Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Fulcrum: 09 Adventurous

~Chapter Nine~




“And you had dinner with him?”


Kendall stifled a sigh and nodded, avoiding Mimi’s gaze as the latter sat in a round, hanging wicker basket chair, suspended from the ceiling and draped with yards and yards of sheer white gauzy fabric.


Mimi looked entirely crestfallen, but then she smiled, albeit wanly.  “I’m so jealous right now, it isn’t even funny,” she admitted.  “Tell me you had a good time.”


“I had a good time,” Kendall admitted, settling into a thickly cushioned chair across from her best friend.


She hadn’t actually meant to bring up her dinner with Zain Jericho.  The last thing she’d wanted to do was to rub Mimi’s nose in it, as it were.  As fate would have it, though, Mimi had spotted the flowers right away, and from that point on, it was just a matter of time before the cat was out of the bag.  Mimi, true to form, had been both thrilled as well as a little envious.


“Where did he take you?” Mimi demanded, leaning forward slightly as her keen sense of curiosity took over.


“The Hightower,” Kendall said, breaking into a small smile as she propped her heel on the chair cushion and wrapped her arms around her knee.  “It was fantastic, and there was even a private balcony that overlooked the lake . . . We ate dessert outside.”


Mimi heaved a dramatic sigh and smashed her hands over her heart, a little squeal of delight slipping from her.  “And he was a perfect gentleman, right?  Did he give you his jacket?  I mean, it was a little chilly last night . . .”


Despite the lingering worries that had plagued her since her father’s departure, Kendall couldn’t help but to laugh.  “Yes, he was a gentleman; no, he didn’t give me his jacket because it wasn’t really that cold, surprisingly.  I guess that we were shielded from the wind for the most part.  The breeze was nice, though.”


Mimi digested that in silence, her expression almost dreamy as she flopped backward against the pillow-like cushions stared off into space.  She was probably trying to picture the whole thing in her head.  “And what did you do after dinner?  Did he bring you straight home?”


“No . . . We went for a walk on the beach.  He said that they own the stretch of it beside the complex.”


“Oh, that sounds romantic,” Mimi sighed.  She indulged in whatever she was thinking for another moment before sitting up straight, pinning Kendall with a knowing stare.  “So . . .?”


Kendall blinked.  “So, what?” she prompted when Mimi gestured impatiently for more information.


Mimi rolled her eyes but giggled.  “So are the two of you officially dating now?”


The brief reprieve that Kendall had been enjoying shattered like a glass on the marble floor.  Shifting her gaze out of the windows she shrugged.  “No,” she said in what she hoped was a casual tone of voice.  “In fact, I don’t think I’ll be seeing him again.”


“Why not?” Mimi demanded.  For a moment, she looked entirely shocked, but then, she frowned.  “This isn’t because of me, is it?” she asked, shaking her head to reinforce her words.  “Kendall, I was just a little girl, and you can’t really think that I ever actually believed that I—”


“It’s not that,” Kendall broke in, forcing another smile for Mimi’s benefit.  “It just so happens my father told me that he’s arranged my marriage.”


She was reasonably proud of the way her voice held steady, giving away nothing of the turbulent emotions that still tied her stomach in knots.  Too bad Mimi knew her far too well to buy into her façade.  “Oh, that’s . . .” Trailing off, Mimi seemed to be searching for the right word to describe her thoughts.  Suddenly, though, she gasped, sitting up a little straighter as she pointed a finger at Kendall.  “Tell him!  Tell your father about the Fourth!” she blurted, her voice raising an octave in her excitement.  “Tell him that you’ve already been on a date with him and everything!  I mean, come on!  You’re a general’s daughter, for God’s sake, right?  So you’d be perfect for him, and, let’s face it, no matter who your father’s chosen, he cannot possibly hold a candle to the future tai-youkai!”


Shaking her head, Kendall struggled to hold onto her nonchalance.  “I can’t,” she insisted.  “Besides, even if I could—even if Father did raise the issue with the Third, don’t you think that the Fourth might think the whole thing was just some kind of ploy?  Some kind of marriage trap?”  Shaking her head a little more forcefully, Kendall pinned Mimi with a stubborn look.  “It wouldn’t be right.”


Mimi snorted.  “And it’s all right to marry some guy you’ve never met?  Some guy you don’t care a thing for?  How is that fair?”


“It’s not about ‘fair’,” Kendall insisted, though in her own ears, her voice sounded tired.  “I-If we don’t suit, Father . . .”


