Wednesday, August 16, 2000

In/Exhale - September 4, 2000 - Part 1

The drama continues! It's Labor Day, and despite his weekend events, Kai has kept his study date with Renee. Prepare for some cute scenes between the two of them, and maybe even a "first" . . . ?


September 4, 2000

The sandwich shop was nearly empty when Renee stepped through the doors. She was a little late, having spent nearly an hour agonizing over what to wear. Finally, she'd settled on a pair of denim capris that hugged her body, along with a cute short-sleeved, polka-dotted red blouse. It dipped just enough in front to be sexy without making Renee feel uncomfortable. She'd even worn the expensive push-up bra Diane had insisted she buy, since it made her modest breasts appear fuller and rounder.

Her heart pounded in her throat as she strode through the restaurant, looking for Kai. The front room held the counter and a scattering of chairs and tables, between which a tile pathway led to a back room. This space was larger than she'd expected, filled with more tables, some of them large and long with benches to accommodate large groups. Although it was quiet, Renee could imagine the place bustling with the lunch crowd, a combination of students, businessmen, and housewives all hunched over their sandwiches, the din of dozens of conversations echoing off the walls.

Kai sat at the end of one of the large wooden tables, facing her, his head bent over an open book. One hand idly tapped out a loose rhythm against the table with a highlighter. She could have stood there for hours, just watching him in silence, but she longed to see his face, hear his voice.

"Hey. Sorry I'm late."

He looked up, smiled faintly at her. His face seemed tired, worn-out, stressed, as if it were the week before finals instead of the start of the semester. "'S OK," he said, as if it were one word. Then he seemed to finally take her in, and his smile broadened, although the weariness in his eyes hadn't cleared. "You look nice."

She smiled, unable to hide a blush, dumping her backpack on the floor. "Thanks," she said, sitting down on the bench across the table from him.

He stretched to snag a menu from the middle of the table and handed it to her. "You hungry? Take a look and decide what you want."

She nodded and pretended to study it, although she already knew she had to try the famous chicken salad. Instead, she took the opportunity to glance up at him every so often. A part of her hoped she'd catch him doing the same; it could have simply been silly romantic longing, but she swore she felt the heat of those blue eyes on her when she wasn't looking.

"Know what you want?" He'd folded his arms on his textbook, and was leaned forward, as if studying her now instead of history.

She nodded.

"OK. Good. My treat."

"I couldn't . . ."

"For the notes." He smiled, warm, inviting, his eyes softening.

She melted into it, stammered out a protest. "You already bought me coffee the other day."

His smile widened. "Then for meeting me. Helping me study. Consider it payment for your time."

"You don't need to buy that," she blurted, immediately flushing.

He laughed softly, shook his head. "Fair enough. I'm still buying."

Kai turned in his seat, using his hands to help arrange his feet. Then he pushed against the sturdy wood table to help get himself to his feet, reaching down to his left knee before standing fully upright. His feet seemed perfectly straight, almost unnaturally parallel to each other. She couldn't help staring. He was so tall, and even though he was dressed in his usual--dark, loose-fitting carpenter jeans and a collared shirt, buttoned all the way in one size too big for him--she could see the muscles in his arms, the definition in his shoulders he couldn't completely mask.

Kai was certainly a mystery. He clearly had a beautiful body, one that came from hard work. Most guys she'd known who worked out regularly did it partially--if not largely--for the satisfaction of showing off the fruits of their labor. But Kai seemed more interested in hiding. It simultaneously perplexed and intrigued her.

She watched as he steadied himself, leaning more on his right, and extended a hand to help her up. Either he misjudged her weight, or he was stronger than she expected, because she was pulled to her feet, suddenly finding herself pressed against him. Unless it had been on purpose. Oh, God. He smelled subtly clean: the almost imperceptible odor of chlorine, soap, deodorant. A blank canvas of indistinct scents. She tilted her head to look up at him, her hand pressing against the flat plane of his stomach as if by reflex. She could feel the firm muscles beneath the fabric of his shirt, and it took a moment for her brain to switch on and enable her to take a step back.

Renee had to clear her throat to find her voice. "Thanks. . . . Sorry." Her face grew hot, and she could barely follow the motion of his hand, indicating for her to go, and he would follow.


