As light streaming through the bedroom window roused him enough to open his eyes, it struck Russell that this was the first night in Palo Morado he’d woken up beside someone.
In his lonelier moments he’d wondered if, after falling asleep with a lover, he’d wake up in a mild panic that it had somehow been a dream, that she’d be gone when sunlight hit the sheets. He’d reassured himself that this wouldn’t happen because the next woman to share his bed would surely be the one he’d marry, maybe the one he had married. Someone he’d courted over months, someone who’d become his best friend, someone he would spend the rest of his life with.
Yet here he was next to a woman he’d met three days ago. This time yesterday, he would have known he would deeply regret waking up next to someone like this. This time yesterday, he’d planned to never her see again. And she was there, she was here, stretched out on her back, hips turned to the side, lithe lovely body left mostly uncovered by the tangle of the linens.
And the only moment he regretted was not kissing her Thursday night.
He leaned across her to look at the bedside clock. “Goodness.”
“Mmm?” Kailani’s eyes fluttered open partway.
“It’s nearly ten.”
She smiled drowsily. “We did not sleep until nearly four.”
“I do hope you’re right about your father and brother not being angry with you for being out the entire night. I don’t want you to be in trouble. Or me to be in trouble, either.” He kissed her on the muzzle, and slid out of bed, heading to the dresser.
“They trust me to take care of myself.” She sat up, stretching with arms over her head, then rolling her shoulders.
Russell laughed, pulling on his boxers. “I’ve become quite convinced you can.” After he’d tugged on his trousers as well, he looked back at her, his undershirt in hand. “I don’t know when you need to be out, but if it’s not too soon, I can make you breakfast. I can’t do anything fancy, but I know I have oatmeal, at least. And grapefruit.”
“I have never had a grapefruit.”
“Well, then. It’s settled.” He grinned and headed into the kitchen, starting water for both the coffee and the oatmeal, then cutting a grapefruit into halves. His mother had always prepared them by sliding a knife along each sectioned wedge in the half, then lightly drizzling honey over the top; it sounded appropriately tropical.
As he brought the dishes out to his little dining table, Kailani had already taken her seat, still entirely unclothed. He considered mentioning how distracting that might be if he wanted to focus on—well—anything but her body, but decided against it. It would be worth it to be a little distracted.
“Do you head back to Uli Hahape this evening?”
She shook her head, examining both the oatmeal—topped with butter and maple syrup—and the grapefruit with curiosity. “No, but it is very early tomorrow morning. Today my father wants Tua and I with him for his last meeting with Mr. Bennett and his advisers.”
“My impression was that that was already settled.”
She carefully levered out a grapefruit wedge with her spoon and sniffed at it. “We are Mr. Bennett’s guests, so my father shall meet with him when he asks. It would have been to sign the final papers were we signing, and instead I imagine it shall be one more, what is the phrase, one more pitch. But unless Mr. Bennett is willing to compromise and build a small inn set well back from the beach and the village, it is already settled.”
“‘Small’ doesn’t seem to be his style.”
She nodded, then popped the grapefruit in her mouth, licking a drop of honey off the spoon. Her eyes widened.
Russell grinned. “I can’t tell if you like it or you’re about to spit it out.”
“I like it,” she said after swallowing, expression unreserved bliss for a moment. She hurriedly worked on freeing another piece.
His smile faded as he chewed his oatmeal. Just what had happened here last night? Yes, that, but what did he expect it to lead to? Anything? What did she expect it to lead to? Anything?
“Do you think you’ll be back any time soon? In California, I mean?”
“I do not know if it will be soon, but I would like to visit again.” She picked at her oatmeal, then went back to attacking the grapefruit. “Do you think you shall visit me soon?”
“I…well.” He sipped his coffee, thinking about that. “I’d love to visit, yes. A lot depends on what happens here and when. I think I have a good track on an associate professorship here, and that’s my first step toward—well, toward everything I want. The job, the house…” The wife.
“I do not think that prevents you from taking a vacation.”
