Not long after Tanner had snapped out of his dirt-coma, the Sphene Talisman was kind enough to extend the two of us an invitation to his home.  A gracious offer, I thought.  Generous, actually—considering the sneaky trick we’d just played on him.  And for the sake of how badly I wanted one of his stones, I hoped it meant he held no hard feelings.

 

With every fiber of my being—that’s how much I was hoping.

 

So with our plans set to meet in an hour, Oakley returned to the relentless jabs and taunts of his cousins, while we headed back to the inn to freshen up.  And when the time came for us to leave, Tanner opted for a taxicab to take us there.  A choice that was music to my ears—or rather, to my tresses—having just tamed a day’s worth of wind-tossed hair.

 

Our cab ride carried us several miles past the outskirts of Inverness, straight to a verdant valley surrounded by a crescent of staggering mountains bathed in the sway of fuzzy cotton grasses.  A small village lay nestled in the center of the bucolic setting.  At least I thought it was village at first.  According to Tanner, a descendant of Oakley’s lineage resided within each of the dwellings, along with their spouses and children.  So there was another West Virginian similarity: the family compound—a communal patch of land loaded with as much kinfolk as it could possibly carry.  Which naturally, doubled your odds of getting into arguments with your neighbors.  Reason enough for his cousins’ finely-honed and fighting-fit frames.

 

 The cab slowed to a stop in front of a two story white farmhouse, its roof layered with thick shingles of dark gray slate.  A waist-high wall of stacked stones boxed in its front yard.  None of the other cheery-looking cottages or longhouses I’d spied had any fences hemming them in.  Their yards simply carried on to the next house, and then the next, and so on.  And the all children I’d spied along our course were taking full advantage of it, the wide-openness giving them all the freedom they wanted to run wild as if the land was one gigantic playground.

 

My stare lingered on the craggy stone enclosure, cognizant of its unsociable vibe—the one that screamed a warning of, Leave me be!  Tanner had described Oakley as “reserved”, someone who preferred his own company.  Personally, I was rooting for him to be the busy, no-fuss bachelor type—the same as Samuel.  Anything but the clichéd grumpy guy at the end of the street—who, at times, was also just like Samuel.  My stomach twisted into knot that felt every bit the shape of a pretzel.

 

Especially when it comes to strangers, I groaned silently.

 

I stared out the window, reflecting on the awkwardness I’d sensed back at the field—before and after Tanner had regained consciousness.  I’d always thought of myself as someone who could read people quite easily.  Though not when it came to Oakley, who wasn’t very talkative—at least not with me.  And as far as securing any decent eye-contact whenever the conversation turned my way, capturing a blind person’s gaze would have been a much easier feat.  Which, for the record, I found rather discomforting.  Especially when I’d always strived to be an affable, approachable person.  I couldn’t put on airs at the risk of wanting to slap my own self in the face, because I hated it coming from someone else—one of the things I loathed to no end, actually.  Though it did give me a new appreciation for the way Maria wore that superior persona of hers so proudly, like a gold medal of arrogance pinned to a bumped up bosom for everyone to see.  An open book like that would’ve been appreciated—less the haute de bitché.

 

So needless to say, the red arrow of my likelihood-meter of acquiring a sphene was tipping more towards the side of screwed than it was upbeat.

 

“Promise me one thing,” Tanner urged.  “That you don’t offer him a diamond up front.  Those are yours to give freely.  Not to barter for one of his or to clear a guilty conscience.  Give one because you want to, like you did with Kamya — because you know that the person receiving it values its worth and what the act means.”

 

“All right,” I agreed and then hid my cringe as I exited the cab.  Little did he know I’d already carved one out back at the inn.  So there went my most enticing incentive.  What I’d hoped would be my ace in the hole, at least to smooth over any bumps left from having a hand in Tanner’s prank.   Now all I had up my sleeve was making a good second-impression—because those always proved so, so easy.  About as easy as finding a black cat in coal cellar…

 

With no flashlight…

 

At the stroke of midnight…

 

Tanner placed a hand on my back as the cab pulled away, directing me towards a spot where a small wooden gate cleaved the cobblestones.  He paused after unlatching the lock and turned to me, his eyes assessing me with a long look.  “There’s no need to be nervous.”

 

My brows bounced to my hairline.  “After the stunt you made me pull back there?”  And that was on top of his disclosure about Oakley being “selective” when it came to the Talismans he deigned worthy of his stones.  I could brick his entire house with the ones I was shitting right now.

 

Tanner pushed open the gate with a grin.  “It was just a little prank.  Nothing malicious.  A show of affection to loosen him up more than anything.  So you can stow away your guilt.”  Tanner cocked his head, his eyes heavy with a thought.  “Well, at least hold off on it.  Until you see if he attempts any payback.  And if he doesn’t care enough to settle the score, then you’re free to wallow in as much as you like.”

 

I jabbed him with my elbow as I stepped through the gate.  “Great.  That’s just what I need.  More worry to go with my guilty conscience.”

 

“At least you know going in that you’ve pissed him off — unlike your attempt with Maria.”

 

My feet ground to a gritty stop along the gravel.  “Hey — I wasn’t the sole saboteur back there,” I reminded.  “The way I see it, you’re more to blame than I am.”

 

Tanner breathed a laugh.  “I’m aware.”  Then he flashed the curious leather pouch he’d picked up back at the inn.  “Which is why I had the good sense to bring along a token of apology.”

 

I could only assume from the blatant emphasis he’d placed on the “I” in his little admission that he suspected I’d already carved out a diamond—and making me promise not to offer him one up front was in part, his version of a test.

 

I wouldn’t put it past him.

 

A modest stoop extended from the front door, where several towering stacks of shipping cartons stood like a barricade of boxy, brown columns.  They were all from an assortment of book retailers—Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Foyles, Waterstones, and Leakey’s, along with a slew of othersIf anything, it gave the house more of a loading dock feel.

 

Tanner pointed to the boxes.  “These are just his daily shipments.”

 

I gasped.  “You’re kidding.”

 

“Not at all.  There’s not a book, magazine, or newspaper out there that Oakley hasn’t read.”  He paused to weigh his thoughts.  “For the most part.”

 

Just thinking about the number of books these boxes probably held was mind-walloping.  And here I was, struggling with six measly textbooks.  My insides were writhing, restless and eager.   Dammit, I wanted one of his stones.

 

We stepped onto the front stoop, wedging ourselves in between the boxes.  Tanner worked his hand behind the stack closest to the door and pressed the doorbell.  The chime hadn’t finished its cheery chorus when the strapping Sphene Talisman opened the door, now minus his kilt and dressed in a red rugby and tan trousers.  He looked like he’d just stepped out of the shower judging from his darkened and damp waves of auburn hair.  A respectful enough sign that his invitation was genuine and not out of Talisman-obligation.

