Damsel Under Stress (Enchanted, Inc. #3)


James was more soft-spoken, so all I could hear was the fact that he was speaking. I couldn’t make any words out. Then Gloria spoke again, apparently responding. “What harm does it do? It’s not as though they can take him away from us at this point. He’s not even under our control any longer. It’s entirely up to him and to us whether we want to remain in contact.”

James spoke again, and I caught the word “responsibility,” but not its context.

“Well, yes, of course,” Gloria responded. “But surely it’s too late to have much of an impact, one way or another. He’s turned out the way he’s going to turn out, for better or worse.”

I knew I should move on. This was none of my business. But I couldn’t resist lingering at the top of the stairs. I was too curious.

James said something else, far too softly for me to hear anything more than the rumble of his voice. When she responded, Gloria’s voice had a strained quality to it. “I simply think that in these times what he needs is to know that he’s not alone. You saw what happened tonight. They really are after him. The girl may be able to help, but she could also be a distraction.”

That made me even more curious. Was I the girl she mentioned? And what was I supposed to help with, other than spotting disguised magical beasties so Owen could deal with them? The idea of me being a distraction was more unsettling. The voices grew too muffled for me to make out more words, and I didn’t think I wanted Owen to catch me eavesdropping, so I went on to my room, puzzled about what I’d heard.

Although it was more than an hour before I usually went to bed, the travel and stress of the past thirty-six or so hours, not to mention the rapidly fading adrenaline from the excitement earlier in the evening, added up to me falling asleep pretty quickly. I wasn’t sure how long I’d been asleep when I was awakened by a strange clattering sound and a glowing light coming through the windows.

I didn’t recall a Times Square–rivaling light display at the house across the street, and my room had been perfectly dark when I went to bed, so the light was something new. My pulse immediately quickened. Although I’d known the truth about Santa Claus for nearly twenty years, thanks to my older brothers, there was still a childlike part of me deep down inside that wanted to hold on to the belief. I couldn’t help but listen for the sound of sleighbells or hoofbeats on the roof on Christmas Eve night, and I always had the sense that if I was awake at the right time, I might see something magical. Now that I knew magic was real, it didn’t seem like such a farfetched idea anymore. If there really was something like a Santa Claus who managed to sneak in and out without being detected, I of all people should be able to see it.

As the old poem went, I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter. Away to the window I flew like a flash, and all that. But when I opened the curtains (there weren’t any shutters), what I saw wasn’t a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer or a little old elf. I saw a hovering fairy godmother dressed like Mrs. Claus in threadbare red velvet with sooty white fur trim along the collar and cuffs.

I wanted to pull the curtains closed again and ignore her, but I was worried that the racket she was making—which turned out to be caused by her shooting silver sparks at my window from her wand—would disturb Gloria and James. Reluctantly, I put on my bathrobe, then opened the window, shivering as the freezing outside air gushed into the room. “What do you want?” I asked, not even trying to sound welcoming.

She shook her head and tsk-tsked. “It’s not about what I want. It’s about what you want.”

“I don’t want anything, other than sleep. In fact, things are going better than I expected, aside from a minor magical attack, and I don’t think you can take credit for that. I’m getting along with his folks, and Owen and I seem to be doing just fine. You can go off and take a nice Christmas holiday.”

“Ah, but I would have thought this visit raised a few questions for you. Such as what it means to him to have the power he has and how that will affect his future.”

I had to admit to some curiosity about those matters, especially given what I’d recently overheard. “I’m not thinking about that now, though,” I said. “I’m thinking about sleep and not being caught with a fairy godmother. That’s not a way to win over the parents.”

“They wouldn’t see me,” she said with a haughty sniff. “Give me that much credit.”

“Can we talk about this later, when we’re back in the city and it’s not the middle of the night?”