The room was particularly bright.  The fact that I was still asleep, barely on the cusp of waking was of no consequence.  Somehow, I could feel it—not its heat, but the surety of its glow.  Oddly, it was an invisible sort of glow.

A peculiar vibe slid through me as I lay in bed, lazily coaxing my eyelids to open, its touch turning curiously toasty for hardly any light breaking into the room.

I roused my muscles into a stretch, smoothing them further into the sink of the mattress the harder I focused on the crispness of the feeling.  For going on two and a half weeks, I’d fallen into the habit of a ritualistic sort of rise.  Something I’d dubbed my Dream Hangover, through no fault of my own—at least not consciously, I hadn’t.  And its symptoms were always the same—always; my eyes eerily locked on the ceiling in the deadest of trances while the details of my latest jungle-jaunt turned over and over in my head.  Like a detective studying a crime scene—a head cluttered with questions, all them in need of logical explanations.  But for the second morning in a row, there was nothing for me to replay, no particulars to sort through, not a step to retrace because I couldn’t recall a single thing.

Nothing, I pondered, nothing but the sweet reprieve of utter blankness.  I’d honestly thought yesterday morning’s rise was a fluke.  Either that, or I’d been too exhausted from all the biking, touring, and dancing for a dream to even take root.  Though right now, my mind was absent of any morning-after foulness…  Absent of any memories of a moon-white elephant that never let me near her, whether she was playing in the water or happily hunting for something to eat on land.

I ran a hand down the length of my arm, feeling every muscle along its path.  They too were absent of any telltale signs of struggles.  Not one muscle felt the least bit strained or achy from hours of fending off bad-breathed buzzards with their smacking wings and razor-sharp talons.  Even the bed linens showed no signs of abuse; the bottom sheet was still securely rounding all four corners of the mattress while the top sheet swaddled my body as it should—loose and flowing, nothing close to the mummy-like wrap I’d had to wrestle myself out of on several occasions.

And my head…  My head seemed clear.  The kind of clear that felt sharp yet airy, weightless but still all there, like a star twinkling in the night sky, fixed in its appointed spot shaping a stellar constellation… And dare I say, just as sparkly?  Possibly?

With a push, I propped myself up on my elbows and redirected my stare to the doused ceiling light above the bed, sharpening my focus on its dangling crystals.  YesDefinitely that, I affirmed.  Sparkly—as if the rub of the past two days had left a shine on my soul.  And as I lay in bed, my mind bobbing curiously in the warmth of its glow, I’d swear I could actually hear it singing, the faint whistles of its song as sweet as a nightingale’s.

So that was kind of crazy-amazing.  Crazy-amazing enough that I felt a quick check of my wits was in order.  Just to make sure that the crazy part, in this case, didn’t equate to certifiably insane.

With a flick of my wrist, I flung a gust towards the window and threw open the drapes, fully expecting to catch the thrash of wings from a feathery serenader amid the flash of blinding light, only there was nothing.  Not the first startled bird fleeing the scene, nor any ballsy ones standing their ground, still perched on the sill.

My lips slipped into a breathless part when I caught sight of the scene outside, a vision that looked more like an artist’s landscape set into a frame instead of some random patch of nature being viewed through a no-frills windowpane.  A lush chain of staggered hills was breaking through a ghostly white haze, their green peaks rising like outreached hands to meet a sky washed in a blue unlike any I’d ever seen.  A blue so pure, so intense and bewitchingly rare it struck me as something that should hold the supreme status of “celestial phenomenon” than just another hue.  A blue you’d be lucky to experience once in a lifetime—twice only if fate ordained it.  With every second that passed, I watched more and more of the mist quailing to the cleansing powers of the sun, the magic of its light gradually unleashing more and more of the land, gilding the entire scene with an undeniable radiance of glory.  The sight of it seemed too poetically perfect to be real, too spiritually transcendent for a random Monday morning or any morning for that matter—blissful Fridays, playful Saturdays, and lazy Sundays included.

The longer I basked in the streams of buttery light and breathed in the panorama, the more I felt the touch of something flickering deep inside me.  Its current was tingly and kept building—growing and growing with the race of my pulse, coursing along my nerves and spiraling around all of my muscles.  And from the moment I felt its toasty kiss thrilling across my skin, I knew what it was…  Knew from the depths of my soul and with every awakened blink of my eyes what had birthed this flawless rise and painted this peerless morn.  That one thing I’d feared would never come.  The thing I’d thought would never lay a favored hand on my shoulder.

Hope…  It was an aura of hope that lay on my horizon, its presence embedded in my soul as firmly as any of the hills rooted in the ground outside my window, with a touch that fired as electric as the dawn of a new day.  Somehow, a warm halo of hope had managed to punch its way through the dark clouds of my mind—finally, finally—wrapping me with a faithful stream of glittery assurances that I would find my wand.

Without a doubt, Scotland truly was a magical land.

Unable to lie in bed a second longer, I whisked off the covers, swung my legs over the edge of the mattress, and then pressed them onto the floor like the promise of turning a new page.  I breezed into the bathroom, first thing.  Though as kinetically charged as I felt, I was surprised I had the restraint not to leap across the threshold like a Highland dancer, heel-kicks included.  And not long after everything had been properly fluffed, freshened, brushed, and flushed, I threw on some clothes and headed off on a hunt for the Amethyst Talisman.

His bedroom door was open enough to afford me a decent peek.  He wasn’t in his bed, and it appeared untouched.  A short walk to the sitting room revealed where he was—lying on the sofa, sound asleep with the TV still on.

Without making a sound, I crept further into the room and pressed my back against the wall.  Rays of sunlight spread over his muscles with the glide and glisten of honey, bathing all those powerful bands and ridges divinely golden.  The next thing I knew, I was losing myself in a daydream, envisioning that all those sublime rays were actually my hands; hands that were free to roam wherever they pleased—unnoticed and unchecked—the guide of my fingers as all-embracing as a sculptor during the height of the Renaissance period.

In the midst of my private fantasy, a thought began to take shape, a reflection of something I’d pondered before falling asleep: my reply to the question he’d raised last night.  And though I hadn’t given him a direct answer, I had answered his question—silently to myself.  And knowing what route I would have chosen and my reasons, I knew I wasn’t ready to take that ultimate leap.  Knew it like I knew I had ten fingers and ten toes from the moment I’d told myself, Yes...  I would have put it on.  And why?  Because it was there, lying in my room?  Because I would have thought that he’d intended for me to wear it?  Or put it on out of obligation for the countless thoughtful things he’d done for me?  Bringing me here, being just one of many?  I didn’t do things with strings attached, and neither did Tanner.  I knew that.  And had I gone that route, had I let myself be persuaded by any of those reasons, my choice would have been just as thoughtless as my little sister’s.  Well, with the exception of the location.  A shudder shot down my spine, thinking about what a sight that must have been.  Only in my vision, I pictured a ravenous invasion of bloodthirsty ticks—mutant ticks with heads the size of dimes—and an itchy-tailed skunk showing up for a sneaky drive-by.

Soon after shaking off the nostril-flaring thought of that, I felt the building fires of a burning question I’d had in response to his.  And that was what he would have done if I’d strolled in here wearing that negligee?  Putting my decision to wait aside and strictly for the sake of argument, I couldn’t help but wonder if the mere sight of me draped in a scant amount of silk and lace would have crumbled that unwearying armor of restraint?  Or at the least, wear it down a little?  And despite how much I appreciated that respectful, gentlemanly air of patience, there was a small part of my brain that kept crying out a hypocritical, What the hell?  And I knew where it stemmed from.  Knew it had everything to do with my inexperience and my immaturity and my age.  And all that did was to send a shockwave of insecurity pulsing through me like a Molotov cocktail had exploded inside my head.

A curious, bordering-on-devious smile smoothed across my face as I entertained the thought of what he would do if I happened to slide onto the sofa beside him, wearing nothing but that negligee and a façade of innocence.  Now there was something that would settle my suspicions, one way or another.  And it was only fair, seeing how he’d put me so blindingly on the spot with his inquiry last night.  A deer caught in the trappings of headlights—that’s what I’d felt like, minus the car-totaling crash that came with it.

“Good morning,” Tanner said, his eyes still closed.

I sprang off the wall with a pointed cough, hoping to clear my heart out of my throat where it was currently lodged.  “Good morning,” I echoed.

His eyes popped open, wide and alert.  “What were you thinking about?”

