This autumn day in Woodcutter's Grim could only be considered perfect. Chilly, Diane Anders-Jones decided, but still warm enough for just a shawl wrapped securely around the torso. Colorful leaves in bright yellow and orange, russet and red, drifted lazily toward the ground. They produced a satisfying crackle under her shoes that put her in mind of long walks in the woods and Halloween. Like the town itself, both were picturesque and terrifying prospects.
Crisp and clean air, pollution-free. Another benefit of living away from the city. I could never live anywhere else again. Never.
With the string encircling her wrist, she swung the velvet case that held her rosewood fife and walked south toward home on the sidewalk along the quiet residential street. Smiling, she contentedly waved to those out raking leaves and others passively enjoying the ideal autumn day from a rocking chair on the porch.
Diane had grown up in this small town. She knew everyone and, for the most part, liked them all, and she believed they felt the same about her. They'd wordlessly forgiven her one private indiscretion that had, somehow and not surprisingly, become fodder for town gossip--when it was the only thing worth talking about for more months than she'd appreciated.
"Missus Jones!" a small girl playing on the sidewalk in front of one of the houses called. Tansy Newman rose and rushed to her. At four, Tansy was already looking forward to starting kindergarten next year. When the child grabbed her hand, Diane followed along obediently. "Come see my pit-sirs, Missus Jones!" Tansy exclaimed.
Tansy had drawn Halloween ghosts and goblins in chalk on the sidewalk in front of the house. Her mother Rachel had gone to school with Diane's oldest brother. She'd gotten pregnant when she was only fourteen and just last year finally divorced her abusive husband. "Hi, Di. How was school today?"
"Good. Some kids out sick." Diane served as the music teacher at Woodcutter's Grim's Reece Public School, which housed the elementary, middle and high schools in one large, sprawling building.
She crouched before the chalk art. "Tansy, these are lovely. Did you do them all by yourself?"
Diane looked up. The vigorously nodding little girl had a wide, nearly toothless smile. "And you've got the chalk to prove it," Diane teased, wiping a bit of orange and black dust from her nose. She looked down at the pictures again. "You've making me eager for Halloween, Tansy. You've got ghosts, skeletons, pumpkins. What are those?"
"Rats," Tansy said as if rats were a normal part of the holiday.
Diane glanced up at Rachel, who shook her head and said, "Don't ask me."
"Rats, huh?" Speaking of which, she hoped Kurt had caught the one that'd been making her allergic for the last few days.
Diane stood and tugged gently on Tansy's braid. "You're still coming to my Halloween bash, right?"
"Are you kidding?" Rachel said while Tansy jumped up and down in excitement. "It's all the kids in Woodcutter's talk about in October. Tansy and Van will be there."
Van was Tansy's brother, a freshman in high school. From preschoolers all the way up to high school, the kids in town attended Diane and her husband's annual Halloween lock-in.
Diane continued down the street, only a few blocks from home now. Up ahead, on the opposite side of the road, she saw Maggie Moore getting her mail. Maggie turned, rounded with eight months of pregnant belly. She saw Diane and waved.
Diane crossed the street to her. "How's Alvin? I didn't see him in school today."
Maggie nodded, looking a little worried and rundown. "He has a fever. No other symptoms, but the fever got pretty high this morning."
"Hmm. Seems like something's going around. A lot of other kids were out today, too," Diane murmured sympathetically. "Well, I hope he's all better tomorrow, hon. You tell Jim to help you when he gets home. Sher and Dee can pitch in for the night, too. You look like you and the baby could use a nap."
"Sure could. Thanks, Di."
"Let me know if you need anything."
Maggie squeezed the hand Diane offered her and instantly seemed less tired afterward. She went in the house with her mail.
Diane got back on the sidewalk, remembering what she'd tried not to--and failed--all day. Kurt worked the graveyard shift tonight. She hated being alone at night. Especially since...
A fluttery clutching feeling filled her chest. Why did she have these panic attacks whenever she neared home? When would they stop? It'd been six months.
Even as she fought it, the scent of overbearing, heavy perfume filled her nostrils. The picture of high, spiked heels in the hall leading to the staircase knifed its way into her memory. A trail of clothing had led the way up the stairs. The blazer of a high-powered, expensive business suit, the skirt, gauzy white blouse, lacy push-up bra... The bedroom door had been opened. That soft, desperate feminine voice had drifted out. "She's cheating on you, Kurt. Everyone knows it."
