The Changeling Bride(6)

By: Lisa Cach

If she stayed away from fashion magazines, she could almost believe what a friend had once told her—and even take it as a compliment—that she had the figure of a Greek statue, symmetrical and proportionate, devoid of the overstated breasts and starved hips that populated advertisements. The friend had gone on to say that her face fit that description as well, for surely a strong nose such as hers was not fashionable today, but perhaps a few millennia ago, it and the rest of her face would have served as a model for Athena or Aphrodite. Elle liked to think so, but knew it wouldn’t do her much good until she met a man who, upon setting eyes upon a museum statue of a Greek goddess, refrained from commenting on what a cow the goddess was.

She dried her celestial frame and dressed in mundane jeans and T-shirt, a goddess masquerading as merely mortal. She found a half-stale bagel and toasted it for breakfast, then ate it while standing at the kitchen counter contemplating the bunch of overripe bananas in her fruit bowl. Another Saturday, she mused, in the thrilling life of Wilhelmina March.

Elle pulled her parka hood over her head and stepped off her patio onto the squishy wet grass. Tatiana raced ahead, her white fur the only spot of brightness in the rain-drenched landscape.

Elle trudged along behind her, following her up the path that led into the woods. Mud sucked at her hiking boots and slid underfoot, and her breath was loud in her ears. If it weren’t for Tatiana, she’d spend the day under a quilt on the couch, a book in one hand, a bowl of Hershey’s Kisses in the other, banana bread in the oven.

Once under the canopy of evergreens, her mood lightened. There was nothing here to remind her that her student loan payments had doubled last month, or that it would be another ten years before she could even start to think about saving money to buy the bed-and-breakfast that was her vague dream for the future. No reminders of her dismal romantic life, either.

Tatiana crashed and bounded through the low-growing Oregon grape, collecting burrs in her long fur, her paws black with mud. Elle wished she could be equally as enthusiastic about exercise.

After trudging uphill through the mud for another ten minutes, she stopped to catch her breath, breathing heavily in the quiet. The hairs on the back of her neck started to rise, the feeling of being watched suddenly overwhelming her. She spun around, her heart in her throat, but all that faced her were trees and undergrowth, dripping and silent. Tatiana had disappeared.

“Tatiana! Here, girl!” she called, slapping her thigh with one hand. “Tatiana!”

She heard a “woof” from somewhere above her on the hill, followed by a chain of excited barks. There was a crashing in the undergrowth, then more barking. Elle felt a chill of adrenaline wash over her, her heart beating hard. Someone or something was watching her, she could feel it.

“Tatiana!” she called again, her voice quavering up a half octave. A squirrel suddenly chittered angrily from the branches of a tree up the hill, and then Tatiana bounded into view.

Elle let out a shaky breath. Just a squirrel. There was no one here, nothing to be afraid of. She tried to shrug off the sense of being observed, of not being alone. “Don’t disappear again, okay?” she told the dog. As lousy a bodyguard as Tatiana was, she did make Elle feel safe in the woods. She trusted Tatiana’s ears and nose, and was less likely to talk herself into believing she was being stalked by a mountain lion, or that a gang of teenage boys was waiting around the next bend to attack her, if she had Tatiana romping along beside her, unconcerned.

The path continued up the hill in a series of long switchbacks, then meandered over and around the connecting hills. Elle gradually relaxed as she walked, squishing contentedly through the mud. She shoved her hands into her parka pockets, her fingers encountering loose coins and Kleenex. In her right pocket was a stiff piece of paper. She pulled it out.

The bright pink color stirred her memory. The old woman on the bus. Idly curious, she unfolded it as she walked, then stood still to read it. There were hearts drawn around the border, and in the middle was written: COUPON GOOD FOR: ONE FREE HUSBAND. And in small print on the bottom, REDEEM AT WILL. The cheap black ink had worn off in the folds.

So much for no reminders of her romantic life. She turned the coupon over. The back was blank. It sounded like one of those 1-900 chat lines where women talk for free, only the idiots who’d made the coupon had forgotten to include the phone number. She laughed at the absurdity of it.

She resumed trudging along the trail, fiddling with the paper as she walked. It had been three years since her last serious relationship had ended in a glorious blaze of agony, and it was beginning to seem possible that she might never marry. She didn’t want to be a spinster aunt, though, devoted to her dog, invited over to Jeff’s house for Easter and Thanksgiving and Christmas, the family being careful to include her so she wouldn’t feel as lonely and pathetic as she was.