‘The Hero and the Palace’, a sequel to ‘The Hero and the Chalice‘ published in the Autumnal Equinox issue of Hyacinth Noir, continues the story of Darien Price and the lesbian ladies he lives with, Lucy and Marisol.
Within ‘The Hero and the Palace’ lies many attributes of Beltaine, most notably the joy of being in a world strengthened by the presence of a warm sun, by flowers and forests finally alive and unfurling. There are also the emotions of Beltaine, a sense of belonging to the earth, and returning to the self after the darkness of winter; of excitement and uncertainty bravely met by having an awareness of inner power, with the restlessness and animation necessary to pursue the deepest of desires. All with a dollop of two wholesome qualities: hope and love.
As we left them at the start of the Equinox, Darien was getting ready to have his new boyfriend Piers over for the celebratory feast, with games afterward. Flash-forward eighteen months to the brilliance of mid-spring and the exquisite beauty of Beltaine. Thanks to a very unconventional alarm clock, Darien and Piers wake far too early on their handfast day. But things are always a bit odd around Piers’ family farm, including Piers’ smart, sassy sister Kate, Piers’ semi-feral furry dependents, and parents who drop something of a bomb on their son and Darien.
Lucy and Marisol’s daughter, Tempest, is naturally moody about the changes to her life. Lucy, who’s in charge of the flora arrangements for the handfast, tries to impart her patience and wisdom into the matter. An unexpected visitor tosses another complication into the day’s zenith. Relying on their strong love for one another, these characters let nothing stop them from enjoying a wonderful celebration.
The Hero and the Palace
Darien Price had grown used to waking up with Piers at his side, and had even gotten used to waking in the big bedroom at the top floor of the old family farmhouse. Usually, Darien enjoyed the lengthy, lethargic mornings at Piers’ family place.
This morning wasn’t one of them.
He really wasn’t used to opening his eyes and finding a magenta-footed pigeon standing right in the middle of Piers’ forehead.
Screaming, flinging himself out of bed with his narrow limbs flying—now that seemed like an appropriate way to deal with the situation. It was also masterfully effective at waking Piers. He flew upright at the waist—pigeon taking off—small silver-white feathers swirling—Piers screaming—Darien screaming again—the rooster calling in the dooryard. For three seconds, the quiet room in the garret brimmed with all the chaos of Discordia’s repertoire.
Darien stood in the corner. He believed himself removed from immediate danger. He could see the pigeon, and it wasn’t a shy one. It sat on the edge of the curtain rod, pompous and arrogant as anything. Why had he always thought pigeons such modest little birds?
Piers roamed a palm over his forehead. A second and unwanted presence had left behind tingles. He let Darien have another moment to recover. He’d soon show that he was a force to be reckoned with—the shooer of bees—the savior of abandoned kittens.
“How do we know that’s not the same pigeon?” Darien felt in control again.
Piers eyed the avian destroyer of precious morning traditions. It did look remarkably similar to the one that’d infiltrated the garret last June. “There’s really no way to be sure. I have a picture of that other bird.” From the bedside table—another elderly relic—Piers grabbed his phone and snapped a shot of the winged rogue on top of the curtain rod. “We can compare them later. I see how it got in.”
The screen had fallen out of the window for the third time since they’d started staying at the house.
“We really need to get that fixed before we wake up with a raccoon in bed with us. Or one of the squirrels.” Piers gave another thoughtful rub to his forehead. “Was it sitting on me or something?”
Darien chuckled, unable to answer: a knock sounded on the tiny door. Though not tall, Darien still felt like a giant in that nineteenth-century house of Piers’ ancestors. Even Piers’ parents were small-boned, round and fleshy. They were good, polite people who doted on Piers and adored Darien.
It took a minute to explain to them what all the shouts and noises had been about. Amid confusion, Piers just pointed to the pigeon on the curtain rod. The gesture said it all.
“We really should get that screen fixed,” said Jim, Piers’ dad, “before we get something really nasty in here. Like a raccoon.”
