Title: Winter’s Gift
Author:  Sylvia Bond

Genre/Rating: Gen/PG

Word Count:  22,823

Fandom: Dark Shadows

Verse: Gina Lee (# 6)

Summary:  It’s Christmas time, and Gina is determined to keep her friendship with Willie, even if he’s doing his best to avoid her. But then, her house burns down, and Willie is sure that Barnabas is responsible. He’s no longer on his very best behavior and rebels, not knowing that Gina did not die in the fire. Gina, for her part, comes up to the Old House and stirs up the pot a little when she realizes that Barnabas was not responsible for her having wood to warm her through the winter.

A/N: Gina turned into our little wolverine in this story, and she can’t stand that Barnabas Collins, which made it even more fun.

 

***


Gina watched him go, hands falling to her sides, empty. But she could hardly make him stay, now could she. Not with him so eager to go, so desperate to go. And as he walked away, watching the stiffness with which he held himself and the slight limp which once again seemed to plague him, a thought that was not new to her rose up in her mind.

 

Someone had hurt him, and recently too, someone had laid into him where it would not show. Like Ezra used to do to her, blows to the body where no one would see them, someplace where it would take her down and keep her obedient, but that would not attract attention. Once in a while, like when he was drunk . . . okay, more than a few times, Ez had hit her where it would show, in the face, giving her black eyes, and once a horrid blow to the side of her neck, and she’d taken to wearing turtlenecks. Like Willie was wearing now.


She did not want to think it. Not at all. But as she slowly made her way out of the library and down the snow-laced steps to her car, she knew it was true. The only person who could be doing this to Willie, who had constant access and some sort of control over him, was his boss, Mr. Barnabas Collins.

 

As she brushed the lightly gathered snow from her car, she shook her head. Up at the stoplight, where a line of cars sat idling, she could see the corner of Willie’s truck, the exhaust pipe sending out an isolated plume of white smoke in the cold air, break lights bright red as he waited to turn left. Left to the Collins Estate and the cold box that was the Old House. The signal turned green and the line of cars, Willie’s truck among them, crawled over the snowy street and vanished around the corner. Gina shook herself and got in her car and started the engine. Driving home through white-banked roads, she had to consider that Mr. Collins might be eccentric and old-fashioned, wanting Willie to be at his beck and call, but she could hardly imagine that he’d come at Willie as Ezra used to do her, with fists flying, face red with rage. It didn’t suit him somehow.

 

But there had been something he’d done to Willie, something that didn’t show, that happened after the post-Thanksgiving meal that they’d shared. Something so unyielding that when Willie saw her again, only days later in the grocery store, their meeting had been as unpleasant as the time when, sporting two black eyes, she’d bumped into the pastor from their church. The pastor must have known who had given them to her, but yet, beyond his startled sound upon seeing her, he’d not commented on them.

 

Perhaps he believed her door story, or perhaps he even thought she’d deserved them. A supper gone cold or put on too late. She would have thought a pastor, of all people, would have seen the truth for what it was and offered assistance. Someone to talk to. Counseling. An intervention. But there had come none of that and she’d been left to struggle on her own. She’d seen a lot less of the inside of a church after that.

 

Willie, upon seeing her, had had the same reaction as the pastor. He’d rounded the corner, carrying a metal basket only half full, and nearly ran into her, like he had at the library. Stopping short, his face slowly drained of color, and he’d made the same startled sound. There had been a fresh bruise brought to contrast on his face and another turtleneck, she remembered now, and purple circles under his eyes that look as if they’d been dappled on by a careless brush. And a look in his eyes, which seemed to drain to grey in his panic, much like the one he’d had when he’d first come over to her house, and looked at her from behind the wheel of his truck. Hands wrenching back and forth, his mouth opened as if he wanted, desperately so, to say something. He’d wanted to say something in the grocery store too, his mouth opened to say it, and then, as if someone turned a switch off inside of him, he closed his eyes, wincing, a groan faint in his throat. Then he’d put the basket down, just like that, and turned on his heel and lit out of the store so fast she had no chance to call after him.

 

And then another encounter, that time at the post office when she’d been walking in, Polly in tow, and he’d been walking out. When he saw her, he saw Polly too, and Polly had naturally assumed there would be a welcome there. She’d been too late to stop the little girl from running up to Willie, who had thrown up his hands as if to avoid touching her, and he walked past her so fast she was almost thrown off her feet. At the time Gina had tried to explain that Mister Loomis was a very busy man and that he didn’t always have time to play. But even in her excuses to the sad, little face, she knew that Willie Loomis wasn’t going to be coming around any more. Wasn’t going to talk to them anymore. Ever.

 

But he wanted to, oh, how he wanted to. It was in his eyes, even that time at the laundromat, when Polly had tried to take it on herself yet another time to be friendly. Those eyes of his had been rock hard and blue as live, deep ice, and he’d looked ready to fall apart even as he stuffed his damp clothes in a large, greyed laundry bag and rushed out of there. So it wasn’t him keeping the distance, not with him wanting it like he did. It was that boss of his. That Mr. Collins. Rich as a king and unable to mind his own business. She shook her head again as she pulled into her newly shoveled driveway. Tom again, no doubt, and his excuse would be as it always was, oh, Anne wanted me out of the house, it’s just as easy to shovel two walks as it is one. A smile came to her face in spite of what she’d just learned about Ezra. People were funny, wanting to give even when they had nothing. And Christmas was coming.

 

*

 

When Barnabas had examined the receipts from the gas station, he’d demanded to know why Willie was making so many trips to Bangor. Willie had explained, patiently, he thought, that he was trying to pick up the alabaster carvings that were supposed to come in any day now. That was stretching it, because the carvings weren’t due until the 23rd, and yet he’d been driving up there almost every day for a week, regardless of the weather. Ever since his last encounter with Gina Lee Logan at the library, he’d been determined to avoid her, and yet there seemed no way that he could. Sooner or later she was going to be able to corner him again and want to ferret out a lot of things that he didn’t want to tell her.

 

It would be too cruel to lie and say, gosh, Gina, I don’t want to be your friend anymore, and I don’t want you to be mine. But harder still would be to tell her the truth, well, my boss doesn’t want me to have any friends. She would want to know why on earth he would let his boss tell him who he could and could not associate with. He simply could not imagine telling her the real answer to that one.

 

And so he avoided her.

 

Bangor had shops as well as Collinsport did. Bangor sold food and stamps and gasoline, and so he put a little extra mileage on the truck, what was that? Nothing. Not in the big picture. But Barnabas, naturally, had suspected the worst.

 

“Is there something I should know about, Willie? Something going on in Bangor?”

 

“No, there’s nothing, I’m tellin’ ya,” Willie said for what felt the hundredth time. “It’s just that I know you’re anxious about those carvings and everything—”

 

“The bill of lading,” interrupted Barnabas, “clearly says the 23rd for delivery. The Italians were never prompt shippers even in my day, whyever would you assume that the carvings would actually arrive early?”

 

Willie looked up from the pile of receipts on the desk, the baleful look in Barnabas’ dark eyes causing something inside of him to squirm around.

 

“It could happen,” he said, managing by some miracle not to trip over even that much.

 

“Not on a shipment from Italy,” replied Barnabas assuredly. “Believe me, I know.”

 

For a second, Willie thought that to prove his point the vampire was going to start in again with the story about the weeks and weeks of delay that had occasioned the arrival of the Italian marble for the fireplaces in the Old House. Willie let the breath stream slowly out of him, settling his shoulders for it, when he felt Barnabas’ eyes on him.

 

“I will not have you traipsing up to Bangor when there is no reason for it, Willie,” said the vampire, his sharp tones snapping in the air. “Not when there are supplies enough in the village that would serve us as well.” He looked down at the receipt in his hand again. “Do not let this become an occasion where I must prohibit your trips to Bangor without my approval.”

 

Reasoning this out in his head settled a heaviness in Willie’s stomach. Barnabas might not know the truth of it, but what he was asking Willie to do was risk running into Gina again. Which could have nothing but disastrous results. But with the freedom of movement between here and Bangor at stake, he knew he would have to take that risk.

 

Sometimes the hour-long drive was the only thing that kept him sane. Gina would just have to be avoided by every effort on his part.

 

“Do I make myself clear?” asked Barnabas without looking up.

 

Willie nodded silently, and then cleared his throat. “Yes, I understand.”

 

“Good.”

 

Of course it wasn’t good, none of it was, but as Barnabas picked up the pen and began writing in his ledger, Willie knew that none of that mattered. Barnabas had spoken, and Willie’s only option was compliance. He knew that. In his heart he knew it, knew it in a way that had become to him second only to breathing. Still it rankled, like a bitterness that never faded, and as it surfaced, as he felt it coursing behind his eyes, Barnabas looked up.

 

“I beg your pardon?” asked Barnabas, as if

 

Willie had spoken.

 

Startled, Willie jerked back. “Nothin’,” he said quickly, “I didn’t say nothin’.”

 

Barnabas was on his feet anyway, receipts fluttering off the table with his movement, the lines of his face deepening.

 

“Your expression speaks for you, Willie,” he said. “And I do not like what it is saying.”

 

A double hitched breath stumbled out of him and even though his head went back as if to get out of arm’s reach, he felt the fire leaping in his eyes. “I didn’t say nothin’, I’m telling you.”

 

“But you thought it, didn’t you.”

 

A breath.

 

“Yes.”

 

A small defiance, so small, but not a protest or avoidance. Only the truth, and he watched as Barnabas measured this, watched those dark eyes as they studied him, absorbed what they saw and calculated his existence. An existence worth letting continue, or no? He felt the fire die and the brave hardness inside of him shell away as Barnabas grabbed his arm.

 

“I would warn you, Willie,” said Barnabas, his head tipping to one side, the angle casting an odd light to his eyes, “that such thoughts could be taken as disobedience, if not outright rebellion.”

 

“But I didn’t—” he began, but as he saw the light grow in Barnabas’ eyes, and that expression of expectation form darkly on his face, Willie snapped his mouth shut. Barnabas might have backed off, but he was still waiting. Watching. Even wanting Willie to crack. To break down and protest or complain, so that he would no longer have any constraints about the continued safety of Gina Logan and her children.

 

“Didn’t what?”

 

An answer was required, but his racing mind could not come up with one. He could not even recall what he’d been trying to say. Barnabas shook him.

 

“Answer me,” he said, quite calmly, but the impatience was layered in his voice.

Blinking, Willie looked at him, as if struggling against a very bright light, almost not seeing the opened, flat palm as it came at him, only knowing the bright sear of pain that leaped across his face.

 

“I said, answer me.”

 

Sucking back air through tightened lips, Willie tried again. “I like driving to Bangor, I like the drive, please don’t—” He stopped and licked his lips, shocked for a moment to find no traces of blood. Barnabas hadn’t hit him very hard, only enough to get his attention. “I just like driving that way, especially in the snow, it’s. . . .” His voice trailed off as he glanced up, realizing that Barnabas was watching him with an odd expression. As if he were listening. As if he believed him. “It’s peaceful,” he finished.

 

“Peaceful,” Barnabas said, head going back until he was looking down at Willie as if from a great height. “Peaceful. I see.”

 

Whether he really saw or not, Willie didn’t care. He only cared that Barnabas was turning away, his mind distracted by his own thoughts, hand reaching absently to pick up the fallen receipts. The vampire sat down again at the desk in the sitting room and, picking up the pen, turned to his ledger. When he looked as if he were completely absorbed in his work, Willie backed out of the room and walked as quickly as he could up to his room, where he planned to build an enormous fire to warm himself up before he fell asleep.

 

*

 

The day before Christmas Eve day had one of those sunrises that Willie had only ever seen on Christmas cards. The top layer of snow had melted in a vague rise of heat the day before and so overnight had frozen again into a sheet of soft crystal that when he opened the door to go warm up the truck and scrape the windshields of ice, banked the sun right into his eyes. The sky between the trees and overhead was sharp and clear and so blue he thought his eyes were going to pop out of his head. Not a cloud anywhere, and him with the impunity to drive to Bangor.

 

When he’d mentioned to Barnabas just before sunrise that he was going to Bangor, Barnabas had reminded him to go to Collinsport to pick up the wrapped presents he’d ordered. Willie had nodded his understanding of this as he’d closed the coffin lid. The number of presents and gifts the vampire had ordered went beyond lavish. Willie couldn’t even imagine what Barnabas might buy that the Collins family didn’t already own. It had been years since Willie had given or received a Christmas present, or any other kind of present for that matter, and he thought the whole thing was vaguely obscene. You wanted something? You took it, or you got it yourself.

 

So he drove to Bangor, the interior of the truck warming up a bit faster than usual with the sun streaming in through all the windows and the reflection off the white fields of snow. He tried to find a station that wasn’t playing Christmas carols and managed to find a talk station where someone was droning on about the rising cost of living and the riots and wars in other countries and Willie was content to listen to it. It suited his mood perfectly and helped him not to think.

