"A WEDDING IN FOUR ACTS"
Act IV - Part 1
"Is she dead?" Claudia demanded. She stood in front of a large, oval mirror, primping her hair.
Giancarlo promptly replied, "I believe so, Padronessa." The succubus glanced sharply at him. "Uh, I hit the Vodoun sacerdotessa's head very hard. Her body is locked inside the greenhouse. And both Alessandro and Talia are dead."
Claudia whirled around to stare pointedly at her minion. "Are you certain she is dead? Did you examine her body?"
Fear gleamed in the incubus's eyes. "I . . . am afraid not, Padronessa. I thought it was more prudent to find the Soma plant for you. But she must be dead. I had hit the sacerdotessa's head very . . . hard." He shrugged, as his voice faded away. He handed her the bridal bouquet.
A sigh left Claudia's mouth. "Oh well. Alive or dead, at least the Dubois woman is no longer a danger. What about the Soma plant? Was it found?"
Giancarlo smiled. "Si, Padronessa. I handed it over to Leonardo, who has returned it to the house. It is in the libreria."
"Good." Claudia faced the minion once more. "I should kill you for your failure to ensure the Vodoine's death." Giancarlo's face paled. "However, I need you to assume her form and take her place in the wedding ceremony."
Claudia continued, "If everything goes as planned, I will marry the witch and enjoy a few days with him, on our honeymoon."
Giancarlo frowned. "You are not going to kill him right away?"
"Of course not!" Claudia retorted haughtily. "At least not until after we have conceived a child. According to the Streghone, this witch is a descendant of a powerful wizard named Niaghall. From Scotland. Niaghall was the original bearer of the Aingeal Staff. And Signor McNeill's sister is one of those considered to be the staff's next keeper."
Nodding, Giancarlo added, "Of course! The Staff of Aingeal. I have heard of it. Do you plan to acquire this staff for yourself? I have heard that only a descendant of Niaghall can use it. Besides, you know have the Soma plant."
"I know that!" Claudia shot back with a glare. Giancarlo trembled. Her expression softened. "But once I conceive a child with Bruce McNeill, there will be a chance that child or a descendant will become the staff's future bearer. And I must say," a smile curved her lips, "I never realized that I would find a mortal who is descended from a powerful wizard, let alone a daemon. Niaghall was also adamitici - like my father. The offspring of a mortal and an incubus. In my father's case, a mortal and a succubus."
A knock on the door took the pair by surprise. "Barbara? Honey, it's me, Dad!" a voice from behind the door cried out. "Are you ready to begin the ceremony?"
"Get out of here!" Claudia hissed at her subordinate. "Now! And do not forget to morph into that Dubois woman and take her place."
The witch's father cried, "Barbara?"
Giancarlo nodded, "Si, Padronessa." He quickly disappeared.
Claudia walked over to the door and opened it. A tall, good-looking man in his mid or late fifties stood in the doorway. "Hey Dad!" The succubus flashed a smile. "I'll be ready in a minute."
Vivian Dubois stood at the foot of the curved staircase, while the bride's father leaned over the balustrade. "She's ready!" he announced. "Could you send for the bridesmaids, Vi?"
"Okay." She waved at the witch and started toward the west drawing room. From the corner of her eye, she saw her daughter emerge from one of the corridors. "There you are! We've been all looking for you."
Cecile replied, "I . . . I ended up lost, after fetching the bridal bouquet for . . . Barbara. Is the ceremony about to begin?"
Vivian frowned. Cecile's dialogue seemed unusually formal. "In a minute. You better join Barbara, upstairs. I'll fetch Olivia and the other two." Once more, Vivian started toward the drawing room, until a thought came to her. "By the way, did you tell Livy about your vision?"
Surprise reflected in Cecile's dark eyes. "Vision?" A brief moment of panic flashed in those same eyes. Then self-assurance quickly followed. "Oh. Oh, yes. The vision." Cecile nodded emphatically. "Yes, I told her. Olivia should be on her guard."