It wasn’t exactly the way Darien and Piers pictured the opening hour of the most important day of their shared life, but it certainly represented the powerful, often humorous magic of the unexpected.
Lucy was flushed with joy and exertion. She sat beneath the shade of her favorite tree in her own back garden, and all around her was the pure and invigorating smell of a world teeming with life: posies and greenery, implements of creativity, and a beverage brought to her by Temmi. Not far, the picnic table, covered in the same array of categorized disorder: flowers, herbs, floral tape and wire, little sketches in ink and watercolor she used as blueprints for the models. Lucy had toiled at the table for hours, before the sun got too hot and she’d escaped to her old friend the oak tree. By the cast of the sun, it was already noon—just a bit beyond. But there was no worry, no time crunch.
She heard the screen door open and close, and there appeared her daughter, golden-haired, golden-eyed. “She grows in miles-per-hour,” Marisol had once quipped, “like kudzu.”
Temmi was removed from her usual display of emotions and interests. It went beyond the moodiness of puberty, too. It roved into the realm of disillusionment. The idea that the life she’d known at home, since the age of six, was changing for good made her uncomfortable. Lucy and Marisol had tried to tell their daughter that changes could be wonderful and sad at identical moments, but, overall, changes kept life interesting.
Temmi threw herself down on the plush grass, next to her mom. She picked up a daisy and spun it, watching its always-open yellow eye. “You got a lot done. I could’ve helped.” She hadn’t really wanted to help, though. She was still sore at Darien for leaving, and sore at Piers for taking Darien away. Unfortunately, she liked Piers. He was almost as awesome as Darien. But it still wasn’t fair. Just something about it wasn’t fair.
“You didn’t have to help. Anyway,” Lucy paused while Tempest let out a big sneeze, “you have allergies.”
“Mmm,” responded Temmi, rinsing the bottom of her nose across the downy pale hairs of her still childish arm. “Which one’s mine?”
“The green and white headpiece on the table.”
Tempest glanced at it over her shoulder. It was pretty, now that Mom had finished it. She knew she’d look nice in it with her peach dress. “Which one’s Darien’s?”
“The white rose with the lavender sprigs and white chrysanthemum buds. Of course, Piers has the same one.”
On the subject of Darien and Piers, Lucy had always trod softly, in the way of Yeats, when it came to Tempest and her reaction to change. Lucy had promised purification and cleansing rituals—an enticement to make the sudden absence of Darien Price seem like a possible portal into the new—but Tempest wasn’t interested in erasing Darien’s etheric leavings just yet. In truth, neither was Lucy. She wasn’t sure about Marisol. Marisol was sporting a stiff upper lip about the entire thing. She loved Piers, they all did, and it was important that Darien and Piers had found their true happiness.
“Want to wrap this up for me?” She handed the final specimen—the mother-of-the-groom’s corsage—to Tempest. Nimble fingers went to work, but a troubled brow continued to wrinkle. “Want to talk about it?”
Tempest usually welcomed these chats with Moms, but this was too hard to talk about. The thought of Darien’s basement being emptied of his things, and never having him around again—
“I know it’s not like he’s dying and I’ll never see him again,” Tempest started, sighing. “I’m grateful they’re not planning to move far away.”
Lucy and Marisol had tried their best to instill gratefulness in Tempest. They went around the dinner table every night, saying one thing that they were grateful for.
“Aren’t you glad they’ll have a house of their own, and you can go and visit?”
“Well, yeah, but—but it’s not the same. Don’t you think the house’ll seem weird without Darien? He’s a part of our lives, not just mine. But we’re friends. I’ll miss my friend. Who else is going to sing Justin Timberlake with me, at the top of our lungs, when we’re cleaning?”
Lucy smirked and raised a shoulder. “You got me there. I can try to sing Justin Timberlake and One Direction with you, but you know that’ll just end in utter disaster—and earplugs! Darien will still sing with you, it’s just that the surroundings will be different, that’s all. If he makes you clean his house, say no.”