Cheating on you, so why shouldn't you cheat on her--with me?
Diane closed her eyes, her step slowing as she tried to force the memory out.
I'm too fragile. We're too fragile. I don't want to go through what we did ever again. Things are so good now. So why do I have to keep dwelling on what happened, what I can't change, what I can't avoid thinking about, especially when I get close to the house, like I did the day I came to believe Kurt didn't love me anymore...
A familiar chirping sound made her eyes fly open. Ahead a block, she saw her cat Bast sitting on the porch waiting for her the way it did every day. The images and bitter recollections assailing Diane dissolved in an instant, just as they always seemed to when she saw Bast, looking like a proud goddess of Egypt, on the step. Her oldest brother had given her the cat after she and Kurt got back together, saying that it would protect and heal her. Whatever that meant. At times, Mick didn't make a lot of sense, but, as he said Bast would, Mick had watched out for her and protected her since she was a child.
The realization that Kurt loved her, he waited for her at home, sent a cleansing wash of happiness throughout her being. Kurt loved her. She couldn't wait to see him and be in his arms once more. She'd loved him all her life, even before he noticed her as anything but her oldest brother's best friend.
And I'll love him to the grave. We'll never be apart again.
Diane looked up at the house she'd fallen in love with from the first time Kurt showed it to her. The massive Gothic Revival had been left to him by his beloved grandfather when Kurt was far too young to be without the man he considered closer than a father. With a steeply pitched roof, cross-gabled, decorated vergeboards, pointed arch, stained glass windows, the Gothic window above the entry veranda and the Gothic style-bay window overlooking the street from the dining area, it was a house that would always need work done by hand, considering the asymmetrical and unpredictable floor plan inside.
When they'd gotten back together earlier this year, Kurt had decided to re-design the master bedroom suite they'd never used before--Kurt had a hard time imagining himself sleeping in the same place his grandparents occupied for so many years. He'd turned the bayed sitting area with a ten-foot ceiling into a unique music area for her, put in a sumptuous skylight in the bathroom, a Jacuzzi tub for two, and a huge L-shaped walk-in closet.
What she loved most about their new suite was the bed. Constructed of rare Brazilian rosewood, poplar and pine, the carved, high-backed headboard and skillfully crafted posts incorporated Gothic vaulted arches and signature symmetrical design. Kurt had lovingly restored it a month ago. Now he was hard at work on a balcony right outside their bedroom, where they could sit before dark and view the fragrant garden and fruit trees below.
Everything would be different this time, he'd promised. And he'd done everything he could to make it so.
Diane reached the porch and Bast lifted gooseberry-green eyes, chirping in welcome. The Smoke Mau affectionately rubbed her silky head under Diane's chin when picked up. The strong scent of exotic perfume rose from her well-groomed fur. "Have you been in my perfume again, goddess?" Diane asked. Bast chirped loftily again.
The front door stood open. Through the screen door, Diane heard noises from the kitchen. She went inside, carrying her cat, tote and fife, to find her husband kneeling before the cupboard under the sink. He wore gloves and swept something into a dustpan. When he rose, she saw a dead rat caught in a trap on the steel pan. She let out an "Ugh" while Bast growled at the dead rodent.
"Guess you weren't imagining a rat in the house," Kurt said, dumping the rat and trap together into the trashcan. He immediately gathered the bag and took it out.
When she started sneezing, she'd known there was a rodent in the house for the last two days. She'd been allergic to rats since she was a child, though no one remembered any more how they'd figured out what exactly she was allergic to. But whenever she started sneezing, her father would put out the rat traps and a few days later, he'd catch one or more of them. Only then could she rest from sneezing.
Diane cringed, setting down her stuff and putting the dustpan back in the broom closet. Hopefully she'd sneezed her last just before leaving for work this morning. After washing her hands, she glanced at the mail on the end of the counter while peeling off her shawl.
Kurt came back in, slipping off his work gloves and going to the sink to wash up. Diane turned and looked at his back. At six feet tall, he was so muscular from hard work--fixing up their house, working in the yard--he didn't need to be a gym guy. That type had never appealed to her. She loved his tan skin, his dark brown hair, combed back from his boyishly handsome face. Though he shaved at least once a day, he always had a five o'clock shadow that she found unbearably sexy.
