King grinned as he watched the couple making excuses for why they were late to the tough maître d’ he’d hired. Regardless of what they said, he could tell the real reason for the twenty-five minute delay from the way Peyton wouldn’t take his hand off of Doc’s back. While the uncharacteristically mellow Dr. Kyra Winters worked at charming his employee into letting them stay, Peyton was steadily drawing slow, sensual circles on her back with the fingertips of his human hand.
King shook his head, barely holding back his sigh of envy. Doc was quite the picture tonight in her lacy black dress. Plus the sharp, pointy black heels she wore made her look more female than ever. But just like his friend, Peyton Elliott, it was the real woman underneath those feminine clothes who he admired more than any other he’d known. Evicting cyborgs from their robotic hell was Doc’s full time job now. She faced angry converted men every day, yet kept going back the next. He could only imagine what her daily stress was like. At least Peyton’s fawning attention seemed to keep a smile blooming on her face.
Having finally gotten her way, he saw Doc turn a shy but victorious smile in her happy husband’s direction. Peyton’s wink of approval made her smile even wider. It was the only time in the history of their friendship where King knew for certain he didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of luring a woman away from his friend’s side. It was both the best thing and the worst thing he knew about their relationship.
His long legs ate up the floor space as he hurried across the polished gleam of its recovered stone surface. “I’ll seat them, Franco. Thank you. You’re incredibly late as usual, Peyton. Don’t you ever let this woman out of bed when she’s not working?”
Ignoring Peyton’s eye roll, King looked down at the beauty beaming up at him and smiled. “I have to say Doc, you’re looking especially gorgeous tonight. Why don’t you dump this guy and let a real man show you a good time?”
“You’re wasting your breath, King. Why would my wife trade in her custom made husband for an oversized rogue cyborg put together with mix and match parts?”
King grinned at the comments happy to have provoked Peyton’s jealousy.
“Because I could give Kyra a graceful life and you wouldn’t know refinement if it bit you on your tightly toned ass.”
Peyton frowned and narrowed his gaze. King picked up Doc’s hand pretending he was going to kiss her fingers, but instead used it to pull her to him so he could soundly kiss both cheeks. Her giggle of surprise—and pleasure—earned him a middle finger salute behind her back, something he hoped the rest of his wealthy patrons didn’t see.
“Kingston—this is your last and only warning. Get your hands off my woman before you need to have them replaced tomorrow.”
King belly laughed at the nearly genuine threat, bringing all eyes in the place to the three of them. “Doc would just see that I received better ones. Wouldn’t you, Gorgeous?”
Kyra shook her head. “Oh, no you don’t. Leave me out of your man-up debate with my husband. I just came to eat. What are you cooking tonight, King?”
King tucked her hand in the crook of his massive arm as he walked them to their table. “Honey, you have definitely come to the right place if you’re hungry. Tonight we have Louisiana fare: Shrimp and Grits or Crawfish Etouffee. If seafood doesn’t sound good, try the simulated filet mignon. Chef Tony perfected it this week. It’s got just the right balance of nutrients and I hear it tastes way better than most twentieth century simulated beef.”
“Please don’t be disappointed, but I don’t eat meat or seafood anymore,” Kyra said softly, working to look apologetic. “I gave up that kind of protein when I was in my forties. My body just doesn’t process it correctly.”
King turned loose of her at their table, put his hands on his hips, and sighed as dramatically as he could. “Well, that does it. Sugar, it will never work out between us. I can’t be fooling around with such a strict vegetarian. Do you at least eat vegetable protein?”
“If you can hide it in a lot of vegetables. I eat a lot of salads.”
At Kyra’s guilty head shake, King laughed and looked at Peyton. “You can keep her, Bro. I’m looking for a meat eater.”
Peyton punched King’s arm hard, but barely got a snort from his massive friend. “Don’t be insulting, Kingston. If my wife leaves your new restaurant hungry, I’ll light up your media presence with your culinary failure. My processor is lightning fast compared to your archaic one. I can hit every site in about ten seconds.”
“Fine. I’ll put in an order for a Kingston House Salad with extra tomatoes to hide the tofu,” King said, looking as dejected as he could fake doing. “What about you, Peyton? You want a salad too?”
“Hell no. I’ll take the largest serving of protein on your menu. And if it even vaguely resembles steak, I’ll kiss you.”
King snorted. “Kiss me? What would you do for the real thing?”
“Don’t make me debase myself for something I know will never be on your menu. I’ll only hate you for it later,” Peyton declared.
King grinned. “I’ll get the order in and have Jerry bring you over a couple glasses of wine. He recorded your preferences from the interview we collected with your reservation—unless you want something different than what was on it.”
They shook their heads no so he turned away toward the bar, but ended up looking straight into the face of a woman he never thought he’d see again.
“Hello, Kingston,” Annalise said. Having been trained to be polite, she smiled in apology at the couple he’d been talking to.
