In my world, photos and videos had been a reminder of bad things. I’d prefer not to catalogue such recollections. However, that was before I thumbed through a stack of prints Nila had taken of me playing unaware with Kes and the foxhounds one afternoon.
I’d frozen. So sure the man she’d captured was a total stranger. I didn’t see the guy in the mirror staring back every day when I shaved. I looked upon a man who knew his place, loved his place, and was happy. Truly happy.
My heart glowed as my wife clicked and imprisoned special portraits of Emma’s fifth birthday. That camera—something so small and simple—had become so precious, capturing irreplaceable memories, colouring moments of treasured time.
In my spare time—not that I had much between running the Hawk empire and raising two demanding children—I dabbled in film exposure. I’d transformed one of the many parlours in the Hall into a dark room. I preferred the old-fashioned way of developing. I got to touch the faces of my children, be the first to witness my wife’s stunning smiling lips as the chemicals morphed her from nothing, to black and white, to vibrant colour.
Almost like how she’d brought me to life with her love, breaking me free from my self-imposed prison and granting magical pigment to my world.
Kestrel grabbed the edge of the table, throwing his head back dramatically for the birthday song. “Happy birthday to Velcro Smells. Happy birthday to you!”
I rolled my eyes as Nila bopped him on the head. “Don’t call your sister that.”
Kes rubbed his tussled hair. “What? She does.”
“I do not.” Emma stuck her tongue out. “You smell. You stink like, like, like…a hedgehog.”
Nila bit her lip so she didn’t laugh.
I couldn’t stop myself. My eyes met Jasmine’s, and she burst into giggles. “A hedgehog? What the hell?” My sister looked at my wife. “Where have you been letting them play? I had no idea hedgehogs even had a smell?”
Vaughn bent over, coming back from the kitchen where he’d pilfered a few of last year’s brew. This mix wasn’t thistle and elderberry like at my father’s birthday so many years ago, but lavender and honeysuckle. The liquor was strong, but I doubted I’d ever grow a palate where I would crave it. I preferred the expensive cache of cognac we had in the cellar. Not that I needed alcohol to be happy.
Thanks to Nila and my children, I lived in a state of bliss. Even when Kestrel and Emma were cranky and tangled with childhood emotions, I still basked in their love. I learned how to let my condition have full control of me because I had nothing to fear by soaking up the feelings of my beloved family.
Nila put down the camera and came to stand beside me. Her hand landed on her daughter’s fuzzy black hair. Her face tilted toward mine, and we shared a brief kiss. Her eyes shot a silent message. I’m having you the moment it’s appropriate.
My gaze hooded. I’m having you regardless of appropriate time or not. The minute this cake is cut, you’re mine.
She sucked in a breath.
Forcing myself to look away and remain tethered to the room full of people, I smiled at the family and friends celebrating Emma’s birthday. It drained me—so many people in one space all at once—but the afternoon of medieval games with jousting, dress-up, bouncy castles, and even a re-enacted sword fight had been worth the emotional strain. All day we’d had a child’s dream out on the front lawn with water pistols and a petting zoo—combining old-world charm with modern simplicity.
Emma and Kestrel had explored every secret I’d set up for them and my chest warmed with pride to think I’d given them more than a childhood day of fun—I’d given them a happy childhood, and that was immeasurably priceless.
Merged voices rose together, singing the final line of the song. “Happy birthday to you!”
The burly men of the Black Diamonds—the ones vetted, vouched, and commanded by Flaw all clapped and cheered. V hipped and hoorayed, waving his arms and stealing a giggle from Emma while Tex shoved the five candle cake closer toward my daughter.
Five years old.
Fuck, time flies fast.
My heart twinged like it always did on big occasions. Small occasions, too. Every moment when I stopped and took the time to wonder how I got so fucking lucky. In those same seconds, I often thought of Kes. I remembered my brother, I missed our friendship, and I ached to share what I’d been given.
The guilt of his death still coagulated my heart. He shouldn’t have died. If anyone deserved to survive during the massive purge of evil in my family, it was him. Nila knew how I felt, how I struggled to be deserving that I lived and he didn’t.
She helped me accept it. And time helped soothe it.
Kes might not be with us physically, but sometimes, I’d get a sense of his quiet humour as I wandered around the Hall. I liked to believe a part of him remained with us, watching over us until our time came to join him.
“Make a wish.” Nila bent over, holding Emma’s hair from catching fire as she jumped up in her chair and puffed her tiny cheeks. The little hellion planted her hands on the table, about to face plant into the pale pink icing of the castle cake.
“Wait.” Nila shook her head. “Before you blow, did you make a wish?”
My ears pricked. I wanted to know what my daughter wished for so I could make it come true. My entire existence was to make sure every desire materialized. Within reason, of course. I wouldn’t raise a spoiled brat.
Emma pouted, her eyes locked on the cake. “I made one already.” She bounced in her frilly pink tutu. “Please, can I blow? I wanna blow. I made a wish. This is taking forever. I want cake!”