 

Bangor took most of the day. At the docks there had been an unwieldy amount of confusion about the carvings, and though Barnabas might put it off to the Italian element, Willie knew it was just the rush of the holidays. Too many people waiting too long to order too many presents from too far away.

 

He’d picked up groceries, as well, and more supplies for making wreaths, just in case someone at Collinwood had decided that a wreath for every double door wasn’t enough. He had a feeling it wouldn’t be.

 

The whole town of Bangor had been so jammed that he was more than grateful to be on the road once more, chugging back to Collinsport as the day lengthened towards night. But on the way back, even the talk station had shut down or changed its tune and now every station he turned to had Christmas carols. Every single one. He snapped the radio off and drove in silence, watching the trees speeding past him on the road make long blue shadows in the snow. He guessed the quiet of the drive was nice, the only bad part was that he still had to head into Collinsport proper for the presents from the shops that Barnabas had ordered. Once in town there was a chance that he could run into Gina Logan when he was already beyond imagining what he would say to her. He’d shunned her and been rude to her, and every time he saw the confusion in those serious brown eyes a part of him died. Even though he’d agreed, even though he knew it was better this way, the safety of that woman and her small family secured, he hadn’t realized how much it was going to cost him. But what price was too high?

 

Shaking his head, he concentrated on making his way downtown, stopping at each of the shops as quickly as possible. There got to be so much in the back of the truck that he had to start piling it in the front seat, thinking that maybe tomorrow he could get the rest of it. No sense breaking something precious on top of everything else.

 

The responsibility of the day suddenly overwhelmed him.

 

I’m going to the Blue Whale, damnit.

 

It was the only place Gina was sure not to be. He pulled into the street that led to the Blue Whale and parked, trying not to remember that only a block or two away stood the Logan‘s bungalow, where Polly had no doubt replaced the pilgrims and Indians with angels and whatever other people populated her Christmas-time world. Santa maybe.

 

Willie’s exposure to little kids at Christmas suddenly revealed itself to be very limited; he had no idea beyond a vague notion of angels bringing gifts of who was also related to this particular holiday.

 

It doesn’t matter, okay?

 

Somehow, though, it did matter, even as he denied it and the sorrow returned, rising up to taste bitter in his mouth. He got out of the truck and locked it, though the back was open and anybody could take what they wanted. That was not likely to happen, not in this town. Even though it was Willie who drove this truck, it was known to one and all who it really belonged to. Stealing from a Collins was a one way ticket to big trouble. Shoving the keys n his pocket, he shoved the sudden memory of Jason away as well. Jason had paid a larger penalty than most, and would pay it forever.

 

Just as he stepped on the sidewalk, a large ka- BOOM rent the air and Willie whipped his head up, thinking that the sound had come from the cannery, that something had exploded. Then he realized that the echo of the sound had merely ricocheted off the metal buildings of the cannery and that the sound had actually come from the other direction. From the rows and rows of bungalows that housed many of the cannery workers, dock workers, and those in town who worked too hard for too little money.

 

As Willie scanned the air above the roofs, black smoke and hard, yellow flames were already pluming in the air. And not too far off either, only one street away. Half a block down. Gina’s street.

 

Leaving the truck, he ran down the street and turned, breath coming fast in the frosty pre-twilight air, as the cold came down and the sounds of sirens started wailing in the distance. Once on Gina’s street his eyes told him what he already knew. Her house was in flames. Total flames, the old wood going up like a tinderbox. There were already people standing in the street staring at it, as if unable to believe their eyes, and he could see himself that her car was in the driveway.

 

His feet slipped on a patch of ice as he tried to run faster, as the fire truck careened past him, scattering people on each side of the street like leaves. It took only a second to get to his feet, but when he did the flames were higher and he could almost feel the heat from two snow-covered front yards away. One yard away and the heat was very real, the black smoke boiling up in the cold air, and the flames snapping away merrily. He rushed up to the gate, and flung it open, the metal warm beneath his hands.

 

“Hey!” he heard from behind him. “Get away from there, you!”

 

Without turning his head, Willie bent forward for a sprint up the sidewalk. The car was in the driveway and Gina and her kids were inside. Barnabas could hang him at sunset if he wanted to, he was going to get them out.

 

Large, gloved hands grabbed him and pulled him back, and Willie lashed out, not seeing who it was, not caring, only knowing he had to get in there, he had to get to Gina. He swung back with a fist, hitting something solid and human and then another pair of hands grabbed him and now he was being pulled back, away from the flames, and he growled and spun around. This surprised whoever had been holding him and they let go. Crouching down, he looked up at the two firemen, yellow raincoats and heavy boots standing above him and he reached for whatever his hands could find, but there was nothing. No weapon at hand, nothing but his fists and his feet and snow, and so when the firemen came at him again he was not ready.

 

He lashed out anyway, chucking one of them in the face and sending him reeling back. The fire blazed higher now, and another ka-thump brought part of the roof caving in and a slew of smoke pouring out. Willie turned, and in that instant when his only thought was of going in there, into the blaze and saving them, he was again grabbed from behind, this time by his feet and lifted off the ground entirely. Writhing, he tried to shuck his shoulders free, tried to kick his feet free, all the while the scream building inside of him.

 

“Let me go in there! Let me go, let me GO!”

 

A stiff little breeze brought the smoke in their direction and it blanketed them all, bringing pieces of ash and soot to swat their faces, sticking in the places where their skin was damp. Someone grabbed Willie’s face and held it too tightly and shouted at him with white teeth and hard eyes.

 

“No one’s going in there, it’s too late.”

 

“No, it’s not, it’s not, it’s NOT!”

 

But the fireman apparently had had enough. “Get the sheriff over here,” he snapped, “I don’t have time for this. Those houses are too close together to be mucking around.”

 

With a wail, Willie struggled against the arms that held him, against Sheriff Patterson’s stern face, against the handcuffs that were snapped on him. It didn’t seem to matter, no matter how hard he jerked away, there were more hands to hold him still, to carry him to the squad car and shove him in and lock the door. Only one cop to drive him away though, safe from Willie’s fists behind the metal grid that separated the law abiding from the scum, rolling carefully over the carpet of hoses and through the cloud of people that had come to watch the bonfire. Willie plastered himself to the window, and banged his clenched fists against it, his mind reeling with images of Danny and Polly and baby Carla. And Gina Lee. The rocking chair, the paper pilgrims, the sweet potato garden, all of it in flames, frozen. Unable to escape.

 

Oh, Christ, oh, God, no, no, no, no. . . .

 

There was no help for it. The squad car carried him away, the officer in the front seat paying him no attention whatsoever, and Willie slipped down in the seat, tears tracking their way through the dark soot on his face. He squeezed his eyes shut, but that didn’t help, only brought the faces of the Logan clan into sharper relief. He dug the heels of his palms into his eyes, the angled edges of the metal cuffs cutting into his wrists. The dark dusty smell of smoke rose up from his clothes, he’d been that close to the flames and unable to save them.

 

Oh, Gina. Sweet Gina Lee.

 

His head on his knees, he lifted his arms over his head to shut out the last of the fading daylight, barely feeling the bump of the wheels as the squad car heeled awkwardly over the ruts of the snow-covered dirt road to the Old House. Didn’t matter anyway, any discomfort, not anymore. He felt the car stop, but didn’t move. Not even when the door was opened, and the officer tugged on his arm, and pulled him out of the car to stand swaying on the gravel, cuffed arms hanging limply in front of him. He was vaguely aware that the front door to the Old House had opened, and heard the sound of footsteps on the wooden stairs only distantly. He kept his eyes closed, head down.

 

Please let me die now

 

“Whatever is the matter, officer?” he heard  Barnabas ask.

 

Without looking, he knew Barnabas was eyeing him suspiciously and thinking that whatever had gone on was surely his servant’s fault. The vampire’s voice already said it.

 

“Fire in town, Mr. Collins,” answered the officer, somewhat laconically. “Loomis here was getting in the way. Sheriff Patterson told me to bring him up to you.”

 

“Getting in the way?” asked Barnabas. Willie could almost hear his eyebrows go up.  “He wanted to go into the house that was on fire, y’see.”

 

“I see,” replied Barnabas, but Willie knew he didn’t.

 

Didn’t matter though, and the officer didn’t attempt to explain. All he cared about, apparently, was getting rid of his charge and being able to get back to the excitement in town. He undid the handcuffs with undue haste, rubbing the undersides of Willie’s wrists raw as he released him.

 

“He’s all yours, Mr. Collins,” said the officer. Then he got into his car and drove away.

 

Some dark humor bubbled inside of Willie.

 

All yours? Yeah, you got that right.

 

“This is very inconvenient, Willie,” began Barnabas. “I have plans up at Collinwood this evening and do not have time to be dealing with your troublesome behavior.”

 

Willie didn’t say anything. His wrists were stinging in the cold air and the damp tears freezing on his face, and the darkness of the coming night had moved all the way through him. And from there, a numbness was growing. Like a fog bank descending, blocking off even the faint sensation of air moving across his face.

 

After a moment of silence, he heard Barnabas turn away and begin to ascend the steps leading to the wooden porch.

 

“Come along then,” Barnabas said, “and let us deal with this quickly.”

 

When Willie didn’t move, he added, “Now, Willie.”

 

The voice could not be disobeyed, even when he felt like he was shutting down, bit by bit. He followed Barnabas up the stairs, his eyes opening, but seeing everything as though through shutters. Two candles burned on the slender table in the hallway, and there was a small pile of presents on the floor next to the coat rack.

 

“As you can plainly see,” said Barnabas, with a small wave of his hand over the pile, “I have other places to be.”

 

The vampire wasn’t angry. Not yet.

 

“But before I go, I want to know what business you had attempting to rush into a house that was on fire and getting in everyone’s way.”

 

For a moment Willie shrank inside, feeling his head tucking toward his chest and the thick, familiar fear rise in his throat. Then he looked up at Barnabas, at the faintly bored expression there, the total lack of interest except where it concerned himself, and Willie felt something break off inside.

 

“I’ll tell you what business I had going in there,” he snarled. “Gina’s house was on fire and they wouldn’t let me in there to save them.”

 

Barnabas’ jaw actually dropped open, and Willie felt a single shard of gratification lance through him.

 

“The Logan residence was on fire?” asked the vampire.

 

“It burnt to the ground.” Willie’s hands balled into fists and the muscles in his chest tightened. Then at Barnabas’ continued astonishment, he added, “Don’t make like you don’t know.”

 

“I didn’t,” said Barnabas, obviously taken back enough to defend himself. “Your arrival was the first I had heard of it. And surely,” he paused to look at Willie sharply, “the Logans were able to get out safely?”

 

“No.” Willie’s voice came out heavy and felt thick in his throat. “No. They didn’t make it.” The muscles in his jaw were tightening now and it was as though something began to build hotly behind his eyes. “But of course, you would have made sure they wouldn’t be able make it before you arranged to have their house set on fire.”

 

“I?” Now Barnabas was actively shocked, and on the heels of that, his eyes narrowed. “Are you accusing me?”

 

“Yeah, I’m accusing you.” Willie was almost shouting now as he moved forward until he was chest to chest with Barnabas, looking up into that hawked face, feeling like he wanted to spit in it, feeling the horror of the afternoon become an anger that he was suddenly unable to control. “You couldn’t stand to keep your end of the bargain because you couldn’t break me, so you set this up, you—”

 

A cold hand snatched him by the throat, the fingers tightening. The vampire brought their faces very close together, so close that Willie could feel the icy breath from that mouth, and he shuddered as the heat from his body was leached out by the coldness of the vampire’s proximity. “I have kept my end of the bargain faithfully, Willie, as I assume you have kept yours. I had nothing whatsoever to do with the demise of the Logan clan.”

 

“LIAR!” The word shrieked from him and Willie lashed out, his fist catching Barnabas square on the jaw. With one fluid gesture, the vampire released him and backhanded him across the face, sending him flying fully across the foyer, tumbling the stack of presents, his head making a hole in the plaster with a hard crack. Willie struggled to the top of the darkness swimming in front of him, looking up as he tasted the salty blood on his lips where Barnabas’ ring had opened it up.

 

The vampire stood over him, face in darkness, shoulders silhouetted against the candles, and the blood in Willie’s face slipped away, the boiling anger replaced by coldness that crawled inside of him, reaching every part in trembling waves.

 

Barnabas stepped even closer now, his dark, leather shoes on either side of one of Willie’s outstretched legs, and Willie had to tip his head back to try to see his face. As if he would really want to see the expression there. And along the back of his neck a dampness grew as the tears slipped from the corners of his eyes.

 

“Why are you calling me a liar? Is there something you want to tell me, Willie?”

 

The library. Oh, Christ, he knows about the meeting in the library.

 

The Thing worked in darkness, even when he couldn’t see it glittering in the vampire’s eyes, even when his own vision was swimming as his head began to pound, and he reached up a hand, as if to block the intensity of the faceless stare.

 

“Gina—” Willie began.

 

Two hands grabbed his shirt and pulled him halfway up, his head snapping back on his neck, his legs scrabbling uselessly under him.

