They arrived at the McCrary farm the next afternoon. It was nestled off a back road that branched, twisted and turned around on itself so many times that even Aguilero found it confusing. "This is about as safe a safe house as I've ever come across," he muttered. "Can't even find the damn place."
But finally they were riding along a path that bordered a snow-covered meadow. The meadow flowed into a yard with a low wall and a gate hung with bells. After looking for guards, traps, instructions or any other reason to wait, Will jumped off his horse and lifted Diana down from hers. They tethered their animals and walked up the flagstone path. All around them was a snowy wonderland of evergreens, wind chimes and bird feeders, and by the front door, a statue of an angel. It was such a startling change from what they were accustomed to that even Diana looked about in curiosity.
A bird-like woman answered their knock and ushered them inside without so much as asking their names. She introduced herself as Rebecca McCrary, and she took their wraps and hung them on hooks in the foyer, smiling and bobbing her head as each person gave their name in turn. Then she led them into a pleasant room with a sofa and two stuffed chairs. Lining the walls were bookcases filled with trinkets, crystals and artifacts, and only the occasional book. A fireplace and pot-bellied stove made the room cozy and Rebecca insisted everyone sit and get comfortable. "I'll put the kettle on," she said.
Will led Diana to the sofa and sat beside her, holding her hand. Amalia eased herself into an upholstered chair across from them while Aguilero went to the fireplace and stretched his chillblained hands toward it. When Rebecca came back a few minutes later, she was carrying a tray with cups, saucers, and a blue teapot. Aguilero joined Will and Diana on the sofa and Rebecca perched herself on the remaining chair. After asking a few questions about their trip, she turned her attention to Amalia and soon they were deep in conversation about aspens, birds and snowflakes, discussing everything, yet nothing at all.
Lulled by the warmth of the room, the softness of the sofa and the cheerful banality of the discussion, Diana grew sleepy. Rebecca had made no fuss over her and ignored her in a kindly way, as if confident she could make her own decisions as to when she would speak, sit, stand, eat or drink. She demanded nothing, and in the nicest of ways. Soon Diana was dozing over her empty teacup.
Amalia made to say something, but Rebecca gave a slight shake of her head. She got up and put a hand on Diana's shoulder. "Would you like me to show you your room, dear?"
Diana looked up, startled. She darted a glance at Amalia, who turned away and made no comment. Rest sounded good, so she followed Rebecca down a narrow hallway to a room decorated in pale yellow, like a perpetual spring afternoon. A fire was already burning in the small iron stove. "I've heated this room every day since they told me to expect you," Rebecca said. "I hope you like it. Anything you see, consider it yours."
"Even the cat?"
Rebecca started. "Oh, Butterball. . ." She bent over the cat on the bed and scratched her between the ears. "We don't know if this young lady likes cats."
"It's okay. I haven't had a real pet in. . . well, a long time. It'll be nice if she wants to stay."
"All right, then. Throw her out if you change your mind." She considered for a moment. "There's robes, dresses, slippers, and that sort of thing in the closet, and nightgowns in the dresser. Of course, you can wear whatever you like. No one here to mind except me and the animals, and I don't care. The door at the end of this hallway is the shortcut to the little house out back, if you know what I mean, and you saw where the kitchen is. Help yourself, any time. I myself eat three squares a day. I would love your company, but I'm going to assume you're a grownup who doesn't need to be told what to eat and when to eat it."
Diana could have thrown her arms around Rebecca's neck and hugged her for such an indulgence. Instead, she sat on the edge of the bed and drew the cat into her lap.
"There are a lot of chores to be done around here. You don't have to do any of them, but any help you offer will be gratefully accepted."
"Of course." Diana promised herself that she would do something every day, even if it was only wash the dishes.
"That's about it for house rules. I'm going to go back to the others now. I'll be preparing dinner soon. Join us if you like, or help yourself to leftovers whenever it suits you."
Diana frowned. "I suppose I should find out when they're leaving."
"They'll sleep here tonight. If you'd rather stay in your room, you can say good-bye to them in the morning."
After Rebecca left, Diana inspected her new surroundings. She started by looking out the window, where a bird feeder hung from an evergreen branch and a jay picked at a few seeds. As she moved to close the drapes, she noticed a prism hanging from the window frame. She spun it slowly, admiring the way the colors swirled and sparkled.
There was a chest against one wall, empty except for some nightgowns, towels and blankets in the bottom drawer. The top was covered with a white lace runner, on which was set a vase of silk pansies, a brass clock and a crystal trinket box that contained colorful pebbles and the smooth brown shell of a garden snail. The washstand was near the iron heating stove, and there was a bin of extra wood and a kettle so she wouldn't have to wash her face with cold water.
The closet contained robes and dresses in soft fabrics and gentle colors. Diana touched them reverently. Although she abhorred dresses on general principle, there was something comforting about these clothes, with their loose, uncomplicated style. It might be a pleasure to go about in the soft blue flannel dress, or to wrap herself in the pink terry robe. And there were slippers to match. She blinked back sudden tears. She hadn't had the luxury of matching clothes of any kind since Strecker's men burned her family's farm. Housedresses and an actual house to wear them in seemed decadent and more than she deserved.
On the nightstand was an even more surprising luxury— a vase of fresh flowers. Where had they come from? Then she remembered that Amalia had said something about a greenhouse. This was a marvel that would have to be investigated. The bottom shelf of the nightstand contained books, but other than the Bible, Diana recognized none of them. She pulled one out and opened it at random:
Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think.
This so startled her that she put the book back on the shelf. Suspecting that the other books were of a similar vein, she sat on the bed and the cat rubbed against her, purring. She pulled it onto her lap, burying her fingers in its thick white fur. "What kind of crazy place is this, Butterball? Did Robert really arrange all this just for me?" She gasped in dismay. "Oh, no. I told him I hated him."