Cloud City (Anna Strong Chronicles #9)

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05.03.2019

"Do you think we should check on Sophie?" I ask when eleven thirty comes and goes and there's still no sign of her.

Jonathan extracts himself from the chair. He's so tightly wedged in beside Leticia that I expect his rising to produce a giant sucking sound as he gets up. "I'll go use the house phone," he says. "See what's keeping her."

Leticia and I wait in silence for his return. She has a wonderfully giddy expression on her face as she watches him cross the room. She's in love.

Bitch.

No. That's not fair. She's been given a second chance and she's not going to waste it. My skin prickles with envy.

Jonathan rejoins us. "That's odd," he says. "There's no answer."

But before we can comment, the elevator door opens.

Sophie's eyes scan the lobby. When she spots us, she starts over.

Not the Sophie I left last night. Not the young, beautiful girl with shiny hair and sparkling eyes.

My breath catches. I hear Jonathan and Leticia gasp, too.

Only Sophie is smiling as if nothing is wrong. "It's all right," she says.

But is it? This Sophie walks with a slight stoop, her face lined and wrinkled, her hair gone white. Even her eyes are changed. Not the color, they're still deep blue. But yesterday Sophie's eyes were hard and stormy with discontent. Today they twinkle with contentment.

She exudes tranquility and the stillness of inner peace.

Leticia jumps up and offers Sophie her chair. Sophie sinks into it with a sigh.

"You look so troubled," she says quietly. "Don't be. I expected this might happen."

Jonathan crouches down and takes her hand. "But you didn't look…" He struggles with the words. "You didn't look this old when you catered my party. What happened?"

Sophie squeezes his hand. "I had been experimenting with anti-ageing creams and lotions long before you came into the picture. Some worked pretty well. I may just try some of those formulas again. They're all in my basement at the old house in Denver."

She raises her shoulders. "If they don't work, so be it. It's time I looked my age. Frankly, it's fatiguing to be young. I'm glad I don't have to play at it so hard anymore."

Jonathan exchanges a look with Leticia. "We talked about this last night, Sophie. We want you to keep living on the estate. You can have your things brought over from the old house. Build yourself a proper lab. We won't be living there. You may as well enjoy it. And we feel we owe you."

Sophie shakes her head. "No. You don't owe me anything. I took a chance that could have destroyed us both. Another example of the impetuousness of youth. If I had it to do over again today, I'd have second thoughts."

She pauses. Tilts her head. "Well, maybe not. I believe in fate. Things work out the way they're supposed to. Look at you and Leticia."

"In any case," Jonathan continues, "The estate is yours. You are still legally Sophie Deveraux though I don't know how you're going to explain the physical transformation."

Sophie looks down at hands wrinkled with age. "That might be a problem. I might take a page from my sister's spell book."

She sees me jerk upright and grins. "No. Nothing evil. Just a simple glamour spell until I see what I can do myself. To the world, I'll continue to look twenty. Might make things less complicated things until we can come up with a plan to return the estate to you."

Jonathan is shaking his head. "I mean it, Sophie. You should stay on. I know you love the horses."

"No. It's a wonderfully generous offer but in reality, I missed my little house. I missed my witch friends. Most think the old Sophie is long dead. Luckily we witches are known for having more lives than a cat. Of course, I'll have to be careful the way I reintroduce myself. Most of my friends are older than I am-I wouldn't want to give anyone a heart attack by popping up without preparing them first."

Happiness shines on her face the way the glow of love does on Jonathan's and Leticia's. I feel left out. The only thing I'm sure I'm projecting is discontent and gloom. A fucking thundercloud threatening to rain out the love fest. I'd better get out of here before the storm is unleashed.

I rise to go. "I'm going home today."

Jonathan and Leticia stand up, too. "We're leaving today as well," Leticia says. "I called my pilot this morning. He'll have the jet here this afternoon. Sophie, can we take you to Denver?"

Jonathan offers Sophie a hand and she lets him help her to her feet. "That would be lovely."

Jonathan turns to me. "It's been a pleasure knowing you, Anna Strong," he says. "We've shared some interesting experiences and I won't forget you saved my-" he grins at Sophie, "Our life on more than one occasion. When Leticia and I get settled, we'd like you to come visit."

Leticia tilts her head, giving me a once over. I know a lot of interesting single men-mortal and vamp-who would be thrilled to meet the Chosen One. Interested?

Why not? I'm sure as hell not doing very well on my own.

Leticia picks up the aside and grins.

Sophie gives me a hug. It's a surprising and unexpected gesture and I find myself flooded with gratitude and relief. She doesn't say anything. She doesn't need to. The simple act soothes my soul like a rite of absolution.

Jonathan suddenly fixes me with a look that says he just got an idea.

"This is great." Excitement shines from his eyes. "Anna, you could write a book. All about what happened here. We'd change the names, of course, but I'd be your editor and we…"

Leticia places a palm over his mouth. "He's channeling Prendergast," she says gaily. "We may have created a monster."

I look from Sophie to Jonathan to Leticia.

Contentment. Excitement. Passion.

Magic does exact a price. Sometimes it's well worth the cost.

THE END