“DEFENSE OF THE REALM”
Cole stared at his selection of ties in an effort to decide which one to wear. After five minutes of contemplation, he realized that not only was he unable to make a choice, he simply did not care. Not a proper attitude to harbor for an upcoming date, but he could not control his feelings.
He had planned to take Phoebe to the theater, followed by dinner at one of her old stomping grounds – Quake. Unfortunately, he could not drum up any enthusiasm. Not with Olivia still on his mind. And there was the new houseguest that Marbus planned to dump on him. Cole sighed. Life had been so much easier, over a month ago. Now once again, it has gone to hell.
Realizing that he was better off without a tie, Cole returned the garments to his dresser drawer. He grabbed his jacket and headed for the living room. At that moment, two figures materialized – Marbus and a handsome, dark-haired woman, whom Cole assumed to be the fugitive whitelighter.
“Belthazor,” Marbus announced, “I would like you to meet Natalia Stepanova. Natalia, this is my nephew . . .”
The whitelighter held out her hand. “Yes, I have heard of Belthazor,” she said in a Russian accent. “A great deal.”
“And I’ve heard a few things about you,” Cole said, shaking her offered hand. As with all whitelighters, Natalia left a white film on his hand after contact. “You were the one who had warned Marbus about the Elders’ plans to kill me. I wish I had paid closer attention.”
Natalia continued, “Actually, it was Mathilda who was after you, not the Council. And Barbara and I had no idea that she and Leo would use Miss McNeill to kill you.”
Cole nodded. “I understand. Anyway, I hope that you will enjoy your stay, here. You can use the guest bedroom on the left. I usually have breakfast around seven in the morning and dinner around eight. If I’m not around, feel free to fix your own meals.” He hesitated. “Uh, that is if you know how . . .”
“I happen to be an excellent cook, Belthazor.”
One of Natalia’s brows formed an arch. “Pardon?”
“You can call me Cole. If you like.”
Natalia smiled. “Of course.”
“Okay.” Cole glanced at the clock on the fireplace mantle and heaved a sigh. “Uh, I have a date tonight . . .”
Natalia frowned. “A what?”
Cole patiently explained, “I will be taking a young lady to the theater this evening. And later, we’ll be dining at a restaurant.”
“Oh.” Natalia responded with an understanding smile. “How charming. Who is the lucky young lady?”
Before Cole could answer, Marbus said, “He’s taking his former wife. Frances.”
Cole shot a quick glare at his uncle. “Her name is Phoebe. Why is it that after nearly two months, you still can’t get her name right?”
“Sorry lad, but Phoebe is not a name I find easy to remember.”
Natalia added, “Oh! One of the Charmed Ones! The seer! Your former wife.” A frown creased her forehead. “What happened to Miss McNeill?”
A silent pause filled the room. Cole smiled patiently at the whitelighter. “We’re just friends.”
“Oh. So, you’re dating one of Leo’s sisters-in-law.” Natalia paused. “And the third sister is Samuel Wilder’s daughter. Right?” Then she added, “Do you plan to . . .?”
“Tell Phoebe about you?” Cole finished. “Do you want me to?”
The whitelighter quickly shook her head. “Please . . . no. It is not that I do not trust her . . . I am simply afraid of how Leo would react if he knew of my whereabouts.”
Cole nodded. “I understand. Besides, Phoebe was never great at keeping secrets.” Then he sighed. “Okay, the place is yours for the evening. I’ll see . . .” He hesitated at the sound of Marbus’ cough. “What?”
“Do I have to remind you, lad?” Marbus replied. “Natalia has already been tracked to the Gimle dimension and here on earth. I think you should provide some kind of protection, just in case the Elders have managed to track her here.”
Cole sighed. He seemed to be doing that a lot, lately. “Right.” As he began to prepare a protection spell to shield the penthouse from the Elders’ radar, he wondered if he had made a mistake in offering refuge to the fugitive whitelighter. He could image how Phoebe would react if she ever found out.
Paige appeared in the doorway of Phoebe’s bedroom. “Cole’s here,” she announced.
Phoebe let out a squeak and continued to finish getting ready. A quick glance at her watch told her that she was running slightly behind schedule. As she checked her appearance in the long, oval mirror, she asked, “How’s Cole doing? Is he alone?”
“Aside from Piper giving him the cold shoulder,” Paige murmured, “yeah. Leo hasn’t returned from the store, yet.”
“Oh God.” Phoebe turned away from the mirror. “How do I look?”
Paige shrugged. “Nice.”
Heaving an impatient sigh, Paige added, “Phoebe, you look great! Okay?”
“Okay.” Phoebe grabbed her purse. “I’m ready.”
Paige blocked Phoebe’s path in the doorway. “Two more things, Miss Halliwell. One, you got a phone call.”
“So, didn’t you take a message?” Phoebe tried to bypass her younger sister.
After a brief hesitation, Paige answered, “Yeah. I did. I told Jason that you would call him back. He left a number.”
