“Could you let—” Russell paused as he looked across at the desk clerk. He didn’t have her last name. Did she even have a last name? Would she be in the same room as her father and brother, in a suite, perhaps, or did they book three separate rooms? Maybe they’d be booked under Bennett’s name, since he had to be the one who set this up.
The mouse lifted a brow inquiringly.
“Ah, could you let Princess Kailani know that Mr. Rittenhouse is here to see her?”
The clerk’s brow lifted even higher for a moment before he remembered to put on his professional face again. “Of course, sir.” He scanned the guest book. “Is she expecting you?”
“Yes, she is.”
He lifted his other brow. “Very good, sir.” He stepped away to the house phone against the rear wall, glancing at Russell occasionally as he spoke. When he returned, he said, “She informs me she’ll be down within ten minutes, sir. If you’ll wait in the lobby bar, I’ll send for you when she arrives.”
Russell ambled slowly across the Fairmont’s lobby, stepping down into the slightly sunken bar area. The decor was surprisingly similar to the Redwood Room, if much brighter thanks to the windows and skylight, and scented predominantly with a rosemary-citrus potpourri, popular this season as a “neutral” odor.
It was tempting to get a drink at the bar at the far end of the sunken floor, but he didn’t know how long he’d be waiting and didn’t want to meet her with a drink in hand. He readjusted his suit jacket, a navy blue number he’d liked the look of when he’d put it on. Now he wondered if he should have gone with the grey. The blue might come across as a touch a bit flamboyant, especially with the dark red tie. But maybe flamboyant was good for a date, and her whole family did tend to dress rather…showily. But he’d still be here in three days, not her. He had to look relatively sober. It wasn’t that flamboyant, he hoped.
And it wasn’t a date. It wouldn’t have happened if Bennett hadn’t intervened. He’d have found a way to politely decline. Had Bennett somehow put the otter girl up to this, “put in a good word” for Russell with her?
Sighing, he picked up a newspaper from a coffee table and took a seat. Maybe he should have gone to the bar after all. A half-jigger of bourbon might have done wonders for his nerves. Crossing his legs, he flipped to the local news section and scanned the headlines.
A short notice on the second page of the national news section caught his eye: Senator calls for more restrictions on size-shifting foreign nationals. Russell grunted, shaking his head. There’d been political unrest across the European continent the last couple of years and, yes, two or three of the radicals had done damage—considerable damage—as giants. But none of that violence had ever reached America’s shores and there’d been no sign it would. Besides, more casualties had been caused by the decidedly pedestrian means of bombs and rifles.
He scanned the article. Naturally, the politico hadn’t specified what “more restrictions” would mean; as far as he knew they hadn’t let declared size-shifters across the border for the last year, and anyone—including citizens—who size-shifted without being registered faced stiff penalties. Russell sighed, flipping the page onto the business section. At least they hadn’t decided Goddess and its ilk were somehow fomenting sedition. Yet.
He looked up to see the desk clerk standing in front of him, motioning toward the approaching Princess Kailani. A one piece blue dress decorated with subtle but intricate patterns in white wrapped about her, the fabric starting just above her chest to leave her shoulders and arms bare, hemline barely reaching the midpoint of her calves. Yesterday’s dress had been loose and billowy; this one flowed around her form like the tide. The necklace of polished wooden beads she’d worn yesterday again encircled her neck.
Russell rose to his feet quickly, dropping the paper to the seat cushion. “Your highness.” She’d already extended her hand; when he touched his lips to its back, she beamed as brightly as she had the night before.
“I am very pleased you will be my guide tonight.”
He led her toward the hotel’s grand front entrance, holding one of the heavy double doors open for her. “I’m flattered you asked me, although I’m surprised. I can’t imagine I sounded terribly knowledgeable about the area last night.” By the time he reconsidered the last sentence—honesty was not always the best policy—it was too late to pull it back.
“You have lived in this town for several years, and in California for years before that, have you not?” She stepped through and waited on the sidewalk for him to join her.
