The professor closed his eyes.
The sound of her voice faded as he slowly retraced his steps back to the front door.
FUCK. FUCK. FUCK.
He struggled to breathe.
I just don’t want him to have any reason to push me away again.
Matthijs slowly raised his hand to press the doorbell.
He heard footsteps and a murmur of voices, Diana asking Oskar why the butler still hadn’t opened the door. He listened to the other man make excuses, listened to Diana answer in exasperation, and then she was opening the door—
And just as before, she threw herself at him, and he caught her in his arms. Her face lifted up for a kiss, but try as he might, he couldn’t make himself devour her mouth.
What the fuck am I doing?
Tell me if I should leave.
Diana pulled back, her doe eyes turning uncertain. “What’s wrong?”
The ring he had in his pocket seemed to burn all the way to his flesh, and his guts twisted inside of him.
Was that it then?
He could be with her but not marry her?
Diana touched his cheek. “Matthijs?”
So be it, God.
So fucking be it.
Anything was fine as long as she remained safe.
He forced himself to smile. “Nothing. I was just thinking I’ve forgotten how beautiful you are.”
She smacked his shoulder. “Ha!”
Lowering Diana back to her feet, he asked casually, “Anything happen while I was gone?”
“Nope.” She looked up at him. “You?”
“Nothing either, except for me missing you.”
Her cheeks turned pink, but her smile was blinding and her gaze soft with tenderness. “It’s the same for me.”
And so it was, with both of them missing each other, both of them lying to each other.
He followed her inside, but even before the door had swept shut behind him, he was unable to help himself, reaching to spin her around and causing Diana to gasp in surprise as he yanked her to his arms.
But he could only hold on to her tightly.
I don’t want her sick because of me.
His arms tightened around her even more, and he said fiercely, “I love you.”
She started to struggle in his arms, wanting to look up, but she was no match for his strength, and she eventually subsided, her head falling back against her chest.
“I love you, too,” she finally whispered. “Always. You know that, right?”
He closed his eyes.
“Please, Matthijs. Can’t you tell me what’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” Because they would get through this. “Nothing’s wrong.” But no matter how much the professor willed this to be true, he had a feeling he was fighting against what was already destined.
Diana had never been the type to believe in omens.
If she had been, maybe things would’ve been different and she would’ve been better prepared. Maybe, if she had been the type to believe, she wouldn’t have so quickly disregarded the notification on her phone, popping up from nowhere with a Verse of the Day from her bible app.
1 Peter 5:8
Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.
So many maybes.
But because all of these maybes could only occur with hindsight, she had been clueless as a newborn babe on the day she was fated to lose everything. And it had started innocuously enough, with Diana at the university’s parking lot, making a call to the professor’s office while she waited for Magnolia to pick her up.
Her toes curled, like it always did, and she couldn’t help smiling like a silly infatuated fool. “Hello, Professor.”
“Are you on your way back?”
“Actually, that’s the thing…” She told him about her planned visit to St. Therese’s Shelter for the Sick and Homeless with Magnolia, adding afterwards, “It’s in St. Valentine’s, so it should be safe.”
Crime-wise perhaps, the professor thought, but that wasn’t the only kind of danger they had to worry about.
“You know I’m still stuck with my thesis,” Diana ventured in face of the professor’s prolonged silence. “I know this could be nothing but a wild goose chase, but I just think it’s still worth a try, if it could give me the direction I need.”
The professor’s fingers tightened involuntarily around his phone. If he told her no, he would be doing exactly what he promised himself he wouldn’t do – change her life and lock her in a cage, atoning for a sin she hadn’t even committed.
But if he were to say yes…
“Alright,” he said finally. “But you need to take proper precautions.”
“Of course.” Diana’s voice was filled with relief. “I have my pepper spray with me at all times, and it’s not like I don’t know you and Damen still have me under 24/7 surveillance.”
“I gotta go.” Magnolia was waving for her to hurry from the driver’s seat, and Diana quickly made her way to the passenger seat. “Thanks for letting me do this. I know how much of a worrywart you are, and I promise to text you all the time. I love you.”