On her guard? Now it was Vivian's turn to express surprise. "On her guard? You . . ."
". . . told her," Cecile finished. Her uneasiness returned. "Did I make a mistake?"
The hair on the back of Vivian's neck bristled ominously. She recalled Olivia's story about the male stripper, who had appeared at the bridal shower nearly a half hour after his body was discovered. If the stripper at the nightclub . . . At that moment, Vivian decided that the best thing to do was lie. "No. Of course not. Uh . . . I was beginning to wonder if you had remembered. You know, about a daemon that might be roaming about the house. Can't have that."
Relief now flooded Cecile's eyes. That is . . . if the person standing before her was Cecile. "Don't worry, Mot . . . Mama. I am sure that Olivia has warned the others."
Vivian forced herself to smile. "Good. Why don't you get upstairs? Barbara is waiting for you. I'll tell the other bridesmaids." As she watched the other person climbed the staircase, her smile disappeared. Anxiety filled every inch of her heart. If the person she had spoken to had not been Cecile, where was her daughter?
Fighting down her rising anxiety, the middle-aged Vodoun priestess walked the west drawing room and past the double French doors. Upon entering the garden, she spotted Olivia talking to that attorney, who also happened to be a witch. Paul Something. The expression on the two witches' faces told Vivian that they were in the middle of a serious . . . and somewhat unpleasant conversation. But since she desperately needed help regarding Cecile, Vivian decided that now was not the time to worry about discretion. Heaving a deep breath, the Vodoun priestess walked over to the pair and interrupted them. "Excuse me, Livy? I need to talk to you. Right away."
Five minutes earlier, Olivia had just greeted the latest arriving guest, when she felt a tap on her left shoulder. "Olivia?"
She spun around and found Paul standing beside her. "Oh. Paul." Her mouth stretched into a smile. "Haven't you found a seat, yet?"
"Uh, not yet." The other witch hesitated, his eyes cast downward. "Listen, uh Olivia? I . . . I uh, tried to bring this up earlier, but . . . one of Inspector Morris' sons had interrupted." Darryl Jr. had been in search of the nearest bathroom. "And I realize that this can wait later, but I can't stop thinking about it. I need to get this off my chest."
Olivia frowned. "Need to get what off your chest?"
Again, Paul hesitated. "I . . . wanted to know if . . . if you would like to spend a weekend down in Monterey. There's this hotel in the downtown area . . . it's supposed to be well-known . . ."
"Oh, you mean the Monterey Hotel?" Olivia nodded. "I've been there, before. It's nearly a century old. A weekend there would be great. Cecile, Andre and her mother will be in town for another week or so. Maybe we can all . . ."
Paul interrupted with a slight cough. "Actually, I was thinking about the two of us. Alone." His blue-gray eyes radiated a longing that made Olivia feel uneasy. "I . . . well, I thought this would be a good time for us to grow a little closer. I'm . . . well, I guess I'm more than just a little attracted to you. And I would like . . ."
A sense of dread overwhelmed Olivia. Apparently, Paul had finally decided to take their relationship to another level. One that involved romance. And that was something that Olivia did not desire. "Oh," she finally said, before glancing away. "I see. Uh Paul . . ."
"Yeah?" Hope gleamed in his eyes. He looked so vulnerable. Olivia hated to disappoint him, but she had no choice. Of course, she only had herself to blame. Her impatience at Cole's persistence in maintaining a platonic friendship had led her to this moment. Along with Olivia's reluctance to approach Cole on her own.
She took a deep breath. "I'm sorry, Paul. But I'll have to say no. That is, if you're talking about a weekend for just the two of us."
Paul's face fell. "I . . . I don't understand. You're not . . .?"
"I like you, Paul. A lot," Olivia said, feeling like the lowest creature imaginable. "But that's all. I'm not interested in a romance . . ."
"At the moment," Paul quickly added. "I understand. Leo told me all about your . . . fiancé. It's been . . . what? A little over a year since his death? You're probably still grieving."
