"THE ENGAGEMENT NEWS"
Several minutes before the dinner party had ended, Cole and Olivia had bid her family and their guests, good-bye. Seconds later, the couple teleported in front of an elegant, Georgian manor situated in the middle of a country estate. A frowning Olivia glanced around. "Where are we?" she asked.
"My mother's estate in the Pelennor dimension," Cole replied. "Which is not part of the Source's Realm, by the way."
One reddish brow formed an arch. "Considering that there is no Source, that's not really a surprise."
Cole smiled. "There might not be a Source, but the Realm still exists. Just consider it a minor situation that will not last forever." He reached for the door's knocker and banged it several times.
Nearly three minutes passed, before a man with a tall, thin frame opened the door. His pale skin contrasted starkly against his dark hair and eyes. "In Ursiel's name!" he cried, as he looked upon the visitors. "Belthazor?"
A thin smile stretched Cole's lips. "Good evening, Ascaroth. Is my mother at home?"
"I . . . uh, . . ." The daemon's gaze shifted toward Olivia. "Yes," he slowly replied. "Who is this?"
"A friend," Cole answered in a curt voice. "Now, will you please take me to my mother?"
Ascaroth hummed and hemmed a bit. Cole recalled the other daemon's gesture very well. His mother's private secretary for over a century, Ascaroth happened to be considered among the best in his position. Even Raynor, the Thorn Brotherhood's former leader, had once tried to lure the other daemon from Nimue's service. However, Ascaroth proved to be very loyal and steadfast to Cole's mother.
Cole heaved an irritated sigh and added, "Is there a problem?"
The daemon replied, "Your mother has a . . . visitor. A very important one. And I'm not sure if they would like the idea of your . . . friend appearing before them. Unexpected."
Cole pointedly retorted, "Then why don't you announce us, first?"
"Of course." Ascaroth ushered the couple inside the manor's elegant foyer. He disappeared for a few minutes, while Cole and Olivia admired the decor which seemed similar to the kind that originated in late 18th and early 19th centuries on Earth. Finally, Ascaroth returned with a slightly stunned expression on his face. "Nimue will now see you both," he breathlessly announced. "This way."
The couple followed Ascaroth through a wide corridor that led them to what appeared to be a spacious library. The latter held rows of books on a wide shelf, a rosewood liquor cabinet and more Georgian-style furnishings. The pale-faced daemon gravely announced, "Belthazor is here to see you, Nimue. Along with his . . . friend."
Cole struggled to suppress the array of emotions that battered him, as his mother approached him. She looked elegant and beautiful, as always. "Belthazor," she greeted warmly. "This is a surprise. I did not think we would see each other so soon, after our last meeting."
"Neither did I, Mother." Cole felt a brief flash of . . . something, as Nimue planted a light, maternal kiss on his cheek.
Nimue focused upon Olivia. "And Miss McNeill . . . once again we meet." She held out her hand to the redhead. Who graciously shook it.
"Mrs. Tur . . . I mean, Nimue, it's nice to meet you, again," Olivia replied.
The demoness suggested they all sit down. When Cole finally eased into an empty chair, he continued, "Ascaroth had said something about a visitor." He glanced around. "What happened to him? Or her?"
"He left," Nimue simply stated.
A sigh left Nimue's mouth. "If you must know, Belthazor, Lohdon had paid me a visit."
Cole frowned. "From the Fornost Order? What business did you have with him?"
Nimue lifted one elegant brow. "Really, Belthazor. Is this visit about you and Miss McNeill, or about matters that are supposedly no longer your concern? Or do you still consider yourself part of the Thorn Order?"
Incensed by his mother's caustic evasiveness, Cole stood up. "We're leaving."
Olivia shot him a warning glance. "Cole."
He sighed. "You're right, Mother." He sat back down in the chair. "Your business is none of my concern. Although, I am surprised that you have changed the name of the brotherhood. The 'Thorn Order'?"
"Why not?" Nimue softly protested. "The Thorn Brotherhood sounds so . . . sexist. After all, this is a new era, and I don't see how I - a female - could be head of something called a brotherhood?" A tart smile briefly stretched her lips. "Now, what brings you here?"