 

“What was that woman to you?” Barnabas’ voice was almost a hiss, the underlying snarl sending a reel of shudders through Willie’s body.

 

His mouth worked, and he could feel the hot blood from his split lip working its way down his chin. Barnabas shook him, bringing his body closer to the vampire’s. “Tell me!”

 

“F-friends,” he managed, gulping back a sob, turning his face away, wincing as he sensed the vampire breathing in the scent of his blood. “W-we were friends, that’s all.”

 

“Friends?” howled Barnabas, throwing Willie down hard enough so that his whole body shook the floorboards.

 

Raising himself on bruised elbows, Willie took a huge breath and swallowed the blood that had built in his mouth. It was true, he knew it was. Even though there was one moment when his heart’s desire had made him rush from the Logan house in shame, he knew that Gina had been his friend, in all things, in all ways. They didn’t talk, not like him and Jason had often done over a series of beers and even, once or twice, perfectly sober, but when he looked into her eyes, he had seen understanding there. A brown calmness and an acceptance which he’d paid for in full after that autumn day when the storms had come early to Maine.

 

“J-just friends, Barnabas, just friends, okay?”

 

As the steps came closer, Willie’s head sank back to the floor, his body totally limp as he was turned over and tossed against the railing of the stairs. He grabbed it with one hand and pulled himself up, and in the candles’ light could now fully see the expression on the vampire’s face. The eyes were slits, the skin tight over the cheekbones, and the mouth drawn into a hard scowl.

 

“I find it unlikely,” said the vampire, his voice cold, “that mere friendship would induce you into a burning building.”

 

“Only because it’s been so long since you had any,” replied Willie without a pause, as his tears gave way to something heavy and still within him.

 

There was a flicker across the vampire’s face, an isolated movement where his eyes closed, and when he opened them, they were ice hard. His hands reached for his cane, which hung on the coat rack, and he hefted it in his palms. Willie looked up at him, his gaze steady, his breath hitching only faintly in his throat. If it was the final blow that Barnabas wanted to dispense, he was welcome to do it. Willie found he no longer cared.

 

And then, inexplicably, came the quick sounds of footsteps on the wooden porch and then heavy banging on the front door.

 

*

 

Christmas shopping with Anne in Bangor had been a lot like the day Ezra had proposed, telling her that he’d name his newly purchased fishing vessel after her. Overwhelmingly perfect. His soft, blue eyes had looked like newly risen surf in the full of a clear, summer’s day, and his hands on hers had been large and confident. He was a good sailor on his father’s trawler and, with fishing his life, he promised that as his wife she would never want for anything it was in his power to give.

 

And she hadn’t in those first years that the Gina Lee had brought in iced holds of prime catch and her trips out to sea had been braced with good fortune. Not a man lost or a net torn or any time spent idle as the newly installed sonar searched for and found schools of mullet and cod. There had even been the one time he’d granted her frequent request to go on a trip with him and his crew, even though females were barred from every other trawler that berthed in Collinsport. Once out at sea she’d come to appreciate her husband with new eyes, as he commanded his crew, voice ringing and firm, and they’d obeyed him instantly, Mike, and Ernie, and everybody on board. She’d found herself watching his hands and his muscled forearms all over again, knowing they were powerful, but having not really understood it, until that moment, as she watched them guide the net as it was hauled up by the winch, or shovel the ice over the catch. Ezra asked nothing of his men, apparently, that he was not willing to do himself.

 

The Gina Lee had never suffered a bad trip, not even after that day; the hauls were always huge, the nets held, and the sea continued to provide. But what had started to go wrong was something she’d never been able to put her finger on. It wasn’t the trawler, the Gina Lee kept sailing and Ez kept commanding her, but the disquiet began to settle over their lives just the same. Was it the success? Had it gone to Ezra’s head? Was it her? Three years into the marriage and her first child a girl? She didn’t know, Ezra had never complained about Polly, had never seemed to prefer Daniel over her, and so Gina had no evidence to go on.

 

Ezra had started drinking, slowly at first, though the abuse had started before that, even before Polly was born. Only at the time, she hadn’t thought it was abuse, it was just the way husbands treated their wives, as far as she knew. And Ezra always had a reason for slapping her around, it was just that the drinking made his discipline somewhat unpredictable and the bruises last longer. Leaving her to regain consciousness in the middle of the kitchen floor and have her friends at church and neighbors look at her with pitying eyes and say nothing.

 

“The way you’re knitting that thing, it’s going to hold water.”

 

Gina snapped her head up, blinking in the setting sunlight that played off the fields of snow, and looked over at Anne, driving calmly down the snowbound road that led into downtown Collinsport. In her hands the knitting was stilled, and she clicked the ends of the needles together, laughing a bit, not wanting Anne to know how distant her thoughts had been. “This’ll keep out water and snow and ice,” she said, “and keep in the heat, I hope. No sense doing it halfway.”

 

“You could sell those, you know,” replied Anne as she piloted the car over the last hill.

 

“No,” said Gina, laughing for real this time, “no more schemes. The day care is enough, thank you.”

 

Anne brought the car to a halt with a jerk, and Gina looked up as Anne swore under her breath.

 

“Christ, what is that?”

 

Beyond the hill, just to one side of the cannery, was an enormous column of flame and smoke, pillowing up to the sky.

 

“Looks like a fire,” said Gina, her voice falling off as she realized what part of town it was coming from. “Where—”

 

“I’ll hurry, said Anne, sounding oddly far away. She revved the car up and shot down the hill, the tires slipping a bit around the curves, chunks of snow hitting the underside of the car.

 

It was only five minutes from the top of the hill, normally, to Gina and Anne’s street, but with the snow and the police car zipping past them, it took twice as long and Gina felt all the energy rush out of her as Anne pulled to a stop. Even though the crowd and the fire trucks blocked her view, she knew. Her house was burning to the ground, the sprays of water from the hydrants almost freezing as they shot through the air, landing on the flames and making more black, sooty smoke.

 

“The kids—” she began, but Anne put a hand on her arm.

 

“They’re with Tom. We’ve got a TV, they were watching it.”

 

She sounded sure, but not quite sure enough, and Gina dropped her knitting on the floor of the car and slipped out, leaving the door open, rushing through the crowds that almost didn’t want to part for her. But they did and she ran smack into a fireman who was trying to hold part of the crowd back.

 

“Step back, ma’am,” he told her, his gloved hand on her coat.

 

“B-but, that’s my house . . . my house.”

 

He looked at her fully now from beneath the curved brim of his hat.

 

“Your house, ma’am?”

 

“That’s right, I’m Gina Logan and this is my—”

 

“Gina!”

 

She turned. It was Tom, four kids in tow, each haphazardly bundled against the cold and clinging to his arms and his coat, as well as a carefully wrapped bundle in his arms, and she felt the first tears stir in her eyes. Anne had pushed her way through the crowd toward them and Gina could see her pick up her youngest, Peter, and watched her mouth move as she spoke to Tom, and Tom, holding the baby in one arm, cupped his hand behind her head and pulled her close to kiss her forehead.

 

Gina turned from the fire, from the sprays of cold water that laced the black boards where the flames were just starting to die down, and held out her arms. Polly raced forward, tumbling against her as she tripped on too quick feet. But Danny, his dark eyes assaying her across the jungle of hoses, looked too fearful to cross to her.

 

“It’s okay, Danny,” she told him, not knowing if he could hear her above the din, “I’m coming.”

 

It was only when she got within arm’s reach did he let go of Tom’s coat and latch onto her with a hold fierce enough to bruise. She stood up with him in her arms.

 

“I’m sorry, Gina,” said Tom.

 

“Why on earth, Tom? It’s not your fault.”

 

“Well,” he began, looking down, adjusting the blanket over Carla’s face. “Fire Chief said it was the hot water heater exploding that caused the fire. I shoulda replaced it long before this.”

 

“Did you know it was going to explode, Tom?”

 

“No, but—”

 

“But nothing. You’re not God, how would you know?”

 

“Okay,” said Anne, having gathered both her boys around her, “enough, you two. Let’s go inside, there’s nothing we can do here.”

 

Danny stirred in her arms, and mumbled something against her neck.

 

“What, baby?” she asked, petting the back of his dark head.

 

He lifted it to look at her. “Willie,” he said.

 

“What?”

 

Polly tugged on her sleeve. “Willie was here,” she explained.

 

Anne was pulling them all towards their bungalow where the door stood open letting all the heat out, but Gina could see the flash in Tom’s eyes.

 

“What is it, Tom? What about Willie?”

 

He sighed and looked at her, his eyes confused. He and Anne both had obviously bought the gossip from the beginning that Willie Loomis was bad news. The one time she’d mentioned that Willie had actually been over to her house, he’d been quite concerned, wanting to know if Loomis had tried anything, or if she’d noticed anything missing from her valuables. Only her gratitude for his kindness kept her from marching out then and there, leaving Anne and Tom’s friendship far behind. Not long before, she too had nodded her head when folks had talked about Willie and his reputation, so who was she to tell Tom to go to hell?

 

“Well?”

 

“Okay, you see, your house was on fire, right? There was this huge explosion, musta been when the heater went, and a crowd of people gathered, you know how they do when there’s a fire.”

 

“Get to the point, Tom, please.”

 

Anne pulled on her arm. “Come inside, it’s too cold out here for this.”

 

Gina jerked her arm away, resettled Danny against her shoulders. “If Tom would hurry up we wouldn’t have to be out here in the cold.”

 

“Your Willie Loomis showed up, on foot, running when he saw the flames,” continued Tom. “I was standing on the porch with the kids, and I could see him try to get in, but of course the firemen pulled him back.”

 

“He tried to get in?” she asked. Her heart sped up in her throat. “Why?”

 

“Because he thought you were in there. Your car was in the driveway and he must have thought you were inside. I couldn’t get to him before they cuffed him and hauled him off.”

 

“He thought we were inside?”

 

“Yeah.” Tom paused, shaking his head.

 

“Took three of those firemen to get him to the squad car and I thought he was going to kill himself trying to get away. Or one of them.”

 

She found she could imagine it all too easily, that wiry form pulling against the men that held him, eyes burning blue with his determination, hair spilling over them as he was jerked backwards. “When?

 

When was this?”

 

“Not two minutes ago, just before you got here. They took him up to Collinwood, back to his boss. Seems to be the only person who can control him.”

 

Looking at Tom, her mind saw only images of Willie Loomis trying to explain to Mr. Collins why the sheriff was bringing him home. “I’m going up there,” she said, her voice sounding high in her ears.

 

“Oh, no,” said Anne.

 

“Yes,” she replied, shoving Danny into the other woman’s arms. “Yes, I am.”

 

“Let me drive you, at least,” said Tom.

 

“I can drive myself,” she snapped, looking at him, feeling fierce.

 

“Well, you can’t actually, one side of your car is melted.”

 

There was a moment of silence as they watched her absorb this. Then she shook her head.

 

“Doesn’t matter. I would be grateful if you would drive me, then, Tom. I’d probably spin off the road if I tried to drive a strange car.”

 

“I’ll take the kids inside, okay?” asked Anne.

 

It wasn’t really a question that needed asking, but Anne looked at her and waited for a nod of approval.

 

“Yes,” she said, “thank you, Anne.”

 

She handed Danny over to Anne, and then turned and moved quickly towards the car that was still parked in the middle of the street, not checking to see if Tom was close on her heels or what he was doing, only knowing that her heart was going double time thinking of Willie thinking that they were all dead. Burned in a fire. He wasn’t much for showing emotions, but that didn’t mean he didn’t have any.

 

It was hard to consider the enormity of her circumstances, the fire, all their belongings gone, and as she got into the car, Gina felt as if an enormous wind-whipped tsunami had swamped over her. Only she was still in that blank spot, that shocked second like after a slap to the face when she knew Ezra had hit her but it hadn’t begun to hurt yet. That was what it was like, a slap that didn’t hurt yet. But oh, when it did and the weight of the blow threw her to the ground, she was not sure how she was going to pick up the pieces. Or if she was even going to be able to.

 

The drive up to the Old House went in slow motion, and her hands were trembling as she willed them to go faster over the roads of packed snow, through the woods on the Collins’ estate. But she couldn’t push Tom, he was already looking at her like she was ready to break into pieces, and she knew he didn’t really understand why it was so necessary to go up to the Old House at all. Bless his heart, though, he was taking her just the same.

 

“Can you hurry?” she asked anyway, as Tom slowed yet again crossing a bridge.

 

He was normally a patient man and even at that moment his driving was slow and careful. But she could see in the glance he threw her that he was confused by what she was doing. That she was driving up to see the black sheep manservant of the town’s most eccentric Collins. Driving up there when her house had burned down to let him know that she was alive, personally, when a phone call could have done as well. Leaving her children with a neighbor when they needed her.