Clearly, my stealth was in need of some work, because judging from his crooked smile, he’d been sitting front row center for my intimate musings the entire time.  Lucky for me, those emotions didn’t come with any intricate visuals, damning me with even more embarrassment.  “Nothing,” I replied innocently.

The track of his gaze didn’t falter from my approach as I joined him on the sofa.  “For the record, I find your ‘nothing’ more rousing than an alarm clock.”

Considering how desirous and detailed my thoughts had been, the emotions they’d birthed had to have carried the wail of a daggone fire alarm in his head.  From here on out, there’d be no forfeiting my ruby ever again.  And this time, I meant it—enough to entertain the notion of spelling it on there, if a soldering iron wasn’t an option.

Tanner rose to a sitting position and shot a glance at his watch on the coffee table.  “You’ve got ten minutes to get downstairs.”

I straightened my spine.  “For what?”

“More relaxing.”  He smoothed a strand of hair behind my ear.  “I called the concierge and told them to work you into their spa, first thing.”

The surprise of hearing that sent the rigid column of my back collapsing with the ease of an accordion.  “W—When did you do that?”

“Not long after you passed out on me,” he said, teasing me with a crusty glare.

A smile tickled my lips, feeling full-on girly-giddy.  I’d never been to an honest-to-goodness spa before—only a salon with Bea, where we each got mani-pedis.

“So what are you going to do?”

Tanner nestled back into the cushions of the sofa with a yawn.  “You’re looking at it.”

“Did you stay up to watch the entire Doctor Who marathon?”  Best I could remember it stretched through 7 A.M.—which put its end at about an hour ago.

Tanner closed his eyes and nodded.  “I had to do something to entertain myself.”  He unfolded a lazy grin as his head settled into a comfortable spot.  “Plus, it helped drown out the snoring.”

Quick-like, I snatched the pillow out from underneath him and slammed it down on his head.

Tanner pulled out of his flinch, his face alight with amusement.  “Just kidding.”  He grabbed my arm as I shot to my feet, tugging me back onto the sofa beside him.  “I stayed up because I needed a distraction.”  The tips of his fingers glided across my lips.  “That’s the last time you fall asleep with your head anywhere close to my lap — I can promise you that.”

The fixedness of his stare scored the air between us like the fire of a warning shot.  “Sorry about that,” I muttered.

Tanner readjusted his pillow with a couple of robust smacks, his expression a touch pouty.  “I think you did it on purpose.”

I pulled back, brow cocked.  From what I recalled, my head had been firmly topside and anchored to his pects before I’d conked out.  So clearly the fault lay more at gravity’s feet than mine.  “If it bothered you that much, you could have slipped a pillow under my head.”

“I didn’t want to risk waking you,” Tanner assured, his tone falling more on the side of roguish than Mother Teresa.  “Not when you were sleeping so soundly.”

I stared at him flatly, knowing precisely how many times I’d passed out on him during a movie, which had enlightened him as to how unwakeable I could be once my lights were out.  The kind of unshakable, coma-unwakeable that would have the Grim Reaper waiting at my bedside, counting off seconds as he scrutinized the rise and fall of my chest.

My mouth had barely begun to stretch into a countering pose when Tanner nudged me with his knee.  “Now GO,” he ordered, “and leave me be.”

With my eyes locked in a suspicious squint, I hopped to my feet and threw up a hand.  “Fine.”  He was quick to pick up on my knowing swagger as I headed off to collect my handbag.

“I hope for your sake they can work miracles,” Tanner hollered.  “You know, I can still smell the stink of your defeat from yesterday.”

I scolded him with a glare when I stepped back into the sitting room.  “I think what you’re actually smellin’ is gunpowder,” I corrected and then strolled triumphantly out the door.

 

 

 

 

The heavenly smell of jasmine filled my head, the scent trailing from the clusters of lit candles floating in bowls scattered throughout the room, the sway of their lights jeweling the glass tiles in a glow of warmest amber.  I stepped towards the bathtub—a striking egg-shaped vessel that carried the swaddling repose of a cradle.  Slowly, I ran a lazy hand through its blanket of red and pink rose petals, dreamily swirling them around with the tips of my fingers.  From the moment I’d slipped out of the cozy confines of my robe and then eased myself into its steamy and aromatic waters, I knew I neverwanted to leave Scotland.  Never.

I closed my eyes to the serene sounds of nature waltzing through my head with the grace of a carefree breeze.  The forward-my-mail kind of never-ever.

And I still didn’t, even as I lay here right now, five hours deep into the trenches of my spa-morning, lounging in a chaise beside a Zen-like water feature within the walls of their tranquility room, listening to the melodic drip of its delicate trickles.  This was where I’d been instructed to wait before heading off to the salon for their stylists to put the finishing touches on my hair and face.  I hadn’t intended to take so long.  But as soon as the attendant at the front desk found out it was my first time to a spa, she insisted I receive “a proper christening”.  And considering the scope of services she’d personally handpicked, I fully expected someone to smack a bottle of champagne on my rear before they sent me out their doors with a booming, Bon Voyage!

And I had to give it to Tanner.  His surprise turned out to be the perfect start to my last day in Scotland—a balm to soothe the inevitable sting of our departure this afternoon.  My muscles had never felt more rejuvenated in my life, thanks to the ashiatsu massage the attendant had selected from their list of indulgences, which was an interesting experience.  Strictly going off its exotic-sounding name, I’d naturally assumed it was some Oriental technique, based on ancient therapeutic principles.  And it was.  Only instead of hands, my muscles were worked over by the rub of very tiny and nimble feet, hence the interesting part—having someone walk all over my back who wasn’t trying to kick my ass.

I smiled reflectively as I took another sip of my cucumber and hibiscus water, and then placed it on the dainty side table, eager to get back to reveling in how silky-soft and dewy my skin felt.  Which it should after the garden’s worth of fruit, nuts, herbs, mud, and oils that had been troweled over every inch of it during my facial, skin polish, and body wrap.  All of them welcomed treats as opposed to the volume of salt I’d endured.  More than what The Dead Sea held, I was pretty certain. 

Though hands down, the best part turned out to be my trip to their waxing esthetician.  Shaving had been a major pain ever since the day I’d claimed my diamond—my legs being the absolute worst.  But not anymore—not after discovering that pulling my hair out by its roots wasn’t a problem.  Something I’d thought about doing, but had never gotten the chance to try.  Now, I could finally say bye-bye to that diamond-dusted razor forever, along with the twenty minutes of cautious strokes it took to shave two legs without hacking them up.  And it hadn’t hurt.  Well, not compared to the stabs, slices, and punches I’d tallied to-date.

An attendant breezed into the room, checking to see if I needed anything—just one of the countless times I’d been asked that same question all morning.  And each time, my response had been the same: a genuine smile, followed by a polite reply of, Not a thing, whilst my insides tingled with those same golden reassurances that the only thing I did need was out there somewhere, tucked inside its platinum hilt, waiting for me just as relaxed and patient and hopeful as I.

I’d just downed the last of my drink when a sweet-faced and smiling blonde appeared to escort me to the salon.  Upon taking a seat in one of their stylist’s chairs, the bounds of my personal space became a nonstop whirlwind of hands fussing over my tresses, an arsenal of brushes charging towards my face, and narrowed sets of eyes making critical passes over my features.  Had this been an actual attack, I would have already thrown up a shield and retaliated with a few drives from my sword.  Though the longer I sat with the minutes ticking away, the more I felt like I wasn’t getting so much as a simple makeover as I was participating in some sacrament of artistic beautification—the kind typically reserved for proms, wedding days, and tribal sacrifices.  I just hoped that in the end, I still had a little face left to show underneath the umpteen layers and layers of makeup.

As soon as the stylist had issued a final coat of lacquer to my lips, she whirled me around towards the mirror and announced a buoyant, “All done.”  I found myself staring at my reflection feeling completely gobsmacked—but in a good way.  After the amount of creams and powders and liners the makeup artist had used, I’d feared I might turn out looking a lot more Chuckles the Clown, but my face was nothing of the sort.  In fact, it carried the photo-finished perfection found only on the airbrushed pictures of models in magazines—and the faces of gypsies.  But it was very natural-looking.  Sophisticated, I thought.  And the manner in which the stylist had fashioned my hair was so romantic; part of it swept up and secured with a clip that rested below my crown, while its length fell along my shoulders in thick waves of loose curls.  For the first time in a long while, I actually wanted someone to snap a photo of me—because I knew I’d never look this good again.  At least not by my hurried & amateur hands, I sure wouldn’t.

