"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?"

"The Darkness."

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?"

She nodded.

"Have you seen it?" I asked her.


Tags: Richelle Mead Georgina Kincaid Fantasy
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