Unable to resist for a moment longer, she went to the sink and put her arms around him from the back.
"I'm all sweaty," he warned, turning to her and reaching for a towel.
She smiled. "I know."
His reciprocating grin sent fissures of happiness through her. He tossed the towel and drew her in. Diane stood on tiptoes, eagerly meeting his lips halfway.
Heaven, every single time.
His lips were full, yet firm and masculine. Watching him, she saw his sage green eyes open during their kiss.
"How was your day?" he asked in that soft, intimate way that made her feel like they were the only two people in the world.
"Okay. A few kids were out sick. Too early in the year for something to be going around, but it seems to be anyway." She brushed her mouth against his mouth once more. "How was your day?"
"Better now that you're home."
"Mhm," she murmured, pulling herself up when he kissed her again. She wrapped her arms around his neck and his arms fully closed around her slender waist.
What didn't she love about this man? She loved his smell, his arms, his mouth, his hands. His body, so hard, so made for her own--every curve and plane meshed.
His hands came up and cradled her face while he kissed her, deep and sexy. She felt his fingertips, touching her hair, her ears, and the corners of her mouth while he kissed her.
"Beautiful," he whispered.
He made her believe it. Tears stung her eyes.
Let the world go away. This man is all I need, I swear it. Let me be all he needs for now and forever.
"I wish you didn't have to work tonight," she said when he'd tucked her head into the crook of his neck. She breathed in the unique smell of her lover, her lips against the soft hair on the underside of his chin. "I hate sleeping alone. I hate the graveyard shift. I'm cold outside these arms."
"I know, Gypsy. I hate being away from you all night, too. But I'll be back at four."
She eased back to look up at him. "Wake me when you get home."
He lifted a thick brow. "How could I do that to you? You look like an angel when you're sleeping, Diane. A man doesn't dare disturb an angel."
He watched her sleep often--he'd told her so. He couldn't drop off instantly to sleep without relaxing for a while beforehand. He said watching her sleep, holding her, relaxed him like nothing else.
"I'm your angel. Wake me. I want you to." She lowered her gaze to his mouth. "I'll make it worth your while."
A heart-stopping, vying-for-little-boy-and-rogue grin lit his face. "Honey, you make it worth my while just being."
Desperation gripped her. The insidious reminder that her 'being' hadn't always spelled joy to him made her half crazy. She kissed him again, her mouth open, her tongue begging him to play. And he did. They both panted in minutes, his hands gripping her hips now, tight, and she couldn't resist swaying against him. He groaned, and she saw the need making his eyes dark and heavy-lidded.
"Wish I didn't have to work tonight," he muttered harshly, knowing they didn't have time. He kissed her in short nips and licks that felt like lava flowing heavy and hot all through her. He had to leave at seven o'clock--barely enough time for a shower, dinner, catching up. And when they made love, it was never quick satisfaction. Neither of them could ever seem to let go of each other easily or soon.
He lowered his mouth so her lips had to be content with his forehead. Then, cradling her face once more, he kissed her eyes, her nose and cheeks in whisper-soft kisses that satisfied her and filled her with intense longing for him.
"I could look at you forever, Diane," he murmured.
"Mhm, I've been the same way with you. Back when I was the kid hopelessly in love with my big brother's best friend."
"Even then you were beautiful. Not that I could've admitted it. The Terrible Twins would've had a field day on both of us if I had."
Her younger brothers, Johnny and Shad, were two years younger than her, while Mick--and Kurt--were two years older.
She agreed with a murmured sound, trying not to remember that, if Kurt had noticed her, it was while he was with his long-time girlfriend, the same one who'd almost destroyed everything for them.
His shoulders suddenly seemed rigid, and Diane realized she'd slipped into her self-tormenting and defeating thoughts again--and made Kurt aware of it. When she drew back, discomfort and awkwardness had entered his expression.
"I better shower," he said, pulling away and starting toward the stairwell on the other side of the kitchen.
"Kurt." Diane reached for him, tripping forward a few steps to get to him. He caught her and eased her toward him so her cheek rested against this chest. "I love you," she told him fiercely. "Only you, Kurt."