 

It was all a muddle in her head and she opened her mouth to tell Tom to turn around and drive back to town, back to the crumbled remains of her house where she had had no insurance, not on the structure or the contents, or even the melted hunk that was now her car. But Tom had just turned onto the rut-humped, snow covered lane that was the last leg to the Old House, and it would just take a second, a bare second to talk to Willie and then she would go back to her family. Tom finally pulled up in front of the Old House as a spray of snow dappled down on them from the wind across the roof.

 

Her family would have her for the rest of their lives, but Willie had no one. And he needed to see her. Or maybe she needed to see him. She wasn’t sure what it was. As the car came to a halt, she jumped out and laid her hand on the door handle of the car, standing almost ankle deep in snow, and she turned to him.

 

“I’ll come—” he began, but she shook her head.

 

“You stay here, Tom, keep the car warm and running. I’ll just make sure Willie knows we’re okay and I’ll be right back. Okay?”

 

At his nod, she flew up the steps, feeling the clonk of her boots against the wood as the snow fell away from them, and the cold desperateness that clutched at her heart. Counted her blessings even as she pounded on the icy front door with her gloved hand. She banged on it again, and heard a stir inside.

 

“Willie,” she called, “Willie Loomis, it’s me, Gina Logan.”

 

Another moment of silence and then she heard footsteps and the creak of cold metal as the handles were turned. Both sides of the door fell back and in the isolated gleam of two candles burning in the dark stood Barnabas Collins.

 

“Ah, Mrs. Logan,” he said, the tone of his voice sounding pleased and smooth, like warm oil. “I’m so delighted to see that you are alright.”

 

There was a smile there, on his face, and he titled his head back at her as if to examine her from behind half closed lids. “Only do come in.”

 

He beckoned her in. The darkness of the Old House was more intense and dark then the settling twilight of the icy winter’s evening, which seemed to have followed her into the foyer. And snow, from under the crack beneath the front door, sifted like fine salt to barely melt on the hard stones beneath her feet.

 

It seemed cold, the world that Willie lived in, and not much warmer than the night outside as the black cave of an ancient structure seemed not to just admit her, but to absorb her. As she stepped inside the Old House and Barnabas shut the door behind her, the air that stirred around her was barely warmer than the air outside. Didn’t seem to bother him any, he merely clasped his hands in front of him and continued looking at her as if he expected something from her.

 

Turning, she saw Willie on the bottom stair, one hand clenching the thick railing, the other raised to his mouth where even in the near darkness she could tell he was bleeding. His feet were sprawled among a small pile of presents, the mud and snow from his shoes melting against the glittering wrapping, but he was oblivious to them, it seemed. His eyes were on her, wide, and he was frozen there, looking at her. There were tracks of tears that had sliced their way through the layer of dark soot on his face and something in his hair that looked like ash.

 

But there were too many shadows in the room to see clearly, and as she looked up the stairs she couldn’t see where they ended and the hallway began. It was all blackness and moving shadow as the candles flickered in some unseen wind. How could anybody live in this house and stay sane? She turned to look at him.

 

“Willie,” she said, “we’re fine, I wanted to let you know that we are all fine. The kids were at Anne and Tom’s and I was shopping with Anne—you were so brave to try and go in the house, I wanted to thank you, and—”

 

She stopped as she realized that there was no one saying anything, that Willie wasn’t responding to her at all, as if he could barely hear her talking over some internal roar of sound. Blood was slipping darkly through the spaces between his fingers as he clasped it against his mouth, and she stepped forward, ignoring the dark form of Barnabas as he watched her.

 

She reached out her hand, as she’d done in the library, in her own home, reached to Willie as she would to Danny or Polly or Carla. Slowly, her head tucking down, reaching for him like she would to a frightened child.

 

Willie jerked back, his whole body wincing, as if he expected the touch to turn to a blow.

 

“Willie, are you okay?”

 

It was a direct question, she could see this register in his eyes and the supreme effort it took him to answer her as his face tightened and he moved his hand away to speak.

 

“I walked into a door,” he said.

 

“Walked into a door?” she asked, somehow feeling that she must have heard wrong. “A door?”

 

There seemed to be a bruise darkening in shadow along his forehead even as she watched. All at once her muddled feelings darted away to be replaced by the realization that it was not as she had imagined it before. Barnabas Collins was the type of man, as Ezra had been, to fly at someone in a rage, fists clenched.

 

A boiling swamp of fury flooded through her and the iciness of the Old House vanished in that second as she whirled to face the dark form standing behind her.

 

“What did you do to him?” she demanded of Barnabas Collins. “Why is he bleeding?”

 

“I beg your pardon,” Barnabas replied, the candlelight betraying none of the expression in his eyes.

 

“I asked you,” she repeated slowly, feeling the hot sear of anger along her temples, “what you did to him.”

 

“That, madam,” replied Barnabas without expression, “is my business.”

 

She stopped and took a deep breath. “Not any more, it isn’t.”

 

“Oh?” In that single word, Mr. Collins managed to convey his astonishment that she should  contradict him. “And what exactly do you mean by that?”

 

Coming closer, she moved right up to him, keeping her body between his and Willie’s and stopped only when she had to tilt her head back to look up into his face.

 

“I know,” she said, keeping her voice low and level, forcing herself to remember exactly who she was talking to, “I know that you told him to stay away from us. I know that you hauled him over the coals for having taken a meal once or twice at my house, and I know he was late coming home that one day, but it was practically a holiday and you didn’t have to beat him like you did.”

 

“Beat him?” The voice rose as if completely surprised, but though Mr. Collins’ face moved into smooth planes, she could see something sifting in his expression. And then she caught the very small twitch as his eyes flicked over to Willie and then back at her. “Whatever gave you that idea?”

 

“I know the signs of a beating when I see one,” she snapped. “You beat him so bad he could barely hold himself upright. And then you scared him away from coming over anymore.”

 

“As I have said, madam,” he replied, his mouth making a little frown, “that is my business. Willie works for me, and his visits with you were interfering with that work.”

 

“Work?” she asked, her voice rising almost to a shriek. “You call that work? I call it slavery. You, working him to death like you do and beating him for no reason.”

 

She stopped, gasping as she saw his eyes glint and he took a step forward, narrowing the gap between their bodies.

 

“I keep Willie on a tight leash because it is what he deserves, and I warn you, madam, not to interfere.”

 

“You have no right to treat him the way you do,” she said, her voice lowering as she swallowed the rising taste of fear in her throat.

 

“It is nothing that concerns you, Mrs. Logan. And you would do well to remember it.”

 

“Nothing? You call this nothing?” She swept her hand in Willie’s direction and could feel him start behind her. “I don’t call a smack upside the head nothing. And for what? What could he possibly have done to deserve that?”

 

“Madame, you forget yourself.”

 

“Forget?” Her voice rose like it had been lifted on spikes. “Like you forgot to call the police when my husband beat him up? Surely you saw how  badly his hand was damaged, and yet you did nothing. And like you forgot that it was Willie’s idea to bring us all that wood, and yet you let the town believe that it was you who was so generous.”

 

She saw the astonishment there, on that hard face towering above her, and realized that probably no one had ever talked to him this way before. It was almost funny, if she weren’t so furious and scared, she would be laughing in his face.

 

The dark eyes again twitched. “Oh?” he asked, his brows raising ever so slightly. “And how may I ask did you deduce this?”

 

She heard the rustle of Willie’s body on the stair as if he wanted to say something.

 

“Willie never said anything to me,” she shouted, but felt the nervousness rise like bitter seeds in her stomach. Not understanding it, how that simple glance at her could make a shiver ripple up the back of her spine. She made herself continue, her voice falling. “Not even when I saw you’d beat him so bad he could barely walk for limping. It was when I met you, that one time when I brought the pie, you didn’t know me, you didn’t even know who I was. That’s how I know.”

 

Barnabas Collins’ eyes shifted over her head and the threat there no was longer veiled by half closed eyes as he looked at Willie. No, it was clear as crystal and bright with something she could not identify. He stepped forward, forcing her to step back and her legs shook as she tried to keep her place between Willie and his boss. His glance was back at her now, reminding her of the moment in the kitchen when she’d visited before and she knew again the full, awful weight of his attention.

 

“It is still none of your business.”

 

“Yes, it is,” she answered him in a sudden flair of anger, ignoring all the warning bells going off in her head. “Willie is my friend and that makes it my business.”

 

“Your friend?” asked Barnabas, a dubious tone in his voice, sparing her only half a glance.

 

“Yes, and I want you to stop beating him for every little thing.”

 

“Oh?” asked Mr. Collins, but the fullness of his attention had shifted from her to Willie, and not even her standing in the way would alter that. He kept backing her up by walking forward, and her foot banged against a present on the floor, and she almost tripped in trying not to step on it.

 

She took a deep breath and clenched her gloved hands into fists. And tried again. “You know hat your problem is, Mr. Collins?”

 

He looked at her, eyes coming down upon her as if she were a mere annoyance that he soon would be rid of. “How interesting,” he replied, not interested at all. “And what, pray, would that be?”

 

In another moment, he would have her backed up far enough to be within arm’s reach of Willie and so she planted her feet to the floor, and looked back up at him, looked right in his face.

 

“I don’t like you.” She was right up to him now, her chin jut out, feeling the blaze in her eyes as she looked up at him, gloved fists ready at her sides. “And the more I learn of you, the less I like you. And you can’t stand that.”

 

A small silence fell, and in it, she could hear her heart beating in her ears, hear the rise and fall of Willie’s ragged breath, and even the snap of wax as it burned in the candle’s flame. Then a storm descended over Barnabas’ face, some personal bitterness sparking out of his eyes. His head came down and his hands moved towards her, and she felt all of the warmth that was left to her leech out of her body and the force that held her upright began to fade and in another moment her bones would crumble inward and she would be swept away in the arms of something cold and dark and hard.

 

Willie stirred on the stairs behind her, taking in a breath that sounded like a sharp, inarticulate cry that didn’t register as having meaning. But Barnabas froze at the sound, just the same as if Willie had spoken. And then looked at him. At Willie, with such a blistering fury that she started with shock and stepped back, knowing that she was still not out of harm’s way, and feeling just the way she had that last time with Ezra, only days before he’d sailed away forever. A quiver started somewhere inside of her, and she knew it had been hiding there since she’d arrived home with Anne to see the last of the flames that were devouring her house being soaked by icy water from a half dozen hoses and knew that the quiet peace she’d found after Ez’s death was shattered forever. The hasty patch she’d managed to erect across the haggard edge of her soul suddenly came away, falling in one, simple shear, almost painless in and of itself, but leaving her wide open to the coldness of the air.

 

She was crying before she knew it, trying to stop it and failing, the tears now pouring down her face so hard, and she took one huge gasping breath, her gloved hands coming to her mouth as the sound of it echoed in the icy, still hallway. She could feel both pairs of eyes on her, knowing that never, ever had she cried in front of Ezra, or even her friends, and now, here, in the foyer of the Old House, in front of Barnabas Collins, she was crying and couldn’t stop. And Willie. She was letting him down, somehow, it felt like she was letting him down. Giving the game away, the brave front that they both liked to parade around with, their faces giving nothing away of what was inside. Not the fear, or the pain, or the confusion.

 

And that wretched man, Barnabas Collins, was reaching inside his breast pocket and holding out a handkerchief, snow white, and of the finest linen, no doubt. She took one look at him, at the expression that tilted his head back and the small smile that pulled his mouth into a thin line. What possessed her, she did not know. Only that it made her mad all over again and she swiped at his hand, sending the handkerchief to the floor.

 

“You can go to hell, Mr. Collins,” she said, fury and tears ringing in her voice. “Or I will, before I take any handout from you.”

 

Struggling, she wiped her face with the wrist of her coat sleeve, not caring. She simply did not care. Not about him, or his status, or his hard appraisal of her through eyes that seemed blacker than coal. Only Willie mattered now, and she turned toward him as he struggled to get up from the stairs and stand on both feet. As he stood there, his whole body quivering, he tried to blot the blood that was still streaming from his lip with the back of one half clenched fist. It didn’t seem to help, and as she watched him wince, she felt the tears start up all over again.

 

“I have to go,” she told him, her voice near a whisper. “I have to go now, but I’ll be at Anne and Tom’s if you need me.”

 

He nodded at her, but there was a blankness in his eyes that was nerve-wracking. Tiny pieces of her heart began breaking apart as behind her eyes danced the image of him trying to rush into her bungalow to save her and her family.

 

Now it was really time to go before she broke down all over again, and her tears would force Mr. Collins to bend and pick up the fallen handkerchief and graciously offer it to her again. Which he would, the lines of courtesy ran through him like a plumb line. Not that he would mean it, of course, she knew that, even as she turned and brushed past him, feeling the hardness of his arm against hers as she flung open the door. And Willie. Her only regret was leaving him behind, but she knew he would not come with her, not even if she begged him. Just as she had stayed with Ezra long after it had ceased to be good, something kept him at the Old House, some combination of himself and the man who owned it.

 

By the time she’d reached Tom’s car, motor still running, and sank into the passenger seat, she was crying again. The heat soaked into her, and the low throb of the engine pulled her head back until it was resting against the back of the seat. She vaguely felt Tom’s hand on her knee in a gentle pat and then he said, “Let me drive you home.”

