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23.12.2018

COUNTING ON PAPERWORK TO KEEP HIM BUSY and distracted, Fox settled down in his home office. Flipping his CD player to shuffle for the variety and surprise factors, he prepared to make up for the fractured workday with a couple of hours at his desk.

He drafted some court petitions on an estate case he hoped to wrap up within another ninety days, shifted to fine-tune a letter of response to opposing counsel on a personal injury matter, then moved on to adjusting the language in a partnership agreement.

He loved the law, the curves and angles of it, its flourishes and hard lines. But at the moment, he was forced to admit, the work couldn't light a spark in him. He'd be better off cruising ESPN.

The file he'd put together for Layla still sat on his desk. Because it annoyed him, Fox dropped it in a drawer. Stupid, he thought. Stupid to think he understood her simply because he usually understood people. Stupid to think he knew what she wanted because it was what he wanted.

Love, he had good reason to know, didn't always do the job.

Better to stay in the moment, he reminded himself. He was good at that, had always been good at that. Much better to focus on the now than to push himself, and Layla, toward some blurry and nebulous tomorrow. She had a point about there being no clear future for the town. Who the hell wanted to set up shop in a place that might not exist in a few months? Why should anyone invest the time and the energy, plant the roots, sweat it out, and hope the good guys won in the end? They'd all gotten today's ugly memo that the clock was ticking down for the Hollow, and for the six of them.

And that was bullshit. Annoyed, he shoved away from the desk. That was absolute bullshit. If people thought that way why did they bother to get the hell out of bed in the morning? Why did most of them at least try to do the right thing, or at least their version of it? Why buy a house or have kids, or hell, buy season tickets if tomorrow was so damn uncertain?

Maybe he'd been stupid to assume where Layla was concerned-he'd cop to that. But she was just as stupid to back away from what they could make together because tomorrow wasn't lined up in neat columns. What he needed was a different approach, he realized. For Christ's sake, he was a lawyer, he knew how to change angles, detour around obstacles and reroute to the goal. He knew about compromise and negotiation and finding that middle ground.

So what was the goal? he asked himself as he wandered to the window.

Saving the town and the people in it, destroying the evil that wanted to suck it dry. Those were the big ones, but if he set those life-and-death matters aside, what was Fox B. O'Dell's goal?

Layla. A life with Layla. Everything else was just details. He'd fumbled the ball on the way to the goal because he'd gotten bogged down with details. The first thing to do was carve them away. Once he did, what was left was a guy and a girl. It was as simple and as complex as that.

He turned back to his desk. He'd toss the file, it was just a symbol of those details. As he reached for the drawer, the knock at the door had him frowning. It had to be Gage or Cal, he thought as he walked out of the office to answer. He didn't have time to hang out. He needed to work on his more simplified, whittled-down approach to winning the woman he loved.

When he opened the door, the woman he loved stood on the other side.

"Hey, I was just… Are you alone?" His tone changed from flustered surprise to irritation as he grabbed her hand and pulled her inside. "What are you thinking, wandering around town at night alone?"

"Don't start on me. Twisse will go under after a day like this, and I wasn't wandering. I came straight here. You didn't come back."

"We don't know what the hell Twisse might be able to do after a day like this. And I didn't come back because I figured you'd want to get some sleep. Besides, before this afternoon's performance, you weren't real happy with me."

"Which is exactly why I thought you'd come back, so we could talk about it." She poked a finger at his chest. "You don't get to be mad at me over this."

"Excuse me?"

"You heard me. You don't get to be mad because I didn't jump headfirst into plans you made without consulting me."

"Wait a damn minute."

"No, I will not wait a damn minute. You decided what I should do for the rest of my life, where I should live, how I should make my living. You made a file." Indignation flashed from her eyes, her voice. From where he was standing, it all but flashed out of her fingertips. "I wouldn't be surprised if it includes paint chips and possible names for this imaginary boutique."

"I was thinking puce, color-wise. I don't think puce gets enough play. As for names, topping my list right now is Get a Fucking Grip-but it probably needs work."

