Damsel Under Stress (Enchanted, Inc. #3)


“Use it to make something for yourself,” Gloria instructed. “That’s why I got the rose color. I doubted you’d be tempted to use that to make a gift for anyone else.” She glanced meaningfully at Owen as she said that, and I had to fight back a giggle at the thought of him wearing a rose sweater.

We’d barely done away with the wrapping paper and ribbons when the doorbell rang. Gloria insisted on answering the door herself. A moment later, she came back to the parlor with a young woman. “Owen, you remember Rebecca Middleton, don’t you?”

He stood, and out of manners and curiosity I also rose. The guest was tall and thin, with the kind of build that probably had made her something of a beanpole in her teens. She held a loaf-shaped object wrapped in colored cellophane, and she wasn’t the least bit shy about giving Owen the eye. “Here, I brought you some of Mom’s banana bread for Christmas,” she said. “And sorry about last night. I don’t know what came over me.”

Gloria thanked her for the bread, then very pointedly thanked her for stopping by before gently escorting her to the door. “At least that girl has finally filled out,” she said as she returned to the parlor “She’s improved, but she had a lot of room for improvement.” I decided I quite liked Gloria.

“Please don’t send that banana bread back with me,” Owen said with a shudder. “She brought enough of it over when we were in school that I think I developed an allergy to it.”

The next time the doorbell rang, Gloria was in the kitchen preparing Christmas dinner. Judging by the tingling around my neck, I suspected she was using a few magical shortcuts, and that was why she’d declined help. Owen answered the door and soon returned bearing a fruitcake tin and bright red cheeks. “It was Stephanie Heller,” he said to James. “She asked me to tell you to have a merry Christmas, and she’s sorry about last night.”

“At this rate, we’ll have baked goods to last us until Easter,” James remarked drily. That only intensified the flush on Owen’s cheeks.

I went along with Owen the next time the doorbell rang. Soon after he opened the door to reveal a mother and daughter, he put his arm around me and pulled me up against him like he was using me as a human shield. I could hardly blame him. That mother looked pretty scary. I recognized her as the one who’d thrown the first cookie in the fight. The way the daughter stood with her eyes cast to the ground, I got the impression that the mother had dragged her over by the ear. Mother seemed to be the one who was keen on her girl snagging the local hot catch. The chain around my neck throbbed, which made me wonder if she was attempting to use magic on him. No wonder he was using me as a shield.

“Mrs. Ellis,” he said, his voice sounding tight. “How nice of you to stop by. I’m afraid James and Gloria are busy right now.”

“Oh, that’s okay,” she simpered. In that moment she reminded me of Ethelinda. “I can see them anytime. They are neighbors. I’m just glad to see you.” She elbowed her daughter, who thrust out a napkin-covered basket. Owen kept his arms tight around me, so I took the basket from her. Her mother elbowed her again.

“Are you going to be here long?” the daughter asked stiffly. As bashful as she looked, she might have been the perfect match for Owen, aside from the scary mother. I noted that neither of them had yet apologized for all but attacking Owen the night before.

“No, we’re going back to the city tomorrow,” Owen replied. “Thanks for coming by.” He barely waited until they stepped back from the door before reaching around me and closing it. Then he shuddered. “That woman is scarier than any harpy I’ve faced. I’m amazed her daughter hasn’t snapped yet.”

“Who was it this time?” James asked from behind a book when we found him hiding in his study.

“Mrs. Ellis. And what was her daughter’s name?”

“I have no earthly idea. She can barely get a word in edgewise with her mother around. What’s our haul looking like?”

I checked under the napkin. “Blueberry muffins.”

“We should have you to visit more often, my boy,” James said.

We’d just sat down for Christmas dinner when the doorbell rang again. “I thought we were out of neighbors with marriageable daughters,” Gloria muttered as she started to get up.

“I’ll take care of this one,” James said, motioning her to keep her seat. “I hope this time it’s cookies.”

But a moment later, he called, “Owen, Katie!” and there was an urgency to his voice that told me this wasn’t about baked goods or overeager women after Owen.