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Authors: Sherwood Smith

Stranger (19 page)

BOOK: Stranger
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It will not happen,
she promised herself.

By the time she returned to her party, she knew exactly what to do. She scattered compliments on Jennie's dancing, her party dress, and her teaching skills, all in Indra's hearing.
Clink! Clink! Clink!
When Jennie headed for the door, Felicité thanked her for coming.
Clink!

Before Indra could follow, Felicité said wistfully, “I envy Jennie! So good at everything she does. She and Ross Juarez are amazing to watch at the schoolyard every morning. Their sparring looks like they're dancing together.” Then she gave Indra her politest smile and moved away.

After the guests departed, her father called her into his office. The council record book was open on his desk. Felicité glanced at the upside-down pages, and recognized the sheriff's interrogation of Ross and the bounty hunter.

“Darling,” he said. “You're grown up enough to help out with investigation. If there is any sign that Ross is Changed—if you see anyone behaving as if they're influenced by something outside of themselves—I want to know. And if you see that book of his, tell me.”

Felicité smiled. “Leave it to me.”

22

Jennie

JENNIE CIRCLED ROSS, LOOKING FOR AN OPENING ON
his left. She'd found that he learned faster if she didn't encourage or explain.

She feinted, jabbed, ducked under his kick, and swept low to take out his left knee. He pivoted. Down rammed his right arm, strong as whipcord and steel, to block her kick. She glimpsed a fleeting smile that sparked a sunburst in her heart. He was getting it, all on his own. Even if he never recovered the full use of his hand, he was slowly filling the hole in his left-side defense.

He attacked. She let him step in, then moved close and grabbed his left wrist. He instinctively turned it to try to grab back, but his fingers couldn't grip. She twisted his arm into a joint lock and swept his feet. He hit the ground, his hair fanning around his head. She pounced, pinning his arms with her hands and his body with her weight. Ross tapped out.

He was learning, but he wasn't there yet. And he knew it.

He grinned up at her, muscles loosening under hers. It was nice to see, though she knew he'd soon tense up again. She'd never seen him relaxed except during or right after a match.

Jennie rose and offered her hand to pull him up. Then she remembered: he didn't like being touched once they were done sparring. She was about to step back when his fingers gripped hers. A grunt, a tug, and he was on his feet again, his breathing even, the steady pulse above the curve of his collarbone visible at the loose collar of his shirt. He was still far too thin.

“I'm thirsty.” A voice broke the magic circle.

It was Z, standing with the other students in the schoolyard.

She sensed something amiss, but everyone was where they should be—and then she noticed Indra, perched on the fence post. That was odd. He usually spent his mornings with his family, or in private lessons with Sera.

“Good session, don't you think?” she called, giving him a wave. Then she turned to her students. “Practice is done. You'll find your assignments on your slates.”

She turned to ask Indra about shield side defense, but he was gone. Odd.

Ross was squeezing his left hand in his right.

“Give it time.”

“I know.” Now that he wasn't fighting, he was falling into his habitual slouch, as if closing into himself.

Jennie hated seeing that as much as she hated seeing the dark smudges under his eyes. Nasreen had whispered that they were the shadows of his incredible eyelashes, but she knew better; Mia had mentioned finding Ross asleep in her yard.

He had agreed to go to the beach with the two of them and the kids, so maybe he wanted to socialize but didn't know how. “Come to Luc's with me tonight,” she suggested. “I think you'd really like Sera Diaz. The Rangers are friendly, I promise. And they love to talk about sparring.”

At the word “Luc's,” Ross's shoulders had tightened. “Thanks. Maybe another time.” He shot through the school door as if escaping a firing squad.

Beach is fine, Luc's is not fine. Too crowded? Too noisy? Too many reminders of Felicité calling him a mutant?
Jennie sighed, then turned her attention to the day's work.

• • •

She was still thinking about Ross during Ranger practice. Could the obstacle course help strengthen his hand? She was so distracted that she didn't register how quiet Indra had been until he approached her afterward.

“Walk with me to Luc's?” he asked.

“Don't we always?”

Indra gave her a quick, odd glance, his braid swinging. Golden light from a longhouse highlighted his face as he said softly, “You never gave me an answer. About moving in. Let's talk about it after Luc's, okay?”

Jennie's stomach clenched as she nodded. She'd known this talk was coming, but each day she'd thought,
Not yet.
Now she'd spend the entire evening dreading it.