"Don't curse at me, or try to make this a joke."

"If those are your two requirements, you're in the wrong place with the wrong guy. I'll drive you home."

"You will not." Feet planted, she folded her arms. "I'll walk when I'm ready to go, and I'm not ready. Don't even think about kicking me out or I'll-"

"What?" How could he help but make it a joke? It was ludicrous. He lifted his fists in a boxing pose. "Think you can take me?"

The temper that gushed out of her was hot enough to boil the air. "Don't tempt me. You sprang this on me. Out of the blue, then when I don't do a happy dance and fling myself into the program, you walk away. You tell me you love me, and you walk away."

"Sorry, I guess I needed a little alone time after realizing the woman I'm in love with isn't interested in building a life with me."

"I didn't say-I never meant… Hell." Layla covered her face with her hands, took several deep breaths. The anger evaporated as she lowered her hands. "I told you once you scare me. You don't understand that. You're not easily scared."

"That's not true."

"Oh, yes, yes, it is. You've lived with this threat too long to be easily scared. You face things. Some of it's circumstance, some of it's just your nature, but you face what comes at you. I haven't had to do a lot of that. Things were pretty ordinary for me, right up until February. No big bumps in my road, no particularly big moments. All in all, I think I'm doing reasonably well. All in all," she repeated on a sigh as she began to wander the room.

"You're doing fine."

"I'm scared of what's here, of what's coming, what may happen. I don't have Quinn's energy or Cybil's… savoir faire," she decided. "I do have persistence, once I commit to something I do my best to see it through, and I have a way of putting the big picture into components that I can reason out. So that's something. It's not as overwhelming, not as frightening when you have those smaller pieces to work with. But I can't seem to reason things out with you and me, Fox. And that scares me."

She turned back to him. "It scares me that I've never felt for anyone what I feel for you. And I told myself it was okay, it was all right to have all these feelings rush in and grab me. Because everything's crazy. But the fact is, it's all crazy, but it's all real. What's happening around us, what's happening inside me, it's all real. I just don't know what to do about it."

"And I added to the mix with the idea of starting a business here, making it more complicated and scary. Understood. We'll take it off the table. I didn't look into it to put pressure on you. We've all got enough of that as it is."

"I wanted to be mad, because it's easier to be mad than scared. I don't want to be at odds with you, Fox. Everything that happened today… you were there. I woke up from that nightmare, and you were right there. Then you didn't come back." She closed her eyes. "You didn't come back."

"I didn't go far."

Emotion swam into her eyes when she opened them. "I thought you might have. And that scared me more than anything else."

"I love you," he said simply. "Where would I go?"

She launched herself into his arms. "Don't go far." Her mouth found his. "Don't kick me out. Let me be with you."

"Layla." He took her face in his hands, easing her back until their eyes met. "All I want at the end of the day is for you to be with me."

"I'm here. It's the end of the day, and I'm here. That's where I want to be."

Her lips were so soft, so giving. Her sigh, as her body molded to his, like music. Her hands brushed his face, through his hair as he circled her toward the bedroom. And in the dark, they lowered to the bed. She reached out, their legs tangling as they lay facing each other. As they stirred each other with long, lingering kisses, he could see the gleam of her eyes in the dark, the curve of her cheek, feel the shape of her lips and the beat of her heart against his.

She shifted, kneeling to unbutton his shirt. Then her body bowed down as she pressed her lips to his heart. Lightly, her fingertips grazed down his sides as her mouth brushed, her tongue slicked along his skin. She felt his muscles quiver as she trailed those slow openmouthed kisses over his belly, as she flipped open the button of his jeans.

She wanted him to quiver.

She eased the zipper down, a slick hiss of sound in the dark, and drew denim down those narrow hips where the skin was warm. He groaned as she pleasured him.

She ruled his body. Her mouth and hands guided him slowly, inexorably into the rocking sea of heat until he was drenched in it. And when the blood began to burn under his skin, she shifted again. He heard the soft rustle as she undressed.

"I want to ask you for something." She came toward him across the bed on her hands and knees and his mouth went dry as dust.

