Linda watched every move Cole made as he led Anna back to her room. He sensed Linda’s shock at the unrecognized friendship and picked up on feelings of confusion and accusation as she glared at him.
Elaina buzzed around them, pulling back the blankets and straightening Anna’s skewed gown. She smiled at the angelic face, helped her lie down, and then tucked the downy comforter around her.
Cole simply stood, holding a calm presence to reassure his love that all was well. He kept his gaze on hers as it flitted back to him each time Elaina passed between them.
She sat at Anna’s side. “Anna, honey, everything is fine. Vincent and James are taking care of things. Is there anything you need?” Elaina’s soft voice seemed to be ignored as Anna’s attention stayed riveted on Cole. With no answer to her question, she looked up at him.
“Why don’t you and Linda wait in the parlor?” Cole stepped to the bedside. “I’ll have a talk with her.”
Elaina nodded and motioned to her sister as she headed to the hall. Linda sent another accusing glare his way and then followed.
Cole sat beside Anna and brushed his fingers along her hair. “There was a lot of noise. Upsetting things. But don’t worry. It’s under control.”
She watched him as if to memorize every expression he made. He knew he had to look careworn. But the way she looked at him, anyone would think he was the most beautiful thing she’d seen.
He smiled. “You liked the roses.”
She smiled back and looked at the brilliant buds on the table. “They’re beautiful. And soft.”
Nodding, he leaned close. “I can smell them on your face. You’ve been enjoying them.”
Turning, she touched her lips to his. “Yes,” she whispered.
He gently kissed her, allowing the tender moment to flow through his senses.
She placed her hand to his face and held him there. Her sweet tongue lighted across his lips like a feather, and he answered her call, parting them to afford deeper affection. He swept his fingers over her damp hair, pulling her closer.
Her kiss was a lullaby to his soul. Longing overtook him, and desire returned. Centuries of loneliness melted away as he again became lost in her attention. Every caress led him home, back to his place beside her heart. The warm breeze of Zephyrus connected the severed link, and Cole basked in the Arylinite nurturing that filled him.
“I love you, Anna.” The words passed his lips without censorship, and when he heard them, he looked at her, unsure of the reaction he’d receive.
Purity of an angel stared back at his wondering gaze. With adoration spilling from her emotions, she pulled him closer and kissed him. Deeply. Lovingly. And he could have sworn he had her whole heart.
He breathed her in, willing it to be so. “Tell me you love me, too, Anna. Tell me I have your heart.”
“I love you, too. You have my heart.”
The words adorned her whisper, falling onto his lips. Too perfectly recited. Too perfectly an answer to his bid.
He slowly pulled away and took her hands in his. To expect anything else had been foolish. He hoped his disappointment didn’t show. Brushing his fingertips across her cheek, he smiled.
Hushed voices drifted from the hall, and Cole looked to the half-closed door. He widened his perception to pick up as much of the conversation that he could. Linda’s voice hissed with low tones.
“What is Anna doing here? She was all over the Morning Post clinging to Lord Dressen’s arm like they were the couple of the year. He was even on the news bragging about the elaborate stained-glass privacy screens she presented to him at his birthday celebration.”
Elaina’s response topped a whisper, but Cole deciphered her soprano utterance easily. “Stained-glass? Wait, isn’t that what Dad had to finish up when—oh, this is that Anna? The one we thought disappeared?”
“Evidently she disappeared right into His Lordship’s arms. I knew all those rumors about the curfew were rubbish.”
“Linda, the guys found her last night. She’d been hurt badly. Her dress was torn and bloody and she was really out of it. Cole saved her. He’s helping her cope. If it wasn’t for him, she’d be dead.”
“If she was on her death bed, how is she able to run through the house today? She looks pretty healthy to me.”
“I saw her Linda. I helped tend to her… Why would Lord Dressen do that?”
“He wouldn’t. He’s been after her for years.” She huffed, but sadness flowed. “I can’t believe she didn’t tell me. We’ve been best friends for so long.”
“Aw, Linda, I’m sorry. She’s just really confused right now.”
Linda’s voice softened. “Well, it looks like he finally got to her.”
Cole looked at his love. Serenity poured from her as she sat with her hands in her lap and quietly watched him. The corners of her cute lips slowly curved up at his attention, and he couldn’t help but return the action. He added a little wink, and a full smile blossomed for him. A chuckle puffed from his nostrils.
“Something had to have happened after the party,” said Linda. “And you didn’t answer my question. How did she get well so fast?”
Elaina didn’t answer, and Cole imagined a lowered gaze as the young lady tried to think of what to say.
Linda’s voice picked up volume as she pressed the subject. “It is true. They are magical. As stupid as it sounds, wizards actually exist. Just like you said, a wizard’s wife. That’s the only explanation if what you’re telling me is true… So, is it true? Are they wizards?”
“I’m not saying that.”
“You don’t have to. Your face says it all. They could help me get Mandy and Mechenzie back.”
Cole sensed panic as Elaina shot her response. “My face isn’t saying anything. Just leave it alone. I was just running my mouth about how I felt about Vince. Nothing more.”
“Elaina, talk to them. They know you. Tell them to help me.”
“No!” She gasped. “I mean they can’t break the law, can they? Others would know.”
Okay, this has gone far enough. Cole leaned to Anna and spoke softly. “I need to go take care of some things. Get some rest, and I’ll be back later.”