Tempest had grown weary of the same “Everything changes” refrain. It was one sentence, reformulated. Darien was getting a life and home of his own. But what was so wrong with the one he’d had? Tempest knew she’d only understand when she was older.
They weren’t losing Darien. They were gaining Piers. Regardless of how they phrased it, a sad, tiny sting remained.
Thankfully, Piers was far from perfect, a conclusion Darien had happily reached the night Piers came over to celebrate the autumn equinox. Technically their first date ever, it was a potentially nerve-shattering experience drawn into serenity by the homey atmosphere and fun activities, by Lucy’s marvelous dinner and time on the patio with sangria and conversation. Piers had been quiet, a bit stilted, but cranked free of his shell as the evening had gone on. But perfect? No. He’d looked a smidgen immaculate, sure, behind the counter at the bank every time Darien went in. The strict dress code of black sweater vest and tie helped, Piers looking very snappy and gorgeous and “so symmetrical,” as Darien had once said. The more the two of them got to know one another, the more their synergy clicked into place—and everything else fell into place, too.
Except that Piers had some weird quirks. Darien was sure he had a few, but one wasn’t as inclined to take stock of one’s own peculiarities. Piers’ oddities of character were just a bit more odd.
The squirrel thing, for instance.
Darien had “pet” squirrels at his parents’ place. The creatures seemed to know Piers. They perked up whenever they heard him approach. They were yet wary of Darien, and had never taken so well to Piers’ parents or his siblings. “They only like Piers, and that’s all there is to it.” It was true. Quirky as it might be, Piers’ natural ability to like squirrels as much as they liked him was awkwardly endearing.
A few times in the last five years, Piers had brought injured squirrels from as close as Kilbourne Road and as far off as Cambridge. If there was a squirrel in peril, Piers Westmore was the man to rescue it.
He wasn’t the only Westmore who nursed strays. Most of the farm was devoted to the care and recuperation of animals. The family ran the business, and had volunteers and paid staff who did the majority of the labor. Piers, however, seemed to lack the care gene, aside from squirrels, and so had gone off to Dublin to find his way in the financial world. What he’d learned in a year of banking had given him a splurge of self-confidence; he was again ready to tackle the mediocrity of his family’s non-profit organization. If he could do nothing more than look after squirrels, he’d at least learned how to take care of the books in addition to destructive rodents.
How this was going to be applied while he and Darien continued to live in Dublin, no one had been able to decipher. Sometimes the squirrels eyed Darien as if they knew how it would all work out. He resented them their prophetic squirrel-forecasting. Did the fluffiness of their silver tails augur rough times for him and Piers?
Darien wouldn’t be opposed to living at Cheshire Acres. But it was so busy! Comings and goings at all hours, even after dark and sometimes at sunrise. Darien and Piers anticipated that their late afternoon ceremony would be interrupted by the arrival of a creature in need. They laughed about it over lunch. Kate, Piers’ sister and an accomplished vet, said she was sure someone would arrive with a cage full of abandoned baby weasels. Piers was sure it wouldn’t be anything so decorous.
“A cage full of baby weasels is decorous, is it?” cried Kate, refilling her brother’s glass of iced tea. “Yeah, we’ll just give them some bouquets and tie ribbons at their necks, send them down the aisle with you.”
Another eruption of chuckles. Six people were seated round the giant table, relations and one of the volunteers. Darien knew why he liked them so much, the Westmores. They were like Lucy and Marisol, always building happy memories and cultivating the essences of home and comfort.
Piers rained on his sister’s attempts at humor. Kate was known for being “the funny one.” “Well, actually—not much of aisle. More like an appearance. We thought of having a curtain.” Piers flashed his gaze to Darien across the table, his turn to be funny—though they had really mentioned it when getting their ceremony together. “We thought the owls could hold it up, then swoop it aside when we were ready to show up. But whoever heard of owls doing anything like that outside of a Disney movie? So we axed the curtain idea. No aisle though, sorry.”
