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Chapter 16

It was a typical meta-zen-syn wedding, Rafe discovered. The bride wore yellow. The groom wore blue. The majority of the guests wore white. Seated next to Orchid in a pew near her parents, he felt extremely conspicuous in his dark suit and tie.

He had been aware of the meta-zen-syn tradition of wearing white but he just could not see himself in a white suit. He was luckier than the groom, he thought. After the ceremony both the bride and the groom would change into green, the color that resulted when blue and yellow were combined.

The change of attire was symbolic of the power of synergy.

Meta-zen-syn was a philosophy, not a religion, but here in Northville many of its symbols had been grafted on to the far more ancient religious portion of the wedding ceremony.

Rafe was amused to see that Orchid did have some white in her wardrobe, after all. The dress she wore today was a breezy thing that fluttered and drifted with every movement. It was very meta-zen-syn, he thought as he studied it out of the corner of his eye. It somehow managed to reveal and conceal at the same time. Very modest by any standard, it nevertheless managed to make him salivate.

This was no time to turn primitive, he reminded himself. He was trying to make a good impression here in Northville.

When the vows had been exchanged, Veronica and her groom vanished into separate antechambers. The congregation meditated in silence while everyone waited for the couple to change into the formal green clothes that symbolized the synergistic result of the chromatic union of blue and yellow.

Synergistic principles were symbolized everywhere in Northville, Rafe noticed.

On the way into the austere little chapel he had seen North's three basic tenets carved in stone on the outside wall. Not that he and everyone else on St. Helens did not already know them by heart, he thought. Every schoolchild learned them in kindergarten.

North's Three Principles, after all, were the philosophical bedrock upon which any understanding of scientific and natural phenomena on St. Helens depended. It was the discovery and acceptance of that intellectual framework that had enabled the first generation colonists to survive. The principles were paradoxically both simple and profound.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The struggle for balance and harmony governs all natural processes.

Balance and harmony are achieved only when the synergistic contribution of each element is equal to that of all other elements in the whole.

Rafe glanced at Orchid. She did not notice. Her attention was fixed on a tall, elegantly lean man dressed in a stylish white suit who was seated in another row. Preston Luce.

Rafe was relieved to see that Orchid's expression was thoughtful, not wistful.

At that moment Preston turned his head slightly and smiled at Orchid. She immediately switched her gaze, to the large, unframed canvas that hung behind the simple altar. The painting consisted of two lightning bolt slashes, one black, one white. Rafe recognized the picture as the work of Eldon Moss, a master of the Neo-Post Synergistic Abstract school. The minimalist approach of the painters of that school had made their work very popular with the meta-zen-syn crowd.

Rafe had been in Northville for only a few hours, but already he had seen a lot of art and architectural design that was clearly inspired by minimalism.

He had to admit that, in large doses, the austere style took on a bland, flat sensibility. He could understand why a young woman with a strong romantic streak might have had a little trouble fitting into the Northville milieu.

There was a small stir of anticipation in the crowd. Veronica and Terrence reappeared in their formal green attire and were introduced as husband and wife. The congregation rose to greet them with a solemn meta-zen-syn chant of welcome.

The new couple walked back down the aisle together. Row by row, the guests followed.

Rafe took Orchid's arm as she got to her feet "Do we get to eat now?"

She gave him a fleeting grin. "Yes, but don't say I didn't warn you. At a classic meta-zen-syn wedding even the food is supposed to symbolize the Three Principles."

"I'm hungry enough to eat green hors d'oeuvres."

The afternoon was warm and sunny. The reception was held in a serenely austere garden that overlooked the heavily wooded hills of Northville.

To Rafe's relief, the canapes were not all blue and yellow or even green. The small pastries, skewered tidbits, and assorted delicacies were, however, artfully arranged in classic meta-zen-syn patterns on the trays. Most were decorated with meta-zen-syn designs, but the symbolism did not affect the taste. The intellectual elite of Northville were a sophisticated lot. They relished gourmet food and wine.

Half an hour later Rafe stood in front of an abstract minimalist stone sculpture that consisted of a large circle and a triangle and looked out across the low rock wall that surrounded the garden.