"Love you back."
She heard his sigh and tried not to read into it. They would make this work. They would. Or she'd never survive it.
When he slid away this time, she forced herself to smile and say, "I'll start dinner."
He nodded, and she watched him head for the stairs. Knowing they'd have guests joining them sooner or later, Diane prepared extra food. Leaving the oven to pre-heat for the dough she'd kneaded and formed into loaves and the noodles to boil on the stove, she went out to the veranda to care for her huge profusion of herbs, flowers and vines. On her return to the kitchen, she turned on smooth Jazz, blocking everything from her mind but the music. She set the dining room table with candles and dishes, pleased with the mouthwatering fragrance of fettuccini carbonara and the rustic Italian bread she'd started that morning before heading to school.
They had only a couple more hours together before Kurt had to go to work. She had no intention of wasting them with memories neither of them wanted to recall, rehash or, God forbid, resurrect ever again.
* * * *
Kurt's secret life wasn't one he liked keeping from the woman he loved, especially considering that the men in her own family had been in on the secrets for ten generations. Diane, her mother and Kurt's sister believed that he and her brothers and father were police officers, employed by the Woodcutter's Grim Police Department. And they were, though her father had "retired" years earlier when his eldest son took his place. They, along with a few other chosen families, made up the Protectorate--the body of men sworn to protect the town from the evil pervading it like an unstoppable, metastasizing cancer.
Diane wasn't like the other women in her family and the other families--Kurt had noticed that right away. She had an avid interest in the paranormal. She'd done extensive research into it and any connections concerning its influence on literature and mythology around the world. She'd planned to major in English literature before she gave up the idea of college. But she hadn't discarded her personal interest.
Sometimes I think she knows things aren't what they seem. To a certain point, most of the citizens of Woodcutter's Grim realized that this wasn't a town like others. Whether unconsciously or sub-consciously, they knew of the evil presence that stopped time, made it fly unaccountably, turning day into night, or even shifted to alternate time periods while the evil went unchecked. That and unpredictable weather anomalies were signals to all that evil held sway. During those times, citizens stayed behind locked doors--and didn't answer a knock on the door for any reason at all.
Kurt slipped into department trousers in the bedroom he'd restored. All the changes made it possible for him to think of the room as his and Diane's--not his grandparents'. While growing up, Kurt had lived with his grandparents more than his parents.
Diane sensed something strange, Kurt acknowledged, though she didn't know anything definite. She knew Gabe Reece wasn't merely the Sheriff. He couldn't have been, not as long as he'd been in the position and as young as he'd been when he took over the role from his father. He'd been sixteen when he filled the role of Guardian, because, like his grandfather, his father had failed to protect the town from the evil. Instead, the two had fallen victim to it.
Kurt's grandfather had been a member of the ancient lineage of the Chosen Seven--otherwise known by those within the circle as the Brethren. Kurt had taken his vows when he was nineteen and his father refused to take his place in responsibility. Diane's brothers, Johnny and Shad, had been part of the Chosen Seven for the last few years, along with Lewis Russell, Ryan Bohunk--Kurt's brother-in-law--and Mick. Mick had the gift of prophecy like his father before him. Prophecies came rarely in ancient times, but even rarer since Mick shaved his head and took his vows. The last time he'd experienced a vision was three years ago, when he'd foreseen the coming of the chosen one.
Luther Kominiski, the seventh member of the Brethren, had died three years ago as part of the prophecy concerning the chosen one: "The redeemed child will die and will be reborn as many times as need be for the purpose of saving the Innocent in the Amethyst Tower, where the Great Evil lives. Only in time--when the chosen child lives, grows, and goes forth with courage in his hand to do the will of the Protectorate--will the barriers containing the evil be restored, its power weakened or even destroyed."
Indeed, the chosen one had come in the form of Gabe's own son, entrusted to him just before the woman he loved, Amethyst, was consumed by the evil. To this day, the prophecy made little sense to anyone. Now nearing three years of age, the boy was nowhere near saving Woodcutter's Grim or anything else. Prince was like a fifty-year-old man in the body of a child. There was something unnatural about him. Though he claimed he didn't known his purpose, Kurt sensed he knew more than he said.
