Caitlyn Crossman snorted into the cold January air in the small clearing in the trees. With each breath she took, a small puff of fog escaped her lips, hovering for a second before dissipating into the night. In the shadow of the empty mansion, she struggled with an axe that was much too large and heavy for her small frame. She heaved it over her head and brought it down to split the log she had placed on its end on the chopping block. She had seen this done on TV. In theory, all you had to do was swing the axe, and it would somehow manage to magically land in the center of the wood and split the entire thing in one whack. Sounded pretty simple.
That was theory. In real life, however, no such magic occurred. She managed to hit the log dead center, but, the axe wedged itself in and refused to release the wood. She found herself cursing and slamming the entire log up and down on the block like a hammer. Every slam released a loud "THWACK" sound into the night. It bounced off the trees back against the house and into the trees again.
"This." thwack "is." thwack "so." thwack "STUPID!" thwack.
"AUYAGH!" Caitlyn jumped back about three feet with her hand over her chest to keep her heart from leaping out. The axe fell from her grasp and tumbled clumsily onto the ground. Realizing that she might need it for self-protection, Caitlyn scrambled to retrieve it. She held it up in what she hoped was a threatening pose. The log jutted out awkwardly from the sharp edge. She stared into the trees where the voice had emerged. She was so sure she had been alone.
"Who's that? Lurking there? Identify yourself, intruder!" she demanded. Somebody moved in the shadow of the trees. She might not have seen him under normal circumstances. The darkness of night had already covered them. The trees around them protected them from any usable light that would be shining down on them from the exterior lights behind the house. She might have had to step closer to see him at all, but he seemed to be glowing blue in the faintest way. Or maybe that wasn't quite the right word. He was definitely luminous, but not quite glowing. Maybe he had some kind of glow-in-the-dark lotion rubbed into his skin. Or maybe he was radioactive. Caitlyn had never seen anything like this. Was this a flashback from the one time she had done acid in high school? Or maybe the combination of moonlight and the small flutters of artificial light were peeking through the branches of the trees and playing tricks on her eyes. She blinked hard and re-focused.
Oh my. A man. She knew that some warning bells were going off somewhere inside her head, but she ignored them. A strange man creeping up on her in the dark should have kept her in self-defense mode, but her curiosity had gotten the best of her. She needed to investigate this a bit further.
It's a strange man, Caitlyn, she thought to herself. And a nice looking one, too. Except for that weird radiance he's putting off. Maybe I'm dreaming. I fell asleep in the library, and now I'm dreaming about unfamiliar, glowing men in my own backyard. I wonder how this one will play out. Is he here to kill me, or maybe to rescue me from this solitary life I've carved out for myself and carry me off into the moonlight?
What the hell is he doing here, anyway? she thought belatedly. This is private property!
"I am not lurking," the man stated as he stepped closer. The dry leaves beneath his feet crunched and swished as he approached her. Surely she should have noticed the sound of that before he had gotten so close to her, but her log-thwacking had probably been too loud.
"Vampires lurk," Caitlyn said. She thrust her chin up in defiance of his presence. She took in the sight of him. Not quite six feet tall, thirty-something, longish brown hair, a little rugged…nice solid body. She might have spent a little more time admiring his friendly face, but she was distracted by his glowing… (Or shining?) She couldn't take her eyes off him.
I can't see his eyes in the dark, she told herself. Or his fangs. Do vampires glow? It seemed that she had read that somewhere.
"I'm hardly a vampire," he said. "If I were, do you think you'd still be standing there, blood still pulsing through your veins?" He seemed to take offense at that idea. Hmm. She lowered her awkward log/axe defense weapon.
"Demon, then? Or maybe some sort of demigod?"
"Am I that ugly?"
"Well you're obviously something, trespasser. Quit skulking around in the shadows. Step out and make yourself known." He huffed a small, white puff of breath and raked a hand through his hair, the other hand on his hip. He looked her up and down with an exasperated expression.
"And I'm not trespassing," he insisted. "I'm the new caretaker for Canyon's Edge. Gabriella Hughes hired me. She was supposed to tell you I would be here tonight. When you didn't answer the door, I came around to look for you."
Caitlyn looked him over, giving no expression on her face. He wore old jeans, work boots and a camel-colored work jacket. It was obvious to her that the man wasn't here for a tea party. She nodded once, decisively.
Gabriella Hughes was her cousin, whom her father John had hired to act as manager of the estate for the duration of his stay in London. She was supposed to keep track of the upkeep on the house, hire cleaning crews, lawn maintenance, things like that. It just so happened that she wasn't very good at the job. She often came to Canyon's Edge unannounced on the pretense that she was "checking on the house." She usually had a friend or two in tow and would parade them through the mansion, pointing out artwork and recalling times of her life she had spent in the house. Caitlyn was supposed to call her whenever she had problems, but she'd had to call a plumber twice herself over the last year when Gabriella couldn't be reached. Her cousin then had the audacity to reprimand Caitlyn for calling the wrong plumber.