“You’re right, I have. But I still haven’t learned where the fine dining restaurants and top-tier clubs are.”
She smiled. “Uli Hahape has no fine dining restaurants or top-tier clubs, so I shall not know what I am missing.”
Russell laughed. “Even so, I confess I’m at a bit of a loss. I’m sure your host has hit most of the area highlights I’d know already. What things did Mr. Bennett take you and your family to?”
“We have been all around Bennett University, and to the local history museum that he graciously funded, and to meet the architect who designed the hotel he wishes to build and his house and the museum and much of the university.” She sighed. “If you take me anywhere that does not involve the name ‘Bennett,’ it shall likely be new to me.”
The cougar smiled crookedly. “Have you been to the De Lint Gardens? They’ll be open through sunset, so we have a few more hours.”
She shook her head. “No.”
“It’s about four blocks from here. Do you mind walking, or should I call a cab?”
“The walk sounds lovely.”
Just past five on a Thursday, the streets of Palo Morado were bustling, even if it might be nothing like the bustle of San Francisco. “The business district here is only a few blocks wide in either direction, but it’s just about all I think I could need. Bookstore there, record store on the other side of the street there…that pastry shop is quite good, but it’s only open in the mornings.”
Kailani looked more attentive than his narration warranted, stopping to look in almost every store window, walking into the dress shop he’d of course never had reason to enter himself. She glanced down each alley, smiled to each pedestrian. He found himself seeing the street the way h had when he’d first moved to the area, when it had all been new, extraordinary. It was hard not to grin as he watched her.
They’d walked another block before Russell realized how many of the pedestrians she smiled at were giving her second, third, and even fourth glances. At least the men. Nearly all the men. He straightened up and walked a whisker’s breath closer to her, feeling unaccountably protective. Did she attract this sort of attention constantly back home? Surely not. Was she truly that exotic here? There were whole neighborhoods of otters in San Francisco, for Lord’s sake.
After another block he guided her down a side street. The business district quickly changed to a residential neighborhood: small wooden homes, nearly all with porches, nearly all painted white or yellow, half with low picket fences surrounding the yards. “Do you live in a home like these?”
He shook his head. “No, I live in a row house.”
“What is a ‘row house?’”
“It’s…something like a cross between homes like these and the student dormitories on campus. One building with more than one home in it, each one smaller than these. I live at the Ferran Townhomes, about a mile northeast of here.”
She nodded slowly. “I think I can picture what those are.”
“It’s nice enough for now, but I’ll move into a home like one of these one day. In a few years, after I’ve secured a professorship.”
“You are going to leave the library?”
Russell almost laughed, but Kailani sounded so genuinely surprised he put effort into suppressing it. “It’s a fine job, but it’s not what I want to do with my life.”
“Oh.” She tilted her head, expression serious. “You will help more people as a professor than a librarian?”
“I…” He hadn’t considered it in such simple terms. “Yes, I think I will.”
“That is good. Tua—my brother—and I went to Lahaina Mission School.”
“Are most of your people educated?”
“Some. The school has been there a very long time. The Spanish started it when they started trade with people around our islands. Now we trade mostly with America. Some of the other, larger islands want to be recognized as an American territory.”
“You don’t make it sound like something you want.”
“I do not think so.” She bit her lip. “We do not want to be trapped by our past, but we want to honor it, to respect and keep our traditions. Traditions are not so important to Americans.”
“Now. We may be a young country, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t concerned with our history.”
“Ah, but you say that because of where you work. You are surrounded by books, and books record histories.” She laughed. “There was to be a book about our traditions once. Researchers came to our island when I was a child. They were from your university. My father was thrilled to have our stories written down.”
“They came, they built the house they planned to live in for the next three years, and after spending just three months they left. They were…” She bit her lip, which looked so cute he almost missed the rest of the sentence. “Surprised by some things, and I think afraid, even though they should not have been. They argued with one another about how true to be, and decided they did not want to stay.”