"If you want a favor, this is probably a good time to ask for it."

Teasing, she lowered her lips to his, brushed, retreated. When he cupped the back of her head to bring her mouth to his again, she took it, brought it to her breast.

"When you touch me, when you make love with me, when you're inside me, can you feel what I feel? Can I feel what you feel? I want that with you. I want to know what it's like to be together that way, when we're like this."

A gift, he thought, of complete trust, on both sides. He sat up, looked into her eyes. "Open," he murmured, and rubbed his lips to hers. "Just open."

He felt her nerves, her needs, and the thoughts that came and went in her head like soft shimmers. To be wanted, to be touched. By him. When her hands ran up his back, he knew both her pleasure and her approval. He knew the press of their bodies, the beats of their hearts.

Then easing her down, he deepened the kiss. And opened himself to her.

At first it was like a sigh, through her body, through her mind. She thought: Lovely. It's lovely. Anticipation built. She turned her head to give him the pulse in her throat when she felt his need to taste there.

Her breath caught, a quick little shock when his mouth took her breast. So much to feel, to know, she trembled with each new sensation that slipped and slid inside her, around her. His hands, her skin, his lips, her taste. Her needs tied, tangled with his on a free-falling leap.

Greed-was it hers or his that had her rolling over the bed with him, desperate for more, and the more only unleashed new, wild cravings. His hands used her, rougher than before, answering her unspoken demands. Take, take, take. Pleasure swelled, unfurled, then burst with shock after radiant shock.

Her nails bit, his teeth nipped. And when he drove into her she thought she'd go mad from the force of mingled power.

"Stay with me, stay with me." Desperate, delirious, she wrapped her legs around him like chains when she sensed him start to close off. Pleasure, a two-edged sword, was brutally keen. She gripped it with him.

She held his body, his thoughts, his heart, until neither could hold any longer.

He sprawled facedown on the bed, head swimming, lungs laboring. He didn't have the strength, as yet, to ask her if she was all right, much less to try to link to make sure for himself.

She'd taken him apart, and he wasn't quite capable of putting himself back together. None of his thoughts would coalesce. He wasn't quite sure if there weren't still echoes of hers inside him.

Still, after a few minutes, he realized he might die of thirst if he didn't crawl off for water.

"Water." He croaked it out.

"God. Please."

He started to roll, bumped her where she'd flung herself crossways on the bed. "Sorry."

He only grunted as he got his feet on the floor, then stumbled his way to the kitchen. The light in the refrigerator branded his eyes like the blaze of the sun. With one hand pressed over them, Fox felt his way over the shelves for a bottle of water.

He drank half of it where he stood, naked in front of the open refrigerator, his eyes slammed shut against any source of light. Steadier, he opened his eyes to slits, grabbed a second bottle and took it into the bedroom.

She hadn't moved a muscle.

"Are you all right? Did I-"

"Water." Her hand flayed in the air. "Water."

He opened the bottle, then slid an arm under her to prop her up. Leaning back against his arm she drank with the same urgent gusto as he had.

"Are your ears ringing?" she asked him. "My ears are ringing. And I think I may be blind."

He hauled her around so she was propped against the pillows instead of his arm, then he switched on the bedside light.

She screamed and slapped a hand over her eyes. "Okay, I wasn't blind, but now I may be." Cautiously she peeked out between two spread fingers. "Have you ever…"

"No. That was the first." Because his legs were still a little weak, he sat down beside her. Which was too bad, he mused, because he'd liked the full-length view. "Intense."

"Intense is too mild a word. There isn't a word. They need to invent one. I guess that's not something we could handle every time."

"Save it for special occasions."

She smiled and stirred up the energy to sit up, rest her head on his shoulder. "Arbor Day's coming up, I think. That's pretty special."

He laughed, turned his head to rub his cheek against her hair. I love you, he thought, but kept the words to himself this time.