Kate tossed herself into the chair, eyeing Piers with dubiousness. “Are you sure there’s no aisle? From the way the set-up looks—”
Piers glared at Darien, the two of them synching their flight out of the kitchen. In the fresh morning air, a rope of fog still clinging to the far woods beyond the first field, they stopped at the garden behind the house, and stared. Two distinct sections of brown wooden folding chairs were separated by what was undeniably an aisle.
“Oh crap,” grumbled Piers, fisting a clump of his dark hair. “An aisle! There wasn’t supposed to be an actual aisle!”
Darien, at first annoyed, just craned back his head and laughed. “Great, we can send the squirrels down first, Piers. Then the dogs. Then the weasels. Then us.”
Piers wasn’t listening. “We can move them, I suppose. The chairs. There aren’t very many.”
“Let’s just leave it.” Darien tossed an arm around Piers’ shoulders, leaving a smooch at his temple. “We can work with it. We have too much to do today to bother moving them. Like eating lunch.”
“I’m definitely not skipping a meal today! But we should’ve been out here supervising the,” Piers faltered, unsure what to call them, “the party set-up people. It looks kind of blah, doesn’t it?”
Kate, who came out to join them, snickered. “I’ll get Mom to string up some ribbons or something, make the chairs not look so bare. Your friends are bringing the flowers, right, Darien?”
“As far as I know. I’ll call them and see if they can come earlier.” Darien took out his phone—and got startled when the squirrel suddenly on Piers shoulder tried to climb on his shoulder. It was disconcerting—and their claws were not exactly comfortable. Piers grabbed the thing—the one with the white ears—and stuck it to the trunk of the nearest oak tree. It hung there, as if not sure how it’d gotten there so abruptly. Darien checked his phone, just a text message from Marisol. He shared it aloud to Piers, Kate having already wandered off. “‘Today’s your big day! We’ll see you soon!'”
“Marisol sent me that message, too. I forgot to tell you.” Piers continued to be a bit down about the chairs. He didn’t know he felt about walking down an aisle. A real one. It was a long way from where he thought he’d be. “Is this really okay with you?” His doubts swam away as Darien held him close.
“It’s really okay with me.”
“Were you serious about the procession: squirrels, dogs, us?”
“You forgot the weasels, if they have the gall to show up. Let’s go in and eat. Today’s a worry-free day, so no more worrying.”
In the kitchen, the majority of diners had scattered, leaving plenty of food, Piers’ parents—and a decidedly cool shift in the ambience. It was no surprise to Darien when Jim Westmore made a request with ominous undertones.
“There you are, good! We want to talk to you two about something important we’ve got going on.”
Tempest was a big help, though her emotions continued to stir about in her. She wasn’t the one who’d make a mess of Darien and Piers’ big day. But she was thirteen, and therefore capable of spouting queries that bordered on sassy.
“So why are they doing this again? I mean,” she arranged a cooler of flowers in the car, Moms nearby, “if they want to get married, why don’t they just get married? You two did.” Granted, that’d been a while ago—at least it seemed like long ago to her. Probably not so to them.
Marisol handled this question; she’d already asked it of Darien. “I think it’s just the way they want things to progress right now. You can talk to them about it. Piers is pretty honest, even if he was slightly shy at first.”
Tempest had an alternative way of seeing into people. “He wasn’t shy. Just not sure how to act around a twelve-year-old. And I didn’t want to ask them because it didn’t seem like any of my business.” She’d also been hurt by the whole thing, but didn’t want to admit it for the millionth time.
Lucy threw her pretty straw hat on the top of the coolers. “Go and grab your things,” she said to her obedient daughter. “We’ll be ready to go as soon as your mom pees again.”
“Hey!” Marisol barked to defend herself. “I’m not the reason we stop every five minutes on car trips.”
Tempest dashed into the house, eager to get her bag and get to the farm. Lucy, still standing in the driveway, offered Marisol no counterpoint on the car-trip issue. Her phone trilled a melodic tune saved only for Darien’s calls.