“No. Of course not. I just might need to put it off.” He focused on his own grapefruit for long enough to dislodge and eat two more sections, then looked up into her eyes. He still didn’t know what he expected this to lead to, but he knew he wanted it to lead somewhere. “Would you ever consider—moving? Perhaps if your brother stays there, you’d be free to go where you wanted.”
She set down her spoon slowly, eyes remaining on his. “Even if Tua stays with our people, I must not leave. Not for good. I was their goddess first, and still am.”
He dropped his eyes first, suppressing a sigh. “It was a silly question, princess.”
Kailani reached across the table and took his hand in hers. “We will see another again soon, if we both want that.”
Russell squeezed her hand. “If it’s all right, I’d like to at least come by your hotel after work to say goodbye in person.”
“You know that is more than all right. I think father and Mr. Bennett may have dinner plans for us, but there should be an hour or two free before that.”
He smiled. “Excellent.”
After he saw Kailani out with another kiss—this time longer, less chaste, and with more wriggling than he suspected he’d be able to get away with tonight—he finished dressing, then considered the necklace. It was beautiful, but not particularly…masculine, at least not for a modern American businessman. But he refused to just hide it in a drawer. He wanted to see it every day. After a moment’s deliberation, he hung it on his tie rack, then selected a tie for his half-day of work.
If the middle of the term usually left the university library quiet, a Saturday in the middle of the term left it near to a graveyard. Russell was fine with that today, though. He spent most of his four-hour shift perusing coffee table books about Pacific islands. He couldn’t find one about Uli Hahape in particular, but it was mentioned in several—including one reference, from nearly a century ago, to sailors warning of a “giant guardian.” Kailani’s ancestor?
What was life in the area like, he wondered? Hawaii was quite close—by some accounting Uli Hahape belonged in that island group—and they had a university now, didn’t they? Maybe…maybe after getting the professorship here, he could leverage that into one there. Maybe neither he nor Kailani would drop their lives for the other one, but that didn’t mean their lives couldn’t be much closer. And who knew: perhaps they could split time between her island and his. He couldn’t have children with her, but there was no reason that everything else he’d planned for couldn’t happen with her.
After he left the library, he debated going home to change—perhaps to lose the tie, perhaps to grab the necklace, even—but that would more than triple his time to the Fairmont and Kailani hadn’t given him a schedule before she left. The weather had turned a tad chilly, too, and he might as well not stay out in it any longer than he had to.
He could smell the heat in the Fairmont’s air under the soft neutral citrus tones: they’d turned on the heater. In April. Ah, Northern California. Chuckling to himself, he headed to the front desk.
But the profile of a familiar head sitting at the lobby bar caught his eye on the way. That wasn’t—yes, it was. What in the blazes? “Marvin?” he called, detouring in that direction.
The fox’s ears swiveled a moment before his head did. “Russ!” He stood up, grinning. “What are you doing here?”
Russell’s ears flicked back in irritation. “I’m here to say farewell to the princess. And you?”
“I’m here with Bennett’s men. Well, I was. I mean, I am, just not at the moment.” He took his seat again and motioned the cougar to sit down with him. “We’ve had excellent news, in no small part thanks to you.”
“You have? It is?” He remained standing, tail twitching behind him. “What—you don’t mean the king actually agreed to the hotel, do you?”
“He did! You see—”
“And what do you mean in part thanks to me?”
Marvin fell silent, the enthusiasm slowly falling away from his face. “You say you’re here to say farewell to the princess.”
Marvin sighed, then turned and waved at the bartender. “A double gin and tonic for my friend here.”
“I don’t want a drink. Just—”
The fox motioned to the seat next to him again. “Sit down, Russ.”
He sat down, ears going flush with his skull. Whatever was coming, he wasn’t going to like it.
“Yesterday you told me about that research facility, remember? Well, I did some research of my own on it. The facility was built sixteen years ago, but the lease for the land goes back thirty-four years. It was made with Aremana’s father, and it was for some kind of ocean research facility the university wanted to put together. It never happened, but there were some remarkable things about that lease.”
The bartender set down Russell’s drink.
“First is that it has development restrictions. Two percent of the land under lease can be built on, and only for buildings relating to education. Second, the agreed price is ten dollars a year for ninety-nine years.”
“Two percent? The house probably takes up all the allowable land as it is.”
