Since he didn't react to her presence, she went into the kitchen and began pulling vegetables and meat out of the freezer for breakfast. She wiped down the fine layer of dust that accumulated over two and half weeks of vacancy. Then she did the same in the bathroom, putting out fresh towels. Finally she went to her bedroom and put away the clothes she had taken with her to the cabin and pulled out a fresh set for the morning.
When she was done with the prepping, she sat on the small couch. Jaze still had not moved or spoken.
She broke the silence. “Just so you know, I'm up at five in the morning. I'll make breakfast, and put it in the oven to keep warm for you and Keeri; then I'll clean the kitchen. I'm out the door at six thirty, so I can get my locker situated and get a work out before the eight AM briefing; if you want the jeep, I suggest that you be up and ready to go by that time. Unlike the couch at the cabin, this one isn't very comfortable for sleeping on, so I'm not giving up my bed. However, you are welcome to it, when I'm not here.” She paused. He still hadn't moved or flinched; nothing to show that he heard her. “Look, I'm on duty for a full seventy-two hours, minimum. Whatever's got you upset, you might want to let it out now, instead of stewing on it for that time.”
She picked up a magazine from an end table and began to read. Half an hour later, he still had not budged. Setting the magazine down, she stood up, walked over to him and kissed him on the cheek. “Goodnight,” she said quietly.
Sometime after she settled into bed, the door to her bedroom opened silently and Jessi heard the soft sounds of someone trying to change in the dark. Considering he was unfamiliar with the layout of the room, he was doing a fairly good job at it, she thought. Expecting him to ask for a blanket and a pillow, she was surprised when she felt him climb into bed with her.
“What are you doing?” she whispered.
“You said that the couch was uncomfortable and that you weren't giving up your bed; you never said that I couldn't join you.” His mouth was right next to her ear.
“You could at least ask rather than sneaking in here after refusing to speak with me.”
“I was angry,” he admitted. “I don't like people talking about me or making fun of me.”
“Jaze.” Jessi attempted to roll over in the small, cramped bed.
“Shh.” He stopped her movements. “I'm impulsive, remember?” He stopped and paused. “Do you think it's possible?”
“Is what possible?”
“What Keeri said about the counter-terrorism?”
This time she successfully rolled over and looked at him. In the darkness she could not tell if he had put up the mask she'd seen him wear, the one he wore when he tried to protect her or Keeri or when he thought he was vulnerable. She doubted he was even aware that he does it.
“Do you think it is?” she asked in return.
“You should have gone into psychology instead of firefighting.” he evaded.
“I had thought about it. My family expected it – well all except Keeri and my father.”
“So why didn't you?”
“We aren't talking about me. You are either going to answer the question or we are going to sleep,” she stated firmly.
“Goodnight,” he whispered, brushing his lips against hers.
When Jessi's alarm went off the next morning, she had curled into Jaze and he had wrapped his arms around her.
The morning went just as she described it, except that he ate with her, instead of Keeri. They were out the door right on time.
He dropped her off in front of the station. Parking the jeep, he got out and pulled her bag out for her and set it on the ground, which earned him an eye roll and a small smile.
As he pulled her into a hug, she laughed. Gradually, he had learned not to react to her laughter, but he still asked, “What's so funny?”
“You're acting all possessive.”
“If I had any doubts of this being your first Imprint, they're gone now.”
“Maybe I'm just naturally protective.” He kissed her with a bit more force and emotion than their previous kisses.
They broke apart several minutes later after multiple cat-calls from those inside the station.
“I have to go,” he said reluctantly.
“Yeah.” Her voice was breathless and sad as she stood awkwardly. “Good luck with my aunt,” was all she could think to say.
“See you in a few days.” He climbed into the jeep. As he drove off, he left Jessi thinking that it would be one long shift.
Jaze pulled into the parking lot of the Adornet Repair Shop and parked. He got out of the jeep and looked around. There were three oversized doors, all open. He could hear the various sounds of a thriving garage and it sounded like music to his ears. He could smell grease and rubber. It was wonderful.
He walked through the first door and headed for the man under the hood of the nearest car. The noise level inside the garage was so loud he had to shout.
“I’m looking for Liana Adornet,” he said. The man raised his head just enough to get a view of Jaze.
“She should be in her office. Head straight back.” He pointed at the rear of the garage. “You can’t miss it.”
Jaze found the office: it had a large glass window facing the garage. A brown haired woman was sitting in the chair behind a desk, typing on a computer terminal. The desk was cluttered with piles of paper. She looked to be in her late thirties to early forties.
Jaze knocked on the window to get her attention. She looked up and Jaze could see a slight resemblance between her and Keeri. She waved for him to come in.
Jaze opened the door and stepped in, closing it behind him. It buffered the noise just enough to make talking easier.
“That’s me. You must be Jaze.” She rose and stepped around the desk. “Rine called and said I should expect you.”
“Thank you for seeing me. Jaze Tillet.” He extended his hand and she shook it. She had a strong shake.
“I hear you’re a mechanic and you’re looking for a job.” She was shorter than Jessi and Keeri; petite, in fact. Her brown hair was cut very short but feminine. She leaned back against the desk.