“Our darling groom,” Lucy said instead of the traditional hello, “we’re almost ready to go. Marisol has to pee again.”
“I do not!” came from the background.
“She always has to pee. Horrendous on car trips,” Darien said. “Look, sweetie, I’m freaking out. Can you stop me from freaking out?”
Lucy tossed an expression of concern to Marisol. “Why are you panicking, honey?”
“Well, I can’t tell you. Not over the phone, anyway.” His voice was tight, void of its usual inflections and modulations. “It doesn’t have to do with me and Piers.”
Lucy’s fingertips flattened over her heart. “That’s good news. Just take some deep breaths. Focus on something nice. Go kiss Piers. Usually works to calm me down.”
“Kissing my boyfriend calms you down? Since when?”
“I meant my lady, she calms me down. As long as I don’t squeeze her too hard.”
“Hey!” Marisol reprimanded.
“Is it the cake, Darien? Is the cake awful?”
“No, it’s beautiful. I’m surprised it doesn’t have two squirrels on top of it instead of two little men. And I can’t have Piers calm me down. He’s equally freaked, at this point.” Darien let out a ragged sigh. From where he sat in the barn loft—the only place that guaranteed five minutes of privacy—he could see Piers in his light blue shirt and jeans walking the edge of the woods. “When are you going to be here?”
“I have to get there in thirty minutes or less,” Lucy tried to make him feel better, “since, by then, Marisol will have to use the bathroom again.”
“Oh cut it out,” Marisol said, head stuck in the car as she rearranged coolers and satchels.
“Are you really all right? Is it something really bad?”
“Not bad,” said Darien, his perspective already altering from its original breath-taking minute, “but odd. Very odd. Did anyone call the house looking for me?”
Lucy let him change the subject. He had a talent for deflecting. When they’d tried to get him to open up about the time he’d saved his brother’s life, he wouldn’t and couldn’t. Over a series of weeks, fits and starts, Darien told them. Since he and Piers had announced their engagement, Darien had been breaking it to Lucy and Marisol how much he wished his family would come, all the while knowing they wouldn’t. Pessimism didn’t staunch all of Darien’s hope, however, and so he asked and Lucy had to give a plaintive reply.
“No, no calls.”
“That’s all right,” he made an effort to sound chipper. Kate was crossing the lawn, looking around, probably trying to find him or her brother. The five minutes of privacy had just run out. “Get here as soon as Marisol’s bladder will permit, please and thank you.”
When he hung up, he whistled through his teeth to announce his presence to Kate.
When Lucy hung up, she dropped the phone in her voluminous rattan handbag and eyeballed Marisol.
“He and Piers are despondent about something that happened—unrelated to the handfast.”
Marisol flung herself upright, bumping her raven head against the door. “Ow!” She rubbed the sore spot, painting a comedic picture for Lucy. “Are they all right?”
“Just wants us to get there as fast as we can. Are you all right? That made a loud noise.”
“I’m hard-headed. This we know. I’ll hurry Tempest along. And get a bag of ice for my head.”
Lucy opened the driver’s side door, eager to get the May breeze swishing in and out of the car. It was a nice day, and even the smell of the approaching summer was intense and provocative. It smelled like soft things, green and growing things; it smelled of home and love. A brilliant day for Darien and Piers’ handfast. Lucy leaned against the open door, chin in her hands. She dreamed of the flowers and the ceremony and the reception, hoping again that nothing was seriously wrong with Darien and Piers.
She raised her head at a car parking in front of the house—a bland beige car out of which stepped a petite blond with stocky legs and a smattering of casual jewelry. She was hesitant, nervous, and the moment Lucy got a decent look at her, a sharp pang of sympathy hit her.
The woman stopped five feet from Lucy. “I’m looking for Darien. Is he still here?”
Lucy felt her smile brightening. “You’re Rita.”
Put at her ease, Rita showed a grin mostly gums, a glint of teeth. So he had talked about her! “You must be Lucy.”
