In order to find protection after the unsolved murder of her father, the daughter of a successful cancer-researcher must try and heal a dying mob boss and determine her relationship to each of his three dynamic sons.
“So,” said Charles, settling back into his cramped airline seat on the left side of Theresa “What do you think of song lyrics that are directed at God, but still sound like a love song?”
Theresa looked to Frederick on her right, but he only shrugged.
“I, I don’t think about it much,” she said it at last. “If I like the song I sing it.”
“Do you sing regular love songs?” Charles persisted. “Oh! You’re blushing! Either you do or you don’t!”
“Yeah, real mature Chuck.” Theresa crossed her arms and stared at the letters on the back of the seat in front of her. Being in the middle seat did not allow her the body language she desired most to display.
“I told you I’d clock you if you did that again.” Charles’ voice was a quiet sort of deadly and Frederick unbuckled before slowly raising the armrest between him and Theresa.
She didn’t notice, and seemed far too pleased with herself for lecturing an angry man. “Well I told you you’d hear it non-stop if you didn’t let me— Wahk!”
Her ‘snappy retort’ was lifted along with her body as Frederick passed her over his lap and traded seats with her.
“Crazy girl!” he snapped, turning his broad back toward his brother to make a sort of wall. “Why’d you agree to be his punching bag? Don’t you think he’s got enough to get him started he doesn’t need an instigator?”
“And what am I supposed to do?” fussed Theresa. She tried to elbow Frederick, but got her elbow stuck on the armrest as he lowered it. “Do I just roll over and take it?”
“No. You’re supposed to avoid him.”
“Oh you haven’t been around little brother,” said Charles, leaning forward and hooking his chin over Frederick’s shoulder. “I’ve made it very hard for her to avoid me.”
“And I suppose you’ve shamed her into saying nothing to anyone who would actually stop you?”
“How else could I have the highest access?”
Frederick poked two fingers into the space over his left shoulder, but Charles anticipated the familiar move and withdrew to his seat. Frederick leaned into Theresa’s space.
“I can tell you are used to solving all your own problems,” he whispered. “And I’m sure that’s very unique and admirable, for a mature, ignored 16-year-old. But there is no shame in accepting, or even asking for help. You should try more often.”
Theresa crossed her arms and leaned her back against the window. He caught a wiff of her breath and realized how close they were. It smelled like the paper carton milk that she’d accepted from the stewardess a few minutes before.
Frederick pulled away. “Sorry if it sounds like I’m dissing on your daddy, but no 16-year-old should have to make the decisions you’ve been forced to make in the last several months. “Any of them,” he emphasized, whirling to Charles who looked as though he’d been making faces behind Frederick’s back.
“What if I like the freedom to make decisions?” asked Theresa in a small voice.
“Everyone likes freedom to make choices,” said Frederick, choosing the voice Romero always complemented him on in the stable. He took her hand and stroked her fingers gently, thinking of the small birds he used to try and save from the hawkers’ training program. “I’m not saying that you shouldn’t make your own decisions, just that when none of the options work, you shouldn’t limit yourself to these.”
“I’m really tired, Frederick,” Theresa whispered, pulling back her hand. “Can you just pass me a pillow, please?”
Charles pretended not to notice the request, so Frederick stood and pulled off his best ‘Inspector Gadget,’ feeling for the excuse of a pillow that is restocked with each flight. She couldn’t take it fast enough from his hand, and it was all Frederick could do not to wipe the tear from her cheek as she settled back in exhaustion.
She seemed to slump deeper with that falling tear, and Frederick was sure that if he indulged himself she was going to wake up, and either cry in front of him— which would be too awkward for words— for both of them— or scream.
Frederick wasn’t anywhere near the place where he’d actually want her to cry on him— Dear God, anything but that. Especially on the plane. Especially-especially not in front of his jerk of a brother who’d doubtless been bending all his skill toward seeing those tears. Frederick’s shoulders jerked as he thought of it.
Ready for the distraction as it entered his mind, Frederick prayed Alex was okay. If Charles hadn’t been so devious, Alex would still have been at the compound and, as the third brother, would have been able to buffer Theresa from Charles’s cruelty.
Frederick’s anger grew and fizzled and percolated and popped. Out of nowhere he got a punch in the shoulder, and being out of practice, it actually made him jump.
“Okaaay,” I said, infusing the syllables with all the apathy I could muster. “You have my attention. What deep wisdom do you wish to impart?”
“She’s not sixteen.”
Frederick was surprised by the quietness of Charles’s voice. Frederick’s attention was instantly split between his brother’s words and the person he clearly did not want to hear those words.
“Why are you telling me that?” Frederick hissed back.
“Well, you’re clearly attracted to the girl,” he said, matching the low volume. “So if you want to be an even player for her as I am, you have to know it’s a legitimate game. I’m not chasing a child.”
“But you are chasing her? I can’t understand why.”
Charles shrugged. “She bleeds.”