“Yes, ma’am.” Jaze didn’t want to assume she’d just give him a job, so he thought it best to be honest and answer all of her questions to the best of his ability.
“You’ve Imprinted with my niece Jessi.” She stated rather than asked. Jaze nodded. “She’s a good girl. She’s a good judge of character.” Jaze didn’t know what to say to that so he didn’t say anything. “I owe Rine a favor, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to blindly give you a job. I also don’t believe in nepotism.”
“I don’t want hand-outs,” Jaze told her and she smiled and nodded.
“Good. I’ll start you on a trial basis. You work today and I’ll be watching. If I like what I see, you get the job.”
“That’s more than fair.” Jaze felt his chest loosen. He hadn’t even realized he was nervous.
“Rine said there’d been an accident, that you lost everything. No tools?” Jaze shook his head. After dinner the other night, Rine had pulled him aside to tell him about his sister’s garage and what he was going to tell her when he called about getting Jaze a job. Rine had flatly said he expected Jaze to repay the girls for any costs incurred in taking care of him. He’d also said Jaze needed to become self-sufficient enough to support a wife should he expect his blessing for a future with Jessi. Jaze hadn’t known whether to be angry at the implications or happy Rine was giving him a chance.
“If you work out, I’ll provide you with tools. I’ll take ten percent of your salary to pay for them until they’re paid off.” She waited with a raised eyebrow. Jaze nodded. Again, she was being more than fair. “So, you ready to meet the crew?” Liana stepped around him and opened the door. Jaze followed her and closed the door behind him.
Jaze pulled into the apartment complex and parked in the spot Jessi had identified as hers. He shut off the jeep and just sat.
It had been hard to let her go. The last two weeks had been a whirlwind. His instincts were telling him the feelings he had developed so quickly for Jessi were unusual for him, but very real. He had a nagging feeling inside he’d been looking for a partner for some time and every possibility until now had turned out to be a disaster.
He felt as if he’d been denying a fundamental need in previous relationships. It didn’t matter he couldn’t remember specifics about those relationships. He just knew he’d never felt so comfortable with a woman before. He was meant to meet Jessi and spend the rest of his life with her. Every moment he spent with her just reinforced that feeling.
Now if he could just shake the voice in the back of his head warning him to be careful and figure out a way to get Keeri on his side, he could survive the next three days.
At least he could tell Keeri he had a job.
The girls’ aunt had pointed him at a car in the garage and at a row of clipboards on the wall. He had quickly found the proper clipboard and read it. The engine light had come on, so the owner brought it in to have it checked out.
Jaze had started the car and listened to it, popped the hood and checked a few things. All of the fluids were full, the belts in good condition. There was no sign of excessive wear, the engine compartment was relatively clean – unlike Keeri’s SUV – and nothing was leaking.
He had started the car again and stared at the engine light. In his mind, he had a list of what could cause the light to come on. He went over each thing he had checked off it and pulled up the information screen. It showed how many miles had been driven overall, how many since the last time the car had been filled up, what average mileage it was getting. The average mileage number seemed low for the model of car.
Jaze had shut down the car and opened the flap covering the gas cap. He took hold of it and started to turn it only to find it wasn’t sealed. Trying not to smile, he tightened it, listening for the clicks that proved it was totally closed. He started the car a third time. The engine light was not on.
He then found the owner, a woman in her forties, and explained that she hadn’t tightened the gas cap sufficiently. Air was getting into the gas mix and was causing a large drop in the average mileage. The car was programmed to consider such a drop an engine problem, hence the engine light came on.
“Just make sure when you close it, it clicks at least twice,” he told her. She’d thanked him and drove away happy.
An oil change and tire repair later, Liana had told him he had the job and what hours she expected him to work.
It was a wonderful feeling to have a job and to be working again. It gave him something useful to do and a way to make money. He needed to pay back the girls and save enough money to get his own place and a car. He couldn’t borrow Jessi’s forever.
He looked towards the apartment building entrance and forced himself out of the jeep. It was going to be strange spending time with Keeri without Jessi there to be a buffer, but he’d have to get used to it. He just needed to do his best not to upset her.
Jaze used the key Jessi had given him to open the main door. He climbed the stairs to the girls’ apartment door and unlocked it. As soon as he opened it, he announced himself so as not to frighten Keeri. She had told them once they arrived she’d be spending a few days compiling her notes before she had to report to the University for her fall teaching assignment.
Ajani was lying on the floor in front of the couch and rose when he saw him, coming over with his tail wagging. Jaze reached down to pet him in greeting as he closed and locked the door.
Keeri stuck her head out of the kitchen. “How did it go with Aunt Liana?” she asked, a towel in her hands. Jaze could smell food, which made his stomach growl. He hadn’t had any lunch in his zeal to impress Liana.
“I got the job after a day of tests.” He showed her his dirty hands.
“That’s good.” She completed wiping her hands on the towel. “Dinner will be ready in a little while. Why don’t you get cleaned up first?” She disappeared back into the kitchen before he could say anything else.
