Authors: M. D. Waters
M.D. Waters is the author of
. She lives in Maryland.
Also by M.D. Waters
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Copyright Â© 2014 by M.D. Waters
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eBook ISBN 978-0-698-18165-6
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
I can't count the number of eyes opening and closing in unison as I turn in a slow circle, hands fisted, but they stare back at me. Nervous where they used to be delighted. Anxious instead of thrilled.
You can't hide in here forever,
Don't be a coward.
The judgment cast at me is my own, bounced off several lengths of mirrored glass in a seemingly endless room. Red-tinted reflections surround me on all sides and camouflage the way out. I never should have come in here. Attempting to put off meeting Dad as if I'm eight instead of eighteen. What had been the point? I wasn't going to find my backbone in here anymore than I would out there. This place has lost all its magic.
The carnival used to be our place, which is why I asked him to meet me here. Rides. Circus acts. Fun houses. Food tents ranging from powdery to fried to decadent. This used to be the night Dad left work at home, and we'd walk and talk, man-to-boy, and later, man-to-man. He'd ask me questions and actually listen to the answers. He'd give advice and we'd joke around and laugh. We'd end the night watching the final act: women dancing in scant clothing, wearing feather headdresses.
This year is different. This year I'm “a man with certain responsibilities.” Dad is going to hate my choice, but that doesn't make my decision any less important. He's the one who taught me to stand up for what I want. To fight for it until blood spilled. So why can't I face him and fight for
A shadow moves behind me, a dark ghost cast in every reflection. A young woman inches her way into the space, cleaning fingerprints off the mirrors as she goes. Her dark hair is cut chin length and tucked behind one ear.
She realizes she isn't alone, startles, and stops. Her head tilts in a way that forces her untucked hair to hang over one eye and hide half her face. She avoids my eyes, looking at everything but me. “I'm sorry, sir. I was told no one was in here.”
Probably because I've been standing here for twenty minutes, and anyone else would have made his or her way through a long time ago. “It's okay.”
The woman lifts a shoulder to shift the tickling ends of hair off her cheek. In that one second I understand why she's hiding. A long scar runs diagonally over her eye. It wouldn't surprise me if she were half-blind, because who would pay to repair the damage to a woman not meant for marriage? A carnival job is the perfect place to hide what's happened to her.
I start to ask if there's some way I can help her. My father wants me to ignore the inside dealings of the women's training centers, or WTCs, but that's impossible when facing this woman. Then again, she will probably refuse the offer; I've seen it a thousand times. I can't blame her. I might want something in return. If I were another sort of man.
I palm the back of my neck and rub the tension building to a crescendo there. “I was just leaving. Can you point me to the exit?”
She points, head bowed, and I follow the corridor lined in diagonal stripes the color of fire. I swallow my growing guilt with every step. I can't save everyone, can I?
Outside in the near-stifling heat of the summer evening, I maneuver around children and parents posing for fun-house mirrors. The air is thick with the scents of sugar and butter and grease. The light breeze carries the muffled sound of screams from carnival rides that flash blue and yellow and red in the distance.
The merry sounds don't end as I turn a corner into a gaming area. Bright lights under angled roofs highlight the red-and-yellow-striped virtual-reality spheres. Friends and family gather outside to watch a projected 3-D hologram airing every detail happening inside. Most VR spheres are set up with war games: running and shooting enemies in extreme temperatures made possible by unfixed floors and controlled air pressure. Other spheres provide more intellectual stimulation, like crime solving. Some are simply there for fun: dancing or floating.
Dad stands outside the virtual fortune-teller where I asked him to meet me, hands on his hips flaring his beige suit jacket back, obviously having come straight from the office. His dark hair, streaked with gray at the temples, doesn't budge from its slicked-back setting. He spins on his heels, searching in every direction.
The second he sees me his face reddens. He stomps toward me. “Where the hell were you?”
His tone puts a rod in my spine. “It doesn't matter.”
He grunts and twists his thin lips into a wry smirk. “That's a matter of opinion. I hope to God you don't plan to treat my clients like this.”