 

*

 

Willie’s legs shook beneath him as the door closed with a click and Barnabas turned to him. Almost smiling.

 

“I do believe you owe me an apology, for it appears that Mrs. Logan is very much alive.” Gina Logan was very much alive but that was the only thing he could say that was good. With a hand that was not quite steady, Willie tried wiping away the blood on his chin with the heel of his palm. Watching with wide eyes as Barnabas appraised him from the bottom of the stairs, the candlelight only illuminating half of the vampire’s body, from stark white on one side of his face to raging darkness on the other.

 

“Come here.”

 

“Barnabas, I—”

 

“I said come here.”

 

Barnabas hadn’t even raised his voice, but there was a heavy thread running through it and Willie felt it pulling at something inside of him. Making his legs move without his awareness, making his feet descend the stairs until he was standing on the foyer carpet, looking up into Barnabas’ face, concentrating only on not looking into those eyes. And on breathing, so very important now, when each gulp of air could very well be his last.

 

With one movement, Barnabas grabbed Willie by the collar of his shirt and plowed them both through the cold darkness of the hallway toward the kitchen. In the darkness of a room lit only by stray starlight from the night sky outside, Willie stumbled over the roughness of the floor when Barnabas released him.

 

“Clean yourself up,” snapped Barnabas, and Willie did so, fumbling with the pump in the dark, finding a rag and wetting it and holding it against his lip, stinging, and then re-wetting it again. There was the tight sound of a match drawn across the hearthrocks and part of the kitchen sprang to life and color as Barnabas lit the two candles that were on the kitchen table. But Willie dared only to watch out of the corner of his eyes, concentrating on the cold, wet rag, rubbing it across his face, holding it against his mouth, not wanting to think what would surely come next. His hand was shaking, bumping the cloth slightly against the cut, making it sting, and he closed his eyes, wanting it all to be over.

 

“Turn around, Willie,” said Barnabas, his voice low, “turn around and look at me.”

 

He could consider hastening the inevitable end by disobeying this. Surely it would be better than to let Barnabas draw it out in that lengthy, painful way he so often employed. Surely it would.

 

Now, Willie.”

 

Willie turned. He couldn’t help it. There was that voice with the Thing ringing strong and hard, and the darkness all around, and Barnabas. Waiting.

 

“Answer me one question,” said Barnabas, and Willie nodded, swallowing, feeling his face grow numb and cold.

 

“Why would you think I would break my word?” the vampire asked.

 

It took him a moment, a single breath, the confusion racing through his mind.

 

“Bu—what?”

 

“You said,” began Barnabas patiently, “that I had broken my word to you, that I had not kept up my end of the bargain.”

 

Thoughts tumbled in his head, and his mouth opened to reply, even though he couldn’t get the words out. He had said that, he could recall it exactly, though it was somewhat more difficult to remember if he’d said it before or after he’d struck the vampire. Before. Yes, he’d said it before. And he was soon to be dead. That much was certain.

 

“I am a Collins,” supplied Barnabas to this silence. “And consequently I am a man of my word. It would be beneath me to break a promise. Even to you.”

 

“Yeah,” said Willie, his voice cracking, “yeah, I know.” He’d always known it, it was the one thing Barnabas prided himself on, his honor.

 

“If you knew this, then, why did you say it? Why did you say I broke my word?”

 

“Because,” here Willie had to take a breath, letting the cloth drop back in the sink, “because I did.” He had nothing to loose; his last act would be an honest one.

 

Barnabas’ eyebrows flew up, and Willie could see the doubt and astonishment flickering there like angry fireflies.

 

“I beg your pardon? What do you mean, you did?”

 

“The day you gave me the day off,” replied Willie quickly, hoping that Barnabas would grow tired of this game and end it, “I went to the library to read, you know, and she followed me in there. She caught me off guard, I didn’t know she was following me, honest I didn’t.” Stopping, he looked at the vampire, steady as he could. “I really didn’t, Barnabas, I—”

 

“What did she want?”

 

“I don’t know, she—”

 

“You must know,” Barnabas said, interrupting him. “She followed you on a cold, snowy day, as I recall that one to be, leaving her children motherless while she traipsed around town like a hoyden.”

 

Like hackles rising, Willie felt his shoulders bunch up, then caught Barnabas’ stare and lowered them. “She wanted to know what Ezra had done to me, and so I told her,” he answered. His voice bunched in his throat. “And then I walked away.”

 

“And you consider this to have been a breach of our agreement.” But it was not a question, as the vampire’s tone was steady and level.

 

Willie nodded.

 

“What is this woman to you?”

 

“I told you, we’re just friends.”

 

There was a long silence as the house’s dark pressed in on them and the candles fought to remain lit.

 

“I see,” said Barnabas, at length.

 

Willie did not know if the vampire truly did see or not, but there was nothing he could do. Not know. At the very least he’d been completely honest with Barnabas, maybe that would count for something, maybe his death would be sweet and quick. A silence settled over the kitchen, drawing something from the very darkness as it stretched itself out. Playing tricks with Willie’s eyes as it made the flickering light of the candles grow bigger and then smaller with each beat of his heart. But he concentrated only on that, his head turned slightly towards them on the table as he waited with the silence for Barnabas’ decision.

 

“You struck me and insulted me,” said Barnabas, almost to himself. “If you were a man of my class, I would call you out.”

 

Willie had no idea what he was talking about, unless the vampire meant the kind of thing you did when you told someone at a bar who’d insulted you to meet you outside. Yes, that had to be it, though Willie could not imagine anyone foolish enough to challenge Barnabas that way.

 

“But since you are not,” continued Barnabas, turning to look at Willie, those dark eyes grabbing some cord in Willie’s soul and pulling it tight, “I will take the only recourse open to me.”

 

Here it comes. I’m dead now.

 

“Give me your belt.”

 

It was hard to do with his hands shaking as they slipped the metal tongue from the soft leather, but it was even harder to imagine that Barnabas was finally going to do it, to weald the final blow to rid himself of his most troublesome servant forever. He handed the belt over to the large waiting hand, his brain was going numb now even as Barnabas gestured over the table and Willie spread himself upon it, hands already sweating into the wood, hot face absorbing the coolness there so gratefully. And his heart, hammering against his ribs as a hand pressed into his back.

 

From behind him, he heard Barnabas take a breath.

 

“My father once told me,” came a voice from the silence, and Willie jerked to attention with a start. Then Barnabas seemed to clear his throat and started again. “My father once told me that a man’s loyalty cannot be bought, but that it still must be paid for.”

 

For a moment, the hand pressed harder into his back, and though Willie had never wondered what it would be like to be beaten to death, he was sure to find out now, he knew he was. Yet Barnabas was still waiting, drawing it out in a painfully slow way that seemed so out of character, even for the vampire, that Willie felt his heart squeezing tighter in his chest, his breath locking up in his throat so hard it was almost a sob.

 

“I do not want, however,” said the vampire slowly, “that your relationship should interfere with your duty to me or to the Old House, do you understand?”

 

Waiting, his eyes tightly shut, Willie tried to wrap his mind around this question, but he could not do it. He simply could not believe that what Barnabas had said meant what he thought it did.

 

“I said, do you understand?”

 

The vampire was growing impatient, Willie could hear it in that voice, the tight wire of a temper about to snap. “No,” he said, his voice coming out a whisper. He took another breath and tried again. “No, I-I don’t understand.” Feeling like he was talking to the table, that Barnabas might not have heard him, he opened his eyes, and took another breath.

 

“Any visits with Gina Logan or her family,” said Barnabas before Willie could get a single word out, “will not incommode me or I will be forced to take steps.” The hand pressed again, painfully hard, until Willie thought his ribs would crack. “Have I made myself clear?”

 

Like crystal, a clear day, the sunlight falling across open acres of snow so hard and fierce that he would have to squint his eyes to see anything, Willie felt the force of tension rush out of his body, and his chest sank into the table, and his forehead fell against the wood with a slight thunk. Yes, he did see. Incredibly he did, but more incredible than that, was what Barnabas had just said. He nodded and then made himself speak.

 

“Y-yes, I understand,” he managed, his voice echoing slightly against the table top. “Th-thank you, Barnabas, I promise I won’t—”

 

But his words were cut off with a heft of his belt landing against the back of his thighs so sharp and severe that he was brought back from the wonderment of the unexpected gift to the reality of the present: he’d struck Barnabas and called him a liar. No man who had ever walked the planet had ever gotten away with either one of those and Willie less than any of them.

 

The belt came down nine more times, he didn’t even know he was counting them until they stopped. Nine more times, slamming into him so hard that the force of the blows rocked him forward, familiar lines of red and black lancing through him like wide knives. And the heat, shimmering back up to the surface of his skin as his hands gripped each other, the film of moisture sending shivers through him as it cooled. And then it stopped. Stopped at ten blows, and then an eleventh slam of the belt on the table next to his head, so loud that he jerked in startlement. Gasping as one of Barnabas’ cold hands grabbed the collar of his shirt and pulled him upright.

 

Unable to look at the vampire, the knuckles of one hand dug into the palm of the other and he tried to ignore the belt being held out to him. Barnabas wanted him to put it back on, obviously, but his hands couldn’t reach for it, he couldn’t make himself put it back on because when he did, that was when the next part of his punishment would come. Barnabas wasn’t going to beat him to death, no, the vampire had apparently come up with some other way, then, to teach his servant his final lesson in manners.

 

“Willie.”

 

Raising his head, Willie looked through his hair as it spilled forward, unable to see beyond the top button of Barnabas’ suit jacket. Now that the beating had stopped, the cold of the room was seeping into him in constant, icy waves and he realized he was shivering. Nothing he could do about it, nothing he knew to do about it. He was shaking with fear and the realization of this tightened his jaw and he brushed at his eyes with the heel of his palm. Biting the tears back, slowing the shakes in his chest by taking slow, deep breaths, he raised his head the rest of the way and looked at Barnabas.

 

There was a bruise on Barnabas’ jaw, a dark, purple bruise in the shape of a comma and maybe it was a trick of the light but it seemed to be healing even as he watched. Something danced uneasily in his stomach as he realized yet again what he’d done. Barnabas seemed unaware of the bruise, holding his head slightly to the side as he looked at Willie, eyes dark sparks in his pale face, glinting from the flickering candlelight, as if studying what he saw before him.

 

Again he held out the belt. “Put this back on, Willie.”

 

Willie swallowed, his throat almost closing up, and he took the belt, feeling the rush of air leave him. Feeling the lightness in his head, the pulsing of blood along the back of his legs. Tucking his head for just a moment, he put the belt back on, slipping it through the loops just as did when he got up and got dressed. Just as if it were an ordinary day. When he’d fastened the belt and settled it, he looked up again. Barnabas wasn’t looking at him anymore, he wasn’t looking at anything, eyes cast to the space of air to Willie’s left. So intent and still that Willie was almost tempted to look there to see what it was that Barnabas was looking at.

 

Then, as if realizing he had Willie’s full attention, the vampire’s head snapped up. “Where are the presents that I ordered?”

 

“P-presents?” The question took him aback with a start, his brows knitting together as he tried to fit the question into the pattern that the evening had taken. “Wh-what presents?”

 

“Those I selected for the members of my family,” said Barnabas, almost level and calm. Almost. “The ones I had ordered wrapped that you were supposed to pick up after your trip to Bangor yesterday.”

 

Those presents.

 

“They, they’re in the truck, in town, I left them when—”

 

When Gina’s house was on fire.

 

He was about to say it but he stopped, catching the flicker in Barnabas’ eyes that seemed to warn him.

 

“You will need to go get the truck tomorrow then, and have it here by sundown.”

 

Willie nodded slowly, a tumble of confusion warring with some stirring of unease that worked its way up the back of his neck. He could not figure out what Barnabas was up to, why he was drawing this out so long, why he didn’t just have done with it.

 

“But before you do that,” Barnabas continued, “I want you to make another set of wreaths for Collinwood. Just however many you have supplies on hand for, and we will take those over when I go there for Christmas Eve.”

 

Again Willie nodded, his mouth dry, his heart pounding. Barnabas was taking one of the candles up in his broad hand, and was turning to go. That couldn’t be all, it simply couldn’t be. It wasn’t as if he’d forgotten some chore, or messed up some precious antique, or even talked back. He’d struck Barnabas. On purpose. Surely that warranted something fairly severe. Didn’t it?

 

“B-Barnabas?”

 

The vampire stopped, and, not turning around, cocked his head as if he were listening.

 

“What is it, Willie?”

 

Willie opened his mouth. Why ask a question that would surely anger the vampire and hasten the inevitable? On the other hand, hastening the inevitable would be a sight easier to bear then not knowing when the it was coming. The anticipation alone would kill him, he was sure of it.

 

In the continuing silence, the vampire turned fully around, the candle held in one hand, its light flickering along the side of his face, along his jaw where the bruise seemed to be almost entirely gone. He looked at Willie with his dark, deep eyes, so deep that they almost seemed to lead inside of him, to where his thoughts dwelt, and his heart beat, where lived memories of another time, another winter, with hands that could be touched, and laughter heard, and grief an unknown stranger.

