Chapter 24 – If You Can't Work With Them, Then Work Alone

Major wagged his tail and walked in circles up to Erica. She pet him and gave him a treat from her pocket then crossed the room to her computer. Marcus had been right about one thing, she would start the export business. The business of feeding Tenpole untainted food excited her, and so she took off her gray suit coat, hung it on the back of her chair and began to research the job. Major curled up under the table. Sati and Ben stood beside the door.

Even though Erica no longer wanted to work with the claimants she would enjoy setting up the business on Kinsley Claim. And what better way to start learning about farming than to research the equipment? She knew a QSDD ship could be on Marril soon so any research wouldn't be wasted. It could even be loaded on the same ship Emory would use to come to Quirni. It probably had available cargo space. This all depended on Silas Kinsley allowing to her buy it. A little wicked grin pulled at her mouth with that thought. She knew he would allow it. She could convince him considering what she knew about him.

So she had to know what to buy. It turned out there was a lot to know. There were different sorts of tractors. There were attachments for the tractors. There were parts for digging, cutting, planting, and harvesting. There were seeds to buy. She hadn't considered that. Perhaps they used pesticides. She wouldn't know if they needed pesticides or what kind until she spoke to local farmers.

She sat back in silence after just an hour. Farming was complicated. The more she looked the worse it got. There would be a lot to order, a lot of forms to fill out, a lot of things to be bought and shipped. She needed an assistant and right away. She needed a person just to coordinate the farming business and she could also use someone to arrange production of the foods, their transport, and then exports, oh, and movement of the equipment to the various fields.

How many fields would there be? How many tractors could she afford? How far apart could the fields be and be serviced by one set of vehicles?

Service… She winced. Of course they would need to buy repair parts along with the equipment. What would be the most likely thing to break? Maybe she should just buy extra tractors so they could use the parts off of them? Damn. She needed to speak with farmers. She needed someone to do that for her. No one talked to her any more. She needed someone they would talk to. Vincent.

He would be busy. He would need an assistant but she supposed he could hire who he wanted. She didn't have to think about that.

She took notes so she could explain to him what they would be doing. He would be learning his job as they worked but that would be a good way for him to start. Before she went to find him she checked to see the status of QSDD ships on Marril. One was due to arrive there in a week and it wasn't scheduled to bring much back. It would have plenty of free cargo space. The other was still being repaired by the Marrilians.

She jotted down how much space the one working ship had so she didn't purchase more than it could transport. She needed to have the tractors and supplies bought and waiting on the dock by the time it arrived. She supposed she had to speak with Silas first. Now that she was some big deal claimant she wouldn't be able to just buy what she wanted. "Pissers," she muttered. She had far preferred doing her business under the radar of authority but those days were over. She had to talk to Silas sooner or later. Sooner. She also had to have Vincent talk to farmers within the week to discuss the proper equipment to buy.

She needed him now.

Vincent's room was on the first floor. She knocked on his door but he didn't answer, which didn't surprise her too much. She would find him with Elsbeth. The two of them were inseparable now. She had a room on the base.

As Erica turned away she came up short. Her brother Ethan and his family stood staring at her. His wife was a dark haired woman with big brown eyes and pleasant rounded features. She smiled slightly then glanced at Ethan who laid his hand on his little girl's shoulder. She hugged his leg, afraid of Erica.

Ethan's eyes dropped to Erica's hands. Her signet ring would distinguish her from Matilda. "Good afternoon, Lady Kinsley," Ethan greeted stiffly.

Erica forced a smile. "Good afternoon," she replied softly.

He and his family blocked the hall since they stood side by side. Ethan's oldest son was an older teenager and as tall as Ethan. His other boy was about ten years old.

"She's our aunt?" the oldest boy asked his father.

Ethan looked strained but nodded.

The boy started towards Erica with his hand out.

"Leave her be," Ethan warned.

He stopped and looked back at his father, perplexed. He glanced at Erica who still stood before Vincent's door. "But-"

"Just do as I say," Ethan growled and pushed his wife and girl aside. "Excuse us for blocking your way," he told Erica.

Ben and Sati were at the end of the hall. They straightened and faced the family, ready to intervene.

Erica edged past her brother and his family. He kept his eyes on her right up until she passed and then he sighed and hurried his children towards their door.

"Is everything all right?" Sati asked as she approached.