Jaze went into the bedroom to get some clean clothes, stared at the bed and smiled sheepishly. He hadn’t even considered Jessi’s reaction when he’d entered the night before and climbed into the bed with her. It had just felt right. He hadn’t been kidding when he’d told her he was impulsive. It might even be his middle name. He had been surprised when she didn’t kick him out.
She probably would have if she’d known how much he wanted her.
With a sigh, he went into the bathroom, quickly showering and dressing. He came out to the sound of the television. It was a local news show.
He turned towards the kitchen, noticing the small table was set for two. There was barely room for three place settings: they’d have to fill their plates in the kitchen.
Jaze walked to the doorway into the kitchen and stopped. Keeri was tossing a salad.
“Anything I can help with?” he asked to be polite, even though it looked as if she had everything under control. A skillet had several pork medallions in it sizzling and a pan held mixed vegetables, which were simmering.
“You can get our plates. It’s about ready and the dirty dishes are yours.” She gave him a look as if she was expecting him to argue.
“Deal. I do remember I’m not a very good cook.” His smile was lopsided. “I can boil noodles and microwave sauce. That’s about it.”
“That can’t be all you ate.” Keeri opened the refrigerator and removed several bottles of salad dressing. “You look too healthy.”
“I went to restaurants or got take-out a lot.” He was surprised he remembered that right off the bat. He never knew when a small fact about his past would throw itself out there.
“The steak receipt.” Keeri chuckled, remembering what they had found in his water logged pockets.
“Let me get the plates.”
Once they had their plates full, they went to the table and sat, Ajani lying down beneath the table between them. They ate mostly in silence, the television providing background noise. Jaze tried to think of something to say, something that would put Keeri more at ease. He knew, from the conversation between the sisters that he’d overheard, she still thought he could be a terrorist or a counter-terrorist.
When they had returned from the store and Jessi had revealed to him the Gantesen link to terrorism, he had dismissed the possibility that he was one instantly. Counter-terrorism? That rang a bell within him.
“What do I have to do to for you trust me?” he finally blurted out, unable to stand the unease any longer. Keeri drew in a sharp breath and looked at him like a deer in the headlights before looking down at her plate. “I can’t help that I’m Gantenese,” he told her, setting down his fork. “I can’t believe I was in the area above the falls because I was a terrorist. I’m still not convinced I was above the falls. The thought of terrorists, of those Spectrans you mentioned, makes me angry. I don’t know why.”
“Memory loss is a convenient way to avoid things,” she said.
Jaze laughed, leaning back into his seat. “You think I’m making this up?”
“No. Not completely.”
“Not completely?” He spread his hands in frustration.
“I think you were genuinely confused when you finally woke up.” Keeri grabbed her plate and walked to the kitchen. Jaze got up and followed her.
“And now?” he asked, propping himself against the door-frame as she scraped off her plate and placed it into the sink.
“We’ve only known you for two weeks and you’ve already Imprinted yourself on Jessi, claiming you couldn’t even remember what Imprinting was.” She turned on him with angry brown eyes, her whole body tense.
“So that’s what this is really about.” Jaze crossed his arms over his chest. “You don’t want Jessi Imprinted to me.”
“I want my sister happy.” Keeri leaned back against the sink, her hands fisted at her sides. “You don’t even remember having a family. You have to have a sister. How would you feel in my shoes if some guy came out of nowhere and knocked her off her feet?”
Jaze thought for a moment. Concern flowed up from another lost memory. He did have a sister and he was protective of her. He couldn’t picture her in his mind and didn’t know where she was, but he knew in his heart she existed.
“I have no intention of hurting Jessi,” he told her. She huffed and shook her head.
“So you have the best of intentions. What happens when someone shows up knowing who you are, Imprinted to you? Jessi’s going into this thinking she’ll be your First Wife. That’s important. I don’t want her hurt.”
“I know I wasn’t Imprinted before now. Don’t ask me how I know, but I do. Jessi is the first woman I’ve ever even considered becoming attached to permanently.” A little thrill rolled up his spine as he said it.
“So you’ll become Enthralled to Jessi without your family’s backing?” Keeri looked incredulous.
“What difference does it make what my family thinks?” As far as he was concerned, no one else had any say in how he conducted his life except Jessi.
Keeri had a sudden thought. “Jaze, do you remember your family’s Enthrallment Knot?”
She took his repeat of her question as a no and groaned. “Do you even know what an Enthrallment Knot is?” His frown became embarrassed. “Oh Lord.” Keeri covered her mouth with her hand. She didn’t know whether to laugh or add it to her list of reasons to be angry with him. Rather than state the obvious, ‘How can you not remember it?’ and make matters worse, she forced her tense muscles to relax. “Jessi, you owe me big time,” she muttered under her breath. “We better find out what it is.”
Keeri motioned for him to allow her to leave the kitchen since he was still blocking the doorway. He turned sideways to let her by. She motioned again for him to follow her and went to her bedroom, heading directly for her desk and laptop. Jaze stopped in the doorway.
