The sun was easing into a graceful fade as our cab veered off the main road and onto a paved drive, its grassy edges ablaze with the flicker of torchlights.  Up ahead, past the wide-reaching lawn and the gazillion vehicles parked every which way, stood The Hawthorn House, a striking 17th Century Scottish Baronial mansion-turned-hotel.  An elegant spot for the MacMillians’ celebration—a romantic retreat that hugged the banks of the loch, its charm only heightened by the drama of the Highland scenery rolling all around it.  And it was painted pink—as subtle and sweet as a ballet slipper.  I couldn’t think of a place more befitting a princess who was being forced to kick up her heels in order to earn herself a sphene.  Anything less and I would have felt like a dancing monkey.  Though for all intents and purposes in the world of paybacks, that’s precisely what I was.  A gussied up one at that—sparkly, crystal crown included.

From the moment my dress and I spilled out of the cab, I’d never felt more welcomed by someone else’s family in my entire life.  The chief of their clan even bestowed me the honor of my very own nickname: The Queen of Scots.  And it stuck too, clinging to me like a trail of toilet paper tacked to the bottom of my shoe as I made my way down the line of hardy hugs and handshakes and sniggering faces.

After dropping off my purse and our other clothes at the hotel’s coat-check, Oakley motioned us towards a sweeping archway that led into a long hall just past a grand walnut staircase.  The folksy music grew louder and louder the further our feet carried us down the corridor—the melody’s lively beats thrumming from the plaster walls and quaking the soles of my shoes as it rose from the parquet floors.

Our steps came to a halt upon reaching the taproom, the stout scents of whisky and ales and a mix of spicy colognes wafting from its doorway.  And after noting how jam-packed as it was, I was surprised anything stood a chance of escaping the tight bounds of the room, smells included.

Oakley gave Tanner a feisty smack on the back.  “Jenna, take Tanner around and introduce him — startin’ with the ones who were at the field.”  He looked to Tanner.  “I’m afraid this is where you and your lass must part for the evenin’.”

Tanner’s eyes fell to my dress, tracing the hazardous bulge of its sides.  “Try not to break too many legs.”

I smiled as Oakley led me away.  “I’ll just heal them if I do.”  Within seconds, I was standing in the threshold of the hotel’s dance hall, partly frozen, while my eyes absorbed the gaiety of the scene.  Oh, there would be little slow numbers judging from the spry and high steps of the dancers, as well as the spirited tunes the band was playing on their fiddles and flutes and accordions.  Fancy square dancing.  That’s what me, my blimp of a dress, and my five-inch heels were in for.  Hours and hours of it, I predicted, after tallying a rough headcount.  My eyes sorted through the flushed and merry faces of the men and women spinning and stomping about on the dance floor, paying particular attention to all their exposed legs.  What I wouldn’t give for that kind of air-conditioning.

I sulked in silence, shaking my head on the inside.  Jenna was right.  I’m going to sweat my foof off…  But it was worth it.  Not only for the sphene, but to prove I was a good sport.  If you dished it out, you’d better be able to take it.  A lesson I’d learned at the age of seven, when I’d hidden the drain plug of Daddy’s old aluminum jon boat—the moment I went out to ride my bicycle and found both its tires missing.  Samuel even took my bell.  Though in my defense, it was April Fool’s Day, and I honestly thought they would have checked something like that before setting it afloat.

“Remember,” Oakley began, “You have to dance with every one of them,” he said sternly.

I ignored the protests my feet were already mounting and rocked out a firm nod.  “Got it.”

Oakley waved a hand at the crowd.  “These are just the early arrivals.  The rest of the family will be spillin’ in over the course of the evenin’.”

Silently, I was gulping.  “How many more?”

“About a hundred, give or take.”

I lifted my arm, eyeing the sterling silver dance card case dangling from my wrist, which now carried the weight of an iron ball and chain.  I didn’t think I could write small enough on what few sheets it held.  Not with the number of names I would have to fit on them.  “I hope you brought a magnifying glass,” I muttered.

The next thing I knew, one of his cousins had captured my hand like the snatch of a riptide and was tugging me into the sea of bodies, their steps hopping and hoofing like a steady rhythm of waves.  And from that moment on, I was inescapably bound to the flow of its current.  No sooner than a song would end, I was passed off to another cousin… And another… And then on to dozens and dozens more, my partners barely giving me enough time to jot down their names in between all the line dances, circle dances, and waltzes.  The latter of which were few and far between.  And as rollicking as what some of their chuckles and taunts proved, they were easily ignored.  They were in good fun.  Unlike the all those purse-pictures on Find-A-Yardley-Freshman.com, tagged with comments left by insensitive assholes attempting to be cute.  Though not everyone laughed at my getup.  The little ones loved my dress; the girls told me I looked like a princess, whereas the boys saw my skirt as the perfect spot for their rounds of hide-and-seek.  Though all things considered—from trying to learn the dances and keep pace, the brutal throbs of my feet, and my hair stringing in my face—I had to admit I was having fun.  Enough fun that when random thoughts of my long-lost wand worked their way into my head, they seemed quieter, more settled—like a wave of acceptance was washing over me.  Then again, that could have just been the buckets of sweat raining from my pores.  Either way, it was good a reminder that no matter what obstacle lands in your path, you had a choice: to stare at it, walk around it, or bust through it.  And two of those options required you to move forward.  So for now, I was dancing around the problem with the hopes of stomping through it.

Though I still wanted to know who “HER” was.  That would have made the stomping part a heck of lot easier.

Oh, you betcha it would have.

What little contact I had with Tanner throughout my hours of dancing was limited to passing each other smiles and sneaking glances whenever Oakley steered him through the crowd, while marking another one of his cousins like an assassin.  And I’d tuned into several of the unaware victims’ heads when I spied them on the dance floor.  Some questioned if the whisky was watered down, while others didn’t notice they weren’t drunk, acting just as boozy and carefree as if they actually were.  A total validation of the placebo effect.

When the band set down their instruments and announced they were taking a fifteen-minute break, I seized upon the opportunity to score a glass of something non-alcoholic to drink, preferably loaded with tons of ice.  I was so parched at this point, if all they had was whisky and beer, I was snatching up a straw and then marching out to the waters of the loch to drink it dry.  Lorelei be damned.

