What an order. Anna’s vision hazed, and her concentration waned. This job was the most demanding she’d been assigned; one that held consequences she’d rather avoid if not completed to the bidder’s taste.
She slid off her stool and stretched her back, scanning the colorful shapes on the work table. It filled much of her art studio, sitting at the center for easy access to all sides. The island held two completed zinc-bonded works. Another three-by-five-foot panel lay nearly finished over the pattern of palm-sized sketches.
She swept the shard and metal bits into the trash bin and dragged her wrist across her brow. Grabbing her coffee mug, she sighed and dumped the cold remains down the corner sink. “Three more panels.”
The department assistant peeked around the door frame. “Hey, Anna.”
Her cheerful voice grated on Anna’s fatigued nerves and she cringed. “Hi, Amy.”
“I noticed you were still working when I left last night. I know this is a big assignment, but be careful. You’re pushing it with the new curfew.”
“I have a deadline. I can’t afford to lose my job over this.”
“Well, my mother dates a guy that’s,” she formed quotes with her fingers, “in-the-know, and he told her to take it very seriously.”
Steam rose as Anna poured a fresh cup of coffee from the percolator. Vanilla cream sweetened the mix to her taste. “I heard the announcement. And I’m sure they exaggerated a bit.”
Amy shook her head. “He said anyone out past curfew that was alive and breathing could be targeted and never heard from again.” She nodded, and her dark curls bounced around her shoulders. “Yeah, he said it was serious. And I believe him. I met him, and he really looks like he’s in-the-know. Not just an announcer type. So be careful.”
Anna lifted the corners of her mouth into a forced smile. “Okay. Thanks.”
“Well, just thought I’d remind you.” She shuffled the bundles of mail to her other arm and pranced out the door. Her cheery greeting sang down the hall from the next studio.
Anna sipped at the drink as she turned to her creation. The glass artwork sparkled beneath the fluorescent studio lights. As required, not one design that made up the trio was identical. The stained-glass montage blurred into abstraction and she pressed her thumb and fingers to her temples.
“This is impossible.” Her cup teetered on a wipe-rag as she sat it down and then pulled her dark hair back into a ponytail.
“That’s why I chose you for the job.”
Startled, she turned toward the deep voice. Lord Dressen’s lips curled into a crooked smile. He tucked his hand under his tailored overcoat and rested it in his pants pocket. A gift box cradled in his other hand as he sauntered to her. “I know your work. And I know you won’t disappoint.”
She offered a small smile. She needed a break, but he was not that kind of break. “I’ll do my best. But if you want me to finish on time, you really should stop dropping by. It only distracts me.”
He furled his heavy brows. “I like that I distract you. Besides,” he opened the box and set a bejeweled bowl on the table. “I brought you a gift, and I wanted to see those blue eyes sparkle when I gave it to you.”
Anna glanced at the shallow treasure. Gems adorned the black lacquered surface and gleamed in the bright lights. At least it’s not another piece of jewelry. As beautiful as they were, there would never be an occasion to wear them among her social class. She could at least use this for a…candy dish?
She mimicked a grateful acceptance.
He grinned and withdrew another item from his jacket’s inner pocket. Removing the tissue wrap, he placed a thick black candle in the center of the holder.
“A candle. A black one.” She upped her eyes and blinked. “It’ll go nicely with my yellow wallpaper.” Anna suppressed the urge to snigger.
His lips widened to a toothy grin. Withdrawing a silver box from his pocket, he pulled out a match and struck it against the side of the container. As the wick flamed to life, a sensual aroma of licorice and vanilla filled the air.
Her snigger melted to awe. Her cheeks warmed, and her senses instantly lulled as tension fled. Her body relaxed, and Anna couldn’t hold back her delight. Such a unique sensation. She breathed deep to let it filter through her body. Her soul drank in the tranquil essence like a forgotten addiction. A serene veil coated her mind, and she set a hand on the table to steady the effect.
“You like the gift.”
She looked at him, afraid to admit it, but knew it showed on every inch of her.
Dressen nodded and brushed the art tools far to the side. “I chose this scent.” He took her hand then backed her against the table. “Had it made for you.”
