The sun was almost down and the shadows crept over the earth in pursuit of the receding light, eager to lay claim to the land for the next few hours. Even though it was late in the season, the fairy-like lights of the fireflies still flickered here and there across the less-than-spacious front yard, in the shrubbery beyond, and occasionally in the air. It wouldn’t be long before their lights went out for the long winter ahead.
The fireflies weren’t the only thing clinging tenaciously to the last vestige of summer. The flowers they planted along the length of the porch still sported blooms, vibrant colors against the bland brown of the log cabin, and further out, wild flowers sprouted up between the majestic trees. The pines never lost their color, but the oaks. . . The oaks had yet to turn. Not a trace of orange, yellow, or gold could be seen amongst nature’s canopy, which was unlike the trees they had seen on the drive up. Autumn was arriving all across the northeast coast, arriving everywhere except for her. It was as if Mother Nature had placed a dome over this particular area of the forest, a barrier against the approaching seasonal change so she could enjoy summer’s beauty for just a little longer, before winter came and blanketed everything in a pristine coating of white.
Standing on the porch, Jake Dougherty breathed deeply of the crisp mountain air and took in the beauty that surrounded him. God’s country is what his father would have called it, land uncorrupted by the touch of humanity, save for the cabin they were staying in and the SUV parked on the dirt path that passed for a driveway. But even that cabin, as beautiful as it was, was as closed to primitive as you could get. The water was piped in from a natural spring, the sewer he assumed passed into a septic tank somewhere behind the building. There was no electricity. They used oil-fueled hurricane lamps and candles for light, and the rooms were heated by a series of fireplaces. It was as near to perfect as one could get. There was only one thing spoiling it.
As if on cue, the shrill voice of his wife of ten months broke the stillness that lay over the land. “Jake, did you remember to pack the camera?”
With a sigh, Jake reached in the breast pocket of his flannel shirt and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. “Yes, dear,” he replied. He no longer tried to conceal the annoyance that peppered his tone whenever he spoke to her, especially since she seemed to be oblivious to it.
The door opened and he cringed inwardly and slipped the cigarettes back in his pocket as his wife came out to join him on the porch. She was a petite blonde with a flawless complexion despite the years she must have spent outdoors. Her skin was deep reddish brown, the product of a lifetime of sun worship, but it bore none of the damaging signs that would normally accompany that kind of exposure to the sun. As reluctant as he was to admit it, she was a truly beautiful woman, and any man would consider himself lucky to walk down the street with her on his arm, and so would he—if he was into that sort of thing. But Jake wasn’t.
Or at least he hadn’t been until this time last year.
Which is what he couldn’t understand.
He still had a hard time accepting the fact that he was married and, as Ivy Dougherty came to stand beside him, her belly fully of baby leading the way, that he was going to be a father. It was like living in a dream—or a nightmare, depending on your perspective. And for Jake Dougherty, it was a nightmare he hoped he would wake up from soon. But after ten months, if it hadn’t happened by now, he didn’t think he was ever going to wake up.
“Well, I looked everywhere and I can’t find it,” she said, placing her hands on her hips as if she expected him to go in and get it.
“Did you check in that blue sports bag?”
She turned a blank gaze on him, as if he had spoken in some language other than English. Whenever she looked at him that way, it was all he could do to keep from driving a fist into her face. He wasn’t violent by nature, but she was carrying this dumb blonde routine a bit far. Nobody could be that stupid. “That blue nylon bag on the bed.”
“Then don’t say you looked everywhere when it’s obvious you haven’t.”
“Don’t be that way,” she pouted, lower lip pushed out, doe eyes turned up to try soften up his mood. She took a step in his direction, intent on sliding her arm through his, but he stepped away.
“Well, then don’t be so fuckin’ stupid.”
Before their exchange could escalate into an all-out argument, the door opened and Rafe Vargas stepped onto the porch, his wife, Daisy, hot on his heels. Despite the chill in the air, Rafe was shirtless, and the sight of the man’s bare torso, the deep caramel-colored skin with a thick coating of black fur covering the pecs that tapered off and ran in a thin trail down the man’s stomach to disappear past the waistband of his tight jeans, inexplicably took Jake’s breath away. Something stirred within him, but before he could put a name to the feeling, it was gone, disappeared at the same moment someone touched his arm. He looked down to see Ivy’s hand resting gently on his forearm. A shiver slithered along his spine and he jerked his arm away. The sudden movement caused his wife to lose her balance; she teetered on the top step and would have fallen if it hadn’t been for Daisy. Despite the fact that she was just as pregnant as Ivy, Daisy was quick to come to her sister’s aide, throwing daggers in Jake’s direction as she shoved him aside. Jake, grudgingly giving ground, met her gaze head on, willing them both to fall. Not that the fall would hurt either of them, but it might hurt the babies, and with the babies out of the way, maybe they, he and Rafe, would be freed from whatever hold these two women had on them.
As Rafe slipped between him and the two women on his way down the steps, he practically brushed against Jake in his effort to avoid coming into contact with either of the women. Their eyes met briefly. Jake could see the fear in the other man’s green eyes, a quiet, pleading desperation. It was the same look Jake imagined a fox might have in its eyes when it found itself caught in a trap and gnawed at its leg in an attempt to free itself and escape the death it knew was coming. It was the same look Jake saw in his own eyes whenever he looked in the mirror.
“Where ya goin’,” Jake asked.
Rafe paused, one foot still resting on the bottom step, and looked back at Jake. “We’re gonna need some more fire wood.” Jake noticed the way the man’s gaze danced back and forth between him and the wives.
“You want me to give you a hand with that?” Jake prayed Rafe heard the distress in his voice, his need to be away, but when the man responded, he realized he was on his own.
“That’s alright. I got it.” Before the words were even out of his mouth, Rafe was pushing away from the step. Without a glance at Jake, he hurriedly made his way around to the back of the house.
Under the watchful eyes of the Witches of Eastwick, Jake watched Rafe until the man disappeared from view. For a moment, he considered following the man out back, but he didn’t want to seem in desperate need of escape, so instead he went down the steps and started across the lawn. What he wanted to do more than anything else was to get into the SUV and head back to the city—Fuck everybody—but he wouldn’t, he couldn’t, leave Rafe to the mercy of those women. He felt a bond to the other man, one he couldn’t explain, that went beyond mere friendship.
He continued across the lawn, heading for the forest and that shadows beyond that waited for him to pass before they swallowed him whole. Halfway across the grass he stumbled as his head was filled with an annoying drone, a swarm of angry bees buzzing around in his skull. Looking around to see what might have caused him to trip, he shook his head, trying to clear it. It wasn’t the first time his thoughts had become clouded by this angry swarm, but this time he was able to think past it, which surprised him. There was only one thing that would clear it altogether, and that was distance between him and the woman he called his wife. The SUV called to him and he looked longingly at the huge forest-green vehicle. That would allow him to put a few miles between them in the shortest amount of time, but then thoughts of Rafe pushed their way into his head, and he knew he wouldn’t do it. Throwing a hate-filled glance in the direction of the porch, he turned and headed towards the tree line. He wanted—no, he needed—a smoke, and he didn’t want to hear his wife bitch about it.