“Hello, Annalise. How wonderful it is to see you.” King lied as casually as possible, holding out his hand as his mind pulled her file from his data storage to review it.
Doc had pulled the Cyber Husband chip at his request, but he’d kept a copy of all the data stored on it. The well-preserved gray-haired beauty was Annalise Harrington. Heiress to several fortunes. She had been widowed twice from human males before she’d bought him. She was the mother of three and grandmother of four. She liked tea at precisely at four pm in the afternoon. She was also a master gardener. Her tomatoes won awards every year.
“How did the tomatoes turn out? I’m sorry I never got to see them,” King said, nearly meaning it. Annalise had been kind to him…and not asked him for anything physical…which is why he could be kind back. Since his restoration, he had developed his own system of rating the past events he pulled from storage. His memories of her were neutral.
Did she answer about the tomatoes?
Like all the many other times he recalled doing it for his wives, he lifted Annalise’s fingers and placed a chaste kiss across her knuckles. “I’m sorry if you were inconvenienced by my departure, but I must confess that I am happy to be free again.”
Annalise pulled her hand gently from his. “As odd as it might seem based on what you know about me, I am happy for that as well, Kingston. I also know others who would be happy too—if they only knew. I hate to intrude on your evening, but may I talk to you privately for a minute? I promise I didn’t come to make a scene in your new restaurant. In fact, I’m very happy to see you adjusting to your new circumstances so gracefully. It doesn’t surprise me at all. You’re one of the most adaptable men I’ve ever met.”
Shocked out of his typical unflappability by her words of praise, King did what he vowed he would never do again. He referenced the Cyber Husband help files for a polite and proper response to his previous wife. He feared trying to come up with something original when his surprise was so great.
“It would be my pleasure to talk with you, Annalise. Excuse me while I turn an order in to the kitchen. I’ll be right back.”
Annalise nodded and headed back to her table. Peyton gave him a questioning look, but he shook his head before walking toward the kitchen. Ignoring the smiling faces of his other customers, King moved at a fast clip, not wanting to stop progress. Task done, he headed back to Annalise’s table more slowly, unsure of what he would say to her once he got there. He consulted his files once more and stopped to ask Jerry to send over a glass of Annalise’s favorite wine.
At the table, Annalise smiled at him and held out a hand indicating he should sit in one of the remaining empty seats.
“King—thank you for your time. I’ll rush through this explanation so you can get back to taking care of your business. Now that you’re a…free man…I think it’s time you learned how you came to be with me. You see…I…oh dear, this is not at all easy to admit. Before you were my Cyber Husband, you belonged to my daughter. Seetha gave you up because…well because she…”
“Seetha?” King automatically searched his files for the name. It was barely there. Seetha Harrington. Calibration Engineer. All other data erased. He shook his head at the strange dead end to his curiosity. He quickly scanned back to his first two husband contracts. The information was still there for those women. Why was only one wife erased? And who erased them?
“I found your daughter’s name in my storage, but that’s all I could find. Do you know why all the information about her was erased?” King demanded.
“Yes. Because she…because she…” Annalise released a sigh at having to be the one to tell him. She crumpled the cloth napkin in her nervous hands.
King automatically put his hand over hers to still her movements. “Just tell me.”
“Seetha fell in love with you and believed you loved her back. She fought a long and expensive legal battle for nearly the entire seven years she kept you with her. In that whole time, she refused to let you be upgraded. The more memories you made with her…well, the more normal you seemed to be. Then in the seventh year of her contract, Seetha lost her right to decide what was best for you cybernetically.”
King snorted. “Upgrades—otherwise known as cyborg oblivion.”
“Yes. Exactly. Having declared you malfunctioning because of your unusually loving responses to Seetha, Norton took you back to investigate the reasons when they won. We don’t know everything they did, but for sure they upgraded your processor. In the process of changing the core of what you were, they purposely erased all seven years of your time with Seetha. Because she still technically owned your contract, they returned you to her. You looked at her like a stranger, barely knowing her. Seetha simply…well, she unraveled. To her, it was like the real you—the version of you she knew and loved—had died.”
King shook his head. It was like hearing a story about someone other than himself. Annalise pulled a photo from her handbag and slid it across the table. When he picked it up, he saw himself standing next to a beaming chocolate-skinned woman. There was no recollection of the moment or any recognition of the female. But in the picture he was smiling widely…and it didn’t seem fake. He related to the happiness he saw on his own face. He just didn’t remember the cause of it.
“So the woman standing next to me is your daughter?” he asked.
“Yes, and I know you’re thinking she doesn’t look a thing like me. It’s because Seetha was adopted,” Annalise said quietly. “She’s not my birth child, but make no mistake, she is very much my daughter. My other two are biological, but Seetha is the child of my heart.”
“I sincerely don’t remember her at all, but there’s nothing wrong with my eyes. Your daughter is a very beautiful woman, just like her mother.”
King watched Annalise nod at his compliment, but stress wrinkled her forehead. According to his records, she had always responded well to personal compliments about her appearance.