On my way out of the dance hall, I recognized one of the hotel servers as the woman I’d seen at the field earlier—the same pretty honey-blonde in the saffron-colored shirt, the one who was torn between laughing and feeling sorry for Oakley.  Her bronze eyes weren’t faltering from the Sphene Talisman here either as he sat alone at one of the tables.

A sly grinned unfolded on my face as a suspicious feeling emerged.  Not for a second

I maneuvered closer to the server, eager for a peek at what lay behind that riveted gaze.  Her name was Avery.  She was single.  During the day, she worked at a local bookstore called, Leakey’s, and the hotel server gig was a part-time job.  In two short months, she would be turning thirty, and despite not knowing Oakley personally, her heart was hammering inside her chest like the entire percussion section of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

I turned my attention back to where the Sphene Talisman sat, nursing his pint.  Yeah, I’d call that a bit of a crush

I headed down the hall to the taproom, my dry tongue leading the way and my gaze tracking tray after tray of every server that passed.  Whisky, whisky, and more whisky.  It wasn’t encouraging.

I squeezed through a tiny gap in the pillars of tartan-wrapped muscle that were holding up the bar, hoping to flag a bartender in between their expert, never-ending pours of shots.  I hadn’t been waiting long when a hand tapped my shoulder.  I glanced back to find Avery standing there with an empty tray tucked under her arm.

“Can I get you something?” Avery asked.

“Water?” I submitted.  Then I threw in a helpful visual—positioning one hand at my waist while I stretched the other high over my head.  “In a glass about this tall?”

Avery shot behind the bar to fix my water and then served it to me—in a pitcher, no less.  Admittedly, I liked her already.  And though it was far from lady-like, I started downing that thing in one long chug—one hand locked around its handle and its spout dipping into my mouth.

At the end of twenty steadily-paced Mississippi’s, I was handing her back the empty pitcher.  “Thank you,” I breathed heavily.

The look Avery extended me was one formed of pure pity.  “A wee overdressed for the occasion, aren’t you?”

I angled my eyes to the top of my head.  “It’s the tiara, isn’t it?”

Avery smiled prettily.  “Not unless you’ve just come from a tinker’s weddin’.”

My head fell into a tilt.  “A tinker?

“A traveller — like a gypsy,” Avery clarified.

My hand reached for a section of tulle forming the skirt, fluffing it with a testy smack.  “Believe it or not, I don’t think it’s big enough.”

Avery grinned as she leveled the tray on her hip and placed the empty pitcher atop it.  “Did your boyfriend not tell you what to wear?”

My smile on the inside was glowing like a neon sign.  “Oh, he’s not my boyfriend.”

“Oh,” Avery replied, both her tone and demeanor the epitome of I-don’t-give-a-damn-but-I-really-do chick-casual.  A classic smokescreen, pulled straight from the first chapter of the Female Handbook.

“The dress is part of my punishment,” I added.

Avery let out a sharp laugh.  “It looks it.”  And judging from the way she was eyeing my limp and sweaty tresses, I didn’t want to know how far down my eyeliner and mascara had run.  So now I had to find a bathroom.  But strictly for a damage-check.  I couldn’t have peed if I tried.  Not after sweating nonstop for a solid two and a half hours.

A male voice bellowed for Avery to come around the bar, and I waved a hand before she got away.  “Could you tell me where I might find a ladies room?”

Avery pointed to my right. “Out that door, down the hall, and to the left.”

“Thank you,” I said and then headed off with a schemey grin curling my cheeks.  Yep, I mused with thoughts of the shy hermit whirling in my head.  In my experience, nothing perked up the universe’s ears faster than a person’s carved-in-stone convictions, especially when they were resistant to something.  And despite my disastrous matchmaking attempt with Samuel and Ms. Marion, on top of my reluctance to reveal squat about where Ty could find his soulmate, an unexplainable feeling churned in my gut when it came to Oakley and this Avery.  And unless the universe sent me a clear-cut sign to back off, I was going with it.

Now all I needed was a plan.  Preferably one that came cosmos approved & delivered—just to keep karma off my back.

My strides quickened when I spotted the ladies room, precisely where Avery had instructed.  I’d already poised my hands for a push against the door when it abruptly came open.  I flinched to a stop, braking on the balls of my shoes, trying not to run into the woman who was on her way out.

The woman’s lagoon-blue eyes flew to her brows, the same as mine, both of us startled from our near collision.  Though as I made to enter the ladies room once she’d cleared the way, a strange feeling had my head turning around to follow her like the unavoidable lure of a siren’s song.

The woman’s movements were effortless as her strides carried her away, limbs as graceful as the sway of a flower bending with a gentle breeze.  She looked young, though carried a distinct air of maturity, which left me at a loss for a more accurate guess of her age.  And she was… Well, she was just lovely… Lovely in a classic sort of way—one of those rare, no make-up required kind of beauties—which was evident from the fact that she wasn’t wearing any.  Still, her face was glowing, not a feature on it that looked in need of any artistic tweaking.  And though her toffee-colored tresses were long and luminous, her hairstyle was basically plain.  As no-fuss as my own, when I thought about it.  I even cast a line to see if there was anything magical about her and found myself oddly disappointed when I couldn’t find one little thing.  And at this point, I needed something to justify my stare.  Anything that explained why the air she exuded was so indescribably magnetic, aside from her comely appearance.

The woman’s pace slowed until her delicate steps came to a stop.  And since I wasn’t a stranger to feeling the weight of someone’s stare, I quickly turned to scrutinize the hotel’s collection of Gaelic art and clan crests adorning the walls.  After counting off five seconds, I casually glanced back to find the woman staring back at me with a smile just as warm and mysterious as the Mona Lisa’s, a gesture that hinted silent musings—like I was someone she was trying to place.  A relative, possibly?  She had to think I was one of them.  I was, after all, draped in the MacMillian clan’s tartan.

With our stares entwined, I flashed her a cordial smile and then headed into the bathroom on a hunt for the first mirror I could find.  One peek into the glass of truth & lies made me wish I hadn’t.  Uggkkk… I’d seen movies where the bride who’d been left at the altar looked less of a god-awful wreck than I did.

I snatched a paper towel out of a holder beside the sink, wet it, and then went to dabbing my cheeks.  Why is it that no one ever wants to tell a person when they have mascara running down their face?  Or lipstick smeared on their chin?  And now, knowing how bedraggled I looked, that woman’s stare made a heck of a lot more sense.  I swiped at the matching set of black lines that had streaked a crooked path straight to my jawline.  I’m surprised she didn’t scream.