Whatever had shocked Darien at the Westmore family farm, it couldn’t have brought a surprise greater than the sight of his sister was sure to carry.
Darien glanced behind him at the swath he’d cut through the tall grass. Suspicions confirmed: There was a squirrel following him! Huffing, rolling his eyes, Darien figured he’d better get used to it. He did what Piers had taught him the first time they’d shown up at the farm together more than a year ago. He knelt, set his hand in the grass and clicked his tongue. After the squirrel instigated a handful of cautious moves, at last he zipped up Darien’s arm—the human winced and flinched—and rested on Darien’s shoulder. Darien fished a peanut out of his pocket, continuing his search for Piers. He didn’t have to worry about the squirrel eating him while it had a peanut. The vet said Piers’ cordial squirrel collection was not infected with anything dangerous. That’d be all he’d need, coming down with hydrophobia on his handfast day! Why couldn’t Piers like crows—or butterflies? Maybe it wasn’t what Piers liked, but who the squirrels liked to have looking out for them. Piers did have a list of interesting enchantments, Squirrel Charmer being one of them.
The squirrel hopped off Darien’s shoulder to a thin tree limb within its grasp. It followed Darien across a ripple of leafy boughs, to the spot where Piers was found. He sat on a giant, sun-warmed boulder two feet from the creek shore. The squirrel turned around in Piers’ lap, its hands padding the pockets where he could feel and smell peanuts. Piers, disheartened, limply tossed one for Morpheus to chase.
“Go and get it, buddy.” It would keep Morpheus occupied for a couple of minutes, long enough for him to talk to Darien. “Are you sure about this? They sprung the whole thing on us kind of fast.”
“I’m sure. And please try to look happier. I don’t want to say ‘I do’ to a face that looks as sad as yours looks right now.”
Piers grunted when Darien kissed him, startled by it. As nice as it would be to get a good snog-fest going in the woods, he pawed at Darien’s collar and successfully, reluctantly separated them. “I always did like the way you resolve issues. Will that still work when we’re fifty years old, do you think?”
“We’ll find out. Now, will you come back to the house willingly, or will I have to call forth all the Squirrel Brigade and get them to carry you? Countdown is commencing. And you need a shower. You smell like earth and yard rats. Wait! Ugh! That’s me! I smell like squirrels!”
“Probably rubbed off me and onto you.” Piers continued to rub as much of himself against Darien as he could—until Morpheus climbed into his hair. “Never mind. If we ever get away tonight, we’ll be free to rub and romp as much as we can stand. Sans squirrels.” Another in-shell peanut was offered to Morpheus, still perched on his crown. He looped an arm at Darien’s waist, aiming them at the path back to the farm. “You know, Darien, you’re pretty brave.”
“I have my moments.”
“But I guess you can’t have Darien without the ‘dare’.”
Darien had to laugh, his eyes crinkling up and the strange heat of tears igniting his face. Piers was so—so camp and uncomplicated. He was wonderfully refreshing.
Rita wasn’t sure what to do. She knew what she’d wanted to do, which was to find Darien immediately and hug the hell out of him. Suddenly finding herself at a pretty farm surrounded by gentle sloping lands and deciduous forests, the constant chirping of birds and a prismatic overlay of garden flowers, she was too dazzled. Helping her feel accepted were the handful of guests that’d already arrived, each with a task to do and a talent to provide prior to, during or after the handfast.
Handfast, a new word in Rita’s dictionary. She’d asked Lucy and Marisol why Darien and Piers weren’t just getting married. Marisol had chuckled, replying, “You can ask Darien that yourself when you see him.”
The intricate knots tightening in her stomach persisted as Rita followed Lucy into the house. A large country kitchen, friendly strangers around the table in gorgeous dresses and suits. Rita was horribly underdressed in her flowing floral chiffon blouse and belted blue jeans. Hastily introduced to Jim, Piers’ father, Rita lacked the chance to do more than shake his hand before Lucy herded her on.