“Yes, Seetha is beautiful…on the inside as well as the outside. She said the upgraded you was worse than starting over with a stranger. She said she could not go back to being nothing more to you than your latest bed partner. At her angriest, Seetha declared Norton had killed the version of you that had been hers.”
King shook his head. “I don’t remember anything.”
Annalise nodded. “I know you don’t. After she returned you to Norton, she withdrew from the family…and me. Seetha doesn’t know I bought you, but I couldn’t let you end up being used poorly by some callous rich woman. You were part of my family when you were with Seetha. I still consider you part of it…even if you don’t remember.”
King laid the photo down on the table again. He blinked, consulted her file, but found nothing helpful for this situation. “I don’t know what to say, Annalise. What did you expect from me? No, that’s not what I meant to ask. Damn it—I think I’m in shock. Excuse my language. My body temperature and respiration are suddenly erratic. My cybernetics tend to have blips when I get this emotional.”
“It’s okay to express yourself with me any way you want,” Annalise said firmly. “I choose to believe your strong reaction is because we still matter to you on some level…at least a little. It also tells me I was right to trust you with the truth.”
King rubbed a hand over his face, something he’d seen Peyton do frequently. He wanted to tell Annalise he couldn’t help her or her family…and part of him didn’t want to help. But some other part caused a nauseous feeling in his gut when he thought about refusing. Kyra said he deserved to seek as much closure as he needed about any part of his life. Right now he certainly needed to know Annalise’s daughter hadn’t gone off the deep end because of what Norton did to him. He had started over, just like she’d intended. Now she needed to start over too.
Did Annalise ask him to see the daughter? Or was that debate just going on inside his head? The startling information had given him so much to think about he’d lost track of their conversation.
“Don’t you think seeing me again might be forcing a cruelty on her, Annalise? It would bad if your daughter got her hopes up about my relationship to her since I’m never likely to recall the missing information. Even if I did magically get the erased info back, the Cyber Husband files don’t have any human emotion attached to any of them. It’s like reading research information about someone. When I was with your daughter, I was nothing more just a series of AI programs running. Every answer I have ever made to any wife was pulled from a help file with thousands of polite phrase choices meticulously coded by some sensitive cyber geek at Norton.”
“I hear what you’re saying, Kingston. I’ve read all about it. Your relationship with Seetha started out logical and formal…and just as impersonal as you describe. It started out just like ours did when you came to me. But I’m telling you Kingston, that’s not the full reality. After six or seven months with her, you started to radically change. While I don’t have any proof outside of a few pictures I rescued from the trash, I would bet my entire fortune you had genuine feelings for my daughter. No one will ever convince me differently. With her you were always more than just a cyborg programmed to please her.”
King’s mind whirled. How could he figure out what to do? Despite Peyton’s brags about his processor being superior, his own sifted through all his Cyber Husband files with lighting speed. Since he had only been contracted four times, it was not very difficult. He ran through them repeatedly, changing just one variable each time. On one pass, he decided to stop at each wife file and just catalog his human body reactions to acknowledging its existence.
That’s how he found the blip on Seetha’s. Sweaty palms. Nervous stomach. Anger.
The last reaction checked him up because it was illogical even though it felt very real. The data about Seetha had been erased. How could his human side be angry over what he didn’t remember? Why would any part of him care that it had been erased? He did not remember the woman, not even her photo jogged anything.
He ran the same check again on all four files and got the same result…with one exception. Each time he ran the check, the sensation of being angry got a little sharper. Of course it could be just trepidation. As he and Peyton had discussed many times, anger was a portal emotion for cyborgs. Behind it lurked a reality which was nearly always shocking.
So many good things had happened to him since he was restored, the restaurant just to name one big one. That didn’t mean he had no awareness of the bad following him around, like the ongoing distrust the world carried for all of his kind. Regardless of the outcome, he wanted to know all of his realities, no matter how much they carried the potential for more pain.
And right now, he wanted to know with his mind what caused his body to get upset over nothing more than a placeholder file and a name.
“No matter how many times I watch you freeze up to think, I still find it alarming. Perhaps I’m just nervous because last time you did it, you left for good. You can’t know how relieved I was to see your name listed as one of the restored cyborgs. I was more thrilled when you created social media to talk about the restaurant. I knew then I could find a way to talk to you.”
King looked at Annalise. Her genuine concern for him as well as her daughter was in her kind expression. How could he be unkind back? He concluded he couldn’t with feeling like he had done something wrong. Knowing he’d done the right thing by both Harrington women was probably going to be worth a little drama and a lost afternoon of his time. So he’d talk to the daughter—figure out the anger thing—then they could both go on with their lives.
“Okay. I’m willing to at least talk to her. Where is Seetha now?”
Annalise swallowed hard, frowning as she held his curious gaze. “I don’t know. That’s why I’m really here, Kingston. I was hoping you’d help me find her.”