“Why, does that martini you’re ignoring have real gin in it? You’re a wild man, Russ.”
“This is what literature professors do, Marvin.” He pointedly refused to look up from the novel resting in his lap. “They read.”
“You’re not a literature professor—”
“And you’re not going to be one if you waste an invitation to the Redwood Room by keeping your muzzle in a book.” The fox waved in a come-along motion. “Stand up. Mingle. And try to look like you’re enjoying yourself. They’re almost here.”
Russell suppressed a sigh and rose to his feet, slipping the paperback into his jacket’s inner pocket, straightening his tie and stepping away from the leather sofa. Everything in the room seemed fashioned of leather, wood or bronze, save the patterned red and gold carpet. He’d been told this exclusive club hidden within the university’s administration building had been modeled on Northwestern hunting lodges. Judging by the scents soaked into the rug, the most oft-bagged game here in Palo Morado was mellow cigars and bourbon.
He wasn’t the only one at the reception ill at ease, not with a room full of academics. Marvin—hardly professorial, despite his aptitude with numbers—looked quite in his element, but had a distasteful element of desperation about him others could surely see. Russell hoped they saw it, at least. Dear lord. A world in which privileged brazen schmoozing over talent and planning would be so maddeningly unjust he’d be tempted to sell everything and take up life as a beach bum.
But who was he to judge? He couldn’t claim to be innocent of the schmoozing game. He just wasn’t very good at it. He’d accepted tonight’s invitation—honoring the self-styled king of a tiny Pacific island, here to be wooed by the college’s namesake for a business deal—because it had been offered by the dean of the College of Literature himself. Clearly it represented an open door, an extended hand, a sign that Russell was under serious consideration for the professorship opening next fall.
Or he thought it had been. So far, Dean Kerkhoff had remained a no-show, leaving him more out of sorts with this socializing than he’d normally be. Maybe he’d taken ill. Maybe he’d had no intention of attending at all. The reception had a tenuous connection to the university at best, and a serious academic such as the dean surely had no more interest in this kind of puffery than he did.
Two wolves, sporting matching grey jackets over identical boxing champion builds, stepped through the clubroom’s double doors and moved to flank a tan-furred rabbit entering behind. Russell had only seen Cornelius Andrew Bennett in person once before, but the rail baron was unmistakable. He had to be in his early sixties, but moved so spryly one suspected his polished rosewood cane was less for walking than for smacking subordinates. A rabbit doe walked with her arm looped through his, hair immaculately coiffed, fur the color of malted milk, sequined silver dress barely toeing the line between daring and gaudy. That made her Maude Bennett, which also made the philanthropist’s wife twenty years his junior.
The portly otter taking his other side had seen fewer years than the millionaire, yet looked winded from trying to keep up. Given his outlandish dress, Russell presumed he was the king/chief/whatever the primitives called him. The outfit drew on finery from a time a half-century earlier and a continent or two away from northern California: white shirt (a pinch too starched), white trousers, white tuxedo-style jacket, brilliant purple sash about his waist. A necklace of small copper discs hung about his neck. While both he and Maude acknowledged the crowd with waves and smiles, Bennett ignored them, regaling the otter king with the history of Pacific Northwest Railways.
Behind them walked another pair of otters, dressed less foolishly but equally strikingly. The man, Russell’s age or a year or two younger, had donned dark grey trousers and a tasteful dinner jacket then proceeded to ruin it with a red and blue floral print shirt undone by one button more than proper. And no tie. The woman wore a bright print dress, a raucous explosion of tropical flowers sleeveless and tight about her top until blossoming into a pleated skirt over her hips. A necklace of simple wooden beads encircled a graceful neck, a carved, polished disc resting below her collarbone. Somehow she pulled the affair off more elegantly than Mrs. Bennett and her undoubtedly more expensive gown.
“Good lord,” Marvin breathed.
“Take a gander at her curves.” The fox’s tail quivered. “She’s sweet.”
He looked back as the procession drew closer. Barely an inch or two past five feet; his fantasies revolved around much taller women. But, yes, all right, she was undeniably pretty. Dark brown fur, luxurious black hair that fell to the small of her back bound in a ponytail. And, as Marvin had so tactfully observed, fetchingly curved. “Well,” he whispered back. “Otters aren’t really my type.” She glanced toward them, giving a wave as she and her escort passed by.
“Then you’ve never seen one really move. It’s—it’s the wriggling. Look, she’s looking back at me!” He waved back with gusto.
“Oh, do pull your mind out of the gutter. She’s clearly taken.” He gestured at the receding backside of the otter gentleman walking beside her. “And aren’t you seeing someone?”