SINCE FOX HAD OUTSIDE MEETINGS, LAYLA TOOK advantage of a slow afternoon to read over portions of Ann Hawkins's third journal. There was not, as they'd hoped, a spell, a formula, step-by-step directions on how to kill a centuries-old demon. It led Layla to believe Giles Dent hadn't told his lover the answers. Cybil's take was more mystical, Layla supposed. If Ann knew, she also knew that whatever needed to be done to end Twisse would be diluted, even invalidated if the answers were simply handed over.

That seemed too cryptic and irritating to Layla, so she spent considerable time trying to read between the lines. And came away from it frustrated and headachy. Why couldn't people just be straightforward. She liked step-by-step directions. And she was sure as hell going to record them, if they ever found them, used them, and were successful, on the off-chance some future generation had a similar problem.

"Why don't you come back here?" Layla muttered. "Come on back and talk to me, Ann. Just spell it out. Then we'll all go about our normal lives."

Even as she said it, Layla heard the front door creak open. She bulleted to her feet. Brian O'Dell sauntered in.

"Hey, Layla. Sorry, did I startle you?"

"No. A little. I wasn't expecting anyone. Fox is out of the office this afternoon."

"Oh. Well." Brian dipped his hands in his pockets, rocked back on his heels. "I was in town, thought I'd drop in."

"He probably won't be back until after six. If you want to leave a message-"

"No. No big. You know, since I'm here, maybe I'll just go back." He pulled a hand free to gesture with his thumb. "Fox is talking about new flooring in the kitchen, and a couple of things. I'll just go measure. Want any coffee or anything?"

Layla tilted her head. "How are you going to measure without a measuring tape?"

"Right. Right. I'll get one out of the truck."

"Mr. O'Dell, did Fox ask you to come in this afternoon?"

"Ah. He's not here."

"Exactly." Like the son, Layla thought, the father was a poor liar. "So he asked if you'd come in, check on me. Which I might not have copped to except that your wife dropped in about an hour ago, with a dozen eggs. Putting that together with this, I smell babysitters."

Brian grinned, scratched his head. "Busted. He doesn't like you being here alone. I can't say I blame him." He strolled over, dropped into one of the visitors' chairs. "I hope you're not going to give him a hard time about it."

"No." She sighed, sat herself. "I guess, one way or another, we all worry about each other. But I've got my cell in my pocket, and everyone I know on speed dial. Mr. O'Dell-"

"Brian."

"Brian. How do you handle it? Knowing what's happening, what may happen to Fox?"

"You know, I was nineteen when Sage was born." In the language of a man settling in for a spell, he propped one work-booted foot on his knee. "Jo was eighteen. Couple of kids who thought we knew it all, had it all covered. Then, you have a kid of your own, and the whole world shifts. There's a part of me that's been worried for thirty-three years now." He smiled as he said it. "I guess there's just more parts of me worried when it comes to Fox. And truth? It pisses me off that he had his childhood, his innocence stolen from him. He came home that day, his tenth birthday, and he was never a little boy, not in the same way, again."

"Did he tell you what happened? The morning he came back from the Pagan Stone?"

"I like to think we got a lot right with our kids, but one thing I know we got right. They know they can tell us anything. He'd spun that one about camping out in Cal's backyard, but Jo and I saw through that."

"You knew he was going to spend the night in the woods?"

"We knew he was taking an adventure, and we gave him the room. If we hadn't, he'd've found a way around it. Birds have to fledge. You can't stop it, no matter how much you want to keep them safe in the nest."

He paused a moment, and Layla could see him looking back, wondered what it was like to look back over the course of another's lifetime. Someone you loved.

"He had Gage with him when he came home," Brian continued. "You could see, in both of them, something had changed. Then they told us, and everything changed. We talked about leaving. Jo and I talked about selling the farm and moving on. But he needed to be here. After the week was up, we all thought it was over. But more than that, we knew Fox needed to be here, with Cal and Gage."

"You've seen him face this three times before, and now he's facing it again. I think it must take tremendous courage to accept what he's doing. Not to try to stop him."

The smile was easy, the smile clear. "It's not courage, it's faith. I have complete faith in Fox. He's the best man I know."

