Cole glared at the old mantle clock above the hearth. Anticipation had long turned into vexation. Just over twelve hours left to begin his ploy. The only thing worse than causing harm, was waiting for the right time to correct it.
The quiet study seemed irritatingly unbiased, as the second hand on the timer didn’t even make a sound. He watched the tip slowly move around the circumference, eclipsing the tiny nocks one by one.
Line. No line. Line. No line. Line. No line.
His exasperation exploded. Shooting his hand toward the thing, a statuette charged from the bookshelf and pierced the face of the timekeeper. He threw his disgruntled gaze to the door, immediately angry with himself for imitating Vincent’s destructive temper.
Wait. I bet he’s still in bed. He glanced back at the clock to check the time and then scoffed at his stupidity. The damn thing was broke, its hands scrambled and bent, glass shattered with a miniature rendition of the Meridian capitol tower poking out at an odd angle. He dragged his hand across his chin and slumped in his master’s chair.
“What are you doing up already?”
Cole’s nerves jumped at the sudden voice. “I hate it when you do that.”
James chuckled. “You called me.”
“I didn’t realize the time before I did.” He motioned to the clock. “You wouldn’t mind fixing that, would you?”
Stepping to the desk, James set a plate of cake down for him and another for himself. “Taking on Father Time?” He flicked his finger and the figurine returned to the bookshelf. Hands straightened, and glass reassembled with tiny clatters and clinks. He sat in a chair and forked at his snack. “Eat the cake. Elaina’s family barely touched it. We have enough to last a year.”
“Did you bring butter?”
“You want butter on a cake?”
“I’ll eat butter on anything.” He reached for his portion.
“How about sweet cream?”
“Just eat the cake.”
Cole shoveled a bite into his mouth. “What are you doing up so early?”
James leaned his elbows on his knees. “Haven’t been to bed. Well, I’ve been to bed. But my room’s right under the—newlywed’s suite.”
“They’re not married yet.”
“Close enough. With her father’s total acceptance, the family promising sealed it.”
Cole scoffed. “Eager to move up in the social ranks, isn’t he? I felt his every fiber shout yes when Mr. Ballard explained it.”
“He does have a way of playing the cards. Well, he earns his pay.”
“So, they’re still celebrating up there?”
“Wouldn’t you be?” James grinned and eyed him. “You’ve been in here all night again, haven’t you?”
“Can’t sleep. Don’t want to sleep.” He sent a bitter look at James. “I don’t need to relive what happened.”
“If you don’t get some rest you’ll be a wreck by the time we get Anna here.”
Cole smoothed his hand over his head and sighed. He knew his brother was right. He’d thought of little else; calculating, converging spells in theory, attempting to accomplish an acceptable outcome. Truth of the matter, every combination, spell or potion, promised a crippling or deadly outcome…except one. And that depended on what Anna had learned in her past lives. The procedure included such an array of interconnecting circumstances that even with his formidable knowledge of enchantment, he was left with nothing but doubt.
He set his fork on the plate with a clink unable to stomach food. “Tell me she’ll be okay, James.”
“I wish I could, brother.” He motioned to the Utopian. “I don’t know if you’ve checked, but I looked into her past. It’s filled with loss. Mother disappeared shortly after giving birth. Father was a street sweep. Impoverished, hopping from one shelter to another on Beggar’s Row East. He passed away when she was seventeen. She managed to get a job with Cantrell a couple years ago, as an artist.”
Cole looked at him, a small grin lighting his lips. “An artist.”
“She built a bit of a name for herself.” James glanced at Cole. “Mostly through Dressen’s favor of her work, it seems. Mr. Cantrell bragged about all the sales he made to him. Said he was a regular, requesting her as the artisan.”
A scoff passed Cole’s lips. “Gods, I hope she didn’t decorate his foyer.”
“She specialized in stained-glass.”
He closed his eyes as he recalled the view of her at the mansion. “She was staring at that big stained-glass window.” His comment drifted quietly as the innocence of her countenance sketched across his mind. “She seemed mesmerized by it. At peace.” He let out a heavy breath and looked at James. “So, you’re telling me she’s experienced hardship and loss up until Dressen started to take notice.”
James nodded. “And now we plan to bring that all back to her.”
