Chapter 23

I wasn't expecting Finnick Odair. Not once did I ever imagine that a person like him even existed...let alone would waltz through the door at exactly eight in the morning the next day and strut in his fancy suit down the hall with no more than his cane swinging out in front of him to guide him as he brushed aside Mrs. Paylor's aid. I was standing halfway down the staircase as he passed with my mouth wide open in awe.

He paused just beside the stairs and turned slightly my way. "Why Mrs. Mellark, you aren't wearing perfume. How scandalous."

I hadn't yet found my voice as he continued on to meet an unsuspecting Peeta in the library. During our meeting with Dr. Aurelius, it had been implied that he would be the one teaching Peeta. The idea of a kind, scholarly teacher seemed right. Mr. Odair, on the other hand, seemed like a real snake oil salesman. I didn't trust him and I doubted, especially after his little comment the day before over tea, that Peeta did either. I balled my fists on either side of me and frowned after him uselessly for all I was worth.

Peeta didn't want me too involved in his rehabilitation. In a way, I could respect that. I was no stranger to the suffocating need to stand on your own when it seemed that the earth was crumbling beneath your feet. Still, it was hard to go from being so central in his life and his daily routine to not being "needed" anymore. I didn't want him to have to depend on me, but I kind of liked that he needed something I had to offer. Was that such a wrong thought? Well, it felt like it was. I literally had to force my legs to carry me away from the library and to the front drive where a car was waiting for me.

I think it may have been a sign of just how desperate I was at the time that I actually was relieved when Effie's driver came to pick me up for brunch at her house. Sitting in her fussy dining room eating off of china with golden rims and delicate little flowers somehow felt more relaxing than anything had since I arrived in Pittsburgh. At least I knew what Effie expected of me—even if I failed to meet most of those expectations. I greedily drank my third cup of coffee with the knowledge that my hostess would probably comment on it, but she didn't.

Instead, Effie filled my cup from the silver pot and smiled widely. "I really wasn't certain you'd make it today, dear," she said finally, looking away.

"Why not?" I asked, taking a larger bite of toast than I knew was proper.

"Oh, I don't know. It seems once people in this family get back to the real world, they tend to forget about me," Effie sighed heavily. "Matthew has lived in this city for almost nine years now and only made it to dinner once. Of course, our paths cross at one function or another quite frequently, and I suppose for him that is enough time with his meddling aunt. And Peeta—well, he was at school for so long and then the war. I really can't fault either of them." She hurried up and took a sip of her coffee, seemingly stopping herself from saying more.

"I know Peeta missed you when we were back home," I half-lied. Peeta loved his aunt; that much I knew for sure.

Effie let out an airy laugh. "You really don't have all that far to go before you're ready for next Friday night after all."

"Next Friday night?" Dread filled my stomach.

"Didn't my nephews tell you?" She blinked in surprise. "I am hosting a small dinner party at Matthew's request—you know, just a few close friends—to celebrate Peeta's homecoming and your wedding. There will only be about twenty or so people coming, but most of them are quite influential. Why, there will be the Van Hautes and the Masons..."

I stopped listening as she continued on about each family or couple that would be coming. A dinner party? I had barely gotten used to eating in a real dining room and eating full meals. More often than not, I put my elbows on the table and forgot which fork was for which course. I had never thought for a second that I would actually be expected to attend something like this.

"And that is why we are going shopping today," Effie announced, breaking my train of panicked thought.

"What? Shopping?"

"You seem awfully distracted today, Katniss. Is everything alright?" she asked with a slight frown.

"Just fine," I murmured, feeling numb.

Shopping with Effie turned out to be a full-fledged campaign that any general would admire. She took on the boutiques like we were laying siege to a castle. First, it was a shop nearest to her home in Shadyside. It wasn't as high class as I was expecting, but I soon found out what drew Effie to them. The exteriors were rather plain and ordinary looking amongst the rows of brick and stone wedged side-by-side, but the wares were high quality that even I could see. Effie was immediately greeted enthusiastically by the proprietress and the two began speaking in another language at a rapid fire pace. Before I knew it, I was being whisked behind a changing screen by a woman with a heavy accent.