"Yes," Erica answered firmly. She continued on to the lobby but the expression on Ethan's face had burned into her mind. She looked back over her shoulder to the hall entrance. She slowed then stopped. Was he afraid of her? It sure looked that way. Come to think of it, why was he still here? Could they leave? She didn't know what James had done with her father. Could he leave? Were they staying to be with him? She realized she should know these things. She needed to know. She wished she had a phone. They hadn't given her a phone yet.

"Do you have a phone with you?" she asked Sati.

Sati took it out of her uniform's inner pocket and offered it.

Erica took it and stepped down into the sitting area. She sat on a sofa and held the phone ready in her lap but she hated to get into this. She should have nothing to do with them. She stared at the phone in her hands. She had intended to call James but now she wasn't so sure.

She felt numb with dread. What if he had warned all of them to stay away from her? What is John had?

How she had wanted to be with her family. For years nothing else drove her like that had. The longing she had felt to be with them had been almost too much to bear. Even now she realized she would like their company. It dug at her heart to see Ethan afraid of her. Were they all afraid of her? What had John said to them? She knew James wouldn't have made them react that way.

God, she should have spoken to them herself. She had left it to John. Of course that would scare them. She didn't want them to be frightened. She didn't want them treating her like they had at the brig either. Better they be afraid and avoid her than have them treat her like that, right? Right?

She realized the answer was no. She deflated into the sofa. No. Maybe it was better to be treated badly by her mother again than never see her brothers and sisters again. Maybe it was better to try again and again and again.

That wasn't true for her father but it was for her sisters and brothers. They weren't him.

Ethan used to throw her balls.

Ethan was afraid of her now.

He didn't need to be afraid. He just didn't know her. And she didn't know any of them. That was the worst of it. She didn't know them. She hadn't even recognized them. She wanted to know them.

He used to play with her. He had been fun.

She glanced at Ben. They wouldn't allow her mother to hit her again. Would her mother try?

Kate was angry Erica had become a claimant. Erica couldn't imagine what her brothers and sisters must think. Her mother claimed their father had never done anything wrong. That was what everyone probably believed. No one knew anything about the life she had had with Samuel except Samuel and he had told Kate lies. Erica supposed she had believed them.

Maybe Erica could explain. Maybe she could get them to understand she wasn't the one who caused all the problems.

She wanted to see them again. It they knew she wasn't so bad they might stay around. She wanted a family. It hurt to think she might never have that. Matilda and Roger were nice but they weren't family like brothers and sisters were. They were always busy. They didn't give her any attention or time. Brothers and sisters would but hers couldn't could they?

They could not approach her. John had no doubt warned them against it and they wouldn't go against the SDD. SDD walked around with her constantly. Her brothers and sisters would be too scared to say anything to her. Ethan just proved that. If she wanted to talk to them she had to begin it.

She shuddered. She gripped the phone.

The emotions were too tangled to understand but one thing was clear, how deeply it dug to see Ethan backing away with his children. Ethan was the only one she remembered and she didn't want that one happy memory replaced by his fearful expression as he backed his little girl and boys away from her.

She lifted her eyes and gazed out the glass doors of the lobby.

Her brothers and sisters had children.

How would they support their families here? They were from Sirrus, which was a technological paradise. Would they know how to live here? Why had they even come? To claim? To claim here on Quirni? It would be beneath a Sirrian to do so. If they came to be with Samuel then they had what they wanted. They could go back to Sirrus.

But no ships were leaving for Sirrus for some time. The closest ones were months away. This wasn't Marril where ships came and went all the time. They would have to find lodging until then.

Could they? They were the family of a High Claimant who shunned them she realized with a start. Who would lodge the family of a High Claimant if the High Claimant wouldn't do so? Who would invite the displeasure of a High Claimant? Why the hell did she have to be a damned High Claimant?

"Is there something else you need?" Sati asked from behind the sofa.

Erica looked over her shoulder. "No, Sati, I just…" She looked at the phone. "That was my brother and his family."

Sati came around the sofa and sat next to her. "Do you want us to have them leave? Do they bother you?"

Erica's chest constricted. She dropped her eyes and shook her head. "They don't bother me." She had the power to make them leave. With a word she could make the SDD chase them away. Such power made her cringe. They could be chased to lords knew where, to what desperate ends? She understood being desperate. She wished that on no one.

She looked back at Sati. "Would you fear me if you were in their shoes? Do you know what happened at the brig? Would you be afraid?"

Sati looked surprised. "I'm not in a position to say."