Upon arriving at my assigned dressing room, I discovered a garment bag hanging on a hook and a large box resting on a table beside it, along with a note.

 

I shoved the vagueness of his whereabouts aside temporarily, choosing to focus on the disturbing image of Tanner gathering up my things and tucking them inside my backpack—namely, that negligee.  I’d tried it on last night before sobering up in the tub and had left it lying on the upholstered bench at the foot of my bed, minus both its price tag and hanger.  So now he knew my curiosity had gotten the better of me.  An uncomfortable thought, though nowhere near as awkward as him rounding up my dirty clothes.  That is, until the spine-rattling image of his hands bumping into a few wrappers marked, Tampax smacked me upside the head.

Purses and backpacks, I affirmed.  Two sacred domains that guys should stay the heck out of.

I shook off the cringing thought and continued reading.

 

 

 

It turned out he wasn’t kidding after a quick search of the room produced only one very gray and magic-less leather handbag.  With a shake of my head, I pinched the zipper and began backing it down the garment bag’s long set of tracks.  Tucked inside on a set of velvet hangers was a collection of suggestive items.  And by suggestive, I meant enlightening—articles of clothing typically worn at only one type of venue—which indicated where I would find him.  With the exception of the silk and lace intimate items, that is.  But the rest couldn’t have blazoned his location any clearer if he’d chosen to write it in the sky.

I slipped out of my fluffy white robe and straight into the caressing hug of the undergarments.  Next came sliding my legs into the pair of tan breeches, then squeezing myself into the fitted ivory shirt, followed by two foot-shoves into a pair of cognac riding boots I’d found inside the box.

I stared at my reflection as I weaved a matching leather belt through the loops, focusing on the neutral colors of the clothes and the flat heel of the boots.  Had this ensemble been one-piece, all black, and the knee-high boots had a loftier rise of five-inches, I’d look more like a hooker in a catsuit than classy & conservative horseback rider—but amazingly, I didn’t.  Believe me, the wetsuit that Silas had poofed up for me had far less cling.  Thank goodness this get-up was stretchy.

I was practically floating out of the spa when I left, my steps carrying the cushion of clouds.  And knowing a coffee shop lay two doors down, I routed a swift and smiling course straight for it—ready to put my latte withdrawal out of its misery.  Plus, I was a little hungry.  And not knowing anything about our plans, other than where I was to rendezvous with the Amethyst Talisman, I figured it would be in my stomach’s best interest to snag something.  Better safe than sorry.  Like something big.  And chock-full of carbs.  And smothered in a butt-load of cinnamon and icing.

Not long after I’d placed my order and had been seated, a surprise came my way when a waitress placed the mammoth-sized cinnamon roll and vanilla latte that I’d requested down on the table in front of me.

 

 

  

A smile bloomed on my face as I gazed at the sunflower their barista had poured into the foam.

Of all things, I thought.  Something I fully acknowledged as the hand-delivered and stamped decree from the cosmos that it was—a hallowed sign from fate that bolstered my faith all the more.  From where I was sitting and how charmed I presently felt, this drink could go down my hatch tasting like the liquid-version of a stinky foot, and I would still say it was the best latte I’d ever drunk.  But I knew something like that would never prove true.  My sole reason: because I was in Scotland—a land where they cornered the market on perfection.

Fifteen minutes later, I was chucking my cup into a trash receptacle and headed for the closest hotel exit, still riding the blissful wave of my spa-high.  A kilt-clad hotel attendant issued me a smiling nod upon my approach, which I returned in kind as he opened the door.  Outside, I hoisted a visored hand to my brow and turned my stare skyward.   There it was—that same blue hue that had ushered in my morning, still going strong.  A color whose crayon would read something like, Cosmically Blessed Blue.  A fact I would swear to.

The stables were easy enough to find.  Unmissable actually, once I’d glimpsed the wide-reaching rail fence of a paddock up ahead.  Directly to its left stood a rather lengthy and grand-looking bricked building where some handlers were lovingly attending to its elegant, four-legged residents as if they were hotel guests themselves.

A scent rolled into my nose as soon as I crossed into the open bounds of its entrance—a distinct blending of leather, horsehair, oats, and straw.  My eyes inspected each of the bricked stalls I passed, amazed by their grandeur; each of them claiming floors layered with mounds and mounds of fluffy, freshly laid straw for bedding, along with a pair of stainless-steel feed buckets and water dispensers that shone with the polished gleam of sterling silver from their back corners.  Saddles and stirrups and the rest of their precious tack all hung outside their doors as if they’d been carefully arranged by the hands of a persnickety valet.  Clearly, these were more five-star equestrian suites than they were run-of-the-mill stalls, where the horses that hung their saddles here lived like kings and queens.  And judging from the number of beauties I spied, their occupancy was full, not a stall without a horse or pony, all of them draped in rugs that carried the style and comfort of robes fitting royalty.

A smile crept onto my face, brought forth by Chloe, of all people, and her collection of Breyer Horses that had lined the shelves of her bedroom since she was four.  The two of us used to play with them for hours and hours, and I remembered how much she would talk about having a horse of her own one day.  More than one, actually.  So thanks to my little sister’s obsession, I knew a lot of the breeds housed here.  Of course, the adorable Shetland Ponies were easily recognizable, as were the Clydesdales I spied—both of them just two more glaring examples of how consummately impressive Scotland’s national treasures proved.  Then there were a few Shire horses; commanding creatures in their own right with their robust builds, long and shaggy coats, and hair that feathered over their feet in such a way it made them look like they were wearing fuzzy bell bottoms.

I continued up the line playing Name-that-Horsey, hoping to eventually run into Tanner somewhere along the way.  The majority of the horses looked to be Thoroughbreds in an assortment of colors, though I did spot several Arabians, a few spotted Appaloosas, and one very friendly Paint Horse.  Which, I soon realized was “friendly” only because those super-senses of his had caught the scent of sugar and cinnamon on my hands.  Arguably, the sharpest horse in here, by far.  And very much a biter, I found out, with a grip that almost left the stallion in need of some dentures well before his time.

Upon rounding the next corner, I spotted Tanner up ahead, brushing the black mane of a hauntingly handsome blue roan Andalusian—its coat as smooth as finely-milled pepper that darkened into midnight stockings above its hooves.  A dashing creature with its elegant neck and powerfully built body, as dashing as the Amethyst Talisman himself—despite the fact that he wasn’t wearing anything close to breeches, staying true to his No Dress-up policy.  Still, he proved a very GQ vision in his indigo jeans and tailored duster jacket.  I could practically hear the silent calls of its nutmeg suede fabric, crying out for hand to stroke its nap.  And the sight of him tending to an animal so sweetly carried the punch of a drug, filling my head with the sappy drawls of, Awwws and making him ten-times more irresistible.  We were going to have to skedaddle of here fast, before I inadvertently happened upon the origins of the expression, A roll in the hay.  That’s just how potent an aphrodisiac it was—no different than seeing a guy playing fetch with their dog in a park or cradling a baby in their arms.

Aware of my approach, Tanner turned to meet my gaze.  Then, as if guided by the tug of invisible reins, his eyes drifted downward, curving over my entire body, slow and assessing.  “I take it back,” he breathed.  “I think this is the most beautiful you’ve ever looked.”

I ran a hand along the leather of a bridle hanging from a nearby hook.  “That’s just the afterglow,” I said and hopped onto the half-wall of the stall, aligning myself to his gaze.  “It’s nothing compared to how I feel on the inside.”

Tanner leaned towards me with a confident brow.  “You say that like I don’t already know.”

I fought off a fierce blush.  “So,” I began, legs swinging, “I take it we’re leaving Scotland on horseback?”

Tanner slid me a sly glance.  “In a roundabout way — after a ride around the grounds.”  He studied me suspiciously.  “How long has it been since you’ve been on a horse?”

“Five years since I’ve actually been on one,” I replied, which sounded much easier on the ears than saying, When I was thirteen.  Well, to mine it did.  “But, I commandeered one in New Orleans,” I added.  “Remember?  At the cemetery, earlier this year?”

“Yes,” he acknowledged with a tightened jaw.  “And I seem to recall that Kamya had an indirect hand in that detour-turned-disaster as well.”

