It was a gorgeous day with a tangy breeze blowing off the water at the sprawling estate just outside of Sydney—Jude Covington’s estate. He knew already that Jude only spent weekends and holidays here and tended to stay in an apartment downtown the rest of the week to be closer to his actual office. It was probably less of a hassle, especially for a man like him, who tended to prize his privacy above all else—something else that Fai could truly appreciate about him.
That he was opening his home to them was remarkable enough. He had heard the man’s generals remarking that it was a rare treat to be invited into his sanctuary, especially for a late luncheon.
Even so, he hadn’t quite decided whether or not he wanted to spend their last day in Sydney at Jude’s estate. Given that Saori was having a lot of fun on her first visit to the city, it seemed a little anticlimactic to hole themselves away out here when they could spend more time, sightseeing, but when he’d mentioned that to her, she’d seemed almost appalled at the very idea that they might turn down Jude’s invitation. He supposed she had a point since they’d spent the last couple days, taking full advantage of the entertainment package that he’d so thoughtfully given them . . .
Tonight, they were going to go see the other show that they hadn’t had time to see yet. Yesterday, he’d taken her shopping to find something suitable for the event. She’d refused to let him see the dress, however, telling him that it was a surprise. He was all right with that, anyway. The woman had impeccable taste in clothing, he’d realized.
They were seated around a very large table on the huge patio that overlooked the Tasman Sea as polite talk had swirled around them. All in all, it wasn’t a bad way to spend the day, he had to admit as a ship blew its horn on the waters, interrupting the call of the birds that swooped into and out of view.
“Oh, Miss Senkuro . . . I wanted to let you know, we’ve spoken, and we think we have four families who might be interested in seeing the children’s files. Do you have those yet, or . . .?” Jude asked, leaning forward, elbows on the table, fingers knitted together before him over his empty plate.
“I don’t have those compiled yet, but I will just as soon as we return to Russia . . .” she said. “That won’t be a problem, will it?”
Jude chuckled. “Not at all,” he assured her. “One of the women is here, actually . . .” Jude nodded toward the woman who had been introduced as Ketta Nash, one of his generals: a koala-youkai.
The woman gave Saori a very bright smile, her deep brown eyes, shining engagingly. “I’m looking for an older child, maybe around ten years old? Someone who is old enough to enjoy the kinds of things I do—hiking, camping, mountain climbing . . . Things you can’t really do with a younger child . . .”
Fai frowned. “Pardon me for asking, but you’re not mated . . .?”
She didn’t seem surprised by the personal nature of the question. “I’m not, but I also don’t think that that should be a huge consideration. I have a beautiful home that feels entirely empty. Kind of depressing, really . . . I have a lot to offer a child, and if I do say so myself? I will be an awesome mother, I promise you.”
Fai smiled. “We’ll discuss it,” he allowed. “I don’t see it being a problem, though.”
Ketta’s smile widened.
Jude nodded, obviously pleased that Ketta’s partner status would not be an issue. He stood up, inclining his head toward his guests. “Well, if the rest of you would like to enjoy my chef’s efforts at dessert, we should retire to my office, discuss a few more things before you all head back home . . . Fai, would you care to join us? There’s nothing that we need to discuss that you can’t hear, after all . . .”
Fai nodded and stood, sparing a brief moment to meet Saori’s gaze, to give her a little nod when she smiled up at him.
Jude’s office had a door just off the patio, and he followed the others into the glass room. Most of Jude’s house was actually little more than a configuration of windows—very thick windows. Very modern, very contemporary—and a little unsettling since the only difference between the room dividers were the frosted glass used on the bathroom enclosure, he’d noticed. Even the fireplaces were made of smoked, tempered glass . . . As interesting as the place was, Fai would be lying if he tried to say that he’d ever be comfortable, living in such an exposed place . . . Maybe it was simply because he’d always lived in Demyanov Castle . . .
A light hand on his forearm drew him out of his reverie, and he glanced down to find Ketta, smiling at him. “Would you care for a drink, Your Grace?”
“Oh, I’m good,” he said, “but thank you.”
She slipped her hand up under his elbow, steering him toward one of the long, low sofas near the windows that overlooked the sea and didn’t move away when they sat down. “I’ve heard so much about you,” she remarked, setting on the sofa, turning toward him, her knee touching his. “I must confess, I didn’t think I’d ever get the chance to meet you, though. It’s absolutely a pleasure.”
