Night Falls on the Wicked
Author:Sharie Kohle

TWENTY-SEVEN

Darby and Niklas stared through the lightly falling snow at the pretty little house with gingerbread trim. It was something out of a storybook. In the emerging day smoke curled from the brick chimney. A beautiful piece of stained glass hung in the large front bay window. A cat appeared in the windowsill, stretching so that its calico tail brushed the framed glass.

Darby rubbed her hand up and down Aimee’s slight arm. “This is the place,” she announced. There was only one Alice Davies listed as a resident of this town.

“I remember the pretty glass in the window.” Aimee pointed at the house, leaning forward anxiously. “And that’s Patch. I remember he used to chew my toes.” She giggled and the sound lifted Darby’s heart.

Darby smiled, glad to see her anxious to reunite with her grandmother, but sad, too. Sad to say good-bye. She slid a lock of soft brown hair behind the girl’s ear.

Aimee looked at her, some of the happiness dimming from her eyes. “Don’t you want to come in with me?”

Darby slid a pained glance at Niklas. They’d gone over this. She knew it was the only way. His look was sympathetic, even as his eyes conveyed what she already knew. Aimee had to go in alone.

With a deep breath, she drew the girl into her arms and hugged her tightly. “No. We can’t go with you, honey.”

“Aimee,” Niklas began, his voice gentle. “You know it’s not a good idea to tell anyone what happened—”

“You mean about the monsters?”

Niklas flicked his gaze to Darby, questioning, unsure whether he should confirm this. Darby gave him an encouraging nod. They couldn’t erase any of the things from Aimee’s mind.

“Yes. The monsters. It’s not a good idea to tell people about them—”

“Yeah. No one would believe me.” Aimee nodded, her blue-green eyes widely innocent but also wise beyond her years.

“Probably not,” he agreed.

“They’d probably think I was loony.”

“Yes,” Darby quickly inserted. “And we wouldn’t want them to think you’re loony.”

“They could lock me up in the loony bin.” She nodded solemnly, and Darby was surprised at how unerringly close to the truth that statement was.

“Yes,” Darby agreed, solemn in turn.

She wrinkled her little nose. “And you know, I don’t really want to talk about them anymore. I’d rather forget them.”

“I can understand that. You’ve been a very brave girl.”

Aimee gathered her small bag of things, her movements reflecting her eagerness to be on her way, to see her grandmother. Darby forced her hands to remain still at her sides, letting her go. She should be glad it’s this easy for the girl. She had endured a lot. Darby didn’t want her sad or reluctant to leave. No sense this being hard for both of them.

With one hand on the latch of the car door, Aimee stopped and turned, smiling back at Darby. Darby felt herself smile back, even though her heart was aching.

Aimee flung herself into Darby’s arms one final time. As if sensing Darby’s sadness, she said, “It’s going to be all right, Darby. I have Gram. She’ll take care of me.” She pulled back and looked into Darby’s face with those wise eyes. “And you have Niklas.”

Darby nodded, finding no difficulty agreeing with that statement. Her gaze slid to him and her heart swelled. She had Niklas.

Then Aimee was gone, out the door and running up the snow-covered walk. Darby could hear her pounding on the front door from where they sat inside the car. A middle-aged woman opened the door, her expression startled to find Aimee standing there by herself. But joy was soon there, eclipsing any other emotion. The woman bent down and hugged Aimee, looking as though she would never let her go.

Darby watched, breathless, bittersweet happiness filling her chest as Aimee and her grandmother went inside the house.

“Well,” Niklas said, letting the finality of that word hang on the air for a moment. “You did it. You got her home safely.”

“We did it,” she corrected. A lump formed in her throat. They were done here. Darby had kept her promises to Aimee.

And her promise to herself. To open herself to life. To open her heart.

Rather than get out of the car, Darby climbed into the front seat and dropped down beside Niklas. She covered his hand with her own and wove her fingers through his.

Her head fell back against the headrest. His eyes slid over her, lazy and seductive, warming her from the inside out. “Ready?” he asked.

“For anything,” she returned with a coy smile, buckling herself in.

“Oh, really?” He leaned across the distance separating them and kissed her, pressing his warm lips over hers until the kiss grew into something hungry and deep. When he broke free, she was breathless and wanting more.

His smile was blinding, gorgeous and genuine, the grooves on either side of his cheeks deep.

“You have me,” he said, echoing Aimee’s earlier comment.

“That’s right.” It was more than she had ever hoped, ever dreamed she would have.

“And I have you.” His hand turned over, his palm kissing hers. With one hand on the wheel, he guided them out onto the road. They weren’t alone anymore. They had each other.

She looked back once to the cozy house with its smoking chimney, and then looked ahead again. The sun was starting to come out, breaking through the clouds. Suddenly the road looked very bright.

Turning, she looked at Niklas, catching his gaze, basking in the warmth of his smile, in the happiness of her heart.

Everything looked brighter.