Vincent stepped from behind the large oak and raked his fingers through his hair. Isles of multi-colored blooms lined the walkway of Shilo Park, welcoming the weekend visitors with a potpourri of spring offerings. Couples strolled along the red brick path hand-in-hand. A small family spread a large blanket on the fresh grass beside the stream. Birds sang and danced along the branches overhead while Center Creek gabbled on its way through the green.
He glanced at his watch and whispered, “Bhiorus.” The luminescent face throbbed a muted glow and sent a pulse of acknowledgement across his mind.
Harvest search set.
Launching into a jog, he dodged a pair of lazy walkers and then followed the footpath around a gentle bend. Elaina stood at the rise of Center Creek Bridge, and he paused to take in the sight. A smile inched up his lips. Could it make a better scene for a storybook?
A cobbled arch stretched over the water with banisters of columned whinstone. Her lightly freckled complexion framed bright blue eyes, and strawberry blonde curls tumbled down her slender back. As always, she wore a dress that screamed, I’m a modest young woman and as sweet as they come.
The charm tugged at Vincent’s heart.
She held to the sand-colored handrail and gazed at the cloudless sky. With a tweak in her cheek, she looked down at her watch.
I’m late. I knew it. He shifted into a trot and then hopped along the outskirts of a group as he neared. Catching her waist from behind, she gasped as he spun her around and then pulled her into a kiss.
“Have you been waiting long?”
She sniggered. “Well, I was beginning to wonder.”
“Sorry, family matters.”
A twinkle caught her eye as she winked and then peered at him through her lashes. “Am I ever going to get to meet them?”
“Very soon. But, trust me, we’re just like any brothers living in the same house. Cole, moody. James, all-knowing.” He smiled.
“There’s more to them than that, I know it.” She tilted her head to accentuate her obvious push of the subject. “Three wizards living in the city’s most historical manor?”
Vincent glanced to his side. “Three brothers living in an old house.”
Time to tell her more than the simple fact he practiced wizardry, especially if he wanted their relationship to move forward—and that was exactly what he intended.
He took her hand, leading her to walk. “There are a few other things you need to know before you meet them.”
She watched him as he searched for a place to begin.
“Elaina, being a Shilo…means more than just being born into a Founder’s family. Our family is different. We have a role to fill.”
Dipping his hand into his pocket, his fingers tapped the promise band. It should be on her wrist before he shared much more. His gaze flitted to hers. Presenting it to Elaina before he told her anything seemed like a blatant display of distrust. Her sensitive heart would be hurt, and the stars and planes knew it would tear him up to see that happen.
I can trust Elaina. I know it.
Leaving the bracelet stashed in his jacket, he let his hand swing at his side. He opened his mouth to begin and then caught the words before they hit the air. Gods, why is it so much more difficult to tell her than the others?
“What is it? Do they think I won’t fit because I’m not a royal?”
Halting his stride, he turned to her and shook his head. “It’s not that. But, you need to realize that what I tell you about my family has to stay between us.”
Her light brows furrowed. “You can trust me, Vince. I’d never let you down.”
He brushed her cheek with his fingertips. “Don’t ever let me down, Elaina. You have no idea what that would do to me.”
“I love you. Nothing you tell me about your family is going to change that.”
“You were a little set back when I told you about the wizardry.”
A breath of humor accentuated her words. “Who wouldn’t be? But, honestly, it only makes you all the more special.”
“My bloodline is foreign, Elaina. We’re not from here.” The words dropped from his lips like lead, and he expected her to consider the comment.
Her response came instantly. “Well, your accent makes that kind of obvious.” She smiled with a charm in her little wink. “It’s beautiful. It only makes me love you more.” Tilting her head, she sighed. “All our families came from somewhere before here.”
“Elaina,” Vincent placed his hands on her shoulders. She clearly didn’t understand the gravity of the statement. “Have you ever met another who could cast spells?”
A laugh punctuated her answer. “No.”
“So, where do you think I got this ability?”
“I imagine it’s something certain people can develop. You know, like—you’re probably more sensitive to your surroundings. Maybe.”
Vincent shook his head. “I inherited it. It’s prominent in my culture. All my people can manipulate the elements.”