“We’re going beyond that, James. Memories of one lifetime are only a small portion of what comprises a soul.” He ran his fingers across his weary brow. “If this lifetime brought her loss and pain, what about the others?”
Setting his plate on the desk, James clasped his hands. “These experiences may have made her strong. She obviously took a stand against Dressen’s attentions. Her lifetimes may have ingrained self-preservation.” He leaned his head to the side. “Either way, when she regains her memory, her will, and then we set free her ability to understand it all, she’s going to go through a lot of pain. She’ll relive her losses, at least from this life. It won’t be easy.”
Cole tossed his head to the side. Experiencing them through dreams was bad enough, but to force her to suffer through them in reality…
James seemed hesitant to say anything further. “Well, we’ll be here for you. You have our support.”
The comment should have imparted comfort but fell short in its intent. The supportive stand of his brothers meant more than Cole could relay with words, and he wished James had developed the intuitive reading of emotions to help him out with this at times.
He nodded, attempting to push aside the thought of the procedure and look at the plan as a whole.
First things first. Get Anna out from under a Grand Marshal’s keep.
~ * ~
Stained-glass that adorned Dressen’s door like a headdress glowed softly as Cole led the way up the bobble-lit path. The spirit of celebration was underway as they entered; several couples lingered in the large foyer, glasses of cordial in hand.
Elaina’s emotions displayed pure awe, and though Cole had only one purpose for being there, he smiled to himself. Mianna’s elation had been the same at her first high social. She was every bit as elegant as the Ladies of Nobility.
Then, carriages of silver and pearl, pulled with high-stepping stallions, delivered the elite to such functions, and he was sure to prearrange the best for her delight. Her burgundy gown had taken over half the seating. His father mumbled under his breath at the tight quarters, but Cole noticed the small glances he made in her direction. The senior Sentinel was pleased with her appearance and later asked for her hand several times in dance.
Cole understood his brother’s desire to have his love attend. Elaina was every bit as beautiful in her own right. The pride poured from Vincent at having her on his arm, just as is surely as it had poured from him so long ago.
Reg welcomed them in and helped Elaina remove her shawl.
Glancing around the grand foyer, Cole couldn’t help but notice the change in atmosphere. The screen of gaudy crystals that draped the wall to the left illuminated the dimmed hall with soft light and reflected in the onyx pillars at its side. They created an enchanted atmosphere of welcome and delicate finery. The bronze hair lines on the opposing panel emitted a deep glow, revealing the form of a tree not noticeable under the usual bright glare of the domed ceiling.
Cole held up his hand as the manservant came to accept his wrap. “We’ll keep ours.” As the man left, he sent his thoughts to his brothers. “I’ll take care of things as quickly as possible and we’ll leave.”
Vincent glanced at Elaina but nodded and followed him into the guest hall.
A graceful dance occupied the floor, moving to the strings of a mellow quartet. Every member of the Grand Marshal’s court seemed in attendance, accompanied by ladies of status.
Elaina held to Vincent’s arm as he led her past several of the gossipier gatherings. Gazes followed the couple.
She was a stunning companion. The gown he’d gifted her clung to all the right curves, and with her graceful movements, no one would have guessed her a daughter of a lower class. Cole was pleased with the added attention on them. Fewer on his dealings.
He scanned the spacious hall. Laurel garland accented the caissons in the ceiling, symbolic of victory and position. Drapes of silver silk adorned the banisters of the second level, leaving trails of weaved fringe to sway in the breeze of the open terrace doors. Tri-paneled privacy screens stood at the sides of the musician’s huddle. Lights glowed behind them, bringing to life the intricate stained-glass designs.
Cole stifled a sneer and let his gaze wander among the guests. He accepted a cordial from a passing server and strolled along the circumference. Lords acknowledged him with nods or toasts of their drinks. Each echoed recognition of the Shilo City reapers. He knew every one of them—their taste in servers, their preference in control. He offered little in return for their greetings.
“Sir Cole.” Dressen’s baritone voice came from near the terrace doors before Cole caught sight of him.
“Lord Dressen.” He smiled a complimentary greeting as his gaze flitted to Anna at his side. “A pleasure to see you on this special occasion.”
