“Come on, pokey! A snail could load this cart faster than you!”
Just for that remark, Illano purposely took his time with the next sack of flour. From inside the shop, he could see his sister waiting impatiently as she stood in the wagon. He made his way to the door, but he hovered there for a few extra seconds. Simply to aggravate her a little more.
By the time he stepped outside, he noticed her foot tapping and the irritated look she sent his way. He glared right back. “How about you get your rear end down here and load it? I’ll stand there looking like an idiot.”
She rolled her eyes as she leaned over with her arms outstretched. “Just give me the stupid sack.”
Satisfied that he won the argument, he said no more and lifted the flour up to where Corie could reach it. As he did, he heard voices across the street. One of them sounded like Marienne, their middle-aged neighbor with the produce stand. The other he didn’t immediately recognize.
“I tried to learn to use the crossbow once,” Marienne said. “It didn’t go well. I can’t aim to save my life.”
The other voice chuckled. “Yeah, it takes some practice.”
Wait. Crossbow? Didn’t that elf woman carry a mini crossbow?
He turned to look, initially only to confirm that the other voice belonged to Valyrna. Turns out he was right, but ... he suddenly found himself unable to look away. He hadn’t gotten a good look at her when she visited the shop. Now that he could watch from a distance, he noticed something uncanny. And now he knew why she caught his attention in the first place.
Her smile reminded him very much of Olivia.
A shout from his sister made him spin around - just in time for the flour sack to land on his head and burst open.
The impact caused him to stumble backward. After the white cloud dissipated and he could breathe again, he looked down to find himself completely covered in flour ... along with the grass, the cobblestone, the back end of the wagon ...
He tried to wipe the white stuff from his eyes. It didn’t work and only made them burn worse. “Corianna, you are so dead.” The threat lost its punch when he sneezed and stirred up another white puff.
“Hey, don’t look at me!” she spat back, her voice entirely too loud. “Try paying attention instead of making goo-goo eyes at your girlfriend! You let go before I had a hold of the sack.”
Illano heard snickers from a few people nearby. Thank the gods the flour hid the flush on his cheeks. Just the same, he didn’t like to be the center of attention. It put him in a foul mood.
“Finish the damn cart yourself,” he snapped. “I need to go clean up.” He spun around and stormed off, unable to look if Valyrna had seen the debacle. He just wanted to disappear into a hole.
Since he couldn’t, he did the next best thing. He vanished into the shop and continued through to the backyard. A full bucket sat next to their well, so he brought it inside and dumped the water into the washbasin.
He tried not to brood over what just happened. But as he peeled off his shirt and tried to wash the flour out of his hair and eyes, he caught himself cussing out his sister under his breath. Corie dropped that sack on purpose. He just knew it. He had no idea why, though.
But what burned him up the most was that he kept making a fool of himself in front of the elf. Even if he had the guts to approach her, she’d never take him seriously now. Not after such a clumsy first - and second - impression.
He tensed. At first, he thought Corie had followed him and prepared to tell her off. But he quickly realized it wasn’t his sister’s voice that called out to him.
The shopkeeper turned to see Valyrna appear in the doorway, but she almost immediately ducked back and out of sight again. If he didn’t know better, he thought he caught sight of an embarrassed flush on her cheeks.
It took a second to realize why she would have behaved that way. He’d forgotten he ditched his shirt.
Personally, it didn’t faze him. He went shirtless a lot in the summer months when he worked in the stables. But he couldn’t help his amusement that a hardened vampire hunter could be so easily flustered.
A smirk crept onto his face, although he managed to hold in his laughter. If nothing else, this helped to put him in a better mood. “Did you need something, Valyrna?” he called.
Her answer didn’t come right away. “Not really. I saw what happened. Just checking on you. ... That’s all.”
Another wave of anger at Corie stirred up, but it only lasted for a few seconds. Yes, it irked him that the elf saw him fumble again, but he supposed this could be a blessing in disguise. It gave him a reason to talk to Valyrna without it becoming awkward.
“I’m fine, thanks. Hey, can you watch the front of the store? I need to change.”
“Yeah. No problem.”
He headed for the stairs and made his way to his room on the second floor. For the few minutes it took to grab some clean clothes, Illano debated whether to follow through with an idea that had popped into his head. He needed to make a delivery, and it would be nice not to have to do it by himself for once. It would technically be work-related yet give him an excuse to get to know the hunter.
Besides, it might be fun to see how Mr. Maison would react to the new face.
When he returned to the shop, he found Valyrna sitting casually on the edge of the front counter. Any sign of her previous unease had evaporated, and she let her legs swing a little bit. With her short stature, someone might mistake her for a kid at first glance.
He grinned at the imagery - and didn’t hide it only because it didn’t otherwise seem out of place as he approached the hunter. Somehow, he figured he might get punched if she knew the real reason for his smile.
Illano forced his thoughts back to the situation at hand. “Can I steal a few more minutes from you? I have to deliver the cart to Mr. Maison up the road and could use a hand. He’s getting on in years, and I think he’d like to meet a new face.”
She raised an eyebrow and appeared annoyed. “You mean give an old geezer more fuel for his dirty old man fantasies?”
The shopkeeper tensed. It sounded like she somehow took offense to the remark. He fumbled to correct himself - but Valyrna’s irritation quickly vanished. When he realized she’d been teasing, he relaxed.
She shrugged. “Yeah, sure, why not?” She hopped down from the counter, an impish smirk in place of her earlier scowl.
