It was hard leaving Seth’s side in the morning.We’d had too few nights together recently, and each day that passed only served to remind me I was that much closer to the transfer.Lying in his arms, watching him sleep in the early sunlight, I thought back to what he’d said about Andrea getting better.
If that was true, if she was healing, then there was a chance the ties keeping Seth here might lessen. I felt selfish even thinking that way, but surely it wasn’t too terrible a thing to wish we could all get a happy ending.
After a leisurely breakfast, Seth and I went over to the Mortensens’. He was on babysitting duty while Andrea went to a doctor’s appointment, and I was there to pick up Brandy. Chaos met us at the door, and Brandy practically flew outside, breathless and laughing.
“Don’t go in there,” she warned me, after I gave Seth a quick kiss good-bye. She and I headed toward my car. “It’s crazy. Mom and Dad slept in, and Grandma let Kendall and the twins ‘help’ with breakfast.”
“What are they making?”
“Waffles,” she said. “From scratch. I don’t know which was scarier: Kendall mixing the batter or Morgan and McKenna on duty with the waffle iron. They set the smoke detector off twice.”
I couldn’t help but laugh as I pulled out of the driveway. “And you and Kayla didn’t help?”
“No way,” Brandy replied. “I stayed away from that mess, and Kayla was in one of her silent moods today.”
“Aw.” I kind of wished now that I’d taken a moment to go inside. Tiny Kayla had a special place in my heart. Though she was better than she used to be, she still had a tendency to simply watch her world without a word, and it could be difficult coaxing conversation from her. Some of this was shyness, and some of this – I suspected – was from the fact that Kayla was psychic. Her skills were still undeveloped, but she was sensitive to the workings of the supernatural world, which I had to imagine would make anyone of any age silent at times.
“She’ll be fine. She loves waffles.” Brandy smiled, and I was happy to see her so upbeat for a change. She shouldered just as much stress as the adults. “If any actually get made.”
We drove downtown, and I quizzed Brandy about what she was looking for in a dress. She had little to offer, which was both charming and kind of heartbreaking. Brandy wasn’t a tomboy, but with all of her family drama, dresses had been understandably off her radar. In fact, when her face lit up at all the downtown lights and decorations, it became clear that family had really been the only thing in her life recently.
“I haven’t seen any of the holiday stuff this year,” she told me, gazing out the windows. A pang in my heart reminded me that this would be my last year to see Seattle in all its holiday finery. “We usually always come down here so that the girls can see Santa. There’s been no time.”
“The girls haven’t seen Santa?” I asked, snapping out of my moment of self-pity. “That’s not fair, especially considering I see a little too much of him.” It made me wonder how many drinks it would take to coax Walter into a house call. It also convinced me more than ever to make this a special day for Brandy. I couldn’t expect her not to worry about her mom, but today, with Andrea on the mend and Seattle’s shopping wonderland ready to explore, Brandy was entitled to worry just a little less than usual. She deserved to think about herself.
I took her on a whirlwind tour of designer stores, chastising her for looking at price tags. I wanted this to be about more than the dress itself. I wanted her to have an experience, to feel like a princess. I made sure the salespeople were falling all over themselves to help her, which wasn’t always so easy to do at such a busy time of the year. Brandy’s radiant expression told me it was worth the effort, and we finally hit gold at our third store, finding what was unquestionably the dress. It was made of dark pink satin wrapped around to create a sheath silhouette that could still show off her figure without being pornographically tight. Satin flowers near the top added a whimsical edge, and the straps and knee-length made me feel it wouldn’t get her kicked out of a church function. We spent the next hour finding the perfect shoes and jewelry for it, and although each new purchase clearly made her uneasy, she stopped questioning me about the cost. She didn’t know about Margaret’s funding, but it had long since been spent.
Exhausted and triumphant with our purchases, we went to lunch at an Italian restaurant frequented by other ladies of leisure. It was inside a larger, elegant shopping complex, and just as we were about to enter the restaurant, I saw a familiar face emerge from a nearby store. Something in my chest clenched, and I spoke before I could help myself.
It took him a moment to figure out who’d called to him. When he did, a series of emotions played over his face. I wondered then how the encounter would have been different if Brandy hadn’t been there. Would he have even acknowledged me? Maybe. Maybe not. But Brandy’s presence guaranteed politeness. No matter how angry Doug might be at me, he wouldn’t snub her.
“Kincaid,” he said, strolling over to us. “And little Brandy. How’s it going?”
“Good,” she said cheerfully. The two of them, I realized, could have been related if Seth and Maddie had ended up getting married. The weird fallout from their breakup hadn’t had as big an effect on Brandy as the rest of us, though, and she was genuinely happy to see him. “We’re shopping.”
He favored her with a smile, and I wondered if he was avoiding eye contact with me. “Last minute Christmas gifts?” he asked.