His gray eyes looked into hers. “I can give you anything, Anna. Wealth, security, love. I could be the soul mate you want.”
Anna’s knees weakened, and she gazed at him with wonder. How long had he pursued her? Longer than he should have, given she offered no welcome to his advances. A year? More? Gold, jewels, exotic flowers—they were all propositions during his persistent courtship. He’d even offered travels to the only thriving Arylin colony in existence. That was a hard one to refuse.
Unconnected memories gathered as the thick scent of the candle touched her. Her chest tightened with her heartbeat, and she raised her gaze to his. A longing for his touch, that before now seemed so ridiculous, pooled in her core. She allowed his hands to skim around her waist and hold her.
Placing her hand to his cheek, she traced the narrow features as if seeing them for the first time. Instead of aristocratic pomp, his face was kind. Patient.
Something filled her with what she’d always sought. Something familiar to her spirit, her soul. Why had she turned him down all this time? She brushed her fingers across his silvering hair. How could she have been so blind to him?
He cupped her hand with his. “Tell me, Anna. Tell me you want what I do.” He stroked loose strands of her hair back and grasped the locks in her ponytail. “I won’t wait much longer.”
His eyes brightened as he smiled. “Say that again.”
His words forced her to focus. “What?”
“My name. Say it again.”
“Um,” her mind stumbled, and she took a deep breath to try to clear her thoughts. Did I just let myself be informal with a Nobleman? “Lord Dressen, I don’t…think this is a good idea.” Well, that wasn’t very convincing.
His dark gaze twinkled with a flash of victory. “You just called me Kyle. And I think this is a very good idea. You won’t be disappointed.”
He pulled her close as if her weak rebuttal was an open invitation. His hot breath bathed her lips. “I’ve wanted you for so long. Tell me you want me, too.”
He didn’t wait for an answer. His lips crushed against hers in a hungry kiss.
Anna gasped. Wait! What have I done to bring this on? Nothing. I’ve done nothing! Wedging her elbows against his chest, she shoved.
A low growl rumbled in his throat.
Fear rushed from her gut to her cheeks as he pinned her against the table and pressed her to recline.
Dear Arylin, Goddess of Love, help me!
“Oh, um, excuse me.”
Amy’s perky voice came from the door, and Lord Dressen shot a scowl over his shoulder. He straightened and slid his hands from Anna.
She inched past him and closed the gap between herself and her co-worker with quick strides. “Amy, hi!”
Amy glanced at Dressen and bit her lip. “I’m sorry to interrupt, Anna. But Mr. Cantrell wanted me to get this to you. Specifications on the revised order.”
Anna received the envelope with a shaky hand and pulled out the plans. “Revised order?”
“You changed your order with Mr. Cantrell? A circle of fused glass at the center of each?” She looked at him bewildered. “Three are nearly completed already. Do you realize the extra time this will take?”
“I need them by the thirteenth.” He strolled to her. “Mr. Cantrell understands the gravity of my satisfaction. I’m sure you don’t want to compromise the standing of Cantrell Artisan. It would be devastating to the company.” He stepped between the two women and whispered into Anna’s ear. “Of course, none of this would matter if you’d just say—yes.” He cocked a grin and winked, sauntering out of the room.
Amy giggled beneath her fingers. “Anna, I can’t believe you aren’t with him already. Everyone knows he wants you. We’re all so envious!” She glanced at the table. “And it looked like you two are…well…” she giggled again. “Why don’t you just agree? It’s not like you have anything holding you back. That rutty row house? The stove and heating never work properly. You’re so far behind on the bills you’re about to lose it anyway. Especially after you had to fix all the vandalism to the property. Honestly, that neighborhood reeks.” She leaned her head to Anna. “No offense.”
Anna’s stomach churned.
Sparkles danced in Amy’s eyes. “You’d have a big Chalice Wedding. You’d become a Lady and live in that mansion with all those servants. Sure, he’s older but he’s not that bad looking. Mother’s dating a much younger guy. Really, age is nothing these days.” She grabbed Anna’s arm and shook it. “Anna, he’s a Grand Marshal! And if your father was still alive, it’d make him so proud. He loved you so much and worked so hard to raise you alone. A street sweep’s daughter becoming a Lady. It really would make him proud.”
