Sunday evening, Ariana Huntingdon's Mansion on Lake Austin
"Take your seats, please."
Vidal Storm sipped his brandy as Ariana Huntingdon called her guests to the table. The shuffling of feet and low murmured conversations washed over him as the five other people in the room gradually made their way toward the recently cleared dining room table. He and Ari had already taken their places in preparation for the seance he was about to conduct.
"Mother, darling!" Lisa Huntingdon, Ari and Al's youngest child and only daughter, paused by her mother's chair on the way to her seat opposite Vidal. The blonde leaned over, air-kissed Ari then fussed with the collar of her mother's dress. A charm on her bracelet caught on her mother's dress and it took several seconds to extract it from the fabric.
The differences between mother and daughter were wider than the Great Divide was long. Where Ari was dressed in the height of understated elegance in pale creme silk with pearls and her wedding ring as her only jewels, Lisa looked like a bad advertisement for a haute couture ad--skin-tight, barely there dress, hair extensions down to her butt, Cleopatra-lined eyes and red glossy lips, and large, gaudy pieces of jewelry on every finger, both wrists, and around her neck. The light from the crystal chandelier bounced off Lisa's jewel-adorned body like sunlight off a lake.
Vidal blinked to clear the streaks of light flashing across his vision.
Lisa drawled, "What a fab idea for a dinner party. Will Vidal be performing magic tricks, too? I do so love tricks." She licked her collagen-ballooned lips while her feverish, dilated gaze roamed over him as if he were a prime cut of Texas beef.
If Lisa was attempting to flirt, her slurred words, from either drugs or drink--or both--foiled her delivery. Her lascivious glance only made him desire a cleansing shower. Ari's daughter was one sick little bitch.
"Behave, Lisa." Ari's cerulean eyes sparked with anger. "Vidal is a very special guest, my guest, and you'll treat him accordingly."
"That's right, sister dear. Don't poach your mother's lover." Todd, a fair-haired Adonis and the eldest of the children, braced a hand on the back of his mother's chair. He brushed some hair off his mother's face. She flinched as he leaned over to air kiss her cheek. "After all, she could cut you off without one red cent and then where would you be with all your business ventures, hmm?"
"Shut up, Todd." Lisa shot him a narrow-eyed, ugly look. "As if you know anything at all about how to run a business. Any business." Her emphasis on "any" caused Todd's lips to thin.
Vidal could almost see the steam coming out of the man's ears. He wondered what specific nerve Lisa had hit and if the dig had anything to do with what Ari planned to do this evening.
Randy, the third of the Huntingdon brood and a shorter version of Todd's blond good looks, snorted. "She's got you there, bro." The younger son elbowed his brother out of the way then patted his mother's back. "Great party, Mother. But just why are we here?" He waved an unsteady hand at the room. Alcohol or drugs, Vidal wondered.
The undercurrents in the room had grown from merely uncomfortable and awkward to downright murky and dangerous. Vidal's preternatural senses scented the acrid odor of fear in the room--underlain with anger. No, not mere anger, but a cold, dangerous rage honed to a lethally sharp edge. His gut clenched with apprehension and foreboding. Somehow, the children had found out exactly why they were here--and one or maybe all of them were furious.
His eyes narrowed as he singled out each child, but he couldn't discern from whom the strong emotions emanated. The gods knew his empathic abilities had never been that accurate beyond a general knowing. Damn, he should've gone with his gut and invited his sister Ilana and her daughter Abbie. As female witches, their empathic bridge to humans was stronger than his. But he'd ignored his instincts and now regretted it.
"You'll see, Randy," Ari answered. "Now take your seats so Vidal can get started." She waved the children away, the diamonds of her wedding ring refracting the light from the chandelier and casting mini-rainbows about the room.
Moving through the mini-Aurora borealis created by Ari's rings and the dancing crystals of the light fixture, Rose Connors approached them. "I've brought you a wrap, Ariana. It's chilly in here."
