Twenty-four years ago
“Hey, Sacajawea, you look like you’re on the warpath. What gives?”
I stopped to glare at the speaker, who was standing next to one of the residence buildings of St. Anne’s College with two other people, both of whom cast me swift glances before turning away. I was used to the British students treating me like I was a lesser species of newt infringing upon their sacred citadel of learning, but I really hated it when my own countryman treated me with the same disdain.
“Knock it off, Esker,” I told the young man, clutching my laptop case tight to my chest, hoping against hope the drowning feeling would let up and I could draw in a breath. “You know that’s politically incorrect, and ignorant to boot. Sacajawea was Shoshone, and my mother was Navajo. Besides which, calling me Sacajawea isn’t at all a slur. She was an awesome woman, brave, a gifted explorer, and possessor of the infinite patience needed to drag a couple of clueless white men from Missouri to the west coast less than two months after having given birth. So the next time you want to insult me, try using the name of some lame-ass white man whose daddy bought his way into Oxford because he didn’t have the grades to get the scholarship on his own, like the rest of us.”
“Fuck you,” Esker snapped while the two Brits laughed.
I gave him the finger as I hurried off, brushing the incident from my mind. I tried again to get some air into my lungs, but anxiety seemed to wrap around me with iron bands. I had to talk to Neo.
“Morning, Kamil,” I greeted the porter as I ran past his desk, heading toward the building where Neo roomed.
“Good morning, Beam,” the stately, gray-haired man answered as I hurried to the stairwell. “You looking for your young man? He asked me to tell you he was going to the library.”
“He is? Dammit. OK, thanks.” I spun on my heel and rushed across to the library, making a beeline for the back wall, where Neo liked to claim a long table hidden by some study carrels. Relief filled me when I saw his familiar dark head bent over his laptop, the pressure around my lungs loosening just enough for me to take a deep breath. I glanced around, but students seldom came to this side of the library, since it was made dark by several large chestnut trees nestled up against the side of the building. “Thank the goddess I found you.”
“I told Kamil where I was,” he answered without looking up. “How did you do on Tormesson’s group project?”
“Fine,” I said, dumping my case on the table next to him before pulling a hard wooden chair up beside him. “But it doesn’t matter. Not now.”
I hated the throb in my voice, hated that I was so close to tears, but ever since I’d gotten the news, my emotions felt raw and bleeding.
“Of course it matters. You may not have to break a sweat for good grades, but the rest of us have to work our asses off for first-class honors.”
“Neo.” I put my hand on his arm, swallowing down the lump of tears that made my throat ache.
He must have heard the emotion in my voice, because he looked over at me, his gray eyes normally filled with humor, but now questioning. “What’s wrong, sunshine?”
I almost broke down at the nickname he’d absurdly given me the first time we’d met, six months earlier at the international students’ orientation.
“I have to go home.”
He made a face and glared at his laptop screen. “I understand. I wouldn’t want to help untangle this mess of code, but I have to turn it in tonight, so we’ll have to call off date night until it’s done.”
I took a deep breath. “I don’t mean I need to go back to my room. … I mean that I have to go home. To New Mexico.”
He frowned, his eyes once again turned to me. “The term isn’t over until the middle of June. That’s almost two months away. Why would you want to go home now?”
I slid my hand down to his fingers, clinging to his hand and praying that I wouldn’t break down. Not in public. I couldn’t stand it if others saw me sobbing. “My cousin died this morning.”
“Oh, Beam, I’m sorry,” he said, turning in his chair so that he could pull me into a hug, his arms warm and strong around me. I leaned into his chest, my face pressed against his throat, breathing in the lemony scent of his soap. “So very sorry. You must be devastated. My poor little sunshine.”
I clung to him for a few minutes while he murmured words of support, before finally pushing myself off him to wipe angrily at my nose and eyes with a tissue. There was still no one close to us, but I didn’t need people to see me having a breakdown in public. “I think I must be in shock, because it doesn’t seem real.”