“That's what Iâ”
“Never mind.” He smooths his shirt, then hikes his pants around his thickening waist, eyes roaming the crowd. “I have good news. Your application was approved by Rykers. The dean called me personally.”
I can't stop the roll of my eyes until they're halfway through their rotation. Of course he sent applications for me to the best university in the east.
“You start in September,” he continues, clapping and rubbing his palms together. A smile stretches his face as if I'd just told him this news instead of the other way around. “In four years, you'll come home to intern under me. By then you should have at least one heir, hopefully two.”
A laugh bursts from my chest. “The very
thing I'm doing is buying a wife.”
He waves a dismissive hand. “I'm buying you the girl, and you'll stick your prick in her if I have to do it myself.”
I lean away and blink at him. He's unbelievable. Why in the hell would I want to carry on his line?
“I had to pull a lot of strings to get this done, boy.”
I watch him take a minimum of five steps before following. How can I make him hear me? Didn't the man ever have a dream that didn't involve this company and money and duty?
“And don't think I didn't notice how you ever-so-casually let the applications slip past their due dates,” Dad says when I catch up.
“There's a reason for that.”
“Let's head over to the zoo area,” he says, ignoring me. “You always liked to see the tigers.”
“When I was twelve. Dad, hold on.” I touch his arm to make him stop and look at me. Behind him, a group of teenage girls from a WTCâclosely monitored by their guardsâthrow darts at hologram balloons projecting on a wall. My heart races as I rush to get out the words I've been unable to say since we arrived. “I didn't apply because I registered for an internship in Italy. I have my airplane ticket, and I even have a place to live lined up. It starts in September.”
He blinks. Frowns. His hands hook to his sides and he puffs out his chest. “What sort of internship? You haven't even started college.”
I swallow through the tightness growing like kudzu, making a killing field of my throat and chest. He's going to laugh. Mock. Demean. I already know. But this is what I want. It's already set in motion. I need to push forward on solid, brave heels. Be the man he taught me to be, even if he disapproves.
“Well?” he asks. He's breathing hard now. Preparing for the worst. For him, this will be.
“I'll be in Italy for a year; then I'll move on to France. I plan to travel the world. Master the discipline and learn from the best. By the time I return homeÂ .Â .Â .” I trail off and shrug. “Maybe I'll be the best, too.”
His face inches toward mine. The breeze blows in behind him, carrying his stale musk and salty scent. “The best at what, Declan?”
“I want to be a chef.”
The words aren't as strong as I'd meant them to be, and I wish I could take the moment back. Start again. But he's already releasing a belting, back-bending laugh that stops everyone within earshot. I catch a few curious eyes before gluing my gaze to Dad's brown shoes. Dust mars the typically immaculate sheen. I ignore the temptation to kick more dirt on them and concentrate on breathing deep.
When Dad's harsh guffaw slows to a soft chuckle, he manages to ask, “What sort of chef?”
I find a microscopic ounce of hope that he's on the verge of acceptance. “One that excels at everything there is to know. I want to make a name for myself. I've been taking classes at the culinary institute, and I've been working a couple nights a week at Giovanni's. That's how passionate I am. I can do it.”
His amusement dissolves in one swipe of a hand across his mouth. He can't even look at me anymore. “I blame your mother.”
Something dark inside me jerks to attention and stands erect. She's been gone too long to deserve this sort of negative attention. Not that she'd deserve it if she were alive. “Leave Mom out of this.”
“I never should have let her teach you women's work. I guess I should be happy you aren't trying to plant flowers or sew skirts.”
“I was a child, and I wanted to spend time with whichever parent happened to be around, and that sure as hell wasn't you.” I throw my hands up and back away. “It doesn't matter. It's done. I'm going and you can't change my mind.”
His eyes glitter as he appraises me. I get the sense he's about to make things very difficult for me, and I'll have no choice but to accept his decision. After all, he controls my trust until I turn twenty-five.
He then does something I don't expect.
He walks away.