She couldn’t bring herself to say the rest of the thought out loud because she wasn’t entirely sure that she believed it herself.  If she told him that she simply couldn’t marry him, what then?  Would Titus listen to her?  Would he call off the engagement?  Or would he discount whatever she had to say, chalk it up to her reluctance to get married at all?


“Who is it?” Mimi asked in a much gentler tone.


“William Marner,” Kendall replied.  Then she laughed—a harsh, almost hysterical sound—as she covered her mouth and fiercely tried to bite it back.  “Maybe Father’s right.  Maybe I’m worried about nothing.”


“M . . . Maybe,” Mimi drawled slowly, sounding anything but positive.  “I mean, my brother knows him from the academy, I think, and he never said anything bad about him . . .” Nibbling at her bottom lip, she trailed off as her gaze turned a bit distant for a moment.  Then she shook her head, as though willing away whatever thoughts she’d just had, and she smiled.  “Don’t worry about it, Kendall.  I . . . I know that’s easier said than done, but . . .”  Glancing at her watch, Mimi bit her lip and cast her another fretful glance.


Forcing yet another smile, Kendall sighed, tucking a few errant strands of hair behind her ear.  “It’s all right,” she reassured her friend.  “Now you’d better hurry or you’re going to be late for dinner with your parents.”


“I can call them, tell them that you need me,” Mimi offered.


“No, don’t you dare,” Kendall insisted.  “Your parents don’t visit you very often, and I’m fine . . . just really tired.  I think I’ll just take a hot bath and go to bed early.”


Mimi didn’t look convinced, but she knew better than anyone that once Kendall made up her mind, it was pretty near impossible to change it.


Rolling her eyes, Kendall stood and rounded the coffee table to grasp Mimi’s hands and tug her to her feet.  “Go,” she said, leaving no room for argument in her tone.  “Have fun.  Give your mother a hug and kiss for me.”


Heaving a sigh meant to state her protest, Mimi quickly reached out to hug Kendall.  “Okay, but promise me that you’ll call me if you need me.”


“I promise,” Kendall vowed.


Following Mimi out of the sun room and through the apartment, she opened the door and held it for Mimi, who spared a moment to stare hard at her before she finally gave in with another sigh and left.


Kendall closed the door and leaned back against it.  She understood Mimi’s feelings, and she was grateful, too.  That didn’t really make it any easier to deal with.  The last thing she wanted or needed was for Mimi to feel sorry for her, especially when Kendall was so close to doing that herself already.


A curt knock on the door behind her wrung a little yelp from her as she hopped away and swung around, grasping her blouse over her heart.  For a split second, she thought that Mimi might have forgotten something, but no.  Even through the heavy metal door, she could sense it—his aura.  But why . . .?


“Kendall?  Open the door.”


Wincing at his muffled voice and the hint of worry underlying his tone, Kendall reached for the handle, but jerked her hand back before she could turn the knob.  No, it was better this way, right?  She didn’t dare open the door.


Not even for Zain Jericho.


Especially not for Zain Jericho . . .


Willing herself to step back, Kendall made herself walk away, heaving a quiet sigh as she headed for the kitchen.  With a shaking hand, she filled a glass with water and gulped it down in an entirely unladylike fashion before refilling it again and slugging it back, too.  Then she set the glass upside down on a clean towel and gripped the edge of the counter tight, closing her eyes, breathing deep as her nerves slowly quieted.


It was entirely unfair, wasn’t it?  For the first time in her life, she’d met someone that made her want to try something different, something daring, and yet there was nothing she could do about it.  If her whole life was going to be dictated to her just like that, what was the point to it?  Was she no more than a bargaining chip to be played when the time was right . . .?


Letting go of the counter with a tired sigh, Kendall turned on the water tap once more to splash her face and fumbled with the drawer beside her until she grabbed a kitchen towel.


Dabbing at her face, she shuffled out of the kitchen and into the living room, her gaze catching on the piano.  Ordinarily, she would sit down, play for hours, forget the thoughts that plagued her mind.  This time, however . . . There was no solace to be found, not there.


“So what, exactly, did your father have to say to you?”


Smothering a gasp, Kendall swung around, only to find him leaning in the doorway of the morning room, arms crossed over his chest as he lounged against the frame, hair glowing almost bluish in the brightness of the sunshine pouring through the bank of windows behind him, his features carefully blanked, and when her eyes met his, she couldn’t look away.  Glowing, they were, those eyes, staring at her as though he could see straight into her mind, and in the silence, he dared her to lie.


“My . . . my lord . . .”