None of them understood whether Prince had become the seventh member of the Brethren with his coming, or, with Prince's acceptance of Guardianship, Gabe had become the seventh member of the Brethren. Or if there was another coming to fill the empty space. The only thing anyone felt sure about was that, now that the evil had gone after one of their number, it would almost certainly do so again--at the first opportunity.
That's why Diane needs to know the truth, but Mick isn't willing to 'risk her'.
Mick had always been fervently overprotective where Diane was concerned. He'd long believed the evil was targeting her, considering her love of the paranormal and the 'death' music she'd been part of for so many years.
Kurt slipped into a shirt, looking at the Protectorate symbol--a cross with multiple circles fitted over it--on his chest. It was the mark of the Brethren, proof of his vow and role of responsibility. It was a mark that no one outside the Protectorate could see except by moonlight. Sometimes Diane seemed to know it was there though and traced it as if trying to determine its exact shape.
But the Brethren had become superstitious about the ancient ways. They rarely detoured from the way it'd been done from the beginning, when the evil had come and their Great Good God had formed their protective circle.
Kurt's grandfather had been utterly loyal. His own son's refusal to buy into their task had shamed and infuriated him. Kurt had always believed, maybe at first because his grandfather was so fervent in his vows. Believing in what the Protectorate stood for felt normal; the regular police work abnormal. Taking over when Grandfather died had also been natural. Normal. He'd considered it part of his being, but he'd never believed it could touch his private life. It'd seemed a separate hemisphere in his being then. Ever since Amethyst, Diane's best friend, had been taken by the evil, he'd worried. He'd worried about Diane, whether Mick was right that the evil had targeted her and tried to take her, too, around the same time Amethyst was lost. Had the evil destroyed their child? Their marriage? Or was pure human stupidity the simple answer to complex problems?
He couldn't lose Diane. Not again. His vows to the Protectorate had become his life, just as Diane had been his life from the first time they kissed. He had to protect what mattered most to him. His own life meant nothing without the woman who made him want to live every time he thought of her, saw her, touched her.
* * * *
When Diane heard the shower go off overhead, she ducked into the main level bathroom. After freshening her makeup and tidying her dark hair, she put the food on the table. From the staircase, she heard Kurt breathing in deeply the aroma of dinner. "Smells incredible," he said, grabbing the basket of fresh bread to join her in the dining room.
She turned her head while he reached over her to put the basket on the table. Smiling up at him, she placed a kiss on his chin. "Thanks. Do you want wine? Mick would bring some if I called and asked him--"
He had to remember as vividly as she did all the times she'd cooked this meal when they were newlyweds and shared a few glasses of red wine with it. He shook his head. "Milk's good for me, honey. Gotta keep my head clear."
And I'm an alcoholic you don't wanna tempt.
Not that alcohol or any of her other vices held much, if any, temptation for her anymore. Only when she was so low, she didn't feel anything did she reach for whatever drug was at hand.
Once everything was on the table, they sat close together in cathedral-like tracery chairs that matched the long, oak table with Acanthine scrolled legs. Diane served them while he poured milk.
"Oh, I was going to tell you about something I read during my lunch break today."
"Fairytale news?" he asked.
Since they'd been together, she'd been helping him search for news of paranormal activity outside of Woodcutter's Grim. For some reason, he had an unusual interest in 'fairytales come true'. "Yeah. Some woman in Denver was held captive in a fortressed mansion that looked to me like a castle. Her captor kidnapped her when she was a teenager. He was a godawful ugly man. Dark and hairy. She says he was cruel to her those first few years. Then, somehow, in the last few years of her captivity, she fell in love with him and he felt the same for her. They just got married and they're telling their 'love' story. I printed the story from the internet. It's in my tote bag."
She watched him eat, obviously enjoying the meal, for a moment before she started her own dinner. "Another really strange one I read about," she went on, buttering a thick slice of warm bread, "was about a college student. He was always playing tricks on his buddies, so they decided it was time for payback. They tied him to the rocks somewhere on the highest point in North County along the Pacific and California coasts and hung a venomous snake above him. The venom dripped in his face for hours before the police found him. He was scarred beyond recognition, but he's alive."
"That's a step further than playing a trick."
Kurt's fork stopped halfway to his mouth, as if he'd just realized something. "What fairytale is that similar to?" The first--Beauty and the Beast--had been obvious.
