Cole trudged down the hall of the east wing. Trails of water followed every step, and his boots squished with tiny bubbles from the saturated soles. Ignoring the tendrils of hair that clung to his cheeks, he followed his uneasy stride toward his room.
James trotted down the stairs to the second landing and then halted with a jolt. “What happened to you?”
Glancing at him, Cole heaved a sigh. “Dear, Gods, James. Anna wanted to bathe.”
The dimples in James’ cheeks deepened, as he seemed to struggle to hold back his chuckle. It burst out anyway. “Don’t tell me. You helped her take a shower—in your clothes.”
“I’d have done more than what I did if I hadn’t.”
“And,” James crossed his arms over his broad chest and failed to conceal his mirth. “Did the clothes help?”
“You know, there’s nothing wrong with being with her. But I’d be careful with her performing Mianna’s spell. In her condition, use of it on a Meridian could be too much for her.”
“My thoughts exactly. But, do you realize how much control it took to stop it when it got to that point? Even with,” he held out his soaked sleeves, “this I was lucky to end it when I did.”
James lowered his gaze. “I see.”
Cole heaved a sigh and let his hands fall to his side. “Besides, I know she’s only responding to my touch. It’s all instinctive. I want it to be more than that.” He shook his hands, causing his sleeves to flap around his arms. “I need a drink.”
“Well, you’re getting the carpet all wet.”
He scoffed. “I’m really worried about the carpet right now.”
With a grin, James fanned his hands. Cole’s saturated wear snapped into crisp threads as the water evaporated and left him dry.
Combing the strands with his fingers, he smoothed his hair. “Thanks.”
“You’d better put off that drink. We have company.” James set his hands at his waist. “It seems Elaina’s sister is here for a visit.”
“That’s right. I’ve already sent Elaina to talk with her in the parlor and Vincent is pacing the study. I was running you down to join us. You didn’t answer my call.”
Cole glanced at his watch. Dry now, but surely soaked from the shower when James tried to contact him. First chance, the scrys would get a protective charm against moisture.
James turned for the stairs. “And Cole, she might already know about our nature.”
A glower tugged at Cole’s face.
Upon entering the study, Cole silenced the room and quickly took his seat.
Vincent paced to and from the window, jaw set, and fists clinched, sparks crackling along his fingers. James drew his hand over the Utopian, and the image of Elaina and Linda appeared. Their attention turned to the hologram forms of the two sisters in conversation on the sofa.
Elaina stroked her older sister’s hair and tilted her head in an empathetic gesture. “Linda, he can’t do that. Jarrett has never taken an interest in the girls. He won’t keep them from you.”
“You don’t understand, Elaina.” Linda lifted from the hug and tears streamed her face.
“I understand that any court will return them to their mother.”
She shook her head, and sobs accentuated her words. “He’s been…cheating for years. All this time, Elaina, he’s had someone else! He broke the vow. Our marriage wasn’t even a marriage all this time. He said he was leaving to be with her. He took my girls!”
Elaina flushed. “He can’t do that.”
“He can! By law, he can.” Linda gasped and covered her mouth, crying into her sleeve-covered hands. “Any court will award children to a couple over a single parent. I’ve lost my girls.”
Elaina threw her arms around her sister, and Linda held her tight.
“All I wanted was to turn around and come back for the Shilo’s gathering.” Her deep sobs jarred her shoulders, and Elaina scrunched the back of the cardigan as she tightened her hold. “He just blew up. He didn’t want to come to the cookout to begin with, but I bugged him so much he gave in. And when I said I wanted to be with my family when you were welcomed into Vincent’s home…he stopped the car and told me about her. That he was the most important thing to her. Not her family. He threw me out. He threw me out, Elaina! On the side of the road!” She pulled back and looked into her little sister’s eyes. “He locked the doors and drove away.”
Elaina shook her head and stood. Setting her hand at her forehead, she paced the room. “There has to be something we can do. Mandy and Mechenzie belong with you.”
Linda wrapped her arms around herself and looked like a weathered puppy. Hiccups punch at her breaths, and her shoulders curled forward.
Silence hung in the room, and the holograms looked like still life as Elaina stopped at the bar.