Frederick gripped his temper with both fists. He hadn’t been Christian very long, but he knew even before the new demands that ripping his brother’s arms off was not an option. At least not on a plane.
“I am not free to pursue anyone,” Frederick said at last, not sure how much to show the information affected him. “Not before I break ties with the last person I was drawn to.”
“Bullshit. You’re not even married. You can do whatever you want.”
“I can do what I’d like done to me. Find out how her feeling stand after our time apart.”
“So you want to break it off with the other girl?” asked Charles, something like triumph in his voice.
Frederick shifted in his seat, wondering how it suddenly became so hot. “None of your forkin beeswax.”
Charles laughed so loudly that Theresa sat up straight, her pillow dropping away from the wall.
“Can’t your god even let you swear like a man?” Charles asked, though less loudly than he had laughed.
Theresa must not have been truly awake, because she sank back at once toward the wall.
Without thinking Frderick reached out his hand to catch her head before it cracked against the window. The feel of her skin was electric. Not as soft as the last face he’d caressed, but more yielding. More accessible. Exhaustion radiated from her skin, and Frederick was glad they hadn’t really woken her.
Then he realized his difficulty. Having caught her with his left hand— the one that was free, Frederick had also used up the hand that could reach the floor where the benedict pillow had retreated.
“Charles,” Frederick whispered. “Could you…?”
“Who, me?” He yawned theatrically. “D’you think I’d be so useless a brother as to make you let go of your prize sooner than you had to?”
“Charles!” Frederick whispered as fiercely as he dared, not risking the offensive name that Theresa had toyed with.
“Listen to me, Freddy,” Charles said, so seriously Frederick could almost overlook the hated nickname. “That girl is perfect for you. If she doesn’t know it yet, you should. No one else has ever taken you seriously. No one. She knows you don’t like nicknames, and respects that. You saw she never offered me the same courtesy. She never teases you about the wrong things, and she even shares your silly faith. Just go with it already. Whoever was back in Turkey has probably forgotten about you already. You really are that forgettable.”
“You—you were just talking about ‘leveling the field,’” said Frederick. He knew he should have been angry, but since he already agreed with everything Charles said…
“I am.” Charles voice remained serious. “What kind of a win is it if you’re not even in the game?”
Frederick didn’t think it worth his time or posture to argue. Already his hand was growing tired of the head’s weight, and he wondered how he might negotiate to keep her asleep.
Frederick risked twisting a bit farther and saw Charles’s mocking face. His determination stirred up every protective instinct Frederick had ever let go dormant. But after all Frederick had thought about treating others the way he wanted to be treated, the only concept he’d fully integrated into his new thought-life, he couldn’t decide what to do.
He wracked his brain for how he’d want to be treated in this instance. If Taraneh met a nice guy.
No. It couldn’t just be a nice guy. Theresa was like a sister to her. Frederick wondered how he would feel if she’d married a brother? His head swam. She’d be as miserable as any woman with Charles. But what— What if. My head swam with the possibility. What if Alex was still alive and somehow made his way back to the university. Would I forgive him for marrying her—for stealing her, if the opportunity arrived?
I would feel betrayed.
But by whom more?
Whom would Taraneh blame?
Resisting the chance to wrap his arm around her shoulders, Frederick passed Theresa’s head to his right hand, turned backward, and reached down to scoop up the pillow. While he was bent over, Theresa cried out in her sleep, stiffening suddenly. Her knees came up into the side of his face, bloodying his nose and banging his right eye.
“Jesus Christ!” Frederick barked, jerking upright and waking Theresa.
She thrust away his hand with a confused cry. “Get your hands off me!”
“It’s okay,” he said, holding up his palms. “Your pillow dropped and I was just trying—”
“Dear lord, what happened to you?” Theresa’s demeanor shifted at once. “You’re bleeding like a faucet.”
“That sometimes happens when one gets walloped in the nose.” Frederick pinched the nostrils— staying carefully away from the cartilage, in case it was as damaged as it felt, and reached with his free hand for the handkerchief in his back pocket.
Charles had been snorting through his hand since Frederick’s inadvertent blasphemy, and now he stopped holding back, his guffaw louder than Frederick’s explicative.
Moving deliberately, Frederick tried to shake open the small square of white, but it seemed stuck. Perhaps it was dirty when he first put it in his pocket?
Next moment, Theresa had snatched it from him, pulling it open with both hands and either not caring or not being aware of the wherefore on its lack of cooperation, she re-folded it into a larger square of layers and pulled his hand away from his face. He caught her wrist before she reached his face.
“I’m sure you won’t take it personally if I can’t trust the injury to you?”
“You’re dripping,” she said dryly. “The stewardii will not appreciate cleaning that up.”
He took the fabric and wiped up from his chin till he reached his nose. “At least it’s only on my clothes so far. Being a black shirt perhaps no one will notice?”
The anxious look on her face did not subside. “I really am sorry,” she whispered. “I’ve just woken to more touches than are welcome.”