“Well, if we’re being fair … I’d say it was more 50-50,” I submitted diplomatically.  “Fifty-percent Kamya and fifty-percent Bea.”  Even he looked surprised that I could keep a straight face through that load of bull.  I threw up my hand in a halt—before he bumped up the blame’s divisor to an even fairer quantity of three.  “But at least I now know that I can command a horse with that drop of earth element I claim — And, I didn’t have to twist-tie my ponytail with its tail to do it either,” I teased with a proud nod.

He feathered his fingers through the length of my loose tresses, indulging himself in several soft strokes as he trailed the curls onto my shoulders.  “Not today, you couldn’t,” he assured, seeming pleased by the choice of styles I was sporting.

I stared at him with an uncontainable smile, knowing I was in such a great mood; a mood that had me feeling so uncontrollably frisky, it forced a playful revelation to burst like a firecracker in my brain, which sent me turning my head with a titter.

Tanner raised an intrigued brow.  “What?” he inquired.

I unrolled the bind I had on my lips and then cast a long look down the length of the stables.  “I was just thinking that this is probably what your garage looked like circa 1840.”  That, along with a sneaky suspicion as to why his present one held very few Mustangs—having parked his rear on the backs of so many real ones for centuries.

After a dicey tip of his head, the steely look in his eyes brightened into a sparkle.  “I’m going to let that one slide — based on cleverness alone.”

A smile sprang onto my face and then spread to my cheeks like a colorful balloon-release at summertime celebration.  “I try,” I sang, giving my red-lacquered fingernails a frivolous brush against my shirt.  A color, that I realized in that very moment, I’d chosen because its hue and sheen matched the red of his Bugatti—his favorite of all his stallions.  The awareness of that sent a wave of gratitude spilling through me like the drench of a cool and comforting rain, and I reached for his hand.  “Thank you,” I said wholeheartedly and gave it a tender squeeze.  “Not just for the spa and bringing me here…  For everything…  This entire trip…  Introducing me to Oakley…”  My mouth twitched into a wry grin.  “Even Porica.”

“Thank yous aren’t necessary,” he assured, his voice silken yet firm.

I shook my head, serving as both a silent dismissal of his claim and an acknowledgement of how he always managed to leave me feeling so blown away, no matter what he did—be it a gesture, his words, or something as simple as a look.

“How do you always know what I need?” I asked, my tone as serious as my words.  “You can secretly read minds, can’t you?  And you’re keeping it from me the same as you did with the sapphire and ruby.”

Tanner let out a light laugh and then curled a finger, luring me with a gaze that held the promise of closely guarded secrets.  I met him with a lean, where his lips sought out the shell of my ear.  “You are a dream I never want to wake from,” he whispered.  “That’s my secret.  That’s what makes the knowing part so easy.”

I held on to his waist, feeling the abrupt still of my heart and how it floated so heavy, yet weightless inside my chest.  “Is that a promise?” I asked, turning my head just enough to feel the brush of his lips against my cheek.

Tanner pulled back, and with the force of a hammer, drove the heat of his gaze into mine.  “No,” he rustled.  “Promises can be broken.  It’s a guarantee of my undying love and every ounce of my devotion.”

I felt like time ceased to exist as I sat here, swimming in his eyes, drowning in their depths.  So easily, I thought—how his words captured my heart so, so easily.  The flutters inside my chest had grown into something that felt so fervent and restless, I thought my heart would explode if I didn’t kiss him quick.  But I didn’t want it to be just any kiss.  It had to be one that matched his words and the feelings behind them, a kiss that had me unveiling my heart and soul to him completely.  A kiss that left no room for any doubts as to how deeply I’d fallen for him.

I laid my hands on the front of his jacket, smoothing them over its suede, spreading it open so I could get to the shirt covering the muscles underneath it.  Then I ran my hands over his chest, the same as I’d longed to do this morning to his slumbering frame; the tips of my fingers trailing every ridge, slow and adoring, feeling his muscles tighten at my touch and the pounds of his heart strengthening with every pass.  My mouth hovered less than an inch from his as my fingers worked their way up to the hollow of his throat, curving a delicate nail around the swell of his Adam’s apple.  I wet my lips with a light lick as I opened up every thought, every desire I’d ever entertained about him and then let all of my emotions pour into him, passionate and pure.  No ruby to block them.  No need to scramble my thoughts.  Everything was there for him to claim.

The eagerness in which his lips captured mine sent the whip of a wild burn straight through me.  And as the intensity of the feeling grew and grew and grew throughout our kiss, I knew he was driving every ounce of himself into me.  Those emotions of his that I craved to feel, all of them there for me to take, the same as he could mine.

When I sensed him pulling back, I locked my legs around his waist and tightened my hold.  A tempt as much as it was a scold.

In an attempt to get the upper hand, Tanner hitched his hands under my rear and stepped back, hoisting me off the ledge of the stall along with him, and then vanished into a cloud of mist.  He caught me before I fell, his full physicality scooping me into his arms and his breaths raspy.  “That was naughty.”

I roused a clueless look—despite knowing full well what I’d purposely done.  “I thought you liked feeling my emotions,” I panted.

Tanner huffed a disbelieving laugh to go with his incredulous stare.  “I wasn’t talking about that.  I was referring to the visual you sent through your amethyst.  The one that went straight to my head.”

“I didn’t mean to,” I lied with a not-so-convincing smile.

Tanner leveled his gaze to mine, his eyes flickering his doubts like the throb of a strobe light.  “Sure you didn’t.”

My fingers pinched hold of my amethyst pendant, protectively.  “In my defense,” I began, “you already know I tried it on.  I figured the least I could do was let you see it without crossing any lines… In a roundabout sort of way.”

Tanner set my feet down on the ground with a knowing laugh.  “What makes you think I haven’t done that already?”  Then he lifted my chin with a bump of his finger.  “But for the record, my visual was much more detailed.”

Oh,” I muttered, feeling the full heat of the flush that now stained my cheeks the color of a peony.

Then the two of us stood there, our bodies feeling the bounce of every molecule between us.  I could only assume from the roguish air of calm in his eyes, he was debating whether or not to show me his version—either because he wanted to, or most likely, to teach me a lesson for playing such dangerous games.

I pushed down my nervousness.  So maybe I shouldn’t do that again, regardless of any curiosities I’d had about what his reaction would have been.   So I wouldn’t—not until my rear was ready to cash the kind of check my mind had just written.

Fortunately for me—the apparent tease in this stare-down—a stable hand came strolling down the corridor towards us with a sorrel-colored beauty, all tacked up and in tow.

“Here she is,” the man said, directing his words to Tanner.

Tanner lobbed a nod back to the Andalusian.  “I’ll be riding, Shadow,” he announced.  “That one’s for the lady.”

Slowly, I held out a leveled hand for the mare to sniff.  She was gorgeous, her coat as rich as chestnuts and a mane of honey blonde that rained from her crest like spun gold.  Sensing she was comfortable with me, I ran a gentle hand down the mare’s face, following the trail of her white blaze, forehead to muzzle.  “What’s her name?”

The stable hand gave the mare a couple of proud pats.  “Climax,” he said.

I stared at him, face frozen, amazed that it could stay that way after hearing the force in which Tanner’s sonic-boom-like laugh had shot from his lungs.  “C—Climax?

The man nodded.  “She’s a retired racehorse,” he explained.  “She started out with the name Calamity, until her owner noticed how at the last stretch of the race she really dug in and gave it all she had.”

My stare dropped pointedly to the concrete floor.  Between Tanner turning his back so I couldn’t see the set-in creases of his full amusement, and the fact that I was in such a good mood and feeling so garlanded in faith, I released an inward sigh and then willing held out a hand to take the reins.  On the bright-side, at least she wasn’t named Karma.  Though it might have been nice getting to ride her ass for a change.

I collected my backpack from off the floor where it lay beside Tanner’s and slung it over my shoulder.  “Come on, Climax,” I said, leading her down the corridor.  “You can meet me outside when you’re done,” I hollered back to Tanner, telepathically—fearing the grit in my tone might startle Climax into a rowdy whinny.  And that was the last thing I needed.

We mounted our horses soon enough and then headed off side-by-side for a farewell ride around Gleneagles’ magnificent grounds.  And as perfect as our setting proved, it wasn’t without a touch of sadness when I noticed they had a falconry school on-site.  Just hearing “falcon” struck my heart with a grueling pang.  Still, I wanted to see one up-close.  If anything, so I could pretend, if for only a second, that Bea was still physically here with me.