“Not a chance,” I said. “This is all for Brandy. She’s going to a dance tonight.”
“Oh, I see how it is,” he said. “Getting ready to break some hearts for the holidays, huh?”
She turned bright red. “No! It’s at my church!”
Teasing girls was familiar and easy territory for Doug. “Yeah?” he said, forcibly keeping a straight face. “Then why are you blushing? Church boys’ hearts break just as easily as us sinners’, you know. I’m sure you’ll leave a trail of hundreds in your wake.”
“No,” she protested. “Not hundreds – “
“Just one?” he asked slyly.
Brandy looked to me for help, and I laughed. “I knew there was someone.”
“You guys are terrible,” she said, though she didn’t look that upset. “Can I go put our name on the list?”
“Sure,” I said, still laughing. But the instant she was inside the restaurant, Doug’s playful manner vanished.
“Well, I’ve got to go,” he said, starting to turn away.
“Wait, Doug, I . . .” He looked back at me, but I was at a loss. What could I say? That I was sorry for sleeping with his sister’s fiance? That I was sorry for lying to all of them and breaking her heart? How could you apologize for something like that? “It . . . it was good to see you,” I said at last.
“You too,” he said, though he didn’t sound convincing. He nodded toward the restaurant. “And her. I hope she has fun.”
“Me too. She deserves it, what with everything else going on.”
He had attempted to leave again, but my words made him pause. “How’s her mom?”
I shrugged. “Good days and bad days. It’s up and down. . . . sometimes it seems hopeless, sometimes it’s like everything’s fixed. Wreaks havoc on everyone. . . . you just can’t assume anything, you know? She’s having some good days right now, but it’s been a hard road for all of them. We just never know what’s going to happen next and have to hang in there as best we can. I’m trying to help, but I don’t know. . . . I don’t feel like it’s enough. But what could be?” I promptly shut up, realizing I was rambling.
Doug said nothing, his dark eyes studying me for several heavy seconds. Then, his gaze shifted to Brandy, speaking to the hostess, for a few more moments before returning to me.
“You’re a good person, Kincaid,” he said softly. And this time, he did leave.
Nothing else he might have said could have surprised me more. In all the imagined conversations I’d had with Doug, I’d expected frigid politeness at best – and that had seemed like a long shot. More often than not, I’d envisioned him telling me terrible, hurtful things, things I deserved. As much as a secret part of me yearned for him to forgive me so that we could be friends again, I really didn’t think I deserved that forgiveness. I watched him walk away until Brandy stuck her head out from the restaurant door and called that they had a table.
Despite how pensive my meeting with Doug left me, I was still able to enjoy the rest of the afternoon with Brandy. We were both in good spirits when we arrived back at the Mortensen home, and mine soared even higher when I saw Seth’s car in the driveway. I hurried inside, eager to see him, only to have my mood shatter when I saw his face. Margaret and Terry wore similar expressions. Brandy, normally so observant, was too keyed up over her purchases to notice that there had been a significant mood shift in the house, compared to the bubbly chaos of this morning.
“We had such a great time,” Brandy told them, face shining. “I got the best dress.”
Margaret gave her a tight smile. “Why don’t you try it on for us?”
Brandy didn’t need to be told twice, and Kendall and the twins followed her uproariously to the bedroom, offering to “help.” The instant they were gone, I turned to the adults. “What happened?”
“Bad prognosis at the doctor’s,” said Seth, when no one else spoke right away.
“But she was improving,” I argued. I looked at them all for confirmation. “Right?”
“We thought so,” said Terry. “At the very least, she seemed to be feeling better. But in these situations . . . well, cancer tricks you that way. It’s why people go so long without ever knowing they have it. She woke up feeling bad this morning, and the doctor confirmed our fears.” I was kind of in awe at how calmly he managed to deliver that. I wasn’t sure I could have without breaking down. Honestly, I didn’t know how he’d been able to handle any of this with as much strength and determination as he had. If this were happening to the love of my life, I was pretty sure I’d crawl into in a corner and cry.
Or would I?
Looking at Seth, at those beloved features and compassionate expression, I suddenly knew that wasn’t true. If the one I loved needed my strength, then I would give all I had within me.
“We’re not telling Brandy yet,” said Seth. “We’re not going to keep it from her, but we figured it would be best to wait until after tonight.”
I nodded slowly, having no words. I was usually so quick with a quip or soothing line, but what response could I make to that? Especially when, moments later, Brandy came bounding back down the stairs in the pink dress. Each twin held a shoe, and Kendall carried the glittering chandelier earrings we’d found just before lunch. I was reminded of Cinderella’s mouse retainers.
Brandy’s tastes had been foremost in my mind while shopping, but I’d also had half an eye on what I thought her family would approve of in fashion. As she spun around for them, however, I realized it didn’t matter. I could’ve brought her home in rags, and they would’ve loved it so long as she wore the look of radiance on her face that she did now. That was what sold it, one spot of pure joy in the dark cloud that kept hanging over this family. The adults were too overcome with emotion to speak, so Kendall did it for us.