Brian stayed until she closed the office, then insisted on driving her home. The best man I know, she mused as she walked in the house. Was there a higher tribute from father to son? She walked upstairs to take the journal back to the home office.

Quinn sat at her desk, scowling at her monitor.

"How's it going?"

"Crappy. I'm on deadline with the article, and I can't keep my head in the game."

"Sorry. I'll go down, give you the room."

"No. Shit." She shoved away. "I shouldn't have said I'd write the stupid article except, hello, money. But we've been pushing on this idea of the blood ritual, and clever words to go with it, and Cybil's snarly."

"Where is she?"

"Working in her room because apparently I think too loud." Quinn waved it away. "We get like this with each other if we work on a project for any serious length of time. Only she gets like this more. I wish I had a cookie." Quinn propped her chin on her hand. "I wish I had a bag of Milanos. Crap." She picked up the apple from the desk, bit in. "What are you smiling at, size freaking two?"

"Four, and I'm smiling because it's reassuring to come home and find you in this lousy mood wishing for cookies, and Cybil holed up in her room. It's so normal."

With something between a grunt and a snort, Quinn took another bite of apple. "My mother sent a swatch for bridesmaids' gowns. It's fuchsia. How's that for normal, Sunny Jane?"

"I could wear fuchsia if I had to. Please don't make me."

Blue eyes wickedly amused, Quinn chewed and smiled. "Cyb would look horrible in fuchsia. If she keeps crabbing at me, I'll make her wear it. You know what? We need to get out of here for a while. All work, no play. We're taking tomorrow off and shopping for my wedding dress."

"Seriously?"

"Seriously."

"I thought you'd never ask. I've been dying to do this. Where-"

Layla turned as Cybil's door opened. "We're going shopping. For Quinn's wedding gown."

"Good, that's good." At the doorway, Cybil leaned on the jamb, studied both her friends. "That's what we could call a ritual-a white one, a female one. Unless we want to take a closer look at the symbolism. White equals virginal, veil equals submission-"

"We don't," Quinn interrupted. "I will, without shame, toss my feminist principles to the wind for the perfect wedding dress. I'll live with it."

"Right. Well, anyway…" Absently, Cybil shoved back her mass of hair. "It's still a female ritual. Maybe it'll balance out what we'll be doing in another two weeks. Blood magic."

FOX DROVE STRAIGHT TO LAYLA'S AFTER HIS APPOINTMENTS. She opened the door as he started up the walk, her hair swinging, her lips curved in a welcoming smile. Could he help it if that was exactly what he hoped to come home to every night?

"Hey." He leaned down to kiss her, leaned up and cocked his head at the absent response. "Why don't we try that again?"

"Sorry. I'm distracted." She took the lapels of his jacket in her hands, and put herself into the kiss.

"That's what I'm talking about." But he saw now there was no reflection of that smile of greeting in her eyes. "What's the matter?"

"Did you get my voice mail?"

"Meeting here, as soon as I could make it. I made it."

"We're in the living room. It's-Cybil thinks she's nailed down the blood ritual."

"Fun and games for all." Concerned, he brushed his thumb over her cheekbone. "What's the problem?"

"She- She's waiting until you get here to explain it to the three of you."

"Whatever she explained to you didn't put roses in your cheeks."

"Some of the variables on the potential outcome aren't rosy." She took his hand. "You'd better hear it for yourself. But before… I have to tell you something else."

"Okay."

"Fox…" Her fingers tightened on his, as if in comfort. "Can we just sit here a minute?"

They sat on the porch steps, looking out at the quiet street. Her hands clasped on her knee, one of her signs- Gage would call it a tell-of nerves. "How bad is it?" Fox asked her.

"I don't know. I don't know how you'll feel about it." She pressed her lips together once, hard. "I'm going to say it straight out, then you can take whatever time you need to, well, absorb it. Carly was connected. To this. She was a descendent of Hester Deale's."

It hit him, a hard, fast punch to the solar plexus. His thoughts spun, so he asked the first question that popped. "How do you know?"