Anna held to the law maker’s arm, fingers laced at the nook of his elbow. Her ivory satin gown fit snugly. Smooth elegance flowed from the soft curve of her hips to the floor. As she turned to gaze upon her keeper, Cole noticed the design bared much of her back. Her hair swooped up into a loose herringbone weave, leaving wisps to trail her unveiled shoulders. Diamonds bejeweled her with a web of brilliance and called attention to her favored position at the Lord’s side.
A large hand lighted on Dressen’s shoulder, and Lord Standish leaned to his hearing. “Might I have a quick word?”
Stepping into a turn, Cole took a drink from his glass to allow privacy.
“Without the girl.” The Grand Marshal motioned to Anna and then eyed Cole with a pardoning expression.
Lord Dressen removed Anna’s hand from his arm and kissed her fingers. “Accompany Sir Shilo, Anna. I won’t be long.”
Dressen stepped away, and Cole turned back to his reason for being there. Warmth flushed through his heart.
If it could only be that easy: A requested dance, a guide to the far end of the hall, a secluded passage, and a whisk away by Smoke of Night. He’d have her—until Dressen found her missing after he’d entrusted her to Cole. He swallowed and tempered his desire, reminding himself of the plan.
Anna stepped to Cole and sent a questioning gaze along the length of his cape. He smiled and pulled aside his cloak to hold out his arm. She laced her hand around his elbow.
Exhilaration charged from her contact, and he couldn’t help but look into her eyes. How had he not recognized her call for what it was? So much could have been avoided if he had.
She looked at him and hesitated as if studying his gaze. Her fingertips stroked her lips, and Cole’s heart skipped at the thought of her remembering their kiss. It was unlikely, but he picked up on feelings of—cherishment? He brushed his hand along hers to hold.
Gazing at his touch, she slowly reciprocated. Her cheeks flushed. Out of instinct? His soul willed it to be more.
The conversation behind them pulled his attention away as Dressen’s deep voice could only hush to a rumble.
“They can’t hurt us.”
“There are ancient ways,” Standish whispered with a hiss.
Cole widened his perception and picked up on variations of their emotions. Concern. Denial. Fear? Passiveness. Then with no strained attempt at quiet, he heard the overlord’s exhortation.
“Carlton, you read too many tales to your children. Relax. I know what I’m doing.”
Standish huffed, and his anger flew through Cole’s senses. “What you’re dealing with goes beyond mortal understanding, Kyle. We’re not talking about common laws here.”
“Look.” This time, full authority filled Dressen’s voice as he spoke. “Traditionalism has no place in this society and I weary of your constant hindrance. If you and your comrades want to levy another stand, by all means try. Your orthodox positions will not sway the counsel. I hold the majority in my pocket. Whatever your little crusade comes up with will be overruled three to one. Now stop wasting my time. I have other interests to attend to.”
Dressen stepped to Cole’s side as a smile appeared on his face. “Please excuse the intrusion. Differing opinions are prevalent in my line of duty.”
He reclaimed Anna’s hand and set it on his arm. “Now, I’ve been anxiously awaiting your arrival, Sir Cole. Not all receive a gift forged by one such as you.”
Cole motioned to the terrace. “This gift is best received in private.” He glanced at Anna. “Of course, your lovely lady may accompany us.”
Dressen eyed him sideways. “Why in private?”
“The elements may bring about an elated emotion.” He smiled. “Exhilaration is not always something we want others to witness.”
The Lord chuckled, and Cole felt the man’s anticipation heighten. “The terrace it is.”
They stepped into the crisp night air, and Cole closed the doors behind him. The rumble of conversation and music hushed.
A soft breeze blew across the landing, rustling the ferns that bordered the cobblestoned patio. Bobbles beneath the foliage dimmed and brightened with the disturbance.
He stepped to the center of the terrace and withdrew the small copper box from his pocket. The trinket glowed, and the crystal at its center pulsed as Dressen neared.
“This box holds a gift only you can control,” said Cole. “I will present you with a small portion of its possibilities. I do this to reassure you if you have any hesitance in acquiring it.”
Eager acceptance echoed from Dressen, and his eyes gleamed.
Cole slowly tilted the lid back. The lavender cloud inside flowed with the disturbance. He pinched at the substance, and it lifted with his touch, a sleek trail following his motion. “With your permission, I present you with memories of your first birthday.”