As soon as Renee strode up the slight ramp in the doorway connecting the rear of the restaurant to the front, she turned to wait for him, watching him lumber along. It was subtle, something easy to overlook, but she saw how he pushed off with his right foot, partially using his good leg and his trunk to help ease his stiff left leg forward. Although he walked casually enough, each step clearly took effort. When he reached the doorway, he instinctively reached out with both hands to grab the frame on each side, pulling himself up into the room. She realized he must wear some kind of brace on that leg beneath his jeans. What had happened, she wondered. An accident? Some kind of injury? A broken leg that hadn't healed properly?

He smiled at her once he drew closer. It wasn't self-conscious, just a bit reserved. "You can see running isn't one of my hobbies."

They walked side by side now. She was afraid to laugh, even to smile. In fact, it took her a moment for her brain to process anything other than what he might look like under those clothes. Was he scarred, and that's why he dressed as he did?

"Can I ask, what . . . what happened to your leg?"

He sighed through his teeth. "It's complicated. I'll tell you, but not now, OK? Let's order lunch?"

She wanted to apologize; instead she only nodded, following him the last couple feet to the counter. Ugh. She shouldn't have said anything. Should have let him tell her when he was ready. He was more forthcoming when he volunteered the information freely instead of when she asked directly.

"Hey, Kai. Who's your friend?"

Kai was leaning on the top of the deli case, talking to a middle-aged woman behind the counter. She was tall, broad shouldered, with brown hair cropped close to her head. Her face was stern, yet friendly.

Kai glanced over at Renee. "Nancy, this is Renee. Renee, Nancy. She owns the place."

Renee waved and managed a polite smile, but Nancy's attention was on Kai, almost as if Renee weren't there.

"How you been doing? You look good. Seem to be walking, well, too. You know Nate and I prayed for you every day."

Kai's eyes darted toward Renee for a split second before returning to Nancy. "Hope I didn’t ruin your chances for getting your prayers for winning the lottery answered."

Nancy hesitated a moment, then grinned. She waved a hand at him. "You always did have more of a sense of humor than your brother. How is he, anyway?"

"Same. Working too much."

Nancy clicked her tongue and turned her attention to the register. "The usual?"

Kai nodded.
Nancy entered his order into the register. "How you two know each other?"

"School." Renee was a little relieved to see Kai's sparsity of responses wasn't anything personal on her behalf.

"We have several classes together," Renee added, trying to join the conversation.

"And how is that going for you? You don't think it's too soon?" Nancy seemed to be ignoring Renee, and had momentarily turned from the register to pour hot water into an insulated cup.

"Nancy," Kai said.

Renee was amazed how it could seem like a warning and yet neither his tone nor face seemed menacing. His smile was still there, his body still relaxed. Although she could see tension in his shoulders despite the loose fabric. Everything Nancy had said so far seemed to give credence to Renee's accident hypothesis. Then she remembered Art saying something about Kai's parents. And Kai saying it was just him and his brother, then immediately freezing up. Had his parents been killed in the accident, and Kai hurt? If so, it couldn't have been too long ago if Nancy was thinking it was "too soon" for school. Or she could be totally wrong.

Renee jumped when she felt Kai's hand lightly touch her shoulder.

He frowned remorsefully, as if he were deeply sorry to have startled her. It was odd, yet made a warmth bubble up inside her anyway.

"What do you want to order?" He was looking at her, eyes brilliant, unreadable blue.

"Oh. Um. I thought I'd try the chicken salad sandwich. And a coffee, plenty of milk." Renee found herself unable to look away from Kai's gaze. She didn't even want to blink. What was it about him? It was more than his height or hair or eyes or anything superficial like that. It was like he was a code, waiting to be solved, and she wanted desperately to be the one to decipher him. To be the one he let down his walls for.

"Sure thing. Anything else?"

"Two bottled waters," Kai said. "Renee?"

She forced herself to blink. "No, I'm good," she said, smiling, then blushing. "I'm . . ." She suddenly felt a need to splash cold water on her face. "Where's the restroom?"

Nancy pointed toward the back and totaled their order. "Let's call it $20 even," she said.

Kai had already pulled his wallet out. "Nance . . ."