“Indra? Jennie?” Frances called. “We're stopping by Sera's.”

They caught up with the Rangers at Lisl Plaza, the square of adobe houses where Sera and Paco lived. Windows were opened to the balmy summer air, sending out the delicious aromas of fried onions and garlic and cilantro. Families sat around tables at the evening meal. Jennie could hear one of her eight-year-olds retelling the legend of Orion, which she'd taught during today's astronomy lesson.

Teaching. Stories, true and imagined, passed from one to another. Hearing it made her feel good.

When Sera opened her front door, Yuki and Paco looked up from the couch, startled. Paco's bandaged leg was propped on a footstool.

“Am I interrupting something?” Sera inquired with a smile. The Rangers behind her hid theirs. Jennie had guessed that the guys had been secretly dating, but Yuki was so private that she hadn't even asked Meredith.

“Yuki was trying to get me to go to Luc's,” Paco explained.

“My treat.” Yuki brandished a handful of scrip. “Come on.”

“Yes, come,” said Sera. “We're all going. Unless you two would rather have your own table?”

“I don't want to go at all,” said Paco. “Luc's is where I play. Where I dance. I don't want to go to Luc's and
sit
.”

“You want to go and eat tacos,” Julio suggested.

“Who cares about tacos? Doc benched me for a whole month. He says when I'm onstage, I play with my entire body, not just my hands. All I'm allowed to do is go to my apprenticeship and cut glass,” he finished miserably.

“You do play with your entire body,” Frances pointed out.

“Yes, but Doc Lee wasn't supposed to know that.” Paco retorted. He added gloomily, “Somebody ratted me out.”

Sera shook her head. “Paco. You don't lie to the doc. You know what he can do. You might end up a hundred and twelve years old.”

“That's not funny,” said Paco, though everyone was laughing.

“Okay, let's move. Rangers!” Sera pointed to Paco. “Mission: Luc's!”

Six Rangers swooped down and hoisted him into the air. Those beneath his bad leg were careful to keep it straight. He protested unconvincingly. Jennie grabbed his crutches as the Rangers began marching down the path. Someone called the count; someone else laughed.

Sera and Yuki—with the cushion—followed. “You two are dating, aren't you?” she asked, with a grin. “You can admit it. I promise, the Rangers won't tease you.”

Paco glanced back. “Cat's out of the bag, Yuki. Yes, Mom, we are.”

Julio immediately made a loud kissy noise. Yuki rolled his eyes, but a smile flickered at the corners of Paco's mouth as he rapped Julio on the head.

The smile vanished when they entered Luc's and he saw the empty stage. The Rangers assured him the month would fly by and they knew people who'd had worse injuries, but Paco winced, as if sorry he'd come.

They meant well, but who likes being told to be grateful it wasn't worse—that it doesn't really matter—that it's not as bad as you think it is—when you've been hit with a huge disappointment? Jennie was trying to think of something that would actually be comforting when Sera started confiscating everyone's lemonade and ale glasses and lining them up. Jennie had no idea what she was doing, but Yuki seemed to; he flashed a quick grin as he handed Sera a spoon.

Ah
, Jennie thought as Sera began tapping on the glasses. Each one rang with a different note. When she hit a sour one, she made a face, and took a sip out of that glass—Julio's, Jennie thought. Then she hit it again. The note was still flat.

Paco tilted his head, listening.

“He did that on crystal once, when I was visiting the glazier's,” Yuki told Jennie. “It sounded like chimes.”

Sera tapped at the glasses, trying to play a melody.

“Here,” Paco said, after the third sour note. “There's an exact measure. Don't tell me you don't remember from school. Everybody has to do this experiment.”

A chorus of “I forgot!” and “We did?” rose up as Paco tapped a glass, his slanting brows furrowed. He took a careful sip. When he had gotten the glasses tuned to a full octave, he sat back, satisfied.

Sera began tapping out the opening notes of “Hijo de la Luna.” Yuki picked up his fork and thumped on the table, heavy on the downbeat.

With two knives, Paco began beating out a counterpoint. Jennie started to sing, and everyone joined in. Paco played the table and plates and glasses like a one-man band.

Except for their skin and hair color, which were the same shades of brown and black, Paco and Sera looked so different—Sera with her straight brows and softly rounded features, Paco with his wickedly slanting brows and sharp nose, cheekbones, and chin. But their expressions were the same, focused and intent on the rhythm.