She folded her arms and looked to the side as if pondering the statement. “All your people? I don’t know of a culture that performs magic.”
He glanced along the walkway and paused, allowing a couple to stroll past. This hadn’t been the best place to hold the conversation. Should he wait? His fingers flexed and then tapped his legs. Anxious energy buzzed around his stomach.
No. Today, before I meet her family.
As he opened his mouth to reply, a pulse of information crossed his mind.
Harvest subject Charlie Lestinger; five-feet-one-inch, age; seventy-two. Consider for stable hand, gardener, or electrician positions.
Vincent looked at his watch. Acronymic symbols lining the circumference turned green and shifted. He grimaced and glanced at her. “Don’t kill me. I have to adjust something.”
Sighing, Elaina stepped back and looked away. “You need to replace that watch if it keeps shocking you like that.”
He cocked a brow and turned, passing his finger over the scrying lens. The image of a slight man seated on a park bench beside the stream appeared. Vincent scanned the grassy knoll on the other side of the creek. Spotting the subject, he faced his love with a smile. “I keep the watch. My father gave it to me.”
Reclaiming her hand, they resumed their walk.
“Vince, where are you from? The more I think about it your accent really isn’t like any I’ve heard before. And though I absolutely get lost in those eyes, I’ve never seen any that dark.”
He looked at her questioning gaze and sucked in a deep breath. “We’re from far away. It’s not as far as you might think, but farther than anyone here has ever been. We must guard our heritage strictly. We are very different from any one born to Terra.”
“Um…” She quirked her hand. “I know you probably meant that to sound different, but any one born to Terra?”
Shuffling to a stop, he looked into her blue eyes. “We’re not from Terra, Elaina.”
She nodded once and scrunched her cheek. “So, you’re saying you’re not from this planet.”
He couldn’t tell if she was about to laugh or cry by the expression on her face. It could have been sympathetic grace as she thought he was crazy enough to commit into an institution. “I didn’t say I wasn’t from this planet. Just Terra.”
“Right. Well, Terra is a planet, Vince.”
“Just as is Meridian.”
“So, you are saying, you’re from a different planet.”
“Same planet.” His words trailed into a whisper as he watched her for a sign of panic. “Elaina, I’m from a different…dimension.”
“That’s right. My home is Meridian. All people from the central realm hold powers similar to mine. It’s the oldest, original, sets at the center and inspires the other realms.”
She glanced to the empty air. “I see. And we’re in the Terra realm.”
“Yes. Well, actually, Terra is a Cornerstone realm. Its position is called Cornerstone Deep. Your familiar name is Terra.”
Another nod. “And we all take after Meridian.”
“In a way. Inspiration echoes from the ancient souls and touches the younger, influencing much of the progression made.”
“So, we have you to thank for the stinky paper mills and cars.”
“Since, you know, your dimension inspires us. So, all the other dimensions have paper mills and cars too?”
Humor puffed past his nostrils. “I guess you could say that, and yes. The cornerstone realms mirror each other, like the midway realms do. I’m sure they have a form of paper mill somewhere.”
Vincent set his hands in his pocket, delighted at how quickly she seemed to take to the information. “The level of influence is effected by how far down the spectrum the position is.”
“If we mirror them, is there a me there too?”
He paused as the odd question halted his explanation. “Well, no.”
“Not much of a mirror.”
“Um…” Her frank tone caught him off guard, and he gazed at her with question.
“But you’re not from any of those places.”
Exaggerated innocence peered at him. Okay, she’s turned this into a game. “No.”
“And…your familiar is?”
He sighed and looked at the red brick path. “Champaign.”
“And what’s Champaign’s mirror-place?”
“Champaign doesn’t have a mirror dimension. It’s at the center.”
“Elaina, no, you don’t see.” Cradling her face in his hands, Vincent shook his head. “This is completely new, and you don’t believe it. If this is too much, tell me. I need to know you won’t tell anyone.”
Her playful tone melted. “No offense, but if I told anyone this, they’d think I was crazy.”
A chuckle burst from his lips and he pulled her close. “You’re right.”
Elaina held to his jacket and laid her head on his shoulder. “Okay, Vince. Um, I want to believe you, but come on. This is really not believable, you know.”