A sigh left Cole's mouth. He glanced at Olivia. "Actually . . . we have some important news. Olivia and I . . . are engaged. To be married." He stared at his mother in an attempt to gauge her reaction.
The demoness' blue eyes widened in shock. She stared at her son in silence. And finally, his fiancée. A gust of breath escaped her mouth, as she finally recovered from the surprise. "Well!" Nimue declared breathlessly. "This is certainly a surprise. When did this . . .?"
"Sunday," Cole said. He eyed his mother, carefully. "I had proposed to Olivia, Sunday night."
Nodding, the demoness replied, "I see." Then she stood up and held her arms wide open, smiling. "Well then, give us a hug. It's not everyday that a mother's son becomes engaged."
Reluctantly, Cole stood up and allowed his mother to envelope him into her arms. Overwhelmed by her response, he returned the hug. Then Nimue planted a light kiss on his cheek. "Congratulations, darling. I'm so happy for you."
"Thank you, Mother," Cole replied in a voice, heavy with emotion.
Then Nimue turned to Olivia. "Congratulations, my dear. Welcome to the family." She hugged the witch, who thanked her. "So, when will the happy event occur?"
Olivia said, "In another three or four weeks."
"It will be a Wiccan ceremony," Cole added.
Nimue smiled. "Of course, my dear. But you should have a daemonic ceremony, as well."
"Mother . . ."
"Not with a dark priest, silly," the demoness lightly reproached her son. "With a priest from the Gimle Order. I'm sure that your uncle can make arrangements."
Rolling his eyes, Cole firmly added, "I don't think that Olivia or her family would be comfortable with a daemonic . . ."
"I wouldn't mind," Olivia said, interrupting. "As long as we don't end up being married by a dark priest."
Cole stared at his fiancée in shock. "Olivia!"
"For heaven's sake, Cole - we're going to have a mixed marriage, anyway. And considering my family background, I don't really see the problem."
Curiosity illuminated in Nimue's eyes. "Family background?"
"My family has just learned from a cousin of ours about a few surprising members in the family line. A pair of daemons, as a matter of fact. Well . . . actually three."
Nimue looked thunderstruck. "In Caspiel's name!" She paused in an attempt to catch her breath. "Well! In that case, I do need to speak to Marbus about a priest or priestess."
"Wait a minute!" Cole protested. "What if I don't want one?"
Olivia stared at her fiancé. "Why not? If you can be married in a Wiccan ceremony, surely I can be married by a Gimle priest."
"But . . ."
Nimue added, "It's settled. I'll talk with Marbus. And I would also like to hold a little engagement party, as well."
"Don't you think that some of your . . . acquaintances will be reluctant to attend a party in honor of me and my 'witch' fiancée?"
The demoness did not seem concerned by her son's words. "Perhaps," she said with a shrug of her shoulders. "Considering whom your previous wife was. However, dear Olivia strikes me as a different kettle of fish. And as long as she doesn't turn her back on you, kill you or try to kill your uncle, I'm sure that . . . 'my' acquaintances will get along just fine with her." She punctuated her words with a bright smile.
A slight guffaw escaped from Olivia's mouth. The snipe at Phoebe could not have been more obvious. Cole heaved a silent sigh and thanked every deity in existence that his mother and Phoebe had never met before his first wedding. "By the way," he added, "when do you plan to hold this little soiree?"
Nimue shrugged her elegant shoulders. "I have not set a date, yet. Perhaps a week before the wedding? I will let you know."
"Well . . . good evening, Mother." Cole kissed his mother's cheek. "It's been a long day for both Olivia and myself and we both need to get home."
Olivia offered her hand to the demoness. "It was nice meeting you again . . . Nimue."
Cole's mother shook the offered hand. "Same here, my dear. And once again, welcome to the family."
The engaged couple then teleported back to Olivia's apartment in San Francisco. The redhead sighed with relief. "Well, that didn't seem too bad. Quite pleasant, I thought."
