Family Feudalism

Chapter 8

“Do you think Luke will let us have whip cream on these?” Rory asked Lorelai, looking down at her plate of chocolate chip pancakes. She put down her butter knife and picked up the syrup.

“He would think it’s an excellent idea,” Lorelai said, looking around the busy diner. “But just in case. . .” When she saw Luke was preoccupied with taking orders, she snuck around the counter. She found what she was looking for and reached over to spray some of the cream over her and Rory’s pancakes.

“You’re not allowed back there,” Luke called out, walking behind the counter from the opposite side. He took the can of whip cream from Lorelai and ushered her back to her seat.

“We just needed a topping for our breakfast,” she said defensively.

Luke looked at their plates in disgust. “You did not.”

“If you don’t want people to use the whip cream, you shouldn’t have it available.”

Rory listened to them argue as she dug into her pancakes. She hadn’t had a decent meal in several days. She’d been on another assignment, for nearly a week again. She’d been too busy interviewing people and writing her articles from a tiny hotel room to take the time to eat more than once or twice a day. Now that she was over her jet lag, she had to unload her thoughts on her blog. She also had to reply to a few comments left—suspiciously—by a TCD.

The bell over the door jingled as someone walked in, and a second later, Tristan was standing next to Rory, causing her to a double take. “What are you doing here?”

“You’re back,” he said without answering her question.

“I know, what are you doing here?” She was too distracted by his appearance to wait for a response. “Did you walk here? Why are you all gross and sweaty?” His wet t-shirt was melded to his chest and he had on gym shorts.

“I rode my bike,” he said, gesturing out the window.

Lorelai asked, “All the way from Hartford?”

“Outside of Hartford,” he corrected. Then he added, “It’s only about fifteen miles.”

“Fifteen miles?” Lorelai deadpanned.

And Rory said, “Only?”

He nodded, as though this sort of behavior was normal. “I got up early and took the back roads.”

Both women stared at him blankly. He might as well have said he flew in from the moon. “What?” he asked.

From behind the counter, Luke said, “They can’t comprehend the concept. This is early for them and walking here from the house is the only physical activity they get.”

Tristan looked Rory up and down slowly. When his eyes reached hers he said, “That’s a shame.”

At his tone, something involuntarily fluttered inside her.

He looked at her plate, and then to Lorelai’s. He made a face not unlike Luke’s and asked him, “Between the two of them, how many of their feet are the ones they were born with?”

“Miraculously, all four,” Luke answered grimly.

Tristan asked Luke for some water and took a seat on the empty stool next to Rory. Luke approvingly left a pitcher before taking a couple plates of French toast and sausage from the kitchen and headed to a table.

“Coffee is far superior.” Lorelai cradled her cup protectively.

“And dehydrating,” Tristan said, pouring his water.

“So are you going to explain why you’re here?” Rory asked him.

“Does everyone get this warm welcome? Or just me?” he asked rhetorically. Finally, he answered, “I wanted to make sure you were coming to paint today.”

“I said I was. So I am.”

“But you’ve already gone back on your word twice. So you can understand why I’m having trust issues with you.”

“I told you where and why I was going,” she said. “But now I’m back, so I’ll be at your house this afternoon.”

“I’m ready now.”

“You aren’t even at your house. And I’m not ready.”

“Then I’ll wait.” He took a long drink of water, draining the glass.

“I have things to do first,” she said. “Important things.”

“Such as?”

“Blog,” Lorelai answered for her daughter. “Her mind might explode if she doesn’t.”

“It can wait,” Tristan said. “But I can’t.”

“Why?” Rory asked. “Hot date tonight? Need me to be out of the way before you bring a girl to your futon bed?”

Lorelai leaned closer to her, “How do you know what he sleeps on?”

Rory waved a hand dismissively and took a sip of coffee.

“I would if Emily Gilmore had anything to say about it,” Tristan said, pouring more water.

Rory finished chewing a bite of pancake and looked at him expectantly, waiting for him to elaborate.

Lorelai, having heard, bent over her plate to look at him too. “Uh-oh, Emily strikes,” she said.