“Yes, but I’m not seeing her here. And I tell you, that girl just looked back.” She had, turning her head, eyes lingering long enough that it could no longer be called a mere glance. When her eyes met his—not Marvin’s, his—she smiled broadly. He straightened up.
The fox patted Russell on the shoulder with a grin and hurried off, and the otters vanished into the crowd. Hmm. Maybe she’d been looking back at Marvin after all. He picked up his drink and meandered in the other direction.
After another twenty minutes and the rest of his martini, he’d managed small talk with four professors—all fully tenured, including the only such woman in the state—but doubted any would remember his name tomorrow. Everyone’s eyes were, like Marvin’s, on either Bennett or his exotic guests. Very well, then. He could join in. It looked like Bennett was about to announce something he should no doubt look excited about.
After quickly running a pocket comb through his mop of sandy head fur, he moved into the circle surrounding the guests. It had grown to a good thirty people, most of the attendees. They’d gathered around a display stand draped with red velvet, Bennett’s right hand resting on the top. “I truly believe this is Julia’s finest work, and this is the first time anyone outside my office will be shown the final design. Ladies and gentlemen: Hotel Palekaiko!” He pulled the cloth away with a flourish.
The unveiling revealed a large glass case containing an exquisitely detailed model of a sprawling building in colonial revival style, five stories high at its center, three-story wings extending to either side. The wooden palace faced a lagoon, meticulously fashioned blue waves frozen in whitecaps as they raced toward shore; the beach had such a jeweled beauty to it that Russell found it a trifle unrealistic. A lush green mountainside rose behind the hotel, up toward the edge of the glass case itself.
Everyone broke into applause—Marvin’s comically loud, Russell’s perfunctory. Nearly everyone is. Maude Bennett didn’t clap. She gasped, clasping her hands together in front of her and staring at the model as if it were the Taj Mahal. The king’s brow furrowed. The younger tribesman acquired a distinct scowl. The girl smiled awkwardly, clasping her hands together rather than clapping.
“It is so…very big,” the king rumbled.
“Measured and planned to the inch. Looking right out at the cove the island takes its name from,” Bennett enthused, putting his arm around the otter’s shoulders and expounding on the hotel’s assortment of sumptuous amenities. Marvin hovered close by, nodding far more appreciatively than the king did, occasionally offering a marvelous! or extraordinary! at one or another feature.
As the otter girl stepped back, a group of men stepped with her. She’d had people hovering about her the whole time, hadn’t she? Yes. Sweet curves trumped extravagant dioramas. They were undoubtedly trying to impress her with their academic mastery—that’s how professors flirted. Not likely to get too far with a girl whose studies were likely limited to oyster diving.
He ran a hand through his hair, undoing most of the work of the comb, and sighed. The dean wasn’t showing up, and Russell truthfully couldn’t care less about Bennett’s hotel. He might as well leave now—no. He might as well take advantage of the open bar one more time, have another excellent martini, and then leave.
After procuring another generously poured libation, he made his way back to the sofa he’d been at before the Bennetts had arrived, pulling his book back out of his pocket. As he resumed where he’d left off, the party faded to blissfully ignorable background noise. He’d become so engrossed in the novel that he nearly jumped when a hand lightly touched his shoulder. “Excuse me,” a soft voice said.
Russell found himself staring at the hand a moment longer than courtesy allowed, studying the webbing between the slim, dark-furred fingers before looking up at their owner. This close, the otter woman’s face revealed a charming mix of girlish cuteness and womanly beauty. He hadn’t noticed how luminous her large brown eyes were. He hadn’t thought brown eyes could be luminous.
“May I sit with you? I would like to be off my feet for a few minutes.”
He took a quick glance around. Yes, several men still hovered about, lechery almost a palpable haze. Down from five to three and one seemed to be taking the hint and moving off, but he suspected the poor girl needed a rest from more than standing. He closed the book. “Of course, miss.”
“Thank you.” She stepped around the sofa and slipped into a seat, moving with fluid grace. Turning to face him, her hip pressed against the couch’s back cushion, allowing her thick tail ample room. He preferred backless chairs himself, but otters likely required them. “I do not mean to disturb your reading.”
“No, no.” Russell set the novel down beside him. “I confess I’m not much for parties, but it’s you—your envoy, that is—that we’re all here for, isn’t it? I suspect I’ve been terribly rude.”