“If they were university researchers, they should have been absolutely true.” He pointed ahead, across the intersection they were approaching. An Oriental-style garden occupied the space several of the pristine box homes would otherwise fill. Beyond the garden—and the houses to either side of it—tall trees rose, going down a gentle slope then up more sharply to follow the lines of a hill. “We’re here.”
“You are a more honest—oh!” She hurried to the corner, moving about as fast as Russell could without breaking into a jog. Otters shouldn’t be able to do that on short and stubby legs. She didn’t have short and stubby legs, did she? They were long, quite shapely, and clearly faster than librarian legs were.
The cougar caught up enough to lead her to the garden’s entrance sidewalk. She stayed on the path for all of three seconds before walking to the edge of a pond, crouching and watching the koi.
“Your stories of fishing yesterday have me a little worried.”
Kailani flashed him a look of equal parts reproach and amusement. “I understand these are decorative fish, Mr. Rittenhouse.”
He flushed, but before he could think of an appropriate apology for the joke, she rose to her feet and headed back to the path, quickly making her way to a wooden footbridge crossing the pond. He’d barely made it there before she was on to study a stone lantern, then leaning over a carefully trimmed hedge. “You’re a hard one to keep up with.”
She laughed. “I have not been in a garden like this since I was very young, and I do not remember that one as being as pretty. You live in a truly wonderful place.”
“I…” Furrowing his brow, he remembered his excitement when he first came here, nestled in the valley between lush mountains and the bay, the perfect weather, the postcard towns. Every day he’d find himself pausing, for just a moment, appreciating a new view or even one he’d seen a dozen times before, and think exactly that. I live in a truly wonderful place. When had he stopped noticing? “Thank you, your highness.”
She smiled, then turned toward the hillside, looking up. “And those. Those are like nothing in my home.” She strode along the path toward the garden’s edge, off the sidewalk and onto a dirt pathway that led into the redwood grove.
He followed at a more leisurely pace, looking up at the tops of the trees himself. “Redwoods. I don’t think there’s much like them anywhere else.”
“These are huge!”
Russell grinned. “These are young ones. The oldest redwoods are much larger. Some of the largest and oldest trees in the world.”
She took a deep breath, putting a hand on the trunk of one and staring up. “They are spectacular.”
He breathed in deeply, too, rich scents of evergreen and loam. Even though they were mere steps from the garden proper, the temperature had dropped at least five degrees. “They are. I used to come here once, even twice a week when I first moved here.” He walked farther along the path, looking up himself now. “You feel so…small by giants like these.”
“I think of being that tall.”
He laughed. “Really? I rather like…” He trailed off. I like feeling small sounded odd and obliquely confessionary, but he wasn’t sure how else to finish the sentence.
She turned to him. “Standing by giants.”
“I suppose so.” Russell kept his voice level and nonchalant, absolutely not letting his mind drift to an image of Kailani standing as tall as a redwood. “So, my thought was that we’d walk back along Andersen toward University Avenue, and then down through the business district to dinner. I didn’t have time to make reservations, but I’m sure we’ll be able to get a table at Rudolpho’s. Have you had much Italian?”
She shook her head. “I do not think I have had any.”
“Really! It’s something of an area specialty, you know, thanks to Italian settlers a century ago. And Rudolpho’s usually has some excellent seafood specials.”
Kailani laughed again, a sound he was finding himself liking more each time he heard it. “That sounds lovely.”
As they walked on, he offered her his arm. She hooked hers around it.
Russell hadn’t been to Rudolpho’s more than a dozen times in the years he’d lived in town, and four of those occasions had been work-related. Even if he’d been the sort who ate out more than once a week (usually every Sunday), it was a step grander than his salary let him frequently indulge in. But he’d recalled it as being just the kind of place he would choose if he could: white linen tablecloths and black tuxedoed waiters yet convivial rather than pompous, four-star food at two-star prices. Well, perhaps two and a half star prices when one’s date ordered the Flounder Piccata—but judging by Kailani’s blissful expression, Rudolpho’s hadn’t let him down.