Anna let her hands fall to her side and glanced to where the unexpected kiss had taken place. What a dirty shot, bringing her father into this. She closed her eyes at his memory.
“Amy,” she whispered. “Never use my father like that again.”
~ * ~
The mantle clock chimed, and Cole looked at the old timepiece. He glowered as the throaty tone sounded and then fell silent. If it wasn’t a priceless treasure, he’d crush the wretched thing. For centuries, the deep tone sang of how slowly time passed…as if he needed reminding another empty hour had gone by without her.
He glided his thumb down the smooth side of the family’s Candle Vignette. The enchanted record keeper fit perfectly in his palm, nested by his fingers. For the life of him, he couldn’t remember never loving the relic.
His gaze shifted to the amber glow that emitted from the cleft in the top. It framed a picture of the past with a fading margin. The image undulated with gentle waves, the subject’s heartbeat influencing the life of the memory. Love touched his senses with every pulse. Blue eyes twinkled at him and bow-tie lips curved upward in a natural smile against the cherubic face. Her long dark ringlets rested on her petite shoulders, the same locks that would surround him with the scent of roses when he had relished the soft skin at her neck.
Four-hundred years. Cole swallowed the tightness in his throat and let a breath speak her name. “Mianna.”
Footsteps came from the hall, and James leaned his head inside the doorway. “I thought I’d find you here.”
Cole pursed his lips and waved a hand over the picture album. The depiction faded. “Meaning?”
“Whenever you’ve courted a woman as long as you have this time, you retreat to the study.”
Probably true, it seemed to be the only place he found solace. The tapestries hanging along the east wall were the closest thing to home with the blue sun of Meridian and the moons that cast an indigo glow. It seemed to soothe him somewhat.
He longed for the gifted dimension. Yet he searched for love here, in Cornerstone Deep—for the soul who had touched his so long ago.
Cole sighed. “Did you need something?”
James eased into the seat beside him and laced his thick fingers over his waist. “We found a harvest subject for Lord Dressen’s order.”
Vincent stepped in and leaned on the door frame, his squared jaw set in silence.
Cole looked back at the Vignette. “The spell’s ready. Are you sure she fits all the requirements?”
With a nod, James glanced at Vincent who looked away. Strong emotions touched Cole’s senses as his brothers’ feelings rolled off them in hot waves: uncertainty, distaste, skepticism… And he didn’t blame them. This bid was definitely out of the ordinary, as was the new decree.
James nodded again.
“Okay.” Cole set the instrument on the desk and smoothed back his hair. “Details.”
James passed a finger over his wristwatch. The luminescent face throbbed blue as information scrolled. “Age, twenty-five. Approximate height, five feet five inches. Light complexion, dark hair. City’s lower east side resident.” He leaned forward and looked back at Cole. “She’s acceptable for the position.”
Cole stood and summoned his cloak. It flew through the door into his hand. “Name?”
“Anna Sinclair. She’s been getting home moments late. Without the shortcut through Shilo Park, she’ll be out well past the allotted curfew.”
“We won’t find another to match such a bid.” Cole slung the cape over his shoulders and secured the clasp. “Lock the north entrance.”
Vincent’s features matched the stony countenance of the statue beside him. Raising his hand, he pointed it toward town. Tiny sparks spangled across his knuckles as he snapped his fingers into a fist. He spoke through his teeth. “It’s secure.”
James stood. “That’s Gryffin’s perch.”
“Gryffin knows of the new law by now. His silence on the matter proves this is no different from any other duty we perform.” Cole glanced at the wide tapestries that hung along the east wall of the study. Meridian. His home realm. Nostalgia gnawed at his stomach as did the reasons the God of Conformance remained silent. “And I gave up caring a long time ago.”
He stepped back and grasped the edge of his cloak. On cue, his brothers furled their capes. A dark mist overtook them as they dispersed their elements into the Smoke of Night. As they darted from the study down the hall, Cole sent a mental command to the front doors. They flew open, and crisp spring air penetrated Cole’s being. He led the way over the manor hedge and down the southern hillside to the City of Shilo.