“Need any help?” Looking up, he saw Karen standing in the doorway, Lindy hovering behind her.
“No, thanks.” He continued counting the sheets on the third shelf. “I’m almost finished.”
“That’s too bad.” She came into the room, shutting the door and leaving Lindy outside.
“Why’d you do that?”
She ignored his question, was at his elbow now, looking at the grid as if it were fascinating. She was very small, the top of her curly blonde head barely on a height with his chest. There was a vaguely helpless look about Karen, a slightly distracted air he knew some men would find very attractive. All it did was give Aric an uneasy feeling.
“I was looking forward to helping you.”
“That’s kind of you, Karen, but—” He stopped as she reached up and touched the braid hanging over his shoulder.
“You certainly have beautiful hair, Aric. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that shade of red before.” She was gazing at the braid as if it were the most fascinating length of hair in the Galaxy, twining the end of it around her finger.
“Uh, thank you, but it’s very ordinary, actually—” I’m not going to show anger, he told himself. He was going to continue to be civil, no matter how much insinuation she put into her words. “—everyone in my family—”
“God! You mean there are more like you around?” She looked as if the mere thought astounded her.
“Well, I’ve uncles and cousins…”
“Aric.” Just as Lindy had, she interrupted again. “I just want you to know that if you need any help…if I can do anything for you…all you have to do is ask.”
“That’s very generous of you—”
Will she never let me finish a sentence?
“Karen, as I told Lindy—”
She took a step toward him. Aric backed away, the shelf striking his shoulders. There were very little space in the closet and it seemed to have gotten smaller...
...and very warm and very confining.
“Aric!” One hand touched his cheek. “You’re sweating! Is it too warm in here for you?”
Briefly, he couldn’t speak. This is ridiculous. Am I afraid to answer? “No. Not really.”
The hand slid down his throat to his shirt, began to pull it open.
“What are you doing?” Sweet Ildred! He never thought he’d hear that sound in his voice. He put a detaining hand over hers. Gently, she removed it.
“It‘s okay.” Her voice was soothing. “I’m just checking your temperature.”
Damn, she sounds so reasonable and professional.
“Body-skin gives the most accurate tactile reading, especially the stomach.”
Her fingers tugged at the edge of his vest, brushing the skin underneath. In spite of their warmth, he trembled slightly. She slid her hand under the vest, pressing in slightly. “Feels cold.”
“M-my normal temperature’s a little lower than a Terran’s.” He was trying to forestall anything else. “I assure you—” Why am I taking this? Why don’t I stop her? He knew the answer. His vows. Though I be persecuted and ridiculed, I will accept and not complain, for I am an Exile and deserve whatever treatment I receive at the hands of my fellow men for the crimes I have committed against my home and my blood… This definitely came under the heading of “Persecution.”
“Maybe we can do something about that.” Her smile was knowing and double-edged. “There must be something we can do to raise your temperature. Perhaps…”
She touched his belt.
Aric had had enough. Accepting mistreatment was allowed to go only so far. He put his hand over hers, voice suddenly firm with latent anger. “No.”
He wasn’t sure who the anger was for—Karen or himself. Why is she acting like this? Is celibacy a joke to Terrans? In their world, did anyone who was chaste run the risk of being verbally if not physically assaulted? Why don’t they simply accept me as I am? Why can’t they leave me alone? And why was he behaving as if he’d lost his balls? Even with the stricture of his Vows, since when couldn’t he stand up to one female?
He thought of all the times he’d cornered maidservants in his mother’s home in just this same way, demanding a kiss or a quick toss before allowing them to escape. Those girl couldn’t complain. After all they were varls...serfs...but he… Even if it went against his Vows, one back-handed swipe would knock the little nurse against the wall, letting her know in no uncertain terms he wanted no part of a seduction. Now or ever.
He couldn’t do that. He’d never struck a woman and didn’t intend to make Karen the first. He might no longer be a member of the Royal family, but his training couldn’t so easily desert him.
The door opened and Lindy stuck her head in. “Psst! Doc’s coming!”
As Karen released him, Aric pressed the open shirt together and Lindy came inside, a little too eagerly. “Well—how’d it go?”
Karen shook her head and she looked disappointed.
“Karen? Lindy?” Dr. Moran came into view. “What are you two doing back here?”
“We thought Aric might need some help, Doc.”
“To count sheets? I don’t think so. Aric, your shirt’s unfastened.”
Aric’s hand went to his shirt-front. There was a wrinkle in the fabric, causing it to close incorrectly. Pulling it apart, he smoothed and re-pressed it together, feeling his face burn as he did so.
“Is there something you’d like to tell me?” Dr. Moran asked.
He was tempted, but once again his Vows outweighed his good sense. No one likes a tale-teller, no one believes an Exile.
“No, ma’am. I’ve finished checking the shipment.” He reached over and picked up the grid, handing it to her. For just a moment, she stared at it as if she didn’t know what it was.
“Take this back to the nurses’ station and file it.” She thrust the grid back at him.
“I’d like to talk to you two in my office.” Her voice changed, an edge appearing in its softness. Whirling, she started down the hall, the heels of her boots made a sharp staccato on the floor. Exchanging worried glances, Linda and Karen followed.
Bet she’s a rouser when she’s angry, he thought.
It took him only a few minutes to lock the closet and return to the anteroom outside the doctor’s office where he placed the grid on the desk and hovered near the door, trying not to look as if he were eavesdropping. He didn’t have to. The doctor’s voice was loud enough to carry through the shut door, enabling him to hear pertinent snatches of her one-sided conversation with the two nurses.
“…don’t think I don’t know…treat a newcomer… Took those Vows…hands off… If I see either… Both of you…very, very sorry…”
Finally, there was silence, then murmuring assents and the door opened.
Aric bent over the desk, studying the list of appointments on the screen as Lindy and Karen trekked silently out of the office. Neither looked at him.
“Ma'am?” Taking a deep breath, he looked up at the doctor.
“I’m sorry for what’s happened. Between yesterday and today, you haven’t gotten off to a very good start here on Pyras, I’m afraid.” She really did look apologetic and the thought that she was concerned made him smile at her. “I’ve spoken to Lindy and Karen. I imagine you heard.”
“Yes, ma’am. Some of it.”
“They’ve promised to leave you alone.”
Secretly, he doubted it. Will be more careful and not get caught, you mean. “Doctor, may I ask you something?”
“Certainly.” She shook her head, then smiled. Thinking of what she’d had said to the two nurses? “What is it?”
“M-my Vows.” He wasn’t certain how to ask what he wanted to know, how to say it without being explicit, or sounding pitiable. “Is this something the subject of jokes on Terra? Is everyone going to treat me like a freak of nature?”
She stared up at him. Damn, I‘ve shocked her. Just what he hadn’t intended.
If Aric could’ve heard Susan Moran’s thoughts, he would’ve been the one shocked.
Freak? Oh no, you’re no freak! Nature was at her best the day she created you. Aloud, she said, “To some, it is, but most people have the good sense and the good manners not to laugh, and I hope no one else’s going to insult you in any way. Just—well, just give Lindy and Karen a little time, to get accustomed to the idea. I mean, they aren’t used to having someone like you…”
Aric found himself fascinated by the rosy glow the blush gave her cheeks.
“I’m just making this worse, aren’t I?”
“Yes, ma’am, I’m afraid you are.”
They both smiled.