Dropping her gaze to her limp fingers, Linda spoke just above a whisper. “Is it true?”
Elaina turned to her. “Huh?”
“Is it really true?” She motioned with her hand. “You know. About the magic in this family?”
Cole threw his head to the side, and Vincent’s stony countenance flared red.
“Linda,” Elaina rushed to her sister and sat at her side. “I never said this family had magic.”
“You said Vincent held the magic to your life.”
“Well, sure. Love does that.”
A little smile crept onto Linda’s full lips, and she cocked her head. “Let me see. How did you say that? A magic man has cast a spell on me, and I’ll be that wizard’s wife, whatever it takes.”
Elaina shook her head so fast her waves bounced around her head. “No, you understood me wrong!”
Blue neon arched before Cole’s eyes and flew overhead as Vincent drew his hands to his sides.
Cole jumped to his feet as James lunged for the youngest, but the ribbon of power punched from his fists. Fire flared as the force struck the tapestries like explosives, and shot through the east wall. Shattered lumber flew in the wake as it charged deep into the woodland. Trees plowed to the ground, birds took flight in flocks, and with the silence enchantment broken on the study, falling planks drummed through the air alongside the rumble of the Shilo Manor foundation.
James whipped his hand skyward, and roots rose from the terra to support the failing structure. Vines and limbs snaked across the ceiling and walls, creating a web to hold the framework firm. He threw his thick arms around his enraged brother, pinning his motion.
Vincent’s onyx eyes flashed. Power pulsed along his knuckles as he struggled against James’ strong hold.
Cole scrambled around the desk, summoning chairs, tables, and cabinets to block the entrance should he attempt to face the women in his state. “James, do something!”
With a swoop of his hand, James dispersed into the Smoke of Night, forcing Vincent in his grasp to relinquish form. The dark mass surged like a torrential storm, jets of blue lightning shooting in a madcap frenzy around the room.
Books flew, ancient urns shattered, and with devastating impact, the shelves over the hearth failed. Crystal containers crashed to the floor, releasing contained magic of the centuries. Hues of purple and gold shrouded the mantle. Sparks spangled along the wispy crests as they converged.
Before a disaster could arise, Cole threw his fist toward the mass and flicked his fingers into a tight claw. An urgent command punched from his lungs. “Nuerta!”
A pale cloud burst from his palm and overtook the ancient ingredients, nullifying the spells. As the hues dispersed, he gazed back at his brothers’ battling essences. Anger and determination emitted from both souls.
In a rush, a cyclonic barrier surrounded an inner core. The rampant center flared to blinding strobes. As Cole lifted his hand to shield his eyes, the dark mass bolted out the gaping wreckage into the forest.
Dust and debris fluttered as quiet filled the room. The sudden change rang in Cole’s ears, and he barely heard the shrill voice. A bolt pierced his heart.
Darting for the door, he flung his hand through the air. Blockage tumbled across the floor and out of his way. Ignoring Elaina and Linda’s exclamations of an earthquake, he rushed through the foyer and bounded up the steps. Anna sat curled in the corner at the end of the hall, hands over her head.
“Anna! You’re safe. I’m here.”
Anna’s gaze snapped to him, and as he ran for her, she scrambled to her feet. He scooped her into his arms, and she melted against him, grasping the back of his shirt.
Instant contentment flowed from her emotions, and he heaved a breath to settle his nerves. The scent of roses filled him as he inhaled.
The corners of his mouth twitched upward as he exhaled. She’d spent time savoring the blooms he’d brought her. The fact set sweetly on his soul. He brushed his lips across her cheek, following the aroma. Oh, that it had been because they were from him and not simply that they were flowers.
An arm flew around his shoulder, and he peeked over Anna’s head to find Elaina embracing them both. Love echoed from her senses as she breathed, “Oh, you guys are okay. Vince and James?”
Cole straightened and cleared his throat to allow time to gather his thoughts. “They’re busy taking care of a… mess.”
From his periphery, he caught Linda slowly step toward them, and he shifted his gaze to watch as she neared. Her tear-streaked face looked doughy, then her jaw dropped open and her blue gaze focused on the woman in his arms. Amidst the emotional trauma and alarming events, one word passed her lips.