Steven watched Kristen run up the stairs. "Alright, what is it you didn't want her to hear?"
Mark sipped his vodka. "A couple of things. One is something . . .well, it's none of my business, but I think you'd want to know -- I would, if she was my daughter -- and I don't think she'd tell you." He looked at his glass, obviously summoning his courage. "She's . . . confused by the women you are dating. She doesn't understand why you are looking at women so different from her mother." He looked up, meeting Steven's eyes. "I did. I do even more after hearing what happened. But . . . she doesn't. And I don't think she likes them. I don't know if she's just upset at the idea of them replacing her mother, or . . . well, she is unbelievably smart. As Kayla put it, she's spent the last three years in school trying to concentrate while she was starving in the middle of a McDonalds. And she still made almost straight A's. She could be seeing something you don't. I don't know; I'm just pointing out the possibility."
Steven sighed. "The women have been . . . an experiment. I don't think it's working out."
Mark raised an eyebrow. "She thinks you're about to marry the latest one."
"If she hadn't turned out to be a total bitch, I might have. If I had a woman living here with me, I might could stay home more."
"Sorry, I didn't follow that," Mark said, obviously puzzled.
"Son, her power isn't discriminatory," Steven said gently.
Mark blinked, then his mouth fell open as comprehension dawned. "Good lord. I never thought of that. Your life must have been hell." He paused. "Do you mind if I tell her that? I'm sure she'd understand why you didn't tell her yourself, and . . . I think she'd feel a lot better, knowing. I think she thought you were trying to replace her mother."
"No," Steven said firmly. "That is one thing I've always tried to protect her from. You can tell her, though, that I've decided they're not worth bothering with anymore, and I have no further intention of re-marrying."
"Okay," Mark agreed with a sigh, "But she's not stupid, you know. She might well figure it out on her own, and if she flat out asks me, I won't lie to her. That's a hard limit for me." He glanced around the room, noticing the furnishings, and his brow furrowed. "I have to admit, I'm puzzled by one thing. Why wouldn't you give her the money for her art supplies?"
It was Steven's turn to frown in puzzlement. "What money for art supplies?"
Mark stared at him, confused. "A couple of weeks ago, she told me she didn't have money for the supplies for her advanced art class."
"Kristen can have anything she needs. I've set up an account for her school expenses and Vanessa withdraws an allowance for her every week," Steven said, still puzzled and a bit defensive.
"I don't get it, then," Mark admitted.
Steven shook his head. "Neither do I. If she needed extra money, all she had to do was ask my secretary to pull it out for her."
Mark suddenly looked thoughtful. "Unless she was looking for an excuse to get close to me. If she felt the way I did about her when I first saw her, combined with her other needs . . . " He smirked. "Maybe she was disappointed that I didn't tell her she could 'pay me back' . . ."
Steven nodded, smiling. "That could definitely be it. She is fourteen. Straightforward confrontation isn't something teenage girls usually think of. I'll write you a check for the money, of course."
The younger man smiled, the thought of Kristen going to such trouble to attract his attention warming him. "I think I might have to tweak her nose about it a little." He shook his head. "Don't worry about it, Steven. It was . . . You've seen her work? It was my pleasure."
Steven nodded proudly. "She's really very good, I know. I've been thinking of surprising her with a studio for Christmas."
"She'd love that," Mark agreed. "And I have to wonder . . . she was able to draw like that while distracted." He laughed. "When I asked her to marry me, she was worried about being a burden. I told her she might well make more from her art than I do, someday. After discovering what I have . . . well."
Steven smiled fondly, then sobered. "I should tell you about the physical problems while she's upstairs."
He nodded. "They were the first hint I had that she took after her mother. She might have just been an ordinary exceptionally lovely girl."
"What are they?" Mark asked.
"She's been on birth-control pills since she was eleven. Without them, she only has about one menstrual cycle every six months, but that one is totally debilitating. Extreme pain, heavy enough bleeding to lower her blood pressure significantly, and unrelievable nausea."
Mark winced. "Ouch."
"And I don't know if she will want children, and even if she does, you'd damned well better wait for them, but if she can conceive, the delivery will likely be very, very rough. Don't even try natural childbirth, it would tear her apart. Jarai was on complete bed-rest for five months, and we still nearly lost her. Their bodies just aren't made for carrying a child."