"Do not be shy, ma cherie. Let Madame Portia teach you how to dress like la grand belle you are," she said dramatically as she took my hands into hers.

"You're Madame Portia?" I asked, biting my lip.

"Oui." She smiled at me as if I was an idiot and barked out an order in French. As she turned to leave, she looked back at me with a cat like gleam in her eyes. "You and I are going to be good friends."

We left almost two hours later with so many boxes that Effie's driver couldn't even fit them all into the car. Madame promised to have the rest delivered later in the week. There were so many gowns, skirts, dresses, and blouses that I doubted I would ever need to shop again. Still, I knew better than to hope we were done because we weren't even out the door before Effie began listing off all of the things I still needed. In the end, we visited a total of seven shops and scheduled no less than thirteen deliveries to be made later in the week. I didn't even want to know how much money we had spent. In Effie's opinion, we had been quite frugal and hadn't even come close to the sum Peeta had alotted her for the day's spending.

My head felt like it was going to cave in on itself by the time I was headed back to Matthew's house at the end of the day. All I wanted was to change into a pair of pants and disappear into the dense cover of the forest, but I was a long way from the wilderness. I would have given anything at that moment for just a bit of home—for Mellark House and for Prim, Doc, and Nola. I didn't think much of prayers at the time, but little that did I know that, in a way, mine were about to be answered.

As we pulled into the drive, I noticed a familiar form trimming the hedge. Thresh was hard at work with sweat pouring down his face in the hot sun. He was dirty and probably stinking, but I had to stop myself from hugging him. We might not be particularly close, but he was a part of home. He looked up at me casually from his work. "Afternoon, Miss Katniss," he said, wiping his brow with a handkerchief.

"I thought you'd gone to Philadelphia."

He shook his head. "Mr. Matthew thought there might come some times when Mr. Peeta might need me."

"They should have let you go home," I said, suddenly feeling very sad that, like me, he was on his own. "I'm sure we could have gotten by without you, and I know Nola and Rue must miss you."

"You're probably right. I expect there are a lotta things that folks get by without, but jus' because you can get by without somethin' doesn't mean you wouldn't be doin' better with it at hand," he told me with a sharpness in his eyes that about made me squirm. "I'll be here when Mr. Peeta needs me—and for you, too, Miss Katniss."

I swallowed hard and nodded. "Thank you."

Thresh's gaze suddenly darted to a pair of women standing on the sidewalk. They stared at us with ice cold eyes, but it didn't occur to me exactly what they were finding wrong. Thresh wasn't nearly as naive.

"Yes, Ma'am. I be real sure to cut 'em jus' how you likes this time," he said loudly, dropping his gaze to his shoes. I opened my mouth to ask just what the hell he was doing, but then I noticed the satisfied expressions of the old biddies. Rage boiled in my blood, and it must have shone in my eyes.

"Jus' go on inside, Miss Katniss. Don't let it bother you," Thresh whispered, still not looking up from the ground.

Don't let it bother me? I wanted to scream. How could I not let it bother me? Those old cows should burn in Hell. Thresh was my friend. I didn't see a color when I thought of him, or Nola, or Rue. It sickened me that people could treat him like he was less than human, not even worth talking to on equal terms. In fact, I was so angry that I was numb as I walked to the house just like he told me to. I hoped I never saw those women again.

Back inside, I stared down the hall at the closed door to the study. I wondered if they were done or whether I would be interrupting. Then it hit me: I had just been told, in one manner of speaking, what I could or could not do since before the wedding and that was enough. "To hell with it," I muttered as I stormed down the corridor.

With a determined grimace, I opened the door expecting to find them pouring over a book. Instead, they were sitting on either sides of a small table moving pieces across a board. The strange thing, though, was that Peeta had his neck tie wrapped over his eyes. Feeling curious, I took a cautious step toward them, using my lightest hunting steps.

"So what did you do when he found you?" Peeta asked once Mr. Odair had taken his turn.

"Oh, I told him that I had absolutely no idea that I had stumbled upon his wife's boudoir, nor that she was sprawled naked on the bed until I had stumbled in it," the teacher replied with a self-amused chuckle. "He then had to choose between being gullible or cuckold by a blind man. Apparently, it's less degrading to be an idiot."