She pulled out the chair and sat, turning on the laptop. When she saw where Jaze had stopped, she smiled at him in what she hoped was a friendly manner. “You can come in. I’m not going to bite your head off.” He looked doubtful but walked over to her side.
“What are you doing?” he asked, folding his arms over his chest as he watched the monitor come to life.
“There’s a database that carries all of the Enthrallment Knots,” she said as she looked up at him. “Did you and Jessi discuss Enthrallment?”
“A little,” he admitted, somewhat reluctantly.
“I’m not trying to be nosy. Whether or not you and Jessi plan to become Enthralled is your business, but to make it official, you have to have an Enthrallment Ceremony.” She noted he was starting to look more confused than embarrassed. To give him a moment, she turned her attention back to the laptop.
She typed in the name of the site and watched it come up. The home page showed a man’s and woman’s right arms with an intricate matching tattoo around their wrists. Out of the corner of her eye, Keeri saw Jaze lean down over her shoulder to get a better look. “That is an Enthrallment Knot,” she told him. “A couple becomes Enthralled if they mutually voice their commitment to love each other forever during or after intercourse. It doesn’t become official by our laws until both have had the man’s family’s Enthrallment Knot tattooed to their right wrists. That happens at the Enthrallment Ceremony, which is witnessed by the couple’s immediate families,” she said, feeling as if she was instructing one of her younger half-sisters.
“How can I possibly not remember this?” Jaze asked, his voice filled with self-loathing. Keeri was wondering more about that, too, but now wasn’t the time to go into it, so she chose not to respond to his words.
“Why don’t we find out what yours is?” Keeri typed in the name Tillet and hit search. It took a few moments. Instead of a picture, the screen showed a drawing of an intricate pattern of lines curled and knotted together with something that looked like feathers interwoven through it.
“Why is there only a drawing?” Jaze asked as Keeri scrolled down. There was a note that the no Tillet had come forward when the database was being created to have their Knot photographed. “Is that unusual?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Keeri admitted. “I haven’t looked around in here much. I haven’t had a reason to. Some people are very private. I’ve heard there are even people who are afraid someone else will copy their Knot.” She printed the design and handed him the paper. “Now you have it, at least.”
Jaze looked down at the paper, wanting the Knot to trigger some memory. His parents would have had them but he couldn’t remember ever seeing it before. He traced it with his finger, his eyes being drawn to the feathers. As he traced it, he could almost feel the feathers softness.
“Thank you.” He raised his eyes to Keeri. She was watching him, looking for a reaction.
“Does it ring any bells?” she wanted to know. He shrugged.
“Something about the feathers is familiar, but that’s all.”
She shut down the laptop and rose, forcing him to step back to keep them from bumping into each other. In addition to the Knot maybe triggering a memory, she had hoped explaining the Enthrallment Ceremony might encourage him to seek out his family. He’d not once asked them to help him find them. Was he maybe hiding from them?
“That’s good, at least. I want to watch the evening news and you have dishes to do.” She walked past him back into the living room and plopped onto the couch, Within seconds, Ajani was up on the couch with her, laying his head on her lap. She scratched his ears as her attention turned to the television.
Jaze took the printout of the Knot to Jessi’s bedroom and laid it on top of the dresser before clearing the table and starting on the dishes.
Once he was done, he got himself a cup of coffee and returned to the living room to find it empty. The television was still on the news channel, so he sat down and watched.
There were the typical news reports: weather, traffic, crime. Jaze watched and listened, finding nothing of interest. He had a feeling just sitting around to watch television wasn’t his normal pastime.
Just before commercials, a teaser was given for upcoming stories that included a shooting at a restaurant and a Spectran attack on Earth. That caught his interest.
By the time the commercials were over, Keeri was back in the kitchen, rummaging through the refrigerator. After a moment she joined him with two bowls of strawberries covered in whipped cream, Ajani on her heels.
“Don’t get used to it,” she warned him as she extended one of the bowls to him. Jaze thanked her and started into it as the report about the attack on Earth started.
The report stated the lull in Spectran attacks had been broken when a Spectran mechanical beast dubbed the ‘Piranha’ had swum to the Norfolk Virginia Naval Yards and attacked United States naval vessels. Several people had video-taped the attack and the newscaster played them. Jaze put down the bowl and leaned towards the television for a better look.
“Why do the Spectrans imitate living creatures?” Keeri asked with a look of disgust as one of the attacked vessels exploded.
“That’s the million dollar question,” Jaze answered, his arms on his thighs, his hands dangling between his knees.
The newscaster then stated the final video captured G-Force’s response just as the large blue and red ship came into view above the destruction.
“Took them long enough,” Keeri quipped, still eating her desert. She didn’t notice the narrow-eyed gaze Jaze gave her for a second before returning his attention to the television.
“Blow it up,” he muttered under his breath as the G-Force command ship flew in tight circles over the Piranha. “What are you waiting for? An invitation?” The ship kept flying around as Jaze’s eyes grew wider and wider. “Just blow it up!” he demanded just as the bright trail of missiles became visible from the ship. The missiles hit the Piranha, which erupted into flames.
“Do you always yell at the television?” Keeri wanted to know, leaning away from him. His face was flushed.