Vidal shook his head. He blinked to clear his vision as Rose, Ari's social secretary and poor country cousin, placed a blood-red merino wool shawl across Ari's shoulders.
"Thank you, my dear. You take such good care of me." Ari smiled at the plain, pasty-faced mouse of a woman and patted Rose's hand where it lay on her shoulder. "Ouch. what...?"
"Oh, I'm so sorry, Ariana. My ring has a loose prong. It scratched you." Rose fluttered about, finally grabbing a napkin to staunch the minor bleeding. She smiled apologetically at Ari and Vidal, then left to take her seat for the seance.
Ari's cousin was awfully nervous. He had been present earlier when Ari had informed Rose and the butler Simmons of the dual reasons for the seance. Had one of them had told the children? Most likely. On the day Ari had asked him to perform the seance to consult with her dead husband, he'd advised her not to inform the children what she'd planned. Her children had made bad choices, committed bad acts--and Ari planned to deliver some tough love with the hope of forcing them to correct the error of their ways before it was too late. He didn't know what the children had done to force Ari to take the drastic measures. She'd only shared that her children's actions could be considered criminal.
"Refill, madam?" Simmons stood off to Ari's side, the decanter of brandy in his hand.
At Ari's subtle nod, Simmons leaned over and refilled her glass. As he did, he brushed her shoulder. "Sorry, Madam." He then moved about the table refreshing the other's drinks.
Vidal turned his head and smiled at Ari. He leaned closer and whispered against her sweetly scented cheek. "Are you ready, darling?"
She moved into his lips, allowing them to brush her skin. "Yes." With a hitch in her breathing, she gasped and her eyes widened. She coughed then reached for her brandy. Taking a small sip, she exhaled on a soft, trembling sigh.
"Ari, are you okay?" He rubbed her back as he searched her face. Her eyes had a glazed look, as if she were ill or in pain. She looked ... frail.
"Yes. It's just stress..." She stroked his cheek. "It's very cool in here all of a sudden." She pulled the shawl more closely around her body. "Is Al here already?"
"Not yet, my love." He kissed her lightly on her pale, too-cool cheek. Her skin was clammy. "Don't worry so. Al was a close friend of mine--and he loved you. He wouldn't want you to be alone for the rest of your life. He'll bless our marriage. And as for the children... well, I'll be here to help you get through whatever needs to be done."
She drew his face to hers until their foreheads touched, her fingers icy against his cheeks. "I love you, Vidal."
A muffled cough. A tittering of laughter. A shocked "Mother!" from one of the boys reminded him that five pairs of eyes observed them. The cold rage he'd smelled earlier grew even icier, more threatening.
Vidal mouthed "I love you, too" as his senses once again ranged in search of the source or sources of the anger. This time, he found it on the three children's faces and even in the not-so-blank stares of the perfect servants. Now he was positive. The children knew about his proposal of marriage to Ari and her plan for monetary tough love. After tonight, the Huntingdon children would have to learn to live on less than fifty percent of their trust income, still a large amount of money for most people, but for them it would seem like the Great Depression.
No use prolonging the evening. Ari was not well, no matter what she said. "Join hands, please."
Ari's fingers trembled in his. Her breathing had become more erratic. "Vidal..." She gasped and grabbed her throat. "I ... can't ... breathe."
"Ari! Darling?" He gathered her falling body into his arms, shoving her chair out from under her with a foot, then laid her gently on the floor. As he loosened her dress away from her neck, he snapped out orders. "Simmons, call 911. Rose, get me a cool wet cloth. The rest of you--stay back. She needs air."
As he attempted to save the woman he loved, he sensed Al reaching for him from the other side. Opening his mind to the Otherworld, he muttered his communing spell to complete the link.
Vidal! Ari was poisoned. One of them killed her.
She isn't dead yet. But even as he gave her CPR, he sensed her life essence slipping away.
I'm sorry, Vidal ... but she comes to me.
