This chapter is told from the point-of-view of Stefan Nilsson.
It was a long drive up the mountain, over winding roads lined with trees, but I enjoyed it. The air was fresh and clean– it actually smelled alive. I drove with the window down, breathing in the mountain air and feeling very happy for Leila; she got to live up there, surrounded by nature and trees. The location really suited her desires and personality, and I was excited just to be able to see her in her element and smiling.
I finally turned down the road that would lead to her house. My tires crunched over the gravelly dirt road and I slowed down to a safe speed. One last curve, and the house came into view. Leila had said that it was three stories, but in that moment it seemed so much bigger, like a tower instead of a really nice cabin. I was getting anxious to get inside and check everything out; this was an incredible place for Leila to have all to herself… to be alone in. I pushed down all thoughts of being there to make sure she’d be safe living there and reminded myself that she could look after herself.
As I pulled up to the house, I could see that some of the windows on the first floor were open. Laughter was drifting out. I smiled, recognizing those laughs, from Larsa’s playful semi-giggle to Killian’s heartfelt laughs, and even Leila’s. I knew every one of her laughs; when she was cracking up versus thinking something questionable, the way puns made her giggle and the nervous laughter she had when she didn’t really want to laugh but felt obligated to.
Leila was already running outside as I parked the car, rolled up the windows, and turned off the engine. I recognized the flannel jacket she was pulling on, but didn’t have time to think about it. No sooner was I out of the car than she had her arms around me, shouting my name.
“It’s wonderful to see you, too, Leila,” I replied as I lifted her up and spun her in a circle. She clung to me even when her feet were back on the ground. “This mountain air has done you a lot of good.”
She took in a deep breath as she let go of me. “It’s great up here! Oh, Stefan, I’m so glad you made it! It’s like putting the last piece of the puzzle into place.”
“Oh, really?” I chuckled a little at her enthusiasm. “Well, it’s good to be wanted. Thanks for the warm welcome.”
I set her down and duck back into the car. “I was going to try getting here before Killian and Larsa, but I had to stop and get a few things. And then I saw a shop where I knew I had to visit.”
I reached down into the footwell of the passenger side of the car to pick up what I’d gotten, then carefully slid back out of the car.
“This is for you, Leila,” I said, trying not to trip over the words as I held the vase towards her. “Happy early birthday.”
Leila’s face brightened when she saw the bouquet. She accepted the vase with a bright smile and took in the different types of flowers in it. Our fingers brushed in that moment, and I couldn’t hep but long to let our fingers intertwine and pull her close. But I didn’t know how she would react, so I didn’t do it.
“Wow, Stefan!” She was enthusing. “This is really beautiful. I’m surprised they had a bouquet like this at all.”
“It wasn’t one of the pre-made ones on display,” I told her, understanding what she meant. “I had the florist make it especially for you.”
“For– Stefan…” she breathed, looking at me over the tops of the flowers. “You didn’t have to go to so much trouble just for me.”
She was blushing. She was trying to hide her cheeks with the flowers, but I could see it. Not that I was going to mention it, though. “It was no trouble. Besides, it’s almost your birthday, and you’ve gone to a lot of trouble to play hostess to three smelly men.”
“Smelly?” she repeated, raising an eyebrow.
“Oh yeah,” I confirmed. “Haven’t you smelled Larsa when he gets home from riding his bike?”
“Hey!” Larsa shouted from the open window. “What are you telling her about me?”
“Just that you need a shower,” I called back.
“Speak for yourself! You like Vikings so much that you smell like them!”
“What?” Leila laughed as she listened to our banter. “He doesn’t smell bad at all. He smells very good, actually. Nice and clean.”
“A clean wolf is still smelly!” Larsa teased.
Leila laughed again, then looked up at me. “Don’t listen to him,” she assured me. “You always smell good.”
I shrugged. “You have those flowers to keep you from smelling the real me.”
She shook her head, then gave me another hug, smelling my chest where we touched. “No, you’re still using that sandalwood soap these days. And that cologne with sage and bergamot and whatever else it was.”
“I’m glad you approve,” I chuckled.
“Of course. Man, it’s going to be a great week with you guys up here, keeping things lively.” She turned her attention back to the flowers. “Bellflowers… mountain avens… primrose… and Irish eyebrights! wow, Stefan, you made some really interesting choices.”
I gave her a proud grin. “I couldn’t get you anything without eyebrights.”
“You’re the most thoughtful man I know!” she declared, giving me another hug. “Thank you so much, Stefan.”
“You’re welcome, Leila. So… should we see how they look in your kitchen?”
“Oh, they’d be beautiful in the dining room!” She glanced over at my car. “Do you want to bring anything in right away?”
“I could grab a few bags of groceries if we’re heading that way,” I said. I reached into the car to grab the lever that would pop the trunk, and closed the driver’s door before heading to the back.
“We’ll come out and help ye,” Killian called from the window. He and Larsa disappeared from view.
“Leila, you don’t have to carry any of this,” I told her as she shifted the vase to one hand and started reaching into the trunk. I grabbed the cases of soda I’d purchased. “Just hold onto your flowers.”
“Hey, those look really great!” Larsa exclaimed when he emerged from the front door and saw the flowers. “Ooohh, so many bell flowers! They’re really nice ones, too!”
“They remind me of faeries,” Leila told him. That was one of the things I remembered about her admiration for the flowers. I she had a book with pictures of faeries and flowers, and I remember her painting one in watercolor for art class back in high school; it had come out really amazing. One of Killian’s sister’s had been admiring it, so– generous as always– she’d given it to her.
“If you keep the windows open, maybe some will fly in to play in them!” Larsa replied.
“All right, lad” Killian called to him; he was already at the trunk. “Come help us with these bags.”
The three of us managed to get most of them, and Leila led us into the house, straight to the kitchen. I have to say, it was a really nice kitchen for being in such a rural location. It had been upgraded here and there over the years, and the parts that weren’t had been well-maintained. The kitchen island had a little seating, and there was a small, simple wooden table near the window. Leila led me through a swinging door into the dining room, which had a long table that reminded me of what the nobles in medieval movies sat at; I’m sure it was one of her favorite things about the house. To room was lined with windows, and the door at the far end led out to a covered porch with another table.
“Wow…” I breathed as I took it all in.
“That’s pretty much what I thought when I saw it,” Leila said. She walked over to the middle of the table and placed the vase in the center of it. “Thank you again for the flowers, Stefan.”
I nodded. “They look great with the sunlight falling on them.” My eyes shifted from the flowers to her, and I swallowed hard. The sunlight fell on her hair so perfectly. It highlighted the copper in her curls, and it made the green in her eyes sparkle. I wanted another hug from her. I wanted to–
“Earth to Stefan!”
I blinked and shook my head.
“What, are you jet-lagged from the drive up here?” she teased. She had that adorable smirk on her face. “Or is it altitude sickness?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t let something as simple as a mountain defeat me,” I said with a laugh. One that I hoped didn’t sound nervous.
“Of course not,” she agreed. “Okay, let’s go get the rest of your stuff and then I’ll show you your room and give all of you the grand tour.”
Then she took me by the hand and rushed me back outside. I didn’t mind her grabbing me like that; her skin was soft, her tough gentle– but at the same time, she wouldn’t have needed to. I’d follow her absolutely anywhere.