From his vantage point he could see most of Northville and the campus of the Patricia Thorncroft North Institute for Synergistic Studies. The town and the prestigious think tank were inextricably linked together. Everyone who lived in Northville was affiliated with the institute in one way or another. The connection was underscored by the manner in which the architecture of the homes and shops in the village echoed the meta-zen-syn elegance and simplicity of the institute's buildings.

The effect of an entire town built along meta-zen-syn principles was either profoundly serene or downright dull. It depended, he supposed, on one's philosophical orientation. The fact that he found the vista a little dull made him wonder about his own personal outlook.

"Enjoying the scenery, Rafe?"

Rafe turned to see Orchid's father, Edward Adams, coming toward him. The two men had been introduced earlier, but there had been little opportunity to talk before the wedding.

Edward was much older than Rafe had expected. The professor was in excellent physical condition, but his hair was completely silver. There was a calm intelligence in his green eyes.

Rafe recalled Orchid telling him that she was the youngest of the Adams' three offspring, but he had not realized until he had met her much older brothers that she had been born several years after them. She must have come as a surprise in more ways than one, he refleeted. A rebellious romantic in a family of meta-zen-syn intellectuals.

"I've never seen a whole town designed by meta-zen-syn architects." Rafe munched a small cracker topped with minced, spiced aspara-cado and cheese. "It's interesting."

Edward chuckled as he came to a halt "That's the word my daughter uses when she's trying to be polite about a work of art she doesn't like."

"Useful word." Rafe glanced across the garden to where Orchid was chatting with Veronica and her new husband. "I must remember to thank her for it."

Edward continued to smile but his eyes held a father's watchful, probing expression. "I understand that you and Orchid met through an agency?"

"Yes, sir." Rafe smiled.

"A focus agency, I believe. You hired her for a routine assignment?"

So much for the fleeting hope that he might be able to pull off a small misunderstanding here the way he had at Alfred G.'s birthday party. "It wasn't exactly routine."

"Few things are where Orchid is concerned. She's always marched to a different horn-drum."

"I figured that out right off."

"Because you also march to a different beat?" Edward studied him with a shrewd gaze. "Perhaps that is why you are drawn to each other."

Rafe reminded himself that he was talking to a full professor of metaphysics with a specialty in synergistic theory. One had to be careful what one said around people like Edward Adams. They put things together in a hurry.

"Orchid and I have quite a lot in common," Rafe said easily.

"Is that a fact?"

"Yes, sir, it is."

"She tells me you're a strat-talent."

Rafe braced himself. "That's right."

Edward spread one hand on the round form of the sculpture as if he found the texture of the stone fascinating. "You and Orchid both have highly unusual para-profiles."

"Yes, sir."

"Because of those profiles, neither of you has been successfully matched yet by your respective matchmaking agencies."

"Like I said, Orchid and I have a lot in common."

Edward's eyes met his in a level man-to-man stare. "I suspect that, being a strat-talent, you've concluded that you're quite capable of finding your own wife."

Rafe contemplated the keen scrutiny in Edward's eyes and decided there was no point playing games with him.

"I don't have much choice. I think my marriage agency counselor has given up on me."

Instead of the immediate condemnation that was the only appropriate response to such a shocking announcement, Edward merely nodded. "I see. I was afraid of this."

"Afraid of what, sir?"

"You're a romantic, too."

Rafe nearly choked on the last bit of the canape. "Like hell."

Edward studied him for a long moment, but he did not respond. Instead, he turned to gaze out over the relentlessly tranquil view of Northville.

"I don't mind telling you that my wife and I have been somewhat concerned about Orchid's future," he said at last. "Ice-prisms are notoriously difficult to match properly."

"Yes."

"It's not as bad as it used to be," Edward said. "More research has been done on them in recent years. Orchid, herself, participated in one of the most significant studies."

"The ParaSyn project."

Edward frowned slightly. "You know of it?"

"She told me about it. The experience was not, I gather, a pleasant one for her."

"No." Edward sighed. "I can't understand what went wrong. ParaSyn is a first-class research center. Over the years the labs there have produced not only some groundbreaking research in the para-bio fields, they have also come up with some extremely profitable technical breakthroughs. I, myself, own stock in ParaSyn."

"So do I." A lot of it, Rafe added silently, thinking of the holdings in the Synergy Fund.

