“Neighbors” [PG] – 5/11

“NEIGHBORS”

PART 5

When Cole disappeared from the McNeill garden, Phoebe heaved a silent sigh of relief. He had left, thank goodness. For a moment she feared that Cole had deliberately appeared at the McNeill home because of her. Yet, he had not seemed interested in her. In fact, he looked . . . unpleasantly surprised.

“This sandwich loaf or whatever you call it is great!” Paige declared, as she bit into a slice. “Who made this?”

A voice behind the two sisters announced, “I believe that Olivia did.” It was Elise McNeill. “Olivia would be pleased that you liked her sandwich loaves. She learned how to make them from Gwen. In fact, all of Gwen’s children had inherited her cooking talent. Especially Bruce.” Her blue-gray eyes twinkled with interest. “Have you ever been to the Golden Horn restaurant? Gwen owns it, but Bruce is the executive chef,and manager there.”

“Uh, no,” Phoebe replied. “It’s a . . . a little too expensive for our tastes.”

The elderly woman blinked. “Oh. Well, what about Morgan’s on Powell Street? It’s Gwen’s other restaurant.”

Paige added enthusiastically, “I’ve been there. Great chow. Especially the Veal Parmagian.”

“Gwen would be glad to hear it,” Mrs. McNeill replied with a smile. “Why don’t you try Bruce’s quiche? It’s quite . . .”

Her thoughts centered on her ex-husband and not on the food, Phoebe cut in. “Mrs. McNeill . . .”

“Yes?”

Phoebe took a deep breath and continued, “I want to apologize. About Cole. I had no idea that he would show up, like that.”

Blue-gray eyes stared thoughtfully at Phoebe. “What is there to apologize for? Olivia’s car wasn’t working and Mr. Turner gave her a lift. That’s all.”

“Maybe. But knowing Cole . . .” Phoebe caught herself. A touch of bitterness had crept into her voice and she immediately squelched it. “What I mean is there’s a chance that Cole had arranged the whole thing. With Olivia’s car.”

“Why?”

Phoebe continued, “To see me, today. We were just recently divorced. And Cole . . . well, I think he’s trying to win me back.”

“Really?” Mrs. McNeill added, “He didn’t stay around long enough to try, did he?”

Paige said, “You have to understand my brother . . . uh, ex-brother-in-law, Mrs. McNeill. He can be very obsessive about Phoebe. In fact, she had a difficult time getting a divorce from him.”

“Cole didn’t know you would be here,” a fourth voice said. Olivia McNeill joined the trio near the buffet table. “If he did, I certainly didn’t tell him. In fact, no one had bothered to tell me.” She gave her grandmother a reproachful look.

Innocence radiated from the elderly woman’s eyes. “I’m sorry! I didn’t find out until this morning. By the way,” her gaze returned to the Halliwells, “why did you wait so long to accept my invitation? I had invited you, last Thursday.”

Phoebe exchanged an embarrassed glance with Paige. Whose attention immediately returned to the sandwich loaf slice on her plate. Phoebe did not blame her. What could they say? That the only reason they accepted Elise McNeill’s invitation, because they needed help in tracking down warlocks? Phoebe suspected that the McNeills, especially old Mrs. McNeill, would be insulted by the truth. So she lied.

“Actually,” she replied, “we had other plans for today. But they fell through.” God that sounded lame!

The elderly woman’s eyes stabbed Phoebe with a piercing stare. It seemed to cut right through the middle Halliwell’s psyche. Phoebe had the oddest feeling that Mrs. McNeill had just read her thoughts. “Phoebe,” the older woman began.

“Yes?” Did her voice just quiver?

Mrs. McNeill continued, “I should warn you that I’m a telepath.” Her eyes continued to bore through the young witch’s. “So, could you tell me again, why you took so long to accept my invitation?”

Phoebe took a deep breath. She glanced at Paige, who seemed a little intimidated. No help there. “Uh, actually . . . we had decided to accept at the last minute, because . . .” Once again, she looked at her younger sister.

“Because we had hoped that Inspec . . . uh, Olivia would help us track down those warlocks,” Paige finally blurted out. Relief practically oozed out of her eyes.

A pause followed. Phoebe glanced at the red-haired police inspector, whose eyes were riveted upon the others in the garden. Phoebe had the strangest sensation that she was attempting to suppress a smirk.

Mrs. McNeill’s stare remained steady. “Well, now I wish I hadn’t insisted upon the truth. And I thought you wanted to meet one of your grandmother’s old friends.”

Oh God! Phoebe squirmed with discomfort. The woman could lay a guilt trip with a finesse that would put Grams to shame. Or Prue. Phoebe opened her mouth to respond, but Mr. McNeill came to her rescue. He cried out, “Hey! Are you guys going to hog the food on that table, forever?”

The McNeill matriarch smiled at her son. “Don’t worry, Jack. We’ll be right there.” Without so much as a glance at Phoebe or Paige, she left the table to join the others. And with Olivia close behind her.

Paige whispered to Phoebe, “You know, this little gathering is turning into the “Brunch from Hell”. Now, what do we do?”