Lucy left a cheery rap on a second-floor bedroom door. A moment later, it swished inward, and there was a half-dressed blond, tall and pale and his eyes more pink than blue. Immediately, Darien held Lucy close. Security and sense would return to him with his wise witch nearby. The tentative grip he had on reality ballooned and burst the moment he saw Rita. Lucy patted Darien’s arm, then tiptoed away unnoticed.
Darien’s guard dropped when Rita hugged him. He wouldn’t have instigated anything so familiar, not sure how his sister felt about him. They hadn’t talked in years. He hadn’t talked to any of his family in years. Once the accident had claimed the life of their baby brother, the fiery heart of the clan had been smothered. Rita got away as fast as she could, opened a restaurant on the river with friends, and stayed away. Darien wrapped up his two-year degree, went to work as a substitute teacher, met Lucy, Marisol, Tempest; then he’d met Piers and the aches of the past became neglected history. Darien’s large hands rested at his sister’s wide shoulders, and even then he didn’t have more than one compulsory thing to say to her.
“I’m so glad you came.”
Rita felt the same way. Explanations were not required. He’d called, left a voicemail when she didn’t pick up on account of not recognizing the number, and she’d been too cowardly to call back. Her brother had expected that, giving her all the information she needed to know about this thing he kept calling a handfast. Rita’s blue eyes gained a brilliant spark.
“So why are you two not getting married? You could’ve had a destination wedding.” She wasn’t surprised that Darien let her go to finish dressing. “I know most of the equal-marriage states are a hike away, but if you’d wait a while, maybe Michigan—”
“We decided not to go anywhere to get married.”
“Well, why?” It wasn’t so black and white to Rita. Marriage was marriage, wasn’t it?
Darien’s mind ran in helpless circles. He was tired of explaining. It seemed so easy to them. It seemed frustrating to Darien and Piers.
“Because we shouldn’t have to go anywhere else to get married.”
Rita suddenly saw how true it was. Of course they shouldn’t have to. “Oh. Well.” She offered an appeasing smile. “This is nice, too.”
“And it’s nice of you to keep up on the shifting attitudes of the country, Rita. I’m impressed.” He grunted, muscles tensing. “Why is this vest so hard to get on?” He twirled, trying to get his left arm in the wide open hole of the waistcoat. Rita came to his rescue. “You’d think they’d be easier to put on than a coat! Good grief.”
Rita laughed, Darien laughing with her. That’s when Piers entered, afraid to look too hard at Darien and jinx everything, but he had to know who the woman was.
“This is my sister,” Darien told him, kissed him, and shoved him out the door. “No more peeking, Piers!”
Piers was surprised by how quickly the event passed. Suddenly there, suddenly done. It’d not helped that, true to their comical prediction, someone interrupted the tail end of the ceremony by showing up with an injured fox that required attention. Kate, pretty in her peach-colored dress, shifted from the overhanging branches of oaks and flower-drenched altar to examine the fox. Piers finished his vow to Darien with an improvised line, “And for putting up with my family and our odd attachment to animals, our never-ending hours of operation, I love you all the more.” It was true. Darien contained the patience of the moon.
The kids at the party rotated around one of the trees with ribbons in their hands. Forgetful Uncle Willie fiddled a song he actually remembered every note to. Adults were standing or sitting in the shade, catching up on gossip, enjoying punch and cake and snacks. Cats sat in furtive locations, eyeing the proceedings with congratulatory airs, as if they had accomplished it all with the flicks of their tails. Dogs puttered about, looking for scraps, pats to the head, pieces of food that fell to the grass. In the distance, down by one of the fenced-in pens, Kate was a bright orange stick against the dark edge of the woods. Piers again wondered if he shouldn’t go down and haul her to the party. She’d been absent more than thirty-five minutes. It was getting harder and harder to deter the curiosity of Lucy and Marisol. Rita, too, knew from Lucy that something was going on with Darien and Piers. Without Kate around, Piers didn’t want to say what he had to say.