Zain wasn’t sure how long he stood there in the archway, conducting the silent war of wills with the woman who so defiantly tried to stand her ground before him.  He’d seen grown men cower long before she finally heaved a sigh, a trembling hand reaching up to rub her face.  Delicate and simple, yet it was deceptive, and he knew that, too.  No, maybe not ‘simple’ . . . That wasn’t a good way to describe her.  He’d met enough women to know how many of them so loosely held their integrity, how easily they’d do or say things that they thought that he wanted to hear.  She was different, Kendall Farington, and maybe that was the real reason why he was so drawn to her . . .


The moments stretched out between them; he waited for her to speak, and maybe she was doing the same.  In the end, she was the one who finally broke the silence that had fallen, her voice soft and sad and a little distant.  “H-How did you—?”


“Through the window, of course,” he interrupted, jerking his head once to indicate the room from which he had entered.


He saw her gaze flicker from him to the room beyond and back again.  The windows were open, yes, but the screens should have prevented him from being able to access them.  Should have, but didn’t.  A moment of curiosity, and then a little half-nod when she realized how he’d done it.  “Your aethereal form,” she concluded in a tone that indicated that she ought to have realized that he should be fully capable of such a thing before.


“You’re ignoring my question,” he reminded her, unwilling to take his eyes off of her.


“It’s not important,” she muttered, turning away from him, putting a little more distance between them.


“Important enough for you to cancel your plans with me,” he pointed out.  “Important enough for you not to answer the door when I knocked.”  When she still offered no explanation, Zain shrugged away from the wall, stuffing his hands into his pockets as he slowly wandered toward her.  She didn’t retreat again, but she looked like she might well want to, and Zain had to wonder why.  “You don’t want to tell me.”


She sighed, more of a breath than a real sound, wrapping her arms tightly over her stomach as her gaze skittered away.  Clad in a simple white dress that struck him as being just a little old fashioned, she seemed to blend in with her surroundings.  Everything in feminine shades of whites and off-whites, touches of pinks, dusty rose.  Even the white lacquered baby grand piano with the soft rose colored velvet cushion . . . Made just for her?  Probably.


And yet, it struck him, just how very out of place she seemed, like a child playing dress-up in her mother’s clothes; like a flower struggling to grow through a crack in the pavement.  These things her seemed to compose the perfect surroundings, and still, there was a stilted comfort to it all, a contrived sort of feel, as though she had been selecting the things in her own home more for how it might appear to someone else and not at all what she might want for herself . . .


Drawing a deep breath as he shifted his gaze back to the woman in question once more, he frowned when it became apparent that she was not going to offer any kind of explanation.  “You still don’t want to tell me about it?”


“I just . . . It’s really nothing,” she insisted.


He nodded.  Maybe he didn’t know exactly why she was acting so strangely, but that didn’t really matter, and as much as he might want to know the reason for it, the desire to reassure her was far stronger.  He supposed that if he were to stop and ask himself just why that might be, the answer might well surprise him, but, given the situation, he didn’t stop to take the time to analyze it all.


It was bad enough when he’d knocked on her door, heard her soft gasp on the other side, bad enough when he’d sensed the retreat of her youki.  A strange sort of irritation had taken hold of him then, and that was the reason he’d done something as rash as dissolve his body to fly in through her window.  Even through the door, he’d sensed it, her absolute desolation, and he wasn’t sure if he hated the idea that she was willing to suffer alone or if there really wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it.


In the end, he’d simply reacted on instinct—a foreign sense of her upset that had goaded him into doing what he’d done, and now, there he was, but the problem remained: how could he possibly bridge the gap that seemed as wide as the sea that had somehow managed to open up between them in the space of a few hours . . .?


“Okay,” he agreed, conceding more to her than he ever had to anyone else before.  Careful to keep his movements slow, lest she should run—why he thought that she might, he wasn’t sure, but for some reason, he knew that he was treading on very dangerous ground—he sat on the sofa, leaning forward, steepling his fingers between his knees.  “I’ll ask you something else, then.”


She shot him a cursory glance, her expression composed, but the wild look in her eyes couldn’t be hidden.  “All right . . .”


“Did you have a good time last night?  I thought you did, but . . . was I wrong?”


She seemed surprised and confused by his question in turns, but she bit her lip and slowly nodded.  She looked like her answer had cost her dearly, and he had to wonder why that was.  “N-No, it’s not that,” she whispered.  “I . . . I did.  Being with you . . .”


He smiled just a little.  “Good.  So did I.”