“Would it help if I gave you something from my home?”
Her gaze sparkled beneath the tops of her lashes, and he grinned as he withdrew the champagne diamond band from his pocket. He placed it on her wrist and brushed his thumb along the gems. Tiny spangles followed his touch.
The delight in her eyes warmed his heart. “It’s a Promise Band. A charm I want you to have.” He cupped her hand with both of his. “It holds magical properties. Firstly, if after I explain its purposes and you accept it, it will become your link to our ways. It will testify of truth and falsehood, so you know in your heart and mind what you can trust. And when you hear things concerning our lives, it will ensure that you can’t share them with those that aren’t connected to our circle. If you start to speak of them, it will cause you to forget what you’re talking about.”
He leaned his head to watch for her response. “Accepting the Promise Circlet means you accept the promise of secrecy. Elaina, will you accept this Promise Band?”
A sweet laugh chimed from her lips. “Of course, I accept it.”
Vincent smiled and kissed the adornment. It gently altered to hug her wrist, and he looked into her lovely eyes. “Then, I promise to tell you the truth about my heritage. I’m from Meridian, a dimension at the center of the Spectrum of Realms. My people manipulate the elements. And Elaina, we have been here a very long time.”
Elaina’s nostrils flared as her gaze darted to the cherishment. “That’s amazing. I could swear it just said—truth.”
He nodded with a smile. “I’m twenty-four.”
A scowl crunched her face. “Oh, no you’re not. You’re… Gods, you’re thirteen-hundred, seventy-five?”
“Tell me you love older men.” He chuckled.
“Oh, Vince, you’re amazing! I love you.”
He framed her cheeks and kissed her lips. “Promise you’ll think of me every time you look at it.”
“Promise me you’ll keep your promises to me.”
She leaned her head against his palm, and her eyes misted.
“I promise,” she whispered.
~ * ~
James settled into the chair in front of Cole’s desk and reached for the Utopian.
He could think of little else since his conversation with Cole. It changed every view he had of death in Cornerstone Deep. Could it be possible that his father, a renowned realm traveler, had it wrong when he tried to search for their mother?
Perhaps these spirits stayed near the loving bosoms of their gods for a time before returning to continue their souls’ progression. It would allow time for the God of Conformance to instruct. The Goddess of Love and God of Life could heal their souls from a lifetime of pain. But, their mother…
He turned the device absently in his hands. Perhaps, the instrument had been created to serve this plane only, to find the souls born here, and couldn’t pick up the advanced details of their kind. Who would know better than Cole if Mianna’s soul had called to him?
He pinched his lips together and passed his hand over the circlets. The mirrors clicked into place.
James hesitated, remembering the family’s elation when they’d received their first assignment together…and his disappointment. As much as he’d hoped to find a soul mate before that day, the gods hadn’t granted his wish.
A smile touched his lips as he remembered the first vows he spoke. A precious, beautiful woman, he’d cherished the moments with Sarah, regardless of the fact their souls hadn’t made the deepest connection possible.
Heaving a sigh, James softly spoke the command. “Essence trace simplex, rebirth. Sarah Timberlake Shilo.”
An image of a woman with dark gray eyes, hair the color of sunshine, and porcelain-painted skin appeared above the tulip-shaped Utopian.
His heart leapt.
Before his senses could calm, a race of representations flashed before his eyes. He flushed as the calendar of her progressive spirit pulsed across his mind.
Gods, it’s true. Rebirth exists here.
He clinched his fists and held his breath as he eagerly watched for the final projection. The images stopped, and the information relayed the final name.
Tiffini Tillman Steward.
Air puffed from his lips. She was an adult. Married, but an adult. He scooted closer to the edge of his seat as he couldn’t control his excitement. With a start, he stood and then swiveled to pace a large circle around the study.
Reincarnation exists on Cornerstone Deep!
He halted before the mantel’s shelves as his gaze fell to the family’s Candle Vignette. “Oh,” he whispered. “Mianna.”
Dragging his palm across his chest, a heavy sigh issued from his lungs. The pain Cole faced was far worse than he had imagined.