How do you know this is murder?
Because the same one killed me. Be strong, Vidal. Avenge us, my friend! I want your niece and Luc to find our killers. Al's spirit hovered over them. Love shone from his eyes like light from the sun. Come to me, my little Ari. I've waited so long to be with you once again.
Ari's spirit rose from her lifeless body, her soul blazing with white light as she grasped Al's hand.
Ari! Stay with me.
I can't, my love. Avenge us.
"Sir, let us in please." A paramedic stood behind Vidal, ready to take over resuscitation efforts. As he moved back to let the professionals do their life-saving jobs, he knew it was too late. Ari's spirit had joined Al's in the Otherworld and was not coming back. Even now, Al and Ari watched as the medical personnel worked over her mortal remains.
Vidal turned away, unable to watch the cold brutality of the futile attempts. The paramedics swore at their inability to resuscitate her. Amid the scents of the first responders' frustration and failure, the underlying smell of anger from the seance attendees was replaced by smug satisfaction. Vidal's was the only aura of sorrow in the room. No one mourned Ari's death but him.
Monday, Dawn, Luc Knight's Lake Travis home
"You are such a ... frickin' macho ... son of a bitch!"
"Why thank you, darlin'!" Luc winked at Abbie.
"I am so not complimenting you, Lucan Knight."
"Would you rather I was some limp-wristed metro guy, wearing a suit and putting in his 9-to-5 in a bank or some other equally boring job?" He raised one dark brow. His eyes glistened like gold, reflecting the sunlight coming through the bathroom window.
"You're missing the point," she all but hissed.
"And the point is?" Luc moved to stand behind her at the bathroom vanity. His half-naked and very warm body crowded her. He moved her hair aside then kissed her bare shoulder. "Because I seem to have missed something between the wake-up sex and you going ballistic on me."
He just didn't get it. It was like the last month had never happened. She'd thought they'd gotten to know one another better after they'd defeated her nemesis, Mark Madoc, the warlock who'd tried to kill her. She knew Luc loved her--but she wasn't sure he trusted her.
"I don't want you to go to Wales. There's no need." That should be blunt enough for the thick-headed shifter-wizard. She'd told him numerous times over the last thirty days that the Madoc incident was closed. Behind them. Not a problem. Madoc's witch powers, both dark and light, had been blocked by a powerful caging spell and he now sat in a Texas jail awaiting trial for multiple murders. He was destined to be some Texas prison inmate's bitch until they fried his ass. It wasn't necessary for Luc to go after the rest of Madoc's clan. That was just plain asking for trouble.
Luc exhaled, a sound of pure male exasperation. "I'm going. I explained why I have to do this--"
"Yeah, yeah." She cut him off with a chopping motion of her hand. "I know what you told me. And I don't care. Madoc is out of the picture. It's over."
"No, it's not." He audibly ground his teeth. The muscles in his chiseled, beard-shadowed jaw moved as he struggled to contain his anger. "Whoever helped Madoc escape the British Isles in the first place is still out there."
"It's not your job to find the traitor within the European Council." She glared at him in the mirror. "The Euro-Council has an investigation under way."
"Fuck the Euro-Council. It's only a job to them--and one they haven't done very well up to now." He massaged the knots in her shoulders and neck. "Besides, this is personal." His voice lowered, becoming more calm. More deadly. "You are mine. Your future safety is my primary and only goal. I don't trust anyone else where your life is concerned."
A nice sentiment and typical alpha-male posturing, but it didn't address all her issues with Luc and his tendency to be high-handed where she was concerned. The Madoc affair was just the most obvious.
"Fine." She waved a hand wildly toward the door. "Go." Nothing she could say would dissuade him. If he wanted to go off on a wild goose chase to Wales, let him.