She didn’t look like she quite believed him, but the brightness in her gaze was enough to encourage him.  “It’s nice of you to say,”  she replied with a shake of her head. “I know I wasn’t exactly the best company last night.”


“Why?  Because you didn’t giggle and flirt and fall all over me?  Thanks, but I’ve had quite enough of that lately myself.”  Breaking into a soft chuckle, he pushed himself to his feet again.  “You’re the first woman I’ve met who has truly acted like she was paying attention to me, not simply playing a game of ‘let’s catch the next tai-youkai’.”


A strange sort of expression flickered over her face, but was gone before he had a chance to discern it.  Then she smiled, albeit wanly.  “I would guess that you are quite the catch.”


He blinked for a moment as it dawned on him that she was teasing him.  “Am I?” he countered mildly.  “If that’s the case, then I would guess that you won’t mind this . . .”


She tried to pull away when he grasped her hand and tugged her toward the door.  Suddenly, though, she giggled, and immediately smashed her free hand over her mouth to stifle the sound.  “I . . . I shouldn’t . . .” she protested, giving her arm another tug.


He held on tightly, leading her out of the apartment.  “You want to do something you’ve never done before, don’t you?” he asked over his shoulder as she leaned to the side to snag her purse off the table near the door.


“Like what?” she asked, the smile on her face timid yet bright.  There was a breathless quality in her voice that was wholly endearing, and she couldn’t hide the sparkle that lit her gaze.


“You’ll see,” he teased, stopping long enough to allow her to lock her door before tugging her toward the stairwell.  He paused long enough to cast her a somewhat apologetic glance.  “You don’t mind, do you?  I cannot abide elevators.”


“So the future tai-youkai has a weakness?” she replied.  “Elevators, huh?”


He snorted and rolled his eyes.  “I wouldn’t call it a weakness.  I simply choose not to use them if I can help it—the same with escalators.”


“And if you don’t have the choice?”


“I can use them,” he reiterated as they descended the stairs, “but I prefer not to.”


“You sound like my brother,” she concluded with a little shrug.  “He hates them, too.”


Zain snorted before he could stop himself.


“You know my brother?”


He considered lying for about ten seconds before he gave up on that idea.  After all, if she ever mentioned him to said-brother, then it would become blatantly obvious, just what he really did think.  “He and I have never seen eye-to-eye,” Zain replied, choosing his words carefully.


She seemed intrigued by his statement, however.  “Is that right?  How do you know him?”


“We were both at the academy at the same time,” Zain said.  “If he challenged me once, he did so a hundred times over the years.”


He could feel her eyes on him but didn’t turn to verify it.  “Challenged you?  But I thought—”


“You like him, don’t you?  Your brother?  I defeated him, but I didn’t kill him—and now, I’m rather glad I let him live since you actually do seem to like him, so if I had killed him back then, I’m pretty sure that your opinion of me wouldn’t be very favorable, now would it?”


She rolled her eyes.  “You say that as though it was a foregone conclusion that you’d win in a real fight against him,” she chided.  “I’ll have you know that Tucker isn’t nearly the pushover you make him out to be.”


Zain snorted loudly and shoved the door at the bottom of the stairwell open a little harder than he’d intended.  “And you make it sound like you doubt my ability to fight,” he rebutted.


“Well, I don’t doubt that you can,” she said slowly, thoughtfully, “but I’ve never seen you fight—and I have seen Tucker.”


Biting his tongue on the scathing reply that formed in his head, Zain tamped down the urge to let Kendall know exactly what he thought of her statement.


Beat me, indeed,’ he scoffed.


Yes, well, put your bruised ego away for a moment, Zain, and look at the bigger picture,’ his youkai-voice remarked.


Oh?  And what would that bigger picture be?


His youkai chuckled, as though Zain had said something extremely amusing.  ‘Does it really matter?  You’ve at least accomplished one thing, you know.’


Zain grunted unintelligibly as he pulled the front door open and held it for her to pass through.  ‘What’s that?


His youkai sighed though the amusement didn’t wane.  ‘She’s smiling, Zain.’


He blinked and glanced at Kendall, only to find that she was, indeed, smiling, and this time, it was a real smile—one that made the entire conversation worthwhile, even if he still smarted from her insinuation that her brother could defeat him.  But he stared at her for another minute before letting out a little sigh and falling into step beside her.


So she is . . .’ he mused, sneaking another surreptitious glance at her.  ‘So she is.’


 <<< 08: Expectations

10: Carefree >>>



All the characters in The Fulcrum belong to me.
Any similarities to any person, alive or dead, real or implied, are coincidental.



posted by Sueric at 12:16 am  

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