 

Oakley cut a glance to Tanner’s brow, his face impassive.  “How’s your head?”

 

“I’ll live,” Tanner answered.  “But I’m considering it my payback.”

 

“You can consider it a start,” Oakley vowed.  “You’ve got far more than that comin’.”  He crossed his arms firmly at his chest, a feat in itself considering the avalanche of muscles that ran from his shoulders to his wrist.  Oakley’s eyes narrowed.  “In fact, I’m startin’ to rethink my invitation.”

 

Sensing my worry, Tanner shot me a quick mental-message.  “He’s bluffing,” he assured and then polished off his own poker-face.  “Then I suppose if we’re not welcome, you wouldn’t be interested in seeing the gift I brought.”  Tanner untied the cord of the leather pouch and slipped out its contents—Lazarus’ journal and the vegvísir—which proved more of a surprise to me, than it did to Oakley.

 

A glint of curiosity shone in Oakley’s eyes.  “And what would those items be in your hand?”

 

“Nothing much,” Tanner drawled.  “A compass and collection of ancient codes in need of deciphering.”

 

Oakley’s expression remained painfully wooden.  “How ancient?”

 

“Erion ancient,” Tanner replied.

 

Oakley extended his hand and curled his fingers.  “Gimme,” he demanded.

 

As soon as Tanner handed them over, The Sphene Talisman took a sweeping step back from the doorway and then directed us into his home with a nod.  Oakley didn’t waste any time inspecting both the markings that circled the compass or the ones inside the journal, which conveniently kept him from noticing the gape of my mouth, along with the wide-eyed glare of disbelief I was shooting Tanner.

 

Oakley closed the journal and tapped it in his hand, focusing his stare solely on Tanner—like he had ninety-eight percent of the time.  “Seein’ how rare this is, I suppose I can knock your payback down a half.”

 

My eyes bounced from Tanner to Oakley, keen on making an interjection.  “Well, to be fair… It is my journal,” I remarked, singing the words like a tattletale.

 

Oakley cocked a brow at Tanner.  “Then technically, that makes this more of a gift from her.  So I won’t be cuttin’ nothin’ in half for it.”  Then Oakley turned to me, finally making an attempt at some descent eye contact.  “Sounds fair, doesn’t it?”

 

“Very,” I said and then roused a modest, closed-lip smile, fearing if I flashed too much teeth I would scare him off, no different than a rabid dog.

 

“Aye,” the Sphene Talisman agreed and then motioned us down a long, narrow hall.

 

With a polite grin, Tanner waved a hand for me to follow Oakley, only for him to stick out his foot and purposely trip me, where the curve of Oakley’s rock-hard back broke my fall—my hands anchored to his waist and my nose a finger’s width from the mound of his glutes.

 

 I shoved off Oakley’s torso like it was a scalding hot pot.  “Sorry about that,” I muttered.  The glassy, puzzled look in his eyes had me feeling all the more mortified.  And just as soon as Oakley had stepped through a doorway and was out of sight, I whirled to Tanner and lobbed him an incredulous scowl.  “I can’t believe you did that!” I fussed telepathically, trying to resist the overwhelming urge to kick him into the sheetrock.

 

“What?” Tanner defended with a laugh.  “I was simply giving the ass-kisser a helping hand to her target.”  He stepped closer, the violet in his eyes pure and piercing.  “I’ll do worse if you don’t relax.”

 

I turned from his gaze with a peeved glare and a testy huff and then stepped through the doorway, admittedly a touch fearful of what he would do.  Especially when nervous was such a tough emotion to block; second only to the impossible-to-stifle fervor that came from being turned on.

 

The parlor we’d entered was simple in its styling; a room layered in a palette of bland beiges and warm woods that contained a minimal amount of furnishings.  Even its accessories leaned more on the side of functional than fussy, like plain brass lamps with white shades and lackluster curtains that hung strictly for the sake of privacy.  Though there were a few family photos mounted on the walls here and there, along with some MacMillan clan memorabilia.  Enough of them, I supposed, to shake the feeling that I’d just stepped into the waiting room of a doctor’s office.

 

We each took a seat around a barren coffee table—Tanner and I opting for the sofa, while Oakley chose one of the two saddle-brown leather chairs sitting across from it.  The cushions of the sofa, as pristine and plush as they looked, had no give whatsoever, which was evident from the bunny-like way my rear bounced in the air before settling into a firm land.  Even Oakley’s backside ground out a squeak against the swell of leather tufts padding his chair.  A clear sign that this room was hardly ever used, and that the Sphene Talisman didn’t entertain much company.

 

I’d anticipated more of the same one-sided, social interaction—Oakley’s words primarily aimed at Tanner—however, to my complete surprise, the Sphene Talisman angled his body towards me.  Though as delighted as I was, I still sensed some hesitation lingering behind the shift of those toasted-almond eyes.  After a few awkward seconds of jaw posturing amidst the steady ticks of a nearby grandfather clock, Oakley slid to the front of his seat and finally asked, “So would you mind showin’ me?”

 

My eyes popped, confused by his request.  “More of my power?” I asked.  Surely he didn’t want me to hail a bolt right here in the house.

 

“Oh, no.  I can sense that just fine,” Oakley assured.  “I was talkin’ about your sword.”

 

Of all things, I groaned.  Straight off the bat…  A suffocating weight pressed against my chest.  Oakley would have to be blind not to notice my discomfort.

 

With a rough jerk of his head, Oakley broke my stare and pushed to the back of his chair.  “That’s all right.  You don’t have to show it.”

 

 The offense his body language was radiating had me scooting towards the edge of the sofa.  “It’s not that I don’t want to…”

 

Tanner casually interjected, “She doesn’t have it on her.”

 

I pressed my eyes to a close.  Not entirely true…  Then I breathed out a sigh and opened my eyes.  “Because someone stole it from me,” I said, forcing the words out of my throat.  “…A creature.”  An honest answer, albeit an embarrassing one.

 

Oakley’s expression was an equal mix of stunned, curious, and regretful.  But at least he didn’t probe me for any painful details.  Still, I didn’t want to know what he was probably thinking.  Like how irresponsible I was…  How absentminded…  How undeserving…  That there was no way in hell he would ever give me one of his stones…

 

Oakley waved his hand.  “Ahhh, we’ve all had things stolen from us at one time or another.  And if it makes you feel any better, it probably won’t be the last.”

 

As grateful as I was for his more-than-generous words, I prayed that the last part of his statement would never, ever prove true.

 

Tanner cleared his throat.  “It might not have happened at all if a certain someone had informed us of the creature’s existence in the first place.”

 

My lips pursed a faint smile.  One way or the other, Tanner was determined to come to my defense over this.