 

“Y-y-y—” he began, but had to stop, as he usually did when confronted with this aspect of Barnabas’ soul. Some inarticulate sound gurgled in his throat, and he had to cast his eyes away. Hopeless, he was hopeless, and he could not say it. But surely Barnabas knew what he was asking. He had to. Taking a swallow and a breath of air, he looked again at the vampire, his hand moving with a sudden, clenched gesture as if it would speak the words that he could not. Barnabas’ eyes fell to his hand, and Willie had to step back, his hand falling to his chest over his heart.

 

He opened his mouth to speak again, but the distance in the vampire’s eyes was cut off with a flicker and Barnabas tipped his head. “Tread with care, Willie,” he said, voice cold.

 

The anger was there, and the fury, all in an instant and Willie felt himself ducking as if he were actually within arm’s reach. Stepping back, he winced as the back of his leg caught against a chair. The expression that was now on Barnabas’ face was the devil he knew, and its uncomfortable arms slid, familiar, around him.

 

“I-I-I’ll get—” he started and then sucked in a breath. “I’ll get those wreaths done tonight and get the truck tomorrow,” he said. Was rewarded by a nod, and half-shuttered eyes that flicked up at him for a second, unreadable, before the vampire turned away. As the kitchen door closed behind Barnabas and the sound of footsteps echoed and faded down the hall, Willie understood the way it was to be. They were never going to speak of it. Not of the house fire, not of the blow that Barnabas had received, nor of the merciful beating of only ten blows. Or of the gift. The unexpected gift, so casually given in the midst of fury, all unacknowledged and unthanked.

 

He sank into the nearest chair, unmindful of the pressure against the back of his legs, the pain so very minor in comparison to what it could have been, and laid his head in his hands. The sharpness of his elbows digging into his thighs was about the only thing that seemed real to him, as the rest of the kitchen, the floor, the damp air, and even the cold night beyond the windows hovered, distant and imagined. It had to be. Had to be that he was making this up in some fevered attempt remain sane and alive. He waited for it all to go away.

 

But when he opened his eyes to look through his fingers at the dark floor of the kitchen and the odd circle of brightness against the wooden table, the reality of his existence appeared as it always had. He was still alive, and Barnabas had not killed him, let alone beaten him to a pulp, which all evidence supported was the action that the vampire would normally have taken. Especially for a blow to the face by an inferior servant.

 

Nor had he killed Gina Lee, though there in the foyer, there had seemed a moment where the vampire had been going to. Hands out, legs braced for the attack. And yet he had not, even though she had pushed him farther than Willie had ever dared. It was this lack of action on the vampire’s part that was scarier in a way than anything else that had happened, because the only thing stopping Barnabas was Barnabas himself.

 

Stomach churning, he stood up, clasping his arms around his own waist. The frigid air of the winter’s night seeped in through the window, carried inward by the suction from the void that was the Old House. And Willie, standing in its way, felt the chill blanket him in sharp, insistent waves.

 

A fire. He needed to build a fire, and then he needed to make those wreaths for Collinwood like Barnabas had told him to. He started with the stove, laying in the coal and lighting the tinder, knowing that if he were going to be working in the kitchen in the middle of a winter’s night, he was going to need the warmth. The stove would take longer to heat up, but the iron, once warm, would radiate heat even better than the fireplace. Though he lit that too, grateful for the light it would spread, bending in front of the hearth and placing the logs on the grate. Even as he did this, in the back of his mind, he knew it wasn’t a question of whether or not he would do what Barnabas said, not at this point. If the vampire had told him to go out and shovel the snow off the porch at midnight, in the crystal clear, freezing Maine winter’s night, he would have done it. Willingly. Gratefully. He could taste the bitterness in the back of his mouth, even as he acknowledged this to himself, even as he grit his teeth and strode out to the little yard by the back door and brought in the mostly frozen, freshly cut branches of holly, and evergreen, and ivy to lay them in piles on the kitchen floor.

 

As he pulled out the spool of wire and the heavy clippers and red velvet ribbon and laid them on the table, he tried to make himself not think about it. Not to think about the unexpected kindness of a man who considered himself to be Willie’s master. The kindness of permitting a friendship, something which should have been his anyway. Acid spilled forward in his brain, pounding behind his eyes as he sat down and laid his hands on the first length of greenery. Holly, poking right into the softest part of his hands, he needed his gloves, where were his heavy gloves? In his truck. In town. Five miles away along snowy, barely-plowed roads. Only blocks away from what was left of Gina’s house, which probably even now still smoked in the night, sending delicate curls of ash-scented air to settle amongst the bare bones of the tree-lined street. His hands gripped the holly, just for a moment, the spear-points of pain bringing him back to the kitchen table, where so late a man of thunderous temper and unknown intentions had placed upon him the most unthinkable paradox.

 

Barnabas had laid at Willie’s feet a friendship which was rightfully his anyway, at the same time he had forgiven him for an unpardonable sin. The first made his hands shake with fury as he wrapped the strand of wire around the base of the holly. The second made them ice cold even as the wire threatened to cut into the creases of his fingers as he pulled it tight. And on top of everything else, Barnabas wouldn’t hear talking of it. Had denied Willie the chance to explain nor even remained to court an apology. The vampire apparently wasn’t interested in either, for reasons of his own that Willie did not feel he would ever have the courage to question. Not ever.

 

But how was he to mend the contradiction of a kindness that should have been a foregone  conclusion with the kindness of letting him live?

 

Fuck it.

 

His hands were shaking too hard to hold the clippers and he’d nearly sliced his finger off. He only had enough supplies for four or five wreaths, he would be finished and in bed well before dawn, all he needed was a minute, a single minute to pull himself together. Taking a deep breath, he lay the clippers on the table, and pushed the holly back as well.

 

Was he grateful? Shouldn’t he be? Grateful for being able to be friends with Gina? And his life, Barnabas had given him his life, and left Gina to live hers, when by all accounts he should not have done, and Willie knew as the acid boiled up from his stomach and met with the hard, cold realization of the facts that this was exactly the problem.

 

But how it could be like this inside of his own head he did not know. Only that the fury somehow took a blind turn and blended with the tensile fear, which never left him, to become thankfulness. Each day, each task, each chore churned it anew with the unwholesome blessing that he was still alive. Still able to grovel at his master’s feet, still hoping to be granted a single word of outright praise. Someday. It would happen someday, he knew it would. But even as he thought this, there was also something black and bitter that webbed all around. It was the truth of his circumstance, and he could either look at it straight on, at the hard, unvarnished exactness of his life, or look at it through the softer filter that made it easier to bear.

 

It was Barnabas’ fault. If there had only been a beating, a severe one that left him a twitching pulp on the floor, then he wouldn’t be having these thoughts. Wouldn’t be confronted with this contradiction so massive that his hands were frozen into fists on the table in front of him. Barnabas had managed, all unknowing, to do the unthinkable. The unimaginable. Willie’s loyalty. All bought and paid for, packaged and delivered.

 

What would Jason say if he were here? Oh, if only he were here. With that black hat, jaunty on the back of his dark head, that irascible smile, blazing with teeth. A hand gesture, spread wide, the physical distraction of a drink in the other. Maybe he’d say something like he had that one time when they’d been caught in a hurricane off the coast of Florida on a shipping boat. His Irish accent brilliant in the deafening winds: “Nothing like a breath of fresh sea air to wipe away the cobwebs, eh, boy-o?” Dismissing the whole thing as a walk in the park, even when the captain had been unable to pay them at the end of the voyage and promised them all jobs for the next trip out. When Willie had suggested they find another boat, Jason had barked out a laugh, clapping Willie extra hard on the back, saying, “Stand your sails, Willie, you never know when the wind’s going to turn.”

 

He was grateful, for his life, for Gina, for even the chance to prove that Barnabas’ newly purchased loyalty had not been a mistake. The wreaths he was about to make were going to the best he’d ever done, with little sprigs of holly berries, red ribbon, and all the right touches and turns of evergreen. Barnabas would be pleased, Willie knew he would, though the only indication of this would be a small, almost reluctant nod, or perhaps even a casual mention up at Collinwood as to where the wreaths had come from. And Willie would be even more grateful for that, soaking it up like a field hound come to heel, breathing a hard-won sigh that he’d managed to please his master once again.

 

Willie focused his eyes on the piles of green spray on the table before him. With the heat of the stove and the fire, the boughs were thawing, warming up enough to start reeking gently of sap. Of woodsmoke. Of snow melting, and bright berry wax pressed against the roughness of the table. He closed his eyes for a moment and took in a lungful of the scented air, wondering why it couldn’t smell like this always.

 

Stand your sails, Willie.

 

Easier said than done when he didn’t know from which direction the next hard wind would blow.

 

*

 

He awoke well after sunrise, stiff, a crick in his neck from bending over the kitchen table for too many hours at one go, and the backs of his legs feeling like hard boards. His feet hit the cold floor and the shiver ran through him almost unnoticed.

 

Picking up the clothes that he’d worn the previous day from the back of a chair, he shook them out, hoping to erase the wrinkles. Instead, pieces of ash and evergreen fell to the floor and the unmistakable smell of smoke hit him smack in the face. The memory of the day before hit him as well, and he took in a long slow breath and tried to tell himself it was okay now. Because it was, at least in part. Barnabas was backing off just a little bit in this one area, this one tiny thing. How long it would last, well, that was where it wasn’t okay. The vampire was like an unpredictable northeastern wind, and he was apt to change direction when the mood hit him, which could happen at any moment.

 

Willie got dressed, pulling out clean clothes from the armoire, wondering if he should stop at the Y to shower as well, to rid himself of the last of the smoke and ash. He ran his hand through his hair, and yes, small particles of soot blackened his palm.

 

Okay, then, a chilly walk into town, a shower at the Y, get the truck, last minute errands, and home before sundown. Well before sundown, wreaths ready, presents all accounted for. He walked down the stairs wondering when he could safely pay a visit on the Logans again, maybe when the smoke, so to speak, had cleared, and Barnabas again had other things on his mind.

 

Stopping in the foyer, he grabbed his jacket and slipped it on as he headed back to the kitchen, where he found only cold coffee that stung his cut lip as he swallowed it, and dead ashes in the stove too thickly choked to bother poking into a fire. On the table were his wreaths, all rearranged. Before going to bed the night before, he had stacked them in two neat piles. Now they were all spread out on the kitchen table, a variety of green rings, their furry edges overlapping each other, and the bows standing up in ready. The thought gave him an uneasy little pause, that of Barnabas, looking at Willie’s work while he slept, the vampire’s cold hands going over what had been done, cataloging it in his mind. Willie guessed he’d done a good job, as the rings were neatly on the table and not tossed in the fireplace.

 

He started out the kitchen door, hoping to avoid the ice that had surely formed on the front steps, when his feet tripped over something that sat against the threshold. As the cold air rushed past him to get inside, he bent down to pick up an object wrapped in brown paper and string. Thinking it might be a delivery order for Barnabas that he’d not been aware of, he brought it inside the kitchen and shut the door. Looking down, he saw that there, written in a clear, dark hand was his name.

 

Mister Willie Loomis.

 

He did not recognize the handwriting, but it was obvious that the package was not for Barnabas. Pushing the wreaths aside, piling two on top of the others, he set the package down on the table and looked at it. He could not even imagine what it might be. Inside of his stomach, or perhaps somewhere even deeper, he felt a small tumble, like a feather, or a whisper. It made his head feel light, and he did not know what to think.

 

Well, open it, Loomis. Hurry up.

 

The scent of stirred, warm evergreen was strong in the air as he turned to grab a knife from the drawer. And with a moment’s pause as his knife hovered over the box, he cut through the string. It fell away in half-frozen lines, and his fingers reached for the edges of the paper. He paused again to assure himself that, yes, it was his name written on the top, and he was at liberty to open it. So he opened it. Inside was another box, this one wrapped in bright blue paper with white snowflakes and white snowmen, each with a jaunty top hat on, little stick hands waving. There was a white ribbon around and a very small white bow, from which dangled a string, and on the end of the string was a tag. And the tag said:

 

Merry Christmas, to Willie Loomis, from The Logans.

 

He froze, his hands on the tag curling around the edges of it so tightly that the dampness of his fingers was making the paper curl. The words were becoming unreadable, except for his name, which stood out in the center of the curl, on a tag on a present that was meant for him and him only. The feather in his stomach began to dance around, and he realized that his jaw had dropped open only when he remembered to take a breath. In another second, he’d ripped through the paper and tore open the box inside to reveal the contents. It was red and his hands dove in and he pulled out the longest, softest scarf he’d ever clapped eyes on. With tassels on each end, no less. The entire mass of it weighed no more than the feathers in his stomach and the length dangled to the floor as it spilled over each of his hands. And red, warm, cherry red.

 

Oh. Oh, Gina Lee.