He wiped the sweat from his brow and nodded. “There’s a lovely girl who’s just my type. Emily would like to introduce us.”

“She knows your type?” Lorelai asked. “What do you suppose she thinks it is?”

“Probably closer to what I was expecting at Francine’s,” Tristan answered.

Rory could guess what he’d expected, which explained why he had no inclination to pursue her. She should have come to the obvious conclusion sooner. It made sense.

He drawled, “She’s such a nice lady, that Emily Gilmore—so guilty over stopping Francine’s set up. She’d like to schedule dinner at my earliest convenience.”

“She’s so accommodating,” Lorelai said.

Whatever lightly fluttered inside Rory earlier was replaced by something heavier. She ate another bite slowly and kept her eyes on her plate. “That’s . . . nice of Grandma.”

Tristan gave her an unimpressed look and then glanced at Lorelai. “She’s pretty naive, huh?”

“Yes.”

“No I’m not,” Rory said. “She wanted to find a distraction.”

“Yes, because you’re forbidden,” Lorelai said.

“Which one of us?” Rory asked.

“Both,” Tristan said.

“To each other,” Lorelai added. Then she got that mischievous gleam in her eye. “She must not be familiar with Shakespeare.”

Rory remembered the other matter her grandmother was taking care of. “Have you talked to Dad lately?”

“Yes,” Lorelai answered. “He called me a couple days ago. Apparently, Mom told him Francine is throwing a party and you’re the guest of honor. He thought it was a great idea. She did not mention the part about it being a celebration of your birth,” Lorelai said.

You could have clued him in.”

“I could have,” she agreed. “Except I got distracted when he asked what I wanted for my birthday. You know, since I’m the real birthday girl around here.”

Rory shook her head at the situation. “Grandma has too much time on her hands. I think she’s the one who needs a distraction.”

Lorelai stood and said, “Haven’t you noticed? You are her distraction in life.” She took a few bills out of her purse and laid them on the counter. “I need to get to the inn. I’ll see you later.”

Luke returned to the counter and topped off Rory’s coffee. She continued with her pancakes and Tristan ordered breakfast to go with his pitcher of water. Occasionally a diner patron would come over to greet—oddly—both of them.

When they were finished, she told Tristan, “You should go to Kim’s Antiques.”

“What for?”

“Furniture. Your house has character. New stuff won’t look right in it. Neither will those stuffy couches at your parents’ house.” She quickly added, “And Grandma’s.”

“I can’t believe you just called something in my parents’ house stuffy,” he said, with no conviction whatsoever.

Rory smiled a little. “Just go look. You could probably find a dining table that will fit between your front windows and the staircase. And even if you don’t, I need to take Steve and Kwan their birthday presents.”

With a pensive expression, he asked, “Wasn’t their party two weeks ago?”

“Yeah, I missed it. I was out of town for—”

“A story. Of course.”

She thought she saw Tristan’s eyes cloud, but a second later they were clear again. “Well, yeah. I was out of town. So this way, I can give them their gifts and you can look at the furniture.”

“I met Mrs. Kim,” Tristan said slowly. “She reminded me of someone.”

“Who?”

“Every authority figure at military school.”

“You aren’t afraid of her, are you?”

He scoffed. “No.”

“Then let’s go.”

“Fine.”

She led the way to the door and pointed to his bike. “How are you planning on getting that back to your house?”

“Your car.”

“What if it doesn’t fit?”

“I’ll shove it in,” Tristan said. “It’ll work.”

“Mom isn’t here to say it, so I guess I have to. Dirty.”

XXXXXXXXXXXXXX

“You aren’t seriously going to sit and watch, are you?” Rory asked later, one hand occupied by a paint roller brush and the other at her hip.

“Yes,” Tristan answered, from his position on the floor.

“Don’t you have anything else to do?”

“Like what? It’s Saturday.”

“It’s a good day to play catch up with work.”

“I work when I’m at my office,” he said, leaning back on the palms of his hands. “If you look around, you’ll see I’m at home.”