“Grin and bear it,” Phoebe whispered back through clenched teeth. “What other choice do we have?” The two sisters linked hands and rejoined the others around the patio. Both nearly winced visibly as they overheard Elise McNeill confront Piper and Leo about their visit.

Looking somewhat taken aback, Piper said, “Uh, I’m sorry, Mrs. McNeill. What did you say?”

“I said that I understand that you and your sisters wanted to speak with Olivia about these warlock attacks,” Elise McNeill repeated coolly. “Or do you plan to get together with her to find them?”

The stunned expression on Piper’s face seemed to have spurred Leo to speak on her behalf. “Well, the girls also wanted to talk about their grandmother . . .” He cut his words short, as Phoebe warned him with a shake of her head.

“That’s funny,” Olivia said with a smirk slowly forming on her lips, “I could have sworn that Paige had just told us that the reason you accepted Gran’s invitation, is because you wanted to discuss the warlocks.”

A strained silence fell upon the garden patio. The Halliwells found themselves under an intense scrutiny from the McNeills. There was nothing more embarrassing, Phoebe decided, than being caught in a lie. And since Piper and Leo were too stunned to speak, and Paige had a bad habit of being blunt, Phoebe realized that she better ease the tension.

“Look, I realize that we came here under false pretenses,” she began apologetically.

One of Mr. McNeill’s brows quirked upward. “Oh?”

Turning to face old Mrs. McNeill, Phoebe continued, “You have to understand. We really would have loved talking with you about Grams. It’s just that the last time we visited one of her old friends, she ended up stealing our powers for some demon. So she could become young, again. I guess we’ve been wary of ‘old’ friends, ever since.”

“That must have been Gail,” Mrs. McNeill said in a sad voice. “I had heard about her death from another witch. I can only assume that her bad health had finally driven her to desperate measure.” She then gave the Halliwells a steely look. “But I assure you, I have no desire to steal your powers.” The beginnings of a smirk touched her lips. “At least not yet.” She sighed. “But since you needed help to track down those warlocks, you came to see us. Or specifically, Olivia.”

Blushing furiously, Phoebe nodded. Piper, Paige and Leo also looked equally guilty. Olivia heaved a sigh and asked what they wanted to know.

Relief flooded Phoebe. She said, “We’re trying to figure out why we can’t locate this warlock coven. If there is a coven behind these attacks.”

“Oh, I’m sure it’s the Crozat Coven,” Olivia replied. “Two warlocks from the same coven? That’s just a little too convenient.”

Jack McNeill added, “There’s a good chance that the warlocks are blocking any signs of their presence.”

“With a spell?” Leo asked.

Nodding, Mr. McNeill continued, “Possibly. If they’re killing off witches, especially powerful witches, they don’t want to be discovered.”

“Especially if their activities are attracting notice,” Gwen McNeill added.

Paige added, “I had considered using a summoning spell, but attracting a coven of warlocks . . .”

Harry McNeill, Olivia’s younger brother, made a suggestion that formed a knot in Phoebe’s stomach. “Say Livy, why don’t you ask that new neighbor of yours? Cole? I bet he could give you some information on this Crozat Coven.” His words were met with a stony silence by the Halliwells. “Did I say something wrong?”

“Actually, that sounds like a good idea,” Olivia commented. “I’ll ask him when I . . .”

“No!” The word shot out of Phoebe’s mouth before she could stop herself. All eyes stared at her. She felt her face grow hot with embarrassment. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to sound rude. It’s just that . . .”

Paige quickly cut in. “What Phoebe meant was that we prefer not to involve Cole in this.”

“Why?” Harry demanded. “You think he might have some connection to these warlocks?”

A tight smile barely stretched Piper’s lips. “We just prefer not to have anything to do with Cole. Bad memories.”

“That’s okay,” Olivia said. “You don’t have to ask him. I will.”

The three Halliwells stared at Olivia. Phoebe began to wonder why the redhead seemed so interested in involving Cole in this affair. Or why she was not upset at the idea of working with a demon, let alone becoming friends with him.

“You really think that’s a good idea?” Paige asked in her usual blunt manner. “I mean the man is demonic, again. He’s evil. Despite what he may feel about Phoebe. I wouldn’t trust him with a fish tank, let alone having him help us.”

Piper seared her youngest sister with a reproachful glare. “Paige!”

“Well, if you don’t trust him,” Olivia shot back, “why did you work with him for nearly a year?”

The Charmed Ones glared at their whitelighter. Obviously, Leo had told Olivia a lot about them since they first became witches.

Phoebe coolly answered, “Because we thought we could trust him. And the only reason he was willing to work with us, was because of . . . well, me.” Her face grew hot again. “But not even me could prevent him from accepting evil again.”

“Are you referring to the period when he was the Source?” Gwen McNeill asked. “How did that happened?”

It was Paige who told the McNeills about Cole’s use of the Hollow. Of how he used that particular object to absorb the Source’s power to first, help the Charmed Ones vanquish the old Source; and two, assume control of the Underworld and use Phoebe to conceive a son. “So you see,” Paige finished, “he really can’t be trusted. Despite his recent attempts to prove how good he is. And with those new powers that he has . . . well, you can understand.”