Peeta laughed and reached for the board, feeling each piece before his hands found the one that he was looking for and then traced the carved lines that bordered the spaces. I had to admit that the board itself was a bit ingenious. Chess was a pastime that I had assumed was lost to the blind from the start, but I was starting to realize that maybe there was more for Peeta to learn than I had supposed.

"One of the first rules of etiquette when dealing with the blind, Mrs. Mellark," Mr. Odair drawled, barely cocking his head to my position, "Is to always announce yourself when you enter a room. Sneaking around makes one wonder what exactly it is you're hiding."

"Katniss," Peeta called out cheerily with a smile that was nothing short of brilliant.

Despite my husband's warm greeting, heat flooded my cheeks. "How did you know it was me and not Mrs. Paylor?" I demanded childishly.

"She walks like a servant: quiet, quick steps that come and go with purpose. You, on the other hand, were fairly loud coming down the hall until you reached the door. It wasn't until you were curious that you decided to lighten your step," he answered, still smirking.

"I didn't hear her at all," Peeta marveled.

"Like I told you earlier, Peeta, it isn't your hearing that needs to improve, but your listening. Part of what I'm going to teach you is how to take the thousands of little clues around you and turn them into a picture, so to speak. Now, for instance, I'd like you to tell me about the room we're in," he commanded, sounding for the first time to me like he actually was teaching.

Peeta's shoulders shrank just a bit. "Well, I don't remember much of what it looked like from before. The wood was dark cherry...I think."

"If I wanted to know what the room looked like, I would have asked the only person in this room with two fully functioning eyes," Mr. Odair told him pointedly. "I asked you to tell me about this room. There is much more to a description than just how a place or person looks. From what you can tell now, which side of the house are we on?"

"I don't know. The west, maybe?" Peeta half-answered, half-asked.

Mr. Odair looked satisfied enough by the reply. "How do you know?"

"It feels like the sun has been getting warmer on this side of the room since we've been in here."

I kept silent as Mr. Odair led Peeta step-by-step through providing a pretty darn accurate layout of the room using their remaining senses. It was a pretty impressive process, and each detail made me a bit more proud of what Peeta was learning to do. For example, the clock in the room had a rather loud tick that came from the south end of the room—using the windows to establish the cardinal direction—and echoed off of the hardwood flooring, which indicated that it was higher off of the ground. From that, they learned two things: first that it was safe to assume that the clock was on the mantle, thus above a fireplace, and second that the room was quite large. To me, it was just a small ticking but to the well-tuned ears of a blind person, the clock was a valuable landmark.

"That's amazing," I said when they had finished their deductions.

Mr. Odair shrugged arrogantly. "Given time, figuring things like that out can become second nature—almost as easy as opening your eyes. Speaking of which, Peeta, you can untie the blindfold. We're done for the day."

"Thank God," Peeta sighed, not needing anymore prompting to free what remained of his vision. "I can't imagine spending the rest of my life in complete darkness." Immediately, he stilled and opened his mouth to amend his faux-pas, but Mr. Odair gave him no chance.

"I can think of far worse fates," he commented without a trace of bitterness. "It's been so long that I don't even remember what it's like to see anything at all."

"How long have you been blind?" I asked boldly.

"That's an awfully bold question for someone I'm not even on a first name basis with." With a roguish grin, he leaned back in the chair like a king. "Call me Finnick."

"I'm sorry if I offended you, Finnick," I grumbled. Whatever good will had been building toward him had faded away.

"No offense taken, Katniss," he assured me. "I was five when I came down with a very high fever. In the morning I started out with a bit of a headache, by the next evening, I was near comatose. When I woke four days later, I was completely blind."

"That must have been terrible for you as a child," I murmured softly. Just the thought of a small child waking up in total darkness made my stomach clench. I knew pity was the wrong thing to feel right then, but it hit so suddenly that I had to actually force it away. Finnick didn't deserve my pity—not one single ounce of it. He didn't feel sorry for himself, I didn't think, so why should I? He didn't just live independently, he was teaching others to do it, too.