Diane had known he'd ask--she harbored no doubt how he'd react when she told him, too. "It's actually Norse mythology. Loki was the Fire-giant/deity of mischief who killed Balder and was tracked by his fellow gods and bound to three slabs of stone with the entrails of his own son and a snake placed above his head. His wife tried collecting the venom that dripped down, but whenever she emptied the bowl, the venom seared him and made him writhe--which caused the earth to shake."
Kurt shook his head. "No. That one doesn't count."
"Why not?" she asked calmly.
"It's just never manifested... Well, it doesn't work that way. Just fairytales."
Diane shrugged like it didn't matter, but she didn't understand Kurt's fascination with fairytales--beyond the intellectual aspect that she shared. But Kurt's fascination didn't seem to be intellectual. She couldn't describe it any more than she could the same intrigue her brothers and father seemed to have in fairytales.
They were able to get a good fifteen minutes of eating and talking in before Mick and the Terrible Twosome showed up, each dropping a kiss on the top of her head, before responding enthusiastically to her redundant question about whether they were hungry. They'd collected plates and silverware, piling food high, before she could make any offer to serve them.
"Ooh, candles and music," Johnny teased after a mouthful that could have choked a horse. "What's the occasion?"
"Does there need to be an occasion?" Diane asked, glancing at her oldest brother.
Mick somehow seemed to be looking at both her and Kurt and seeing things that Diane didn't want him to see. At medium height and build, his good looks had been downplayed because of his shaved head and his strange black eyes that seemed unable to hold any light. They were otherworldly eyes, eyes that matched his whole persona and his usual lack of any expression.
From the time she was a child, Diane had thought Mick was the coolest guy in the world. She was one of the few who wasn't afraid of him. Even his 'unearthliness' didn't frighten her. His love and concern for her were too evident for her to see him as anything but her guardian angel.
And he was that. If Mick hadn't come, bringing Kurt with him, I wouldn't be here today. I wouldn't have a second chance.
Long ago, Mick had told her that, even when he wasn't with her, he always saw her aura. It was like a bright yellow light in his mind--a halo. Since she and Kurt had fallen in love, he saw their auras together. Yellow and red. Pulsing and vibrant. When they were unhappy, their auras turned blue. When she'd been at her lowest point, he said that her aura had turned into a menacing purple flame...a flame that flickered off and on before it finally went out altogether. That was when he'd known something was wrong.
Her brothers only came here when she and Kurt were happy. Mick read their aura before he allowed them to come, she knew. Her brother, taking care of her, like usual.
"Have you guys ever eaten?" Diane asked in shock as the twins shoved food in like they'd missed a couple meals and expected to miss a couple more. They hadn't and wouldn't.
"You're a good cook. We don't get food like this otherwise."
Diane raised a doubtful eyebrow. When they didn't eat here, they were at Mom and Dad's, begging for sustenance. "You seem to eat Mom's cooking in abundance, too."
Shad shook his dark head. "When you can't cook, you dine out."
"Perhaps it's time the two of you found wives to cook for you."
"What would I do with one of those?" Johnny asked, agog at the mere idea.
"I can think of any number of things, little brother, cooking quite possibly included."
Shad grimaced. "Eh, I can get all that for free."
"And we don't have to limit ourselves to one woman to do it," Johnny added.
The two of them combined voices in their usual victory theme, then slapped hands. They'd never grow up.
Shaking her head, Diane started gathering dishes, leaving Kurt and Mick to talk about the fairytale and myth news clippings she brought them from her bag. She saw her brother read both without comment.
"You two having the Halloween lock-in this year?" Shad asked, snagging the last slice of bread for himself and using at least two tablespoons of butter on the hunk.
Halloween wasn't celebrated in Woodcutter's Grim the way it was in other towns. Trick or treating had been outlawed so long ago, no one remembered a time they'd allowed it. Instead, everyone attended the "lock-in party" of their choice and spent the night. Kids and adults dressed up in harmless animal costumes, staying inside until daylight the next day.
Since she and Kurt had married, they'd been having a lock-in Halloween party for all the school-age, and preschool-age, kids. Their house was filled to the attic when it came time to sleep, but it was something she loved to do and Kurt often spoke about the necessity of it to keep the kids safe.