"Got you," Mark nodded solemnly. "She hasn't said anything about wanting children, but I'll tell her. And . . . " He paused. "If she ends up falling in love with Kayla, which wouldn't surprise me at all, maybe she won't feel she has to have them herself."
"She might want the side effect of pregnancy, though," Steven pointed out. "While pregnant, Jarai didn't need sex. She glowed the whole time, no matter how miserable she was." He sighed. "But she might not even be fertile. It took most of a year of trying for Jarai to conceive. And several years with no birth-control before she went to a doctor for her painful periods didn't knock her up."
"Interesting. Although if . . . well. I think I know how to make her glow whenever she wants. In fact, I think the glowing is going to be a problem -- she can't go to school while she's glowing," Mark said with a touch of regret.
"Oh, and I think they're immune to disease, too," Steven said.
Mark nodded thoughtfully. "That would make sense."
"Jarai never even caught a cold," Steven told him. "Neither has Kristen. The only times she's been ill were things like food-poisoning, or injury. Heat-exhaustion once."
"Interesting," Mark repeated, "But logical -- not having that would lead to disaster, with their needs."
Steven nodded. "She should be able to learn to tone down the glow. It won't go totally away, but it can be restrained enough that people don't realize what they're seeing . . . they just think she's even more beautiful than usual. Unless she's caught in the dark, of course."
"When she tried to hide it last night," Mark said, "it all concentrated in her eyes. It was beautiful, but definitely not something she could go out with."
Steven gave him a relieved smile. "I really was afraid that she'd never glow. Jarai never needed more than two or three times a day, and according to my sources, Kristen's needs have been much higher. I was beginning to think that her human blood had caused her to have some sort of flaw that made her need more than could ever be provided for her."
"I couldn't make her glow at all," Mark said, with a thoughtful look. "It took two of us. Kristen said there was some sort of feedback loop. She glowed brightly enough that she was still glowing this morning. Maybe that's the difference?"
Steven frowned. "Hmm. That's the one thing I don't think she's ever tried. My informants say she's stuck to one at a time, no matter how many a day. I never thought it would make a difference.
"Well, she also said that I was more...filling, than the others. I think maybe it's the fact that we are in love with her that helps, too."
"Yes. Jarai never glowed before we fell in love. I remember the first time it happened." A soft, loving smile spread across his face. "I thought she really was an angel, some amazing spirit who'd for some inexplicable reason, chosen to give me a remarkable gift."
Mark mirrored the smile, thinking about Kristen. "Maybe you were right."
"Take care of her, Mark." Steven looked away, voice choked off by the lump in his throat. "You'll never find anyone else like her. "
Mark said, softly, "I know. I will." He stood. "Shall we drive up tomorrow and apply for the license, or do you have things you need to do? You'll have to be with us to apply, of course."
He nodded. "Normally, you couldn't on a Saturday, but I know someone who'd be willing to come in and take care of the paperwork. I'll make some calls, see what I can do. "
"Okay. I figure we'd have to leave pretty early, right?"
"As early as possible."
"Okay. We may have someone else coming with us; at least, I think Kayla would like to come. I guess Kristen and I had better get going."
"Or you could stay," Steven offered. "Park your jeep in the garage."
Mark looked thoughtful, then nodded. "That works. Be right back."
It was a huge garage, and full of stuff. The back half had a separate door and looked rather like a stable. Mark eased carefully into the parking space, then went back inside, taking the stairs at a jog.
Kristen was in her room, sitting cross-legged on the bed with her sketchbook open in her lap. Her face was a mask of intense concentration, and she didn't even look up when he leaned against the door frame.
He smiled. "Hey, love. Looks like we're going to stay here, so that we can get an early start in the morning. You okay?"
"Hmm?" She smiled a bit weakly. "Yeah, just trying to get centered, y'know?"
"We're staying here? What about your car?"
"In the garage." He paused. "Sorry for jumping up like that, earlier, but...I was about to break my promise to Kayla, and I couldn't do that. I didn't mean to upset you."
Kristen concentrated on her drawing, carefully brushing the pencil across the paper. "It's okay. I...it's been a very strange day. So much has happened."
Mark nodded. "It has been. I never expected this outcome but...I'm not complaining." He sat down next to her, carefully, so as not to jostle her. "You do understand why she made me promise not to tell you?"
She shook her head. "Not really. Well, maybe. Hell, I don't know, Mark."
Kristen tossed sketchbook and pencil on the bedside table.
He wrapped an arm around her, pulling her close. "She didn't want you to feel bad about not loving her, and she's convinced that you can't love her."