“Any moron knows you have to blow those damn mechs up,” he spat at the newscaster.
“And you know this how?” she asked.
He slowly turned narrowed eyes to her. “You mean to tell me you wouldn’t have blown it up given the chance?”
Keeri chewed on a strawberry. She had to admit he was right, when she thought about it, so she shrugged her shoulders.
The next report was of a shooting at a restaurant in the seedier section of Donotrep. An argument between two men had escalated to the point one had pulled a gun and shot the other. The restaurant was called The Black Jade.
“That’s one of them!” Keeri pointed her fork at the screen.
“One of what?” Jaze asked, getting back to his bowl of strawberries.
“One of the restaurants you ate at.” Keeri jumped up and rushed back to her room. She returned with a piece of paper and handed it to him. “This was one of the receipts that was in your wallet beside your ID. When you said the last thing you remembered was eating a steak, I figured that’s where you had done it.”
Jaze stared at the receipt. Everything else on it had been washed off by the river except the name The Black Jade. He sighed, his shoulders slumping. “Don’t tell me. That part of town in a hot bed of alien activity.”
“Yeah,” she conceded.
Jaze finished his strawberries and got up. “I’m going to bed,” he told her, taking the bowl to the kitchen. He washed it and retreated. Keeri finished hers, all of her concerns coming back again. It couldn’t all be coincidence, could it?
Jaze woke suddenly, feeling as though something was crawling on him in the bed. He kicked off the blanket and looked down to see something black on his legs. He reached down to one of the black things and pulled up an ant size of his hand.
With a yell, he kicked and slapped at his legs and fell off the bed in his haste to get them off him, banging his arm on the wall…
Keeri woke to a yell and loud thump that startled her awake. It sounded like it had come from Jessi’s room. She got up, grabbing the robe she had thrown on her chair. She hadn’t worn it in a while but had no intention of running around in her pajamas around Jaze.
She tied the sash as she got to Jessi’s door and knocked. There was just enough light coming from the large living room window that she didn’t need to turn on a lamp to see. “Jaze, are you all right?” She heard another thump and didn’t wait. She opened the door to find him on the floor, cursing as he untangled himself from his sheet and blanket. “What happened?” she asked, trying to decide whether to be concerned or to laugh at the look on his face.
“What does it look like? I fell out of bed,” he snapped, finally able to get to his feet. He was only in his briefs and Keeri was glad she hadn’t turned on the lights. She could feel her cheeks flaming.
“You’re okay?” she asked, turning away. He tossed the sheet and blanket onto the bed.
“I’m fine. Go back to bed.”
“If you’re sure.” She moved back as he approached and walked around her. She watched him go into the bathroom and decided it wasn’t worth pursuing. She went back to bed.
Each day Jaze went to work, on his way to and from work, he took a different route to learn or relearn the city. From the restaurant receipt that Keeri showed him, he knew he must have spent at least a little time in Donotrep, so he had been somewhat familiar with it before, but how much? He thought about going to the restaurant on his own, but decided that if the place had anything to do with his memory loss, numbness, or headaches, he should have someone with him. He was still having problems every few days, but he had stopped mentioning it for fear the girls would mention it to their father and Rine would demand Jaze abide by their agreement: if the symptoms persisted, he would see a neurologist.
He had thought about asking Keeri to go until his second nightmare had awakened her at two in the morning. He dreamt of giant flowers growing outside the entrance of the apartment. When Jessi and Keeri had gone out, the flowers had attacked them like giant Venus Flytraps. Keeri said his yelling of her and Jessi’s names had been what awakened her.
After that, Keeri had been a little nicer to him, so he’d asked to take her SUV into Aunt Liana’s shop to clean up the engine. She’d agreed and been speechless when he informed her he’d not only cleaned it up but changed the oil, all of the worn fan felts and rotated the tires. She’d even said it was nice to have a mechanic in the apartment.
On the third morning, instead of going to work, he went to the fire station to pick up Jessi. He left early and chose a few new streets to check out on his way there. Unfortunately, the only places that looked familiar were places he'd passed before. He got to the station just in time to watch two engines pull out, lights flashing and sirens blaring. Jessi was on one of the engines. He knew this because she had mentioned being on an engine company and there were no engines left in the station. There was just a ladder truck, a water tender, an SUV, and a pick-up truck with a small, enclosed trailer. He remembered Jessi telling him that a battalion chief was posted at the station, so the SUV must have been the chief's. The pickup and trailer, he thought, were for the search and rescue team she'd mentioned.
For a moment, he thought about following them; surely there was something he could do to help. He quickly changed his mind. Not only did he not want to get in the way, but he didn't want Jessi to think that he was getting over-protective or that he didn't trust to her to do her job. Another thought struck him – he could control his impulsive tendencies when he wanted to. A slow grin crossed his face. He wondered how often he had used that to his advantage in his past.
Instead of waiting around the station, Jaze turned the jeep around and went exploring again. He could think better while driving and relearning the area was more useful than sitting and waiting. Something told him he didn't do sitting and waiting well when he knew that there was something that he could do.