"It's my restaurant, and if I say it's twenty--even--that's what it is."

Kai sighed and handed her a single bill. "Go ahead," he said to Renee, who was rooted in place. "I'll get the drinks, and Nancy'll bring us the rest." He smiled at her, soft and warm, the expression only just piercing the fortress of his eyes.

It made her smile back, and so she forced herself to leave him, heading toward the back of the restaurant.


Jon strode out of the hall leading to the exam rooms, stethoscope dangling around his neck, patient folder under one arm. He headed for the front desk, where Vicky Smith, the pulmonary section's outpatient clinical office manager, was sitting, reading a novel.

A nurse by training, it hadn't been long till she discovered she vastly preferred administration to nursing. Vicky had been making sure the clinic ran smoothly since before Jon had arrived back in Jonesville for the beginning of his dual fellowship program. She was also one of the few who put up with Jon's obsessive neuroticism, serving as receptionist and as-needed nurse for him on days like today, when everyone else in the clinic took off. Vicky was tall, with a narrow frame and waist-length, straight brown hair she rarely styled, letting its thickness rest against her back.

"Hey, Vic, order me another oximeter. Bill it to me personally."

Vicky made a note on a post-it. "First thing tomorrow. Let me guess: you gave yours away. Again."

Jon handed her the file and leaned on the top of the counter. "Single working mother. Couldn't afford one. And tracking oxygen saturation is important. I'm trying to see if I can get a study running to determine if sats are more accurate predictors of exacerbations in FS than peak flow."

"God, I love it when you talk doctor to me," Vicky said in a teasingly mocking tone.

Jon rolled his eyes, but grinned. Then he sighed and massaged the bridge of his nose. "How much time do I have before my next patient?" He checked his watch. 12:44.

"You need to check your sugar?"

Jon nodded, pulled his stethoscope off and folded it, stuffing it into one of his bottom pockets. "Probably eat, too. And get some coffee."

"You know, you might actually sleep if you drank less caffeine."

Jon shrugged. "Still wouldn't sleep. At least it keeps me alert. Tell me I have 15 minutes."

"Even better. 30. Which means you have enough time for an actual meal." She raised an eyebrow at him.

"You sound like my brother," Jon sighed.

"How is he, by the way?" Vicky asked, snagging her purse from under the desk and standing.

Jon sighed and pulled a hand through his hair. "Living out the teenage rebellion he didn't get to experience before."

Vicky pulled her purse onto a shoulder and walked around Jon, through the waiting room. He followed. "Drugs, sex, rock 'n' roll?"

Jon laughed wearily. "Something like that." They walked together out of the clinic, down the hall toward the elevators. "You know what he said to me the other day? That he didn't need a father."

Vicky laughed as she leaned forward and pressed the elevator call button. "I've only known you five years, but you are a bit '30, going on 60,' so not sure I can blame him." She bumped her hip against him playfully and flashed him a grin. "Come on. Let me buy you lunch."


Waiting for Renee, Kai sipped his tea and frowned. He hadn't felt motivated to add his usual honey, settling for a few packets of raw sugar instead. So it didn't taste the same: bitter, rather than sweet.

He knew he'd been lucky that Jon wasn't on-call this weekend. Because if he had been, the fellow who treated him in the ER would have spoken to Jon, wanting advice on the unusual and bewildering case. Even without his name, just from the quick presentation of the patient, Jon would have known it was Kai. Twenty-two-year-old white male, double-lung transplant, FS. That's my brother. As it was, Kai knew he wouldn't be able to hide it long. Especially if it wasn't an isolated incident. Kai shook his head, holding back a bitter laugh. So much for not hiding anymore.

Jon had left early, before Kai's alarm had roused him from a heavy sleep at seven so he could take his morning meds. After that, Kai had crawled back into bed, sleeping until his alarm woke him again a few hours later, his stomach achy and nauseated from taking the drugs without eating. Kai was better, but he hadn't felt like this in months. And he was desperately trying not to worry. Both about what the attack could mean, and that he'd have another one. Because if stress had played a factor, worrying wasn't going to help.

And if the faint pain below his sternum--which he hoped eating would solve--wasn't enough, there was Renee. Whom it was getting harder to keep the truth from. And he didn't want to snap at her. But today, of all days, he just wanted to be with her. To just enjoy her company, a guy and a girl who liked each other, studying history.