Mark shrugged. "Because you swore you'd never fall in love again, and you have with me, and she just doesn't think you can fall in love with someone else. And she'd rather give up her own happiness than pressure you for something you can't give her."
"Oh. I really don't know what to think. I mean, until this year I would have sworn she didn't even like me. She was nice to me, yeah, but I thought she just felt sorry for me."
He nodded. "I think she was hiding how she felt behind a mask of indifference. But she did what she could for you, secretly."
Kristen crawled into his lap, wrapping her arms around him tightly, and he held her close.
"This is all moving so fast!" She buried her face against his chest. "I don't want to hurt anyone, but I just need time to think."
"I know, love," he soothed. "I know. Take the time you need, okay? Although...I do think it would be nice to invite her to come with us tomorrow."
"Where are we going tomorrow?"
"Oh! Did you want to wait to apply for the license? I'm sorry, I assumed again."
"Um...tomorrow is Saturday."
Mark nodded. "Your dad is going to make a few phone calls -- unless you want to wait?"
"No!" She blushed. "I mean, I don't want to wait. I got to thinking..."
"We couldn't be seen together in public here...but we could maybe drive to Dallas and spend the weekend sometime, if we were married." He blinked, and then smiled. "We could. Would you like to do that? Go out to movies, dinner, that sort of thing?"
"If you would," she murmured shyly.
He kissed her forehead. "I'd love to." Then he frowned, looking very serious. "But there's something very important I think we need to talk about.""
"We need to talk about your art supplies."
"What about them?" she asked.
"Why did you tell me you didn't have money for them?"
"Why didn't you have the money then?" he asked.
Kristen crawled off of his lap and reached into the drawer beside the desk, pulling out a brush and starting to brush her hair, letting it cover her face. "I just didn't. I hadn't had time to save up any money this year, yet."
Mark frowned. "Why didn't you have Vanessa just draw some more out of the account your dad set up for your school expenses?"
He wouldn't have noticed her slight flinch if he had not been watching her so closely. "Love?" he asked gently.
She didn't look up at him. "Vanessa doesn't approve of messing around with pencils and paint, Mark."
His eyes narrowed and he stood, picking her up. "I think we need to go talk to your father." He headed for the stairs, still carrying her.
Kristen's mouth dropped open and she stared at him, the grabbed for the door frame. "No! Wait, just hold on, okay?"
Reluctantly, he stopped. "What?"
"Okay, put me down. Come back and sit down, okay?"
Mark carried her back to the bed, but didn't let go of her. Instead, he nuzzled his face into her hair, hiding his furious expression in the red-gold curls.
She sighed. "Look, Vanessa's been Dad's secretary for, like, forever. She keeps track of everything for him. He needs her."
"And she just doesn't like me very much, so we avoid each other as much as possible. End of story." She looked away uncomfortably.
Mark shook his head. "Not end of story. Your dad told me that he's got an account set up for your school expenses, and that Vanessa draws out an allowance for you every week."
"Um. Well." She squirmed. "Shit, just don't worry about it, okay? I'll get you the money back. It's no big deal."
"No, I am worried about it. Not about the money." He paused, then asked, "Are you getting that allowance she's drawing?"
"I get lunch money, don't worry."
Mark stared at her guilty face for a minute, then stood back up, still holding her. "Fuck yes, worry. Kristen, do you have any idea how much your father loves you? Do you know how proud he is of your artistic ability?"
"Mark, please drop it. Please?" she begged.
He shook his head. "I can't, Kristen. I'm sorry. She's been taking advantage of you, and your father trusted her." He paused. "Kristen, if she's embezzling your allowance, how much more money has she been embezzling from him?"
"She doesn't take anything from him, Mark. I swear. "
"She wouldn't tell you if she was," he said, turning to carry her through the doorway.
She grabbed desperately at the frame again. "No, Mark. I swear she isn't. Please stop, please!" she pleaded. "Mark, stop, I'll explain, I promise."
Mark looked at her, pain in his eyes. "Love, I can't. Not without a better reason."
"She loves him, Mark."
"So she steals his daughter's allowance?" he demanded indignantly.
She shook her head. "So she hates the little tramp who is such a disgrace to him."
His arms tightened around her. "What a bitch. You haven't said anything to make me think she doesn't deserve to be hung out to dry."
"She just wants what's best for him," Kristen insisted. "She doesn't keep the money, she puts it back into his account."