 

Unfamiliar feelings tumbled inside of him as he stood there, the vacantness of the morning gone, the fury and fear of last night erased almost completely. He wrapped the scarf around his neck, where it encircled him in its downy warmth, and lifted his jacket over it, knowing that he’d be paying a call on the Logans today, right after he showered at the Y. A smile became permanently etched on his face as he put his hand on the door handle, and then it faded as he paused.

 

He had nothing to give them in return, nothing. The wood from Josette’s tree had been an outright gift; this was different. It was Christmas Eve day, and even he knew that you didn’t visit people on that day empty handed. He cast his eyes around the kitchen, and they fell on the wreaths resting on the table. With only a second’s hesitation, he walked away from the half-open door and grabbed the nicest wreath that he’d made the night before. It wasn’t the biggest, but it was the greenest, smelled the best, and had the fattest red bow. Then, smile firmly in place, the wreath hung over his elbow, he walked out of the Old House and into the bright, cold winter’s day.

 

*

 

He managed the shower, picking up the truck, and the last minute errands all in the space of two hours, and breathless, he pulled the truck onto the Logan‘s street, trying not to stare at the blackened stump of their bungalow. The fence, oddly enough, was still intact, as was the pile of the wood from Josette’s tree. The firemen had obviously been very good at their jobs of stopping the fire before it spread too far, though the house itself was only a pile of ash.

 

As he parked the truck and got out, lifting the wreath behind him as he slid from the seat, he suddenly realized that he didn’t know where Tom and Anne lived. He didn’t even know their last name, how the hell was he supposed to find them? Not during that whole morning had the thought ever crossed his mind, only that of seeing Gina and her kids again, and hopefully, though he would never admit this to anyone he knew, of getting a home cooked meal, with her sitting across from the table smiling at him.

 

Slamming the truck door, he stood on the sidewalk and looked up and down the block. If he knew Tom and Anne’s last name, he could simply walk along the street and look at the mailboxes, and then he’d find her. But he didn’t. And so he was stuck.

 

At a loss, he lingered by the truck and watched as a woman, warmly bundled against the cold, walked in his direction carrying something in her hands. But she wasn’t wearing mittens or gloves, he could see that from where he stood. No, she was wearing oven mitts, and what she was carrying was a casserole dish. Still hot, by the looks of things, and she marched smartly up to the house two doors down from where the Logan‘s bungalow had once stood and rang the door with her elbow. Almost instantly the door was opened and a pair of hands gestured the woman inside. The woman shook her head, and the casserole dish was handed over, and the woman walked away, keeping the mitts on her hands for warmth. In the next five minutes, Willie forgot he was standing in the cold, his feet becoming glued to the icy sidewalk, as two more women, each carrying a casserole dish carried in mitt covered hands, came up to the house two doors down and handed the dishes over. Each it seemed, was invited in, each refused, smiled, and went back down the street toward her own home.

 

Two and two made four, and as Willie walked closer, he could see that in the window of this particular house was taped a drawing of a Santa, bright red, with enormously long arms and legs.

 

Taped to face the street so that the world could see what one child thought Santa looked like. And in bright red letters, the drawing was signed simply: Polly.

 

Heart beating almost painfully hard, he started up the path, his feet slipping a bit on the ice on the bottom step, and as he started up them, he was surprised to see that the door was still partly opened. Gina Lee Logan stood on the threshold to what must be Tom and Anne’s house, wearing a green dress that was some sizes too big for her, and a crisp white apron that had its sash doubled over and tied in front. She was looking inside the house, her dark hair falling over her cheek, and saying something about another one for the deep freeze, and then she turned, her hand on the edge of the door as if she meant to close it, and then she saw him. Very wide her eyes were, a deep, silent brown, and it was almost in slow motion that she opened the door all the way and beckoned with her hand for him to come in.

 

He scurried up the last of the brick stairs, mouth opened in greeting and he found he couldn’t say anything. The memory of the day before, with Gina standing between him and Barnabas, her legs planted firmly, fists at her sides, defending him, shouting at Barnabas, seemed suddenly overly clear. The back of his neck began to feel hot. It wasn’t just his split lip that she was seeing now, or the bruise on his forehead that was a wild yellow and purple. No, she could see inside of him in a way that he’d not known she could and had figured out what was going on. She knew more about him now, more than anyone, except perhaps for Barnabas. Even the beatings he’d gotten since he’d known her, though he thought he’d been hiding them fairly well, were exposed. He felt naked as she looked at him. He held out the wreath, wanting to say something, but  overwhelmed by her eyes that suddenly saw so much, could only stay silent.

 

From inside the house floated the warm scent of baking, and the murmur of small voices at play. The light of the fire reflected in the corner of her eyes, and he could see the pile of Josette’s wood stacked by the hearth even as the sweet scent of burning oak trailed out to him. She took the wreath, bringing it to her face to smell, nodding back as if he had indeed said something, and opened her mouth to respond, her eyes holding only kindness. At that moment, the thud of workboots interrupted them, and Willie looked up as the scent and the sounds of peaceful afternoon faded. A man was coming towards them, crossing the room quickly, powerfully built, fists clenched, a scowl on his face.

 

“What are you doing here, Loomis?” he demanded.

 

“Tom,” said Gina, but it was obvious that this was the Tom she had spoken of and this was his house, and he had a right to determine who could and could not be under his roof. She lay the wreath quickly against the table in the hallway. “Tom, this is Willie Loomis, Mister Loomis, this is Tom Pederson.”

 

“I know who he is,” snapped Tom.

 

Willie stepped back, the ease of the day slipping away, his shoulders tightening up, his head ducking down. The last thing he wanted to do was antagonize the man who was providing shelter for Gina and her kids; it was obvious from the piles of folded bedding on the floor where they’d spent the night, and though Tom would hardly throw them out on Christmas eve, Willie didn’t want to give him any reason to even think it.

 

Tom was now standing in front of him now, apparently taking in the condition of Willie’s face, eyes flitting between the bruise on his forehead and the angry, red swell of his split lip. Tom’s chin jutted out, dark eyes made darker by a scowl, and Willie opened his mouth to announce that he was just leaving.

 

Instead there was a high pitched shout and the scamper of feet across a hardwood floor and he and Tom and Gina all looked. It was Polly racing forward, followed closely by Danny, and Willie, unthinking, crouched down, and braced himself for impact. They threw themselves against him, filling his arms with their warm weight, the scent of wood smoke, and crayon, and cinnamon stirring from their hair, and their shrieks of his name filling his ears. For one moment, he allowed it, closing his eyes as Danny’s three-year-old arms latched themselves around his neck like a vise and Polly’s mouth pressed against his ear, talking too loud, regaling him with a moment by moment description of last night’s adventure. To her it was an adventure, and their stay at Tom and Anne’s just one big campout. She could have been burned, they all could have died, but no, she was chattering on, shattering his eardrums, and he couldn’t stop smiling.

 

“Gina?” he heard Tom ask, and Willie realized belatedly what a spectacle he must be making, and so he stood up, feeling Polly still clinging to his side, and Danny who, hooked on his neck, would not let go. He opened his eyes, and there was Tom staring at him, a narrow, puzzled line marking a furrow between his eyebrows. The house behind him was fully decorated for Christmas, thick, sparkly garlands of silver and gold on the mantle, stockings in a pile waiting to be hung, Christmas cards from dozens of people tacked to wide bands of ribbon across the wall, an enormous tree in the space between the fireplace and the divider for the kitchen, and presents already stacked knee-deep. This was a man who had his house all snug for the winter, who had his life organized to the last detail, enough so that the addition of a woman and her three children obviously wasn’t even a ripple to him.

 

And then came Willie, an unknown, unpredictable, a man whose chancy reputation preceded him for miles, standing in his entryway with two children, who should have known better but didn’t, clinging to him like he was their best friend. It had to be confusing for him, and knowing this, Willie stood very still, his arm curving around Danny’s waist, one hand absently petting Polly’s flyaway hair. In a moment, Tom would tell him to go and he would obey instantly. Say his goodbyes to the Logans, tell him he would see them soon, and it would be enough. More than enough. Certainly more than he’d expected. There was a short, little moment where any second he was going to be ordered out of the house, and then Tom looked hard at the four of them standing there.

 

“Well, Loomis,” said Tom, nodding slightly as if to himself, “tell me.”

 

Willie’s eyes flicked to Gina. She was watching Tom and not him, and so he could see the tightness around her eyes and the way her mouth thinned. The swallow of coffee he’d had that morning jumbled around uncomfortably, and he knew that she was preparing herself to take his side in this, to demand that Tom not throw him out, to demand that Tom consider Willie his friend too. She seemed like that kind of person, and she might take it that far but Willie knew he could not let her. She had nowhere else to go, and surely it was better staying here than in a church run shelter? He reached up his arm to unhook Danny, who rested still and contented in the curve of Willie’s neck, not wanting to move as to alarm anyone, not wanting to unhook Danny at all, but knowing that he’d best be going and help Gina and her host avoid an unpleasant scene.

 

“Tell me,” said Tom again, looking at the floor as if reading the question there, “do you like rum in your eggnog?”

 

“P-pardon?”

 

“Rum,” said Tom, raising his eyes to Willie’s.

 

They weren’t exactly brimming with friendship, but there was something there that indicated he was willing to give Willie Loomis a chance, and Willie hadn’t a clue as to what had done it. Then Tom looked down at Polly, and Willie looked down too, onto her upturned face as she hung off his belt with both of her small hands, a wide, trusting smile beaming up at him.

 

“N-no,” replied Willie, suddenly realizing a question had been asked of him, “no, I c-couldn’t.”

 

“Yes, you could,” stated Tom, firmly. He was already walking away, and Willie watched him, striding away towards the kitchen, his mind obviously set and determined. Willie was going to have rum in his eggnog and like it. The fact that he was going to have some eggnog at all, that he was going to be invited in to sit a spell, wasn’t even a question. Tom Pederson had made his mind up; who was Willie Loomis to question him?

 

*

 

Gina felt a smile build from inside of her, and she turned to Willie, who was watching Tom make him a glass of well-doctored, homemade eggnog. Willie looked confused, and almost unhappy, the marks on his face made by a heavy hand standing out sharply. But maybe that particular expression meant something else. One way to find out then.

 

“Alright, Polly, that’s enough for now, save some of the story for later. Mister Loomis will be here a while, but I want to talk to him about some things, so you go and play with Karl and Peter.”

 

When Polly didn’t budge, she gently pried the girl’s fingers from Willie’s garments, and shooed her off.

 

“Go and draw us some more angels, draw one for Mister Loomis. Or a Santa, draw him a Santa, okay? Then you can give it to him later.”

 

Somewhat appeased, Polly trotted off to her drawings, and Gina turned back to Willie.

 

“Now, Mister Loomis, if you can manage to unhook his arms, I’ll unlock his legs and we’ll get  this little monkey off of you.”

 

“No, he’s, he’s okay, really, it’s okay.”

 

This said as Danny’s slender arms locked even harder around Willie’s neck, the soft, red scarf she’d made for him pushed awry around his ears.

 

“He’s choking you,” she said. “Danny, let go of Mister Loomis, you’re cutting off his air.”

 

When Danny refused to let go, she had to resort to tickling him, and as he giggled and thrashed, she grabbed him by the waist and pulled him down and put him on the floor. “Go play with Karl and his Leggos, and Mister Loomis will come by to see what you’ve built.” She didn’t want to use the Santa threat, not this late in the game, it would almost seem like cheating, and so she tried something else. “Please?”

 

With a very adult sigh, Danny nodded, and, head down, turned to go, with only a last enchanting smile through dark eyelashes at his favorite person before he allowed himself to be swallowed up in building the tallest tower ever seen.

 

Now she could turn her attention fully on Willie, drawing off the scarf before he could protest, pulling his jacket from his shoulders so that he would understand that the invitation to stay for a while was very seriously meant. He let her do these things, blinking very quickly at one point as if he had something in his eyes, his mouth opening to speak. She hung the coat and scarf in the overflowing hall closet, and turned back to him. She wanted to ask him if he needed ice for his lip, but it looked scabbed over already, and he probably wouldn’t want attention drawn to it any more than necessary.

 

“Th-thank you for the scarf,” he said, his voice soft-edged and low.

 

“You’re welcome, I’m glad you like it.”

 

“It’s very warm,” he replied, and he looked like he wanted to say something else, but Tom’s shout from the kitchen interrupted him.

 

“Eggnog’s ready!”

 

Willie stepped to obey, but she placed her hand on his arm to stop him.

 

“What about Mr. Collins, does he know you’re here?”

 

He looked away from her then, focusing on his hands for a moment, and he looked frankly confused. His eyes, when he lifted his head again, were washed with grey lights. He shook his head as if to clear them. “Y-yes, yes he does. I think. Everything’s okay, though.” Nodding to assure her, he still looked puzzled. “He knows.”