"Dr. Gilbert Bracewell, who is head of the research labs there, has done an outstanding job for nearly twenty years."

"I know."

"Orchid never fully explained why she and the other two research subjects quit the ice-prism project before it was completed. Nevertheless, a great deal was learned." Edward narrowed his eyes. "Some of that knowledge was used to help modify the Multipsychic Paranormal Personality Inventory and other syn-psych tools that are used by matchmaking agencies."

Rafe realized the very civil skirmish between himself and Edward was taking a dangerous twist. He marshaled his arguments carefully.

"That doesn't make up for the fact that there are very few ice-prisms around," Rafe said. "The agencies haven't had much opportunity to see how the new versions of the MPPI and the other para-profiling techniques actually work long term."

"Still, an agency match is always preferable to a non-agency match."

"This is an unusual situation." Rafe paused deliberately. "An agency marriage might carry as much risk for Orchid as an unmatched marriage."

"There is some risk in any marriage, of course. But logic and common sense indicate that an agency marriage stands a better chance of success than one contracted for, shall we say, old-fashioned reasons?"

"Is old-fashioned a polite meta-zen-syn term for primitive?" Rafe asked in his most polite voice.

"A student of meta-zen-syn comprehends that nature and human beings cannot be understood in terms of primitive versus sophisticated. Indeed, there is no such distinction to be made. What matters is the degree of balance and control individuals achieve over the synergistic forces that operate on both the physical and metaphysical plane."

"The struggle for balance and harmony governs all natural processes," Rafe quoted softly.

"Precisely. Perfect balance is never achieved. It is only a goal toward which the thoughtful person must continually struggle. Each individual must deal with a different set of synergistic forces within himself. Therefore the struggle takes different forms for all of us."

"I'm a businessman, not a philosopher. You're losing me here, Professor."

"On the contrary, I think you understand me very well." Edward's silver brows rose. "Orchid tells me that you are a very powerful strat-talent, but even if she had said nothing about your paranormal abilities, I would have known soon after meeting you that the synergistic forces of your nature are extremely strong. Yet you have achieved a very high degree of control over those forces."

"I like to think so. But just to be on the safe side, I try not to go out on nights when both moons are full."

To Rafe's surprise, Edward chuckled. Then his eyes grew solemn once more.

"I will be frank," he said. "It took my wife and myself considerable argument and, some might say, outright pressure, to persuade Orchid to register with a matchmaking agency last year. For her sake, we would very much prefer to give the agency process a chance to work."

"I understand there was already one screw-up."

Edward winced. "You know about Preston Luce?"

"Yes."

"That was—" Edward's gaze drifted across the crowd to where Preston Luce stood talking to another guest— "regrettable. I'm afraid it put Orchid off the matchmaking process entirely. She wasn't keen on it to begin with. I don't think it suits her romantic inclinations."

"How much longer do you think she ought to wait for Mr. Right to come through an agency?" Rafe asked softly.

"Another few months, at least."

Rafe's jaw tightened. "I see."

"You want her badly, don't you?"

In spite of his growing respect for Edward's savvy insight, Rafe was startled by the unexpectedly blunt question. "Is it your experience as a practitioner of meta-zen-syn that tells you I want her or are you just naturally intuitive?"

"It's my years of experience as a man and as a father that enables me to spot that particular expression in another man's eye," Edward retorted. "Trust me, if you ever have daughters of your own, you will develop the same kind of instincts."

Rafe grinned in spite of himself. "Sounds primitive."

"Oh, it is. Very."

There was a short silence. Rafe broke it first. "Will you change your attitude on this particular subject if a few more months go by without Orchid getting an agency date?"

"I may have no choice," Edward admitted. "But in the end, the choice must be Orchid's."

"On that point, we agree."

Edward examined the scene spread out below the garden for a long time. "You mentioned that you and my daughter had a lot in common."

"You mean besides our mutual inability to get an agency date?"

Edward did not smile at that. "Yes. What are those things, in your opinion?"

"Well, I've got to be honest and tell you that we don't share the same taste in poetry. But on the positive side, we both admire Later Expansion period architecture."

Edward groaned. "So terribly overwrought. Everything about it was designed to stimulate the emotions and arouse a sense of dark romanticism."