"I'm sorry. Your father trusts him, and she's betraying that trust every week." He shook his head. "More to the point, she's hurting the woman I love." He started walking again.
Kristen started to cry. "Please don't, please please please. If she can't have him anymore, she'll hurt him."
Mark shook his head. "No, she won't. Your father is capable of protecting himself against her, if he knows she's a threat." He sighed. "Love, your father trusted you to take care of yourself the past few years. He wasn't indifferent to you, you know. It's just that...well, it's really hard for a father to talk to his daughter about sex. Especially given your circumstances. Trust him to take care of himself."
"Mark...I know that! This is different."
"How? How will she hurt him?"
"She'll turn him in to the police for child molestation. She's been his secretary for over a decade. She can tell them about all the 'evidence' she's seen. She can show them 'journal pages' in his handwriting."
Mark turned pale, then red, and started down the stairs. "He needs to know, anyway. What would happen if he'd married one of the women he was dating?"
"She picked them out for him, anyway. She doesn't have to marry him, she just wants to be near him, that's all."
He sighed and shook his head. "He trusts her, Kristen, and he needs to know better."
"Mark...please. It will hurt him. Please."
"He loves you, Kristen, and he's going to do something to piss her off sooner or later." He paused. "And have you actually seen these pages?"
"Yeah. You can't tell that he didn't write them."
Mark nodded. "Then he'll just have to have someone break in and steal them before she knows anything is up." He kissed her. "Trust me. Trust him. He can take care of it." He looked around, and finally found Steven in the kitchen, idly looking through the pantry.
"She can make more, Mark."
"Not if she doesn't have time. If they are stolen while she's out of town on a business trip with him...Steven, you have a major fucking problem."
He looked up sharply, eyes going right to his daughter's tear-streaked face and widening in alarm. "What's wrong. Kris? Why were you crying, hon?
Mark said, "Love, you can tell him, or I will if it would be easier for you."
Kristen just said, "This is a mistake, a really big one."
"Kristen...he deserves to know." He hesitated, then said, "Steven, I want you to promise not to do anything until we're finished talking to you."
"Fine. I promise. Now start talking immediately."
Mark waited for a moment, giving Kristen the chance to tell him if she would, but she remained obstinately silent.
He sighed. "The reason Kristen didn't have the money for the supplies is that she didn't. Vanessa has been withdrawing the money for her allowance, and then depositing it back into your account. She refused to give her the money to 'play with pens and paper'." He paused. "And she's forged journal entries in your handwriting about molesting Kristen. She threatened to have you thrown in jail if Kristen told you."
Steven looked first confused, then went red, then pale. "I see," he said weakly, reaching blindly for a chair.
"Kristen has seen the pages. She says they are almost perfect."
"I really don't understand," Steven whispered. "Why? It doesn't make any sense."
Again Mark waited, giving Kristen a chance to answer.
She sighed. "She's in love with you. Always has been. She knows you don't love her, but as long as she works for you, she still gets to be near you."
"So she blackmails my child into...what, exactly? How long has this been going on?"
"A couple of years. She doesn't approve of my...um...activities," Kristen said, avoiding his eyes.
Steven gripped the table tightly, his jaw clenched.
"Kristen obviously didn't want to tell you," Mark said quietly.
"Obviously," Steven answered tightly, closing his eyes.
"Look," Kristen said earnestly, "it wasn't a big deal. I had money for lunch, if I really wanted something, I could save it up. I usually skipped lunch anyway, so no big deal. And she wasn't going to do anything to you as long as I kept quiet."
Mark shook his head. "It's called blackmail, Kristen."
"There's nothing that can be done about it, and it doesn't matter anymore anyway," she insisted.
Mark looked over at Steven, trying to judge his reaction to all of this. Steven's face was set in angry planes, his fingers white-knuckled on the edge of the table. "Yes. It does," he said, voice shaking with rage. "You didn't look 'okay' Tuesday, did you? Not even close to something someone could honestly mistake as 'okay'?"
Kristen ducked her head, hiding her face against Mark's shoulder.
"She didn't," Mark said quietly.
"You should have told, Krissy. I would have taken care of it."
"How?" she asked, "How could you without being arrested?"
"Blackmail can cut both ways. I am a lawyer, dear. Embezzlement is a crime, and I doubt our dear Vanessa would do well in prison. She might break a nail."