“Don’t you ever have some e-mails to get out, or some . . . I don’t know, contracts to look over, or litigation you need to work on?”

“I do have to do those things,” he said. “It can wait until Monday.”

Rory shook her head. “I didn’t know you had such a lax work ethic. Thomas Jefferson said to never wait till tomorrow to do what can be done today.”

“But no one ever lays on their deathbed wishing they’d worked more. I have boundaries.” Tristan scanned the walls of the room. “Are you going to get started? Or are you just trying to stay as long as you can? I know you really like it here, probably because you have no home of your own.”

“I have a home.”

“Lorelai has a home.”

She sighed in compliance. “I’m starting.”

She rolled the brush in the paint and turned to the wall. It was the one adjacent to the windows and fireplace. Tristan had gotten the room ready to be painted two weeks prior, before Rory had postponed. There were old sheets on the floor to protect the wood, and he wasn’t having the trim added until the walls were finished. There was tape along the top of the walls to keep the edge of the ceiling from getting painted.

He watched her roll the brush up and down. Her short sleeve shirt showed off her skinny pale arms. He presumed she had no upper body strength to speak of. She was going to be sore tomorrow. His eyes slid down to her legs, which were bare below a pair of old shorts. He liked her dressed-down look, but he did wonder how often she dressed up for a date. He was increasingly finding it hard to imagine her ever taking the time to let someone treat her to a night out.

“This sure is fun,” she said, turning to show off an extra sweet smile.

“Is it?”

“Yup. It’s actually a good way to pass the time. I’m having a blast.”

Tristan smirked. “Good. I’m glad.”

She rolled the brush in the paint and applied it to the wall. Though the work made her breathing uneven, she said, “I feel kind of bad, because I’m the only one having all this fun, and you’re just sitting there. You must be bored.”

Since she was facing the wall, she couldn’t see him give her another once over. “I appreciate your concern, but I’m fine.” In a southern accent, he added, “But you sure do make it look fun, Tom.”

Rory flashed him a big smile and she laughed a little. He liked the way her eyes sparkled when she smiled genuinely and he grinned at her.

He laid down flat on his back—not entirely comfortable on the hard wood floor—and cushioned his head in his hands. His mind wandered to a topic that still bothered him—just a little. He considered everything he’d learned and an image of a college newsroom full of young ambitious reporters came to mind. A light bulb finally came on. “You and Huntzberger worked at the Daily News together, didn’t you?”

Rory glanced over her shoulder. “What?”

“You two wrote at the Yale Daily News together—before you dated.”

“Oh, yeah,” she said, continuing with her task.

“That makes sense.”

“Not entirely. Logan didn’t like the paper much. He wasn’t really into it since he wasn’t getting a choice about his future.”

After a few seconds, Tristan said, “No.” He wasn’t concerned with the guy, at least, not by himself. “I meant it’s where you spent time together. He probably saw how driven you are and wanted to date you—instead of his usual type.” Tristan knew what it was like, he attracted the same kind. Unfortunately.

The roller brush stopped on the wall. Rory turned to frown at him. “What?”

“Yeah, he probably got to know you on the paper and wanted to date you,” he said again.

“Why do you say it like that?” she asked. “Like that must be what happened.”

“Isn’t it?”

Rory was still for a moment. “No. He didn’t want to date me just because he saw me work on the paper.” With her face screwed up, she shook her head and said, “I already told you, he didn’t want to be my boyfriend at first.”

“What do you mean?”

She shoved the brush in the paint, rolling it roughly a few times. “He wasn’t a commitment guy, so we dated and also saw other people.”

Tristan thought for a second. “You mean he saw other people and you saw him.”

“No,” she said impatiently, returning the brush to the wall aggressively. “We were not exclusive. We saw other people and each other. I wasn’t going to force him to be something he wasn’t. It’s called a compromise. It’s what people do—they meet half way.”

He thought compromise involved both people bending, not one. But he was making her upset, so he shrugged it off. “Fine. You both saw other people.” After a minute of watching her attack the wall with light brown paint, he reconciled things in his head. “That probably didn’t last long before he wanted to be with just you.”