An hour later, he drove past the station. One engine was parked and the other was backing in. He drove around for another hour, anticipating it would take at least that long for clean up and debriefing. When he got back again, Jessi was still inside. This time he chose to wait.
After what seemed like a longer amount of time than it was - since he was sitting and waiting - Jessi came out. A short, squat man, in his early to mid-twenties, dogged her. Jaze watched as she tried to get rid of him. Only the fact that the man must have been one of her co-workers kept Jaze from intervening. However, it didn't stop him from climbing out of the jeep, leaning against it with his arms crossed and watching with a scowl on his face.
“Oh, come on, you know you'd make the same mistake, Donigel,” the man said as he followed Jessi across the street. “Or are you not gonna be the first?”
“She'll be the first,” Jaze growled.
The man looked up and stopped, mumbled something incoherent and took off in the other direction.
Jessi laughed, tossed her bag in the back, and kissed Jaze on the cheek as he continued to lean against her jeep. “I think I need to bring you to work with me,” she giggled as they both got into the jeep. “You do a much quicker job of getting rid of that annoyance than even my most creative castration threats.”
“Hate to disappoint you, but I've got a job.” Jaze grinned, relieved that he did the right thing, but not showing it.
“I knew Liana would give you the job!” Jessi squealed, wrapping her arms around him in a hug.
“Hey! I earned that job,” he protested. He paused, then asked, “So that was Cletus?” referring to the man who followed her out. She nodded her head, yes. “I thought you said that he doesn't pester you like that.”
Jessi rolled her eyes. “Everyone saw you drop me off and have guessed that we're Imprinted. Evidently, he's decided that I’m making a mistake and is out to change my mind.”
Chuckling, Jaze asked, “Is he succeeding?”
“Let's see.” Jessi started ticking off the persuasive tactics on her fingers. “First he led the charge of biographical questions. Then he started on the Gantese factor. And finally, what you so aptly interrupted . . . did I say thank you for that?” She paused to kiss him on the cheek again. “He tried to compare me to the young first wife who set her kitchen on fire this morning.”
“The call you just got back from?” Jaze asked as he started the jeep and pulled out onto the street.
“Silly girl had never been taught to cook or anything. She tried to bake a breakfast casserole of eggs, bacon, and potatoes. Might not have been too bad except she used raw bacon and a plastic dish. She's lucky she only lost half her kitchen; the rest was smoke damage.”
“So not a mistake you'd make then?” Jaze said lightheartedly, not really knowing what else to say. He knew both Jessi and Keeri could cook.
“So what mistake would you make?” he teased lightly. From the corner of his eye he caught her mood shift to anxious, nervously chewing her lower lip. “I think I need to be prepared for it.” When his attempt at humor didn't relax her or get an answer, he decided to change the subject. “Hey, I remembered a couple of things the last few days.”
At this, she relaxed a little, but not completely. “You did? What were they?”
“I remembered the place where I had the steak just before the accident. I think I know where it is, so we're on our way there now.” He stopped talking for a minute, trying to figure out how to say the next part. Not coming up with a good way, he blurted out: “I have a sister.”
“You do?” Jessi's voice sounded awkward.
“Yeah, Keeri said something and it just clicked. Not sure where she is or much else about her, but I know she exists.”
“That's great!” Jessi said overly an overly enthusiastic. Worrying about his family, she didn't pay attention to where he was driving.
“Okay, we're here.” His voice interrupted her thoughts.
She looked up. The outside was dingy and worn. On the roof in thick black letters on a dirty, slate background were the words: The Black Jade. “This is where you ate before the accident?” Her face was ashen. She remembered going through the restaurant receipts when they first found him, but there had been several and she hadn’t done more than glance at the names, not really paying attention to them.
“Why did you bring me here?” She didn't panic often and was doing her best not to now.
“I wanted to show you something that I remembered.” He was growing frustrated, not only with her reaction, but also with himself for not wanting to admit that he hadn't wanted to come to this place alone. “Why are you suddenly acting like Keeri?”
“Don't bring her into this!” Jessi said angrily. As soon as she said it, Jessi wasn't sure why she snapped. If she admitted it, she sounded more like Keeri than herself – paranoid. No, not paranoid...suspicious. It had to be the restaurant. What was Jaze doing eating at a place like this? she wondered, and then mentally kicked herself for her thinking it. She was definitely acting like Keeri.
“Do you know what happened here the other night?” Although she tried, she couldn't keep the irritability out of her voice.
“Keeri and I saw it on the news. I drove by it earlier and remembered it.” His voice was angry and defensive.
“Runs to this place are never good,” she explained. “This is one of the few places in the city that is on a rotating response. We got lucky, it wasn't our turn. A few years ago, we lost nearly an entire company just because the creeps that hang out here thought it would be fun to whack some firefighters. If we don't have police escorts, which we often don't, we go in with hoses fully charged no matter the situation. It's really hard to try and help someone, if you’re worried about someone stabbing you in the back.” Wearily, she asked, “Can we go home now?”
“Fine,” Jaze growled.
