Anna watched Lord Dressen as he closed the door. Reverence filled her. Every line that accented his heavy brow and creased his narrow face declared his wisdom. His dark hair was as a crown tinted with silver.
“Clair.” His deep voice vibrated in her senses and touched her like warm honey. A woman appeared from the hall. “Anna has joined the household. She will fill the special bid and have the room on the second floor. See to it she knows what’s expected of her.”
As he turned, his gaze lingered with a cocked grin. A low chuckle rode his breath and he disappeared down the hall.
Confusion entered as Anna’s keeper departed. She darted her gaze around the spacious room. Lustrous onyx, polished silver and a brilliant ceiling commanded her view. The many eccentricities in the foyer sent anxiety raging and she searched for her tall savior for reprieve. He was gone.
Clair placed her hand on Anna’s arm. “Come with me, love.”
Anna watched her as she led the way. The woman’s brown hair was tied back into a bun and her ferrety features wore a tiny smile. Small comfort settled the sting of desertion.
Marble staircases curved beside a masterful stained-glass window standing center stage on the far wall. Anna stared at the work of art that took up space from floor to vaulted ceiling. The geometric shapes absorbed her attention, but her escort tugged her hand.
“You’ll be staying on the second floor.” They entered a long corridor and the servant opened the first door on the right.
“This is your room. Lord Dressen’s is the master suite down the hall.” She crossed the plush carpet to a set of glass doors and opened them. “The fresh air will help you relax. I know this is confusing to you.” She turned on the light in a small hall to the right. “But really, the choice of lost memory is a blessing. There are twenty of us serving here under Lord Dressen and not a one regrets it. Some have been here since he gained his Lordship. Oh, I guess that’d be about forty years gone now. Reg, the butler was one of his originals. Nice man, Reg.”
Clair slid the closet doors aside and removed a blue lounging robe. She peeked at Anna through her lashes as she handed it to her. “So, tell me. We’re all so curious. How does it feel?”
Anna blinked at the woman. “How does it feel?”
She nodded with a little snigger. “We were told his order had strict requirements this time. You’re a special one, you are, if you fit the bill. We hear you’re to be on his arm.”
“On his arm?”
The woman’s brow furled. “Well,” she closed the closet. “Maybe we can talk later when you’ve settled in. Just get bathed and dress for bed. I’ll be back when you’re done. There are a few things you need to know.”
Panic flashed as the woman headed for the door. Anna grasped at the gown and rushed to her side. “You’ll be back when I’m done?”
“You just get cleaned up and ready for bed. And welcome home.”
The door closed behind her. Finality. Abandoned…again. Anna looked over her shoulder, scanning the room with apprehension. A burgundy comforter hugged the wide bed at the center of the far wall. A desk and chest of drawers took up the left. Stained-glass lampshades with matching light posts adorned the bed stands and a sculpture of a human form stood in the far-right corner.
Fear held Anna’s gaze as her vision widened to take in the scene as a whole. The items seemed to leer. In a shift of understanding, they morphed into rudimentary shapes and flattened against the wallpaper backdrop.
Alarm rang in her heart, pumping ice through her arms and legs. She darted into the little hall, ignoring the counter of pretty things to her right. As she entered the small room beyond, she slammed the door behind her. Heaving air, she turned to find a broad sunken bathtub, a toilet, and an oval sink.
She rushed to the tub and spun the water knob on. A wide stream gushed from a hole in the wall and down an angled ledge. Stripping off her clothes, she slipped in and sat. Droplets nettled her legs with each splash, pushing the anxiety further. She pulled her knees to her chest.
“She’ll be back when I’m done.” The words reassured her.
She sloshed her feet at the water as impatience mounted. A scowl scrunched her face and she turned off the flow. Snatching the soap, she slid it over her hair, across her shoulder, and then down between her breasts to her tummy. A large plop sounded at her feet as she threw it aside and dipped under the water to rinse.
Trailing water across the rose tiled floor, she grabbed the gown and slipped it over her head. It clung to her wet skin as she pulled it down her torso and then tossed her hair over her shoulders.
Darting for the bedroom, motion in her periphery caught her attention. She halted at the door and looked back around the frame.
Angst melted, and she stepped back into the short hall, pulled the bench from under the counter, and sat. Adornments, perfumes, lotions, and puffs lined the narrow shelf. Seated on the other side, the lady’s big blue eyes stared at her. Her angelic face was flushed red, long dark hair straggled and wet. The nightdress she wore stuck to her body as if drenched by rain, but the woman didn’t appear to care.
Anna smiled at her and she returned the gesture. She waited to see what the woman would say.
“It’s okay,” Anna whispered. “I’ll wait until you want to talk.”
~ * ~
Cole planned to materialize on the porch first, but as it turned out, his brothers seemed to have the same goal.
James held his hand at Vincent’s chest, allowing Cole to enter the manor first. The receiving hall welcomed him home with cherubim-laced walls and trim. But his irritated steps struck the hardwood floor with reverberant thuds as he pulled at the clasp of his cape. He tossed it, draping a sentinel beside the banister. It landed on the seraphim’s head. Cole scowled and flicked his wrist, sending it from the statue to the coat rack.
James hung his cloak beside it.
Cole turned to face them as Vincent sent a bolt of energy to slam the door. The tall decorative windows on each side of the entrance burst and crashed to the floor. The cascading chandelier shook above them.
He glowered at the childish display. “I filled his order.”