“What happened? I assume this is the cousin who took you and your sister in when your mother died?” he asked, his hand warm on my back as he drew little circles.
My shoulders slumped as I leaned into his hand, wishing I could hit a reset button and restart the day. “Two years ago, yes. I didn’t know her too well, but she was nothing but nice to us. The local police called to tell me she went into the hospital for what she thought was a chronic cough, but she had pneumonia, and after four days …” I hiccuped back another painful lump of tears, blinking rapidly to keep them from falling. “Anyway, the police said that Autumn was being held by child welfare services, and that I had to come home to take over guardianship—otherwise she’ll be put into the foster system.”
“How old is your sister?” he asked, his eyes darkening a with shared pain.
“Fifteen.” Cold crept over me, making me shiver despite the relative warmth of a sunny spring day. “I can’t let her go into the system, Neo. Not because of who our parents were, but because the system is bad. Bad for anyone.”
“And your family … ?” He let the question hang in the air.
“There’s no one else. Calypso was our only cousin, and my grandparents died before I was born. There’s the tribal chapter, the local government, but since our father was white—a deadbeat, but white nonetheless—the local chapter doesn’t bother themselves much what happens to us. I have to go back.”
Neo was silent for a few minutes, his thumb stroking over the back of my hand. “Yes, I can see that you do. You can’t leave your sister to fend for herself. Have you spoken to Gargle?”
“No,” I said, not even smiling at the popular student nickname for the academic advisor who monitored my time at Oxford. “But I know what she’s going to say—going back home will forfeit the Whaddon Scholarship. I’ll be kicked out. I might even have to pay back the money from the scholarship that’s already been spent on me. Oh god, I don’t want to go home! You don’t know what it’s like there. …” The words dried up as the reality of life in New Mexico came all too readily to my mind. My mother had raised us to be proud of our heritage, mixed as it was, but that didn’t stop the fact that there were few opportunities available to poor girls with no family support.
“You can bring your sister here,” Neo said suddenly, his eyes narrowed on nothing in particular as he obviously tried to find a solution to my problem. “You’ll have to move to a flat in town so she can stay with you, but I’m sure that can be arranged. Just tell Gargle you have to go home for the funeral and to get your sister, and I’m sure she’ll excuse you for a week or so.”
I was shaking my head even before he finished speaking. “Even if I could do that, how am I going to afford to support Autumn? The Whaddon people don’t give you much wiggle room when it comes to money.”
“If she lived with you, in your room, that wouldn’t be any more expensive than now,” he protested.
I gave him a watery smile. “If I didn’t love you so much, I’d point out just how out of touch you are with what it’s like to be poor. Living situation aside, I’d still have to feed her. And clothe her. And get her to a school, and I’m not even sure I could get a visa for her to be here long enough to go to school. And, oh, a hundred other things. I’d have to get a job, and my visa prohibits that.”
“Well …” His jaw flexed a couple of times. “What if you said to hell with the Whaddon Scholarship? No, hear me out. If that’s what’s giving you grief, then you can simply go home to fetch your sister, come back, and finish your degree without them.”
“Paying for Oxford how?” I asked, feeling like I was slowly sliding down into a pit of mud. Life-sucking mud.
“You could work under the table,” he suggested.
“I could,” I said slowly, aware the lung vises were tightening. “But it wouldn’t pay much. And it doesn’t explain how I’m going to pay for airfare to and from England, not to mention dealing with my cousin’s hospital bills. No, don’t offer me money. I won’t take it. I know your mother gives you lots of money to spend, but I have my pride, and I’m not going to leech off you like so many others have.”
“I wouldn’t consider a loan leeching, but yes, I know full well you won’t let me help you out despite me being happy to do so.” His beautiful gray eyes were grave as he lifted my hand to his mouth, kissing my fingers. “Given your pesky pride—”
I pulled my hand away, frowning. “Hey! Some of us cling to our pride because we’ve been harassed our whole lives, and it’s pretty much all we have left.”
He reclaimed my hand, and pressed a loud smack to it before pushing back the chair, and kneeling next to me. “There’s only one solution, then. Marry me.”