Once my raccoon eyes were all cleaned up, I left to track down the Sphene Talisman.  Surely I’d danced with almost all of his cousins by now.  Though there was one name I hadn’t collected yet.

His, I affirmed.

Halfway down the hall, I ran into Jenna shuffling out of the taproom with a golden ale in tow, its froth cresting over the rim of her glass and smacking the floor like waves of foam.  She nodded to my wrist.  “So?  How’s it comin’?”

“I think I’m almost finished.  Though I still need to dance with Oakley.”

Jenna tossed back her drink and then fired off a laugh.  “And there lies the tricky part of his wager.   You wait and see,” she stressed, bumping my shoulder and giving me a wink.  “He’ll tell you, ‘no’ and then wait for you to start beggin’ for him to take one of your stones in exchange for the dance.  That way, he gets around havin’ to ask you, and he weasels out of havin’ to dance with anyone.”

My mouth stretched like a rubber band, feeling downright bamboozled, and rightfully, a little offended.  He didn’t have to trick me out of one.  I straightened my shoulders and gripped my waist with a squeeze, hoping to temper my crossness—before it settled into my muscles.  “Oh, really,” I intoned.

Jenna nodded.  “I think he wants one of your diamonds more than you want one of his sphenes.”

Not possible…  Still, it was good to know.  “So where is your scheming cousin?” I asked, heavy on the saccharine.

Jenna wove her drink-less hand through the bend of my arm.  “This way,” she ordered.  Our steps carried us past the lobby and then down a long hall that branched into a separate wing, far enough away from the thunder of the band and the heavy steps of the dancers that I could hear the sound of delicate notes coming from somewhere up ahead.

Upon arriving at the only open doorway, my eyes fell upon a sweet-faced little girl plucking the strings of an elegantly carved wooden harp propped in her lap, playing the most golden melody for a group of children.  Jenna rose onto her toes and pointed to the center of the crowd where Oakley sat perched on a hassock, telling the children fantastical stories of faeries and magical creatures by the firelight.   It was such an endearing sight to see him in this light—his face beaming as he absorbed all the wide-eyed faces and their tiny bodies tight with wonderment.  Not an ounce of shyness or reservation radiated from him, only sheer relaxation and enjoyment.

Jenna leaned against the doorframe with a sigh.  “I wish he would find someone.”

My eyes remained on Oakley, watching the medley of his stone’s colors sparkle in his eyes as he drank in the awe illuminating the children’s faces.  Whenever I’d seen Oakley this evening, he was either leading Tanner around the room or chatting with a family member who’d approached him at his table—consciously avoiding any sort of contact with women who weren’t wearing a sash of his clan’s tartan.  An awareness flashed in my mind.  Oakley and Samuel were two sides of the same coin—one, who’d lost the love of his life, and the other, too fearful about finding his special someone—both of them turning a blind-eye to romantic love.

“Has Oakley ever been in love?” I asked.

Jenna’s smile was a thin line, pressed by the weight of unanswered prayers.  “No,” she replied.  “And of all us cousins, I know the most about his past.”

“So you know when he got his stone, and how?”

Jenna nodded somberly.  “1605,” she breathed.  “Oakley didn’t have a good childhood.  I suppose nowadays you would say he was mentally challenged.  He told me he couldn’t talk.  The only sounds that came out of his mouth were moans and grunts.  And he couldn’t read, no matter how hard he tried.”  Jenna’s smile widened as she stared at her cousin.  “And that was all he ever wanted to do…  To read from the books his mother would tell him stories from every night, up until the day she died.  He was working at Cawdor Castle cleanin’ stables and tendin’ to their horses when Gaia granted him his stone.  She felt he was the perfect choice for helping others who were strugglin’.”

A question sent my head into a curious tip.  “If Oakley hardly ever leaves his house, then how does he do that?”

“Me and several other cousins work for him,” Jenna explained.  “We travel the world distributin’ the power of his stone…going from villages, to towns, to cities healing children and adults.  Just last week he sent me to Zambia.”  Jenna grinned, her eyes reflective and grateful.  “It’s quite the life, I have to admit.  I got to go on my first safari while I was there.”  Jenna hoisted her fingers, crossing them firmly.  “With any luck, that faery of his will send me to Bermuda next.”

So not only did Jenna know about Talismans, she was privy to the knowledge of faeries as well.

“That’s how he knows where to send us,” Jenna continued and then took another chug of her ale.  “The faeries of the people he heals contacts his pixie, and then that little bugger whispers to him in his dreams.”

Considering what little dealings I’d had with my own faeries and the hijinks that had resulted, I would have never imagined they were so methodical and organized.  Then again, that was their job, and doing it to the letter would grant them the right to take their place among the Fae in Lemuria—the most sought-after retirement package among their immortal kind.

“It’s especially touchin’ when you get to see the looks on all those children’s faces when their attention and comprehension struggles stop.  Though it’s nothin’ compared to their parents.  My last marriage proposal came from a single-father who was bangin’ his head over his daughter’s bad grades.”  Jenna hoisted her head.  “I turned him down, of course.  I could never leave Scotland.”  She motioned her drink towards Oakley.  “…Or that stubborn lump.”

“Doesn’t he ever leave his house?”

“Sure, if there’s a creature that needs tendin’ to, or if one of your kind summons him.”  Jenna rolled her eyes.  “Aside from that, he chooses to experience life through the pages of his books.  And, no thanks to that stone of his, he relies on it to quell his need for affection.”

That’s what I thought

Jenna’s eyes sparkled as she gazed upon her supernatural cousin, who was now telling the children a haunting story about a herd of kelpies that roamed the shores of the loch just outside.  “He has too tender of a heart deep down not to share it with someone.  And he deserves someone just as special as he is.”  Her eyes cast a knowing gleam.  “I know his abnormally long life-span poses a slight problem, but I still think he needs it — needs affection.  Everyone does.”  Her eyes evaluated him with one more look before turning away.  “He wouldn’t come here if he didn’t.  Secretly, I think the fuss he puts up is nothing more than a ruse.”