The tension that surrounded the garden patio increased tenfold. Phoebe noticed that McNeills seemed to regard Paige’s narrative with a touch of skepticism. Why, she could not understand. She also found herself longing for the familiar surroundings of the Halliwell manor. And her own private bedroom. Trust Cole to cause further trouble – even without being around.

Olivia’s stare became even more relentless. “So, what you’re saying is that Cole had deliberately got his hands on the Hollow to become the new Source? Am I right?”

An apologetic Leo spoke up. “We don’t know the exact details. Cole claimed that the Seer tricked him into using it. He might be telling the truth. Then again, we don’t know for sure. And whether he is or not, having him around is a danger . . . to all of us.”

“He certainly wasn’t a danger to Olivia,” Bruce commented. “Cole saved her from that warlock, three days ago.

Olivia smiled thinly. “And he didn’t really have to bother, considering we had been at each other’s throats just a few hours earlier. Maybe he’s not completely trustworthy, but I don’t think it would hurt to ask. Besides,” her smile disappeared, “I like to cover all possibilities.”

Shaking her head, Paige retorted, “Yeah, but you don’t know him like we . . .”

“Paige!” Once more, Piper interrupted her sister.

Phoebe remained silent throughout that last exchange. What could she or her family say? They had no say over Olivia’s actions. But a small part of Phoebe felt disturbed that the police inspector – who happened to be a very attractive female – had quickly developed a friendship with her ex-husband.

Gweneth McNeill broke the uncomfortable silence with a slight cough. “Well,” she said with a too bright smile, “now that everything’s been settled, are any of you ready for my peach torte?”

* * * *

Several hours later, the Halliwells and Leo returned to the manor on Prescott Street with great relief. Leo closed the door behind him and turned to his wife and sisters-in-law. “Well,” he said, struggling to maintain a smile, “that was an interesting afternoon.”

“Interesting?” Paige scoffed. “More like intense. My God, Leo! How long have you known that bunch?”

Leo heaved a sigh. It was his usual response whenever someone brought up the McNeill family. “A little under fifteen years. Just before I became Bruce and Olivia’s whitelighter. About two years later, they had renounced me as their whitelighter, but we remained friends.”

“I can’t believe they’re willing to work with a demon,” Paige continued. “Don’t they see anything wrong with that?”

Piper reminded the twenty-five year-old that they had worked closely with that same demon for at least a year. “I mean, he was part of the household.”

“And he has saved your life on more than one occasion,” Phoebe coolly added.

The manor’s inhabitants fell into an embarrassed silence. Leo cocked his ear, hoping for a summons from the Elders. Or at least one of his charges.

“But Phoebe,” Paige quietly continued, “do you really want to work with Cole, again? After all he had put us through?”

The defeated sag in Phoebe’s shoulders answered Paige’s questions, effectively. Leo felt sorry for his sister-in-law. Poor Phoebe. Even after six months, the trauma of Cole’s betrayal and their experiences with the Source and the Seer had not completely disappeared. Leo wondered if she would ever recover.

“Look,” Piper added, reverting to her old role as mediator, “as far as we know, Olivia is only going to ask Cole a few questions. That’s all. He might not even have much information on these warlocks.”

Leo wished he could agree, but he had his doubts. Past experience with Cole told him that once the half-demon learn about the warlock threat, he would move heaven and earth to protect Phoebe. Evil or not.

Paige shook her head and repeated Leo’s exact thoughts. “I hope you’re right. But you know Cole, once he finds out about the warlocks, he won’t be able to stay away. And as for the McNeills . . .” She shook her head. “All I’m saying is they seemed too eager to get Cole’s help. They don’t know him as well as we did, when he worked with us. And did you see the way they fawned over him? I mean, even Mr. McNeill seemed to greet him like an old lost friend, instead of someone who nearly killed him, years ago.”

“It was Mr. McNeill who nearly killed Cole,” Phoebe grumbled. “And can we please stop talking about him, for once? One day can’t go by without someone bringing up the subject of Cole! You keep saying that I should get over him, but you’re not helping!”

Piper and Paige each mumbled a quiet, “sorry”. Leo gave Phoebe’s shoulder a quick, comforting squeeze. “Maybe Piper is right,” he added. “Maybe nothing will come out of Olivia asking Cole.”

“But what if he does get involved?” Phoebe quietly asked. “What if they . . .” She shook her head. “Never mind.”

“What?” Piper demanded.

A sigh left Phoebe’s mouth. “Well, you saw how Olivia reacted over Cole. She practically defended the man. What if they became close? And . . . and Cole hurts her in the end? I mean, c’mon Leo! Neither she or her family have any real experience in dealing with . . . you know, they don’t have any real close experience with people like . . . Cole.”

Leo cleared his throat. Might as tell them the truth. “That’s not exactly true,” he said.

All three sisters stared at the whitelighter. “What are you saying?” Paige demanded.

“Olivia.” Leo paused. “She was once engaged to a warlock.”

The Charmed Ones’ eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. They cried out at the same time, “WHAT?”

END OF PART 5