“What?” She held a hand out, palm up, in protest. “No.” Agitated, she asked, “What is so hard for you to understand here?”

Without thinking, he said, “Because any idiot can see you’re—.” He stopped when her eyes narrowed in confusion, waiting to hear the end of his sentence. He quickly tried to cover, “I’m just speaking from my own experience. When I see someone seriously—and let’s face it, they’re all serious—I’m very territorial. Seriously—” he rambled, “I don’t want her to even look at another guy. So it’s only fair to hold myself to the same standard.”

Rory stared at him for a few seconds. “Well Logan was fine with it,” she finally said. Sarcastically, she went on, “But when I didn’t want to do the casual thing anymore—and let’s face it, Mary didn’t like casual—he didn’t want to go back to being friends. So he did prefer me to his usual type.” She stared at Tristan again, visibly tired of his inability to understand.

The awkward tension hung in the air. Determined to make it go away, Tristan rolled to his side so he could get up. He opened the bucket of paint and sat it on the shelf of the ladder on the wall opposite Rory. He dipped a brush in and started painting the corner to make a border that would make her job of filling in the middle easier. He could hear her return to her work.

“He got into Yale on name recognition,” he said.

“What?”

Tristan turned slightly, but kept his attention on the wall. “Huntzberger got in because of his name.”

“Why do you—”

“I’m just making an argument,” Tristan interrupted. “I’m not sure if I even mean to do it. It just comes out—regardless of topic. I can’t help it.” He looked out the corner of his eye, straining to see if the excuse worked. He didn’t really think it did, but he saw Rory nod once and turn back to her wall.

They continued to paint in relative silence, the only sound being Rory’s heavy breathing from her more strenuous job. Tristan used the ladder to carefully paint along the top edge of the wall. They worked their way around the room until they had traded places from where they’d started.

As Tristan filled in the last bit of white with the light brown paint, he glanced down and saw Rory watching him. She didn’t realize he’d turned, so he said, “What?”

She blinked rapidly and shook her head. “Nothing.” She looked around the room to see their work. “It looks good.”

Tristan climbed down from the ladder and put the paint on the floor. He glanced around too and nodded in agreement. “Yeah, nice color. I hope I picked out good ones for the upstairs rooms. Are you ready to start up there?” he asked, watching her reaction.

She frowned. “I only owed you one room.”

“That was before you postponed twice. Think of another room as interest.”

She put her hands on her hips, but apparently couldn’t think of an argument. “Upstairs?”

“Yup,” he said with a grin. He turned and headed for the staircase. “There are two, but I’ll let you off the hook and only make you do one.”

“Great,” she said flatly. When they got to the top of the stairs, they faced three doors. They belonged to two bedrooms and a bathroom in between.

“Take your pick,” he told her. “They’re basically the same.”

Rory pointed and headed to the room on the far right. Like the living room, it was ready for painting. She went over to the bucket and took the lid off to see the color. It was a very light orange. She looked around the room and asked, “What are you going to put in here?”

He blinked. It was an extra room in a house of a grown man who was ready to settle down. What did she think he’d do with it? He answered, “I don’t have immediate plans.”

She nodded. “Oh. Well, it’s a pretty color.”

“Want to switch places?” he asked, pouring paint in the try for the roller before picking it up.

“Sure,” Rory said, claiming the smaller brush. She took the bucket of paint to the ladder as Tristan had done downstairs and started on a corner. She asked, “So are you going to go to Grandma’s? To meet that girl?”

On the opposite side of the room, he shrugged. “Not if I can help it. But it depends.”

“On what?”

“Emily’s persistence,” he said. “As I’ve mentioned before, getting little old ladies to leave me alone usually involves humoring them.”

“Oh,” she said. After a minute, she said, “I could talk to Grandma, if you don’t want to go. “

Tristan glanced over his shoulder, but she had her attention on the wall. “I can handle her. But thanks, anyway.”

XXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Late Sunday afternoon, Rory was standing at the counter of an airline company at Bradley International Airport in Hartford. She glanced from the flight schedule up on the wall and then to her watch.