Â â¢Â â¢Â â¢Â
I don't ignore Dad's invitation for a meeting in his office the following day at noon. I even arrive early, running my prepared speech through my head. Ready to rattle off the names of at least five men who have made a name for themselves opening restaurants all over the world. Two of whom I plan to study under. I don't want just one kitchen. I want five. Ten. More. If I learned anything from Dad, it's that passion is the only requisite for success.
From the marble-floored lobby, I enter a clear teleporter tube and wait for the internal computer to calculate my weight. Once the computation is complete, a keypad projects on the wall to my left and I type my destination. I breathe in the scent of spearmint that's meant to cover the rancid-smelling numbing agent.
I arrive on 182, the executive floor, seconds later. The outdated carpet is a drab brown and gold, and it sinks under every step. Glass doors part at the end of the hall and open into a large outer office. The room is formal. Off-white walls. Square furniture. Paintings of flowers in pots.
Dad's secretary, Maria, stands from her desk. “Your father is expecting you.”
I nod and veer right, toward his office. The door is closed, so I wave my hand over the radio-frequency plateâDad had an RFID chip implanted under my skin before I could even reach the switch. His way of priming me to take his place, I guess.
The door slides aside with the usual hydraulic
of air. Dad sits inside, where a sitting room has been arranged with the same square, unpleasant furniture. The walls project the image of windows and the dreary day outside. Dad has two fears: heights and assassination via a long-range bullet to the head. I wonder what he's done to warrant the latter. No one
to be murdered without cause. Just another reason why I need to get away from Dad and this company.
Once I step fully into the room, I discover we're not alone. And to my surprise, Dad's guest is a friend of mine. Jacob Donnelly stands and buttons a gray suit jacket that swells over his shoulders. His pants rise just high enough to show his black socks. Two fresh nicks mar his long, narrow chin, and smile lines wrinkle to the sides of eyes set too close together. He's combed back his red hair, the curls a concrete wave.
What Jacob lacks in looks, he makes up for in personality. He's outspoken, witty, and as smart as hell. Shrewdest guy I know. But that doesn't give me a single clue as to why he's here with my father.
“What's going on?” I ask. May as well get to the point.
Dad flings an arm over the back of the love seat, a slanted grin on his face. He stares at me with a gleam in his eye that drops a rock right into my gut. I'm not going to like what I hear.
Jacob comes forward, hand outstretched. “How's it going, Dec?”
I hate that nickname. “Fine, thanks. How are things?”
Jacob's grin stretches from ear to ear, and he glances at Dad as if asking permission. He gets the nod and announces, “Mr. Burke has offered me a position I can't refuse.”
My attention flicks to Dad. “Position?”
“Yes,” Dad says in a boisterous tone. “I need to make sure my company is in good hands, Declan. If you refuse my offer, I need your replacement ready to go.”
I glance between the two, shifting my feet into a stance better suited to withstand the earthquaking news I'm about to hear. “Offer?”
Dad motions us to the two chairs facing the love seat. “Sit. I'll explain.”
Jacob sits, but I fold my arms and say, “I'll stand.”
Dad's smile twitches. His fingers tap the mustard-yellow cushioned back as he gloats in the power he holds over the room. Over the offer he's clinging to like it's the ledge of a cliff above jagged rocks and a roaring sea. I want to shake the words from him and he knows it.
I sit, hoping this will appease him enough to speak. He gathers a good breath into his lungs almost immediately and sits forward. “I've given your career choice some thought, Declan, and I want you to have your shot. I do.”
He frowns in a way that feels placating, forcing me to say the word he hasn't. “But?”
“But I also want you here. And obviously you can't be in two places at once.”
I glance at Jacob, wishing he wasn't here to witness my humiliation. I'm not quite to that point yet, but it's crystallizing only inches from my toes. Building like the threat of an avalanche whose course is set by my father's whim. Jacob seems perfectly at ease, though. Reclined in his chair, ankle crossed over his knee, foot bobbing. That crooked smile hasn't left his face since I arrived.