 

“So who was the eejit that didn’t chronicle it?” Oakley inquired.

 

Tanner’s eyes spun with sheer delight, eager to give him an answer.  “Why it was your pal, Kamya.”

 

Oakley let out a disbelieving grunt.  “Kamya?  That doesn’t sound like somethin’ she would do.  Why wouldn’t she record it?”

 

Tanner shrugged.  “All Kamya would say was that she had her reasons.”

 

Oakley’s brow held a tight furrow as he stared a hole in the coffee table.  “It must have got the better of her… Given her a bad beatin’,” he pondered aloud.  “What kind of creature was it?”

 

“A skinwalker, straight from The Darklands… With some special cloaking abilities.”

 

Oakley’s eyes fired like a light bulb had gone off in his head.  “Did she, umm… You know…?”  Whether it was his own reluctance or my presence, Oakley opted to finish his question with a suggestive waggle of his brows.

 

Tanner’s stare swung straight to me, his eyes tight.  “Did she?”

 

“How would I know?” I blurted, too clipped and huffy, which was all the proof they needed just going off the round of confirming nods that followed.  And if I hadn’t been the one who’d unintentionally spilled the beans and had access to a ruby, I would have ratted them out to her fiery tail right then and there.  Then asked for a match and headed straight for the fireplace.

 

“Though in her defense,” Tanner breathed heavily, “Kamya thought she’d sent it back.”

 

Oakley shifted in his chair, his expression noticeably bothered—bordering on nauseated—as if he suspected the way Kamya may have attempted it.  “It sounds like my hands aren’t entirely clean.  Who do you think she called for the spell?”  At the launch of Tanner’s groan, Oakley threw up his hands.  “Kamya told me she was makin’ a new ruby blade.  She said she wanted to infuse it with pure Veil magic and couldn’t remember the last part of the incantation.”

 

Tanner acknowledged his confession with a robust laugh.  “I’m sure she did,” he said, “then turned right around and sharpened it on that creature before sending it back through the hole she’d purposely made.”

 

Oakley’s stare dropped to his lap, his head rocking out a stream of regretful shakes.

 

“Forget about it,” Tanner assured him.  “What’s done, is done.”

 

Once Oakley had shaken off enough of the Ruby Talisman’s trickery, his stare returned to me.  “So I take it you’ve met Kamya?”

 

“Yes,” I said.  “She saved my rear several times.”

 

“I like Kamya,” Oakley remarked, nodding his head.  A possible attempt to remind himself of that very fact.  “She’s direct and uncomplicated — Well, most of the time,” he added thoughtfully.

 

Sadly, Oakley’s admission served as a reminder that it took him an entire century before granting someone he liked a stone.  One hundred years to render that decision.  Fifty years after she’d given him one of hers.  Fast-track — My ass… There was no way in hell I was walking out of here with one of his stones—even if I’d hatched him a diamond the size of an ostrich egg.

 

“Has she given you one of her rubies?” Oakley continued.

 

I pulled out of my mental pout and answered, “Yes.  She put one in a gold cuff for me.”  His eyes immediately fell to my wrists.  “Which I don’t have on me either,” I added uneasily.  “But it wasn’t stolen.”  My stare slid to Tanner.  “Someone requested that I not wear it.”

 

Oakley cut Tanner a suspicious look.  “That doesn’t seem very sensible.”

 

With a shameless grin, Tanner propped his arms behind his head and settled into more of a lounge.  “It would if I told you how many libraries she’s burned down.”

 

The flare of Oakley eyes was the only thing that kept a gasp from flying out of my mouth.  Well that, and my shock.  “You’re kiddin’?” Oakley muttered.

 

 “Only two,” I voiced quickly.  And after telling Oakley the story about what my faeries had done to Tanner’s library, followed by what I’d personally done to the new addition at Yardley, I was honestly surprised when the book-loving Sphene Talisman offered to show me his, with or without a ruby.  Until he assured me his wards included fire-proofing.  Naturally.

 

Oakley led us across the hall to a pair of dark mahogany doors, each of them fitted with an exquisite insert of jewel-toned stained glass.  With the doors seamed to a close, the design on the two panels came together to depict a mighty oak tree with birds and flowering vines weaving all throughout its boughs and branches.  My eyes fell to the two sphenes embedded in the brass doorknobs, their facets entrancing me with every sparkle they cast.

 

Oakley gave them a turn and then pushed open the doors.  Beyond the threshold lay a room encased solely in wood, roughly the same size as his parlor across the hall, only circular in shape.  Its furnishings were even sparser in here.  A cozy upholstered chair and ottoman sat in front of a bay window, its cushions dented with a more noticeable human outline; and to its left, an immaculate honey-oak desk, complete with a high-back chair.  I turned my attention to the center of the room, where a striking bookstand stood—an intriguing piece, ornately carved to resemble the trunk and roots of a tree.  A voluminous brown leather book lay on the surface of its slanted top, its corners capped with lacey protectors of gold while a metal latch that boasted the size and risk of a mousetrap secured its contents.  My eyes focused in on the sphene resting in the center of the book, particularly the soft glow of candlelight that burned from the cabochon’s core and how the bands of gold rimming it gleamed of pure sunshine.  The nudge of a curious feeling lured my gaze over to the bottom steps of a curved staircase.  My eyes had no sooner started its wind upwards when I felt the heavy plunge of my jaw.  Again, I found myself totally blown away by yet another crazy room that claimed no logical rhyme, nor reason when it came to the laws of square footage.  Though this time, it wasn’t the room’s width or length boggling my brain, but its physics-defying ceiling height.  If it even had one.

 

My head was leaning so far back it bumped my shoulder blades as I stared at the countless spiraling floors, all of them branching off into what seemed like a never-ending run of bookcases.  “So if I were to ever reach the top, would I bump my head on the moon?” I asked.

 

The Sphene Talisman yielded a modest laugh.  “Those are strictly for show.  Though I suppose you could say that they’re the trophies of my efforts.  Once I’ve read a book and it’s been shelved, I have no real need of it.”

 

I bet he doesn’t…  “So how fast can you read a book?”  If Tanner could consume something like War and Peace in a little under thirty minutes, surely the supreme source of its power could do it in half the time.  Possibly less.

 

“I’ll show you.”  Oakley collected a book from an open box sitting beside the door.  Then, upon his return, he cracked open the book and went straight to flipping through its pages like a quick-handed card dealer would shuffle a deck—after guzzling down a case of Red Bulls.  When finished, Oakley closed the book with a thump and casually announced, “Done.”

 

He’d burned through that thing so fast I’d completely forgotten to count.  And watching him do it was nothing short of wait-for-it amazing.  “That’s incredible,” I said, the words tumbling out of my mouth.