“Thank you,” he replied, a little uncomfortable with her proximity, but not really seeing a way around it, either.
The others took seats on the other sofa or in one of the chairs that flanked them on the ends. Jude sat in the chair on the end nearest to the desk with a glass of something; Fai couldn’t tell what. “I think we’ve covered most everything else,” Jude remarked. “I did want to ask, though, if anyone’s found out anything about Tim Marcon?”
One of the generals—a dingo-youkai named Lew—snorted. “That little snake? He’s hidden himself good, if he’s even still here on the continent.”
Drew Paulson, a kangaroo-youkai—grunted indelicately. “Considering he has to know that he’s going to swing for what he did? Not really surprising, is it?”
Pale green eyes taking on a heightened glow, Jude leveled a no-nonsense look at each of his generals in turn. “Inexcusable. He must be found. I’ve sent all my hunters out to look for him. It’s wasting my resources and making me look like a bumbling fool . . .”
Fai frowned. “What did he do?”
Ketta sighed. “Do you remember last winter? The reports of someone detonating a bomb in the Livier Office Complex? They planted explosives in a number of baby bags inside the nursery on the ground level? Killed more than a seventy people—twenty-nine of them, babies under a year of age—and injured more than a hundred others? That was Marcon’s work.”
“Damn,” Fai muttered. He had indeed heard the reports. They were all over the international news. “Do you know why he did that?”
“We don’t know for sure,” Jude replied. “But he is known to be very vocal on the anti-human front, so that’s what we’re assuming it was.”
“If he fled the country, if he headed to Europe, then there’s not a damn thing we can do to touch him. MacDonnough will grant him amnesty, just by virtue of him being within his borders,” Lew remarked.
“I really don’t get why Sesshoumaru allows him to run amok like he does. The MacDonnough’s as bad as the other extremists,” Drew added.
“It’s not his place to dictate our policies,” Fai stated. “Whether he agrees or not, he won’t interfere—not unless there is no other choice. I, for one, appreciate this about him, even if MacDonnough’s politics don’t reflect my own beliefs, either.”
“Spoken like a true tai-youkai,” Lew remarked with a chuckle. Then he sighed. “Just makes our work that much more difficult.”
Jude sighed. “I’ll call him tomorrow; see if he has heard anything—if he’s in a good mood, maybe he’ll talk.” His lip curled up in a derisive kind of sneer, exposing a flash of his fang. “Though I kind of doubt he’ll be any help to me, at all.”
“I’ll keep an eye out in Asia,” Fai offered. “Maybe you should call the others—give them the head’s up in case he surfaces somewhere outside of Europe.”
“Except you’re still on the outs with the Zelig, aren’t you?” Ketta asked, arching an eyebrow to emphasize her point.
Jude snorted, draining his glass in one long swallow. “If Marcon shows up in his jurisdiction, then I’d suppose that it’d be his problem then.”
Drew rolled his eyes. “Really, Jude? Really?”
Jude shot him a dark look. “Given that the Zelig’s mate is hanyou, and Marcon despises humans in general, North America is the last place he’d go. Calling him wouldn’t be worth my time.”
The generals exchanged looks while Jude stood up to refill his drink.
“Sometimes I think he holds grudges just because he can,” Ketta murmured, leaning toward Fai, as though she were sharing a secret with him. She reached out, carefully pulled a bit of lint off his jacket and dropped it on the floor before smoothing the spot a few times.
“I heard about that,” he replied just as quietly, opting to ignore her gesture.
She laughed. It was a husky kind of sound, not at all unpleasant, but perhaps a little friendlier than he was comfortable with. “The Zelig is a sore spot with him. I imagine it will be for a while. No one, and I do mean, no one, holds a grudge better than Jude . . .”
He opened his mouth to answer her, but out of the corner of his eye, he saw her: Saori, standing down on the beach by herself, staring out over the water. Hair tossed in the breeze, her back straight, proud, and yet . . . Why did he have the feeling that she was upset?
No, not upset. That wasn’t the right word.
But he wasn’t sure what, exactly, he meant, either . . .
