Aurora never expected to fall in love. Growing up in the Hasslich household, she never fantasized about a “soulmate,” or a wedding, or even a boyfriend. Sure, she’d seen the romantic comedies. She’d watched beautiful leading ladies meet muscled leading men, watched the stars form in their eyes during the whimsical (and ever-so-cliche) meet-cute. But that was fiction. In reality, life goes on after the first kiss. And the movies never show what comes after – the fighting, the cheating, the inevitable breakup. No, men were for mating, plain and simple. To venture past procreation was to end up like her mother – a slave to her own lust, driven mad by the heartbreak of unrequited love.
But then there was Palani. More handsome than those muscled leading men – and even better, Palani was real. And, now more than ever, Aurora found that what she felt for him was real as well. Whatever misconceptions Aurora had about the meaning of love, Palani had changed all that in just a few short weeks.
He supported her dreams.
He was kind to her children.
He made her laugh.
And above all, he stayed.
Palani treated Aurora like some kind of queen. He took care of the garden, the cleaning, and the endless array of home repairs. He worked tirelessly night and day to ensure her comfort, catering to her every whim and desire – and when what she desired was him….well, that was even better…
But as Palani busied himself with the cleaning, gardening, and cooking, Aurora grew concerned. Palani put her happiness above his own in all things – but why?
Aurora: Palani, why don’t you come inside and let me make you a drink?
Palani: Oh no, my creator, let me make YOU a drink!
Aurora blanched at his subconscious slip. Palani had escaped the Amazon, but old habits die hard – and it seemed Palani’s slave mentality was no exception.
Aurora: I’m not your creator, Palani! I’m not anyone’s creator – unless you count my kids, I guess, but that’s beside the point. You’re not a slave here! The gardening and cleaning and housework – it’s a joint effort in this family. It’s not your job – you don’t even live here!
Aurora felt a tear slip down her cheek, and she buried her face in her hands. She had suspected as much, but she was unprepared for the cold hard reality. She’d been so sure of her own feelings, so content in their realness – but what about Palani? Were his feelings real? She’d never thought to ask.
Evidently not, she thought as she stifled a sob.
It wasn’t his fault, she knew. Palani came from a culture where men were subservient to women, where they were trained to obey and to please, to answer to a woman’s beck and call. To do a woman’s bidding. And in her own way, hadn’t she bade him to love her?
She looked up at him sadly, suddenly embarrassed. She’d assumed his presence here was his choice.
Aurora: You are no one’s slave, Palani – you answer only to yourself. You have no obligation to me or to anyone else. Your life is yours.
He looked at her, the confusion written across his face.
Palani: Don’t you think I know that, Aurora? I’m fully aware I’m not a slave…. That’s the whole reason I escaped the Amazon! You can’t really think I’d just forget I’m a free man, do you? I don’t do your yard work or cook for you because I think I have to – I do it because I choose to. Because I care about you, and want to help you. I love you, Aurora – but you sure as plum won’t ever own me. I do the things I do because it’s what I want to do. Palani does what Palani wants!
Aurora exhaled heavily, relief coursing through her – she’d misread the situation entirely. She laughed, abashed, and then threw a coy glance his way.
Aurora: So, then, Palani Wahine – what is it you do want?
Palani raised an eyebrow and shot her his best come-hither smile. She snuggled happily into his arms, and looked up at him.
Aurora: I mean it, Palani. You’ve spent your whole life doing what other people told you to do. What do you want?
He nestled his chin in her hair, then pulled away to look her in the eyes.
Palani: Truthfully, Aurora, there is something I’ve always wanted. In my tribe, men are executed after they mate – after they initiate a pregnancy, that is. Fathers never get to know their children – I never even met my father. I know you have a legacy heir already, and I won’t pressure you to marry me, but since you’re asking what I want – I would like to be a father, and I would like the chance to know my child.
Aurora: Now that I can get on board with. And for the record, Palani? I could never say no to you – especially if you were down on one knee..
Palani grinned and grabbed her hand, and they ran off laughing toward the bedroom.
Coralie was jolted awake by the abrupt chirping of her cell phone.
Meet at the park in an hour?
Kierra. Coralie quickly typed her response and then bounded upstairs to get changed.
When she arrived at the park an hour later, Kierra was nowhere to be seen. Coralie looked at her watch – she was a few minutes early, so she decided to wait.
Five minutes went by, and then ten and twenty, and Kierra was officially late.
“Coralie!” a voice called. She looked up expectantly, sure to see Kierra walking her way. Instead, she was greeted by her distant cousin,Stefania Landgraab-Solomon.
Stefania: Coralie! I thought that must be you! It’s been so long, but Hasslich women are hard to miss! What are you doing here?
Coralie: I’m waiting for Kierra, actually. You should hang around until she shows up – I’m sure she’d love to see you! But anyway, how have you been? I was so sorry to hear your mom passed away…
The minutes ticked by as the cousins caught up, but still no sign of Kierra. Coralie pulled out her phone to send her a text. She was beginning to worry.
You ok? Why so late?
As Coralie tucked her phone back in her pocket, Stefania nudged her elbow. She spoke softly and slowly, and Coralie realized that her cousin sounded suddenly nervous.
Stefania: Coralie? Who is that?
Coralie glanced over her shoulder, and felt a chill run up her spine. He did look creepy, she’d give Stefania that, but Coralie was sure he was harmless…right? She laughed uneasily.
Coralie: No clue, just some random weirdo, I guess. I mean, who wears a Star Wars costume out in public, anyway?
Stefania: He keeps staring at you. It’s freaky. I have to get going, Coralie, but why don’t you come with me? Something about that guy just feels….off.
Coralie felt a twinge in her stomach, but she brushed it off.
Coralie: No way! He’s just checking you out! I’m going to wait for Kierra a little longer, but I’ll be okay! Tell your brothers I said hi, okay?
Stefania walked off, worry etched into her face, anxiously looking back at Coralie as she went.
Coralie checked her phone again – still no word from Kierra. She checked her email (nothing) and her missed calls list (nothing again). When she looked up, her heart skipped a beat. The creepy guy was still there, and this time, he was definitely staring at her. The hood hid his eyes, but he was staring – Coralie could feel it.
She flinched, but shook her head and chalked it up to paranoia. But just for peace of mind, she walked inside the park – closer to people, and further from the daunting figure.
But it had gotten later than she’d realized, and there were less people in the park than she thought. Coralie suddenly felt uncomfortable, uneasy. Something told her it was time to go home, NOW, Kierra or no Kierra.
But as she hurried towards the gate, Coralie felt the hairs on her neck stand on end. She shuddered – something was wrong.
He was here.
No one knew what happened next.
No one heard her cry for help, the crash of her phone as it fell from her hand.
No one saw him lead her to the woods, the dark hooded figure and the dazed teenage girl.
But Coralie was gone, without a trace.
The next morning, a young boy playing in the park would find the phone she’d dropped.
He would pick it up and see the unread message on the screen, and the sender’s name blinking in green: Kierra.
Late for what, C?