Ugh. History.

He still wasn't sure what to do about Nikki. She could have let the ambulance go; she didn't need to ride along. She hadn't needed to stay, waiting hours in the waiting room. She hadn't needed to take off work for him, or bring him his clothes and chair, or bring him back to her bed because he didn't want to go home and risk facing his brother. But she had. She had even made him lunch. Even though she hadn't pleaded with him, it felt wrong somehow to just sever things completely. But what about Renee? Was he being fair to her if he kept seeing Nikki?

"You OK?" Renee took her seat across from him, frowning, eyes wide and soft with concern.

Kai wiped a hand over his face, as if he could use it to clear the pained expression that had worried Renee. "Yeah, fine. Just worrying about how I'm going to remember all this stuff."

She smiled sweetly. "It's all right. I'll help you. We can start with history, if you like. We'll figure out what works for you."

He cradled the back of his neck and smiled genuinely. "Thanks, Re," he said, clipping her name so it sounded like "ray."

She beamed. "I like it when you call me that."

He frowned, uncertain what she meant. "Huh? Did I mention my short-term memory isn't so great?"

"You called me 'Re.'"

"Oh, I . . ." He flushed. She realized he was cute when he did.

"I told you; I like it." She pulled out her book and notes. "How much have you gotten a chance to read?"

He leaned back, looking sheepish. "Not much."

"That's OK," she said with a sweet smile. "We can focus on the review questions, and it'll give us something to concentrate on." Renee tapped her fingers on a line of text. "What are the characteristics of a civilization?"

Kai stared at his open textbook, as if expecting it to speak the answer. Finally, he sighed and shook his head.

"That's OK. Why don't you see if you can find the answer? Either in the book or the copy of my notes I gave you?"

Kai pulled the crumpled papers from the back of the book, smoothed them out with his hands. "You probably think I'm a slacker," he mumbled. "Or an idiot."

Renee frowned, leaned forward to lay her hand on his. His skin was rough, maybe dry from the chlorine she'd smelled earlier. "No. Of course not." She hesitated. "You've just been through a lot."

His face paled for a moment, eyes wide, before he forced himself to neutrality. "You've been talking to Art."

Renee took her hand back and pulled a few wide-spaced fingers carefully through her curls. "Are you mad?"

He sighed, then looked at her. His expression was completely unreadable. "I figured you would ask him about me." Kai smiled, but it was tight, pained. He sat up straighter, working his fingers into his lower back, as if it ached.

"He didn't really tell me anything. Said I had to ask you."

Kai's entire body seemed to relax. "That's Art." A weak smile appeared on his face.


"So?" He dropped his attention back to the notes.

"You're not going to enlighten me?" She tried to make her voice light, teasing, flirtatious.

He didn't look up. "My life story isn't exactly first-date material."

Renee's stomach knotted brutally. Did that mean he considered this a date? Or was it simply a convenient expression? It suddenly felt hard to breathe, and she was enormously grateful he seemed so focused on the notes. Right now, she wasn't sure if she could stand a direct gaze from those eyes, two blue bottomless pools.

Thankfully, Nancy finally appeared with their food. "Sorry it took so long," she said, seemingly to Kai. "Sorting out a mix-up with one of our big catering orders." She set the plate with a gigantic, over-stuffed sandwich in front of Renee. "Chicken salad." Then she set a plate and cup of soup off to Kai's side, since his book dominated the table in front of him. "Veggie sandwich and potato soup."

Kai looked up, pushed some hair out of his face, smiled tiredly. "Thanks, Nance."

She pulled silverware out of the pocket of her apron. They clattered on the wood as they spilled onto the table. "I'll be right back with some more tea and coffee."

Renee watched as Kai picked up a spoon, and, elbow propped on his open book, began to stir his soup. First clockwise, then he'd reverse direction, back and forth, one way, then the other, staring at the broth, but not looking terribly intent on eating it.

Renee feared she'd messed up. Again. She swallowed, tried to keep her voice lighthearted. "You struck me more as the roast beef and chili type."