The ride home to the apartment was spent in silence as Jessi did her best not to think about Jaze being in that restaurant.
Keeri had had enough. She had just a few more days to finish her lesson plans and organize her research before the start of the semester, but at the current rate she wasn't going to get it done. Jessi had spent a full day plus locked in her bedroom. Jaze was an angry mess, constantly pestering her about Jessi's behavior. He knew that she was upset and thought the visit to the restaurant had pushed her over the edge, but he hadn’t expect this. She wasn't even talking to Keeri.
After lunch on Jessi's second day off, Keeri pounded on her sister's door and demanded that she open up. It took a few minutes, but Jessi finally opened the door. Keeri gasped. It had been awhile since she'd seen Jessi cry, but red, puffy, watery eyes and tangled hair suggested that was what the younger girl had been doing for most of the past day.
“Oh, Jessi, what's wrong?”
Jess left the door open and collapsed on her bed, mumbling into her pillow.
“If you want me to help, I need to hear you,” Keeri said as she sat on the bed, next to her sister.
Turning her face, Jessi asked, “What if his family doesn't approve?”
“He's not Liff. In fact, I'd say he's the exact opposite of Liff,” Keeri admonished, continuing on she ran through several key differences. “Liff hated going hiking with you. He was afraid to get dirty, and he was so concerned with appearances and fronts it was annoying. Jaze seemed to enjoy hiking, at least with you. He's obviously not afraid of getting dirty, and I don't think he cares too much about the way he comes across to others.”
Jessi looked skeptically at her sister. Keeri was right, but caring about what strangers think is different than family. Through her sniffles, she laughed. “Be careful, you sound like you're starting to like him.”
“Well, I certainly think he's a better fit for you than Liff was,” Keeri admitted. She had never liked the boy Jessi first Imprinted with, had never seen what Jessi saw in him. Refocusing her thoughts on Jaze, she added, “Beyond that, I just don't know. I'm getting better at reading him, but there are times that I can't. I still think his amnesia is too convenient, but I don't think he's lying. At least not about his feelings for you. I do think he is dangerous, but I don't think he'd hurt us. Does that make sense?”
Ignoring the question, Jessi sighed. “You're still on about that counter-terrorism theory?” She purposely did not tell Keeri about the panic attack she nearly had when Jaze took her to the restaurant. At last, she got her tears under control.
“Yes! Now if I were you, I'd get cleaned up and then come out and join us for dinner.” Keeri answered bossily. “I'd also talk to him, if I were you. Just so you know, he's upset with you because you aren't following your own advice for talking things out, and he thinks you're upset about the restaurant.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because he's been ranting at me since you won't talk to him.” Keeri left the room, but didn't shut the door.
Jessi took her sister's advice. After showering, she helped Keeri make dinner, tossing together a salad of leafy vegetables while Keeri sautéed the chicken. Although she stopped avoiding Jaze, she didn't know what, or how, to tell him about her behavior. Dinner was awkward and tense. All three seemed to focus more on the food than each other. The chicken, each pointed out, almost to the point of belaboring, was nice and juicy, not underdone or over done at all. Someone pointed out the crispy lettuce in the salad, another the meaty tomatoes. Each thought the conversation absurd. Yet no one tried to change it, until Keeri asked Jaze how his job was going. Jessi listened intently as he talked about the cars he worked on and the other mechanics.
At one point, Keeri became indignant as he compared the engine in her SUV to one in a luxury car he had worked on that day.
“They've had that fancy car for three years according to the records and are lucky if they get it in every year for basic maintenance, nothing else. It's dirty and greasier than Keeri's,” he said.
“Mechanics need to learn that people have lives and don't always have time to wait around for them to get around to working on a car.” While she said it in jest there was also an edge to voice.
Immediately after dinner, Jessi went about doing the dishes and cleaning the kitchen as Keeri and Jaze watched the news. Jaze looked imploringly at Keeri, hoping she'd tell him what Jessi had told her during their talk. Being told that it wasn't him or anything he'd done didn't relax him. Neither did hearing, “It's Jessi's story to tell. Don't rush her. She'll tell you when she's ready.”
With the dishes finished and the kitchen cleaned, Jessi said quick goodnights and rushed off to her room.
“How long will she take?” Jaze barked.
“I don't know.” Keeri rolled her eyes. “To my knowledge, I’m the only one she's told the whole story to. However, I'd bet that Mom and Dad know some of it along with Liana and Pavanna, too. Most everyone else gets the glossed over version.” Keeri stretched. “Goodnight,” she added before leaving for bed herself.
Jaze scowled. There was a hint in there somewhere, but he was too frustrated to figure it out.
Jaze settled down on the couch that was uncomfortable and too small to sleep on. He drifted off to sleep with one leg stretched out over the arm of the couch and the other on the floor. Underneath the closed lids, his eyes began to move, dreaming. A cockroach the size of two large city blocks and as tall as a four-story building was trying to eat him. Regardless of which direction he turned, he could see the beast's razor sharp teeth trying to eat him. Spying a cliff, he ran towards it, a seemingly familiar action. Hoping there was a ledge below it, he dropped to the ground and rolled over the cliff just as the insect snapped where his head had been.