 

Tanner approached Oakley, the strike of his steps noticeably loud against the wooden floorboards.  “And just think how much faster you would be with your very own diamond.”

 

The Sphene Talisman averted his stare, but not before I caught the trace of a glimmer in his eyes.  So that was promising—thanks to Tanner’s subtle-as-a-bullhorn hint.  “And now that I’ve read it,” Oakley continued, “I’ll take the book upstairs and give it a permanent home on one of my shelves.”  He positioned himself in front of the bookstand.  “And if I ever want to physically reference it again, all I have to do is call its title in my head and then lay my hand on this book.  The stone on its cover has a direct link to my memories.”

 

Intrigued, I watched as he did just that.  The sphene cabochon emitted a burst of glittery light underneath the tips of his fingers, and then the golden metal lock unlatched with a sharp “click”.  I edged closer when he opened its cover.  Sure enough, all the contents of the book he’d just read magically appeared on its pages—from its color-printed cover to the last page of its index.

 

“So you’re basically your own iPad,” I remarked.

 

Oakley nodded.  “I suppose you could say that — but with far more memory.”

 

“And you’ve read every book,” I went on, more of a statement than a question.

 

“From past to present — for the most part.”  He shot a glance to the boxes on the floor.  “Except for the ones in here and outside on the stoop… And a scattering of others that have eluded me over the years.  There’s a second-hand bookstore in town that helps me track those down.”

 

I nodded to the book.  “May I?”

 

Oakley took a step back and waved his hand.  With my first title in mind, I closed my eyes and laid my hand on the sphene.  The pulse of its power shot into my fingers and blazed a path straight to my brain, the feeling as warm and robust and awakening to my senses as a pot of coffee.  And for the first time ever, I could actually feel my brain cells filing into line—all of my brain cells—all of them twitching with a sense of eagerness, desperately awaiting some sort of input.  And when I opened its cover, I found myself staring down at the title page of the book I’d called into my mind: Anne of Green Gables.  A first edition, no less.

 

The Sphene Talsiman peeked over my shoulder.  “That was a good one.”

 

I tried a few others, wanting to test the range of the books it could summon—the most recent Stephen King novel, my World History textbook, even one of the creature journals from Tanner’s library (Volume “X”, the smallest of the lot).  As Oakley had promised, all of them appeared as I called them—instant, accurate, and without any amount of effort.

 

I started to end my investigation there, until a curious thought entered my mind.  And I’m sure if my smile hadn’t held the slightest twinge of sly amusement, Tanner wouldn’t have been the least bit curious to see what I’d conjured.

 

The grueling roll of the Amethyst Talisman’s eyes called to mind sneaky gut-punches and vile stomach bugs.  “You’ve got to be kidding,” he groaned.

 

I rallied an innocent smile and shrugged.  “I saw it on Katie’s iPad.”

 

Tanner shot an impish glance to Oakley, who was in the midst of sorting through some boxes, unaware of the ridicule that was about to unfold.

 

I grabbed Tanner’s arm and pleaded a fierce, “NO” to his head.  Though to my dismay, it was a split-second after he’d already snapped his finger.  Though I doubted if being any quicker would have stopped him.

 

When Oakley looked up, Tanner asked him to join us and then pointed to the book, to the bare-chested & buff man with fangs who was about to bite a bedroom-eyed woman wearing his tie around her neck.  “Bitten by the Billionaire Bad-Boy,” Tanner read aloud and cocked a brow.  “I didn’t know that stone of yours allowed for such a passionate-side?”

 

The cringing way Oakley’s shoulders sank was like watching a skyscraper imploding.  Talk about a sight that had me feeling horrible.  “You know I’m required to read everythin’,” Oakley groaned, a plea for dear mercy lacing his tone.  Then he lifted his head, revealing a brow plagued with a torturous amount of displeasure.  “American female authors have far, far too much time on their hands.”

 

I flashed him a regretful smile.  “I’m so sorry,” I muttered.  So far, I’d made three apologies—all of them because of Tanner.  My head dropped with an aggrieved shake.  Clearly, the Amethyst Talisman was a firm believer in, Good things don’t come easy.

 

“You can stop apologizin’,” Oakley assured and cocked a thumb to Tanner.  “He’s just diggin’ himself a bigger hole.”

 

“Well, if you decide to butt his head again…” I turned to meet Tanner’s unabashed gaze.  “I promise not to use my lapis lazuli like a smelling-salt — not this time,” I vowed, which did nothing but balloon an even cockier grin on the Amethyst Talisman’s face.

 

I turned my attention back to the dizzying stretch of bookcases that spiraled like a never-ending corkscrew above my head.  Oakley gave my shoulder a light tap.  “You can put this up for me, if you care to look around.”  I collected the book with a smile and then headed for the bottom of the stairs.  I’d only taken a few steps when Oakley added, “A space will open up, no matter where you choose to put it.”

 

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I replied, knowing I had absolutely no intentions of stopping until my Alice in Wonderland fantasy had run its course.  That is, if my feet didn’t tire-out first.

 

I ascended the stairs, level by level, my nose lit with the dry scent of paper and the oily punch of leather—hand in hand with the lure of my curiosity.  And with every step I climbed, my eyes scanned shelf after shelf of colorful spines that came in an assortment of shapes and sizes—all of them standing at attention like soldiers waiting to be called for duty.

 

How many did he have?  Billions?  Trillions?  Enough to circle the entire globe, no telling how many times?  With the amount of knowledge Oakley’s brain had consumed over the years, he was definitely pulling more than the standard ten-percent a typical human used.  Which, in turn, had me feeling dumber and dumber the further I continued my trek up Mount MacMillan.

 

I finally picked out a shelf on what I guessed to be the twenty-fifth level (maybe).  And as I slid the book into its new home, I discovered something else rather amazing, almost as amazing as the sight of their spines magically shrinking and then pushing to their respective sides.  Actually, it was something I didn’t find—dust.  Like, none.  Not the first speck, cloud, bunny, or finger-trail of it neither on nor dancing around any of the books or shelves.  Surely it had to be a separate spell, on top of the fire-proofing.  Silas would be jealous as hell.

 

Slowly, I started my descent, still fascinated by all the books, though now I was more focused on the wooden steps themselves.  No matter how hard my feet landed, none of the planks cried out the slightest groan or creak, which lent an extra hush to the library’s monastery ambience.  Now all this mystical reading-retreat needed was a spell to poof a latte in your hands and it would be perfect.

 

With five floors left to go, my ears began picking up the two Talismans talking downstairs, the clarity of their voices growing with my steps.

 

“So are you plannin’ on seein’ her while you’re here?” Oakley asked.

 

Needless to say, the ambiguity of hearing “her” put the brakes on my descent.  The way my luck ran, the next board would end up carrying the hollow croak of a bullfrog.  Besides, I wouldn’t dream of interrupting their private conversation so rudely.  I was raised better than that.