Rafe quirked a brow. "Your daughter does write romantic psychic vampire novels."

"True. And with some success." Edward's smile was rueful. "All I can tell you is that it doesn't come from my side of the family."

"She probably gets it from my side," Anna Adams said from behind Rafe. "I shouldn't admit it, but there is a wildly romantic streak in my branch of the family tree. It pops up from time to time no matter how hard we try to conceal it."

Rafe inclined his head. "Hello, Dr. Adams."

Orchid's mother was a few years younger than her husband but she, too, was older than Rafe had expected. Her once-dark hair was streaked with silver. She had the trim, lithe frame that characterized many of the other local meta-zen-syn practitioners.

"Is Edward grilling you, Rafe?" She smiled at nun as she came to a halt near her husband. "How very rude."

"It's all right, Dr. Adams. I understand. In his shoes, I'd do the same."

"Please, call me Anna." Her eyes gleamed with the same mischievous light that appeared in Orchid's gaze when she was amused. "Two professors in one family can be a bit confusing."

Rafe shrugged. "I'm used to it. Both of my parents are on the faculty of New Seattle University."

Edward shot him a quick, searching look. "Is that so?"

"Yes. Department of synergistic theory."

A thoughtful expression appeared in Edward's eyes. "Indeed?"

Instinct made Rafe suddenly search for Orchid again in the crowd. He saw that she was no longer talking to Veronica. Preston Luce had gotten her off by herself near a large reflecting pool at the far end of the garden.

"Mr. Stonebraker was just telling me about the things he believes that he and Orchid have in common," Edward said to Anna. "Thus far it seems to be limited to a taste for Later Expansion period architecture."

"I'm sure that's not all they have in common, dear." Anna gave Rafe a speculative look. "Isn't that so?"

"What?" Rafe concentrated on the tableau near the reflecting pool. "Oh, yeah. Right. A lot more in common. We both like to eat leftovers at three in the morning."

"Hardly the basis for a lasting relationship," Edward observed.

"You'd be surprised." Rafe started to step around Edward. "If you'll excuse me, I just remembered something I wanted to say to Orchid."

"Where is she?" Anna glanced around. "Oh, yes, I see her." As she gazed at the couple standing near the pool, a faintly troubled expression marred the serenity of her brow. "She's chatting with Dr. Luce."

Edward frowned. "Why would she want to talk to him?"

"He probably didn't give her much choice," Anna murmured. "I do hope there won't be a scene."

That comment made Rafe pause. "You think Luce might make a scene in the middle of a wedding?"

Anna's mouth quirked with humor. "Of course not. Preston Luce is much too diplomatic to cause a scene. It's Orchid who worries me."

"Orchid?"

"She's never really forgiven him for the manner in which she believes he used her to get himself introduced into the right circles here at the institute. I've always had the nasty suspicion that she would not pass up an opportunity for revenge should it happen to come her way."

"Anna, you exaggerate," Edward said firmly. "Orchid would never do anything to upset the synergistic harmony of Veronica's wedding day." But he did not look as certain as his words indicated.

"I'll be right back." Rafe started down the graveled path that would take him to the opposite end of the garden.

"Wait, there was, ah, one more thing I wanted to ask you," Edward called after him. "On the off chance that my daughter never gets another agency date—"

Rafe stopped. He turned slowly. "What's that?"

"It's a very old-fashioned kind of question." Edward smiled wryly. "I'm sure you'll understand. What, exactly, do you do for a living?"

"I'm happy to be able to tell you, sir, that I have a pretty good job lined up. Nice benefits, excellent retirement plan, the works. I start in two months."

"And just what is this job?"

"I'm going to be the new C.E.O. of Stonebraker Shipping."

Edward's jaw unhinged. Comprehension lit his eyes. "Good lord. Do you mean to say you're one of those Stonebrakers?"

"Close your mouth, dear," Anna murmured. "That unfortunate expression implies a lack of harmonious balance in the alignment of your personal synergy."

Rafe did not wait around to see if Edward got his mouth closed. He was too busy making his way toward the reflecting pool at the other end of the garden, where Orchid stood with Preston Luce.

Some of his most primitive instincts had gone to red-alert status.