~ * ~
Vincent passed his finger over his watch and the symbols at its circumference whirled. A miniature James appeared as if he’d waited for the trap to open to stick his head through.
“I thought you were going to meet Elaina’s family,” James said and then glanced around as if to make sure no one in the park watched the conspicuous conversation. “Is everything okay?”
“Everything’s fine.” Vincent glanced over his shoulder, momentarily distracted by James’ concern. He inched closer to the bush, and Elaina side-stepped with his movement. “She just wanted to meet one of my brothers and I thought you were lesser of the two evils.”
James chuckled. “Okay.” He smiled at Elaina. “A pleasure to meet you. I trust since Vince has introduced us in such a way, we’ll be meeting in person soon.”
Elaina smiled and waved a shaky hand. “Yeah, I look forward to…meeting everyone.”
With a nod, his hulky brother’s head turned to face him. “All is well, then?”
Vincent put an arm around his love. “All is well, brother.”
“Then if you don’t mind, I have research.”
As the image faded, Elaina stretched her back and braced her brow with her hand. Walking in a small circle, she looked back at Vincent with a sigh. She smiled, a congenial smile.
Shivers traveled along his spine. He grinned, tempering the insecure twitch that played at his cheek. “I’ve shared a lot of information with you. Are you about to run?”
“I knew you three were wizards. So, being able to call each other over your…watch shouldn’t surprise me.”
Her gaze met his, uncertainty vivid in her eyes. A definite feeling of her searching the depths of his soul washed over him. He held a steady gaze and allowed silence to aid in her coming to terms with the knowledge he’d shared.
The moment seemed to stretch, holding still the approval of the world around him. The brook’s gurgles gave no encouragement. The bird’s melody held no contentment overhead, and the breeze that rustled their waves around their brows offered no reprieve.
Elaina’s posture relaxed as she took his hand. “I accepted that you had powers. That you were different from any other man I’ve met. I knew there had to be more. It will take some sinking in, but,” she leaned into him, lightly kissing his chin. “Vince, you are the most wonderful man. I hope someday I can prove how much you mean to me.”
Pulling her into an embrace, he buried his face in her curls. “Oh, Elaina, be mine.” He quickly reached into his pocket and grasped the small box he’d carried for over a week. If there had ever been a perfect time, this was it. He knelt before her on the brick path and opened the lid. “Drink from my cup. Be my wife. Be with me for the rest of your life.”
Cat calls punched the air from Center Creek Bridge as a group of youths clapped their approval.
He smiled at their exuberant urge for her to accept. “Well?”
Elaina held her hand to her mouth, but he could see the joy in her eyes. “Yes, Vincent, yes!”
Rushing to stand, he slid the ring on her finger.
Cheers erupted. As the crowd ran in their direction, he snatched her into his arms and pulled her into a kiss. The gaggle gathered around with oohs.
Triumphant love overflowed his heart. She was to be his next wife, and he could remember no greater joy in receiving an acceptance to his proposal. He loved Elaina: her caring heart, strong spirit, tender touch, and the depth of her gaze when she looked into his soul.
“Excuse me, but I’d like some time with my fiancé.”
With congratulatory shrills, the gathering departed.
Elaina wrapped her arms around his waist, and her smile glowed as she met his gaze. “I don’t care where your family is from. Or that you’re older than dirt,” she added with a snigger. “Whatever you are makes you more special to me. I love you, and nothing’s ever going to change that. Nothing.”
Vincent looked over her lightly freckled nose, the strawberry locks that framed her ivory face, and then deep into her blue eyes. His love, his hopes, all his dreams culminated in the moment of her acceptance. She’d pledged her heart to him. Promised to accept his differences, and now that she knew the deepest secret—his alien heritage—everything else could fall into place.
His soul sang, and as he pulled her into a kiss, warm wafts of honey and licorice fell from his lips. His Breath of Zephyr bathed her in the sensual gift of his realm.
Elaina’s knees weakened, and he held her tighter, intensifying the moment.
“Oh, sweet Gods,” she whispered. “What is that?”
He stroked her cheek with his fingertips. “My Zephyr. A gift meant only for you. It’s a taste of home, Elaina. A taste of Champaign.”