Our eyes sifted through the students, pausing to give each of the raptors perched on their bulky leather gloves a thorough inspection.  I pointed to the arm of a lanky man in a navy sweater.  “That one,” I breathed.  I turned towards Tanner to discover that his eyes were already fixed on the one carrying her preferred toffee-colored plumage, right down to the rosy-brown stipples that patterned the stretch of her sun-eclipsing wings.  “I really miss her.”

“You’re lucky,” Tanner said.  “You have her memories.  You can see her face as much as you like.”

“It’s not the same,” I said.  And it wasn’t.  Not really.  Nowhere near as intimate as the way her hands smelled after mixing up a pot of cider.  Or the amusement that settled over me after falling for one of her tricks.  Or feeling the warmth of her gaze from that third-eye she kept hidden.  Just his mentioning of Bea’s memories provided me with the perfect segue to something I’d found bothersome of late.  “I may have her memories, but I haven’t been able to access all of them.”

“Which ones?”

I shrugged.  “General ones.”

“How general?” Tanner inquired.

At the risk of sounding like a stalker, I decided to go with an honest answer.  “Ones of you.”

Me?” Tanner replied with a surprised look.

I nodded unabashedly.  “I figured they’re my memories now, and what better way of discovering things about you.”

Tanner’s only response was a smooth smile, not seeming the least bit rattled.  Even that telltale artery of his didn’t yield the first twitch.  “So what have you uncovered?”

“Not much… Mostly bits and pieces from when she schooled you on swordplay.”  Though what I’d really wanted to say was spanked him.  Lucky for me, the pained grimace on his face said the words for me.

“Talk about embarrassing,” Tanner groaned.  “Anything else?”

“A handful of times the two of you tussled with some creatures, but that’s about it,” I lied, consciously omitting that I’d been trying my damnedest to ascertain another memory I knew she held: the day he’d thrown away his larimar.

“Well, it helps to have a firm point of reference,” he said.

I fought off a wicked twitch tugging at one of my eyes.  “Yeah,” I agreed, knowing full well I had one.

“And the more details, the better,” he added.  Tanner’s expression ruffled.  “And I hate to say this, but the more you tap into the unpleasant ones, the easier it makes retrieving all of them.”

I sneered.  Purposely watching a play-by-play of Beatrix being tortured wasn’t my cup of tea.

“And, it would help with retrieving Ganhji’s as well — but only when you’re ready,” he added and issued my hand a sympathetic squeeze.

The two of us waited until the falconer released our beloved avatar to the mellow arms of the winds.  Then we watched the creature soar into the sky, gliding through its bounds as gracefully as the Golden Talisman had whenever she’d assumed her cherished form.  Always carrying such an effortless and commanding presence…  Never bothered by a thing…  So accepting of her fate and destiny…  She was such a lethal combination of compassion and ferocity.  A cunning adversary without fail and unapologetic in such a natural and caring way…  I couldn’t think of a better role model to serve as an aspiration.  In every way imaginable, SHE was what a leader should be.

After giving his watch a quick and curious check, Tanner placed a hand on my back and guided me towards our waiting steeds.

I’d slipped my foot into the stirrup and was climbing onto Climax when I spotted Tanner double-checking the hold of what looked like a shopping bag strapped to the rear of his stallion’s saddle, which I hadn’t noticed until now because of his backpack.  A stout smack of nosiness hijacked my brain and then out of my mouth came, “What’s that?”

“Two rare bottles of cognac,” Tanner replied.  “To show my appreciation for some help with your next surprise,” he said and mounted his horse.

From the moment I heard, Surprise, he might as well have just tied me to a tree with his tin belt and tickled the snot out of me.  “What kind of surprise?”

Tanner laughed.  “The secret kind, of course,” he said and then kicked his horse straight into a canter, leaving me in the dust along with the thousand guesses whirling inside my head.

With a flick of the reins and an added command to Climax’s head, I instructed my mare to catch up to him.  “Well, can you at least give me an idea as to when I should expect this surprise?”

Tanner gazed at me with a pair of eyes honed to torment.  He tossed a nod up ahead.  “It’s just over that hill.”

That was easy, I thought.  Almost too easy.  And since it was within such a short range, I couldn’t help but challenge him to a race—after I’d already urged my mare into a wide-open gallop.

With Climax carrying a comfortable lead and a smile plastered on my face, we charged across the rugged expanse of the moor, plowing a heated path through the bristle of its grasses and bumping along its rougher patches.  I glanced back to check on Tanner before embarking up the rise of the hill.  He wasn’t too far behind.  Still, the distance between us struck me as odd, considering how competitive he was any other time.  Then, upon topping the hill, I realized the reason behind his lag.  A white helicopter sat parked on a small knoll roughly a hundred yards away, its doors open and a pilot patiently waiting.  And I knew precisely whose luxury air-chariot it was, having seen it before.  Twice, as a matter of fact.

My mouth pulled into a pucker.  I supposed I would’ve been more pleasantly surprised about my aerial tour of the Highlands if the side of the damn thing’s tail boom wasn’t marked, XCAVARE.

I heard the sound of steadily approaching hooves slowing into a trot.  Then I turned my head just as Tanner and his stallion came to a halt beside me.  My eyes fell to the bag strapped to the rear of his saddle.  “Any chance there’s poison in one of those bottles?”

“Afraid not,” Tanner replied.  “Poisoning’s never been my style.”

Yeah, I could see that, considering the amount of the time he spent detoxing himself and others from various poisons and venoms.  Regrettably.

After dismounting our horses, I issued a command to each of their heads, instructing them to make for the stables—no detours.  As soon as the pair was over the hill and safely out of startling range, we headed for the helicopter.

Tanner nodded to the pilot.  “Shiloh, this Maxwell.”

Despite whom his employer was, I greeted him with a warm smile.  “Hello,” I said and extended a hand.  During our handshake, I may have dipped into his mind to see what kind of guy he was, specifically, if he was anything like Olaf.  To my delight, he wasn’t.  He was just a regular guy in his mid-forties with a wife and three kids.  A guy who loved his job as much as he did his boss.  Nothing goon-like or henchman about him.  Plus, he was a retired Air-Force pilot and a volunteer firefighter.  Two major pluses in my book.

Tanner handed him the shopping bag.  “One of those is for your boss,” he said.  “And the other’s yours.”

Maxwell peeked inside the bag and then flicked Tanner an appreciative grin.  “Thank you,” he said and then waved a hand towards the open door.

Feeling a little more comfortable, I climbed aboard the helicopter.  As bright as the strike of the sun was outside, it took my eyes a second to adjust to the womb of blinding white leather I’d entered.  The only breaks in its starkness came from all the fancy electronic gadgetry built into its walls and consoles.  So it was an iChopper, both in its sleekness and technological conveniences.

Upon settling into the supple comforts of our seats, the pilot opened the hatch of what turned out to be a refrigerated compartment and pulled out a golden bottle of Cristal champagne.  Tanner cut a glance to me and waved an overly encouraging hand to the offering.

I stared at him sorely.  Had we been airborne, I might have been tempted to blow open his door.  “None for me,” I stressed and then pressed my mouth to a close, pushing back the creep of a disbelieving grin.

Tanner turned to Maxwell and shook his head.  “Thank you, but no.  We’re quite comfortable.”

Within seconds, the pilot had assumed his seat in the cockpit and was up firing the engine.  Through the building whine of the rotor blades, I shifted my stare from the window to steal a quick glance at Tanner, only to find his gaze fixed firmly on me—his lids lazy and his eyes sparkling.  It was a look that flashed like the pages of a photo album, thick with the memories of cherished moments—one that whispered how much he hated that our time here was reaching its end.  A silent mirror to my own sentiments.

As the helicopter lifted into the air, I felt the spiraling rise of my emotions and my heart leaping along with them.  Then I found myself struck by the most powerful of urges to say the words I had yet to unleash, officially and out loud.

“I love you,” I breathed, the words filling the air like an extended hand, anxiously waiting to feel the brush of invisible fingers reaching back, bridging the space between us.

Like a breeze winnowing through the thickest of forests, determined to see its course, a wave of unfathomable pleasure enveloped me, drenching my soul with the passionate hues of a fiery sunset and pillowing my heart on a glistening cloud of purest gold.

Maxwell called over the intercom.  “Still comfortable back there?” he asked.

Tanner pressed a button on the console beside him, his eyes achingly riveted to mine.  “And then some.”