“Isn’t there anything you can do?” she asked the woman behind the counter. “I don’t take up much space.”

“I’m sorry,” the woman said. “There aren’t any more seats. I can reserve a spot for you on the next flight. It leaves at five tomorrow morning.”

Rory exhaled heavily, disappointed. She was about to buy her ticket when she heard a familiar voice behind her.

“Rory?”

Still concerned with her travel prospects, she turned and her heart sped up at the sight of him. “Tristan? What are you doing here?” He was in a suit and held luggage at his side. A carryon with a long strap was draped across his body.

“Heading to my plane for a business trip,” he answered. “Where are you going this time?”

“Nowhere at the moment. I need to get to Egypt, but there aren’t any open seats on the flight—it’s leaving in ten minutes. I’m going to have to wait until morning.”

Tristan glanced at the flight schedule and then gestured for her to follow him. “Come on.”

“Where?” she asked as she hesitantly pulled her small suitcase behind her.

“You’ll see,” he said, grabbing her arm, forcing her to keep up.

She followed him to the lower level of the airport, to one of the small terminals where only a few staff members were stationed. They smiled at Tristan and Rory as they passed by and walked outside to a small plane.

As she walked with him, he turned enough for her to see him smirk. “If you want, I could pat you down—since we bypassed the T.S.A. And I’ll be thorough.”

Rather than glare at him, she just frowned. What purpose did he have to flirt with her? It wasn’t the first time she’d wondered. She continued to follow him up the stairs attached to a plane.

“This is a jet,” she said, when they were inside.

“I know,” Tristan said, storing her suitcase and his own in a compartment.

“And we’re the only ones on it,” she continued.

“I know. That’s why it’s called a private plane,” he said.

“Where are you going? I doubt Egypt.”

“No. I’m meeting with clients in Germany, Prague, and Ireland.”

“Egypt isn’t exactly on the way.”

“I’ll take care of it,” he said before excusing himself and going to the cockpit.

Rory looked around the cabin. There were couches along the windows and four seats farther to the back with seatbelts. There were two on each side, facing each other with a table in between. Assuming these were designated for takeoff, she sat in one and put her carryon at her feet.

Tristan returned several minutes later. He sat in the seat next to her and they both buckled up. The wait wasn’t long before the plane’s turn on the runway and it took off.

When they reached a cruising altitude, Rory asked, “So, your family has a private jet?”

“No, this is for business,” he said, putting his briefcase on the small table in front of him.

“Oh.” She paused in thought, then slowly smiled. “My family has a private jet?”

“No,” he said again, this time with furrowed brows. “I have a jet. Me.”

Great, she thought, another piece of the puzzle. “You have a house that’s falling apart, but you also have a jet?” Dryly, she added, “That makes sense.”

“It does, actually. This is a business investment and it’s paying for itself,” he explained. “I live in my house. I don’t have to impress anyone there.”

“Oh.”

“It’s practical,” he went on, apparently needing to defend himself. “I have clients all over the world, this way I don’t have to depend on the airlines. I can go do business and get back quickly.”

“Oh,” Rory said again. Carefully, she said, “And you could also take a spontaneous trip to Paris—a romantic getaway. With a girl. If you want.” Smooth.

He turned to her to frown. “That sounded weird.”

“No, it was completely without judgment.”

“I know. That’s why it sounded weird since it came from you,” he said. “Are you into that sort of thing now?”

Rory brushed some strands of hair behind her ear. She looked over at him, wondering how she messed that one up. “No. It’s just—I know some people can afford nice things and there isn’t anything wrong with it. That’s all I meant.”

Tristan leaned his cheek on his fist, his elbow on the arm rest. The way he looked at her made her feel like she disappointed him.

“What?” she asked, concerned.

“Nothing. I just thought you were more down to earth than that.”

“I am,” she said quickly. “I always think of practicality before comfort. All my extra money goes toward retirement. And I’m on planes so much, the appeal is really gone.”