 

“Of course,” Tanner replied.

 

“So how do you think she’ll react to your friend?

 

“She’ll be cordial,” Tanner replied.  “Well…  As cordial as she possibly can.  You know how jealous she tends to get.”

 

“Oh, I’ve seen her when she’s mad,” Oakley assured.  “You may find yourself breakin’ up a fight.”

 

Little did Tanner know that his plan to distract me had worked; now I had a whole new source of annoyance vying for first-place in my head.  No thanks to whomever this “her” turned out to be.

 

Another Talisman?  A female Talisman?  And a jealous one to boot?

 

In the midst of my own green-eyed fit, I heard the sound of a door creaking open, followed by a female’s voice hollering for Oakley.   In the mood I was presently in, part of me was hoping that it turned out to be this mysterious “her”.  Because if what Oakley had suggested was true—about the possibility of a fight breaking out—it sure seemed a pity to let this mad rush of adrenaline go to waste.

 

A woman with a wavy curtain of auburn hair, a shade identical to Oakley’s, came whizzing into the library like a Tasmanian devil, less the swirl of flying dirt.  “Thomas told me you had company, but I didn’t believe him.  So I had to come and see for myself,” she professed.

 

The woman’s gaze turned to Tanner for barely a beat, and she then immediately went back to searching the room.  She was marionette-sized compared to Oakley, though her face carried the same adorable curves and her cheeks were just as rosy—as pinch-worthy as a child’s.  And regardless of how sweet and innocent those big blue-eyes of hers looked scanning the room, I sensed a temperament lay under her skin that could match every pound of the Sphene Talisman’s muscles, ounce for ounce.

 

Foot tapping, the woman shot out a ruffled sigh.  “Where’s the other one.  That’s the one I’m interested in — the female.”

 

Oakley met her breathy show of frustration with an equally bearish grumble.  “I swear, Jenna… You really know how to embarrass someone.”

 

Jenna clasped her chest theatrically.  “Oh, forgive me for being concerned for my cousin — the hermit.”  I was about to resume my descent down the steps when Jenna looked up and caught sight of me.  Her mouth dropped open.  “There you are!” she exclaimed brightly.  “It’s rare to see another lass in here, besides me.”  Jenna tipped her head and added,  “Aside from that Indian woman who comes around every now and then.”  She spun towards Oakley.  “And who was the other one?  The one with the angelic face that could tame a beast and had raven hair for days?”

 

Arica,” Oakley answered, his tone a bit clipped.

 

Jenna whirled back to me, her apple cheeks aglow, and waved her arms warmly.  “Well, come down here,” she insisted.  My lips twisted into an awkward smile before starting down the stairs, feeling a bit embarrassed myself.  Her hand was already postured for a shake when I reached the bottom.  “I’m Jenna MacMillan, Oakley’s cousin.  And you are?”

 

“Shiloh Wallace,” I replied and shook her hand.

 

“An American,” she sang, sounding intrigued.  “So are you related to any of the Wallaces’ around here?”

 

My insides were howling with amusement.  Not any legendary ones… “Oh, I seriously doubt it.”

 

Oakley interjected, “She came with my friend, Tanner Grey,” and then nodded to the Amethyst Talisman.

 

Jenna scrutinized Tanner’s expression like she was looking through the lens of a microscope and then cut to me with a grunt of disappointment.  “Well, damn… I was hopin’ that Oakley had finally decided to embrace datin’.”

 

Oakley, bless his heart, looked a hair’s breadth away from hitting the stairs with thoughts of not stopping until he’d reached the top—where he would willingly jump, if death were an honest possibility.

 

So that’s what it is, I mused.  He’s just a little shy…  I bit back a grin.  Around females… The non-related ones.

 

Oakley shook his head.  “Just overlook my cousin.  Jenna thinks she’s the matchmaker for all of Scotland.”

 

Jenna brushed off his remark with a frivolous toss of her tresses and turned to us.  “So I suppose the two of you are some of his ‘special friends’?” she submitted, air-quotes included.

 

The muscles of Oakley’s jaw tightened.  “Jenna!” he scolded, bellowing her name like a curse.

 

“What?” Jenna huffed and smacked his chest.  “The only things that darken your door are books and Talismans.”  And with that, she spun back around to face us.  “So?  Are you?”

 

Oakley grunted, drawing his cousin’s gaze back to him.  “If I say yes, will you please go away?”

 

No,” Jenna replied.  “Not until I make sure that you’re still comin’ to the ceìlidh tonight.”

 

The Sphene Talisman shook his head.  “Not when I’m entertainin’ company.”

 

Jenna drew her hands into fists and slammed them onto her hips—her elbows presently drawn like a pair of longbows, ready to launch the worst of their wrath.  “I don’t think so!” she warned.  “You’ve already promised, and the entire family will be there!”  Jenna cast a tired look over her shoulder.  “That’s the present I ask him for every year on my birthday… For him to spend one entire day with his family — beyond the walls of this house and all of his books.  And I can’t think of a better time than the same day of the games and our ceìlidh.”

 

I thought it was sweet, and her heart was certainly in the right place.  “What’s a ceìlidh?” I asked.

 

“Just a gatherin’ of the family and friends,” Jenna replied.  “You know, with food and music and dancin’… A little story tellin’ and poetry readin’ — and plenty of whisky.”

 

Tanner’s eyes cut to mine with a wink.  “You have something similar in West Virginia.  It’s called a hoedown — but with moonshine.”  Then he grinned and whispered to my head, “…and a washtub band.”

 

As amused as I was, I refused to show it—no respectable West Virginian would.  “Well, it wouldn’t be a hoedown without one,” I retorted and then scolded him with a playful, though crusty look.   I turned back to Jenna, whose cornflower blue eyes were now spinning with the makings of a question.

 

“Why don’t the two of you come?” Jenna posed.  “That way, you can visit with Oakley a bit longer.”

 

Before Oakley could mount the first protest, Tanner swiftly spoke up.  “Shiloh and I would love to come and share in Oakley’s evening of merriment.”

 

A pleased smile lit Jenna’s face as she hoisted her head, while Oakley shored up the scowl he was aiming at Tanner, which included a scathing pair of murderous eyes.

 

“How dressy is it?” I asked.  For some reason, a ceìlidh sounded fancier than a backwoods hoedown.  A lot fancier than the jeans and tees I’d rushed to pack.

 

Jenna started to speak when Oakley rose from his seat.  “You look to be the same size as Jenna.  I’m sure she’s got something in her closet that’ll fit you.”  Oakley turned to Tanner and breathed a sigh that reeked of challenge.  “You’ll be more of a problem.  Jenna — Call around and see if you can find something for him.  Maybe check with the runts that haven’t hit puberty.”  He glanced back at the Amethyst Talisman to see how his slap had faired.  A direct hit, judging from the dip of Tanner’s sneer.