Finnick shrugged. "In some ways, it's easier for a child" He reached into his pocket and pulled out his watch, running his fingers across the face of it. "And on that note, I promised that I would be back in time to read to some of the younger children after dinner time. We can't leave off with poor Jim still in the apple barrel, now can we?"

After Finnick was gone, Peeta and I stayed behind in the study not saying much of anything. I watched as he turned one of the knights over and over again in his hands for what seemed like forever. A look of such deep concern was etched on his face that I didn't really know what to make of it. From what I could tell, he was off to a good start with his lessons and Finnick turned out to not be the complete cad that I'd thought he was. I couldn't imagine what had Peeta so detached.

"I asked Finnick to come back to the summer house with us," he told me finally. "You wouldn't believe the amount of money I offered him to do it, but he said no. I'm sorry."

"Don't be. I agreed to come with you," I reminded us both.

Peeta nodded. "You did, but I never imagined you'd be as miserable here as you are."

"I'm not miserable."

"Please don't lie to me." His eyes moved over the outline of my face nervously. "You haven't even sounded like yourself since we've been here. This is all my fault and I know it, and I feel terrible because even knowing how unhappy you are, I'm still glad to be here."

I sighed and wrapped my arms around my waist. "I'm not made for dinner parties and ball gowns."

"I never asked you to change," he said sadly.

"But if I am going to be your wife, I need to."

"Why?" he asked, holding out his hands.

I instinctively put my hands in his and somehow just that little bit of touch made me feel better. "I don't want to embarrass you."

"And when have you ever cared about what people thought?"

"When it hurts you."

Peeta tightened his hold on my hands. "Listen to me very carefully because I am only going to tell you this once: You are my wife because I love you for who you are, not who anyone else wants you to be. I know that with my disability, people are going to look differently at me now, and you are the one who taught me that I am enough just the way I am. I wish you could see that in yourself. So maybe a few eyebrows are going to be raised here and there? Do you think they have the power to hurt me more than knowing that you are miserable and putting on a face for their benefit?"

"I guess you're right," I agreed reluctantly. "But don't you need to impress these people so that they'll do business with you?"

"No," he answered firmly. "They need to impress us. Maybe years ago when my father was first starting out that mattered, but not now. We earn too much money for them. They come to us to avoid being swallowed up by the Fricks and the Carnegies of the world. Propriety is only a second language to these people, and the first is money."

I let out a breath that I hadn't realized I had been holding. "I would hate to be the one to bring down the Mellark Empire of Superiority," I teased.

"Katniss: Destroyer of the American Aristocracy. I think that should be your full title now," he told me with a wide grin.

I leaned in to kiss him. At first, I intended it to be only a sweet, quick kiss, but it seemed my husband had other ideas as he parted my lips with his tongue and pulled me into his lap. Any stress that remained melted out of my body the instant he tossed aside my skirt and worked his way up past where my silk stockings ended. His fingertips on my skin instantly brought on an almost mind-numbing rush of heat.

"We can't do this here," I mumbled before my senses left me.

"Yes, we can. Matthew isn't due back for hours and Mrs. Paylor won't dare open that door without an invitation," he growled. "Get back in that chair and part your legs for me."

The command was unlike him. It sounded so rough and full of heat, not the gentle loving I was used to. Maybe that was what excited me so much about it. I lifted my skirt and did away with my underthings, hands trembling with desire. Peeta pushed himself from his chair and slid it away, settling himself between my legs.

"And now that I have you, I want to play a little game."

"A game?" I whined.

"I want to see how long it takes before you scream for me."

Knowing that I couldn't make a sound if I wanted to be even the least bit discreet only heightened the sensation. I was suddenly aware of every little motion and every little sound. Digging my fingernails into his shoulders, I willed myself to remain silent as he tortured me with long, slow movements. It took every ounce of discipline I had to muffle my cry through my clenched teeth as Peeta brought me to a dazzling high.

"Don't think you've won yet," he remarked cockily.

"Oh, I know I've won," I replied breathlessly.

Funny thing was, for the first time since arriving in Pittsburgh, I felt like I actually had.