"Why would this year be any different than any other year?" Diane said. Only after she spoke did she wished she hadn't. This year was different.
Kurt eased her against him from his chair. "'course we're having it this year. You already sent out all the invitations, didn't you, honey?"
"Two days ago--and half the invited list has already sent back the RSVP to say they're coming."
"The rest will come," Kurt said confidently. "Let me help you clean up."
He rose, and Diane knew their moments were down to a sparse handful. He would leave for work soon with her brothers.
Together they carried a handful of dirty dishes into the kitchen. As soon they set them in the sink, Kurt urged her out of the kitchen into the utility room. Against the wall, they reached for each other. His kiss held all the promise of earlier. They were both breathing in ragged pants when they broke apart. Johnny called that they'd be late.
"Wake me when you get home. Promise. We won't have time tomorrow, with work and going to Mom and Dad's for dinner."
He nodded, kissing her again quickly. "Lock up the house tight after I'm gone."
"And don't let anyone in." He knew their family and friends always called ahead before coming, so she'd expect them.
She handed him his jacket hanging on one of the hooks near the utility room. He shrugged into it, then grabbed her hand. She followed him to the front door. Her brothers waited impatiently on the veranda. She noticed Shad huddling into his thick jacket against the suddenly ice-blasted wind.
Kurt pressed a hard kiss to her mouth, then looked at Bast, who sat beside Diane. "Keep your mistress safe."
The cat chirped haughtily at him as if saying, "As if I need to be told! I always do. Humans!"
* * * *
Diane went inside the house with Bast at her heels and set the triple locks in place before going to the bay window overlooking the street. She watched her husband and brothers get into their vehicles and head for work.
All her life, she'd wondered if her family, Kurt's family, and Gabe's family were involved in some strange secret organization. All the law enforcers in Woodcutter's Grim were members of it. In a town of under four hundred citizens, why did they have such a large police force? It seemed unnecessary. And the fact that the eight of them rotated nine hour shifts, so they had at least four officers on twenty-four hours a day... Why?
The part that made her most suspicious was the way they got together. After dinner at her parents, all the men always and inevitably gathered to lock themselves into her father's study and essentially disappeared behind those solid oak doors for hours. She'd tried to eavesdrop countless times, but little they talked about made sense to her.
How does Kurt's interest in fairytale realities fit into this? How does my family's generations' long interest in that work?
Not for the first time, she shook her head and dragged herself mentally away from her uneasiness. She loved all of them and knew they weren't criminals, so what did their strangeness matter?
She went to the kitchen and started cleaning up, wishing she didn't miss Kurt so profoundly on the nights he had to work. She'd never be one of those women who enjoyed being alone, getting time away from her man. Even if she and Kurt did nothing but sit contentedly together doing separate things, she wanted him with her at all times.
With the house cleaned, timed with the falling of darkness, she again checked all the doors and windows. The scent of cloying perfume made her almost gag as she looked up the steep staircase.
Look! No slut shoes, no skimpy bra that probably wouldn't cover the woman's fake bazooms! She must have still had her underwear on, nothing else. With my husband. Doing what with my husband? I already know, but I don't want to. How could...?
No, she wouldn't do it. She stalked up the stairs, determined to see what progress Kurt had made on their bedroom. Then she'd practice the fife piece she'd been playing for the children for the last month to call her classes to attention.
Unwillingly, her gaze went to the tightly closed door on the left side of the hall. A bathroom was niched between the two bedrooms they didn't use. On the right was their master bedroom suite complete with the deluxe bathroom.
The bedroom door was open that day. Kurt didn't think I'd come home.
She'd planned to leave, her life in shambles after starting so beautifully. She and Kurt had been married when she was eighteen and nearly ten blissful years followed. She'd been expecting their first child, ironically, at the same time Amethyst and Gabe had been expecting theirs. Then Amethyst's father had disappeared in the Black Woods. Amethyst couldn't seem to cope with the realization, especially after Gabe and his men found Hank's desiccated body. Amethyst had been her closest friend for as long as Diane could remember. Losing her had been like losing a vital organ.
Losing her child...