With a tender guide of her hand, Jenna led me away from the door.  “My first husband, the love of my life,” she stressed, “he was taken from me in a car crash two months after we were wed.  So I tend to value the quality of time spent over the quantity.”  She turned back to the doorway of the sitting room, staring at the empty space like Oakley had just stepped through it, sporting a newfound perspective.  “If anything, I think he’d make every moment count.”

“True,” I agreed.

“Besides, I’m sure he wouldn’t be the first of your kind to spend time with a human — regardless of our shelf-life.”

The truth of her words struck me like the twist of a sharp pinch.  My stare drifted dazedly to the wainscoting while visions of countless, faceless women whirled in my head.  It was like watching a Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, only the models were wearing vintage clothes—dating all the way back to Tanner’s toga days.

“Sorry,” Jenna said, laying a tender hand on my arm, as if she’d seen the incessant line of pretty faces marching through my head.

I quickly brushed away my thoughts.  And lucky for me, all it took was throwing a bazooka into the mix of my mental image.  “Do you know where Tanner is?” I said, smiling faintly.

Jenna guided me back down the hall, towards a window that looked out upon a courtyard.  Outside, in the middle of all that green, was the Amethyst Talisman sitting on a marble bench with a line of tartans running a path straight to him like red carpet outside a fancy gala.  There had to be close to fifty people out there.

“You’ll have to forgive me,” Jenna said.  “Oakley told me what his stone was capable of healin’, so I rounded up a few of my cousins and then word sort of spread.”  Jenna stared out the window, nodding unabashedly.  “A big family comes with plenty of head cases and troubles.”

I peeked out the window again, my amusement uncontainable.  At least I wouldn’t be the only one drop-dead exhausted by the end of the evening—or when my green tourmaline wore off.

Jenna and I were starting down the hall when one of the courtyard doors flew open.  It was the man and woman I’d seen standing closest to Tanner outside, fresh off their healing.  As quick and heated as a desert wind, the couple rushed towards the staircase, too distracted by their unshakable gazes and frenzied petting to realize they’d almost made road-kill out of us.  Halfway up, their touches turned downright raunchy, which had me turning away while Jenna raised her glass and hooted them on.

My best guess: he’d shot them with a little bliss.  Even with the steady beats of folk music charging the air, I couldn’t shake the velvety pipes of Marvin Gaye’s, Let’s Get it On blaring in my head.

I left Jenna at the taproom and then carried on down the hall, still intrigued by Cupid’s course of treatment.  The only aliments I’d ever seen Tanner heal revolved around poisons and additions and depression.  Though I supposed, if you had the power to help a couple who’d possibly lost that loving feeling — why the heck not?  Still, I found it surprising, despite how super-appreciative they’d both appeared.  Then again, the woman could have been standing too close to the Pied Piper of Estrogen that her hormones inevitably took over and that was all she wrote.

I could totally relate to the hairiness of that.  But at least her mate got to reap the benefits of it.

Upon returning to the dance hall, I commenced with a stroll around the room on a search for any unfamiliar faces.  And after singling out the ones I needed to add to my list, I hit the dance floor quite eagerly—keen on reaching my last partner: the Sphene Talisman, himself.  The guy who didn’t like to be outsmarted.

The same guy who was about to find out that neither did I.

I spotted Oakley entering the room as I was issuing my final dance partner a curtsey.  Then I turned my attention to Avery and quickly sent her a covert mental request. With the first part of my plan taken care of, I headed towards the table where Oakley had taken a seat all by his lonesome—the same as he had most of the evening.

I placed the dance card holder down on the table in front of him.  And knowing I’d officially snagged his attention, I strolled to the other side and dropped into a chair with an exhausted, though triumphant sigh.  “There,” I said and waited for his reaction.

Oakley simply started at the silver case, making no attempts to pop open its latch for a peek at all those font 5 sized names I’d so painstakingly scripted.  Oakley lifted his gaze, his eyes meeting mine with a restrained gleam of imminent victory.  “So, you danced with everyone?

I stared back at him, smiling coolly, as Avery arrived with my glass of water—right on time.  And since the universe hadn’t fired off the first warning to my head, I was going full steam ahead with my plan—killing two birds with one stone.

A diamond gemstone.

“Thank you,” I said to Avery and then flicked my gaze back to the Sphene Talisman, whose body was now aimed towards the dance floor.  I cleared my throat, loud enough to pop an eardrum.  “Oakley, this is Avery.”

Oakley’s only response was a slight shift towards our direction and an uninterested bob of his head.  And here I’d thought the eye contact he’d given me earlier was bad.  I didn’t care if he was shy, it was well on the side of rude.  Avery started to walk away when I directed my thoughts to her head and then mentally lassoed her back to the table.  Then, once I’d readied my approach, I began working my magical phantom hands like a ventriloquist with a wooden doll propped in their lap.

Avery jerked her chin at Oakley.  “So, Oakley,” she called firmly.  “Why aren’t you out there dancin’ with your lady friend?”

Oakley’s head snapped towards her with an awkward jerk, his pupils expanding like a pair of balloons as Avery pinned him with those lovely bronze eyes and thick lashes.  The next thing I knew, he was sputtering out an uncomfortable stream of “Umms” in between his spotty breaths.

Avery turned to me.  “Humph.  I figured a guy as well read as him could posture a better sentence than that.”

I fought off a laugh at the sight of Oakley’s reddened cheeks.  Yeah, I may have had a little something to do with that crack.

“Oh,” I gasped innocently.  “So the two of you know each other?”

Avery shook her head briskly.  “I know him,” she clarified.  “I’m one the clerks down at Leakey’s Bookstore.  He comes in now and then requesting rare books.  I’m the one who delivers them to his house on my way home from work.”  Her lips quivered an annoyed smile.  “But, no — He doesn’t have a clue who I am.”

The creaks that fired from the legs of Oakley’s chair as he shifted about were actually louder than the band.  And if he didn’t do something to tame that restless wiggle soon, he was going to find himself down on the floor and picking splinters out of his ass.

Needing to move things along, I had Avery lean towards me, making sure her words were nowhere near discreet.  “So why do you think he’s not out there dancin’ with his cousins?”

I breathed a cringey sort of sigh.  “Maybe he dances as good as he competes in the games,” I replied and then exchanged a few chuckles with my unsuspecting cohort.  The flush of Oakley’s face hadn’t waned a bit.  If anything, it was starting to match the stain and throb of a sore thumb—no thanks to the hammer of his pulse.

