not to push fate. Still, he had to take a deep breath before he dared to try to answer. Somehow, he had the feeling that whatever he said now would ultimately decide, whether or not he would get Saori’s address . . . “I . . . I was leaving the orphanage,” he heard himself saying, almost as though he had no control over his own words. “I realized that she was leaving, too—soon, anyway—and that I wouldn’t see her again if she did, and I . . .”
“And it was better to arrest her than to ask her to . . . stay . . .?”
He detected the hint of censure in Kagura’s voice, and he grimaced inwardly. “I’ve never met anyone like her before,” he admitted. “I . . . I don’t know what it is, to be honest. I just know . . . I know I’ll never meet anyone like her again—and I do need . . . help . . . with the children . . .”
Kagura sat back, very slowly sipping her tea, her magenta eyes locked on his face as she considered what he’d said. It seemed to Fai that she took an inordinately long time in answering, and when she finally spoke again, she seemed almost . . . amused . . .? “You really hate asking anyone for help, don’t you, Demyanov-san?”
“Fai’s fine, and . . . and yes, I do.”
Kagura chuckled. “Yet you’re willing to swallow your pride to ask her to work for you?”
Kagura nodded slowly—very slowly. “And did you enjoy kissing my granddaughter?”
He blinked, unable to staunch the sudden explosion of heat in his cheeks at the abrupt reminder. “She . . . She told you that . . .?” he blurted before he could stop himself.
Kagura laughed. “Actually, no, but she told her mother, and her mother told me. Did you kiss my granddaughter?”
“We—I—She—Y-Yes,” he muttered. Somehow, he couldn’t quite bring himself to tell this woman—Saori’s grandmother—that Saori was the one who had initiated it. It almost felt like doing so would be akin to dishonoring her, although he wasn’t sure why he would think that. “Yes, I did.”
“So, she didn’t kiss you. I could have sworn that she told Aiko that she did the kissing . . .”
It occurred very slowly to him that maybe she was kidding. Even so, he didn’t really know her well enough to think that it was a definite thing. He shrugged. “Does it matter?”
“And you didn’t mind it—might have even liked it?”
Fai sighed. “I . . . I might have,” he grumbled.
No doubt about it, the woman was very obviously amused beyond all reason, and Fai made a face. “She was already offered a job,” Kagura said instead, opting not to tease Fai further, which was fine with him. “Morocco.”
“She only said she had an interview,” Fai said, frowning at the cup of tea in his hands. “They offered her a job that fast?”
“How would you know that?” Kagura parried. “She only found out about the interview a few days ago.”
Fai blinked, lifting his gaze to meet hers for a moment before offering her a little shrug and dropping his eyes to the cup once more. “In a dream,” he said almost absently. “She was there. She told me.”
“In a dream,” Kagura repeated. “Is that right?”
He nodded, only half-listening. She was offered that job? Of course, she would be. She was entirely capable, and surely the person who had conducted the interview had sensed just what kind of woman she really was. But Morocco? Why did the thought of her taking that job make him want to crush something—like the cup in his hands?
Carefully setting the cup back on the tray before he gave into the urge to maim it, he glanced up, only to do a double take when he noticed that Kagura was writing something in a very fine leather-bound journal of sorts.
She tore the page out and leaned forward to hand it to him, and he slowly reached out to take it. “That’s her address,” Kagura said. “However, I think I should warn you that her father’s out of town, so that means that her brother is staying there while he’s away, and her brother has a tendency to be just as overprotective as her father is. If you show up on their doorstep, there’s a good chance that Rinji might well take exception to your presence.”
Fai nodded. That just figured, didn’t it? So close, and yet, unless he wanted to beg an altercation with her beloved brother, how in the world was he going to get to talk to her?
Kagura chuckled again, the sound of it, rich and warm. “You strike me as the resourceful type. I think you can figure it out.”
Scowling as he read over the address on the paper, committed it to memory, Fai let out a deep breath. Resourceful? He’d have to be, wouldn’t he? Somehow, he had the feeling that it wasn’t going to be nearly as simple as he’d like . . .