Her eyes widened, and she sat up straight. “You’ll be back later? After I get some rest?”
“How could I stay away?” Stroking her dark brown hair, he tore himself from the pull of her spirit and stepped into the hall.
The sisters stood at the top of the stairs, Elaina against the banister, gripping it with her fists.
Linda narrowed her eyes. “What are you afraid of?” She slowly nodded. “It’s a secret, isn’t it? That they’re wizards. That’s why you’re here. They made you come stay until the wedding.”
“It’s customary to stay with the Nobles before the Chalice ceremony.”
“Well, someone has to tell Lord Dressen Anna’s okay. He must be worried sick.”
Creases etched across Elaina’s brow. “I don’t know, Linda. I think we should leave it to the guys.”
“Why? So they can get the favor? If I bring him the news, he might help me get my girls back. Forget the guys if they won’t help family. I’ll go right to a lawmaker.”
A block formed in Cole’s chest, and he lifted his chin, ready to do what it took to ensure silence on the matter.
Elaina scampered down the stairs as she spoke. “They don’t need his favors! I just think they should handle this.”
Linda hurried after her. “And I need to handle getting my babies back. I won’t let Jarrett take them from me. Can’t you understand that? I won’t! I’ll do anything to get them back. Anything!”
Cole marched to the landing and his voice boomed through the foyer. “Nobody’s telling Dressen.”
The two spun to meet his stern gaze. He clenched his jaw and bore his ebony glare on them.
Elaina’s shoulders scrunched, and tears sheened her eyes. “No, Cole. Of course, we wouldn’t say anything.” She sent her gaze to her sister’s glower. “Linda just doesn’t understand.”
“I understand I have more to gain here than anyone by bringing him the news.” She looked at Cole, her brows pressed together. “You’ve nursed her, now let her go home. I know he must be looking for her.”
“We’re taking care of the situation. And we’ll handle it as we see fit.”
Linda shook her head, disbelief crossing her determined features.
Lifting his hand, he pointed the way to accentuate his demand. “You’ll both go to the parlor and wait for Vincent to come get you.”
Elaina grabbed Linda’s hand and trotted down the marbled-capped stairs. Linda tripped after her as she was tugged. Quick taps sounded through the receiving hall as they bustled across the floor. The door slammed behind them.
A growl rumbled in Cole’s throat. He needed Vincent to handle his future sister-in-law. Glancing down the hall toward the study, his scowl deepened. And he needed James to fix the runt’s mess… Again.
~ * ~
Cole exited the study and inspected a few branches from the twin laurel trees that stood on each side of the door. Following the limbs that created an arch over the entrance, he nodded. The intertwined crowns hadn’t been compromised beyond repair during the ordeal. His mother would have been pleased with James’ restoration.
The quiet foyer amplified his slow stride as it clunked against the hardwood floor and then shuffled to a stop beside his James.
He looked hard at his brother, leaned against the banister beside the staircase sentinel. Sharp lines replaced the usual soft angles on his face. It took considerable doing to ruffle this brother into disgruntlement.
Cole glanced around the room to find words of comfort. “You did a fine job restoring the damage. The chandelier doesn’t even look tarnished.”
This didn’t seem to ease the tension flowing from him.
James looked at Cole from the corners of his eyes. “That mantle held irreplaceable items. Most came from Meridian.”
Cole waved at the comment, dismissing it. “Forget about the mantle. We haven’t used most of that magic for years.”
Okay, change the topic. He pursed his lips, scratched his chin, and then motioned to the parlor. “They think it was a mild quake. Kid still in the woodland?”
“Vincent will be staying there until he calms down enough to deal with the situation.”
“Can you deal with this?”
“I’ll deal with this. Different subject matter.”
“Well, the woman’s a threat to our plan with Anna.” Cole repositioned himself and folded his arms. “She wants to turn her over to Dressen in exchange for custody of her girls.” He took a heavy breath. “And she’s convinced we’re wizards. I heard them on the stairs. She was badgering Elaina. That girl never meant to tell Linda anything. The emotions I picked up were exactly the way she sounded in the parlor earlier. Shock. She can’t believe what she said about Vince was taken literally. Linda drew her own conclusions.”
James set his hands at his waist. “This isn’t good.” He looked at Cole and leaned his head into a leer, dimpling his cheek as his lips tightened. “And don’t even think about tampering with her memory. Partial removal causes more harm than good.”
Cole raised his brows. “Actually, I wasn’t considering partial memory removal.”
“No.” James pointed his large finger, accentuating his charge. “You’re not wiping her memory. We will not cross that line.”
“Then what do you propose? We’re at a loss here, James.”
He shifted his stand, looking to the side. “I don’t know. We need to insist she stay as our guest. Buy some time so we can figure this all out.”
Cole raked a hand over his hair. “She’ll try to talk to Anna. She recognized her. I believe they were friends.”
“I’ll keep an eye on her.”
“Look, James. I know you mean well but with what she knows she’s a true threat. It’s justifiable.”
Cole threw his head to the side.
“I’ll watch her.” James’ eyes flashed with his words. “You just concentrate on Anna. Get things in order so we can unbind her soul as soon as possible.”
Cole nodded, taking an apprehensive breath. “I’m about there. But Kid will need to calm down before all this happens. I’ll have enough emotion to deal with coming from her without adding his temper to it.”
“I’ll prepare something to help you cope.” James dropped his arms to his sides and headed for the parlor. “You just worry about getting the spells right.”