A huff shot from Oakley’s lungs.  “That’s not true,” he grumbled, glaring at me—his eyes only on me.  “I know how to dance.”

I leaned towards the table.  “Why’s that?  Because you read how to do it in a book?

“No!” Oakley snapped.  “My feet have seen plenty of dance floors.”  His eyes zeroed in on the bodice of my dress.  “Weddings — for starters.”  He shoved to the back of his chair.  “Jenna’s seven marriages alone have given me plenty of practice.”

With Oakley good and riled, I thought it best to send Avery away on a temporary hiatus.  “I think I’ll leave the two of you to your little spat,” Avery announced, repeating my command word-for-word.

As soon as she was out of earshot, I folded my arms and leaned to the back of my chair.  “Then prove it — with her,” I demanded.

Oakley’s face was a muddled canvas of disgust and disbelief.  He grabbed the edge of the table, almost as if he was trying to keep himself from leaping across it.  “NO!” he barked.

“You will if you want a diamond,” I said, beating him to the punch.

He bristled.  “WHAT?

“You heard me,” I said.  “I’ll give you a diamond, but only if you dance with Avery.”

Oakley shook his head vigorously in protest.  “No, no, no, no, no… That’s not the way this is goin’!”

I cocked my head to the ceiling and hoisted a finger.  “That’s rrright…  You were supposed to tell me ‘no’ when it came time for my dance, hoping I would end up offering you a diamond in exchange for a sphene.”  Oakley pressed his lips together like a vise as he gritted his teeth.  “Isn’t that right?” I submitted.

 His eyes shot into a wild flicker, all three colors hot and fiery, churning like a pair of windmilling sparklers.  Oakley cleared his throat and leaned back in his seat.  “I’m only handin’ out one dance this evenin’,” he said.  “So if you want me to dance with her, then I’m afraid you’ll be forfeitin’ that sphene on your shoulder.”

Oh, he was serious.  I knew he was from the look of, I’ll show you in his eyes and the insufferable line of adamant striping his brow like the drop of a bar at railroad crossing.  And as badly as I wanted a sphene—knowing how much easier one would make my studies, aside from helping me finish off the books in Tanner’s library—I wouldn’t back down now for ANYTHING.

I stared at him, unblinking and feeling as ornery as all get-out.  Nope, I affirmed. Not if it harelipped hell… A choice phrase of Samuel’s, one he would always pull out of his personal deck whenever he meant business—which, in the world of rednecks, was a line that would never be crossed under any circumstances, even at risk of life or limb.  A decree that basically amounted to one-hundred-percent, Grade-A stubbornness.

“So?” Oakley posed, matching my dogged glare, tit for tat.  “What’s it to be?”

My lungs expanded as I shoved to my feet.  Then, as fast as I could, I unfastened the brooch and plunked it onto the table.  His answer, officially served.

Oakley sprang out of his seat and snatched up the brooch.  And from this angle, three-hundred-pounds of muscle looked a whole lot more Paul Bunyan when it was steaming mad.

“If you’re this bloody-minded all the time, no wonder you let a creature steal your wand.”

Ouch.  That was probably the most deservedly-undeserved thing I’d ever heard.  Even worse than the grilling Maria had given me—with the exception of her blackmail attempt.  And though my reasons for forcing his hand were genuine, I’d dished this one out intentionally.  And in all fairness, Oakley’s reaction was typical for anyone who hated being one-upped.  Something I’d been aware of going in, despite my wishes for things not to go all sideways and screwy.

He slipped the brooch into his sporran with a shrug.  “You’d have probably lost this as well.”

I removed the sash and hung it on the back of my chair.  “It was nice meeting you, Oakley,” I said, ignoring the added oomph of smartass in his tone.  I started to walk away but turned back around to face him, calming my features into a façade of sincerity.  “I am sorry if I offended you,” I said.  “You just remind me of someone I care about.  Someone I worry about being alone.  That’s why I wanted you to dance with Avery.  And I thought…”  My words stopped as my eyes fell upon the sash.  “Never mind what I thought,” I corrected.  “Jenna told me what you were up to.  You didn’t have to trick me into giving you a stone.”  With a deep breath, I extended my arm, twisting it to show him the faint scar that hadn’t completely disappeared yet—grateful for the evidence.  “I’d already carved you out a diamond back at the inn, before we arrived at your house,” I said.  “Believe me, my criteria for granting one of my stones is nowhere near as strict as yours.”  Truthfully, I had only one hoop a person had to jump through: whether or not they’d ever tried to kill or hurt me.  A no-brainer in my book.

Whether it was from the embarrassment of being busted or finding out that his cousin had turned traitor, the stain of Oakley’s cheeks shot past crimson, landing more in the range of a port wine.  “Don’t make me out to be some shady schemer,” Oakley grunted.  “I was only tryin’ to make things more even.  Make the thought of having a sphene of your own more enticing.”  His gaze turned steely.  “You can’t fault me for that — not with you holdin’ such a strong advantage.”

Confusion smothered me like a thick fogbank.   From where I was sitting, Oakley’s carrot was just as valuable to me as mine was to him — if not more.  Had I not agreed to be part of the entertainment for the evening?  Prancing around the room, sweating my ass off, and getting laughed at—all for the sake of acquiring one?

I blinked through the haze.  “And what advantage would that be?”

Oakley threw me a frank, disbelieving look, as if I were playing dumb.  “I don’t have the luxury of borrowing someone’s diamond when I need it, whereas you, on the other hand, can always go back to using Tanner’s sphene.”

My hands smacked the top of the table, rattling every glass and plate on it before I realized what I’d done.  “Tanner has a SPHENE?” I roared, shoving the words past a lump that had lodged in my throat.  The confident gleam fading from Oakley’s eyes was answer enough.  A foul shudder followed me as I spun towards the exit, triggered by the black thundercloud that was spitting out all those books and journals I’d read this summer, feeling their phantom thumps pounding my head every freaking step of the way.

 I weaved a grumbly course through the tables.  I’m not surprised, I bitched.  So, so typical for the old-school professor to leave that out of his sphene lecture… Considering the number of books I’d slogged through this summer, I wanted to wring his neck the same as I would a piece of bubble wrap.  Snap-snap-snap…  Snap!  Snap! And that still might not be enough.

