Laina knocked beside the mosaic welcome plaque. She shifted her stance to face Arden. “Thanks for walking me to their apartment. I feel like I’ve inconvenienced you–”
“No gun to my head.” He stuffed his hands into the pockets of his frayed jeans and shrugged. “I like elevator rides.”
“Preachers shouldn’t lie.” She pointed at him and raised a brow. “Nobody likes elevators.”
The door swung ajar.
“I’m so glad you’re here safe.” Jayme wrapped her arms around Laina. After relinquishing her embrace, she addressed Arden. “Thank you so, so much.”
“My pleasure, ma’am.” After a quick nod, he turned toward the elevator.
Jayme lunged and grasped his shoulder. “You have to come inside. I insist.”
“Maybe for a minute.” He shuffled across the threshold.
Dave approached, extending his arm. “Pleasure to meet you, Reverend. I’m Dave Troveman.”
He accepted the handshake. “Just call me Arden.”
Laina laid a palm on Dave’s forearm. “Thanks for making her call me, by the way. I really appreciate it.”
“Of course. And, you’re welcome. Are you okay?”
“As long as we can talk about something else.” Laina shifted in the cushions. “Taxes, ancient history, anything.”
Arden said, “I understand congratulations are in order.”
“Yes. I’m the luckiest man alive.” Dave’s cheeks bloomed with a full grin as he watched Jayme head toward the kitchen.
She paused to glance over her shoulder. “Can I get anyone a drink?”
Laina asked, “Got any ginger ale or seltzer? I’m a little queasy.”
“One ginger ale, coming up. How about you, Arden?”
He shook his head. “Just had enough java and danish to wake a dead mule.”
Dave led them across an ivory shag rug to the living area. Hand-blown vases gleamed from teak shelves opposite a castle painting.
“That’s new.” Laina sank into the corner of the plush, taupe sofa and accepted a sparkling tumbler from Jayme. “You doing oils again?”
“Wish I had the time,” Jayme said. “One of our museum interns gave me this. I encouraged Jones at Gallery on Fifth to give her a show.”
“Looks like Mindy Cella’s work.” Arden paused beside the painting.
Jayme asked, “You know her?”
“Been friends with a few local artists. Haven’t seen her for a while. Give her my best.” Arden settled into a wing-back chair.
“She must be one of those people who are great at choosing gifts.” Dave sat in the opposite corner of the couch.
“Since she’s apparently marrying Prince Charming.” Laina stifled a yawn.
Jayme snuggled against her fiancee. “I do love castles.”
“Look like prisons to me.” Laina sipped, the spicy, effervescence tingling her parched tongue.
Jayme raised a wine glass toward her. “Ever the romantic.”
“There’s a glint of truth in her cynicism, there. Lots of castles served as fortresses or prisons, including that one.” Arden pointed to the artwork. “When the people find reliable security, they no longer seek protection from the structure. The castle’s purpose changes, and they start putting all their effort into making a quality living place. For themselves and guests.”
Laina studied a prick of light dancing in his eye as he spoke. “That’s what you love about castles?”
He turned to face her, locking into her gaze for a moment. “It’s what I love about the heart at peace.” He broke eye-contact, glancing to all in the room in turn. “I’m less of the fairy-tale kind of guy. More a fan of the countryside.”
“How’d you end up in a big city like this?” Dave asked.
“Wasn’t exactly an accident, but I sure was a wreck. In Texas, the roadkill wouldn’t have anything to do with me anymore. So, I came here to get lost and life found me.” Arden smiled at his gaping hostess. “Don’t feel bad. God can work wonders on the dead.”
Dave set his stemware on the glass coffee table. “I think my pastor might’ve mentioned you. When we were working on food donations, he said a Reverend Chariswell covers the streets and shelters as his parish. You know Pastor Baker?”
Arden tilted his head. “He’s an old friend. And, he knows I don’t do titles. He still at that little church on Ninth?”
As Dave nodded, Jayme patted Laina’s arm. “That’s where we’re having the ceremony. I meant to ask if you could meet me there next Wednesday.”
“Yeah, probably.” Laina tried to stifle another yawn, but it pressed forth as she covered it with her fist. The room’s edges blurred. She blinked away the drear. “Can I check my calendar in the morning?”
Jayme stood. “I’m so sorry. You must be exhausted, and we’re keeping you up.”
“Babe, wait a sec.” Dave took his fiancee’s hand and looked at Arden. “It’d be great if you’d pray with us before you leave.”
A deep growl erupted from the entryway.
“No!” Laina whipped her head toward the front door. Deadbolts, chain, handle–all locked.
“What’s that?” Arden squinted at her.
“I mean, no problem.” Laina accepted Jayme’s grasp as they linked hands in a circle.
Fiery pinpricks stung around her neckline as the prayer began. The amulet burned against her chest. She wriggled, but did not let go of her cousin or Arden. Hissing and growls drowned parts of his voice, so she only heard snippets of the prayer.
” . . . protect their apartment . . . guide Laina to peace . . . in Jesus name.”
With the pronouncement of the final three words, the hissing and growls fell silent.
Laina opened her eyes and coughed. “Thank you, Arden.”
He rose, laying a hand on her shoulder. The warmth of his touch sent an electrifying pulse into her muscles. “As I said, my pleasure.”
The others stood to bid him good night, but Laina remained mired in the couch corner. “Good bye, Reverend.”
He paused at the door. Turning his gaze on her, he dipped his chin. “Don’t forget your promise, Ms. Journalist.”
“He rescued me from my powerful enemy,
from my foes, who were too strong for me.
. . .the Lord was my support” (2 Samuel 22:18-19).