"Why did you agree to Mother's idea of a daemonic wedding ceremony?" Cole immediately demanded.
Olivia shot back, "Why not? Since we'll be having a Wiccan ceremony, why not a daemonic one, as well?"
Cole stared at his fiancée, wondering if she had lost her mind. "You know what happened the last time I ended up married by a daemonic priest."
"A 'dark' priest, as I recall. And I believe that you were possessed at the time." Olivia strode toward the kitchen. "Besides, your mother did say that she would leave it all up to Marbus and his wife to find a priest from the Gimle Order. Right?" Cole opened his mouth to protest, but Olivia continued. "Look Cole, since you're not Wiccan, I see no reason why we can't be married in both a Wiccan and a daemonic ceremony. After all, we'll be having a mixed marriage. I see no reason not to have double ceremonies."
A sigh left Cole's mouth. "All right. If you insist."
"Then why do you still look troubled?" Olivia asked. She slid her arms around Cole's neck.
He replied, "I'm not troubled, just curious." Cole drew Olivia into his arms. "About Mother's other visitor. I'm wondering about the reason behind Lohdon's visit. He's the head of the Fornost Order."
Olivia shrugged. "Daemonic business, perhaps?"
"Perhaps. But something tells me that this 'business' might turn out to be a bigger deal than any of us can imagine."
The Elders Council - at least three-quarters of its members - stared at their colleague in shock. "My God!" one of Leo's fellow Elders declared. "Belthazor and the witch are getting married? When?"
Leo sighed. "I'm sorry Gideon, but neither Olivia or Cole had bother to give me a wedding date. In fact, Piper was the one who told me."
"Should we even allow this to happen?" demanded another Elder. She was a tall, blond woman named Sandra.
Natalia Stopanova, the Council's official "rebel", rolled her eyes in contempt. "My dear Sandra, what makes you think we have the right to prevent this marriage from happening? Ms. McNeill does not acknowledge the Council's authority. Mr. Turner is a half-demon. That would mean . . . we do not have the right to interfere."
Gideon commented, "But a union between those two could mean a great deal of danger for the magical world in the future. Can you imagine the power possessed by the child of the Aingeal Staff Bearer and a powerful demon like Belthazor?"
"There is already a child of great power who exists," Natalia pointed out. "Leo's son. And I do not see us rushing forward to destroy him."
The Council continued to squabble over the issue of Olivia and Cole's upcoming marriage. Meanwhile, Natalia's words reminded Leo of a previous attack upon his son and former wife. He had originally assumed that a Voudon sorceress named Daley Bakker had been responsible for the attack. However, Cole and his friend, Andre Morrell had proven that someone else had hired a demonic assassin named Nairn to attack Piper and Wyatt. Someone who was an immortal, but not a demon. Leo wondered if this mysterious someone would continue his or her attacks upon his son. Another question filled his mind. If Olivia and Cole do get married, will the attacks shift toward them?
"Say that again?" Jason's voice rang with disbelief.
Phoebe sighed and repeated her statement. "I've decided to join you in Hong Kong. Just for a while. You know."
Jason's next question took Phoebe by surprise. "Why?"
"I . . ." Jason paused momentarily. "I mean . . . I don't get it. You've been resisting my suggestion for the last few days. Now, all of a sudden, you want to join me. Why?"
Surprised by her boyfriend's lack of enthusiasm, Phoebe asked, "Jason, what's the problem? I want to go with you to Hong Kong."
The billionaire replied, "There's no problem. Except . . . does this have anything to do with Olivia's engagement to your ex-husband?"
Caught off guard by Jason's question, Phoebe could only grunt another, "Huh?"
"What? You didn't know about Olivia and Turner's engagement? Cecile Dubois told me about it, this morning."
For the sake of peace in her relationship, Phoebe decided to lie. "No. No, I didn't." She paused dramatically. "Cole and Olivia are engaged? No one told me!"
His voice slightly tinged with disbelief, Jason exclaimed, "You didn't know?"
"Of course not!" Phoebe hoped that she sounded suitably outraged. "Jason, what are you insinuating?"
