Damsel Under Stress (Enchanted, Inc. #3)


“How do you do that?” I blurted.

A flush rose from his collar to his hairline. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s subconscious. I honestly don’t plan it.”

“Are you two up?” Gloria’s voice called from downstairs.

“We’re on our way down right now,” Owen replied. He then held his arm out to me. “Shall we?”

Gloria had a light breakfast of sweet rolls laid out on the dining table, which was set with china. I had a feeling the brownie had something to do with that. I couldn’t help thinking how great it would be to have one of those.

After we ate, we went into the parlor, where James and Gloria took seats on the sofa. I imagined they’d have a difficult time getting down on the floor, and a more difficult time getting up again. Owen settled himself cross-legged on the floor by the tree, and I joined him. It seemed that their custom was for Owen to hand the appropriate packages up to his foster parents.

“This one’s for the two of you from Katie,” he said, handing Gloria my package. My heart instantly started beating faster. My humble handmade offering suddenly seemed entirely inadequate.

However, Gloria was more than gracious when she opened it. “This is lovely, thank you,” she said, her words almost thawing around the edges. “Did you do this yourself?”

“Yes, ma’am. It’s one of the ways I work off stress, other than baking.”

“It’s very nice. I used to do needlework, but my hands and eyes aren’t quite up to it anymore.”

Owen’s gifts to his parents, which I’d helped him pick out, were big hits, and he even gave me credit for helping with the selection. Owen was equally pleased with the muffler I gave him, jauntily tossing it around his neck and over his shoulder even though the room was quite warm. I was even warmer, thanks to the way he smiled at me as he thanked me. The room temperature shot up a few more degrees when he gave me his gift to me.

It was a delicate locket, oval instead of heart-shaped like Ethelinda’s, and the chain looked almost fragile. “Wow, it’s beautiful,” I said when I opened the box. And it was, but it was also a little uncomfortable opening something like that in front of his folks. Jewelry generally meant you’d moved pretty far along in a relationship.

Apparently, Owen was conscious of the same thing. He turned an impressive shade of red and hurried to say, “It’s not the locket itself that’s important. It does have some gold in it because that’s essential for the spell to work, but the important part is the spell. If it works correctly, it should amplify your sensation of magic being in use nearby. Since you don’t see illusion, you might not know that there are layers over reality that other people see. I know you’re getting better about feeling the use of power, but this should help, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re immune or not. The locket reacts directly with the magic in use and responds in a way that you’ll feel.”

“That’s kind of cool. I wouldn’t dare wear it at work, though. I’d be buzzing all day.”

“It shouldn’t hurt,” he clarified, “But yeah, you’d probably want to save it for times when you’re away from the office or away from known magic users, in general.”

James looked as fascinated by the idea as I was. “Was that something you found in—” he started to ask, but Gloria cut him off.

“Not now, dear. You and Owen can talk shop later. We’re opening presents at the moment.”

Owen leaned over and took the locket out of the box. “Here, put it on, and then we can test it.” I lifted my hair from the back of my neck so he could fasten the clasp, and the touch of his fingers on that already sensitive spot sent the rest of my nerve endings into overdrive. It was a good thing that wasn’t the kind of magic the locket amplified, or I’d have exploded on the spot. As it was, I was fairly sure there would be no more pretending to Gloria that we were nothing more than co-workers. She was sharp, and she had to have noticed the steam coming out of my ears and the way I couldn’t help but squirm when he touched me.

When I opened James and Gloria’s gift to me, I was sure Gloria had never been fooled. They gave me a basket of beautiful woolen yarns, and that meant Owen must have told them a lot about me. I may have mentioned once in passing during our morning commute that I sometimes liked to knit, so if he noticed and passed on that kind of detail, Gloria would have to have known there was something going on.

“This is gorgeous, and so soft,” I said. “Thank you.”