Erica frowned at her. "Must mean yes." She sighed.

Sati looked sympathetic and nodded slightly.

"I can't let my father back into my life. I'm too unstable around him. Do you understand that?"

Sati nodded again though cautiously.

Erica studied the phone in her hand. Fewer and fewer people were giving her their opinions even when she asked for them. She handed Sati her phone.

This really had nothing to do with her father or James or what John had done. It had to do with her fears and what she had been incapable of doing to begin with; talk to her family. She remained on the sofa, torn by her fear that they would never accept her and knowing they could be shunned worldwide because she was the High Claimant.

They would pretend to accept her though, that was certain. She was the damned High Lady so they would be fools not to. "What a God damned friggin' bitch of a situation," she muttered and felt better for cursing even though Sati sat back in alarm. Erica grimaced at her. "Don't worry. I'm not talking about you or SDD," she consoled and stood. "'Tis me."

She didn't know which room Ethan was staying in so she asked at the desk then returned to the first floor hall and knocked on his door.

When Ethan's wife opened it her eyes grew wide. "Yes High Lady Kinsley? Can I help you?"

"I would like to speak with my brother," Erica told her and tried to sound light hearted about it but she thought she sounded like she dreaded the meeting anyway.

His wife stiffened. "Ethan," she called over her shoulder. He came to the door. He opened it a little wider and faced Erica without a word.

Erica opened her mouth. What should she say?

"What can I do for you?" Ethan finally asked without emotion.

"W– we need to speak," she answered quietly. Her stomach turned. She felt the blood rush from her face as her hands became clammy and cold. "Here or elsewhere, as you will."

"About what?" he asked guardedly.

'Don't be such a coward,' Zoe told her.

She winced. "About what?" she repeated. "Everything I suppose."

That surprised him.

"May I come in?"

"Certainly," he agreed with the same stiffness he had used in the hall. He opened the door to allow her past. Sati entered with her and stepped to the side and stood at ease. Ben stayed in the hall.

Ethan's children were lounged on the sofa. The boys were reading their sister a book but they hurried to stand and pulled her to her feet when they saw Erica. They bowed to her when she smiled at them.

Ethan's wife quickly crossed the room and shooed the children into a bedroom. She picked up the book and brushed off the sofa so Erica could sit.

"I'm not worth all that," Erica told her with a smile, trying to be kind, but she only made Ethan's wife worry. They were Sirrian and Erica didn't remember her Sirrian manners. She sat in the freshly brushed off spot and Ethan sat on the other sofa across from her, hesitant. Erica glanced around as she tried to think of what to say. Her eyes fell on his wife. "We haven't been introduced." She stood to offer her hand. "I'm Erica. I changed my name to that some time ago. I prefer you call me that."

Ethan stood. "I apologize, High Lady, I forgot you hadn't met my wife. This is Sherry."

Sherry came forward and shook Erica's hand carefully, a timid, limp handshake, then stepped back again. "I should go see to the children." She left the room still clutching the book. Erica watched her go then sat. Ethan sat as well.

"What are your children's names?" Erica asked him as the door closed to the bedroom.

"Colin is our oldest son, then Bram and Tori."

Tori sounded familiar. "Weren't one of the twins named Tori?"

His mouth parted and he blinked fearfully. "Yes."

Erica smiled and nodded. "'Tis nice to have her remembered."

His shoulders relaxed, as if he hadn't the strength to hold them up any longer. "I think so. She was a sweet girl and so is our little Tori."

"'Tis a good name, full of charm," Erica replied.

Tori and Chase had been their names. She remembered loving them both dearly. They were always happy, so unlike herself. Her heart burned from the old breaks. How she missed them; the horror of realizing she had killed them…

She blinked quickly to keep her eyes clear. She forced a smile and glanced around the room, anything to distract her from those memories.

The bedroom door was cracked open. She drew her gaze away from it, felt too unsure of her expression to look back at Ethan so she cast her eyes down and settled back in the sofa.

"Would you like some wine or water?" Ethan asked.

Wine would be fantastic, an entire bottle, she thought. "Water please," she answered.

He took some time to poor it and come back. He had a glass too and held it as tightly as she did.

"I was told you came to be with father," she said and finally looked at him. "What do you plan now that you have him?"

He drew a breath. "Mother wanted to be with father. He told her to come, that it would be better than Sirrus. She talked us all into coming. She said we would be heirs to a claim." He paused. "But you knew that."

Erica sipped her water.