Jason hastily replied, "Nothing! Nothing, I . . ." He chuckled. "It's just my insecurity getting the best of me. Baby, I'm sorry. I'm just glad that you've decided to join me. You won't regret it. I swear."
"I know I won't," Phoebe said. "Bye sweetie." After Jason had bid her good-bye, the Charmed One disconnected the line. She stared at the cordless phone in her hand and added under her breath, "I hope I won't."
Her emotions in turmoil, Phoebe left her bedroom and made her way, downstairs. She found Paige inside the kitchen, rummaging through the refrigerator. "Hey," she greeted her younger sister. "How was the party?"
Slowly, Paige stood up and closed the refrigerator's door. She sighed. Long and hard. "Oh . . . revealing. And very interesting." Another sigh left her mouth, as she sat down in a chair. "How was your evening?"
Phoebe hesitated, before she answered. "I just got off the phone with Jason. I, um . . . I've decided to accompany him to Hong Kong." She paused and waited for Paige's reaction.
"Oh," the younger woman finally said. "Congratulations." She scrutinized Phoebe through narrowed eyes. "I guess that Cole's engagement must have changed your mind."
The middle Charmed One immediately protested. "What makes you think that Cole's engagement had anything . . .?"
Rolling her eyes, Paige interrupted. "Phoebe? Please! Don't insult my intelligence. I saw the expression on your face, earlier this evening," she said in a sarcastic tone. "Harry told me what happened."
This time, Phoebe sighed. "Okay. Maybe Cole's engagement did come as a shock. And maybe . . . some time with Jason in Hong Kong will help me . . ."
". . .get over your 'shock'," Paige finished.
"Yeah." Phoebe paused, as her mind recalled her two-year relationship with Cole. "You know, I sometimes wonder what would have happened if Cole had never been possessed by the Source. Do you think we would still be together? Happy?"
Paige shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know. Would you two still be together if whatshername - Emily - had not used that power-stripping potion on him?"
Recalling that particular incident, Phoebe winced. She had inadvertently left a power-stripping potion that she and her sisters created, in her dresser drawer. Over two years ago, the girlfriend of a witch that Cole had killed several years earlier, had found it. And used it on the half-demon. The incident had eventually led to Cole becoming possessed by the Source. And yet . . . deep inside of her, Phoebe realized that she would have never accepted Cole's marriage proposal if he had remained part-demon. "It wouldn't have worked out between us," she finally admitted. "Not if he had remained part demon."
"So, you could sleep with a half-demon, but not marry him."
"Paige!" The younger woman's sarcastic words touched a raw nerve in Phoebe. "Boy, someone must have slipped a burr up your ass! What's wrong with you?"
Paige replied quietly, "Nothing."
Phoebe detected a hint of anxiety in her sister's voice. "C'mon Paige! What's wrong? I can feel . . ." She broke off at the sight of Paige's annoyed expression. "I mean, you had said something about tonight's party being revealing. What did you mean?"
With a sigh, Paige told Phoebe about the dinner party at the McNeills' home. And about meeting the family's Australian cousin, Sean McNeill. Paige also told the older woman about the cousin's revelation about the McNeill family line. Shocked, Phoebe stared at her sister, open-mouthed. "Are you serious? The McNeills are descended from three demons? And one of them is still alive?"
"My God! That means . . ." Phoebe contemplated the consequences of a union between her sister and Harry McNeill. "My God! If you ever decide to marry Harry . . ."
Paige shot Phoebe a resentful look. "What makes you think I'll ever be interested in becoming Harry's wife?"
Phoebe closed her eyes and sighed. And to think that the family considered her 'self-delusional'. "Paige, I'm empathic. I know how you feel about Harry."
The younger woman rolled her eyes. "Well, it doesn't matter how I feel, Phoebe. Not anymore. If Harry and I ever . . ." She broke off, obviously unable to finish.
"I understand, honey." Phoebe's voice oozed with pity and compassion. "That would mean your kids will end up descended from three demons. I guess you understand why I was willing to marry Cole - only after he became human."
Another sigh left Paige's mouth. "Yeah. I understand."