"THE POWER OF ONE"
Andre and Cole finally returned to the latter's penthouse after spending nearly six hours at the Halliwells, dealing with the aftermath of Daley Bakker's attack. "This has sure been an interesting week," the houngan commented, as he flopped down on the sofa. "Especially after getting engaged through difficult circumstances and dealing with a power hungry bokor." He glanced at his friend, who seemed to be heading toward the kitchen. "Why is it that every time I'm in this town, we end up battling some kind of supernatural evil? First, it was that succubus who was after Bruce . . . and now this."
"It's only been twice," Cole said from the kitchen.
"Actually, it's been more than twice." Andre glanced down at his arm and noticed a long cut that nearly reached the elbow. "Before we had ran into each other again, Cecile, Olivia, Richard and I had helped Nathalie Green deal with some rather unpleasant fairies who had snatched a child and left a changeling in his place." Cole returned to the living room and stared at him. "Yeah, I know. Don't ask. It was a crazy moment."
Cole's glance dropped to Andre's wounded arm. "What happened?" he asked.
Andre sighed. "It's nothing. Some guy I was fighting managed to cut me with a knife, before I kicked his ass."
"I've got some bandages and alcohol in the night stand, next to my bed," Cole suggested.
The houngan stared at him. "Why would you need that?"
Red-faced, the half-daemon replied, "For Olivia. I bought it for her." Andre's stare remained relentless. "In case she needed it."
Andre shot his friend a knowing smile and headed for the latter's bedroom. He opened the top drawer of the nightstand, next to Cole's large bed. Not only did he find the material needed for his wound, he found something else. Buried underneath some bandages, envelopes and sheets of paper, sat a small, dark-green velvet box. Andre realized that it could only mean one thing. He opened the box and found a small, silver ring with a Celtic heart knot design that surrounded a small emerald inside.
Upon returning to the living room, Andre held up the box. "Hey, what's this?"
Cole stared at the box and panic filled his eyes. "Uh . . . nothing. That's a . . . what are you doing . . .?"
"I found it inside your night stand," Andre replied. "With the bandages." He glanced at the box. "Is this what I think it is? An engagement ring?"
Looking slightly annoyed, Cole snatched the box from Andre's grasp. "It's nothing!" he growled.
"It's an engagement ring, isn't it?" Andre insisted. "How long have you had it?"
Cole sighed in defeat. "Since you're going to persist, I might as well tell you. I had bought it, about two months ago. Not long after my . . . that little summer romance with Phoebe. I was so relieved to be back with Olivia that I bought it during a trip to see my uncle in Dublin. It's just that I've been waiting . . ."
"Waiting for what? The perfect time to ask her?" Andre's tone expressed doubt at Cole's explanation. "Man, if you want to marry that woman so badly, 'now' is the perfect time to propose. Before you wait too long. You don't want to repeat my mistake."
The half-daemon plopped down in the nearest chair and sighed for the second time. "I guess you're right. It's just . . . I don't know. What if she doesn't want to marry me? What if we do get married and we end up repeating what happened between Phoebe and me?"
"I don't know, man. But the only way to find out is to take the plunge." Andre began to tend his wound. "That's all I can say." Cole nodded.
It struck Andre odd that a seemingly self-assured person like Cole could be so wracked with doubt. Either the half-daemon had ruthlessly hidden his doubts for a long time. Or this surprisingly insecure behavior was the result of Cole's relationship with the Halliwells. If the latter happened to be true, Andre found it sad.
A surprise visitor appeared on the Halliwell stoop, when Phoebe opened the front door, the following morning. Anxiety fluttered within her heart. "Jason! What are you doing here?"
The billionaire returned her greeting with a wan smile. "Hey Phoebe. I . . . uh, had called last night, but Piper told me that you had went to bed. That you weren't feeling well."
In other words, Piper had failed to mention Jason's call. Phoebe mentally castigated her older sister. She returned her boyfriend's smile. "Yeah, I had a bad headache, yesterday." Which was not far from the truth. She stepped aside. "Why don't you come in?"
Jason shook his head. "No, I . . . let's take a walk, instead."
Phoebe closed the door behind her and followed her boyfriend toward the sidewalk. The couple proceeded to stroll up the street. The Charmed One wrapped her arms around herself to ward off the chill. She had forgotten to bring a jacket or sweater. "I know you're a little upset over what happened at the McNeills' party . . ." she began.