The dinner conversation had started with the fish itself. On Uli Hahape they would have roasted it or just served it raw, perhaps marinated in citrus. The side dishes and seasonings she talked of sounded more sophisticated than he’d have thought—at least than he’d have thought two days ago. By now, he’d accepted that what little he’d thought he’d known about her islands rested on embarrassing stereotypes. He was rather glad Trader Vic’s was all the way up in Oakland.
The topic ranged onward to more of her life on Uli Hahape; her family had ruled for as long as anyone could remember, held to be descended from the gods themselves. Yet they had no palace or servants, and she seemed to find the notion absurd. “We serve our people. They do not serve us!”
“That’s what any good politician would say, but I meant it in a more prosaic fashion—you know, servants who do chores for you. I’m sure you’ve seen that around Bennett’s estate. Butlers, maids, cooks. I know you don’t have the same sort of household, and perhaps I’m being unforgivably Western about it all. But you make it sound almost as if you’re just another one of the villagers who happens to be royalty.”
Kailani laughed. “If it reassures you, any of the villagers would gladly do chores for my family if we asked them. Being the daughter of the king does matter. But I am one of the villagers. We all are.”
He finished off the last of his chicken marsala. “But you have more authority than everyone else does, surely? Everyone but the king and Prince Tua?”
“How can authority be measured by having butlers and maids and cooks? I go to the village seamstresses when I need clothes, the carpenters when I need building, and while I rarely cook myself, I have often caught fish for the village.”
He grinned. “It’s hard to imagine you out on a canoe stabbing spears at the water.”
She looked mildly confused. “I swim and catch the fish with my hands.”
Russell laughed after a moment. “Forgive me. I’m forgetting how excellent you must be at both.”
“You look like you would be a good swimmer. You are not one of the cats who hates water, are you?”
“No, no. I enjoy swimming, although I’m happy enough to let someone else do the fishing.”
After dinner, they split a strawberry cheesecake. She seemed more fascinated by the texture than the flavor—but clearly liked the strawberries. “Have you ever had lilikoi? Passion fruit?”
He shook his head.
“You shall have to come to Uli Hahape sometime. We have several flavors of it there. I shall play tour guide for you.”
He nearly dropped his fork in surprise. “You think I should—I mean, I’m flattered. Thank you. But I don’t know when I’d be able to do that, or how I’d be able to afford it.” That wasn’t true, was it? He had the vacation time, and he’d be able to afford passage on a boat, at least, without compromising his savings. That wasn’t the point, though. At this point in his life, he could hardly gallivant after a beautiful foreigner—not that she—of course, he recognized that—
“When you want to, you shall find a way.”
Wait! He’d started out the evening with an agenda, and that was the opening he needed. Bennett had more than likely prodded the princess to ask him out somehow as it was, given that she could clearly have her pick of more eligible bachelors than Russell for an evening. “While I’d joked about it earlier, I really could stay at the Palekaiko after it’s built.”
The otter straightened up in her seat, her smile abruptly replaced by a nonplussed frown. “Father—all of us—we have decided that it will not be built. It is…too much.”
Don’t be a cheerleader—she’ll pick up on that immediately. “Won’t it make your people much wealthier from the land sale alone, though? I’d think that would bring a lot of benefits to them. You could do so much you simply can’t now. Right?”
“Where would we spend that money?”
“I…” He set down his fork and rubbed down his chin. “Other islands? Ones that are more…”
“Civilized?” Her eyes narrowed.
He felt uncomfortably like a small, easily catchable fish. “I think ‘Americanized’ might be more the word.”
“Yes.” She stabbed her fork at a strawberry, impaling it viciously. “We would have to leave, or we would have to make our island more like the others. And we would do both. It is not just the hotel—it is everything it would bring. The people, the money.” Kailani sighed, a long, deep sigh that for a moment made her seem much older. “Some of my generation travel to other islands already, have American jobs with American paychecks. And they are talking of moving away. I think if the hotel is not built, Tua may be one of the ones who leaves.”