 

 

 

It turned out that viewing Scotland’s countryside by air was as breathtaking as weaving through its windswept lands on the back of a motorcycle.  And they sure didn’t lack for castles—that, was certain—whether they lay in ruin or restored to their high station.  Again, I found myself completely enchanted by its beauty, as if I were seeing it for the first time all over again.  Without a doubt, Scotland was a land where one’s wanderlust could not be tamed nor bridled.  A place where no matter what a person was searching for and regardless of the challenges they faced, they were guaranteed to find it—tucked within the drama of its dizzying greens like a treasure chest, waiting to be claimed.

And that, I truly, truly believed.

I looked out the window, scrutinizing every tract of earth, every slice of water, and every structure we passed.  No matter what its size on the ground, no matter what command it held—be it a spectacular mountain or the imposing majesty of a castle—nothing seemed overpowering.   From this boundless perspective, the one Tanner had stressed to me on our garden walk the other day, everything was small.  Small enough to pinch between your fingers.  Small enough to honestly feel that nothing could stand in your way and nothing was out of reach.  Not unless you let it.

Suddenly the lands beneath us shifted into a sparkling field of uninterrupted blue.  As if he’d read my mind, Tanner revealed that we were headed to the Isle of Skye, where we would be catching a bite to eat before heading off to a portal nestled in the foothills of the Black Cullen Mountains.

For miles and miles, our course hugged the edges of the misty island’s coastline, a fringe of craggy ramparts and rugged beaches.  The terrain was refreshingly raw and dangerously beautiful.  Particularly all the jagged plateaus that towered above its rocky shores, and how they jutted towards the sea like splayed fingers, the stretch of their cliffs as romantic and perilous as a walk down the plank of a pirate ship.

It wasn’t long after passing a lighthouse that a quaint seaside village came into view.  “That’s Portree,” Tanner remarked.  “Best seafood for miles.”

“Naturally,” I said, taking stock of all the colorful boats that dotted its harbor as the helicopter eased into a descent.  I could practically smell the mix of salt and fish in the air and feel the crunch of seashells under my footsteps.

Our visit to Portree only lasted a couple of hours, long enough to drink in the nostalgia of its charming cobblestone streets and stuff our guts with a medley of fresh salmon, mussels, scallops, and lobster—as well as a quick stop into a local bakery to appease Tanner’s sweet-tooth.  A sugar-craving that had been riding him hard since we’d left the stables at Gleneagles, when I’d kissed him with a pair of lips laced with icing and cinnamon.

 We were only a block from where the helicopter was parked when I sensed the stirring of a bittersweet feeling—brought forth, by of all things, the sky’s brightness.  Even with the time approaching seven o’clock, the sun remained as strong a presence as it had all day, unlike back home, where it was much grayer at this hour.  Then again, we weren’t as close to the North Pole as Scotland.  And as much as I hated to see the fade of that perfect otherworldly blue, a touch of darkness would have made it seem like more of a symbolic “last call”, forcing our departure.  Regardless of how clear-headed and relaxed I felt, I didn’t want to leave the Highland’s comforting wrap.  Not even to crack the seal of my new sphene.  All those textbooks would still be stacked on my desk waiting, as well as the rest of the ones in Tanner’s library—the gazillion volumes that I didn’t get around to reading this summer because someone hadn’t informed me that they were in possession of a magical reading stone.  Which, for the record, I still thought was kind of dirty.  Possibly even worse than the sapphire andruby combined.

It wasn’t long after lifting off that we found ourselves back on the ground, on the outskirts of Glenbrittle—this time for good.  And with no sources of natural water anywhere in sight, it looked like we would be hiking through the hills to The Fairy Pools.  Apparently, the Amethyst Talisman’s portal had become a bit of a tourist attraction since he’d spelled it during the Middle Ages—a well-known swimming hole, actually.  And judging from the number of backpackers headed in the opposite direction along our path, it was a hot-spot quite frequented.

Upon Tanner remarking that the portal was roughly ten minutes away, I decided to ask him something a little personal about his relationship with the Malachite Talisman.  He liked him; it was obvious.  And they were friends, in a supernatural cloak-and-dagger sort of way.

 “Can I ask you something, about Malachi?”

“Malachi?” Tanner parroted casually.  Then with no further thought, the caps of his shoulders rolled into a shrug.  “Go ahead.”

“If you could, would you tell him who you really are?” I asked.  “If the circumstances were different.”

His answer came so sure and fast it left no room for doubt.  “Yes.”  Tanner trained his stare to our path ahead, his eyes firm, yet reflective.  “Personally, I think he got a bad deal when the Jasper Talisman was tasked with being his mentor.  Lazarus too, for that matter.  Though I highly doubt having a more focused mentor could have kept the latter on the straight and narrow.  But Malachi…”  Tanner paused and looked to the horizon with deep consideration.  “Malachi is different.  Despite some of his past offenses, he has a good heart inside him.  But with every year that passes, it gets buried deeper and deeper.  And with what happened to Lazarus…”

I filled in the blank he’d left.  “Malachi would do anything to avenge him.”

Tanner nodded.  “Yes.  But not for the reasons you’re thinking.  He would do it for his wife, Jewleeana.  No matter what sort of monster Lazarus was, as long as Malachi could still see a part of her in his eyes, everything else was easily overlooked.”

“How long has Malachi been without her?”

Tanner exhaled a weighty breath.  “She died giving birth to Lazarus.  And to make a long story short, Quinn played a part in it.”

“The Jasper Talisman?  How?” I asked.

“Gaia had two visions … One showing her who the next Lapis Lazuli Talisman would be, and the other, gave her a glimpse of the first Malachite Talisman.”  Tanner’s expression tensed.  “There was so much turmoil back then.  More creatures to tend with … More witches were coming into their powers … And with Erion’s whereabouts unknown, Helio willingly stuck inside a missing stone, Nerina bound to Gallious and unable to leave her keep, Gaia was the only Guardian free to roam.  And between dealing with Dunamis and the faeries, and the Fae and the elves, and tending to the witches, she decided to dole out all of her mentoring duties to Talismans.  And for some unknown and asinine reason, she thought making the Jasper Talisman their mentors was a good idea.”  Tanner inclined his head to the sky with an aggrieved shake.  “One of the most self-absorbed and laziest bastards on the entire planet.”  His eyes flicked to me.  “And I’m not exaggerating.”

“I believe you,” I assured, having seen that look on his face a number of times, which nine times out of ten was triggered by the mere mention of the name, Mike Riverside.

“But by the time Quinn got around to bestowing their stones, Jewleeana was already knocking on death’s door.  I didn’t know until several years later, when I ran into Quinn and he confessed what had happened.”  Tanner breathed a heavy sigh.  “Jewleeana was at home and in labor when he found her, dying in labor — both her and the baby.  He ran into their landlord on the street outside their flat.  The woman was trying to find a doctor to help Jewleeana, so he pretended to be one to get inside their apartment.  Quinn thought if he could bestow her stone that everything would be all right.  He said when he put the stone in her hand, her eyes came open for only a few seconds, and then with her last breath she told him, ‘Thank you’, and then she died.  Quinn said Jewleeana looked at him at that moment like she knew who he was and why he was really there… Possibly from a dream or vision she’d had.  But instead of claiming her powers, she shoved them into her child, to save Lazarus’ life.”

“What did Quinn say to Malachi?”

“Quinn pretended that the stone was intended for Lazarus, and to this day, Malachi doesn’t know any different.”  Tanner paused reflectively.  “Though personally, I think deep down he suspects that Quinn lied to him.  He just lacks the proof.”

A pang struck my heart.  Finding out that Lazarus wasn’t missing, but actually dead would have to hit Malachi incredibly hard—like his wife had died all over again.  I swallowed.  And in his eyes, the Malachite Talisman would see me as the one who had killed them both—not just Lazarus.

“Malachi always talks about what selfless soul Jewleeana was.  A poor girl with grand dreams who worked in a shelter that tended to those less fortunate than her.  Quinn told me that was how Malachi had met her… When she pulled him in off the streets one evening and saved his life.”

After experiencing a small portion of Malachi’s grand lifestyle firsthand, I couldn’t picture him in that light—destitute, sleeping in an alley, or trolling trash cans for scraps.  “When was this?” I muttered.

“1914,” Tanner replied.  “They were living in London at the time.”  Tanner ran his fingers along the tips of a trail of cotton grasses.  “I think the guilt of Malachi’s grief ate at Quinn a little each day.  Enough that he couldn’t stand the sight of their faces, knowing he could have saved her if he’d taken his duty seriously and done it when he was supposed to,” he submitted, his tone sharp.  “Instead of waiting over three months to get around to it.”