"I'm sorry about what happened at the brig," he added.

Erica didn't feel up to replying to that either so she took another sip of water.

"Father promised a lot of things, as he always does, and didn't come through, which is typical. He used to send money but it never was enough to support us. Mother would make it go as far as she could then she had to work. Margot and I would end up looking after the younger ones." He looked strained. "It was supposed to be different if we came here."

"Because one of you would be a claimant," Erica realized.

He nodded.

Their eyes met and Erica couldn't look at him. She studied the glass in her hand. "So she be with him now. This makes her happy? Might you go back to Sirrus?"

Ethan made a stifled noise.

Her stomach clutched.

"There is nothing to go back to. We aren't rich like most Sirrians. I told you, mother had to work. She was a maid when she did work."

"Mother worked as a maid?" Erica asked in disbelief. "I thought the family was well off there."

"Grandmother is but she wouldn't help us. She blamed Mother for our trouble."

Erica gave him a curious look. "Why?"

"Because of you," he answered.

Erica squinted. "I wasn't even there."

He stiffened his back to answer. "She told mother you would never have hurt the twins if father hadn't raised you. Grandmother believes it is the woman's job to raise children. If mother had done her job then the twins would be alive and father would have been on Sirrus with us."

Erica's mouth opened in surprise. "Likely 'tis right."

His face darkened with a frown. "Is that any reason to let us live like paupers?"

"I don't know. I would not wish that on someone." Erica replied. "'Tis not an easy life. I lived as a pauper on Marril."

"You?" He asked confused. "You are the High Lady because you are so rich. The paper reported you have over three billion square."

"I got that when I had to sell a business on Marril. I never knew I had so much or that it was worth that."

Ethan regarded her curiously. "You certainly didn't learn that from father. As far as I can tell any business he ever had would start out well and then he ruined it."

"'Tis true. He took the profits and left none to grow the business. He sold the bits and pieces to make a sum and start over. Destruction be all he likes and all he knows."

Ethan breathed hard. He frowned. He sipped from his glass rather than reply.

"So what will you do here?" she asked.

He shook his head. "I don't know. We've talked to a number of claimants. They don't want us. I have extensive experience with a council on Stanchion Claim but it seems with that sort of background they expect me to work for you. If I'm not then there must be something wrong and they are suspicious. It's the same for Saul and Cedric. Margot's husband has found a job but it's hardly enough to live."

As she had feared. Her heart went out to them but could she afford to do anything about this? "I can't have father around me," she told him quietly. "You don't know him. I do. I won't have him around."

Ethan nodded as he studied his glass. "We had that explained to us."

"By the SDD?"

"By them, by Matilda, by Cyril." He looked up. "Uncle Cyril explained a lot and I believe him. He seems to know father well. Things aren't like we thought. We should not have listened to mother. She doesn't have a clear idea of him and we now realize we don't like him. Sherry and I don't like the way he is around Tori. When he came back to Sirrus we lived too far away to know what he's like. He wasn't around her much. Now that he's close we see the problems that Uncle Cyril warned us about."

Erica sat forward in alarm. "Don't let father touch her or talk to her. Don't let him say anything to her that you can't stop. Don't let him near her."

"We can't keep him away completely. He's her grandfather," Ethan argued, taken aback by her abruptness.

"I don't care," Erica replied. She sat on the edge of the sofa and leaned towards him. "Listen about this. I beg you listen, Ethan. He will hurt her, any children. He will hurt them."

"I'm listening," he replied warily. His eyes narrowed at his thoughts. "Like I told you, you aren't the first one to give this warning."

Did he mean it? Would he listen? People rarely did. "If he must be around then keep the children away. Keep them in another room. Always watch him. James agreed to keep an eye on him but he can't in your house."

The bedroom door opened and Sherry slipped out. She still held the book. "High Lady, can I join you?"

Erica looked from Ethan to her then back to Ethan. She nodded and sat back.

Sherry sat on the sofa next to her husband. "Kate wants us with them. He is the only one who has any money and we don't have much choice after we leave the hotel. Only Margot and her husband have found something different." She looked at Ethan and took a breath. She gripped his hand tightly. "Lady Kinsley, will you support us?"

Ethan dropped his eyes in apparent shame.

Erica saw no shame. "Will you keep Samuel away from your children?" she asked Sherry.

"That is what I most dearly hope to do. It is as Ethan just explained. We don't like the man. He isn't who Ethan thought he was."