"Especially once Kayla found out." Mark smiled. "Well, much much more than a nail, to be honest."
"Or I could just kill the bitch," Steven snarled viciously.
"Daddy! Damn it, I wanted you to stay out of jail."
Mark looked at Steven -- approvingly. "Be a terrible shame if her house burned down, with her in it. Especially if pictures of her and an obviously underage female turned up in the wreckage. Doubt they'd really bother with an investigation."
Kristen growled. "I want both of you to stay out of jail."
"Who got arrested when the Wilson's house burned down?" Mark asked her.
She frowned. "That's different."
He shook his head. "If pictures of Vanessa and an underage girl showed up in the wreckage of her house, I suspect the verdict would be 'fell asleep smoking'."
Kristen said, "Look...I love you both, but I'm not sleeping with Vanessa so you can take pictures. Besides, she wouldn't touch me with a ten foot pole."
Mark stared at her, and then laughed. "Oh, gods, no, love. You wouldn't have to do that. Ever heard of Photoshop? A really good investigation might be able to tell they were faked. Maybe."
"Yeah, but you've got to have the pictures to doctor, right?" She looked up at him with a frown. "And besides, I can't believe you'd seriously kill someone for not giving me my allowance. Come on...don't you think that's kinda extreme?"
Mark shook his head. "Not for not giving you your allowance, love. For treating you like that -- and for threatening to kill your father. Or do you really think he'd survive long in prison?"
Kristen glanced over at her father. "He's pretty healthy, Mark."
Looking down at her, Mark decided that she must not realize. "Love...prisoners really don't like child molesters. They'd probably kill him." "But he didn't molest me!" Kristen protested indignantly.
"But they wouldn't know that."
"Look...I don't want you to kill her. That's really over the top, it really is."
Mark sighed. "Then we need to pull her teeth." He paused. "I could still fake up the pictures, and tell her that if she tries anything, she's going down as well."
She thought that over for a moment. "That I can go along with."
"I'll need pictures of her, as many as possible. If you've got pictures of her in a bikini, that would be even better."
"Do it," Steven nodded. "When you have them, I'll...talk to her. And Kristen, we'll open a drawing account for you while we're in town, and get you your own checkcard. I should have thought to do it before. And honey...eat lunch, okay? It's not that expensive. I think I can afford a few fucking cheeseburgers."
"Steven, was Vanessa picking out the women you dated?" Mark asked.
"I signed up for a dating service and had her sort through the applicants, yes."
Mark snorted. "No wonder you never found one worth the time. They didn't sound like your type."
"I wasn't looking for perfection, just convenience."
"Maybe so, but from the way that Kristen described them...they sounded perfectly wrong for you. I could do better standing on my head."
Steven sighed. "No, Mark. I'm afraid they were just what I'd asked for. I had no intention of falling in love with any of them. However, I thought that at least one of them would be able to accept Kristen. I didn't count on all of them being such shallow, jealous idiots."
"I think we know why, now." Mark hugged Kristen tightly. "I'm sorry to make you go through this, love." He looked at Steven. "I think maybe we should sleep at my house tonight, so that I can get started on the pictures."
Steven nodded. "If you think so. I don't know what kind of computer we have in the den, I just ordered what the Gateway guy told me was good for a high-school student."
Mark grinned. "Well, also, I don't want any of this on your computer, just in case."
"Of course. I'm not thinking clearly." He shook his head. "Kris, honey...I had no idea. I thought she was taking care of you...that she cared about you, she always told me you were like her very own little daughter." His voice cracked. "I'm sorry honey, I should have been here."
Mark hugged Kristen tight, intending to let her tell her father about Vanessa, if she wanted.
Kristen crawled off of Mark's lap and went to hug her father. "It's not your fault, Daddy. I didn't want to tell you. I thought you didn't know...about everything. I didn't want you to be ashamed of me."
"Oh, Krissy...baby, I've never been ashamed of you. Not ever. How could I be when you're so much like your mother?"
"I told you, he loves you more than you realized," Mark said quietly.
Steven held her, hugging her tightly for a moment before letting her go. "Go on, sweetheart. I've got some thinking to do. We'll go in the morning and get your marriage license." He smiled weakly. "Unless I decide to get the shotgun after all to keep this cradle-robber from stealing away my baby girl."
Want to know what's up with Prudence? Take a look at the Prudence Home Page!
Want to see what else we're working on? Take a look at the Pele's Playground Home Page for news about currently updating stories!