At last, Kate made her way back, holding the hem of her obnoxious dress above the high grass. She made one stop in her office attached to the side of one of the barns, coming out in an ugly plaid shirt.
“I’m not cold,” she told her brother, “just uncomfortable. I feel like I’ve got things crawling on me. Mosquitos, I guess. No, Petrie, not now!” But reprimanding the squirrel that landed on her shoulder was breath wasted. Darien, who’d learned not to walk around the farm without a peanut in his pocket (offering a supply of horrid jokes), gave one to Petrie, who snatched at it, fit it in her mouth, and went back up the tree. Kate noticed the tension in their huddle of friends, even in Darien’s quiet sister.
Marisol crossed her arms and sat up straighter in the seat. “Well, what is it, you two?”
Lucy gave Darien’s hand a loose shake. “Don’t keep us in suspense!”
“Yes, tell them,” Kate insisted. “But hurry up. I have cake to eat before Aunt Phyllis gets all of it. You know how Aunt Phyllis likes her cake, brother. So. Out with it.”
Darien nudged Piers. He was part of Darien’s unusual family unit, too, capable of spilling important news. Piers gaped at them, feeling hot under his collar.
“My parents are moving to South Carolina and they want me and Darien to live here at the house with Kate and help continue the business.” He had a very large gulp of wine as he finished.
“Well said,” Darien told him, patting his back, afraid to face Lucy and Marisol—and worried what Tempest would say. Neither Lucy nor Marisol felt inspired to respond. “It’s not really that much further than the house we were going to buy. And I’m still in the same school district, whereas the other house wasn’t in the same school district, so I get to keep my job. You can always visit. So can Tempest. As soon as we get that screen in the garret room fixed so you’re not, you know, inundated by hungry pigeons or cold squirrels looking for a warm place to sleep. It’ll be nice. At least, I think it’ll be nice—and I’m totally aware that I’m rambling, Marisol, so please stop staring. What do you think?”
Marisol and Lucy exchanged a silent dialogue, Marisol delivering it in plain English for the rest of them. “Of course we think it’s great!” She stood and messed up Darien’s hair, kissed Piers hard on the cheek. “Idiots! Of course it’s wonderful, and I think it’ll make you happy.”
Lucy doled soft hugs. “Why didn’t you say anything before?”
Kate snorted into a low cackle. “They just found out this morning!”
Lucy understood. “Oh. That’s what the big freak-out was. I see!” Hearing Tempest laughing with another group of kids her age, Lucy was reminded that Darien had yet to face his severest critic. “She’ll be happy about it. She likes it here. We like it here, too.”
Piers inserted a joke. “The house up the road is for sale—” But he was laughed at, and told by Kate to be quiet while he was ahead. He took that advice to heart.
The event coordinator informed them that the dancing was about to begin. As per Darien and Piers’ promise, Darien asked Tempest to dance the first with him. Marisol was deeply touched.
“That was nice of you, Piers.”
“I have the rest of my life to dance with Darien. Impressing a teenager? That’s one of life’s greatest challenges.”
Tempest certainly looked impressed when her hero guided her to the decorated gazebo. Marisol and Piers followed. Lucy danced with a candid Westmore cousin, the same age as Tempest but miles apart in personality. An old-fashioned jazz tune flared into the waning afternoon.
Two songs later, a startled Darien eyed the oddest couple on the dance floor. “Good grief,” he mumbled. “They’re dancing together again.”
Piers saw what he did, their sisters circling about. “Is it bad that I think they look rather cute together? I’m glad to see your sister. Something tells me I’ll be seeing a lot of her in the future.”
“Good grief,” mumbled Darien again, forehead thudding to Piers’.
“Let’s focus on our happy ending, Darien.”
“Happy beginning,” Darien corrected. He left a smooch next to Piers’ ear, grabbed his hand and tucked it between their hearts.
is the author of several short stories and a free novella, The Carols of Holly House. Please visit her website, BreezyDayStories.com, for more details.