I returned to the patio doors where Tanner was still out in the courtyard healing folks of their aliments and vices.  Though I supposed I should be grateful that the line was considerably shorter.  Still, it didn’t make having to wait any easier.  I wanted to go—NOW.  I glanced at a nearby clock and then headed off to retrieve my purse from the hotel’s coat-check, shoulders squared, despite the mope I was hiding.  Surely some Candy Crush could make the wait less grueling.  Sadly though, there wasn’t enough Colour Bombs or Jelly Fish in the world to knock the edge off me forfeiting a sphene.

I plopped onto a hardwood bench, shaking my head.  And for what?  Because my stubborn butt just had to prove a point?

Thirty frustrating minutes later, I was shoving my phone back into my bag, fresh off my round of plays, and headed towards the window, checking to see how many people were left.  One man, to my delight.

I’d no sooner turned around when I spotted Avery coming down the hall, swinging an empty tray.  “Ready to retire that dress yet?”

“Been ready, actually.”  I nodded to the window as she passed me.  “I’m waiting on someone.”

Avery whirled around before turning down another hall.  “Oh, by the way… Oakley is a good dancer,” she hollered back, her smile giddy, and then pirouetted like a ballerina around the corner.  “A very good dancer.”

I stared blankly at the end of the hall, her admission rendering me speechless.  Though as dreamy-eyed as Avery had appeared, I was more interested in the expression I would find on Oakley’s face, when he came around wanting that diamond he’d earned.  I started to turn back to the glass doors when Jenna came twirling down the hall.  She was either really drunk or really, really happy.  A speedy check of her head revealed she was both.

“I think you might have to get your friend to come and strip me of the devil,” Jenna announced.  “My eyes are startin’ to play tricks on me.”

“It wouldn’t have anything to do with seeing Oakley dancing with one of the waitresses, now would it?”

Jenna launched herself at me, grabbing my arms to steady her frame.  “Then I wasn’t mental?  There really was an actual girl in his arms?”

I nodded, still feeling a smidge shell-shocked myself.  “Her name is Avery.”  I figured I’d better tell her that much.  Though I still saw the makings of a lot of questions brewing in her eyes.  All of which she wanted answered by her cousin—the hermit.  “I wouldn’t get too excited.  I made him dance with her for a diamond,” I admitted.  “Instead of dancing with me.”

Jenna blew out a cheek-flapping stream of air.  “Well, that bites.”

“Not really,” I said.  “I wanted him to do it.”

“And you’re not upset about tradin’ it for one of his stones?” she asked.

“Not now,” I admitted and averted my gaze.  Not after I beat a sphene out of Tanner

Jenna threw out her arms and gave me a hug, climbing on top of the dress to do it.  “Well, for what it’s worth, I’m glad you forced him into it.  Even if nothin’ comes of it.”  She released me and then resumed her ebullient path of twirls down the hall.  “Who knows?  Maybe it will get him to start thinkin’— if anythin’,” she said, her tone merry and optimistic.  And after the fire of an agonizing hiccup, Jenna was gone.

I returned to the patio doors.  The good news: Tanner had finished healing the man from the last time I’d checked.  The bad news: he still wasn’t done.  Now, he was standing with the woman I’d almost run into on my way to the bathroom, the one with that indescribable, magnetic presence.  On the outside, I would have never figured her for someone in need of any healing.  Then again, there were so many people you see on the street that you would never dream were dying a slow, emotional death on the inside—not when most of them worked so hard to maintain such convincing and deceptive fronts.  But to look at the woman now, her expression was heavy-hearted and somber.  Nowhere near as composed as it had seemed earlier.

The woman’s eyes fell to a close as Tanner gave her hands a gentle squeeze, preparing to heal her from whatever had spawned that mask of sadness on her face.  I started to turn away, when I noticed her hand lifting to his cheek, where it then ran a soft and tender path along his jaw.  Needless to say, I found it more than a bit forward…and curious.  Too curious to simply pass her off as one of those touchy-feely type of relatives, or even a lovable, attention-whore who thrived on flirting the same as food and water.

A tap to my shoulder had me jumping away from the window and grabbing my chest.  I spun around to find Oakley standing behind me—here, to claim his prize.

Without delay, I dug into my purse and pulled out the diamond I’d carved.  “Here,” I said as I handed him the stone, too distracted by the scene outside for my tone to come across as anything other than hurried and robotic.  “You earned it.”

I was about to turn back to the window when I noticed Oakley’s expression seemed particularly amiss for someone who held full-gloating rights.  But it wasn’t how quiet he seemed, but the peculiar daze his eyes held, like he was aware of everything on the face of the planet and yet none of it made a lick of sense.  Even his ivory complexion appeared to have paled considerably.  It was honestly the most rug-ripped-out-from-underneath-someone expression I’d ever seen.

Genuinely concerned, I tilted my head.  “Is something wrong?

Slowly, Oakley met my gaze.  Though instead of answering, he tucked the diamond into his sporran.  When his hand emerged, I noticed the sphene brooch pinched between his fingers.

“Here,” Oakley said, extending it to me.  “It’s yours.”

My muscles tightened, a small part of me fearing he might pull it back.  “Why?”

Because…” Oakley began, only for the rest of his words to get caught on the tip of his tongue.  And I could clearly see the struggle, like he did and didn’t want to give me an answer.

Oakley shook his head, as if silently shrugging off his resistance, and then placed the brooch in my hand.  “For not haulin’ off and punchin’ me in the face for actin’ like such a rude arse,” he blurted.

“Oh,” I muttered.

He nodded to the pin.  “There’s a loop on the back, so you can run a chain through it, if you want.  It should do well for a girl attending university…  As well as goin’ through that little nook Tanner calls a library.”  He scratched his head.  “So he really didn’t tell you about his sphene?  Hasn’t let you use it at all?”

“Nope,” I confirmed, grinning like a played fool.  “Not one damn time.”  And I wasn’t about to reveal the stunt he’d pulled with the Ruby or the Sapphire.  I’d reached my limit of embarrassing confessions for the evening.

Oakley’s mouth curved into a grin.  “And no hard feelings about the dress or the dancin’?”

“None,” I said.  “As long as there aren’t any hard feelings about your dance.”  That was as close as I was coming to that touchy subject, knowing how pushy I’d been already.

