Damsel Under Stress (Enchanted, Inc. #3)


I turned just enough to watch without looking like I was staring. The rest of the restaurant was also looking, and most of them weren’t even pretending to mind their own business. So much for New Yorkers being too jaded to stare. If there was enough potential juice involved, they were as likely as anyone else to take a gander.

“It was on my dessert plate,” the woman replied, her voice trembling. “You mean—you mean you didn’t set this up to have it put there?”

“Why would I? I thought I told you how I felt about marriage. I’m not looking for that kind of commitment. Are you trying to trap me into something?”

“Mike, we’ve been living together for ten years. That seems pretty committed to me. What difference would a ring, a ceremony, and a piece of paper make?”

“Exactly my point.”

“It would make me happy. It would make me feel secure. That’s the difference it would make for me. But I guess making me happy would be too much effort. I wouldn’t want to pin you down.” She stood and pulled the ring off, moved as if she was about to throw it at him, then thought better of it and put it in her pocket before she grabbed her purse and coat. “I want you out of my apartment before I get home from work tomorrow.”

Cringing, I turned back to Ethelinda, who was blissfully eating her dinner. “That went well,” I remarked.

“Yes, it did,” she replied, completely missing my sarcasm. “She can’t find the right man if she’s stuck herself to the wrong one. Now she’s open for new possibilities.”

“You mean, you planned for that to happen?”

She looked enigmatic as she took a bite of her steak. “Now, about your problem.”

“It’s not really a problem, but if you’ve got anything in that book of yours about Owen’s family, that might help.”

“Of course I have something about his family. I have access to all records pertinent to your relationship. That’s how I knew you’d been invited to spend Christmas with them.” Her book appeared in her hand, and she retrieved her lopsided glasses from within the layers of her bodice. “Hmm, now, that’s odd. There aren’t supposed to be blank pages in here,” she muttered. Before I could ask what she meant about blank pages, she said, “Oh, there we are. The Eatons, Gloria and James. Married late in life, no natural children. Goodness, but it took some effort to get those two together.” She looked up at me across the top of her glasses. “They’re very stubborn.” Turning her attention back to the book, she continued, “Took in an orphaned child after their retirement from the university at the request of an old friend. Hmm, that part’s strangely blank, too. Very odd.”

She snapped the book shut, it vanished, then she took off her glasses and looked at me. “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing here that would be of much use to you.”

“That’s okay. It was worth a shot.” I turned my attention to my dinner. It wasn’t often that I got steak, so I didn’t intend to waste this chance.

Ethelinda’s attention strayed again. There was another couple seated near us. This couple did seem to have a cool emotional distance between them. They were cordial but didn’t show any signs of affection. Both of them wore business suits, and that gave me the impression that maybe this wasn’t a date. When the woman bent and pulled a folder from the briefcase at her feet, it confirmed my impression.

Before I could say anything to stop Ethelinda, she had waved her wand at another passing waiter’s tray. When the waiter placed the woman’s plate in front of her, there was a long-stemmed red rose alongside it. “From the gentleman,” the waiter said.

The woman went very pale, then abruptly turned red as she leaned across the table, clearly trying to keep her voice low but unable to succeed, as angry as she was. “What is this?” she hissed. “You know I’m married. I never had you pegged as such a sleaze.” All the poor guy at the table with her could do was stammer incoherently.

Someone had to deal with this, and since I was the only person around who had the slightest clue what was going on, it looked like it would have to be me. I slipped out of my seat, hurried over to the bar, and fluttered my eyelashes at the bartender. “Can I borrow your apron for a second? I just noticed a friend of mine is eating here and she hasn’t seen me yet. I thought it would be funny to pretend to be a waitress and surprise her.”

I must have improved my eyelash-fluttering technique, or else it really is true that you suddenly become a lot more attractive to all men as soon as you get a boyfriend, for he grinned at me and untied the apron. I put it on and approached the table where the woman was still teaching a sexual harassment seminar to her shell-shocked colleague.