She shook her head. “I saw you when we came in the room, and was hoping—ah—but Father was talking to Mr. Bennett, and we had to keep pace with him. While I am on my own now, I have been…” She glanced from side to side at the standing men. “Occupied.”
Father? The king? Wait, as small as the “kingdom” might be, didn’t that make her a—
“Yes,” one of her pursuers chimed in. Professor Haswell, a middle-aged mouse sporting a patchy graying beard that perfectly matched his patchy tweed jacket. “I was telling Miss Kokani about the last International Anthropological Society Conference in Singapore, the time we—ah, I might have told you before, Rocky.”
“I believe you have, Graham.” He’d told the story to Russell at least a dozen times before. He’d probably told the otter—Kokani?—twice already.
Her eyes fell on Russell’s book. Her expression changed from polite desperation to bright interest. “You are reading The Great Gatsby?”
She could read? “Again, yes. It’s one of my favorites.” He tilted his head. “Have you heard of—”
“It’s not very well thought of by most academics, you know, Kolani,” the other man said, a gaunt lynx whose face remained in a perpetual scowl of disdain. “Stylistically clever prose, to be sure, but…ephemeral. Fitzgerald has little to say to a discerning audience.”
“I don’t think that’s true at all, Professor Bristol.” Russell drew himself up. “It’s a story about the old and the new, about whether you embrace change or resist it, about—about—”
“How material possessions cannot secure you against loneliness,” the otter offered.
Russell’s train of thought abruptly tumbled into a ravine. “I…ah…go on?”
She clasped her webbed hands about the book, leaning toward the cougar. “Gatsby has extraordinary riches and a life that most Americans would envy, does he not? But what he desires, what he thinks would complete him, is not material at all.”
“That’s…very nicely put, yes.” He smiled, hoping it kept him from looking acutely embarrassed. At least he hadn’t said anything patronizing yet. He hoped.
“I do not understand all the references, and to me, the world of the novel is exotic in a way I think it is not to an American like you.” She set the book down and held out her hand to him. “I am Kailani.”
Russell felt glares from her hangers-on. Well, those libidinous buffoons hadn’t even gotten her name right, let alone her title. Lifting her hand to his muzzle, he touched his lips to its back in a light kiss. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Princess Kailani. I’m Russell Rittenhouse.”
She beamed, her smile so broad he couldn’t help but return it in kind. “Are you a professor at the university?”
“Professor?” Haswell laughed, the sound jovial enough but with no humor in his eyes. “Russ is a librarian!”
“That sounds wonderful.” Kailani slid closer to Russell on the couch, her arm draping across it back, her fingertips nearly reaching his shoulder. “Tell me about your library. Is it large? How many books do you have?”
“Just under half a million volumes.”
Her eyes widened. “That is astonishing!”
“This is one of the bigger universities west of the Mississippi.”
“And we have some of the highest-paid professors in the country as well,” Bristol added. “There’s wonderful fine dining restaurants and top-tier clubs in the surrounding town, for those with the means.”
She turned and locked her liquid eyes on the lynx, smile gone. “I am sure there are.” A gaze he could only describe as imperial remained on the professor for another second, then fixed on Haswell. Then she turned back to Russell, relaxed and smiling once more. “Yes, I had heard of it before Mr. Bennett came to my father with his proposal. This is our first time visiting America, though.”
“I hope you’ve enjoyed your stay here so far.” He watched Bristol and Haswell out of the corner of his eye. No, even they couldn’t mistake that for anything but dismissal. They shuffled off, Bristol huffing under his breath.
“Oh, I have! The cities are so big, but you have still kept so much of the land forested and undisturbed. The Golden Gate Bridge is a marvel of construction, and yet you have only a few miles to go to the south to be on a wild coast.” She spread her hands, seeming to indicate the whole of the Redwood Room, the whole of the university. “But there are so, so many people! I think there are as many students and professors together at this school as there are on my whole island.”
Russell smiled. He liked the sound of her voice. It made him think of waterfalls. “It’s a huge country, yes. I’ve only seen a small part of America myself.”
“Have you traveled outside America?”
He shook his head. “Not yet. Someday, after I’m more settled.” He grinned. “Maybe I’ll stay in the Hotel Palekaiko, if I can afford it.”
She wrinkled her nose. “If Father allows it to be built. We were expecting something…more modest.”
“I don’t think Bennett does modest.” He glanced toward the businessman, still in conversation with the two otter men. Marvin stood close by, but stared at Russell and Kailani with an expression bordering on shock.
“Do you go to parties like this often, Mr. Rittenhouse?”