Humor puffed with Dressen’s breath. “Who remembers their first birthday?”
“You.” Cole nodded to urge the sire to open his hand. With a graceful wave, he led the essence to settle into the outstretched palm.
The mist swirled. Violet overtook lilac as it solidified into a lustrous pearl. Folding the lord’s hand into a fist, Cole gently placed his fingertips on the sire’s eye lids to close them. He muttered his command. “Merota.”
Lord Dressen’s brows rose. A quiet sound passed his lips, and he shook his head. “Amazing. It’s our birthday. Some of our old photographs were taken inside, but this was on the terrace and the blue lights are dimmed. I don’t remember my parents mentioning blue lights…but…this is definitely me. I can feel it.” Unmistakable astonishment rode his sigh. “There was a magician. He made things dance—sand? My, he was good. Where’s Kendra?” He seemed to search with his closed eyes. “She had to have loved this.”
Cole watched as Dressen’s attention deepened on the memory.
“Mother probably hid her from that reporter they say got past security. Every newscaster in the area wanted the story. It was quite the event.” The birthday boy shook his head. “What is that scent? Coconut? No. Almond. The treats taste so sweet.” He raked his teeth over his bottom lip with a chuckled. “I think my father ate too much of them. I can smell it all over him. Anise?”
His lids lifted with his enthusiasm, and then his heavy brows dipped. “Where did it go? It’s gone.”
“It’s easiest to focus with closed eyes. Within this moment you just recalled, every detail was exact in its presentation to your mind and senses. Now, with this experience, you see the possibilities this gift can offer. I have enhanced these memories for your delight. You may remember any period of time in your life. Whether it’s a forgotten occurrence during a court meeting or simply a past pleasure, it may be called upon at your leisure by holding the pearl and pinpointing the occurrence in your mind.”
Cole lowered the box, careful not to close the lid. “With this gift, I’m compelled to issue a warning.”
“A warning. What could possibly cause need of a warning with a gift like this?”
“Some experiences, as you well know, arouse deeper pleasures. With the enhancement I placed on the gift, you may find it difficult to call yourself out of the memory. Reliving passions can become intoxicating in the intensified state. It’s up to you to call an end to it.”
Dressen’s crooked smile confirmed Cole’s expectations. Very pleased with the gift.
“So, I can call up any memory, any moment, and relive it in detail as it happened—in a heightened state.”
The lord laughed and shook his head. “I never expected such an extraordinary gift, Sir Cole. In all my life, I would have never imagined.” He lifted the little pearl between his forefinger and thumb. “If you don’t mind, I think I’d like to test the extent of this little gem.”
Clutching the lavender enchantment with his fist, he eased into a lounge chair.
Cole cocked a grin. “I thought you might.”
As Dressen relaxed into a dream-like state, Cole turned his attention to Anna. She watched the lord with serene patience. He lifted the box and whispered to her mind. “Anna.”
As she looked his way, he fanned his fingers. Light ginger clouded her eyes. “Visola comp.”
She blinked with a start, shook her head, and then recognition flashed on her face. With the spell of vague recollection set in her mind, Cole shot an urgent thought to her. “Curfew, run!”
She gasped and then darted from the terrace toward town. Cole turned and with a wave, flew open the ballroom doors. Music from the celebration spilled into the air. He marched inside, scanning the throng. Finding James and Vincent on the dance floor, he called to their minds. “It is complete.”
Vincent halted his dance with Elaina and took her hand. She nodded, and together they turned toward the exit. James bowed to his partner, and as he joined Vincent, Cole set a long stride across the hall to the door. Their cloaks reefed with simultaneous motion as their heels hammered across the marble floor in cadence.
Conversations quieted, and the guests quickly shuffled aside. Astonishment and wonder resounded around the ballroom and flooded Cole’s senses. He led the way to the foyer and tossed a mental command at the doors. The large double entry flew wide.
Vincent raised his hand, and Elaina’s shawl zipped into his grasp from the coatroom. Crossing the threshold, he took her waist and pulled her tightly to him.
Cole barely noticed his brothers’ cloaks furl as he whipped his own high and took on the Smoke of Night.