 

Jenna smacked Oakley’s arm.  “Oh, the mountains outside look small compared to you — Ben Nevis, included,” she chided and then strode out of the library with her marching orders.

 

Oakley bounced a look between us.  “Pardon me, for a moment.  I’m goin’ to see my cousin to the door.”

 

“You don’t mind going, do you?” Tanner asked.

 

What I minded was not knowing whom the “HER” was that he’d been talking about with Oakley a few minutes ago—along with the fact that I couldn’t bring it up without outing my eavesdropping butt.  “Not at all,” I said.  “It sounds like fun.”

 

“And by ‘fun’, you mean it sounds like more time for you to secure a sphene?”

 

I inclined my head, putting my busted smile on full display.  “That too — if you would kindly stop trying to tank me.”

 

Tanner clasped my chin and leveled my gaze to his, smiling.  “I was merely trying to get you to relax.  He puts his pants on the same as you… The same as everyone else — no matter what stone they hold.”

 

As true as words were, for some reason, it seemed different when it came to other Talismans—Talismans who didn’t want to kill me, that is.  And if I were being bare-bones honest, I wanted their approval—needed their respect.  And perhaps it was because I wanted to feel like I was a solid part of their ancient supernatural clique, what with being so new to this world and having been so isolated.  Being The Diamond Talisman didn’t give me a pass to where I could strut into a room, stake my sword into the ground with a masterful throw, and say, I’m here, bitches!  Even if I had a thousand years and countless creature-kills under my belt, I could never be that bombastically arrogant.  And yeah, maybe I did feel that Talismans needed to be a more cohesive unit, like the family of warriors and healers the Guardians had intended.  And that’s what it boiled down to, no matter how pie-in-the-sky my wish seemed.

 

Seriously?  If witches could do it, why the heck couldn’t they?

 

I glanced towards the door.  “Oakley seems to have warmed up to me a little, don’t you think?”

 

“Possibly,” Tanner pondered aloud, baiting me with an iffy look.  “You’ll know for sure if he tries to pay you back.”

 

I shook my head.  “You, definitely.  But not me,” I assured.  “He’s too nice.”  Not to mention, shy, I affirmed silently.

 

“For the sake of how badly you want a sphene, you’d better hope he does.”  Tanner searched my eyes.  “Or should I say, how badly you’re in need of one.”

 

I pulled back from him, my eyes crinkling suspiciously.  If I didn’t know any better, I would swear he’d seen a few of my quiz scores from some of my other classes.

 

Oakley tromped back into the library.  “You just had to say, Yes, didn’t you?”

 

Tanner grinned.  “And miss out on your misery, knowing those cousins of yours are nowhere near finished riding your ass over your performance at the games — Not a chance.”

 

“If you’re referring to my ambushin’,” Oakley corrected, “I think you’ll find that they’ll be too bothered by somethin’ else tonight for them to give it a second thought.”

 

“And what’s that?” Tanner asked.

 

Oakley’s eyes blazed a confident gleam. “Their mysterious alcohol resistance, of course,” he said and popped off an adamant nod.  “They’ll be too glued to their barstools all evenin’, drinking their arses broke and too pissed to care when they find themselves still sober at the bottom of every glass.”

 

A conspirator-like laugh rolled off The Amethyst Talisman’s tongue.  “I suppose that’s only fair,” he conceded.

 

Oakley pointed a finger.  “But you’ve still got some payback comin’.”

 

Tanner’s grin was shameless.  “Give it your best shot.”

 

“Oh, I intend to,” Oakley vowed.  “And I plan on hittin’ you where it really hurts.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

An hour later, I was drawing the door of Oakley’s guest bedroom to a close and making my way to the parlor, all decked out in the dress and shoes that Jenna had dropped off for me—ready for my first ceìlidh.  I’d hoped to find that Tanner had returned from whichever cousins’ house he’d been sent to for clothes.  Instead, I found the Sphene Talisman standing bedside the fireplace, looking the epitome of a true Highlander in his formal dress—tartan, tassels, and trimmings included.  Seeing how polished and commanding he looked in his ceremonial duds had me shaking my head.  It just didn’t make any sense that this guy was the least bit shy.  Oh, I’d seen a couple Highlander romances on Katie’s Kindle; Oakley would have the hunky models on their covers racing to a steroids dealer before their next photo shoot.

Upon my first official step into the room, Oakley closed the journal with a thump and laid it on the mantle.  “Deciphering that won’t be an easy feat.”

I took the absence of the word “impossible” as a good sign.  “Surely you’ll have better luck than I’ve had.”  I eased towards him.  “I can see Ganjhi’s face just fine,” I admitted.  “But as far as nailing down his memories, they’re nothing more than bits and pieces…  Flashes of random things.  I can’t seem to make a firm connection with anything specific.”  Another honest and embarrassing confession.

The colors of Oakley’s stone churned in his eyes, the hues melding together as if they were forming an insightful thought.  “Maybe if you immersed yourself in things familiar to him, they might trigger somethin’.  Give you a solid footin’ to snatch somethin’ important about the journal.”

“I’ve tried using Bea’s memories of him…”  My words trailed off.  “But so many of them are too painful.”  What I really wanted to say was, “too brutal”, though I didn’t know how much Oakley knew about Beatrix and Ganjhi and Helaine’s torturous history.

Oakley stiffened.  “I was sorry to hear that Beatrix had passed. I only met her once.  But she struck me as someone kind and very wise.”  His lips smoothed into a wry grin.  “And very crafty.”

“That she was,” I confirmed.  Not wanting to dwell on teary reflections, my eyes made a pass over his attire, admiring the perfect creases of all those pleats, the brilliant shine of the buttons dotting his chest and arms, right down to the eye-catching flash of silver glinting from the sgian-dubh sticking out of his sock—the perfect place to tuck a blade, I thought.  “You look very dashing,” I said, which was the total truth.  The kilt he had on at the games looked like a rag compared to the tailored version he was sporting now.  And the black jacket and waistcoat was a handsome step-up from the tank top—that was certain.  Now I really wished I could take a picture for A.J.  Though I got the clear impression that the mere asking to snap one would turn those rosy cheeks of his redder than the crimson coloring his tartan.

Oakley accepted my compliment with a firm nod.  “Aye — And might I say that you look very fetching as well.”

My stare fell to my dress, or should I say, to the white, hot air balloon of tulle that exploded like a circus tent from my waist, courtesy of the five-layered crinoline petticoat underneath it—the same one that hissed with my every movement.  I’d questioned Jenna’s choice when she’d dropped it off.  But after seeing Oakley so festally clothed in his Highland finery, it had to be an extremely formal event.  Even if I did suspect I was wearing a repurposed wedding dress.