“None at all,” Oakley assured.  “Actually, that’s the other reason I’m giving you the stone.  Because of what…”  He stopped in an open-mouthed pause, struggling with the same amount of awkwardness as before.

Regardless of what he was trying to say, what I suspected was glued to his lips, I took the liberty of giving the shy guy an out.  “For whatever reason, thank you.”  I beamed a curious smile.  “And you’re welcome,” I added.  “For whatever reason.”

A stream of air rushed from the Sphene Talisman’s nostrils that signaled a silent confirmation to my sneaky feeling.  “You’ll do quite all right,” he said.  “If you remember to trust that gut of yours.”  His smile stretched into one of pure conviction.  “Don’t ever let anyone tell you that it’s not spot-on.”  Then he pointed a wary finger.  “And try not to beat yourself up whenever a mistake comes your way.  No one’s immune to them — No one.”

I smiled and nodded, appreciative of his sentiments and hoping I could heed his advice.

Oakley pulled the diamond out of his sporran, his eyes sparkling as he held it up to the light.  “This truly is one of the best nights I’ve had in centuries.  I’ll be able to cut my reading time down ten-fold with this thing.”  He gave it a toss and then slipped it back into his pouch.

“That’s good,” I remarked, “…And it will give you plenty of extra time for other things.”

His eyes narrowed shrewdly—his only reply.

I extended a hand.  “It was nice meeting you, Oakley.”  I could sense a twinge of hesitation in his handshake, like he wasn’t quite ready for me to head off.  “Is there something else?” I posed.

Well,” Oakley hummed as he released my hand.  “Now that you mention it.  I don’t suppose you could find it in your heart to grant me another one of your stones.  Even though I don’t deserve it.   Especially not after what I said about your wand.”

My brows rose with a playful bump.  “It depends on which one?”

Oakley’s eyes cast a sheepish though hopeful gleam.  “A golden topaz, perhaps?”

A long, assessing hum quivered my lips.  “You know,” I began, “what I said was true about my criteria when it comes to granting stones.  Though in this case, I do think some sort of punishment is in order.”  As if being led by the most certain and golden of whispers, I slipped my topaz off the ring finger of my left hand.  “Here,” I said and handed him Beatrix’s pride and joy.  “But I’m not giving it to you,” I said sternly.  “You have to earn it.”

Oakley cast me a wary glance.  “And how am I supposed to do that?”

“You have to promise me that you’ll keep it on someone else’s finger.  Someone who’s not of blood relation, but close to you,” I instructed.  “That way, you’ll know where it is whenever you need it.”

Oakley stiffened, though I suspected a good bit of his rigidness was purely theatrics looking to throw me off his scent.  “I’m startin’ to think you might be even worse than Tanner.”  The moment my eyes flared their offense, he slid his hand to mine without any further hesitation.  “Agreed.”

“Good,” I said.  I happened to glance at his chest as our clasp broke, where I spotted a familiar stone peeking out from behind his sash.  “I see you have one of those sexist, male-only stones as well.”

Oakley’s expression twisted with confusion.  “What’s that?”

I pointed to his chest.  “Your larimar.”

Oakley clutched the stone.  “That, I do,” he said, his voice barely a whisper.

 “So does it really heighten your senses that much?”  I’d never used Tanner’s, and I was curious about its hype.

“Aye,” Oakley breathed.  “Like a person could never imagine.”  Then he tucked it underneath his sash, as if hiding a treasure from the world before heading off.  “Oh, and when you go to buttin’ Tanner’s head for his punishment… Don’t just pull from the muscles in your neck.  Really lean into it from your knees.  He’ll never keep another stone from you again — I promise.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said as I watched him disappear down the hall.

Reminded of the scene that had been playing outside, I rushed to the patio doors, only to find the courtyard empty.  I rested a hand against my brow, cupping it over my eyes to counter the glare, and then took to sifting through the moonlit leaves and shadows.  Where did he go?  And where did SHE go?

Suddenly, I felt something push hard against my skirt, followed by a hand curving around my waist.  “Now can I have you all to myself?” Tanner whispered into my ear, his lips lingering at my lobe.

Facing the glass doors may have afforded me enough time to adjust my expression, but it did nothing to quash the churn of my emotions.  I was dying to know if that woman he was with was the suspected “HER” that he and Oakley had been discussing, but I couldn’t show my hand.  And that just meant I had to focus like the dickens to keep my emotions muddled.  Then I could work on discreetly coaxing it out of him.

Once I’d firmly rooted myself in my happy-place, I turned around and said, “That depends on you.”

“My closed-for-business sign is officially in the window.”  Then he took hold of my hand and guided me towards the courtyard doors.

“So how many people did you heal tonight?” I asked as we stepped outside, my mood feeling as cool as the chill of the night air.

Tanner steered me towards a cobblestone walkway.  “Fifty-three,” he replied.  “Eighty-one if you count all the cousins Oakley had me saddle with sobriety.”

As much as I wanted specifics about that woman in the courtyard, I decided a wider net would be less suspicious.  “And what was wrong with the others?”

The moonlight striking his eyes made his sly expression even more mischievous.  “I can’t tell you.  Patient-Talisman confidentiality laws prohibit it.”  My stare was so stony I could have sling-shotted rocks from my eyes.  “Besides,” Tanner continued with a wicked smile, “you’ll have to persuade me better than that.”

My gaze drifted to the gnarls of an oak we were passing.  I couldn’t tell if his playful attitude was an attempt to change the subject or an innocent challenge.

I trained my eyes to our path ahead and threw up a hand.  “That’s all right.  I can respect someone’s right to privacy — no matter what their reasons might be.”

Tanner’s feet may have come to an abrupt stop, but mine kept on walking.  “I’m sensing a little … annoyance?” he posed.

The confusion in his tone was unmistakable.  Don’t you mean pissy?  Or bitchy?  I glanced back at him, the track and pace of my steps unwavering.  “I’m not annoyed.  I’m just a little curious about why you don’t want to talk about who you healed.”

When I turned back around, Tanner’s vapor form was rematerializing in front of me, throwing me completely off my guard with a look in his eyes that I swore could stop the hands of time.  “Because I can think of better things to do with my mouth — for starters.”  I could feel the trace of his eyes as they outlined my lips, the heat of his gaze pricking them with the sweetest of tingles.  Then he came for me with a soul-melting kiss that incinerated my insides.  If this was solely meant to divert my thoughts, he was doing a damn brilliant job.