Luc tipped her head back and attempted to kiss her. She turned away and his lips ended up on her cheek. He growled. "Stubborn little cat." He turned her, and holding her face between gentle hands, took her lips in a searing, tongue-thrusting kiss she felt all the way to her toes and back. Against her lips, he muttered, "Behave, darlin'. Keep your cute little tush close to home, or the office, until I get back. I let the guys," referring to her uncle, her mother's vampire lover and her secretary and his significant other, "know I'd be gone. They've promised to keep an eye on you for me."
And there was the main reason she was mad at him. "Admit it, Luc. You don't frickin' trust me on my own." She shoved at his chest. "I can't even go about my business because you're going away. Do you think I'll go out and find some other man while you're gone?"
"Of course I trust you." His amber-colored eyes narrowed and grew dark. "And just what men would you be talking about? Sam Adams, maybe?"
"See!" She jabbed his chest several times until he grabbed the offending finger. "That's exactly what I'm talking about." She took a calming breath, then another, before she spoke through clenched teeth. "Listen up, Lucan Knight. There's nothing between Sam and me, yet you continue to pull the macho-man-beating-of-chest whenever I mention him. In fact, you get hot over any man I mention. You don't trust me." Her last words sounded whiny--and she hated the loss of control almost as much as she hated the topic of conversation.
"Where do you come up with..." He shook his head. "Hell, I don't have time for this. I need to go." He released her hand after placing a searing kiss on her palm. "We'll talk when I get home. Just stay close to the office and the house--please? For me? It's for your safety."
"Aargh! Men!" She looked to the sky. "Mother Goddess, why are men so dense?" She took a deep breath and struggled to gentle her tone. "Luc..." His eyes flashed golden sparks and his lips thinned. She touched his mind and found it closed to her, the first time that had happened in over a month. "I just want you to--"
The ringing of the phone interrupted her.
Luc, his molten gold gaze never leaving her, picked up the phone. "Hello?" He held it out to her. "It's Ilana."
"Goddess, give me strength," she muttered under her breath. Her mother tried her patience even on the best of days, and now was not a particularly good time, let alone the best. She took the phone. "Hello, Mother. What's wrong?"
"Abigail? You know already? Good."
"Know what?" Letting out an exasperated breath, Abbie thrust a hand through her sex-mussed hair.
Pulling on clothes, Luc mouthed, "What's up?" Abbie shrugged.
"Well, you asked me what was wrong, Abigail." Her mother let out a delicate sniff. "I just assumed you must've caught a wisp of Vidal's extreme emotions on the family wavelength."
"No, I didn't. I had some extreme emotions of my own to deal with." She sent a narrow-eyed look toward the alpha-male cause. "What's wrong with Uncle Vidal?"
Luc edged closer, a look of concern on his face. Vidal was one of his favorite people, so she wasn't surprised.
"His fiancee, Ariana Huntingdon, died last night."
Abbie stopped breathing for a second. "Abbie? What's wrong?" Luc rubbed her back, his concern all for her now. She was in shock. Her uncle's fiancee? Since when? Where had she been while this happened? Oh yeah, she'd been busy, investing all her love and energy into a relationship with an alpha-bloody-male. One who didn't trust her!
"Abigail, are you listening to me?"
She turned her attention back to her mother's strident tones. "Yes."
"I need your help. Vidal is inconsolable. He won't listen to me. I'm afraid he'll do something drastic."
That sounded particularly ominous ... and strange. It took a lot to upset her mother, and Ilana sounded downright frantic. Abbie could understand why--Uncle Vidal never got upset or acted out of control--about anything. Her uncle made sleeping cats look energetic.
"Where are you? At home? I'll come right over."
"Thank you, baby girl."
Now she knew her mother wasn't herself. She hadn't called Abbie, "baby girl," since she was two years old and just learning her basic spells.
"Don't come to the house. We'll meet you at the Cracker Barrel off I-35 on the north side of town," her mother said. "Your uncle needs to eat--he likes comfort food."
"I'll be there as soon as I can." Abbie disconnected.
Luc stared at her. "Would you please tell me what happened to Vidal? Should I postpone my trip to Wales?"