"No . . . I'm not. Really." Jason removed his jacket and draped it over Phoebe's shoulders. "I understand. You had another family emergency. Wyatt was sick. Or something like that. Right?" His cool tone did not appease Phoebe's anxiety.
Then a frustrated sigh left the Charmed One's mouth. "Actually, he was sick, Jason. I get the feeling that you don't believe me."
"I believe you, Phoebe," Jason shot back. "I just don't see why you and Paige had to disappear without at least a word. I had to find out that you were gone from Gwen McNeill. It's just . . . what happened to Wyatt's babysitter? Why didn't she call Piper?"
Again, Phoebe sighed. "She . . . uh, she did. Okay? Piper called us. And since we were concerned . . . we left. We were only gone for a few hours. Two, at least. Is that such a crime?"
Jason closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "No, Phoebe. It's not a crime. It's just . . ." He paused in his tracks, causing Phoebe to do the same. Then he shook his head. "Never mind." He resumed walking.
Phoebe rushed to keep up with him. "Never mind . . . what? Jason!"
Once more, Jason stopped. He turned to place his hands on Phoebe's shoulders. "Listen . . . Phoebe, have you thought about what I had asked? Returning to Hong Kong with me?"
"Huh?" Phoebe's eyes began to blink rapidly. She had forgotten about Jason's Hong Kong proposal.
The billionaire continued, "I'll be heading back, early next month. And I want you to come with me. You can still work on your column from there. I'll have Elise send you your letters."
Phoebe felt herself torn by Jason's request. A part of her longed to escape her magic-riddled life and enjoy a solitary one with Jason - especially in an exotic locale like Hong Kong. However, the idea of being away from her family for the second time in her life frightened her. Phoebe could not imagine being away from the Power of Three. "Jason, I . . ."
"Look, I won't pressure you for an answer. At least not yet," Jason said, interrupting. "I won't be leaving until the first week of December. So, could you at least let me know by Thanksgiving?"
A car whizzed by, as Phoebe contemplated an answer. Common sense told her to immediately reject Jason's offer. And yet . . . she did not possess the heart to say no. "I'll think about it," she finally said in a soft voice.
Jason smiled, as he enveloped her into a tight hug.
Olivia looked upon her friends with a smile, as Cecile and Andre discussed their engagement, inside the McNeills' drawing-room. Her parents had decided to hold a private celebration dinner for the newly engaged couple. Among those invited were the Halliwells. The Morrises had to cancel, due to family obligations.
"I can't believe it!" Paige declared happily, after giving Cecile a peck on the cheek. "Engaged! When will the happy event be?"
Cecile and Andre exchanged a brief glance, before the latter replied, "Three months from now. Mid or late February."
"In New Orleans?"
Barbara grinned sardonically at her employee. "If you're worried about not being able to attend Paige, don't. I'm sure that Maddy won't mind tending the store . . . while we're gone."
"Cool!" Paige responded with a smile.
Olivia noticed the frown on Phoebe's face. "Uh . . . Paige?" the middle Charmed One began. "What about the Power of Three? Don't forget that we . . ."
"Oh, c'mon Pheebs! You've got to be kidding!" Paige retorted. "You and Piper did just fine, while I was in Scotland, last summer. And don't forget that week you were in Chicago."
"Paige . . ."
Andre interrupted, "Hey, you're all invited to the wedding. All three of you."
A satisfied smile appeared on Piper's face. "Hmmm, a trip to New Orleans sounds nice."
Cecile added, "It's a great food town. You'll love it."
"I had managed to gain ten pounds during my last trip there," Olivia's mother added. She sighed and shook her head. "The food was worth every pound. I even managed to add a few local dishes to the menu at Morgan's."
Paige's grin stretched wider. "This trip is looking better, every moment. So, what exactly happens in a Vodoun wedding? Is it similar to . . .?"
The doorbell rang. A few minutes later, Davies returned with Chris Perry in tow. Piper frowned at the whitelighter. "What are you doing here? And why did you ring the doorbell?"
"I couldn't orb into the house," Chris replied. From the corner of her eye, Olivia noted the smirk on Harry's face. "And I just came from the Elders' Council. They're concerned about Whatshername - Daley Bakker. And this Anansi Order. They . . . um, they think you should look into it."
Piper scowled. "And do what? Vanquish them? They're humans. Unless they're threatening our lives, there's nothing we can do about them."