“You should go clean up, Frederick,” said Charles, back in his normal voice. “Blood sets pretty quick.”
“I suppose you should know,” snapped Frederick, his voice becoming thick as his nose swelled from the blow.
“Look,” said Charles, “I’m sorry I laughed. It was just too classic to not react to. Haven’t you ever seen a romantic comedy? No sooner have you declared you can’t possible pursue the girl you’re interested in—”
“Shut up Charles,” said Frederick, his voice menacing.
“Then you’re forced to cradle her face and end up bloodied by your attempt at a good deed. Too, too rich. Now go clean up.” His tone too took on a menacing edge.”
“Not a chance I’m leaving you alone with her.”
“Ah, afraid you’ll lose your—”
“You’ve proven your lack of good faith enough times. I’m not leaving her alone with you.”
They watched each other over the white fabric, until Charles looked over Frederick’s shoulder.
“Isn’t this the point where you blow off his childish, woman-diminishing chivalry and tell him you don’t need any silly man to look out for a big girl like yourself?”
“I don’t lie, Charles,” said Theresa.
To Frederick’s surprise, Charles flushed a deep red, then stood. “You look like hell,” he said to her. “And Frederick needs to get cleaned up.”
“What?” asked Theresa, her face registering confusion.
“Thanks,” interrupted Frederick, reaching back for Theresa’s hand and pulling her up with him.
She allowed herself to be brought along, carefully keeping step so as not to give the impression she was unwilling to accompany him.
“Don’t let them catch you,” Charles shouted after them, as various passengers followed their progress with bored eyes.
Frederick heard the snickers and counted at least three disapproving looks by the time a Stewardess met him at the end of the cabin.
“Do you have a cold, Mr.???”
“Drake,” said Theresa for him.
He was grateful. Talk— the very vibration of sound— was becoming painful. He’d thought of a few choice words to throw back at Charles, but the act of swinging his head around to deliver them had discombobulated his equilibrium enough he was thankful for the surprisingly strong and steadying arm of the girl beside him.
Not girl. Young woman. He sight blurred. Alex must have known. God let him have known. How else could he, with his newly acquired ethics, pursued a girl still a minor?
“Mr. Drake, only one person at a time is allowed in the lavatory.”
“That’s completely understandable, ma’am,” said Frederick through his thick nose. “As long as you’re here with Ms. Cane, I will venture alone into the lavatory without fear.”
Theresa’s eyes grew large, and she giggled behind her hand.
Behind his handkerchief Frederick smiled, happy to have made her laugh. At the same moment they both looked back at the seats they came from and Theresa gripped Frederick’s arm.
“I’m sorry sir, but once I’ve confirmed the door locked behind one of you, I’ll need to leave off babysiting and get back to my real job.”
Charles was sauntering down the aisle toward them.
“Madam,” whispered Theresa. “I came with Mr. Drake because that gentleman walking toward us, the third person in our row of seats, he was threatening me. Mr. Drake didn’t want to leave me alone with him, but you can see he needed to come get cleaned up. I wouldn’t mind you propping the door open to prove we’re not doing anything foolish, but could you let me help him?” she glanced over her shoulder. “Or at least appear to be helping him so I am not left in the position of needing to justify my silence and lack of interaction with a controlling—”
Frederick tapped a finger on her lips and she was instantly silent.
The Stewardess did not respond to their questions but pushed by them to confront Charles.
“I’m sorry sir, but the line at the cockpit is not allowed to exceed two people. I can see from here, however, that neither aft lavatory is occupied. Perhaps you’d better go there.”
“You say perhaps,” observed Charles with his show-stopping smile. “Does that mean optional?”
“Mr.???” asked the stewardess.
Theresa pressed her face into Frederick’s side, and even he braced himself for the stewardess’s confusion.
“Drake. Charles Drake.”
“Mr. Drake,” said the woman, not missing a beat, “Perhaps you have never heard, but it is an international offense to disobey a flight attendant. After all, one passenger’s foolishness could jeopardize the lives of all those about the plane. Return to your seat, or continue aft to find what you are seeking.”
“But what I’m seeking is right before me,” Charles insisted affably. “A charming, attractive young lady…” He pumped his eyebrows at her, all the while shining that 100-Watt, bad-boy smile.
The middle-aged woman was not fazed. “However, said young lady is not interested in your attention, and your presence here is becoming a disruption.” She put her hands on her hips. “I will not warn you again, Mr. Drake.”
With an exaggerated sigh and a hitch of his slacks, Charles turned around and began the long shuffle to the other end of the plane.
Theresa waited until he had passed their seating row and continued on before she exhaled and began to breathe again.
“I’m glad he came over,” said the Stewardess mildly. “I was going to have to run you through a whole slate of questions about how you knew this fellow, and why you’d not asked for reassigned seats, or reported him, and, well, I think working together with the door open would be a good just-this-once compromise, considering the situation.”
“Thank you so much!” said Theresa and Frederick gripped the attendant’s hand in gratitude, still not trusting his balance to a nod.