She couldn't cope with either loss. In the throes of her grief, she'd known nothing. She simply couldn't function. And Kurt said he didn't know how to help her. His distance had convinced her he didn't love her anymore. It'd been the final blow. She remembered little of going back to Axel and the Grim Reapers--who and what had filled her teenager years until Kurt finally noticed her. Axel had asked her to go on tour with them. She hadn't cared about anything, but she'd realized she couldn't be without Kurt, even if he didn't want her. She'd come home that day to tell him.
Maybe subconsciously she'd realized something was going on with him. Had she heard whispers behind her back that he and Glynnis--his old girlfriend... his fiancée before Diane--had been seeing each other on the sly? Glynnis Shaussegeny had red hair, blue eyes, a chest that simply couldn't be real it was so huge, and legs "all the way up to her eyeballs" as some of the guys in town saw it. The woman's brother Lance had gone to school with Mick, but there was something strange about that family, unnatural wealth aside. Glynnis had taken over the family restaurant, The Gingerbread House, right after high school, while Lance took over the other family business--law--after trying to make a go of life outside of Woodcutter's Grim for a few years. He'd returned and settled into his role with obvious resignation.
Diane had never liked Glynnis but wondered often whether she would have hated her so much if she and Kurt hadn't been a couple for so long, if they hadn't been engaged. The irony was, she felt Glynnis had stolen him from her. She'd loved him all her life. So what right did Glynnis have to claim that Diane stole him and she'd get him back sooner or later?
"You shouldn't be here," Kurt said, his voice soft and muffled. Diane was still at the bottom of the stairs when she heard it. "We shouldn't."
Glynnis sounded high-pitched and annoyed in contrast. "Are you thinking about her again? Geez, she's not thinking about you. I guarantee it."
Silence. Silence in which Diane ascended the stairs, one slow tread at a time, somehow missing all the creaky places on them so her arrival went undetected.
Something in Kurt's expression must have bothered Glynnis because she made a noise of disgust. "She's cheating on you, Kurt. Are you blind? Everybody's talking about it! She's holed up with that gothic death band of hers again. With Axel. Face it, she never got over him just like he never got over her."
"You don't know anything about Diane, Glynnis."
"I know her best friend died. We're all sorry. We all liked Amethyst. And I know your baby--"
"You should go. Now."
Simpering and sympathetic now, Glynnis murmured, "You're hurting, Kurt. I won't go. I'll take care of you..."
Glynnis had taken care of Kurt, all right, and Diane knew exactly how she'd done it. Her hands had been on his body, his on hers, her mouth on his--Diane knew then that it hadn't been the first time since she lost Amethyst and then their child that he'd let Glynnis 'take care of him'.
She'd gone with Axel without a word to anyone but her boss at the school. Somehow Mick guessed what was happening because he found her before she left town. She didn't need to say a word, and he'd folded her into his arms and said softly, "It's not right, Di, but he's hurting and he doesn't know how to help you or himself. Don't go. Don't leave him. Something bad is following your aura, Di. I can see it. It's not safe for you to be away from him."
But she'd gone. She didn't remember much of anything that happened after she fled Mick's arms and ran into Axel's. She didn't remember trying to kill herself. All she remembered was blackness. Outside. Inside herself. She couldn't remember calling Kurt after her attempt, her mumbled words of love. She only knew that he'd come to her with Mick, and they'd saved her. Kurt hadn't left her once throughout her hospital recovery. He'd cried so many times during that time, saying he was terrified of how much he'd almost lost. He hated himself for what he'd done to her, letting go. He didn't speak of Glynnis, she couldn't, but they both knew the woman had come between them and tainted the purity of their intimacy.
I asked him to forgive me. Begged him to believe I could never love anyone else. I could never be with anyone else. Not Axel, definitely not. Because Kurt is the love of my life from start to finish. And he'd begged for my forgiveness. How could I have given him anything else? So why can't we talk about it? Why am I so scared to hear him say her name?
Everything had returned to normal with their relationship. She'd gotten her job back. Their love had been so beautiful and perfect. Everyone accepted that what had happened between them didn't change that they were meant to be.
Yet here she felt fragile, wondering...
If he ever thinks of Glynnis, if he regrets her, wants her, hates her...
After six months, Diane still held her breath, fearing constantly when the next devastating tornado might blow them apart. She helplessly waited for evil to separate them, this time for good.