He looked up at her, a single eyebrow raised, still holding his spoon lazily in one hand. Liquid dropped off the tip into the bowl. "I don't eat meat anymore."

She studied him. "Herbal tea, vegetarian. Is your deep, dark secret that you're actually a closeted hippie?"

A smile peeled across his face. He chuckled, his eyes sparkling, brightening for the first time that afternoon. "Not exactly."

Renee attempted to cut her sandwich into quarters. "My maw maw would be appalled. She doesn't think a dish, let alone a meal, is complete without meat." She stopped what she was doing and jerked her head up, looking apologetic. "Sorry. I didn't mean to offend."

He scowled deeply, set down his spoon. "I do have PETA on speed dial. . . . But I guess I can give you a pass this once." His face transformed. She'd never seen anyone with so many variations on a simple smile. From what she'd seen in the short time she'd known him, it was likely he had dozens of grins. She wanted to see them, know them all. This one was simple, sweet, and seemed to lift the weariness in his eyes, like sun burning off fog.

He spooned some soup into his mouth, did some of that sexy lip licking, tongue searching out any final drops that may have caught on his lips. "I don't drink coffee, either, but I'm not going to chew you out if you do. It's OK."

Renee relaxed, took a bite of her sandwich and couldn't stifle a moan. She wasn't sure if it was the best chicken salad in the Midwest, but it was definitely the best she'd ever had.

He laughed a little harder, and his smile sweetened. Genuine. This was Kai relaxed, enjoying himself. Whatever had happened, whatever demons loomed behind the mask he normally kept firmly in place, they were gone. Maybe only for this fleeting moment, but it was one she would enjoy as long as it lasted.


Jon placed his glucose monitor back in its case and zipped it closed. Vicky watched absently, sipping her diet Coke.

They sat across from each other in the back of the main Jonesville Memorial cafeteria. Vicky had gotten a salad; Jon had opted for a grilled chicken breast and steamed vegetables. The food wasn't gourmet, but it actually wasn't bad. Vicky concentrated on mixing up her salad.

"Kai’s good influence is rubbing off on you."

He shrugged. "Sometimes I wonder: who makes the worst patient? The recently diagnosed, because they're still in denial, don't know how to handle their disease? Or the one who's lived a long time with their condition, become complacent or simply tired?"

Vicky frowned at her lettuce. Jon was prone to hypothetical musings like this one, most of which didn't necessarily demand a response.

"Can I ask you something?"

Jon shrugged, popped a broccoli in his mouth.

"Do you ever shut off?"

Jon's face shifted from serious, to annoyed, to amused. He swallowed carefully, a slight smile gracing his face. "Not really. I'm a regular Energizer Bunny." Was that a double entendre? Jon was rarely jovial, so serious and focused all the time. It was nice to see him smile.

"Listen, this friend of mine has a birthday party weekend after next. It's a costume party. Come with me. It'll be fun."

Jon nearly choked. He took a few gulps of his coffee. "You obviously don't know me."

"I do." Vicky stabbed several pieces of lettuce, then pointed her fork at him. "But that doesn't mean I don't think you shouldn't come out of your shell."

Jon frowned, carded his fingers through his hair, then shook the strands, almost as if he were trying to dry it. "Vic--"

"Just as friends. I'll even pick out your costume, so you don't have to worry about it."

Jon focused on cutting his chicken. "I might be on-call that weekend. I'd have to check my schedule."

"Unless you're on shift that weekend, you can still come to the party. Just bring your pager and a cell phone."

Jon sighed heavily, smoothed a hand over his hair, making up for the mess he'd made of it earlier. "All right. Fine. But I'm not dressing up. Halloween isn't till the end of October, anyway."

Vicky chewed and swallowed before smiling. "Don't worry. I'll make sure it's something sexy. All the women will be fawning over you all night. Trust me. You'll thank me." She grinned, a mixture of triumph and cunning, sipping her drink.

"Fine," Jon said, shoulders hunched. "But I reserve the right of first refusal. I am not a silly person." His lips were drawn tight, but she saw a subtle sparkle in his gray eyes.

"All right. Serious costumes only for you. Does that mean I can go as ridiculous and embarrassing as possible for mine? Like . . . Vegas Showgirl. Or Xena Warrior Princess. Or Elvira."