“And third,” Marvin stabbed a finger in the air for emphasis, “that ten dollars a year is ten cents an acre.”
Russell’s eyes widened. Two percent would be two acres. That would be, what, eighty-seven thousand square feet? He picked up his glass and stared into it. “All well and good, but I don’t—I don’t see how it helps Bennett build the Hotel Palekaiko.”
“It doesn’t. It helps him build the Hotel Palekaiko and Conference Center.”
“Oh, please.” Russell snorted and took a sip of his drink.
“No, it’s brilliant! It’ll be owned by the university. They’ll host a few educational conferences there a year, devote some permanent space to some exhibits, and then they’ll lease the concession to Bennett’s management company.”
“What does the king have to say about this?”
Marvin cleared his throat. “It’s safe to say he’s not pleased, but legally speaking, I think Bennett has him over a barrel.”
Russell looked at the glass again, then took a much larger sip.
The fox sighed. “You know, until you mentioned the girl, I’d have figured you’d be pleased by this. Yesterday you were trying to redefine what a date was to assure me you hadn’t been on one. So you really hit it off with her after all?”
“Yes.” He knocked back the rest of the drink and slammed it down on the bar.
“Another, sir?” the bartender inquired.
“On his tab again.” Russell jerked a thumb at Marvin.
The bartender looked at the fox, who smiled stiffly and nodded his assent.
“Russ, I’m sorry. But, she’d have been leaving in a few hours either way. You know that. You’ve had your fun with her.”
“It was not ‘fun,’” Russell snapped.
Marvin looked nonplussed. “Then what are we arguing about?”
“That’s not what I—oh, for God’s sake, never mind.” Russell rested his elbows on the bar and his face in his hands.
The fox looked at his watch. “Well, you should have your chance to say goodbye any minute, I think. Bennett should be done finalizing the deal, and I suspect they’ll all be down then. I…don’t know that any of them will be in very good moods, though.”
Russell sank down farther, then straightened up and took another sip of his gin, staring straight ahead at the mirror behind the bar. He would just explain that—no, he shouldn’t try to explain anything. What was there to explain? He would just apologize for—but how could he do that?
But no, wait. He hadn’t done anything worse than inadvertently let a detail slip that Kailani, open as she was, might well have mentioned to Marvin or even Bennett herself. Neither she nor Russell would have had any reason to know where it would lead. And besides, there was no reason to think she’d even connect this with him in the first place. It’s not as if the fox would have rushed to give him credit.
Marvin took a deep breath, nodding toward the elevators. “That looks like them now. I’ll just stay here and not draw attention to myself, if that’s all the same.”
Russell steeled himself, standing up and heading out of the bar. Bennett was there, along with one of his bodyguards and another man in a business suit. Prince Tua, King Aremana and Princess Kailani walked behind them, more slowly. The king looked ten years older than he had at the Redwood Room, his expression haunted. Tua just looked angry. So did Kailani.
The cougar swallowed. “Kailani.”
All of the group turned toward them. The king smiled stiffly. Tua’s scowl remained unchanged.
Kailani, though, sucked in her breath audibly, eyes widening. “Russell.” She looked at him, then to the bar, at Marvin. Back to him. Her eyes narrowed. Then she strode toward him.
His ears tipped back. “I’ve…heard the news, and I’d like to say—”
Kailani slapped him. Hard. His vision greyed out.
“How could you use me that way?”
He put a hand to his burning cheek. “I didn’t! You have it all—”
“You are lucky I can only slap you here,” she hissed, clenching her fists. “If I ever see you again, I shall—shall—” She stomped her foot against the carpet with enough force to make the floorboards underneath ring. “I could have been everything you wanted!” She spun on her heel and strode away, head down.
“—all wrong,” he finished in a soft whisper. Tua snorted. The king looked puzzled. They both headed off after his daughter.
She’d knocked off his fedora. He gingerly bent over to pick it up, then sat down at the bar again, feeling numb.
Marvin fidgeted, clearing his throat. “That looks like it could have gone better.”
“She knew.” Russell didn’t put his hat on, he just rested it in his lap. “She knew I told you.”