"I asked Cybil-" She broke off, shifted to face him, started again. "It seemed that there had to be a reason for what happened, Fox, a reason she was infected so quickly, so… fatally. So I asked Cybil to look into it, and she has been."

"Why didn't you say anything to me?"

"I wasn't sure, and if I'd been wrong, I'd have upset you for nothing. And… I should've told you," she amended. "I'm sorry."

"No." The spinning stopped; the ache just under his heart eased. She'd wanted to shield him until supposition became fact and he'd have done exactly the same. "No, I get it. Cybil climbed Carly's family tree?"

"Yes. Tonight she told me she'd found the connection. She has the details of the genealogy if you want to see them."

When he only shook his head, she went on. "I don't know if this makes it better for you, or worse, or if it changes nothing. But I thought you should know."

"She was part of it," he said quietly. "All along."

"Twisse used that, and you, and her. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, but nothing you did, nothing you didn't do would have changed that."

"I don't know if that's true, but there's nothing I can do now to change it. Maybe we found each other, Carly and me, because of this. But then we made choices, both of us, that led to the end of it. Different choices, maybe a different result. No way to know."

After a moment, he laid his hand over hers. "There's always going to be guilt, and grief, when I think of her. But now, I know at least part of the why. I never understood why, Layla, and that twisted me up."

"Twisse took her to hurt you. And was able to take her, the way he did, because she was of his bloodline. And because…"

"Keep going," he told her when she trailed off.

"I think because she didn't believe, not really. She didn't believe enough to be afraid, or to fight, even to run. That's just speculation, and I might be overstepping, but-"

"No." He said it quietly. "No, you're exactly right. She didn't believe, even when she saw with her own eyes." He lifted his free hand, studied the unmarred palm. "She told me what she thought I wanted to hear, promised to stay at the farm that night without ever intending to keep the promise. She was built skeptical, she couldn't help it."

He closed his hand into a loose fist, lowered it. And for the first time in nearly seven years, he let it go. "I never thought of a connection. That was smart. And you were right to tell me." He lifted their hands, slid his fingers between hers. "Being up-front with each other, even when it's hard, that's the best choice for us."

"I want to say this one thing more before we go in. If I promise you something-if you ask me to do something, or not to, and I give you my promise, I'll keep it."

Understanding, he brought their joined hands to his lips. "And I'll believe what you tell me. Let's go inside."

He couldn't change the past, Fox thought. He could only prepare for the future. But he could prize and hold the now. Layla was his now. The people in this house were his as well. They needed him, and he needed them. That was enough for any man.

He settled into his usual spot on the floor with Lump. Whatever was in the air, Fox thought, was something between nerves and fear. That was from the women. From Cal and Gage he sensed both interest and impatience.

"What's going on? And whatever it is, let's get on with it."

Cybil took the stage.

"I've talked with a number of people I know and, for the most part, trust, regarding performing a blood ritual, the object being to re-form the three pieces of Dent's bloodstone into one. We're assuming that's something we need to do. There are a lot of assumptions here based on bits and pieces of information, on speculation."

"The three separate pieces haven't done us much good up till now," Gage pointed out.

"Well, you don't know that, do you?" Cybil tossed back. "It's very possible that those individual pieces are what's given you your gifts-your sight, your healing. Once whole, you might lose that. And without those gifts in your arsenal, you'll be all the more vulnerable to Twisse."

"If you don't put them back together," Cal pointed out, "they're just three pieces of stone we don't understand. We agreed to try. We have tried. If you've found another way, that's what we'll try next."

"Blood rites are powerful and dangerous magicks. We're dealing with a powerful and dangerous force already. You need to know all the possible consequences. All of us need to know. And all of us have to agree because all of us need to be part of it for the ritual to have any chance of working. I'm not going to agree until everyone understands."

"We get it." Gage shrugged. "Cal may need to dig out his glasses, and the three of us will be susceptible to the common cold."