“Doesn’t she look like a princess?” She kept trying to smooth nonexistent wrinkles out of the skirt, much to Brandy’s dismay. “I want a dress like this.”
Morgan sat down on the floor and tried to forcibly push the shoe on Brandy’s foot while she still stood, furthering my Cinderella images. McKenna joined in as well, and both nearly succeeded in knocking their older sister over.
“Well?” Brandy laughed. “What do you think?”
“It’s beautiful,” said Margaret.
“You’re beautiful,” said Terry.
Having successfully dislodged the twins, Brandy stepped into the shoes, flushing under the praise of her family. “I hope I don’t fall in these. How stupid would that look?”
“I don’t think anything could make you look stupid,” said Seth. “You’re perfect from head to toe.”
“Okay, you guys,” said Brandy, growing embarrassed. “Now you’re just pushing it.”
The “head to toe” comment suddenly reminded me of something. “Oh. I won’t be here to do your hair. I have to go to work soon.” At that moment, calling in sick seemed like a reasonable idea. Nothing seemed more important than giving her a perfect night.
“That’s okay,” said Brandy. “I can do it. Or maybe Mom can.”
“She’s been kind of tired today,” said Terry neutrally. “But I know she’ll want to see you before you leave.”
“I can do a French twist,” said Margaret, surprising us all. “If you want to wear it up.”
“Will you show me?” asked Brandy.
Margaret nodded. “Sure, let’s go upstairs.”
Before they did, Brandy paused to give me a giant hug. “Thank you so much, Georgina. For everything.”
They went upstairs, followed by the littler girls, all of whom thought there was nothing so wonderful as dressing up their older sister. Actually, I realized, that wasn’t entirely true. Not all of them felt that way.
“Where’s Kayla?” I asked. She hadn’t been in the entourage.
Terry sighed and ran a hand through his hair, in a way similar to what I’d often seen Seth do. “In the living room, I think. She’s been out of sorts today. Sometimes I think she can figure out what’s going on, even when we don’t tell her.”
With Kayla’s abilities, I didn’t doubt it was true. I remembered Brandy saying Kayla had been in a “silent mood” since this morning and wondered just how much of her mother’s illness the little girl was in tune with. I left the brothers to seek her out and found her curled up in a corner of the overstuffed sofa, making herself so small that she was almost lost in the cushions.
“Hey, you,” I said, sitting down beside her. “How’s it going? Don’t you want to see Brandy’s dress?”
Kayla shifted her face, looking at me with huge blue eyes. “Georgina,” she said. “You have to make it stay away.”
My thoughts were on the dress, so it took a moment for me to follow what she was saying. “Make what stay away, honey?”
There was something in the way she said the word that let me know she wasn’t referring to shadows. When she said “Darkness,” I could feel the personification in her word, the looming threat of something – or someone – tangible. With a pang, I remembered that Kayla had been able to sense Nyx when she’d escaped her angelic captors.
I leaned toward Kayla, glad Seth and Terry were preoccupied. “Kayla, are you talking about . . . about the creature you felt before? The one you could sense on me?” Nyx’s return would be a complication I most certainly didn’t need in my life right now.
She shook her head. “A different one. The Darkness comes here, to my house. To see my mommy. Will you make it go away?”
“Is it here now?” I asked uneasily.
“No. Just sometimes.”
“How many times?”
Kayla thought about it. “Two.”
A cold feeling crept over me. “Was last night one of those times?”
“Have you seen it?” I asked her.
“No. But I feel it. I can tell where it’s at when it’s here.” She peered at me beseechingly. “Will you make it stop?”
I had no clue what this Darkness was or what I could do to stop it, but theories were running wild in my head. I kissed her forehead. “I’ll do what I can, baby. I promise. I’ve got to leave now, but I’ll see what I can find out for you, okay? We’ll make sure the Darkness doesn’t come back.”
Like the flip of a switch, Kayla’s whole demeanor changed. Whereas she’d been sad and withdrawn moments ago, she was now beaming and hopeful. All that faith – in me. With my empty assurance to take on something I didn’t understand, she was able to put aside all of her fears and worries. All was right in her world now, thanks to me. She put her arms around me and kissed me back, and I felt like my heart would break when I finally untangled myself from her.
Holiday cheer was calling, as well as a burning need to suddenly talk to Roman. Seeing as how we kept missing each other lately, I sent him a text with a reminder of when I’d be home tonight and that I had important information for him. He was so caught up in his conspiracy theories that I wasn’t sure if he’d want to make time for what he’d probably see as a little girl’s fantasies. Kayla’s perceptions – despite her difficulties in articulating them – had proven accurate before. I didn’t know what she was sensing this time, but if there was a force inside the Mortensen household, I intended to stop it.