The fox raised his hands. “I didn’t tell them. I just let Bennett know where I got the idea to start the research.”
Russell lifted his head and stared, still too wounded to glare.
“Look, I did all the hard work in digging up the details, but I figured there wouldn’t be any harm in giving you credit, too. We’d both get something good out of it.” Marvin sighed. “But don’t look so glum. You’ve prattled on about everything you want, in the order you want it, for as long as I’ve known you. We both know that doesn’t include a long-term relationship with a hot island girl.”
“No. It wasn’t supposed to.” Russell fell back into silence for a few more seconds, then sighed, putting the hat back on his head and turning around to the bar.
The fox looked off in the direction she’d gone, although she’d stepped onto an elevator and disappeared. “Lucky she can only slap you? What else could she do?”
He stirred his gin and tonic. “I think she’s a size-shifter.”
Marvin opened his mouth, closed it, then shook his head. “You think she’s what? You haven’t seen her be a giantess, have you?”
The cougar shook his head. “No.”
“But she’s told you she can be one.”
“Not directly. She hinted strongly, after finding out that I like them.”
“You ‘like’ them,” Marvin repeated, putting an emphasis on like that made the air quotes painfully audible. “And you told her that? You don’t think she might have been saying it to get you in the sack?”
“No. It’s…this morning, she said she couldn’t leave her island because she was her people’s goddess. Metaphorically.”
“Quite the metaphor.”
“To her people the power to change size is a divine gift. And earlier, she’d talked about fishing by herself, just swimming and catching fish with her hands.”
“So the first night we met, she said she fished for tuna and sharks.”
“I don’t—oh.” Marvin remained perfectly still for several seconds, then squinted at Russell critically. “So what you really want is a hot island girl who can be eight stories high.”
The cougar groaned and drained half his glass.
“I’m not judging—well, only a little—but we both know that doesn’t go along with a tenured job, house in the suburbs and two point three children.”
“I know. But it’s…it’s not the shifting. That fascinates me, it does. But it’s everything else about her.”
The fox took a deep breath and sighed, then put a hand on Russell’s shoulder. “I’m genuinely sorry about all this, but look. We’ve both just about got a lock on moving up in the world now, and that means that whole life plan of yours is underway, all right?”
The cougar nodded curtly, eyes on his gin.
Marvin patted his back. “And maybe you’ll get lucky and find a hot co-ed who happens to be a size-shifter. Although if I were you, I’d keep quiet about that giantess fetish. For all its reputation to the contrary, academia can be quite conservative.”
Russell grunted and closed his eyes, waiting until Marvin’s footsteps receded, then nursed his drink slowly over the next half-hour. Maybe she would come back. Somehow. If she didn’t, maybe he would work up the nerve to go after her. Somehow.
She didn’t. He didn’t.
The temperature had dropped a few more degrees outside since he’d been in the hotel, and a light drizzle had started. When he got home, he went through his routine in a mechanical fog up to the point he would have turned on the reading light before heading into the kitchen. Instead, he set the mail down on the end table by the sofa, then sat down in the darkness, listening to the rain.
Russell leaned back, drumming a pencil on his desk as he watched the morning mail run move on. Nothing new for him, which meant no more word about the professorship. Yet. But two weeks ago, the dean had dropped by the library and mentioned in passing that “influential people” had spoken highly of Russell’s “resourcefulness.” That day—maybe just that hour—he’d been elated about it. Thrilled. But by that evening it didn’t matter. The happiness turned into mild irritation at his inability to feel happy about it. After everything had gone wrong now everything was going right, and instead of a lift it was simply a deeper pit.
His evenings had become less routine since That Saturday. Perhaps it was just that the routine had shifted. He made a point to walk by De Lint Gardens most nights, even though it doubled the time he spent heading home. That cut down on the time he had to prepare dinner, so he found himself eating out more often and buying more prepared items so he could just throw something together quickly. He still made sandwiches for lunch—usually—but had all but lost his taste for evening coffee.