"Well, didn't the Bakker woman hire a demon to kill you?"
A slight cough from Cole, interrupted the conversation between the witch and the whitelighter. "Uh, not exactly."
Everyone stared at the half-daemon. "What do you mean?" Jack McNeill demanded.
Both Cole and Andre revealed details of their visit to the home of Esmeralda Ross, in Santa Fe. The two friends added the stunning news that neither Daley Bakker or any other daemon had hired Nairn to attack Piper and Wyatt.
"Then, who had hired this Nairn?" Olivia's grandmother demanded.
Cole sighed. "I have no idea. Someone killed her with an arrow before she say anything further."
"Sounds like a darklighter," Phoebe suggested.
Andre naysayed the idea. "This Ross woman told us that Nairn's client wanted Wyatt dead . . . but Piper alive. Why would anyone hire a darklighter to spare a witch, but kill her half-witch/half-whitelighter son?"
"Well, if this Nairn was supposed to spare me, he didn't exactly try to live up to his contract," Piper muttered.
Chris added, "It doesn't matter. The Elders want this order vanquished. Before they can go after Wyatt's powers, again."
"But the Anansi Order didn't go after Wyatt's powers," Olivia corrected. "Only Daley Bakker. And she had failed to keep them. What's the point in going after them now?"
Her father spoke up, taking the others by surprise. "Because the Elders are idiots and have no idea with whom they're sending Piper and her sisters up against." His voice dripped with sarcasm. "I've heard about the Anansi Order. Even before we had all met Andre. The Order been around for a very long time. And its members are very powerful and very talented sorcerers and sorceresses. I just can't believe that Natalia Stepanova and Barbara deVilliers would consent to such an idiotic assignment." He gave Chris a thoughtful stare. "Whose idea was this . . . to go after the Anansi members?"
Chris squirmed with discomfort. "I don't know if I should . . ."
"Who?" Jack insisted.
After another pause, Chris finally answered, "I think it was Elder Gideon's idea. He, uh . . ."
"Oh God!" Cole groaned. "Not that bastard! Why am I not surprised?" Andre regarded him questioningly. "He, Phoebe and I had performed a little task regarding the Erebor medallions, last summer. A real asshole."
Chris protested, "Hey! You're talking about an Elder."
"So?" Cole gave the young whitelighter a cool stare. "What are you . . . a fan of his?"
His face now red with embarrassment, Chris shook his head. "Never mind." He turned to Andre. "Could you provide us some information on this Anansi Order?"
Andre frowned at him. "You're really serious about this, aren't you?"
"I'm not," Piper said. Everyone stared at her. "Look, I know I had first considered going after this Anansi Order or whatever, but I've changed my mind. I really don't see why we have to go after these guys. Wyatt is safe . . . and everything is back to normal. These are not demons we're talking about. And Olivia now has that dominion spirit's medallion locked in a safe place. What's the big deal? Why are the Elders so interested in vanquishing them?"
Jack replied sarcastically, "Because a member of the Order - namely Ms. Bakker - had managed to become the only person to successfully steal Wyatt's powers. And that makes the Elders nervous." He said to the three sisters. "If I were you, I wouldn't go after them. There's an old saying about how defense is the best offense. Prepare yourselves, in case this Bakker woman or any of her . . . colleagues decides to go after Wyatt, again. See if you can find anymore information about them, if you have to. But I wouldn't bother going after them. Right now, you have no idea of what you might face."
Chris retorted, "What are you talking about? They went up against the Source!"
"And barely made it, alive," Cole murmured. "Even the Source knew better than to cause trouble with the Anansi Order."
Andre added, "Look, it's been over four years since I had worked for Victor Lacroix. I was never a member of the Order. And the information I have on them is outdated. Hell, Olivia and Cole know about as much as I do about them. If you want my opinion, I suggest that you all do yourselves a favor and take Mr. McNeill's advice."
In the end, Jack and Andre's arguments won over the Charmed Ones. Except for Phoebe. Like Chris, she wanted to deal with Daley Bakker and the Anansi Order. But Piper and Paige voted against her, deeming it wiser to prepare for any future shenanigans by the sorceress. As the conversation returned to Cecile and Andre's upcoming wedding, the whitelighter heaved a frustrated sigh and bid the others, good-bye.
END OF PART XIX
NOTE: The end is very near.