Jon blushed. He actually blushed. And Vicky couldn't help laughing.

Renee had helped Kai review the key material from the first few chapters of their history text, and he was beginning to feel more confident. She had noticed his remark about short-term memory issues was more than just an off-handed joke, but she'd quickly realized if he could find a way to visualize the information, he processed and remembered more easily. It also eased his frustration, and he'd relax. She found she liked seeing Kai relaxed. They were winding down when Kai's phone rang.

"Crap," he said, staring at the display. "I guess I didn't hear it ring earlier. Is I OK if I . . . ?" He gestured with the phone, which continued to ring in his hand.

"Go ahead," she said with a nod and a smile, packing up her books and notes.

Kai grinned at her and answered the phone. "Hey. Sorry, I was studying."

Renee tried not to eavesdrop, but the voice on the other end was loud enough for her to catch most of the conversation.

"It's OK. I called whenever I had a minute to come up for air. The diner's been a madhouse today; I just wanted to make sure you were OK."

Renee concentrated on meticulously repacking her bag, as if everything needed to be done in a particular way. But she couldn't help the jealously and disappointment that flared from hearing the concerned female voice on the other end of Kai's phone conversation. She already knew Kai didn't have any family other than his brother, so unless Kai's brother had undergone some serious hormone therapy, the voice had to belong to his girlfriend. The one she'd feared he'd had from the beginning, but which she'd desperately hoped he didn't. So much for his date reference. Disappointed, she realized she had been right all along. She was just someone to help him pass his core classes; nothing more.

"Yeah, I'm fine," Kai was saying, smiling at Renee. She vaguely had the impression she'd zoned out for part of the conversation and was catching Kai repeating himself.

"OK, good. God, I probably sound like a clingy, psycho girlfriend," the voice said. Yep, no denying it now. Renee sighed sadly, grateful Kai was too caught up in the conversation to notice.

He frowned, looked away from Renee, lowered his voice. "I know you had to have been scared and worried. I'm sorry. I'll try to drop by the diner tomorrow."

He finished his call, tossed his phone aside, and gripped the back of his neck.

"Sorry about that. Thanks for helping me today; I really appreciate it."

He looked at her with such genuine gratitude and happiness, pure and unfiltered, a true gift from him, who kept himself masked and hidden. She could almost forget he'd just been on the phone with his girlfriend.

"Are you parked far? If it's close, I'll walk you to your car." Kai started to push himself up, but his face paled, and he seemed to change his mind. He dipped his head to hide his face, but she saw his hands gripped the wood of the table tightly, knuckles white. After a moment, he looked up, smiling, but the gates had closed, the drawbridge retracted. "Sorry. I just remembered Nancy asked me to help her with a few things as a thanks for letting us hang out here all afternoon."

Renee opened her mouth to protest, but he held up his hand to stop her.

"It's all right. If I didn't see you again the rest of the semester, I would still be grateful for today." His smile softened. "Not that I don't want to see you again."

Ugh. Talk about mixed signals. Did his girlfriend know he was blatantly flirting with another woman?"

"Uh, I guess I'll see you in class then. Thanks for lunch." She shouldered her bag. "If you ever reconsider the vegetarian thing, you should give the chicken salad a try." She winked, then flushed, embarrassed. Disappointment hung heavy from her heart. "Can I ask you something?"

He shrugged.

"Art said your name was Taylor. Why did you change it?"

Kai's warm expression evaporated, his face growing stony. He almost looked ill. It took him longer than normal to recover, shifting into the placid mask of neutrality he normally wore. "I don't talk about that," he said in a tone she couldn't determine. "My name is Fox now. Please don't ask about it again."

Renee was so surprised, she took a step back. His reaction was unlike any she'd seen from him so far. Even when she'd asked about his family or his leg, he'd been clipped and evasive at worst. This reaction was outright hostile. And whereas he'd offered to talk about his leg at some point, his name was clearly earmarked as taboo. What had happened to him that made him change his name and react so viscerally when she innocently asked about it?