A huge platter of tacos appeared, and Paco ended the song with a crescendo that threatened to crack his plate. Everyone clapped. Jennie was glad to see him take his share, and he joined in the talk as they demolished the entire platter.

When they got up to go, Paco said softly, “Sorry, Mom. I didn't mean to be a jerk.”

Sera snorted. “If Doc Lee ever benches
me
for a month, you'll have to roust out the entire town to cheer me up.” She smiled at Jennie and Indra. “That reminds me. The Kawakamis are moving to Sunset Circle, so there'll be an empty apartment at Jackalope Row. If you move fast, you could nab it.”

“What?” Jennie exclaimed.

Indra threw his arm around her. “We talked about this, Jennie.”

She stopped herself from saying,
But I didn't say yes.
She would not have this conversation in public.

After they left Luc's, she and Indra walked silently through the crowded streets until they reached the relative privacy of narrow Primrose Path.

Jennie said quietly, “When did you talk to Sera about us moving in together?”

“At lunch, I guess. What difference does it make? We've been over this.” Her ears, sensitive to every shade of his voice, heard a quickness to his speech. Like he was defending himself.

“Not really. You brought it up.” Jennie watched her boots hitting the hard-packed earth. “And I said I wasn't ready.”

“Jennie, you are ready.” Indra caught her hand again. She let her fingers stay in his as he said, “We're not kids anymore. You're an adult twice over, with two jobs. Too bad you can't vote twice, like Preston used to.”

She smiled at his attempt at humor. “Too bad I can't keep both jobs.” She took a deep breath. “We've only been dating for six months. I'm still not ready to move in with you, and I wish you hadn't talked about it with Sera.”

“Why not?” Indra asked, turning to face her.

“For one thing, it would hurt my parents to hear about this from other people, instead of me.”

He dropped her hand and made an impatient gesture. “Your parents are the mellowest people in the entire town.”

“That doesn't matter. Every big decision is talked out in my family. It's the way we do things.”

“Then let's go now.” He reached for her hands. “I know they believe in the sanctity of marriage. If it's living together that bothers you, let's get married first. We could have the biggest wedding in Las Anclas.”

His face was so open and filled with longing, and his hands were so warm in hers. She could see herself marrying him. She'd have a beautiful wedding gown sewn by Mrs. Callahan and embroidered by Grandma Riley, whose needlework was the best in town. Mia and Meredith could be her bridesmaids. Everyone would toast the happy couple, and there'd be feasting and dancing. Indra would be so handsome at her side. And then, on the wedding night, everyone would walk them to their room, carrying candles and singing . . .

But marriage wasn't about the wedding. Jennie had grown up hearing that, and now she understood the truth of it.

“Listen to me, Indra. If I'm not ready to move in with you, I'm not ready to get married, either. We're too young.”

It hurt her to say those words, but there was more she wanted to do, and more things she needed to see, before she could settle down. She owed Indra—and herself—the truth.

“Lots of people get married at our age,” he protested.

“I know. Pa married Olivia Lee as soon as they turned eighteen. And they were divorced before they were twenty.”

Indra pulled his hands out of her grip. “Is there someone else?”

How did he know?
Then Jennie caught herself: there was nothing
to
know. She had no reason to feel guilty. “Are you serious? Of course there isn't!”

“What about Ross Juarez?”

An incredulous laugh escaped from Jennie's lips. “Ross? He practically leaps through a window if you so much as try to shake his hand!”

“That's not what I saw this morning.”

Jennie had never heard that tone before.

This is jealousy,
she thought. She stared at her boots, on the verge of dizziness—like she was waking up from a dream. But this was no dream. Nor a romantic song. There was nothing romantic here.

“Think, Jennie,” said Indra. “Could he be using his Change power to make you like him?”

Jennie took a deep breath. “Ross has no Change power. Or at least not that one. He'd be having a very different time at school if he did. But Ross is not the issue here. The issue is that I'm not ready for this.”

“What's ‘this'?” Indra asked, flinging his arms wide. “Marriage? Moving in?”

“Both.”

“So, what, it's time for ‘We said we could see other people,' is that it?” He clenched and unclenched his fists, then shook out his hands as if he was trying to shake off his anger. “I don't want to ‘see' anyone else.”

Embarrassment prickled Jennie's skin. Two feet away, the entire Cohen family was busy weeding their kitchen garden. She was certain they were listening.

“Let's go inside, okay?” She pointed toward her house.

BOOK: Stranger
4.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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