Realizing that Paul did not want to hear the truth, Olivia sighed. "Actually, that's not it. I'm just not in love with you, Paul. But I am interested in us being friends." She gave him a gentle smile. "I'm sorry."
Paul's entire body stiffened. His jaw twitched uncontrollably, and his eyes refused to meet hers. "I see," he finally answered in a cool tone. "Is there a . . . I guess you're interested in someone else. Like a certain half-demon, perhaps?"
The insinuation in the other witch's tone set off a spark of anger within Olivia. She took a few deep breaths to keep her temper in check. "I don't think that is any of your business," Olivia coolly replied. "Do you?"
A snort left Paul's mouth. "Shouldn't a fellow be aware of his rival?"
Olivia gave him a hard stare. "Your rival? For whose hand? Certainly not for mine."
Looking slightly embarrassed, Paul nodded. "I didn't . . . I mean I did . . ." He sighed. "Sorry. I didn't mean to imply . . ."
"Never mind," Olivia said. She paused momentarily to overcome her own embarrassment. "Listen Paul, I like you a lot. Really, I do. And although I'm not interested in a romance . . . with you, I would still like us to remain friends."
Once again, Paul nodded. "Yeah, I under. . ."
"Excuse me, Livy?" Vivian Dubois appeared beside the couple. "I need to talk to you. Right away."
Olivia gave Paul an apologetic look. "I'm sorry Paul," she began.
"Yeah, I understand." He flashed Vivian a brief smile. "Excuse me." Then he walked away.
Olivia faced her best friend's mother. "Is there something wrong?"
"I'm not sure, but . . ." Mrs. Dubois went on to explain an odd encounter with her daughter.
The door swung open and Nick entered the bedroom, smiling. "Good afternoon," he greeted cheerfully. "How are you feeling?"
Barbara glared at the Streghone. "Pissed off," she retorted. "How do you think I feel?"
Nick's benevolent smile remained fixed. "Well, I can't help that. You shouldn't have tried to escape."
Rolling her eyes, Barbara retorted, "Did you honestly think I was going to stay here like some chump and let you get away with hurting Bruce?"
Nick's smile disappeared. He shook his head. "Bruce, Bruce! It's always about Bruce, isn't it? I really don't understand what you see in that guy. He's so superficial!"
"And if you believe that," Barbara shot back, "you're a hell of a lot dumber than I now think you are."
Stepping closer, Nick's eyes burned with intensity that Barbara found disconcerting. "Can't you see that he's wrong for you? Oh sure, he's rich, handsome and a successful chef. But that's all there is to him. Superficial crap. He doesn't understand you the way I do. Or cherish you. For him, you're some kind of . . . I don't know . . . trophy. Another Stepford Wife. Someone who looks good, beside him. Whereas I . . ."
"You what?" Barbara demanded. "Know me better than anyone else? Please! I doubt it. If you did, you would have known that I would never chase after the first rich guy I meet. Do you really think I'm shallow enough to marry Bruce for his money? And by the way, you don't know him any better than you know me!"
Desperation surrounded Nick like a heavy fog. "Barbara! You don't know what you're saying! I thought we understood each other!"
"Well, you had obviously never understood me!" Barbara opened the door. A guard stood outside. "Now get the hell out!"
Nick slowly made his way toward the opened door. He paused and turned to stare at Barbara. "I had hoped you would understand what this was about. Understand that you don't need Bruce. But . . ."
"But what?" Barbara asked uneasily. "You're going to kill me, after all?"
"No." Nick assumed a calm air that Barbara found disconcerting. "No, I'll make sure that the Signorina Della Scalla keeps you alive. However, she is willing to help me find a way to convince you to become Mrs. Marcano - whether you like it or not." Nick gave her a serene smile that hinted an unbalanced mind. "And if I were you, I would seriously consider volunteering for the position."