 

Mr. Collins had been so adamant that Willie stay away from her, she could not imagine what had gone on to change his mind. But Willie would never be here without his overcontrolling boss’s permission, so something had obviously happened up at the Old House between Willie and that boss of his, something that had skewed Willie’s world a bit, that had his mouth drawing up into a smile at the same time his brows were furrowed with a slight frown. It couldn’t have been her influence, her meager attempt at putting Mr. Collins in his place, there was no way. It had to have been something Willie had said or done afterwards, though she couldn’t imagine how he would ever manage to go up against that . . . that man.

 

The skin along her shoulders crawled, making her shiver slightly at the memory of him, towering over her, that would not quite go away. There had been something in Mr. Collins’ eyes, as well, sparking and shifting and she’d been drawn into them, wanting whatever was in the darkness there. She’d done nothing to resist that, the only reason it had stopped was because he’d stopped. The day she ran into Mr. Collins again would be too soon. And poor Willie, how he lived with that day in and day out, no wonder he was always so edgy when she met up with him.

 

Giving herself a little shake, she looked up at Willie and smiled. He was here now; Mr. Collins was obviously not lacking in some human decency.

 

“Well, when you get back, you tell him I said Merry Christmas, then.” It was the least she could do, seeing as the man had unbent a bit. But there was a flicker in Willie’s eyes as the corner of his mouth trembled and she had the sudden realization that he would be saying to Mr. Collins no such thing.

 

“Well, ah,” he said, “y-yes, okay, I’ll tell him.”

 

No, he would not be saying anything, not even as he nodded in agreement; Mr. Collins had permitted the friendship, the odd visit, but apparently Willie felt his boss wouldn’t want to be reminded that he had reconsidered his position on the matter.

 

“I’m glad you’re here,” she said, pulling him by the elbow and drawing him into the house. “The neighbors have decided that we are in danger of starving, as you can see by all the covered dishes.” She waved her hands over the crowded counter and the table, where Tom was pushing aside something covered with tin foil and a tea towel to put down two overfull glasses of eggnog.

 

It was at that moment that Anne came out of the back room, having just put the baby down for a nap, smiling a little to herself as if humming under her breath. The moment she saw Willie sitting himself down at her kitchen table, though, she froze, hands on her apron. She looked at Willie, and then at Tom, sitting catty corner from Willie, and then last at Gina herself. Her face went white for a moment, and then two little red spots appeared, one on each cheek.

 

Willie was gripping his glass overly hard, and Gina had a feeling that one word from Anne and he would be gone like a shot, eggnog untasted. A lock of hair was slipping over Willie’s eyes as he ducked his head, and Gina had the image of a dog that has been whipped one too many times.

 

There was a rough sound as Tom cleared his throat, and all eyes were on him as he shrugged his shoulders. “He’s brave enough to try my eggnog, Anne,” he said.

 

Anne seemed to consider this, her eyes going once to the tumble of children on the living room rug, and then back to her husband. For a moment, they looked at each other, sharing some silent communication, and then Anne made a little shrug as well.

 

“If you’re going to be making him drink that stuff at full voltage, dear husband, then Gina and I will make sure he’s got enough in his stomach to absorb it.” She walked over to the kitchen table and began pulling platters and dishes off to place them on top of the refrigerator as if Willie’s presence in her home was an unexpected, but not unusual, pleasure.

 

“Hope, you like ham, Mister Loomis, we’ve got at least two large ones here, and if you don’t help us with them, we’ll be eating ham steaks till the spring thaw.” She pulled down a ham roast and put it in the center of the newly cleared table. “Then there’s the sweet potato thing that Mrs. Dillard made, something with pecans in it, I believe, not to mention the fresh bread from next door.” With a sigh, she turned to Gina. “Silverware and plates?”

 

Gina rushed to get them, putting out enough for the menfolk, and glasses too, filling them with milk.

 

“Nice to know,” continued Anne, “folks in these parts will come to your aid when you need it. But they overdo it sometimes. So you just have to eat up, Mister Loomis, or all this food will go to waste.”

 

Gina stepped back, letting Anne serve up the food in her own home, watching as Willie picked up his fork in his fist and tucked into the sweet potatoes, his blue eyes looking up at Anne, with soft, dark gratitude that must be obvious even to her. Gina felt her face grow hot and had to put her hands up to cool it. And her eyes, burning with sudden heat too, and she knew that there were tears building in her throat and she swallowed. It was just the stress and excitement of the day, that’s what it was. Not the uncommon valor and acceptance that Anne and Tom were showing, just on her sayso. Open-hearted hospitality on her word alone, especially to the one person who had the worst reputation in town. Arms wide open, it seemed, as well, for even as she watched, Tom was refilling Willie’s glass with eggnog and adding a jot of rum and pushing it back at him. All in silence, the way men did, a nod passing for hello and a glass refilled passing as acceptance. How had she managed this?

 

But as Polly marched up to Willie and showed him her newly crafted Santa, she knew that she had very little to do with it. Little or nothing, actually, with Willie’s acceptance by Anne and Tom Pederson. It was Tom seeing Danny, so mistrustful of the world at large, clinging to Willie like a longtailed monkey that had done it. And them both seeing Polly’s open and obvious affection, as well, her shriek of delight at his arrival, and her unaffected manner as she slipped now inside the circle of his arms so that they could together gaze in admiration at the Santa she had wrought. And it was Willie himself who had done it. Starting that first day, picking them up in a freak storm, bringing them the wood, and allowing her children to slip under the rigid guard he’d erected around himself. It had been dismantled bit by bit, and though it wasn’t totally gone, every time he’d clapped eyes on them, and now, as he ruffled Polly’s hair with his hand, it broke down a little further.

 

“Good for you, kiddo,” he said to her, “good for you.”

 

Smiling, Polly ambled off, and Gina knew that soon the house would be covered with a whole host of Santas, each of them red until that was gone, and then green, that being Polly’s favorite color, and then blue, and so on, until it was bedtime, or until the crayons gave out, whichever came first. Willie returned to his food, but not until he sought Gina out, and he smiled at her, a soft, soft smile that lit stars inside his eyes and for the first time she’d ever known him, he looked truly happy.

 

“Merry Christmas, Mister Loomis,” she said, feeling the tears spark in her own eyes.

 

“Merry Christmas, Missus Logan,” he replied.

 

*

 

It was well before sunset and Willie was ready. The shadows of the trees across the snow in the yard were just growing long, and he sat at the kitchen table in the Old House and waited. The truck was parked outside, all the presents were accounted for, and the wreaths were stacked on the table by his elbow. All that remained was for Barnabas to arise and give the word, and Willie would haul everything up to Collinwood.

 

Of the afternoon spent at the Pederson’s, there was no visible sign. The food Anne and Gina had piled into his truck was safely stored away, some of it in the cupboards, some in the ice house outside, where a large ham nestled even now. Barnabas would never know exactly where he’d been that day, wouldn’t be needlessly bothered by the fact that Danny had melted half a chocolate bar on Willie’s shirtfront. That particular garment was now soaking in a basin in his room. And the memories, as well, all carefully put away for review later, and though Willie had to struggle to keep from smiling, he was sure Barnabas would never find out how fine a day it had been.

 

Never find out how many helpings of sweet potatoes he’d had, nor how many glasses of eggnog with rum, either. How Anne had exclaimed over the wreath he’d made, the small ceremony of hanging it over the mantel that pleased him more than it ought. How the kids had talked him into a game of Parcheesi, begged him until he’d joined them, feeling like a big kid himself, sitting crosslegged on the floor, feeling more comfortable there than at the table with Anne and Tom and Gina. How Danny had climbed into his lap and said, “Rock,” and the small, unsettled flurry that had followed. Gina’s rocking chair had gone up in flames and Anne and Tom had no rocking chair, and Willie resolved to either find one or build them a new one. Still, Danny had seemed contented, even then, to sprawl against Willie’s chest, moving the game piece as Willie directed him, finally falling asleep to be carried off for a short nap as Willie stood up and announced that he had to go. Even more amazing was the regret expressed at his leaving that seemed utterly genuine. And through it all, the sweet scent of Josette’s wood and Polly’s constant chatter on every and all subjects. Except for the odd glance from Anne sent his way every now and then, checking on the stranger in their midst, he’d had a wonderful day.

 

Upon preparing to leave, he’d paused at the door, unwilling to step out into the cold after being so warm all day, and said to Gina, “Didn’t know Christmas was like that.” To which she’d replied, “Well sometimes, it isn’t, but this just happened to be a very good year.”

 

He’d bid her a final goodbye, and drove back to the Old House at a fast clip, shaking his head, smiling. Only a woman like Gina would consider the year her husband died and her house burned down to have been a good one.

 

The Old House, when he arrived, was even colder in comparison to the day he’d had, the frigid wind ripping off the coast and finding every single nook to slip through, bringing with it sea-scented air and the drift of pine and snow. He’d arranged everything as quickly as he could, and now he waited.

 

When he heard the steps coming up from the basement, he tucked all of his thoughts hastily away, feeling a twinge of guilt along with a hard stab of anxiety. Barnabas had given his permission, hadn’t he? Suddenly Willie did not feel as clear on that fact as he had that morning, wanting to put it down to an overfull stomach, but knowing that he was right to be worried; Barnabas could change his mind at any time. Willie got up to stand by the warmth of the stove, well back from the kitchen door when it opened and Barnabas stood there in the waning light, the just setting sun still casting its glow in the sky that managed find its way into the kitchen. He was dressed in his finest black wool suit and red tie, crisp white shirt etched in contrast at the wrists and neck.

 

“Is everything in readiness, Willie?” demanded Barnabas without preamble, as usual.

 

Willie nodded, eyes flicking up and then away. “Y-yeah, the truck is all loaded, just like you said, and ready to go, an’ the wreaths too.”

 

Barnabas walked over to the table and examined them with large hands, turning them over as if he’d never seen them before, nodding to himself, and then, once, as he looked up, at Willie.

 

“These are well done,” he said, and Willie’s jaw fell open in astonishment at the compliment.

 

Of course it was just another way of tying down his loyalty, though he found he reveled in the moment even as he resented it.

 

“I want you to take the wreaths with you when you go up to Collinwood with the presents,” Barnabas was saying now. “Tell my cousin Elizabeth I shall be along presently.”

 

Willie didn’t ask what the delay would be, he already knew, the knowledge moving across his mind as he waited for Barnabas to leave, prepared to count the number of steps it would take for the vampire to walk down the hallway, grab his coat and cane, and leave through the front door. Willie found he was almost holding his breath.

 

But naturally Barnabas, turning to go and walking to the door, paused there.

 

“Did the Logans enjoy their wreath?”

 

A whoosh of air escaped him and he could feel the needles of Barnabas’ eyes, see them, even from across the room, even in the fast waning light of dusk.

 

“Well?”

 

It was obvious that the vampire had not only looked at the wreaths the night before, he had counted them. And counting now four where there had been five, had come to the obvious conclusion. Willie’s own reaction, uncontrolled, did nothing but confirm it.

 

“Th-they, they—” he began, stammering horribly. In the end he clamped his mouth shut and nodded, head bowed. Stealing. Barnabas would consider it stealing, and why the hell hadn’t he

thought of it that way before?

 

“You would do well to remember, Willie,” said Barnabas, hand on the doorknob, dark eyes grave, “that there is very little that escapes my notice.”

 

Willie’s mind flew to the food secreted away that the vampire could surely smell, perhaps could even catch the scent of the glazed ham nestled in straw outside. The vampire probably knew about everything that had happened that day, could read it in his servant’s face perhaps, and from the stained, soaking garment in a basin upstairs, to the casual invitation to return to the Pederson’s, Barnabas probably knew everything. The gleam in his eyes certainly said that he did.

 

Status quo, then.

 

The familiarity of this eased over him, even as he fought it and watched as Barnabas quietly left the kitchen, triumphant, closing the door silently behind him.

 

All that remained for Willie to do was to load up the wreaths and take them over. Deliver Barnabas’ message and come home. Home to the ever-present chill of the Old House where the damp and draught stole all the warmth from his body and made him want to hover in front of the fire long after it was prudent. At least the blessing of the day wasn’t completely over. He would not have to linger at the kitchen door of Collinwood, hoping for leftover Christmas goodies as he’d been planning to. Not only was he stuffed to the gills, he had more food still stashed away, and an open invitation to return for more. Mrs. Johnson might be puzzled at his lack of effort though, so maybe he should hang around anyway. Either way, he was set for a while.

 

He considered mentioning to her, in the hopes that she would mention it to Roger Collins, or whoever was currently controlling the purse strings at the moment, what Tom had mentioned to him. A community drive was being organized to rebuild Gina’s house, and Tom had asked Willie to donate some of his time, which he was glad to do. And though it could make Barnabas look really, really good in town if he donated some money, Willie didn’t dare ask him. Perhaps the rumor mill that was Mrs. Johnson would be good enough.

 

Shrugging on his jacket and new scarf, he hefted the wreaths on one arm and opened the door to the yard with the other.

 

Merry Christmas, Willie.

 

But from the Old House there echoed only silence and the cold snick of metal on metal as he closed the kitchen door behind him and stepped out into the snowy, starlit night.