His own smile returned. This woman knew how to keep a person on his toes. “Hey, play nice. Mr. Maison took care of Corie and me a lot when we were kids. Trust me, he’s no geezer. But he likes meeting new people. And since his wife passed, he gets lonely sometimes.”
She nodded in understanding but said nothing more.
Illano grabbed another small sack on his way to the door. “We’ll leave in a minute. I have to talk to my sister first.”
He stepped outside to see Corie wiping the flour mess from the wagon with her sleeve. Without waiting for her to see him, he walked around her to toss the sack onto the front bench seat. “Keep an eye on the shop,” he ordered, “and don’t give me any lip about it. We may be adults, but I can still boss my little sister around.”
It may have seemed otherwise to someone watching, but he knew Corie would catch the true meaning of that remark. It was his way of letting her know his anger had settled.
She rolled her eyes. “A little old to play the age card, aren’t you?”
“How else am I going to make sure you listen?”
She cracked a smile at that and stuck out her tongue. Then she headed into the shop with a quick comment to Valyrna that he didn’t quite catch. The elf joined him at the cart a moment later.
* * * * *
Valyrna waited with the wagon as Illano knocked on Mr. Maison’s front door. After two tries, no one answered. The third knock became audibly louder and more urgent.
Finally, a muffled voice called from the other side. “Yeah, yeah! Keep your trousers on! I’m coming.”
A lanky, older gentleman with thinning gray hair eventually appeared in the doorway. He greeted the younger man with a warm, if weathered, smile. “Ah, Illano. I didn’t think you’d be stopping by today.”
The younger man stepped forward to pull the other into a quick hug. “I’ve come with your monthly delivery. And a new friend.” He turned to look at the hunter. “If you like, she can keep you company while I unload the cart.”
“Oh, come now. A spry young thing like her wouldn’t want to waste her time talking to an old fart like me.”
She had to smirk at the “old fart” comment. She liked this guy already. Climbing down from the wagon, Valyrna made her way over to the two men. “Now who said it would be a waste of time?”
Mr. Maison grinned. “You’ll have to forgive an old man, lassie. Most young folk can’t be bothered with people my age.”
As Illano left to empty the wagon, the hunter mentally slapped herself. “Goodness, where are my manners?” She held a hand out to Mr. Maison in greeting. “I’ve forgotten to introduce myself. I’m Valyrna.”
The old man had a surprisingly strong grip. “Valyrna. A very pretty name to suit a very pretty young woman.”
That one made her blush. She crossed her arms and tried to brush it off. “Flatterer.”
He motioned for her to follow him into the house. “You remind me of my granddaughter. I haven’t seen her in years. Might I offer you some tea?”
“That would be great, actually. Thank you.”
Valyrna had to force herself to sit still at the kitchen table. She knew some older folks disliked to be helped with every little thing, and Mr. Maison appeared plenty capable as he shuffled around the room to heat up some water.
Illano set a box in the corner of the room and turned to head back to the wagon. On his way past, he leaned down to whisper, “Thanks for doing this. The company means more to him than you know.”
She smiled. “It’s no problem at all. Really.”
Mr. Maison suddenly spoke up. “Now, now, you two. No gossiping behind an old man’s back. I ain’t deaf yet.” His smirk made it clear he was just giving them guff.
His next comment, though, sounded much more solemn. “Oh, but you youngsters are all the same. You don’t see your chance when it comes along.”
“Chance at what?” Illano sounded confused.
Mr. Maison’s tone softened. “It’s been years, son. You have to let her go soon.”
Valyrna saw the shopkeeper’s posture go rigid. He bit his lip, and then he promptly left the room.
Her ears twitched in her curiosity. Who was Mr. Maison talking about? Did Illano lose someone?
The kettle began to whistle and broke the silence. Mr. Maison returned his attention to the tea, and Illano continued to unload the cart. But for the awkward tension in the air, one might think the conversation never took place.
Eventually, Illano unloaded the last of the groceries, and Mr. Maison handed each of them a steaming cup of tea. Valyrna could smell the soothing aroma of lemon and ginseng as she stepped carefully at her drink.
The older man fixed himself a cup and seated himself across the table from her. “If you two have no other plans this evening, would you like to join me for dinner? I’d sure enjoy the company.”
The shopkeeper answered from where he leaned against the wall. “I have no objections. Corie can take care of herself for a little while.”
Valyrna perked up. “In that case, you boys have to let me cook for you tonight. I won’t take no for an answer,” she chided lightly.
She couldn’t remember the last time she prepared a meal for anyone but herself, let alone actually sat down for dinner instead of scrounging whatever she could find on the road. But she knew just the thing to make. Something simple yet unique. Something her mother used to make on those rare but special occasions her father would be home.
Mr. Maison flashed his trademark easy smile. “My dear, a home cooked meal would be most welcome in my humble home. But, uh...” His grin took on a hint of mischief. “Why don’t you and Illano have dessert on your own, huh? Just the two of you.”
The elf’s ears twitched again, this time at an unfamiliar sound. Glancing at Illano, she saw the guy trying to hold in a cough. Must have swallowed his tea wrong.
She returned her attention to the older man and couldn’t help a quiet laugh. Mr. Maison might not be a dirty-minded geezer, but he sure could be a stinker.
Once she finished her tea, she rose from her seat and headed for the door. She noticed an unexpected spring in her step that hadn’t been there in a very long time. “Wait here, boys.”