Olivia knocked on the door to Barbara's bedroom, before entering. She found the bride, the bride's father and Cecile already inside. Philip Bowen was engaged in a conversation with someone on his cell phone, while Barbara and Cecile were busy in a private conversation. When Olivia approached her friends, they immediately stopped talking.
"Hey guys!" the redhead said with a smile. "Ready to start?"
A too bright smile appeared on Barbara's lips. Which surprised Olivia. The latter had expected a similar reaction from Cecile, following the conversation with Mrs. Dubois. But Barbara? "I'm ready than ever!" Barbara merrily chirped. She turned to her father. "Dad?"
Mr. Bowen acknowledged his daughter's question with a wave and continued his telephone conversation. Cecile added, "By the way, I told Barbara about . . . my vision. You know, the one about the daemon." A vision, as far as Olivia knew, did not exist.
Olivia smiled. "Great. Everyone will be keeping their eyes open. Especially now that the wedding is about to start."
Then to her surprise, Olivia saw Barbara's shoulders sag with relief. Interesting. Before she could further contemplate on the matter, Mr. Bowen ended his phone call. Both Paige and Barbara's other shop assistant, Madeline Oser, appeared. "Is the wedding about to start?" the Charmed One asked.
Mr. Bowen smiled broadly. "Right now." Then he offered his arm to the bride-to-be. "Ready sweetheart?"
"Ready." Barbara looped her arm through her father's. "Let's go." She and Mr. Bowen slowly marched out of the room, with Paige, Madeline and the possible phony Cecile, close at their heels.
Olivia hesitated, as her mind tried to ascertain Vivian Dubois' words and Barbara's odd behavior. When the Vodoun priestess had told her about the possibility of Cecile being a daemon in disguise, Olivia had assumed that the phony Lee Carver had someone managed to kidnap or kill the real Cecile and assume the latter's place. As a bridesmaid, the phony Cecile would be in a perfect position to strike the groom, the bride or both. But now, Olivia began to wonder about the bride's odd behavior. Was that the real Barbara slowly walking out of the bedroom with Mr. Bowen, or . . .?
Cecile scuttled back into the bedroom. "Are you not coming?"
Ah yes, the formal dialogue. Keeping her suspicions in check, Olivia gave a quick nod. "Sure." Then she followed the other bridesmaid out of the room.
Inside the McNeills' greenhouse, Cecile struggled into a sitting position. A dull pain throbbed the nape of her neck, which did not surprise her. While probing that area, she came across a slight bump - a result of someone knocking her unconscious.
Cecile continued to rub the back of her neck, as she slowly stood up. She glanced around the greenhouse and noticed two piles of ashes. Unfortunately, Cecile noticed something else - namely a certain mythological plant that seemed to be missing. She groaned aloud. When the McNeills hear about Barbara's missing plant, they will have a fit. She could only imagine how Bruce and Mr. Bowen will react once they learn that the bride is actually a powerful succubus.
Still feeling groggy, Cecile made her way toward the door. She gripped the knob and turned. Unfortunately, the damn thing refused to budge. "Shit!" Whoever had knocked her unconscious, had also locked her inside this damn greenhouse. Cecile found herself wishing that she had Olivia's telekinesis power. Visions simply did not unlock doors. Nor did telepa . . . An idea came to her. One that would get her out of this place.
Cecile's eyes scanned the greenhouse, until they fell upon an empty chair sitting in front of a row of green tomatoes. She sat down, took a deep breath, closed her eyes and began to chant in Fon. Slowly, Cecile felt her essence leave her body. When her eyes flew open, she discovered to her satisfaction that she had astral projected outside the greenhouse. Perfect! Cecile unfastened the lock. Then she stood still and willed her essence back into her body.
Seconds later, she stood from the chair, and slowly made her way out of the greenhouse. A curse emitted from her mouth. The astral projection had left Cecile feeling a little sluggish. Which she had to recover from, in order to reach the garden and stop the wedding in time.
END OF PART IV - Part 1