A breeze whipped around my frame, making the shudder that rocked my spine more noticeable—made its chill more jarring.

 “And then about a year later, Quinn stopped mentoring Malachi and just up and disappeared … Vanished without a word,” Tanner continued.  “Gaia had given the Jasper Talisman orders not to disclose too much information about other Talismans or The Veil and such, not until Quinn felt he was ready and had earned his trust.”

I had to force my mouth out of its gape.  “So Quinn just left them to discover all this stuff on their own?”

“Afraid so,” Tanner confirmed.

I couldn’t imagine what that must have been like.  I would have thought I’d gone completely mental if it weren’t for Tanner and Bea.  Surely Malachi and Lazarus had some resentment—a lot of resentment for being abandoned.

 “So when Malachi requested to meet me ten years ago, I thought it was because he knew who I was — What I was…  But it turned out he didn’t.  He was just in need of a geologist.”  Tanner gave his head a slow and mindful-looking shake, like the irony of it was still as fresh in his mind as it had been that day.  “And I’ve kept an eye on him and Lazarus ever since.”

“How much does Malachi know about Talismans?” I asked.

“He’s been able to uncover a few things throughout the years… Mostly from the loose lips of witches,” Tanner added with a scowl.

The memory of seeing Malachi eating breakfast with Lady Oleander at The Plaza sent my gut crashing into the soles of my boots.  I remembered what Bethesda had mentioned before we’d left for The Wang weeks ago—that the High Priestess had penned a book about gemstones.  Crap…  Was it about Talismans, too?  Her last one was about The Veil, so why the hell not?  A knot tightened in my stomach.  Was she interviewing Malachi or was he trying to find out information from her?  Either way, it wasn’t good.

“But aside from Quinn, and knowing about our existence and the powers of our stones, everyone else’s identity seems safe.”  Tanner breathed a sarcastic laugh.  “Unless Ferrol finds it in his wicked heart to contact him.  Lazarus never spoke of him to Malachi.”

That wasn’t surprising, seeing how he’d kept his quest to find the Wand of Adamas from his father.

“Malachi wasn’t even aware of how much Lazarus knew about our kind — and he knew a lot,” Tanner stressed.  “I broke into his apartment after you killed him.  He had a very long list of names tucked in one of his safes, though none of them were Guild members.  Still, his intent couldn’t have been clearer if the bastard had scribbled ‘Hit-List’ at the top of it.”

“How do you think Malachi would react if he knew the truth about you?  About everything?”

 “Hard to say.  I’m not even sure if knowing the truth is enough to repair the damage.  Even if you hadn’t killed Lazarus, so much time has passed.  So much time that I could have chosen to tell him, regardless of Gaia’s longstanding wishes.”  Tanner averted his gaze to the rugged trail ahead, his expression critically pensive, as if his mind was weighted with a thousand conflicting thoughts.  “The longer something remains a secret, the harder it’s bound to land.”

In the grand scheme of secrets and omissions, I hoped that wasn’t true.  For my sake, I really hoped that wasn’t true.  “So do you think a secret can linger too long?  Long enough that it can’t be forgiven?”

Tanner broke from his thoughts and turned to me, a wash of hope now rimming his eyes.  “I’d like to think not.”  His words struck the air with a strong sense of conviction as he extended a hand and helped me onto a cluster of rocks.  “But given enough time, the reasons for keeping them can blur, make them lose their purpose — even if the secret was your sworn duty.”  He turned to me, his smile a touch somber.  “And when they come to light, sometimes they can be unforgivable.  It depends on the person.”

I released a discreet breath from my chest.  No two ways about it.  I was telling him everything just as soon as we got back.

Almost everything, I reminded.  Everything I’d actually done.  Crazy, out-of-the-blue dreams didn’t count.

 “That’s very true,” I said, my tone a mix of sincere and hopeful—not only for myself, but for Malachi as well.  Tanner genuinely liked him, and he genuinely felt a lot of guilt over having to do his Guardian-sworn duty.

The Fairy Pools turned out to be the perfect doorway back to reality, a stunning hole of crystal blue water, rimmed with rocks and the lacy drip of waterfalls, fed by a rushing mountain stream.

After tugging off my boots, Tanner and I stepped into the pool.  The water was brisk, and I welcomed it as a pleasing sensation, one that reinforced the boundless feeling of hope I’d awoken with this morning and showed no signs of leaving—even if I was physically going.  Between my fresher outlook and my new magical reading stone, I was ready to face anything that came my way.  Including any fallout from my confession.

We lingered in the center of the pool, both of us in agreement about what a shame it would be for us not stay for the fall of twilight.  Every kiss throughout our stall was long and lazy and savoring, like we had all the time in the world, regardless of the day’s fade or the pressing weight of the portal behind us, and no matter what tomorrow held.  Missing weapons, creatures, and Talismans didn’t exist; there was only the two of us, two bulbs of an hourglass, our sands turning over and over in an eternal moment of magic, bliss, and destiny.

The sky was beginning to slip into a violet hue when the voices and footfalls of some hikers called to us like the close of a door, forcing us towards the portal’s cascade.  A surge of its magic flooded my insides as the cool drench of the water poured down on me.  What had felt like a drizzle only seconds ago, now struck my skin with the pound of hard rain.  We were officially back, the two of us wading out from underneath the waterfall of his lagoon.  And though Silas was nowhere around with bells on, Dahla couldn’t have been happier to see us—to see Tanner, that is.  I was like the lump of coleslaw that came with the fried chicken platter—there, whether you wanted it or not—sitting idly off to the side, with the hopes of someone taking a nibble.

Straightaway, I handed my backpack and boots to Tanner to wring out, which he did in an instant and then pitched them to a spot along the rocks.  Judging from the wily look in his eyes, I wasn’t getting dried out anytime soon.  Neither of us was.

“It’s only a little past two o’clock here,” Tanner said.  “So you can’t leave just yet.”

A rush of resoluteness fueled my words.  “I hadn’t planned on it.”

“After dinner then.”  He pulled me into his arms, his eyes the color of sugarplums as they churned with a decadent afterthought.  “Maybe after dinner.”

“Do you want me to stay the night?”  I’d never asked him that purposely, and I could tell from the way his brow bent that he’d found it ridiculously unnecessary.

He smoothed my hair from my shoulders.  “What do you think?”

As our lips found their way to another rhythmic caress, my mind sang with a hopeful plea that he still felt the same way in a few minutes, or however long my confession took—considering all the witch-crap I needed to tell him.  And it was right there, waiting at the back of my throat like the next customer to be served at a Starbucks counter with its silent pleas for my tongue to wrap things up.

As I withdrew from the warmth of his embrace, my stare dropped to the bob of our bodies and then I raised my head with a committed breath.  My head was clear, and the words were but a mere push past my lips.

“Tanner,” I began, only to feel my jaw lock at the sight of his eyes and their crinkled corners, followed by the rest of his expression furrowing.

Tanner drifted back in the water.  “Nerina is calling,” he announced and then averted his gaze to give the Water Guardian his undivided attention.

A tidal wave of nervousness ripped through me.  Both the look on his face and his tone were too suspect and serious to ignore.  Had she heard about my wand?  I seriously hoped not.  Though I couldn’t imagine her not knowing.  Not when one of my faeries served as her personal spy.  Surely Nerina would be keeping extra-tabs on me.  She couldn’t release her stone until I’d sent Gallious back to The Darklands.  And she’d known precisely when I’d finished my training this summer, like she’d had a ringside seat for some of it.

I knew their conversation had ended when Tanner’s hands gripped hold of my arms.  “My presence has been requested.”

The water around me turned terribly cold.  “Is this about my wand?” I blurted.

Tanner pacified my nerves with a light smile.  “No.  Nerina made no mention of it.”

“Do you think she knows?”

“No, and trust me — Nerina would have said something if she knew.”

So that offered me some relief.  Some.  I loosed a sigh.  “I figured my nymph would have already told her.”  Payback for shutting down their party in the library.

Tanner let out a laugh.  “Faeries are more loyal to their linked-beings than what you think.  I’m sure it senses your need for secrecy.”  He began wading towards the edge of the lagoon, and I followed.  “It’s about Gaia’s grimoire.”