"Don't make light of this." Cybil turned to him. "You could lose what you have, and more. It could all blow up in our faces. You've seen that possibility. The mix of blood and fire, the stone on the stone. Every living thing consumed. It was your blood that let the demon out. We need to consider that performing this rite could loose something worse."

"You have to play to win."

"He's right." Fox nodded at Gage. "We risk it, or we do nothing. We believe Ann Hawkins or we don't. This was the time, that's what she told Cal. This Seven is the all or nothing, and the stone-whole-is a potential weapon. I believe her. She sacrificed her life with Dent, and that sacrifice led to us. One into three, three into one. If there's a way, we go."

"There's another three. Q, Layla, and me. Our blood, tainted if you will, with that of the demon."

"And carrying that of the innocent." Layla sat with her hands folded, as if she held something delicate inside them. "Hester Deale wasn't evil. Innocent blood, you said, Cybil, innocent blood is a powerful element in ritual."

"So I'm told." Cybil let out a sigh. "I was also warned that the innocent can be used to give the demon strain more power. That a ritual such as we're suggesting could be an invitation. Three young boys were changed by a blood rite on that ground. It could happen again, with us." She looked at Layla, at Quinn. "And what's diluted, or dormant, or just outweighed in us by who we are, could rise."

"Not going to happen." Quinn spoke briskly. "Not only because I don't consider horns and cloven feet a fashion statement but"-she ignored Cybil's annoyed oath- "because we won't let it. Cyb, you're too goddamn hard-headed to let a little demon DNA run your show. And you're not responsible. Don't even," Quinn ordered when Cybil started to speak. "Nobody knows you like I do. If we vote go, we're all in it, we're all making the choice. And whatever happens, thumbs-up or -down, it's not on you. You're just the messenger."

"Understand if it goes wrong, it could go seriously and violently wrong."

"If it goes right," Fox reminded Cybil, "it's a step toward saving lives. Toward ending this."

"More likely we'll lose a little blood and not a damn thing will change. Any way you look at it, it's a long shot," Gage added. "I like a long shot. I'm in."

"Anyone not?" Quinn scanned the room. "That's a big go."

"Let's get started."

"Not so fast, big guy," Cybil said to Gage. "While the ritual's pretty straightforward, there are details and procedure. It requires the six of us-boy-girl, boy-girl-like any good dinner party, in the standard ritual circle. On the ritual ground at the Pagan Stone. Cal, I don't suppose you have the knife you used before?"

"My Boy Scout knife? Sure I do."

"Sure he does." Charmed, Quinn leaned over to kiss his cheek.

"We'll need that. I have a list of what we'll need. And we'll work out the wording of the incantation. We have to wait for the night of the full moon, and begin in the half hour before midnight, finish before the half hour after."

"Oh, for Christ's sake."

"Ritual requires ritual," she snapped at Gage. "And respect, and a hell of a lot of faith. The full moon gives us light, literally and magickally. The half hour before midnight is the time of good, and the half hour after, evil. That's the time, that's the place, and that's our best shot of making it work. Think of it as stacking the odds in our favor. We've got two weeks to fine-tune it, work out the kinks-or to call off the whole deal and go to St. Barts. Meanwhile…" She looked into her empty glass. "I'm out of wine."

As the discussion started immediately, Gage slipped off to follow Cybil into the kitchen. "What's got you spooked?"

"Oh, I don't know." She poured herself a generous glass of cabernet. "Must be the death and damnation."

"You don't spook easy, so spill."

She took a small sip as she turned to him. "You're not the only one who gets previews of coming attractions."

"What did you see this time?"

"I saw my best friend die, and the death of the woman I've come to love and respect. I saw the men who love them die trying to save them. I saw your death in blood and fire. And I lived. Why is that worse? That I saw everyone die, and I lived."

"Sounds more like nerves and guilt than a premonition."

"I don't do guilty, as a rule. On the plus side, in my dream it worked. I saw the bloodstone whole, resting on the Pagan Stone under the light of the full moon. And for a moment, it was brighter than the sun."

She took a long, quiet breath. "I don't want to walk out of the clearing alone, so do me a favor. Don't die."

"I'll see what I can do."