“You make us all sound like terrible cads.”
She shook her head. “The hotel I am staying in here is finer than anything in my home, and I am sure your home, however modest you think it is, would seem very luxurious to me. I see why your way of life spreads over the other islands like a flowering vine. There is nothing evil or wrong in what your people do.” She smiled, this time sadly rather than brightly. “That is what makes it so hard to fight.”
The echo of Bennett’s cynical prediction in her words left him with the same sharp knot in his stomach. He looked down, then took another bite of cheesecake as he tried to think of what to say next. “I do see your point,” he managed, still stalling for time.
“And seeing it, what would you do?”
Come on, Russell, she’s handing it to you on a silver platter. “Well. I think—I mean, the future of your people—as you said, they’re already moving toward, uh, and it’s better for you and your father to control the…timing…”
Oh, dash it, he’d only promised Bennett he’d put in a good word, and he’d tried. “Honestly, I have no idea, your highness. I think I can make an excellent case for the hotel, but I don’t know that it beats your case against it. If I were in your position? I’d follow my heart.”
Her smile warmed by several degrees. “Even if there were a hotel, I would not let you stay there if you visited. You would be my guest.”
He hoped his return smile wasn’t quite as awkward as it felt. He nearly said I’ll look forward to it, but he didn’t want to suggest a promise he couldn’t possibly keep. He turned his attention back to the cheesecake.
Kailani brought her fork down faster than he did, stabbing the last strawberry.
“I think you’ve had nearly all of those.”
“Then I shall split the last one with you.” She brought the fork up to her muzzle and delicately bit off one half of the berry, then held the other half in front of Russell’s nose.
He cleared his throat, wondering how she’d managed to make that look so—so provocative. His ears felt hot, and he hoped he hadn’t started to blush. Now what? Not taking it would be rude, wouldn’t it? He leaned forward slightly and pulled the offered bite of fruit off the fork.
It tasted delicious.
As they set back out, he apologized for not being a very well-traveled tour guide. “I’m afraid I’ve only taken you to two places, and I’m not sure Rudolpho’s should count.”
“You have shown me around Palo Morado.” She waited until he took her arm to continue walking.
“Only a small part.”
“There is tomorrow.”
“I work tomorrow.”
“You do not work in the evening, though. And do you work on Saturday?”
“A half-day in the afternoon.”
“Then you can stay out later.”
The rest of the walk proceeded in silence, pleasant yet somehow fraught—without conversation, he found himself noticing the rhythm of her breathing, the warmth of her scent. The way—damn it, Marvin—the way she moved. It took some ten minutes to reach her hotel, and he couldn’t decide if that was much too long or much too short.
As they walked through the Fairmont’s entrance, she looked up at him. “Would you consider it improper if I asked you to come up to my suite?”
His brows lifted. “I think a man heading up to your suite late at night could be seen as improper, your highness, yes.”
“Then I will not ask, as long as you stop calling me ‘your highness.’” She touched one of her fingers to his lips. “Kailani.”
Russell was quite sure the heat in his ears was visible this time. He nodded slightly, waiting for her to move her finger before he spoke. “All right…Kailani. Call me Russell.”
“Thank you for a lovely evening, Russell.” She put her hands on his shoulders and leaned up, muzzle moving close to his. Very close.
His breath caught. Then he dipped his head to the side and gave her a kiss on the cheek, stepping back as soon as he lifted his head. “Thank you, too. Kailani.” He turned and hurried out of the lobby, trying not to dwell on the expression he’d left on her face. Confusion? Disappointment?
He strode home at a speed just short of breaking into a jog. When he reached the building, he headed right to his front door, unlocked it, slammed it behind him, and threw himself down on the sofa, staring at the ceiling. His fedora toppled off his head, forgotten behind him.
That wasn’t— you should have kissed— no, you certainly should not have—
He was glad that was over. Wasn’t he?
No, he had to face facts. This was assuredly the most wonderful evening he’d had since he’d moved here.
Damn it all to hell.