He seemed to come to himself, pushing himself up after all and locking his leg, approaching her with an apologetic look. "I'm sorry, Re," he said. She wasn't sure if his use of the diminutive was intentional, to emphasize his candor. He hesitantly reached for her hand, waiting for her to yield to him before nestling it in his palm. "I know you don't know much about me. I want to give you the chance to learn, but . . ." He hesitated, staring at their fingers. It was almost impossible for her to be angry at him when his skin touched hers, even in a chaste gesture such as this.

Kai pulled away, sinking down so he perched on the edge of the table, his left leg straight, his right, slightly bent, hands gripped on the table's edge. He kept his gaze lowered as he spoke. "My parents were killed when I was six." He looked up briefly, holding up a hand to stop her, as if he knew she was going to interrupt. "It's OK; I don't really remember them." He sighed, cradled his neck, a habit she was beginning to realize he did when he was unsure or anxious. "I grew up in a group home," he said softly.

Renee sunk down onto the table beside him. Since she was so much shorter, she rested her feet on the bench. "You weren't adopted?"

He tilted his head, hesitating, before finally shaking it. "People want babies. Not. . . ." He bit his lip. "Nobody wanted me." His words were so faint, she barely caught them.

"Oh, Kai, I had no idea." She placed a hand on his shoulder, realizing the muscles were like steel under the loose confines of his shirt.

"Told you, not first-date conversation." He attempted a faint smile, but failed. With a sigh, he pushed some hair off his face. "I don't talk about my past much. Period. With anyone. So just . . . don't take it personally."

He turned to face her, his eyes beautiful cerulean. She suddenly had an overwhelming desire to kiss him. She didn't care that he had a girlfriend. Those eyes seemed to pull her in--filled with so much emotion she couldn't begin to parse it all out. Sadness, fear, anxiety, vulnerability, hope, longing, pain. It was too soon, she knew, as she felt herself drawing closer, their lips near enough to taste each others' breath.

Their eyes closed, lips grazed, and they kissed. She honestly wasn't sure whose lips met whose first, but they pressed together, and his tongue teased, begging for entrance. She opened happily, her mind shut down, not thinking of consequence or logic, simply melting into the moment. He reached up and cradled her cheek, taking control, kissing with a hunger and a desperation that surprised her. He consumed her, tongue licking alongside hers, sucking gently on its tip, pulling her closer. Yet, at the same time, he was tender, not brutal. His kiss transported Renee onto another plane, her entire body buzzing, a lightness filling her unlike any she'd experienced before. It was almost as if, in this kiss, they were no longer their separate selves, but an entirely new entity, linked by lips and passion.

Finally, he pulled back, with difficulty, as if their lips were magnets struggling to separate. His hand still cupped her face, his eyes soft, looking transformed somehow. He breathed raggedly and heavily, and her own eyes felt misty, glazed over. She struggled to come back to herself, blinking a few times. Neither of them seemed capable of speech.

"Wow. . . . If that's how you thank me for one study session, I'd love to see what I get after I help you cram for the final." Renee laughed through her blush.

"Oh, God, Re," he said, his voice a breath, as he smoothed a curl through two fingers, brushing her cheek with the back of his thumb. His eyes had shifted yet again, unreadable, full, and she wished she knew what they were saying.

"I . . . should go," Renee managed to stammer.

"I'm sorry," he said, pulling away, shutting down.

She stood, stepped over his legs so she was facing him, close. She nudged his chin up with her fingers. "No. It's OK." She chuckled. "That was more than OK. But I have some things to do before my roommate gets back." She picked up one of his hands and squeezed it. "We'll talk later." Flashing a warm smile, and still buoyed by the taste of his tongue, she forced herself to turn and leave.


Awww!! What a sweet first kiss! Stay tuned next week when Labor Day (September 4) concludes and we see the impact of the weekend's events come to a head. . . .


  1. A beautiful chapter! Beautiful writing! Thanks!

  2. Just so you know, when it comes to your stories there is no such thing as to long. SO much love for Kai. What a mystery. I'm really curious about how renee is going to react to the mls. Especially since it's progressive...Kai is not the king of disclosure thats fo sho.

  3. I LOVED this chapter . . . and want MORE, MORE!!

    Thanks for a great read.

  4. I'm such a sucker for a sweet kiss! MORE PLEASE!

  5. I love it, beautifully written. You are really really good!!
    I just wish you`d post the second part much sooner - it sounds like you have already written it..?