My chest rose with a sharp breath.  “Have you heard anything from Phineas?”  As of this past Thursday, the last time I’d asked, Tanner still hadn’t received word from him.  No one had—not even Maria.  And since their meeting was about Gaia’s grimoire, it would have to involve the Emerald Talisman in some way, seeing how he’d been tasked with finding it.

“No.  But I’m hoping she’ll have some news.”  Tanner shook his head, his eyes noticeably strained.  “Anything…”

Hopefully, it was good news.  Surely if it were bad, Nerina would have said as much.  At best, he would find Phineas there, with the book in hand.  And at worst, Nerina would send him off with instructions to inform Maria of his whereabouts, along with a box of tissues.  As much as I didn’t care for the Iolite Talisman, I sincerely hoped it wasn’t the latter.

“I need to run upstairs and grab some tourmalines before her orb arrives.  But I’m not sure how long I’ll be gone,” he said.  “It may take a couple of hours.  Possibly more.”

I cut a glance to the frisky orca, who’d been poking me with her snout for the past minute in an attempt to snag some attention.  “I’ll stay and play with Dalha for a while,” I said.  “And if you’re not back before I’m waterlogged, you can find me in the library, breaking in my new sphene.”  I wasn’t leaving.  Not until I’d made my confession.  A carnelian the size of a house couldn’t blast my butt out of here.

Tanner bent down and captured my lips, stealing a final kiss.  “As soon as I get there, I’ll send word by Silas to let you know how long I’ll be.  Nerina’s wards prevent any telepathic messages aside from hers from leaving, because of Gallious.  But Silas is still connected to my thoughts.  No amount of magic can block that.”

“That’s fine.”  My eyes remained twined with his I waded further back into the water, now shy of his reach.  Then I began peeling off my clothes slowly—shirt and pants.

He remained where he was, kneeling and his gaze attentive.  “You wouldn’t be trying to persuade me not to go, now would you?”

“Not at all.”  My mouth curved into a smile as I tossed him my clothes.  “I just wanted you to dry them out before you left.”

Tanner’s eyes crinkled his doubts.  “Oh, is that all?”

“Of course,” I said, my lie a touch singsong.

After wringing them out and laying them atop my backpack, he made for the alcove where the staircase was located, his strides as pained and steady as a march to a cold shower.  Though he did pay me back with a tendril of bliss that he sent coiling around my body in his wake, serving me with an equal dose of tease.

With nothing left to do but wait, I blew a sharp whistle to let Dalha know that I was all hers until Tanner got back.  An offer that the frisky orca pounced on, literally, when her surprise-attack drove me straight down to the sands at the bottom of the lagoon.

It wasn’t long into our playtime when I noticed something peeking out from behind some rocks I’d paddled past.  Some sort of fabric or a towel, perhaps, I thought.  Curious, I swam over to check it out.  Sure enough, it was a towel—one of the oversized, white towels Tanner kept down here—along with a pair of navy blue swimming trunks.  I snatched them up for a critical inspection.  They weren’t Tanner’s.  I’d never seen him sporting a pair this tight.  Or short.  Or square-cut.  My head fell to the side with a sneer.  In all honesty, it looked like a boxy version of a man’s Speedo, only less hammock and more sleeping bag.

No, I reaffirmed.  They definitely weren’t Tanner’s.  Aside from the fact that he preferred au naturel when swimming alone, the water elemental wouldn’t be caught dead in these.  So by process of elimination, that left the briefs belonging to only one other person.  Talk about a something that would make a nice picture to post online.  Surely the comments would prove a gold-mine of punishment for the house bastard.

See how HE likes it, I grumbled.

A growing shadow interrupted my thoughts.  I looked to my left to find the devil himself standing there.  He tossed me my ruby cuff, which I quickly caught in my right hand.  “Professor Grey wanted me to bring that down to you.”

A thoughtful gesture, knowing my tattoo would be in need of some serious additional cover now that we were back.  “Thank you,” I said.  Silas remained where he stood, looking particularly uneasy, despite my show of gratitude.  “Anything else?”

Silas straightened his vest with a firm tug.  “Yes,” he replied through the grit of his teeth.  “Professor Grey also wanted me to tell you that it will be several hours before he returns, but that he should be back in plenty of time to… ” Silas paused with a hard swallow, his expression souring into a foul grimace.  “…to tuck the little girl into her bed.”

I lowered my head in an attempt to muzzle my laugh, knowing full well that Tanner had used his “master status” to make him say it in those words exactly.  “Having to repeat that almost killed you, didn’t it?”

Silas’ nostrils flared, as if vomit could come flying out of his mouth at any second.  “Miss Wallace, you have no earthly idea,” he groaned and then turned to head off.

Considering his current state of irritation, I couldn’t resist ribbing him a little more.  I snatched up the scrap of navy latex.  “Hey!  You forgot your man-panties!” I said and slung the briefs straight at him.  Now there was an equally nauseating thought.

Silas turned and caught them on the spot.  “I’ll have you know that these are not mine,” he huffed indignantly, never casting the slightest glance at them.   

“Sure they’re not,” I sang confidently.

Scowling, Silas peered into the water with a scathing look of disapproval.  “I’d worry about my own skivvies if I were you.”

“This is no different than a bikini,” I argued, despite the fact that a twinge of embarrassment had me dipping down further into the water.

Silas boomed a coarse laugh.  “Tell yourself that all you want, Ms. Wallace.  But in the eyes of a man, it most certainly is not.”

The house steward shook his head and then started towards the alcove with the swimsuit pinched between his fingers and holding them far away from his body, no different than a bag marked, BIOHAZARD that was destined for an orange trash receptacle.  Try as Silas might with his denial, I wasn’t buying it.  Something about those man-panties roared from my gut that I’d seen them before.

Something, I affirmed with a nod.

A second hadn’t passed when Dalha tugged me under the water for Round-Two of playtime.  And it wasn’t long before I found myself in need of a break from playing the role of a killer whale’s chew-toy.  She must have thought I was going to leave because every time I surfaced, she tugged me right back under with a firm clamp of her teeth.  So to put her worries to rest, I eased my body into a float when I surfaced, scoring myself a time-out in the process.

The orca swam a continuous ring of circles around me as I lay there, eyes closed and drifting with the sway of the water.   No doubt to let me know that she was patiently waiting and was nowhere near finished with her ragdoll.

I was just starting to feel the full soothe of the water’s bob when an abrupt vibration echoed through me.  Curiosity popped one of my eyes open for a peek.  The sound-like feeling had emanated from somewhere, and despite its sonar-like vibe, its essence was nowhere close to the clicks or whistles of a killer whale’s songs.

So that was disturbing.  Disturbing enough to yank me straight out of my lounging float, knowing Tanner’s lagoon led straight to the ocean through an underwater entrance, a spelled entrance that supposedly only a handful of beings could pass through—be they supernatural, fish, or mammal.

The longer I wondered about what could have possibly made that noise, the more my concern grew…  And grew…  And grew… Until I found myself feeling a touch spooked.

Heedfully, I steered my strokes towards the edge of the lagoon.  Upon reaching the rocks, I turned around and searched the surface of its blue waters, ready to jump out if need be.

My eyes scoured the wash of the water, darting to every strange ripple and inspecting every questionable stir.  I didn’t spy anything suspicious-looking topside, and Dalha wasn’t freaking out because of any threats underneath.  And I was certain she would, particularly if it was something that reeked of Lorelei.  Nevertheless, the feeling wasn’t going away.  Something kept poking at my senses, determined to get my attention.

I started to make another pass of the surface when another vibe reverberated through me, slow and flickering.  Needing to locate its source, I slipped underneath the surface and honed my focus, despite Dalha’s repeated prods.   I extended a hand and waved it back and forth through the water, sifting through its blueness for the source of the vibration.  The sound wasn’t a true noise.  No.  This was more of a sensation—an awareness echoing inside me that carried the steady beat of a pulse—as if my mind was winking at me.

Needing to hush my surroundings, I climbed out of the water and plopped onto the floor, thinking a little meditative concentration might help.  I’d no sooner closed my eyes when a scintillating light blazed through my mind like a thunderbolt, cleaving me with a white-hot realization.  I sucked in a deep breath as the feeling began to shape itself in my mind, taking the form of a name—my name—in a voice that cried like the same frail whisper I’d heard when I was five, out on Shiloh Ridge.

My heart jumped.  That voice…  It was the same one I’d shoved out of my head so long ago, when I wasn’t ready to acknowledge it, when I didn’t know what it meant.  And here it was… Again.  The call I’d been desperately praying would come.

It was my wand.