“I have to show off for work,” he said. He averted his gaze, staring at the table in front of him. “But beyond that . . .” He trailed off in thought before slowly continuing, “When money stopped buying what I wanted, it kind of lost its value.” He came out of his trance to look back at her and saw her perplexed expression. “The people worth being around can’t be bought—I’ve found.”

“Oh.” She thought of the baseball tickets that hadn’t bought his dad’s time, though she couldn’t see why anyone would want to endure his badgering.

Tristan went on, “My parents are better at showing off their wealth. My mom has designer handbags and—everything—to parade around. And my dad has my mom.”

Rory took a couple seconds before she processed. “Did you just compare your mother to a purse?” she asked, brows inching closer together with indignation. She felt much less sympathy for him than she had a moment ago.

“Yes.”

“She’s a person, not a thing. Objects are—”

“Expendable.”

“Yes, and—”

“Interchangeable,” he said in agreement. “Just like my car. If I get bored in a year, I’ll go out and get a Lexus. Or a BMW. There’re lots of choices.”

“I can’t believe you’re comparing your mother to a car.”

“Why? You already have.”

“I have not,” Rory said.

“You might as well have. You said I can only get girls who’ll settle for being one of my status symbols. What else could you mean by that? And what would you call my mom?” He asked, “Is it suddenly different when I put a face on it?”

She glared at him. “You’re twisting what I said. I was just—joking around,” she tried.

“Mm-hmm. I’m sure you don’t mean to be a hypocrite,” he said, not getting upset about it. He held up his wrist out toward her. “What do you think of my watch?”

Rory, confused, glanced at it and shrugged. “It’s nice.”

He nodded in agreement and said, “And really expensive—that’s important. I got it from my parents for Christmas last year. Not because it’s something I’d like. They got it because I’m one of their things and they have to accessorize me.”

“Or,” she said pointedly, “they were being thoughtful. Just because a person gives someone a gift doesn’t mean they see the person as their possession.”

“I think I know more about it than you, but okay,” he said. “I didn’t mean to strike a nerve.”

“You didn’t,” she said firmly. Not wanting to discuss it anymore, she turned her attention to her carryon. She took out a list of travel items she needed and made sure she’d packed them all.

After a few minutes of mutual silence, Tristan spoke again, “Rory.”

“What?” She kept her attention on her bag.

“My mother is my mother. It doesn’t matter where she ranks on the social scale or what other people see. I’m the one person in the world who’ll love her regardless,” he said. Out the corner of her eye, she could see him shuffling some papers. “To me, she’ll always be my mom first.”

Rory turned to look at him, but he was focusing on whatever was in front of him. “Oh.” Yet again, he left her with nothing better to say. Lamely, she added, “Good.”

“Don’t forget she’s expecting you this Thursday,” he said, changing the direction of the conversation. “When you’re there, you should ask her to tell the story about how she could have been a dancer.”

“Why didn’t she?”

“She had me and lost her figure.”

“But she’s so skinny,” Rory argued. “I haven’t seen her eat.”

“I don’t think she does,” Tristan mused. He laughed lightly and shook his head. He glanced over and saw she had her camera out to check its batteries. He pointed to it. “You should take a picture if you see her eat Thursday night, I’ll need proof.”

“Sure,” Rory said with a small smile.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Much later, Tristan slowly woke up from a night of sporadic sleep. He could never sleep very well in plane seats. He looked at his watch and saw it was early morning. Rory was laying on one of the couches unconscious, apparently having more luck than him. But he supposed she had a lot of experience getting shut eye wherever she could get it. Her hands were pressed together from their place under her head. There were pillows available, he should have told her where they were.

The pilot had not been particularly pleased with the additional stop on their trip, but Tristan promised additional payment. Didn’t the guy know it took kind gestures to get a girl? Giving a ride to northern Africa was all in a day’s work.

Tristan got up and took a blanket down from an overhead compartment and covered Rory with it. He watched her sleep for a moment before returning to his seat. He couldn’t quite understand. He’d liked her when she was young and innocent—maybe because that’s what she was. But now he still liked her, despite her imperfections. Or—again—maybe because of them. They gave him the illusion they were on even keel. He got as much pleasure from getting her to smile at him as he did to make her scowl.