Preston did not smell right. The realization made Orchid curious. He certainly did not smell bad. He was as freshly showered and groomed as all of the other guests.

The herbal scent of soap and the faint tang of an expensive after-shave were pleasant enough.

But he did not smell right the way Rafe did.

She wondered if frequent focusing for a powerful strat-talent had sharpened some of her own more basic instincts.

She did not find Preston's scent compelling, but she had to admit that he was as handsome as ever. And as well dressed. The cuffs of his white trousers draped flu-idly over his white shoes. The expensively styled white jacket was nipped in just enough at the waist to emphasize the physique he kept carefully honed with frequent meta-zen-syn workouts.

She suspected that Preston practiced meta-zen-syn because it was fashionable among the faculty of the North Institute, not because he had any real interest in achieving personal harmony. Nevertheless, he had a flair for the proper outward effect. The white turtleneck he wore under the white jacket added just the right meta-zen-syn touch. Simple, refined, classically balanced.

"It's good to see you again." Preston smiled his fallen-angel smile. "You haven't been around much during the past year. I've missed you."

"I doubt that," Orchid said. "I'm sure you've been much too busy securing grant money and climbing up the academic ladder at the North Institute to notice whether or not I was anywhere in the vicinity."

"Things have been going rather well." Preston had never seen any particular virtue in modesty. "I'm now an associate in the department of synergistic studies. In a couple of years I'll probably take over the department."

"I don't doubt that for a moment."

Preston sipped blue wine and shoved one hand casually into the pocket of his elegantly pleated white trousers. "I understand that your little psychic vampire novels have started to become rather popular."

She gritted her teeth at the condescension in his voice.

"I'm cautiously optimistic that I'll be able to make a living from my writing."

"I haven't read any of them myself."

"Somehow that does not surprise me."

"Tell you what. Why don't you give me one before you leave?" Preston winked indulgently. "I'll be glad to take a look at it when I have a chance and give you a critique."

"That's very magnanimous of you, but I'm afraid that you're operating under a totally false assumption, here, Preston."

"I beg your pardon?"

She gave him her brightest smile. "You're assuming I want or would value your opinion of my books. I don't and wouldn't. Besides, I doubt that you'd have time to read them."

Preston frowned as if vaguely baffled by the fact that the conversation was not going quite as he had planned. His expression cleared quickly, however. With his customary social adroitness, he shifted direction.

"You're right about the time factor. I have enough trouble just keeping up with the research literature and departmental memos. To say nothing of the time it takes to chase grant money."

"And heaven knows, seducing attractive new research assistants is practically a full-time occupation in itself, isn't it?"

Preston's fine brow furrowed briefly. He wanted something from her, Orchid thought. The fact that he did not find an excuse to end the conversation was a very big clue.

"And then there's the never-ending effort it takes to publish your assistants' work under your own name."

He scowled. "I publish the results of work performed under my direction. I have a right to put my name on those papers."

"And we mustn't overlook the amount of time you invest in discreet ass-kissing in order to get funding for your projects."

Preston reddened. "Now see here, I pull in a hell of a lot of grant money for the institute and don't you forget it. Grant money is the life's blood of research."

"And you use a little para-hyped charisma to get it, not your research credentials. You should have been a politician, Preston."

Preston's eyes darkened furiously. He took a step closer to her.

A few more inches, Orchid pleaded silently. You're almost at the edge of the pool. Just a teensy bit farther.

But just when she was hopeful that his temper would make him careless on the wet stones at the water's edge, Preston's face relaxed abruptly into an expression of gentle concern.

Orchid felt the pulse of psychic energy and knew that he was trying to use his talent on her. He was limited by the lack of a prism, but even without someone to help him focus, she knew that he could project very strongly for a few seconds at a time.

She took a step back. "Save it for the next corporate honcho you plan to ambush for grant money. I'll admit that a little punch of charisma-talent makes your suit and your teeth look really shiny and bright, but the effect doesn't last long on someone who knows you well, Preston."

"You're bitter," he said gently.

"No, actually, I'm pissed off at you."

"Because of what happened last year?"

"Because you used me, damn it. I know you faked your marriage agency registration papers. Or maybe you even went so far as to bribe my counselor at Affinity Associates."

"You can't prove that."