“Oh.” Shit! “Yeah. Okay, I’ll get back to him.” Again, she tried to bypass Paige.
The older woman gave the younger one an exasperated stare. “What?”
“You mean to say that you haven’t broke up with Jason, yet?”
Oh God! Phoebe wished that Paige would mind her own business. “I’ll get around to it. Soon.”
“Uh huh.” Shaking her head, Paige continued, “Also, I think a jacket goes with that outfit. Doesn’t it?”
“Oh yeah. Thanks.” Grateful to dismiss Jason from her thoughts, Phoebe snatched up her jacket, ducked under Paige’s outstretched arm and raced down the hall. Paige followed closely behind. They found Cole sitting on the sofa, looking very tense. Fortunately, neither Piper nor Leo was in sight. This did not look good. Phoebe pasted a too-bright smile on her face and warmly greeted her ex-husband. “Hey sweetie!” She leaned down and gave him a swift peck on the cheek. “Everything’s okay?”
To Phoebe’s surprise, Cole blinked. “Huh?”
“Cole, are you okay? Ready to leave?”
Before the half-demon could answer, blue lights appeared and Chris materialized before the others. Ignoring Cole, he turned to the two sisters. “Where’s Piper?” he asked.
Piper burst into the living room, with Leo at her heels. “I’m right here,” she said. “What’s wrong?”
“I need your help,” Chris replied. “In fact, the Elders’ Council is seeking the help of all witches.”
Paige added sarcastically, “Are they asking? Or ordering us?”
Chris sighed. “The Elders need your help in tracking down a fugitive. A whitelighter named Natalia Stepanova. They believe that she is somewhere here on Earth. Which is why they want our charges to help find her.”
“This Stepanova person,” Paige continued, “is she behind the deaths of those Elders?”
Chris nodded. “The Elders found out that . . .” He hesitated, as his eyes rested upon Cole. “Oh. Uh . . . Aren’t you . . .?”
Phoebe quickly made the introductions. “Uh, Chris – this is Cole Turner, my ex-husband.”
Piper added, “The demon formally known as Belthazor.”
Cole shot the eldest Charmed One a dark look, while Chris stared at him. Like a scientist examining a specimen. “Oh, um . . . nice to meet you. I’ve heard a lot . . . about you.”
“You’ve heard?” Cole frowned.
Smiling nervously, Phoebe interrupted. “Cole honey, this is Chris Perry, our new whitelighter.”
Cole offered his hand to the young whitelighter. Chris briefly hesitated, before shaking the offered hand. “So, you’re the new whitelighter. I only hope that you do a better job than your predecessor.”
“Hey!” Piper protested.
Chris laughed nervously. “I just hope that I can do a good job.”
One of Cole’s brows formed an arch. “Good. So uh, why are the Elders after this whitelighter, again?”
“I . . . um . . .”
Leo sharply interrupted, “Sorry Cole, but this is a private matter. In other words, it’s none of your business.”
A cold smile curved Cole’s lips as he faced Leo. Anxiety flared within Phoebe’s breast. “Then I guess you shouldn’t be here, as well.”
“Just because you and Phoebe are now dating, doesn’t mean you have every right to know what’s going on in this house!”
Piper placed a hand on Leo’s arm. “Honey . . . don’t. He’s just trying to bait you.”
Cole continued, “You know, this Stepanova whitelighter sounds familiar. Didn’t a witch named Keith McNeill used to be one of her charges?”
Another outburst left Leo’s mouth. “Why are you still here? Why don’t you just leave?”
“Well, you’ve already tried to get rid of me, Leo. When you and Margolin had set up Olivia to kill me.” Cole’s smile grew even more deadly. “But, as usual, you failed to achieve your goal.”
“That’s it! I’ve had enough . . .”
Cole took a threatening step forward. “And what exactly are you going to do? Bore me to death with more threats?” His face became a cold mask – an expression that Phoebe had always found frightening. “Or find another witch to do your dirty work for you? You better pray, for your sake that he or she doesn’t get caught.”
Piper stepped between the two former brothers-in-law. “Okay! That’s it!” She glared at the half-demon. “Cole, we want you out of here! Now! We have family matters to discuss.”
His eyes now cold with rage, Cole sprung to his feet. “Don’t worry Piper. I’m more than happy to oblige.” And he beamed out of the living room, much to Phoebe’s distress.
She turned on her eldest sister in a fit of anger. “Piper! How could you?”
“Hey! He started it with his threats to Leo!” Piper shot back.
“Actually, it was Leo who started it!” Then Phoebe glared at her brother-in-law. “You just had to open your mouth, didn’t you, Leo? You had to say something to Cole!”
Looking stunned by Phoebe’s accusation, Leo protested, “Phoebe, I’m sorry, but had no right being here! You girls have a matter to attend to. As witches.”
“Matters that we’re supposed to discuss with our whitelighter . . . who happens to be Chris! As I recall, you’re no longer our whitelighter! Are you?”
Piper sprang to her husband’s defense. “Uh, wait a minute Pheobe! There’s no need to jump down Leo’s throat! He’s only trying to help!”