And then, as if I’d been enchanted by a spell cast from a magic wand that left a swirling trail of glitter cascading around my head, I decided right then and there that the day had been too perfect to muddle it with any paranoid suspicions.  Believe none of what you hear and half of what you see—a neutral and noble adage, despite its steaming stink of cattle-cookies.

“Fair enough,” I replied, my mind still trying to pull away from how Hall-of-Fame worthy that kiss had proven.  “It’s not even worth using my allotted Question-of-the-Day.”

A light laugh breezed past his lips.  “I’ve told you tons of things about my past today.”

“Those were things you wanted me to know.  It’s not the same as me asking you things I want to know.”  I paused and lifted my gaze to the star-flecked sky.  “Though in hindsight, I would have traded a month’s worth of questions just to see you in a kilt.”

Tanner’s face soured like he’d taken a bad sucker punch.  “A month’s worth?”  He shook his head.  “I’m afraid a request like that carries a much steeper price.”

Our path winded down to a concrete walkway that hugged the night-darkened waters of the loch.  And despite the heavenly way the moonlight glinted on the water’s surface like diamonds or how lulling its lap sounded smacking the shore like quick kisses, the only thing that could make the evening perfect was if I knew precisely who that “HER” was.  Now I wished I had plucked it out of Oakley’s mind during our handshake.  Even if I did end up bursting a blood vessel trying to pull it out of that book-cluttered head of his.

“So I’m still picking up on some frustration,” Tanner remarked.  “Do you want to tell me why that is?”

Yeah, this one was too “out there” to hide.  And thanks to him, I had the perfect cover.  “Well, it could have something to do with a particular sphene.”

“Now, how can that be the source of any frustration?” he posed assuredly and then nodded to my purse.  “I can sense its magical vibe in there, so I know you got one.”

“Oh, I’m not talking about that one,” I said and resumed my steps.  “I’m talking about yours.”

The only sounds that came from Tanner were the steady ticks of his wristwatch, at least until his heart and lungs had started back up.  He cleared his throat with a pointed and very guilty cough.  “I suppose I can see where that could stir a little annoyance.”

I snorted and shot him a glance over my shoulder.  “A little?

“To be fair, you never asked me if I had one,” he said.

I threw my hands in the air and kept walking.  Typical

And, I may have had an ulterior motive,” Tanner admitted.  “I couldn’t have you spending the entire time with your face stuck in a book.”

Considering how aggravated I was at times, he made a good point.  I whirled to him, my eyes suspiciously narrowed.  “And if Oakley hadn’t given me a sphene?”

Tanner approached me with a confident swagger.  “Then I would have given you mine upon our return — right after you’d eaten a piece of lemon pound cake.”  His eyes glittered with immodesty.  “With extra icing.”

I laughed.  “Now that, I believe.”

Unexpectedly, Tanner veered the lazy sway of our steps towards a pier we were about to pass.  “You want to go out there?” I asked and then went to assessing how sound its construction seemed and how long it would take for Lorelei’s tentacles to bust it apart.

Sensing my resistance, Tanner scooped me into his arms.  “She doesn’t know where we are,” he stated, his voice muffled through the many layers of wadded tulle that had worked their way into his mouth.

The groans and creaks coming from the wooden planks had me protesting all the more.  “You have me hole up in your house on a full moon, but you’ll drag me onto a dock that stretches forty feet across the water when she might be out for a swim?”

Tanner set me down on the edge of the dock.  “And your point is?”

My point is that I’m seriously questioning where your head’s at.”  I purposely aimed a look around to his rear.  “But I have a theory.”  Then I turned to head for the guaranteed safety of shore-sweet-shore.

I hadn’t made it two full steps when a stream of water appeared in front of me, blocking my path.  I spun around to find Tanner waving his hand, fashioning the water into something similar to a snake waiting to strike.  “Careful,” he warned.  “You wouldn’t want me to get that wedding dress wet.”

I averted my stare, wishing this thing actually was a tent—so I could crawl inside of it and hide.  Ass...  I’d really hoped he wouldn’t notice.  Though in all fairness, giving Oakley back his sash had made the dress’ true nature so obvious you could practically hear it ringing of wedding bells.  Plus, the moonlight’s effect hadn’t helped a bit, lending its fabric a certain glow-in-the-dark quality.  And in all actuality, there were only two formal events that left a gal with a poofy white dress hanging in their closet—wedding or debutante ball.  I was just relieved that Jenna had opted for a tiara instead of a daggone veil.

 “Come here,” Tanner instructed, his tone velvety as he curled a finger.

Slowly, I lifted my gaze as I approached him, stopping an arm’s reach from where he stood at the edge of the pier.

His eyes surveyed me like an explorer mapping a long and winding course.  “I’ve honestly never seen you looking more beautiful.”

My heart stilled at the sight of the lavender hue bathing his eyes—the one that told no lies.

“Now, close your eyes,” he requested without preamble.  No other words were needed for me to comply, not with his gaze harboring such a delicious ache.   My breaths left me as the notes of his vanilla and musk scent heightened upon his approach, my mouth already tasting the imminent caress of his lips.

From out of nowhere, a rush of salty air tore between us like a storm-birthed gale, its force so swift and sudden it had me turning my head for cover.  When my eyes popped open, Tanner was nowhere to be found on the pier—neither in front of me, nor at my rear.  I edged towards the last plank, the board beneath me groaning with my steps.  Ripples stirred in a couple of spots along the surface.   Even stranger were their sizes—one large, and the other much smaller.

Tanner?” I called and then waited three heartbeats—only nothing came.

Shit

I’d just kicked off my shoes when a snakelike appendage sprang from the blackness, pelting me with a shower of spray.  Its charge halted merely a few yards away, followed by a chilling “hiss-s-s” that clawed at my ears.

Through the darkness, I spied a pair of black-rimmed eyes peering at me, their beady red cores glowing like hot coals as they stalked my every move.  They were calculating.  Patient.  And very, very hungry.   At the sight of the snakelike head rearing back, I sucked in a harsh rush of air and rallied into a defensive stance.

If this was one of Lorelei’s full-sized and freshly-regrown appendages—what appeared to be an upgraded, mutant version—I was never chopping another one off the sea-bitch as long as I lived.