"That doesn't mean I don't know it's the truth."

"What makes you so sure?" he demanded.

"Because there's no way you and I could have ever been matched." She gave him a triumphant smile. "We don't have a single thing in common."

"Ah, now I understand what this is all about." Preston gave her a compassionate look. "You're jealous. You want me back."

"Are you crazy?" She broke off as she caught sight of Rafe coming toward her. Something about his long, gliding pace made her uneasy. She did not need to be any closer to him to feel the energy emanating from him. He was in a dangerous mood. She wondered if her father had grilled him.

Preston turned slightly to follow her gaze. His expression cleared. "Say, that's your friend Stonebraker, isn't it?"

The hastily concealed eagerness in his face answered one question, Orchid thought. Now she knew why Preston had sought her out this afternoon. He had wanted to get to Rafe. In his customary fashion, he had used her to accomplish his goal.

"I don't believe we've met." Preston put out his hand as Rafe came to a halt. "I'm Dr. Preston Luce. Associate professor in the department of synergistic studies here at the institute. I understand you're a friend of Orchid's."

Orchid felt more energy zap across the psychic plane, A jolt of high-powered charisma-talent hummed briefly in the atmosphere.

Preston's smile suddenly sparkled with enough warmth and charm to light up a dark room. Orchid noticed that Rafe seemed completely unaffected. Maybe strat-talent conferred some kind of immunity to charisma, she thought. After all, a hunter could not afford to be charmed by his prey.

"You wouldn't, by any chance be related to the Stonebrakers of Stonebraker Shipping, would you?" Preston asked ingenuously.

"Funny you should ask," Rafe said.

Orchid was alarmed by the low, baiting drawl of his voice. But before she could react, she sensed the stirring

of another strong talent on the metaphysical plane. Strat-talent this time.

"Oh, dear," she murmured.

Power shimmered, invisible and dangerous, in the air.

Preston frowned. Then he blinked and froze for an instant, a moose-deer caught in the headlights.

Orchid knew the feeling. She swiftly ditched her own simple plans for revenge. It was one thing to arrange for Preston to fall into a reflecting pool. That sort of thing could be passed off as an accident. A full-scale brawl in the middle of Veronica's wedding, on the other hand, was another matter altogether. Her parents would never forgive her.

She moved quickly to head off disaster. She planted one slender heel squarely on the toe of Rafe's black leather shoe.

"Rafe's grandfather is the current president and C.E.O. of Stonebraker Shipping," she said glibly. "Isn't that right, Rafe?"

"Yes." Rafe cut off the small Shockwaves of talent he had been projecting and eased his toe out from under Orchid's high heel. But he continued to gaze at Preston with the wistful expression of a hungry predator.

Preston blinked again, very rapidly, in apparent confusion. He shook his head and pulled himself together with a visible effort Orchid was almost certain that he did not realize what had happened.

He managed another suave smile. "Your grandfather. Let's see, that would be Alfred G. Stonebraker, I believe."

"He'll be stepping down in a couple of months," Rafe said. "I'll be taking control of the company."

Preston's eyes widened ever so slightly. Then they immediately narrowed in speculation. "Is that so?" "Yes," Rafe said. "That's so."

Orchid fixed Rafe with a determined look. "Time to mingle."

"You run along," Rafe said. "I'll join you in a minute. I want to have a little chat with Dr. Luce."

Orchid closed her eyes. Things were out of control. "Uh, Rafe, I don't know if that's such a good idea."

"Stonebraker's right," Preston said cheerfully. "Why don't you run along and let the two of us get to know each other."

"You don't know what you're doing here, Preston," Orchid warned.

"Of course I do." He waved her off. "Don't worry. I'll see you again before you leave."

He was prey at the watering hole, Orchid thought. Blissfully unaware of the predator sneaking up on him in the bushes. In any other circumstances, she would have been more than happy to leave him to his fate. But this was Veronica's wedding.

She gave Rafe a stern look. "No scenes. Think of the bride and groom."

"No scenes," he promised happily. "Much too primitive." He did not take his attention off Preston.

Orchid gave up. She turned away and hurried along the gravel path back toward the safety of the herd.

When she reached the main cluster of wedding guests she headed straight for the wine bar. She did not dare look back to see what was happening at the far end of the garden.