The truth was, if Caitlyn's father or her cousin Gabriella had hired a new caretaker, it was news to her. Even so, she had no desire to give him the impression that she was such a flake, unaware of the things that transpire in her own home. He could figure all that out later. He was claiming to belong there, and until she learned otherwise, she would play along. Besides, Canyon's Edge needed a caretaker. He looked like the capable sort. He might come in handy. She mulled this over for about a half a second.
"Superhero, then." And it was a statement, not a question.
"I suppose," he half smiled, not quite sure what to make of Caitlyn. He stepped forward to offer a handshake. Caitlyn took it, expecting a quick shake, but the man held her hand and turned it over once, appraising it. As he did, the luminous shine she was seeing seemed to fade out of him and into her, as if he were on a dimmer switch and somebody had slowly turned it off on his end and turned it on at her end. She watched it fade very quickly out of her own body. It was gone, but not without leaving behind a very comfortable and pleasant warmth. This was a very lifelike dream. Caitlyn closed her eyes tight and then opened them again.
He made no apologies for his assault of light and heat. Caitlyn assumed he was unaware of his little aura. She seemed to be the only one troubled by it.
Now that he had come so close to her, he loomed over her. He wasn't menacing. He was just tall. He seemed to have no regard for personal space as he was standing not six inches away from her, pulling her fingers back so he could view the lines of her palm. She had to tilt her head upward to see his face. He looked completely normal, except, he had the weirdest colored eyes. Speckled. (Caitlyn wondered... if this superhero decided to shoot laser beams from his eyes, what color would that laser be?) She wasn't sure he had been emitting any kind of light at all. It must have been lack of sleep that was making her see things.
"Where are your gloves?" he asked with the slightest hint of reprimand leaking into his voice. "It's cold and you'll give yourself blisters handling that axe." His thumb rubbed harshly across her palm and he splayed it open so she could see it better. "See there, you've already got a little one."
Quickly, and quite unexpectedly, he lightly kissed the offensive bubble of skin. She was frozen for a moment just staring at her hand and wondering if he had really done that, or if she was still hallucinating or dreaming, or whatever was happening to her. She pulled her hand back.
"In hindsight, everything's twenty-twenty." She looked him over again. She knew him from somewhere, she decided. A memory played hide and seek in the back of her mind. Alle, alle auch sind frei! She just couldn't recall him. Caitlyn tipped her head to one side as if that would cause the memory to break loose and bring itself forward. It didn't.
He smiled and nodded. She had thought the glowing had been distracting, but his smile almost took her breath away. She briefly looked behind her to see if anybody else might pop out to help her look at him. She was certain that she shouldn't be the only one enjoying this view.
"I'm Gavin Young," he said. He turned and motioned to a smaller being that was hiding behind a tree. "And this is my Little Wood Nymph, Grace." True to her name, Little Grace hopped lithely into view as if she emerged from the heart of the tree itself. She wore a deep blue coat with big black buttons and black knit gloves. In one arm, she hugged a big cloth doll with yellow yarn hair and painted on big, blue eyes. The doll was ragged and dirty. Caitlyn knew from experience, the raggier the doll, the more love the child had given to it.
Grace herself had loose, sandy brown curls that fell to the middle of her back and a nice little face that was pink and full of a smile. The faint light that was available fell on the child's big blue eyes and lit them up like Christmas lights. Caitlyn sized her up with one sweep of her eyes.
"Wood Nymph Princess?" Caitlyn clarified.
"Yes, ma'am, that's what I am," Grace agreed in a tiny little voice that had Caitlyn placing her hand over her melting heart. She absolutely loved children.
"And who is this?" she motioned to the doll, who was almost as big as her caregiver.
"Matilda." The girl gazed down into the doll's face and rubbed her eyes with her fingertips. "She keeps me safe."
"I see. I'm Caitlyn Crossman, welcome to Canyon's Edge," she told the child, who seemed to be all of three years old. "Have you eaten supper?" Grace nodded. Curls bounced. Dimples appeared.
"At a restaurant with a pretty waitress," Grace volunteered. She said restaurant like REST-a-RAWNT.
Well, good. Because there's no food in the kitchen.
A swift gust of icy winter wind pushed past the three of them, dragging their hair along with it. It pulled at little Matilda, almost stealing her away from Grace. The child pulled the doll closer and the wind moved on with a low groan through the trees.
"C'mon, Little Ones." Caitlyn held her hand out to Grace. "It's time to go inside. I can see your breath in the air. Unless that's smoke. Have you been smoking, Grace?"
Grace just laughed and took Caitlyn's hand. They stepped away from Gavin and walked together toward the main house.
"Watch out for the pixies," Caitlyn warned Grace calmly. "They are vicious and horrible little creatures that will bite your ankles if they catch you out here after dark. I'll show you a trick to keep them away from you sometime if it turns out to be a problem for you."
Gavin cursed under his breath when he caught himself looking down at his feet for tiny winged creatures with sharp teeth. He stared after Caitlyn and Grace. He watched them drag their shadows across the leaf-littered ground and wondered briefly if he hadn't been dismissed altogether.
"Are you coming then, Superhero?" Caitlyn Crossman called back to him, an air of dignity in her voice.
Gavin huffed a little and then set his feet into motion, following behind the strange woman who had just stolen his child away from him.