Vincent flung his cape to the floor. “You bound her soul!”
James waved at the shattered entrance. Shard and spar whirled into the air, each reclaiming its former place with tiny clinks.
Cole’s heart hardened at the charge and he headed to the parlor. Bound her soul. “It was the only way to ensure complete compliance.” A weak defense, he knew, but the only one that came to mind. He scanned the ample selection of liqueur that filled the wall. “She’ll be happier than anyone in that house.”
“Only because she won’t know better not to.” Vincent widened his stand with a step. “Sealing that spell with a kiss pushed the limit, Cole. You went too far this time!”
“We’ve been pushing the limit for centuries.” With a swagger, Cole picked out a flask. “Now just get this all out of your system so we can get on with our lives. James is here to clean up your mess.”
Vincent growled, and a blue pulse jetted across the room from his fist, bursting the bottom of Cole’s bottle.
He pursed his lips and looked at Vincent. He pointedly set the emptied selection on the bar and brushed the front of his shirt.
James bit back a grin.
Cole opened the cooler and chose a can of beer instead. “Okay, Kid. You want my attention.” Popping open the drink, he faced the runt and waved a dismissive hand. “Say what you have to say and be done.”
“Her soul! Cole, how can you be so casual about this?”
“I told you. There was no other way to ensure complete compliance.” He took a lengthy drink. “That man’s order was impossible.”
“You strengthened the spell. It would have brought her close enough.”
“Close isn’t good enough. We deliver what’s ordered.”
Vincent shook his head. “Father would have never approved of this. You know that!”
Cole scowled at the choice of weapon.
His youngest brother set his jaw with their father’s memory backing every word. “He only agreed to gather the homeless to ensure their security, give them shelter. The Grand Marshals do that.”
Cole slugged at his drink to drown the want to lash out. He slammed the can on the bar. “Giving them shelter.” He scoffed. “Right along with memory wiping and bending wills.”
Vincent turned livid. “That was only to help the insecure settle. Father loved these people!”
“And they’re the very ones who ended him aren’t they?” Cole sent his disgruntlement to the room. The leather seating and cherry fitments stood firm and offered his case no support. The picture window revealed the black night of this world—a cruel reinforcement that their assignment there was an indefinite curse to him. He threw his hand across the scene. The draperies whipped closed.
He set his clenched fist on the bar. “We did our job. This falls under keeping the Grand Marshal’s placid. It’s their bid. The new law made her no different from any of the others we harvest.” His voice lowered to a mumble. “What’s binding a soul to a soul with no rebirth?”
His gaze flicked to the large masterpiece above the hearth. Sylis Shilo’s dark eyes peered down at him and a flash of reproach stung his soul. He looked away to erase the discomfort.
James sat in a nearby chair and blew a long stream of air through his pursed lips. “I was going to wait until later for all of this, but I have to chime in here.”
Furling his brow, Cole held up his can in a salute. “By all means, say your piece. At least I know you won’t be spilling my drink all over my clothes.”
James leaned his hulky arms on his knees. “I know how you feel about our situation, Cole. But we can’t let bitterness shadow our reason for being in Cornerstone Deep. I don’t believe Father would wish any ill on these people. Erasing memories allows the subjects to release the pain of their past. And bending wills enhances dedicated service, gives them a future to focus on. But a soul is a being’s depth. Even if this dimension doesn’t offer reincarnation, it limits them to rely on the basic instincts of their nature.”
Cole heaved a sigh. “All she’ll know is that she’s loved and wanted. You saw it in her eyes. Her whole heart was content at the thought of just being with us.”
James shook his head. “At being with you. In her limited mind, you gave her life.”
He paused at his brother’s words and rolled his shoulder as discomfort struck his nerves again. Cole swigged at his drink then calmed his voice. “When I turned her over to Lord Dressen, that reverence was given to him. Any attention he gives her will be like heaven to her. All mortals should be so lucky.”
James held out his hand. “What’s going to happen when she’s left alone? Without a soul to guide her thoughts, emotions will take over. Confusion will lead to panic.” He furrowed his brow. “Did any of this even enter your mind when you decided to seal that spell with a kiss?”
Cole growled. “I filled the man’s order. What’s done is done. If things go awry, I’ll unbind the soul and refund the money.”
A scowl accentuated Vincent’s features. “That’s it? You’ll just undo everything and give back his money?”
James shook his head with a look of disbelief. “Have you ever unbound a soul, Cole? In nearly eight-hundred years, have we ever unbound a soul?”
Sparks danced along Vincent’s fisted fingers and he spoke through clinched teeth. “We’ve never bound a soul.”
James glanced at the youngest and stood, stepping between the two, no doubt to offset any temper tantrum from Vincent. “Exactly. She’s experiencing bliss right now. If you perform an unbinding—if it can be done at all—she’ll regain her life’s pain. She’ll be in excruciating pain, Cole. We don’t even know if she’d survive.”
“I thought you were going to stay out of this.”
James folded his arms across his broad chest and lifted his chin. “That was before you decided to play God.”
Cole held up his hand and lowered his head in a small gesture of retreat. “Okay. The deed is done. I will personally keep posts on this girl and step in when needed.” He slugged the remainder of his beer and set the can on the bar with a heavy fist. “But, trust me on this. There’s not a more content woman in the world.”
He turned his back on his brothers and closed his eyes. Dread mounted with each thump of his heart.
He’d bound a soul. How could he have bound a soul?