"What can I get for you, ma'am?" the waiter asked politely.

"A large glass of whatever is handy."

The young man glanced back toward the section of the garden where she had been a few minutes earlier. He studied the tableau of Preston Luce talking with Rafe. An expression of sympathy crossed his face. "Yes, ma'am."

He reached for a bottle of expensive champagne, poured a glass, and set it down in front of her.

Orchid heard the collective gasp of astonishment from the crowd just as she started to take the first sip. She cringed. She could only hope that Veronica would someday forgive her. She took a long, fortifying swallow of champagne and braced herself.

Then with a sense of deep fatalism, she turned. Everyone was staring at the scene taking place at the reflecting pool.

Rafe stood at the water's edge. From Orchid's vantage point it was impossible to see the expression on his face, but his posture radiated mild concern and helpfulness.

Preston staggered to his feet in the center of the shallow pool. His white suit was drenched and stained with mud. He ignored the hand Rafe extended toward nun.

As Orchid and the others watched, Preston splashed across the pool in the opposite direction and climbed out on the other side. He scrambled awkwardly over the low rock wall that surrounded the garden and disappeared in the direction of the parking lot.

No one laughed. That would have been very un-meta-zen-syn. The assembled faculty and staff of the North Institute were much too sophisticated for such behavior. But no one seemed very dismayed by Preston's accident. In fact, the murmur of conversation that went through the crowd sounded suspiciously cheerful to Orchid.

She waited with a stoic sense of inevitability as Rafe walked back toward the crowd of onlookers. She saw him pause here and there to answer questions.

As he drew nearer, she could hear what he was saying.

"He slipped and fell. The stones near the edge of the pool are wet. Got to be careful . . ."

When he reached her she saw the look of gleaming satisfaction in his eyes. He reminded her of a wolf-hound returning from the hunt with a rabbit-mouse to lay at its master's feet. Rafe's tongue did not actually loll out of the side of his mouth, but she could tell that it was firmly wedged in his cheek.

She was tempted to pat him on the head.

The waiter handed him a glass of blue champagne without waiting to be asked.

Rafe accepted the offering with a surprised nod. "Thanks."

"My pleasure." The waiter met his eyes. "Least I could do in exchange for the pleasure of seeing Professor Luce pick himself up out of that pond. Probably all of the revenge some of us will ever get."

Rafe looked politely interested. "Revenge?"

"I'm tending bar today to pick up some extra cash. But in my real life, I'm an assistant in Professor Luce's department at the institute. Last month he published a paper that summarized the results of a year's worth of my work in the Journal of Synergistic Theory. Didn't even put my name on the list of research assistants who contributed to the project."

"Hold on, here," Rafe said. "If you're implying that I deliberately tossed Luce into that pool, I assure you, it was an accident."

The waiter grinned. "Every student of meta-zen-syn knows that there are no true accidents." Without waiting for a response, he moved off down the bar to pour wine for another guest.

Out of the corner of her eye, Orchid saw her parents walking toward her. She leaned back against the edge of the bar and took another sip of champagne.

"An accident you say?" she murmured.

"He lost his balance and fell. Could have happened to anyone."

Orchid was suddenly absurdly pleased. "Preston did not fall into that pool by accident."

Rafe gave her a superior smile. "Remember North's Second Principle: The struggle for balance and harmony governs all natural processes."

Anna appeared at Orchid's side. She smiled serenely at Rafe.

"And in a shining illustration of that important principle," she said, "it would appear that Professor Luce just lost the struggle to maintain his synergistic balance."

Orchid was startled to see the undisguised satisfaction in her mother's eyes. "Mom?"

"Yes, I know dear. It's not very meta-zen-syn of me to take such pleasure in seeing Preston fall into a pond. But we all have our little lapses. Don't tell your father."

"I don't think Preston fell into that pond." Orchid glanced at Rafe. "I think he may have had a little help."

"Nonsense," Edward said as he strolled over to join the small group. "Your mother is right. Preston just got a sharp lesson in synergistic realignment. Isn't that so, Mr. Stonebraker?"

Rafe shrugged philosophically. "Like they say, synergy happens."


Chapter 15 | Orchid | Chapter 17



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