I gave the sides of the poofy skirt an awkward fluff.  “Thank you.”

Oakley collected a long, tartan sash from off the back of a chair, its fabric pressed-to-perfection.  “I pulled somethin’ out of my closet for you.  The ladies wear them,” he explained.  “I’ll tell people you’re a distant cousin from across the pond.”  His smile turned a touch humored.  “But mostly so no one will notice it’s one of Jenna’s old weddin’ gowns.”

See, I knew it…  I glanced down at the gown, my doubts returning with a vengeance.  “But it’s okay to wear it there?” I asked.  Despite needing a little reassurance, hearing a “no” would have me wrestling this thing off in an instant, willingly.

Oakley unfolded the sash.  “Aye.  You’ll look perfect by the time I’m finished.  Exactly how you’re supposed to look.”

If you say so…  I postured myself mannequin-still as Oakley draped the sash around my bodice, angling it down from my right shoulder—his hands a bit cautious, if not a touch nervous.  Though he seemed to loosen up when he began explaining the significance of how it should lay and from what side—most of which hinged upon a woman’s marital status and where her husband ranked in the clan.  Like I needed another reminder that I was strutting around in a whiter-than-white wedding dress.  So between the two of us, when it came down to the person in this room who could walk away with the prize for “Strings tied the tightest”, that would be ME.  Thankfully, the bright colors and thick weave of the tartan seemed to mask the gown’s glaring nature.  Hopefully enough that Tanner wouldn’t notice, which was the main reason I was silently pleading for Oakley to stop fussing with the folds of the sash and just hurry up and get it on me.  By the time he was finished, it looked similar to one of Charlotte’s from her pageant-days, minus the sequined title of, First Runner-Up.

I smiled as I eyed the colorful sash, grateful for my camouflage.  “Is this Jenna’s?” I asked.

“No, it’s mine.  But it’s still a ladies sash.”  Oakley pointed to the one draping his broad chest like the swag of an emperor.  “See.  It’s much thinner than the one I’m wearin’.”

“Gotcha,” I replied.

Oakley took a step back to assess his efforts, eyeing the loose knot on my shoulder with a critical gaze.  “Now we just need the finishin’ touch,” he remarked and then pulled a brooch out of his sporran.  My eyes flickered as I gazed upon the gleaming golden pin.  It was crafted in the shape of a flower with a sphene cabochon serving as its bulb.

A charged sphene, I noted as I watched the array of colors flickering in the light—the richness of its reds and the earthy tones of its greens and the fierce shine of its sunny yellows.  And I had to give it to him.  The earth stone matched the color of the tartan perfectly.

“It’s beautiful,” I said.  “What kind of flower is that?”

He secured the pin to a section of the sash just below the knot.  “It’s a thistle.  It’s very symbolic to us Scots.  It’s thorns represent victory, in spite of any odds.  You can’t kill the damn thing, and it holds such a tenacious grip on these lands.”  Oakley issued me a smile.  “Kind of like how a warrior’s spirit needs to be.  Nothing can shatter it — no matter who or what you’re up against.”  He inclined his head.  “I think it’s a fittin’ choice for the Diamond Talisman to wear.  But here’s the real question — Can she earn it?”

My breath hitched.  Even if it wasn’t an outright gift, it was still a chance.  Though as cartwheeling thrilled as I was to receive it, my mind whirled with as much curiosity about his reasons.  Especially when he’d made no mention of wanting a diamond.

Well, not yet.

“Why?” I asked.  “I was told you’re not in the habit of giving them out so easily.”

Oakley huffed a laugh.  “Aye.  I’ve heard some of the others think I’m tightfisted and stingy.  I just like to get a feel for the person wanting it.”  He lowered his head, a pair of earnest eyes peering into mine.  “It took a lot of courage to admit what happened to your wand — to a stranger, no less.  I don’t know many Talismans who would have if they were in your situation.  And I admire the honesty.”

A shameful smile singed my cheeks, which had nothing to do with that thieving creature and everything to do with my lingering witchy-omissions.  Though come Monday—after my confession—I could wear that title proudly.

Oakley’s gaze hardened.  “But I’m not offering it freely.  You still have to earn it.”

Diamond or no, he had me right where he wanted, going as far as to dangle the carrot right under my nose, literally.  “And how am I to do that?”

“Trust me — You’re halfway there already.”  Oakley took a step back and crossed his arms.  “But the other half is more of a challenge.  Far more grueling.”

His arduous expression had me holding my breath.  “And what’s that?”

He held on to his punishing façade for several more tortuous seconds.  “You have to dance with every male member of the MacMillan clan tonight,” Oakley said and then slipped into a more relaxed pose, one that better matched his humored grin.

I tilted my head skeptically.  “That’s it?”  Surely there was some sort of catch.  “Just dance with them?”

“Aye — That’s it,” he assured.  “But don’t worry.  They’ll be plenty of music.  You shouldn’t have any trouble squeezin’ in a spin with all of them.”

I ignored the thought of any slippery catches and extended an eager hand.  “Deal,” I said, my tone firm and my handshake even firmer.  Not only had I been granted a shot at earning a sphene, it would give me something to do while Oakley took Tanner around on his covert mission to keep his cousins unwittingly sober.  Oh, I remembered the sore look throbbing in Oakley’s eyes back at the field.  Without a doubt, the Sphene Talisman’s hit-list was gangster-long.

After sealing our agreement, Oakley reached a hand to the coffee table, where he picked up an antique silver case, roughly half the size of my hand.  Once he’d latched its delicate chain around my wrist, I peeked inside it to find a tiny pencil and several slips of lined paper.

He pointed to the dance card holder.  “That’s for you to keep a record of them — as proof.”

“Of course,” I agreed, still eager but feeling a touch uneasy about the number of houses we’d passed upon on our arrival.  I glanced at the silver card holder, fearing it might not hold enough paper.

Oakley lifted his watch for a check.  “Tanner should be here any minute.”

I smiled and took to strolling around the room, my fingers stroking the face of the gemstone, engrossed in its warm vibe and the limitless feeling it exuded.  Then abruptly, a twinge of reservation sent a question rising to my lips.  “I’m curious,” I said, feeling a bit hesitant.  “Is this charged with any other abilities?”

“You mean my one and only emotional power,” Oakley countered.

I nodded, knowing all about it from my lessons.  The power for a person to staunchly love themselves—first and foremost, before all others—thereby turning off their need to seek love from another person completely.  And no matter how important self-worth was in the grand scheme of a person’s life, it was still an ability that could turn problematic if misused.  A problem, that I questioned, if the so-called “hermit” was even aware of himself.