I stared at him, wondering if the shock of the news had finally turned my brain into mush. “What?”
“You’ll have to marry me,” he said. “That’s the only solution. If you marry me, you can stay in England, finish up your degree, and we’ll be able to take care of your sister.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said, trying to pull my hand back.
“Why am I ridiculous?” A little flash of pain in his eyes had me sliding off the chair until I was kneeling in front of him.
“You aren’t.” I leaned forward to press a kiss to his lips, his delicious, wonderful lips. “You are fabulous. Marvelous. Sexy and smart and funny. I’ve loved you from the first time I saw you, looking as lost and alone as I felt at the new-student orientation. But your idea is crazy. For one thing, you’re Greek, not British.”
“I’m both. My mother was born in Edinburgh, so I have UK citizenship as well as Greek.”
“That’s very cool, but still, the whole thing is unthinkable,” I said.
“Why? Why don’t you want to marry me?” he asked, pulling me onto his lap.
“I never said I didn’t want to marry you,” I answered, breathing in again the wonderful scent that clung to him. “I’m head over toes in love with you. But because I love you so much, I’m not going to marry you until the time is right.”
His black brows pulled together, giving me the irresistible urge to smooth out the little wrinkle between them. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“It does—you’re just letting your heart dictate to your brain.” I gave him a sad smile, one that I hoped expressed just how much I regretted the situation I was in. “Maybe if we were at the end of the degree rather than having just started it … but it doesn’t matter. I have to go home. You will stay here. Maybe after you graduate, you can look me up, and—”
“To hell with that,” he said, his mouth closing on mine, his tongue doing a little dance in my mouth that made me melt against him. By the time he pulled away, my head was spinning, my lips felt bruised, and the band around my lungs had tightened to the point where it hurt to breathe. “You love me. I love you. We’re going to be married someday, so we’ll just do it now. No, don’t bother arguing, Beam. You are more important than any degree. We’ll get married. You can bring your sister here. We’ll get a flat, and live together, and you can get back into the program without the Whaddon people breathing down your back. We’ll live happily ever after, dammit.”
I couldn’t help it—he looked so indignant, I laughed. “You’re the only man I know who can look simultaneously pissed and romantic while proposing.” A thought occurred to me, even as I considered what he had offered. “But … what about your parents?”
His gaze flickered away, but not before I saw a flash of doubt in his eyes. “What will they think of us getting married? They’ll love you. You’re entirely adorable.”
I allowed myself to cherish the glow of his praise for a few seconds. “You may think so, but I’m not so sure that they’ll be thrilled at the news that their only son and heir has married a woman with no money, no family, and no prospects.”
“One ten times smarter than me, who has managed to gain a prestigious Whaddon Scholarship, and is a borderline mathematical genius with an analytical mind that can untangle even the most obtuse code.
No, sunshine, don’t protest.” He gave me another kiss, this one swift and fast before he shifted me off his legs so he could stand. “This is the only thing that makes sense. We’ll get married, you’ll go back to the States to get your sister, and while you’re gone, I’ll find us a place to live. It’s going to be simple, just you wait and see.”
I looked up the long length of his body, my heart feeling like it was made up of butterflies fluttering in my chest. For the first time since I’d heard of my cousin’s death, I took a long, shaky breath, finally filling my lungs. “Are you sure?” I asked him, something in the back of my mind warning that this was not the solution that I needed.
“Of course.” He smiled as he held out his hand to help me up, brushing back a strand of hair that had clung to my mouth. “Everything will work out, I promise.”
Misgiving slowly filled my stomach, but I pushed it aside, desperate to find a way to have my cake and eat it, too.
You know that never works out, a pessimistic voice in my head pointed out. I ignored it, just as I ignored the other doubts that gathered around me like personal storm clouds.
Neo was right—everything would work out. Maybe his parents wouldn’t be thrilled with me, but I trusted his knowledge of his family. We’d be happy, Autumn would be safe, and our lives would be filled with happiness and love.
Anything else would be a crime.