Leaning against the balcony railing, Saori stared out over the city, shrugging her shoulders to adjust the cream colored shawl. The early evening skies were deepening in color though the daylight had only just begun to soften. She uttered a soft sigh, fiddling with the thin gold bracelet on her right wrist—one her father had given to her for her eighteenth birthday—just a simple chain. The hem of the deep gold satin, spaghetti strap, slip dress barely brushed mid-thigh, flaring out around her hips just enough to add movement as it caught in the breeze, blowing out around her, only to drift back down again, over and over. She’d chosen a color that was close to amber—a shade that reminded her of her mother’s eyes.
Fai was still changing for their planned evening to attend the People’s Theatre to see The Reckless Ones with a late dinner to follow. Saori had considered, begging off, maybe telling Fai that she was just a little too tired, but in the end, she hadn’t done it.
‘Because you’re pouting. That’s all it is.’
‘I’m not,’ she argued, trying not to think about the thing that was really bothering her. ‘I just . . . I mean, it’s not like . . . like he . . . he’s made any kind of promise or anything to me. I . . . I don’t know why that bothered me so much . . .’
‘You do know. She was all over him, and you didn’t like that. In fact, you really wanted to march in there and yank her off of that sofa . . .’
She sighed, wincing at the deadly accuracy of her youkai’s words. That really was her gut reaction to seeing Ketta Nash, almost sitting in Fai’s lap, watching her as she whispered in his ear, as she touched his chest . . .
And why wouldn’t she? After all, Fai had introduced Saori as, ‘his assistant’ for the, ‘orphan placement project’ . . .
‘What did you want him to say? That you sleep together at night, all curled up on him like some kind of weird parasite? Come on, Saori . . .’
She flinched inwardly. ‘I . . . I know that’s what I am—his assistant. And . . . And it’s not like he needs to say anything else, either. I mean, if you look at Ketta next to me? That’s . . . That’s like comparing apples to oranges. She’s not just beautiful and accomplished, she’s got that same kind of confidence that women like kaa-chan or . . . or obaa-chan . . . or Kagome-oba-chan . . . That, well, all the women in the family have—but I don’t. That’s . . . That’s fine, right? Because everyone’s different, but . . .’
‘Yeah, maybe you should call your mother. This is about the time she’d give you one of your little pep-talks, and you’d feel all right again afterward . . .’
Biting her bottom lip, Saori shook her head. No, she didn’t think that it would do any good; not this time, anyway. She was past the age where things like that worked. At some point, she had to learn how to do that for herself. It was just a little harder than she’d realized.
“Sorry it took so long,” Fai said as he stepped outside behind her. “Yerik called before I could hop in the shower . . .”
She drew a deep, steadying breath before straightening her back, turning to face him. “It’s fine,” she said, pasting on a bright smile as she stepped forward, past him, back into the common room. “I’ll just grab my purse . . .”
Fai followed her inside and locked the door. “Saori . . .”
“Hmm?” she murmured, checking the small purse for the things she might need: a little cash—enough for a cab, if it came to that—her lip gloss, a powder compact . . . a few tissues, a tiny bottle of hand lotion, a small tin of breath mints . . .
“You look . . . beautiful . . .”
She blinked, her chin snapping up, as though she were trying to make sure that he wasn’t teasing her. The look on his face, the intensity in his gaze, convinced her that he wasn’t doing any such thing, and she couldn’t help the light blush that rose to her cheeks.
He sighed. “All right. Tell me what’s bothering you.”
She opened and closed her mouth a few times, quickly shook her head. “N-Nothing,” she insisted, hoping that he’d drop it, that he wouldn’t press her for more.
He considered her answer, slowly nodded as he paced the floor, taking his time as he fiddled with his cufflinks, and as the silence stretched out between them, she couldn’t think of a thing to say to stop the awful degeneration.
“Do you remember what you said to me when you found out about that challenge?”
She blinked, shook her head. She wasn’t sure where he was going with this . . . “Yes . . .”
“You told me not to worry you again. Do you remember that?”
“Of course, I do, but—”
He stopped, met her gaze with a serious expression, a slight furrowing of his brows that drew his eyebrows in. Unruly hair, hanging low over his forehead did nothing to hide the intensity in his eyes as he stared hard at her, as though he were daring her to lie. “It goes both ways, you know. You’re making me worry now, so whatever it is that’s bothering you, you need to tell me. I can’t read your mind.”