“It is,” Oakley confirmed.  “But it works no different than any of its other powers.  You have to want to draw it out.”  He flicked a speck of lint off the lapel of his jacket.  “Just because you’re wearin’ it, doesn’t mean you’ll turn a blind-eye to affection — no matter if it’s family or friends or someone you fancy.”

So that was a relief.  And knowing that the wielder of the stone had a choice, it made me wonder about the man standing here who’d birthed it.  Tanner couldn’t bliss himself with his stone.  Could Oakley even draw that affection-blocking ability from his?  And if he could, had the Sphene Talisman become too comfortable with his stone’s power to shield a person’s heart that turning off its magic was a struggle?  So naturally, I was curious.

“Can I ask you a personal question?”

Despite the hint of reluctance simmering in his eyes, Oakley answered with a controlled nod.  “Aye.”

I ran my hand along the sash, smoothing its folds in a noticeable stall, regardless of his go-ahead.  “Why do you have a woman’s sash?” I asked, opting for a backdoor approach.  I could tell it was new, like never-been-worn new from its crispness and non-existent scent of any detergents—and it didn’t make sense for him to have it.

“The tailor at the shop made it for me when I had them do my Highland wear,” he explained.  “Actually, it was his wife who’d made it by accident, thinkin’ I was married.”

I shrugged.  “So why didn’t you return it?”

“Didn’t see the need since she’d gone to the trouble,” Oakley replied.

I suppressed a creeping grin.  “And you didn’t want to give it to Jenna?”

Oakley paused for a heartbeat, before returning my gaze.  “No, I just didn’t.”

I nodded to him with a vacant look as he took a step backward, trying not to call attention to the ghost of a smile I’d caught on his lips—before he’d averted his stare while pretending not to step on the hem of my dress.

Don’t you mean a small part of you couldn’t, I suspected quietly.

I continued, “And how many years have you held on to it?”  Oakley eyes hardened, which let me know real quick that I was busted and skating swiftly towards a patch of thin ice.  “I was just curious — if that power was a permanent part of you or if you had a choice,” I said, my tone purposely soft.

A series of knocks fired from the front door, giving Oakley the perfect opportunity to escape answering my question—which he’d quickly jumped on when he pardoned himself out of the room.

My eyes trailed his hasty departure.  Oh, he could choose.  Someone who didn’t need nor want any sort of affection wouldn’t agree to a spending an entire day with his family—birthday gift or not.  And holding on to that sash was like trying to keep a burglar out of your house by merely closing the front door, without securing any of its locks.  Eventually, someone would come along and test its knob with a turn.  And deep down, he wanted them too.  That’s what my gut was screaming.

One by one, a rowdy mob of MacMillans began pouring into the living room, as per Jenna’s orders, to make sure Oakley was going and to drag his stubborn, brawny butt out the door if need be.  I recognized most of their faces from the field, though there were still plenty I didn’t.

I walked to the doorway for a quick gander down the hall.  More and more hulking bodies kept spilling into the house, dressed in their ceremonial attire, their voices loud while the crisp rub of pleats and clanks of metal proved even louder.  My cheeks pooched as I stared at the front door, its threshold never absent of a new arrival.  It was like waiting for the back door of a clown car to close.  I wandered back into the parlor, needing to get my dress out of their way, fearing it would get trampled.

Feeling restless amid the clamor of Oakley’s cousins, I took a spot in front of the window and gazed at the horizon, watching the last traces of sun clinging to the peaks of the mountains.  I hadn’t been wrapped in the view very long when a tendril of mist brushed my bare, right shoulder.  A playful caress to let me know Tanner was somewhere to my rear.  And I was relieved he’d made me aware of his presence in his chosen manner.  It let me know that he’d seen my dress and had spared me from catching any abrupt eye flares or suspicious looks or gapes from his initial reaction.

Tanner was almost halfway to me by the time I turned from the window.  And ironically, it turned out that I was the one trying to temper the flare of my eyes—stunned by the deep charcoal suit he was wearing, along with a shirt and necktie of the same hue.  And despite how arresting and sinfully urbane the monochromatic duds made him appear, I found myself feeling downright disappointed that he wasn’t standing there gift-wrapped in a tartan.

I pointed to the troop of cousins cavorting throughout the room.  “Where’s your skirt?”

“I’m not a Scot,” Tanner answered.  “Wearing a kilt would be an insult.”

I gave him a withering stare.  Perhaps… Though I suspected it had more to do with his hard stance with respect to vintage clothing.  Playing “dress-up”—as he’d called it.

Tanner took my hand and pulled me toward his chest.  Well, he tried pulling me towards him.  Not the easiest maneuver for someone to make when their date’s gown comes with its own zip code.

Tanner roused a sensual smile.  “So I hear you’re trading a spot on my arm for an army of Scotsmen.”

“For a sphene,” I clarified, straight-faced.  So now I felt bad, especially when I thought about the shoe being on the other foot, and how pissed off I would be if he had to dance with a bevy of pretty faces.  Actually, I’d probably be ten shades past it.  Though judging from his smile, he wasn’t.  A comforting sight, and still, I found it unmistakably annoying.  I lifted a brow.  “So you don’t mind?”

Tanner twined his fingers with mine, locking them with a resolute squeeze.  “Not when that dress makes the perfect chaperone.”

I blushed a grin.  “True.”  Though I wasn’t quite sure if he was talking about the arm’s length perimeter of its skirt or the gown’s subliminal suggestion of, Desperate bride looking for a groom!  Both were pretty stout repellants.

The sound of Jenna’s voice turned my stare to the doorway of the parlor, where I spotted her head peeking through the towering throng of cousins as she weaved a path towards Oakley.

“Did you bring it?” Oakley asked her.

YES!” Jenna spat as she emerged from the pack of bodies with a shove and then reached into her purse.

My stare fell to Jenna’s outfit—to the much shorter, semi-casual crimson dress that lay behind her sash.  Even her feet looked a thousand times more comfortable, her tootsies sitting pretty in a pair of strappy, black leather flats.  My gaze was making its way back up her body when a sparkly tiara in her hand caught my eye, which she immediately plopped onto my head.

“I’m so, so sorry,” Jenna apologized while securing the combs to my hair.  Her eyes cut to Oakley with a scathing glare.  “HE made me do it!”

Yeah… I know the feeling,” I grumbled.  Once Jenna had finished and took a step back, I turned to Oakley, my hands now clenching my waist.  “So I take it that I’m a little overdressed?” I submitted to the backdrop of his cousins’ riotous outburst of jeers and laughter.

The Sphene Talisman chortled.  “But you look very pretty.”

I couldn’t stomach a glance at Tanner.  There wasn’t a need anyway.  Not when his chuckles were coming through my amethyst pendant just fine—rattling my chest like a damn earthquake.