Orchid smiled when her cousin, Veronica Adams, walked through the door of the restaurant. The effect on the other diners was predictable. She turned every head.
It was not just the fact that Veronica was a very blonde, very attractive woman who moved with the kind of grace and poise that captured attention. It was her stark white attire and her aura of serene composure that drew the eye.
Veronica was a Northviller, a member of the intellectually oriented Northville Community, and a devoted practitioner of the esoteric arts of the system of synergistic meditation and exercise known as meta-zen-syn.
Northville and the North Institute, the academic research center associated with it, were a two-hour drive from New Seattle. Both the community and the think tank were named for Patricia Thorncroft North, the philosopher who had set down the three principles of synergy. Everyone who lived in Northville worked directly or indirectly for the institute.
Almost everyone in Northville wore white except at their own weddings or funerals.
The North Institute attracted the most brilliant scientific and philosophical minds from the three city-states of New Vancouver, New Seattle, and New Portland. Over the years, it had developed a reputation for research and development in the field of synergistic theory that was second to none. It ran on corporate funds, private endowments, and grant money. The institute operated its own education system for the children of the academics who worked in the think tank.
Many of the people who were affiliated with the institute inevitably were attracted to the philosophical tenets of meta-zen-syn. The meditation exercises had great cachet with the intellectual crowd.
Orchid knew all about the think tank, its school system, and meta-zen-syn. She had been raised in Northville. Her parents were on the research staff at the institute. Her two older brothers had both pursued careers there.
Everyone had assumed that she would join the institute, marry, and raise another generation of Adams Northvillers. Instead, she had turned her back on her heritage and, at the age of twenty, she had fled to New Seattle to carve out a different life for herself.
In typical meta-zen-syn fashion, her family had accepted her decision, but Orchid still suffered occasional pangs of guilt. She was, after all, the first Adams in three generations to leave Northville.
The maitre d' rushed forward to pull out the chair across from Orchid. He had not made such a grand production out of seating her a few minutes earlier, Orchid reflected. The effect of a stylish white suit, white scarf, and a pair of white heels was amazing.
Orchid was suddenly very conscious of her own faded jeans, rumpled jacket, black T-shirt, and loafers. She never had quite gotten the hang of wearing white. Five minutes after she put it on there was a spot somewhere on the front. It was almost a synergistic law of nature.
Nevertheless, she was happy to see her cousin.
"Hi, Veronica. How's the wedding shopping going?"
"Finished, thank goodness." Veronica smiled as she took her seat. "I must say, I had no idea that getting married would be so complicated. I'll be glad when it's all over."
"Only one more week to go."
The waiter materialized at the table. He whipped out his notepad and looked respectfully at Veronica.
"The fresh aspara-cado salad, please," Veronica said. "Dressing on the side. And a bottle of Baker-Hood spring water."
"Yes, ma'am." The waiter turned to Orchid.
"I'll have the salmon-tuna burger, extra mayo and extra relish, a large order of fries, and a jelly-cola, please," Orchid mumbled.
"Sorry," the waiter paused, pencil poised. "I didn't catch that. Did you say a large order of fries and a jelly-cola?"
Orchid felt herself turn red. She glared at the waiter. "That's right. And don't forget the hot sauce for the fries."
"Got it." The waiter shoved the notepad into the waistband of his black trousers. "Be right back, ladies."
He turned and sped off toward the kitchen.
Veronica regarded Orchid with a knowing eye. "What's wrong?"
Orchid grimaced. "How do you know something's wrong?"
"Don't be silly. We grew up together. Sometimes I think I know you better than your own parents do." Veronica's eyes filled with sympathy. "Is it the marriage registration thing? Have you had a call from your agency?"
Orchid rolled her eyes. "Of course not. I haven't had an agency date since I got matched with Preston Luce last year. And I'm sure that was not a real date. I'm almost positive that Preston rigged it."
"I still don't see how he could have done it." Veronica frowned. "He would have had to know the results of the multipsychic paranormal personality inventory you took when you registered as well as every detail of your para-profile. How could he have gotten that kind of information? It's all confidential."
"I think I've figured out how he did it." It had taken her a while to come up with a scenario that explained how Dr. Preston Luce had managed to get himself matched with her, but Orchid was convinced she had arrived at a probable explanation.
"Are you sure you're not just being a little paranoid here?" Veronica asked. "As good as the matchmaking process is these days, mistakes do happen once in a while. Fortunately, they almost always get corrected before things have gone too far."
"It wasn't my counselor at Affinity Associates who figured out that Luce was a sneaky, low-down, conniving little worm-snake. I was the one who realized after three dates that he only wanted to use me to get himself introduced into the right circles in Northville. And that's just what he did."
"Now, Orchid, you don't know that for certain."
"Yes, I do. And when I refused to go out with him again, he told my parents that he was heartbroken. Claimed he was willing to wait for me to come to my senses. They actually believed him for a while, even though I warned them that he was a user."