He turned back to the princess. Her eyes had focused on him again. They really were beautiful. “No. I’m…I’m not antisocial, but I don’t go to parties often. I like smaller gatherings.”
“We have celebrations. Dances. The whole village, every full moon.”
He smiled. “So you like very large gatherings, then.”
She returned a more mischievous smile. “‘I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.’”
Was that a quote? “Wait. That’s from this.” He tapped the book, and laughed. “You have an excellent memory. And very good taste.”
She laughed. “Thank you, Mr. Rittenhouse. You must as well. How did you come to be a librarian here?”
“Oh, that’s not a very interesting story.”
Kailani held up her hand. “No, you must tell me of your life, and I shall tell you of mine.”
He laughed. “If you’d like, we’ll share stories, then.”
As their conversation continued—another martini in his hand, a glass of white wine in hers—Princess Kailani’s land began to sound less primitive than deeply rural. Uli Hahape had roads, and electricity on one side of the island, and occasional seaplane service from Honolulu. She spent most of her time in a waterfront house nestled at the point where the white sands and lush green forest met (a house that would likely be lost to Bennett’s gargantuan resort). She spoke rhapsodically of the sapphire blue ocean, the jungle climbing the extinct volcano that had formed the island, the time she spent swimming and fishing. Between the song of her voice and the depths of her eyes, he found himself losing the focus on her words more than once.
She’d begun telling him about fishing for sharks and tuna in deeper waters when the king approached, followed closely by the third otter, Cornelius Bennett and his wife. And, of course, Marvin. Russell rose to his feet quickly. “Your highness.”
The otter clasped his closest hand in both of his. “Aloha.” He grinned. “I see you have spent the night speaking with my daughter.”
The night? Russell glanced furtively from side to side. The club had become nearly deserted. Beyond the seven of them, he could see only one other couple sitting close together on a far couch. “She’s a wonderful conversationalist, your highness.”
“Yes, all the boys chase Kailani because of her conversation.” He laughed uproariously. His daughter rose to her feet, looking mortified. Apparently embarrassing their adult children was universal to parents.
Russell simply smiled. “It was lovely to meet you, Princess Kailani.” He held his hand out for hers, and when she placed her palm against his, he once again lifted it to give the back of her hand a kiss. “I hope the rest of your stay in our country is wonderful.”
“We have two more days.” The king clapped the other two otters on their backs. “And I think our business is done, so she may have free time, hmm?” He waggled his brows.
“Almost done.” Bennett grinned the grin of someone not grinning inside at all. “Still some formalities to finalize.”
The king grunted, and clapped the rabbit on his back as well. “Cornelius, my friend, we shall talk more about that in the morning.” He motioned for the other two otters to follow as he strode toward the doorway.
Maude looked after him, ears drooping. “He’s not going to sell, is he?”
“He will.” Bennett’s voice grew firm. “Aremana isn’t a fool.”
“I’m sure once he sees the numbers, he’ll be thrilled, sir,” Marvin cut in.
“Produce some more thrilling numbers for me, Haversham.” Abruptly the rabbit turned to Russell, eyes narrowing at the cougar. “And you are?”
“Russell Rittenhouse, sir.”
“You work at the university here?”
“Yes. I’m a librarian.”
The sharp gaze remained on him another second, then the rabbit nodded once. “Let’s be off, dear. Big day tomorrow.”
After the Bennetts left, Marvin jabbed Russell in the arm, chuckling. “You old fiend, you! Blathering on about how you don’t like otters and then putting the moves on the prettiest one in California while I’m trying—unsuccessfully, I might add—to get in with Bennett.”
The cougar snorted, taking his hat from the coat check girl as they walked past. “She was talking to me because I was the one man here not tripping over his own tongue when she walked by. I wasn’t a romantic interest, I was a shield.”
“Please. She was almost in your lap.”
“We were on opposite sides of the couch.”
“You most certainly were not. Why, your knee brushed hers when you stood up.”
He paused. It had brushed hers. He didn’t think he’d moved; had she been sliding closer to him as they talked? “I don’t think I’d read much into that. She moved closer to me so we could talk more easily.”
Marvin shook his head as he held the front door open for the cougar, then followed him into the crisp spring night air. “I’m not reading into it, you’re being dense. I tell you, romance is staring you in the face, and you’re smacking it on the nose with a paperback_._”
“You know I’m not—”
“Looking for romance because it’s not the right time, yes, yes. I tell you, life isn’t a giant checklist one proceeds through in order.” He put on his cap. “Goodnight, Russ.”
Russell tipped his fedora to the fox, then nestled it back between his ears. “Goodnight, Marvin.”