Just great. He'd postpone the trip for Vidal, but not for her. Arrgh!
"His fiancee died. Last night. Mother said he's grief-stricken. She's worried about him. She needs me for moral support." But it was more than that. Something in her mother's tone had alerted her to something darker, more dangerous about the whole situation.
"So Ari accepted?" Luc nodded. He rubbed soothing circles on her back. "Vidal said something about it when we met for drinks at Jurnik's club the other night. But I hadn't heard she was ill. Vidal must be a mess."
She'd thought she'd been upset with him before, but now she saw red. No, that was too tame a description. She saw red with gigantic streaks of flame marbling through her line of sight. "You knew about this engagement and didn't tell me! And just what in Lucifer's were you doing at Jurnik's strip club with my uncle?"
Luc froze. He knew he'd screwed the pooch. He'd be scrambling for high ground now. She touched his mind lightly. Still closed--and she knew without a doubt he was going to lie through his teeth.
"It was sort of a pre-bachelor party. Jurnik threw it for him. Just in case, you know?"
Bachelor party, her second toe. They didn't tend to occur before the engagement was even announced. And then it came to her--the meeting had been to discuss Luc's trip to Wales and to arrange her care and protection while her big, strong man was away from the cave. Macho assholes. She'd bet her great-great-grandmother's grimoire that Daniel, her soon-to-be-wrung-through-a-ringer secretary, and his lover Van had been at the "party," also.
"Aargh!" Abbie turned and aimed her pent-up anger and frustration at a poor defenseless potted plant by the Jacuzzi tub. It was either that or scorch Luc's stupid male hide. An assault and battery charge wasn't worth the momentary satisfaction the act would have given her.
Abbie kept her epiphany to herself. She wanted to see just how far Luc carried the fiction. "No one thought to tell me? My favorite uncle planned to get engaged and no one frigging told me?"
"He wanted to tell you himself." Luc reached for her, but she backed away. If he touched her right then, she might just hurt him. "He made me swear not to tell you. Something must've come up before he could." His lying eyes pleaded for understanding. "Would you have wanted me to go back on my word?"
Abbie stared at the sunlight dancing on Lake Travis, a beautiful sight which usually filled her with peace. Today, it didn't even register. The one-month relationship with Luc had arisen from an incendiary mixture of danger and instant mutual attraction. On her side, love had grown with each passing day. She was pretty sure he loved her. But it was obvious the man didn't know or care that she needed more. She didn't need smothering protection, unreasonable jealousy and blatant lies. She needed trust and communication ... a full partnership.
"No. Never that," she drawled. She moved toward the walk-in closet. "I'm going to get dressed and then go help mother with my uncle. You don't need to cancel your trip. Neither of us knew Ari Huntingdon well." She spoke calmly, thrusting her hurt and anger to a deep dark place at the back of her mind, locking it behind walls of icy cold steel. His alert stance told her he'd caught a wisp of her turmoil and knew he'd messed up royally. She mentally smiled. Good, let him sweat it out.
"I suspect no one will miss you if you don't attend the funeral. I'm family. I have to be there." His body jerked. Low blow, yes, but he deserved it for lying. "I'll let Uncle know you're pursuing the Madoc inquiry. After all, you two cooked this little trip up between you, right? The other night? At Jurnik's? At the bachelor party?"
"Uh, yeah." Caught out in his lie, he flushed red. He couldn't hold her gaze. He hadn't expected her to catch his prevarication.
"Well, go." She made a circular, shooing motion with her hands. "Fly off to Wales and play magic spy games. I have family business to attend to." She'd straighten out the over-protective males in her life later after Luc returned. She definitely had her work cut out for her.
"Don't say another word. Just go."
Unreasonable male pique darkened Luc's eyes. "When I return, you'll tell me exactly what's got your panties in a twist." Then he muttered a transportation spell and set off in a dark, whirling cloud of righteous male anger.
"Damn betcha, I will."