"Truly?" Erica demanded of Ethan.

"Yes," he replied. "That is for certain."

Erica sighed in relief, which brought his eyes up. She smiled gently. "Then I will support you and I will do so happily. Just keep him away. Keep Tori safe."

Sherry's hand covered her mouth. "Oh, thank you. Matilda said you would." Tears fell from her eyes. "She said you would. She said you have missed your brothers and sisters and want so much to be with them but Ethan couldn't ask." She put her hand on his leg.

"You are the High Claimant," Ethan told her quietly, as if that explained why. "You were so upset at the brig."

Erica set her glass down. "And you feared I would cause you harm," she finished.

"But Matilda said you aren't like that," Sherry told her hopefully and still afraid.

"Mati knows me," Erica replied.

The bedroom door was cracked again. The boys would certainly know what was going on and be worried as well. "Colin," Erica called. "Would your cousins be afraid of me too? Afraid of what I might be like?"

The door closed.

She smiled at this. "Colin," she called again. "Bring your brother and sister out here."

The door slowly opened and the boys brought Tori out. They each held one of the girl's hands. They crossed the room and sat around their parents. Tori sat on her mother's lap.

"Do you have an answer for me?" Erica asked the oldest boy again.

"They are." He raised his chin to say it. Damned if he would be afraid.

False bravery was something she could appreciate. She had used it often in her life. She smiled and turned back to Ethan. "I don't know what you do or what you are capable of doing for work but I tell you this, whatever it 'tis you are welcome to come to Kinsley Claim."

Ethan and Sherry both breathed a sigh of relief. They gripped each other's hands.

"I would prefer you work," Erica added. "Be that for me or for you or some other person, I do not care. Until I know what you and your brothers and sisters can do I can't offer anything except a home. I will support you if you can't work, if what you do be something we don't do here. I might not support you as you may expect. I don't even know what to expect once I get to Kinsley Claim. Haven't been there myself. But you will have a home, good food, good education, health care, and money to buy the luxuries Quirni has. I offer that for everyone but father who be James' problem. Will you accept?"

"Yes," Ethan agreed without hesitation as Colin's eyes went wide.

Bram looked at his mother with surprise and grinned with excitement.

"I would tell our brothers and sisters this too, Ethan, but I fear running into them like I did you. I would they not run. 'Tis a hard thing to get past what happened in the brig and I also fear seeing father. Will you tell them for me? Would be grateful. They all be invited to the claim, all except father."

"I will tell them," Ethan agreed with a slight smile. "But Margot's husband already has a job. Would they be better off here or with you?"

"Here?"

"He has a job on Coldwater Claim."

"With me," Erica answered quickly and allowed her alarm to show. "She does not want to be at Lord Byrne's mercy. He and I have been enemies."

Ethan looked pained.

"She should come to Kinsley Claim," Erica assured him. "You will all live well just not live like claimants. Become a claimant to do that. 'Tis a chance for that. Life be long here and you are Kinsleys. 'Tis my plan to step down and let Cyril return. He will need heirs."

"He mentioned that," Ethan admitted. "He also said your health is poor." Ethan touched his chest. "He said you had been shot."

That surprised Erica. "So," she replied softly. "Uncle Cyril understands my problems," Erica told him. "When did you see him?"

"We have seen him several times including the day you were named High Claimant. He asked us to the wedding."

There were so many people there she could have missed them. She hadn't even seen Cyril that whole night. "Did you come?"

"We did. Cyril and Matilda both invited us. They said we had to come since you would eventually realize you wanted us there. They said they wanted us there. They insisted."

"'Tis right that they did. 'Tis right that I came here too. I should have sooner but I be unsettled where father be concerned and I feared your ties to him."

Ethan shook his head. "There are no ties now that we know him."

Erica hoped it was true. "I think you can come north with me when the SDD takes us home in the helicopters. Would be better than riding horses." She half smiled at the memory of doing that herself. She stood. "Be careful of the children," she added with a glance at Tori. "There be people who would hurt you, people beyond father. Keep your little girls especially close and don't mind any SDD who watch you. If they be there, 'tis at my request. I have enemies. The SDD protect you."

This made them worry but that was best. Erica got up and shook his hand. "We be like strangers, Ethan, but you be family and that be something. Welcome to Quirni."

"Thank you," he replied with a wavering smile.

She took her hand back, nodded to them, and let herself out as Ethan tried to accept the good fortune that had just fallen upon them.