Sighing, he tossed the pencil to the side and picked up the paper, scanning the headlines. Two days ago, the Sunday edition had published a two-page spread on Bennett University’s grand new project, the Hotel Palekaiko and Conference Center, enthusing that construction was “well underway.” When he’d read that, Russell had just gone back to bed, pillow over his face. Dear lord, it was such a depressing mess. He’d fantasized he could find some way to stop the construction, to—well, not so much swoop in and play the hero as right the wrongs he’d helped others commit. But he’d thought he’d have more time. For God’s sake, it had only been ten weeks! He’d naïvely assumed not even Bennett would be able to grease that many wheels that fast.
Who had he been kidding, though, other than himself? Nobody had ever had a chance of stopping this. Perhaps Kailani, if she really was a size-shifter, could threaten them into stopping it—but she wouldn’t. Her father had signed the papers. They believed Bennett was, however despicable, in the legal right. Even if she could stop him, she was too honorable. Too sweet. Too…oh, don’t go down that road again.
He paged through the paper until lunchtime, reading every comic strip, then went to the break room to retrieve a bottle of soda and his sandwich (turkey and Swiss, because those had been in the front of the deli case last night), returning to his desk to eat.
The sandwich was two-thirds eaten when a rangy rat in bohemian attire approached the desk. “Hey, man.”
Russell swallowed the bite of sandwich. “Hey.” He supposed it was the appropriate response.
“Know where I’d find a book on non est factum?”
“What is it?”
“It’s a legal doctrine about voiding contracts. It’s like—”
The cougar pointed. “346.”
“—Latin for ‘not my deed’…excellent.” The rat waved languidly and moved off.
Russell started to take another bite of the sandwich, then blinked, dropping it. “Wait.”
The rat turned back to him.
“Voiding contracts? Like deeds? Leases?”
“How’s it work?”
“Don’t know, man. S’why I’m looking for a book on it.”
The cougar got up and followed the rat, taking the lead, then scanned the shelf. Ah, two copies of a volume entitled Essentials of Contract Law. He handed one to the rat. “So you’re a law student?”
“Yeah, a freshman.”
Russell rubbed his chin. “There’s something I’ve wondered recently that you might know. If a contract was made between an American businessman and, say, a tribal king in another country, is that legal? Doesn’t it have to be a treaty?”
He shook his head. “A treaty is between governments.” He crossed his arms, looking up at the ceiling with a scrunched-up thoughtful expression. “Yeah. So if he’s the king of a tribe, they’re not gonna have courts, dig? The contract’s probably going to be done by American courts because Mister Businessman is going to want everything here so the king can’t just say, ‘Nope, changed my mind, man.’”
“If he’s the king he could do it anyway, couldn’t he?”
The rat shrugged. “Legally, no, not if he signed an American contract, you get me? Now, practically that’s probably gonna be different. Enforcing a judgment against him in his own country would be just about impossible. But if the king wanted out and wanted everything to be legally copacetic, he’d need to get the contract voided here.”
“And he could do that under something like non est…uh…”
“Factum. Yeah, if he could meet the burden of proof.” The rat thumped the book. “It’s gonna have something to do with unconscionability.”
Russell nodded slowly. “Unconscionability. Thanks.” He headed back to his desk with the other copy.
By the day’s end his head swam. The doctrine was a claim that the basis of a signed contract and the intent of the signee were entirely different—essentially, that it was signed based on a misunderstanding, not negligence. And yes, it was a kind of unconscionability, the claim that the terms of a contract were too overwhelmingly in favor of one side or another—that no “reasonable or informed person” would ever sign it. It all sounded maddeningly subjective, given how much was written about it—judges not only had wide latitude in determining whether a contract was unconscionable but in how to redress such a claim.
Clearly, Bennett’s hotel had nothing to do with the intent of the original contract, and that contract was arguably too broad to start with. Aremana’s father might not have known how big an acre actually was, or relied on assurances from the university long ago that they had no ill intent. But the textbook took pains, almost to a fault, to keep pointing out that voiding a contract was difficult. Just because you learned it was a bad deal after you signed it didn’t invalidate it. Had Bennett actually committed fraud?
He checked the book out and headed home. As soon as he got there, though, he made a call. He only knew one person he could conspire with on this, and as flaky as he was, he owed Russell. And, for that matter, owed Kailani.