“And I’m trying to get out of here, so I can go on a date!” Phoebe raised her head and called out her ex-husband’s name. “Cole? Cole!”
Chris spoke up. “Look, we have a whitelighter to find. One who might be a killer.”
Regarding the young whitelighter with suspicious eyes, Paige demanded, “And why are ‘we’ searching for Whatshername, anyway? Why don’t the Elders simply clip her wings or snatch her?”
A shrug lifted Chris’ shoulders. “I don’t know. I guess she’s managed to elude them, after she was detected on Earth. The Elders had also briefly detected her in some demonic dimension. She’s got to be hiding, somewhere.”
Paige’s dark eyes continued to bore into the young whitelighter’s. “And you don’t know where she is?”
“How would I know?”
Rolling her eyes, Paige continued, “Because you’re the one from the future.”
A pause followed before Chris finally answered, “Well . . . yeah. But I’m just a lowly whitelighter. I don’t have knowledge of everything that happened in this time period. Besides, I only knew about the Titans destroying the Elders. The whitelighters were disorganized after that.”
Paige shot back, “Yet, surely your memories of the future have changed, after the Elders had dealt with the Titans. Right? So, you must know about Natalia Stepanova. Where she’s hiding and if she’s guilty.”
“I tell you, I don’t know every . . .”
Phoebe held up her hand. “Look, we understand. It’s okay. But I really don’t understand how the Elders expect us to track down a missing whitelighter. And since other witches might be looking for her, there’s a little matter about my date, tonight. Your missing whitelighter will have to wait. Cole!”
Frowning, Chris protested, “Phoebe, this isn’t the time . . .”
“What lead do you have on this Natalia Whatshername?” Paige demanded. “Why come to us? Why not the McNeills, who have some past connections to her? And what makes the Elders think she’s the right culprit?”
“Hey! I don’t know!” Chris protested angrily. “I’m just the messenger!”
Phoebe added, “Well until you do know, I’m going on my . . .”
Cole reappeared, looking slightly abashed. “I just remembered,” he mumbled. “Reservations at Quake are hard to get by, lately. I went through a lot of trouble, tonight, and I left my car outside.” He glanced at Phoebe. “Still interested for tonight?”
Phoebe eagerly linked her arm with her ex-husband’s. “More than interested.” She ignored Piper’s look of disgust, as she and Cole walked toward the front door.
Despite the ten months he had spent as a whitelighter and Elder, Kevin James missed the mortal world. Which surprised him very much, considering his previously unhappy life. When he had eagerly agreed to replace one of the retiring Elders, Kevin had no idea that he would spend the rest of his existence in such . . . surroundings.
To deal with his bouts of boredom, Kevin made occasional visits to the mortal realm to indulge in his favorite pastimes. He would either visit the Halliwells – whom he had first met before becoming an Elder – or head for the place that usually appealed to his adolescent nature. Namely the various Disney theme parks throughout the world, the shopping mall, the beach and the movies. Tonight, Kevin had decided to settle upon the latter.
He had overheard two whitelighters discussing a movie called “PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL”. And since the topic combined two of his favorite things – movies and Disney amusement parks, he decided to check out this new movie at a theater in Sausalito.
Three hours later, Kevin emerged from the theater, a very happy whitelighter. The movie had more than lived up to his expectations. Quite simply, he loved it and planned to see it as much as possible before it disappeared from the theaters altogether. Humming the movie’s jaunty score under his breath, Kevin made his way to a nearby alley, where he could orb out of sight. Upon reaching his destination, he glanced around to make sure that he was alone. And at that moment, he felt a sharp pain between his shoulder blades.
Kevin gasped aloud and reached behind to investigate the source of his pain. When he felt a shaft protruding from his back, he realized that he had been struck by a darklighter’s arrow. Kevin fell into a state of panic, as he tried to remove the arrow.
A figure appeared before. A dark-haired woman dressed in black. Kevin immediately recognized her as Belinda Lucas, one of the Realm’s whitelighters. “Yo . . . you . . .” the young Elder stammered.
“That’s right, Junior,” Belinda replied with a cold smile. She held a bow in her hands. “I shot you.”
“Wha . . . what did . . .” Kevin gasped, as more pain shot through every nerve in his body. “What did . . . she promised . . . you. Na . . .”
Belinda sneered. “If you’re speaking of Natalia Stepanova, you guessed wrong. She’s innocent. Besides, why should you care? You’ll be dead within a minute or so.”
Kevin fell upon his knees. “Wha . . . how can you kill . . . a fellow whitelight . . .?”
Shifting the bow into one hand, Belinda reached from inside her blouse and pulled out what looked like a medallion hanging from a leather strap. “Who said that I was a whitelighter?” She let the medallion hang down, loaded the bow with another arrow, and aimed the weapon at the young Elder. “I bet you now wish that you had never accepted that offer from the Council. Don’t you?”
Kevin blinked, as the darklighter arrow spun straight toward his heart.
END OF CHAPTER 7
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