“It’s nothing,” she insisted. “It’s stupid, and . . . and I’m stupid for thinking about it. It’s not like you . . . you owe me anything. You don’t, and I—”
“For starters, you’re not stupid, and I know that this has something to do with the whole thing at Jude’s estate . . .” he told her. “You were fine before that.”
Wrapping her arms over her stomach, her purse smashed between her arms and her belly, Saori gave a little shrug. “She’s . . . She’s very pretty,” she said, unable to speak much louder than a whisper—unable to look him in the eye. “And she . . .” She winced. “It was pretty obvious that she liked you, too . . .”
“Too?” he echoed, shaking his head, his surprise evident in his tone. “Who?”
She couldn’t quite help the darkened scowl she shot him. Just why he was making her spell it out was almost more than she could take. “Nash-san,” she said in a much more even tone than she felt.
“Ketta?” he blurted before he could stop himself. Then he barked out a terse laugh. “I’m not interested in her.”
“She was practically on your lap,” she pointed out.
He snorted. “What was I supposed to do? Cause a scene by moving away from her? Shove her over on the sofa? I didn’t encourage her, if that’s what you mean.”
“I doubt you’d have to,” Saori grumbled. “She was doing well enough without your help.”
He sighed. “You have no reason to be jealous, you know.”
She narrowed her eyes on him, and he blinked. “I’m not jealous, Your Grace. I’m trying to be a good person—trying to encourage you to pursue her if you’re interested in her.”
He snorted again. “Is that so? Then I’d rather that you were jealous,” he growled back. “And . . . and I forbid you to call me that, ever again.”
“Call you what?” she demanded.
He leveled a pointed look at her. “Your Grace,” he bit out.
She rolled her eyes since that was, in fact, the proper way to address him, but she let that go, at least, for the moment. “And why would you want me to be jealous? Men hate jealous women!” she pointed out instead.
“Are you stereotyping me?”
“Well, you shouldn’t. You also shouldn’t mistake politeness for anything else, either.”
“And you shouldn’t allow women you just met to practically sit on your lap, to touch your chest like they know you—Your Grace!” she ground out.
He grunted, but whether he was more agitated at the fact that she’d just used the form of address that he’d tried to forbid her from using or because of her words, she didn’t know. “All right, I get your point. It won’t happen again—And this whole discussion is another good reason why having a glass house is a colossally stupid idea.”
For some reason, his statement caught her off guard, and she giggled despite herself.
But her misplaced amusement seemed like a balm on him, and, while he didn’t laugh, he let out a deep breath—and smiled a little sheepishly. “I’m not interested in her in the least,” he told her at length. “I didn’t know how to get away from her without seeming rude—and when she asked if I’d meet with her for drinks, I told her that I couldn’t.”
Saori wrinkled her nose. “She invited you out for drinks?”
Fai shook his head. “She did, but, as I told you, I’m not even slightly interested in dating her. Why would I when I . . . I mean, we . . .?” Letting out a deep breath, he shook his head. “There’s something here . . . and I think you know it, too, don’t you?”
She blinked, her brain seeming to screech to a sudden stop right over a gully that extended down over a darkened pit that ended in nothingness, and the only thing that kept her, suspended over that chasm, was him—Fai . . . “Do . . . I?”
He stared at her for a long moment before closing the distance between them in a couple of steps. Stopping before her, tilting her chin up with a crooked index finger, he arched an eyebrow as he gazed into her eyes. “Yes,” he said, his voice dropping to a husky tone. “I . . . I think you do . . .”
She grasped his wrist, but whether she was trying to push him back or hold him to her, she didn’t know—and didn’t care. That electric sense of connection was magical, and somewhere in the back of her mind, a voice whispered, told her to remember this moment because that feeling was something she was lucky to have found, even as the tendrils of a heady sense of something wild and wanton unfurled deep inside her. His eyes seemed to glow as he brought up his thumb, ran it over her lips with a feathery light touch. His touch sent a shiver through her, and when he felt it, he smiled a gentle, sweet little smile, one that was enough to bring a stinging to her eyes, a tingling to her nose . . .
He let out a deep breath and let his hand fall away. “We, um . . . We’d better get going if we’re going to make it to the theatre in time for the start of the show,” he said. She heard the hint of regret in his voice, as though he had hated to end the moment as much as she’d hated for it to end, too.
But he stepped past her, held the door open for her. She paused as she headed out of the room, long enough to reach up, to straighten his tie, and he chuckled.