"Preston can be very charming."
"Of course he's charming." Orchid narrowed her eyes. "Sucker is a high-class charisma-talent, I'd bet my next royalty check on it. By the time my folks realized that he wasn't the nice guy he made himself out to be, it was too late. He had gotten himself hired into the department of synergistic studies at the institute."
"I'll admit that now that I've known him for a few months, I'm very glad you didn't marry him," Veronica said slowly. "I don't think he's very popular with his research assistants, either. But there's no denying that he earns his keep at Northville."
"You mean he brings in the grant money."
Veronica chuckled wryly. "Never underestimate the power of a person who can pull in large corporate grants. The North Institute is an ivory tower. Those of us who live in it like to pretend we're above such grubby, mundane concerns. But everyone knows that it takes cold, hard cash to run the place."
Orchid sighed. "And whatever else he is, Preston Luce is a rainmaker."
"That he is. He landed two more major corporate sponsors just last month. Luce is golden at the institute."
Orchid wrinkled her nose as the waiter returned with a tray. "I suppose he'll be at the wedding?"
"Of course." Veronica paused while her salad was placed carefully in front of her. "You know how it is at the institute. It's a small world. One can hardly exclude a high-ranking member of the research faculty from a guest list."
"I guess not." Orchid eyed her platter of hot, greasy fries with moody resignation. "I'm not looking forward to seeing him, but don't worry. I won't make a scene."
"It never crossed my mind that you would." Veronica drizzled one tiny spoonful of dressing over the artfully arranged greens on her plate. "I know it's never easy for you to come back to Northville and Preston being there will only make it more awkward for you than usual."
Orchid bit into her dripping salmon-tuna burger. "I can handle it."
"I'm sure you can. But I know it will be a strain for you."
Orchid shrugged. Veronica was right. Going home was always a source of tension for her and it was getting more difficult as the years went by. All of the kids who had been her classmates in school had gone on to get advanced degrees and doctorates in various fields related to synergistic theory. Most had taken prestigious positions at the institute. Almost all of them were married and had started their families.
In a world where getting married was considered a social and moral obligation as well as a serious family responsibility, she had not even managed to find a husband.
When you got right down to it, Orchid thought, all she had done thus far in life was publish three psychic vampire romance novels. As accomplishments went, by Northville standards, that did not add up to much.
Returning to Northville was a little like going back to a high school reunion and discovering that you were the only failure in the class, she reflected. The fact that everyone believed that she had rejected a legitimate match with Preston Luce simply because she liked to rebel only made things worse.
Veronica looked thoughtful. "You know what you ought to do?"
"What?" Orchid asked around a mouthful of burger.
"Bring an agency date to the wedding."
Orchid nearly choked. "Are you kidding?"
"I'm serious. It would make things so much easier for you."
Orchid slowly put down her burger. "Veronica, I just told you, I haven't had a single call from my marriage agency since my counselor tried to match me with Preston."
Orchid scowled, exasperated. "To put it bluntly, I can't get a date. At least, not an agency date and, at my age, that's the only kind that counts."
Veronica smiled her serene smile. "You've got friends. Bring one of them along and pass him off as an agency date."
Orchid stared at her, goggle-eyed. "I can't believe you just said that. Bring a fake date to your wedding?"
"I'm already having anxiety dreams. I don't need any more problems, thank you very much."
Veronica frowned in concern. "Anxiety dreams? Why?"
Orchid pushed a fry through some hot sauce. "Probably because ParaSyn contacted me again. I got a letter from them a few days ago. They want me to return for a follow-up to that ice-prism study I was involved with three years ago."
"The one you walked out on because the researchers wanted you to focus for some criminally insane talents?"
"Yeah, that's the one." Orchid shuddered.
The psychic talents Dr. Gilbert Bracewell, the head of ParaSyn, had asked her to focus had not been just mentally disturbed. They'd had violent criminal tendencies. She had recoiled from the darkness in them. Morgan Lambert and Theo Willis had also been repulsed by the researchers' desire to see if ice-prisms could handle such deeply disturbed mental patients.
It was Orchid who had led the small revolt that had resulted in the termination of the project. She had walked out of ParaSyn in the middle of the study. Morgan and Theo had followed.
"I hated that place," Orchid said. "The last thing I'd ever do is go back for some stupid follow-up research."
"What about the other two ice-prisms who were part of that study?"
"I'm still friends with Morgan Lambert." Orchid put down her half-eaten fry, her appetite suddenly gone. "But I heard yesterday that Theo Willis died in a car crash recently. They say he drove himself off a cliff. Apparent suicide."
"Theo was not what you'd call a friend. I don't think he had any friends. But he and I and Morgan sort of bonded during our experience at ParaSyn. He was a little weird. Maybe even crazy. But, hey, he was an ice-prism, just like me. Everyone knows we're not exactly normal."