Screaming, he rolled off the couch, onto the floor, and into the legs of the coffee table. The noise woke both girls. Jessi rushed out first, as Keeri put on her robe before coming out. Jessi looked confused at the sight of Jaze, angry, tangled in his blanket, on the floor.
Calmly Keeri asked, “Another nightmare?”
Jaze glowered at her before answering, “No, I'm doing my middle of the night exercises.”
“Well, if that's all,” Keeri said curtly before going back to her room.
“What are you staring at?” he growled at Jessi.
“What did she mean another nightmare?”
“What do you care?” he snapped as freed himself from the blanket.
Taken aback by his tone, Jessi did her best not to show it. If she had talked with him sooner, much of this could have been prevented. Taking a deep breath, she sat on the floor next where he laid, her back against the couch.
“I told you my first Imprint didn't work out because we were too young. What I left out . . . .” She closed her eyes and stopped. It had been four years since she had talked about it. More than once, she had thought she had put it out of her mind for good. She felt Jaze sit up next to next to her, his arm brushing against hers. Eyes still closed, she continued. “After failing to Enthrall, he told me it was because of my career choice. I had just enrolled in the Fire Academy rather than a university.”
“What should that matter?” Jaze asked. He put his arm around her.
Leaning into him, but still unwilling to open her eyes, Jessi answered, “Because some families think that as the hostess of the family, the first wife should not only be of equal or higher standing, but should also have an appropriate career.”
“And being a firefighter isn't appropriate?”
“By his way of thinking, I would have been appropriate for a third or fourth wife.”
“What was he, the son of the president or something?”
Laughing, Jessi opened her eyes. Jaze looked at her expectantly. “His father was the Chief of Police. Ironically, if we had Enthralled, he would have been Enthralling above his station.”
“Because your father's a doctor?”
“Not entirely. Liff was the man's third son, born from the fifth wife. I'm the daughter of a first wife. My parents have nearly twice the education his do. I have more education than his mother.” She paused. “When I was a probie there was a fire at an industrial complex. When we got it out, we had to push through the gathered crowd to roll the hoses. While I was trying to disconnect a hose from a hydrant, his sister, who was in the crowd, had the gall to say, 'Look how filthy you are? Did you really think he should have settled for someone like you?'”
“I'm not him,” Jaze stated firmly, pulling her onto his lap. Holding her, he became aware of just how little they each wore. He slept in simple briefs. Her night clothes varied; tonight she wore a loose, silky tank with short shorts.
“I know, but . . . .” She sobbed into his chest.
As he sat there the puzzle pieces began to fall into place, except one. “What does this have to with the mistake you might make?” He remembered that teasing her about it was what when her mood started to shift.
It took her a long time to answer. “He could have, should have told me his concerns before attempting to Enthrall. You can't Enthrall without being Imprinted, but just because you’re Imprinted doesn't mean an Enthrallment has to follow. We could have just let it pass. He didn't have to . . . .”
He held her tightly for several minutes. “If you're worried about my family, don't,” he said. “I might remember having a sister, but if they were worried about me, don't you think they would have made some attempt at finding me.”
“Maybe they have and we missed it,” Jessi suggested, knowing it was not likely. Keeri was always exhaustive about research.
“Perhaps they'll come out from wherever they're hiding when they see the Enthrallment notice.” He kissed the top of her head.
“Are you sure?”
“About Enthralling or my family?” he teased. “I'm sure about Enthralling. As for my family, I don't care if they find me or if I remember anything more about them.” He pulled the blanket over them. She had answered his questions, now it was time for him to answer hers. “I've had three nightmares in the last week. The first, the first night you were away, large ants were crawling all over me. The second, flowers were trying to eat you and Keeri. Tonight, a cockroach nearly bit my head off.”
Jessi's first instinct was to giggle, but she stifled it, knowing that Jaze would appreciate it.
“Silly huh?” he asked.
“I don't know about silly,” she evaded, “but I'd avoid the back of the pool-house. There are several wasps nest back there. Don't need giant wasps attacking.” This time, she didn't hold back the giggles.
Jaze pulled the pillow off of the couch and laid on the floor next to Jessi. “Goodnight,” he said, pushing her forward so that he could lie down.
Confused, Jessi started to get up.
“Where are you going?”
“No.” He pulled her back down to lay next him. “We're sleeping here tonight.”
She relaxed as he had put emphasis on the word sleep. Soon they were both asleep.
Keeri moved away from her door. She normally would never have invaded Jessi’s privacy like that, but she wanted to make sure things were better between her sister and her future mate before going to bed.
She had to admit Jaze’s nightmares had alarmed her, especially when he had had one each night since Jessi went to work. He hadn’t told her what they were about and hearing his telling Jessi about them had almost made her laugh with absurdity.
Keeri took off her robe and hung up it up, then got back into her still warm bed. She tried to sleep but Jaze’s description of his nightmares wouldn’t lay to rest. She started to wonder if they were his subconscious trying to jump start his memory. She decided to do some further research in the morning and that allowed her to sleep.