And maybe it was slightly more than like he felt for her.

She was some sort of rarity—a real person who also met the approval of his family. He probably had Lorelai to thank for that. Rory might appear plain in comparison to other women with similar family backgrounds, but for some reason, it made her stand out—to him at least. It made her different. She could only be won over by substance. Flash and easy charm wouldn’t work on her.

But for all her appeal, there was something inaccessible about her. She was always coming and going. She obviously hadn’t let anyone in for a long time. Her lifestyle made sure of it, and Tristan wasn’t blind to it. He sighed and turned his attention to some paperwork he had out.

When he was flipping pages a little while later, a tired Rory asked, “What do Navy lawyers do?”

He glanced up, surprised she was awake. She was still curled up on the couch, but he wondered if she’d been watching him. He cleared his throat and in his own sleep filled voice, said, “It depends. They do a lot of different things. Some deal with international, or environmental, or administrative law. Some give advice on laws of war.” He added, “I mostly gave legal counsel to personnel on the base.”

She adjusted her legs under the blanket. “What kind of counsel?”

He shrugged a little. “Whatever they needed—civil law, like, drawing up wills, or helping with leases. And defense for court-martial. Sometimes a couple would want to adopt, so they came to our offices first.”

Rory thought about it a second. “Don’t they move around a lot though?”

“It’s not a problem,” he said.

“So you had a lot of variety.”

“Yeah.”

Then she asked, “What do you do now?” Before he could answer, she cut him off. “And don’t use the word international.”

“Okay,” he said. “I go to board meetings for corporations. They want cheaply made goods and I know the labor laws in places like Saipan. Although that’s actually part of the U.S.”

“That place is terrible,” she said. “It’s like a Dickens novel with their outdated laws to keep those sweatshops running.”

“Mm-hmm.”

A full minute passed before Rory slowly asked, “Do you like it?”

“Like what?”

“Your job. Do you like what you do now?”

He shrugged. “Sure. It’s fine.” If he practiced, he might be able to muster more conviction when he said it. And maybe one day he’d learn to like his smug, self-satisfied clients too.

“And don’t forget, you’re the link,” she said.

“Hmm?”

“You’re the connection to your dad’s firm. He needs you for his takeover scheme.”

“Yup,” he agreed. “I’m the bad guy in the story.”

Rory made a noise of—possible—disbelief before she nestled into her blanket and closed her eyes. Tristan was pretty sure she wasn’t asleep. After a half an hour or so, she wrapped the blanket around her shoulders and took the seat opposite him, apparently seeking out his company a bit more intimately—maybe he was making progress.

“So, Egypt,” he said.

She nodded and covered her mouth as she yawned. “They’re having their presidential election and there’s some protesting.”

“I see.”

She reached over for her carryon and pulled out her laptop. She did some clicking and then asked, “Have you been leaving comments on my blog?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he answered.

“Your middle name is Cecilia, isn’t it?”

He snorted. “No, it’s Charles. Unlike you, I know both of my grandfathers.”

“So it is you,” she said. If she wasn’t so tired, she might have sounded more accusatory. She frowned at her screen. “Do you really expect me to answer all these?”

“Yes.”

“Do I leave that many holes in my articles that you need more details?”

“Not details, just thoughts.” He added, “Maybe argue for the sake of an argument.”

She stared at him warily and sighed as she turned to her laptop. He reached over the small table to clasp her wrist. She looked up and he knew his touch had excited her—even if against her will. He savored the knowledge for a moment before slowly letting her go. “You don’t have to type out responses. I’m sitting right here.”

“Right, we can do it orally,” she said, shutting the laptop.

Tristan closed his eyes, laughing a little. Perhaps it was testament to the early hour, because Rory giggled with him at her unfortunate word choice.

He commented, “Dirty.”

Smiling, she said, “Please explain how you can possibly defend the burka.”

“I’m glad you picked that one,” he said. “There are always two sides to every story.”

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