Family Circles

Warning: Contains spoilers for Renegade and Guardian.

 This story takes place during the time frame of Warrior and just before the epilogue of Guardian. It has been edited to keep it PG-13 or so.

~~~

Some things, even a mage at the height of his powers couldn’t change. Hurrying through the crowded concourse at Raleigh-Durham airport, Stefan Harper grimaced. A big, fat failure would not warm up his reunion with his future in-laws. Thanks to his checkered history with their daughter, FBI Special Agent Camellia “Mel” Wray, they were likely wary enough of him already.

His hope that he could cure Mel’s mom’s psychosis with a combination of medical knowledge and magic was just that, hope, and a slim one, but people didn’t always listen to disclaimers. If Daisy Wray’s mental illness was magically based, from an encounter with a powerful entity, then he could help. Maybe. If it was psychological, the chances of success dwindled.

At least Mel understood all that, but she’d been evasive about her dad’s and her sister’s reactions to the prospect of Stefan’s examining her mom. And she hadn’t been able to use the word “magic” because Mundanes, or normal humans, couldn’t know the mage world existed unless they had special permission, which wasn’t given lightly, from the local mage governing body, or Council.

Considering all that, expectations would likely be low, so he wouldn’t have far to fall if he couldn’t help Mel’s mom.

A Skype conference with Daisy’s doctor, Phil Maxton, had gotten Stefan permission to examine her. “I’m skeptical,” Maxton had said, “but I don’t see what it can hurt. And it’s not like you don’t have creds to your name.”

Yeah. Board certification carried weight that interest in energy healing didn’t. And it wasn’t as though Stefan could tell the guy that he was really using magic and not something like Reiki.

He dodged a pair of duffel-carrying soldiers, a man and a woman, in fatigues. Pulling abreast of them, he said, “Hey, y’all.” They looked over, and he added, “Thanks for your service. Have a great holiday.”

They smiled and thanked him. He nodded at them and pulled out his phone. When he turned it on, a message appeared on the screen. Mel was running late. Held up at the hospital.

He hoped that wasn’t a sign of worse trouble for her mom.

Stefan paused to send her a quick text telling her he’d arrived. Then he walked out of the terminal, set his bag on the curb, and leaned against a post to wait. People milled around him. Tomorrow was Thanksgiving, so the airport was extremely busy even though it was just mid-day. As more people got off work, the crowds would pick up.

He shook his head ruefully. For six years, he’d worked every Thanksgiving and Christmas. His friend Griffin Dare had been outlawed, unable to go home, and Stefan had played an unwitting role in that. Griff had avoided all contact with his family during those years for their protection. So Stefan had also skipped the family holiday thing because Griff had to.

But Griff’s name had been cleared. Now he was happily married and–unless he’d bailed at the last minute–home for the holiday for the first time in six years. With his wife, Val, who had a serious mutual adoration thing going with the Dares. So Stefan had come to Raleigh to spend the holiday with Mel and her family. Like a good fiancé.

No matter how much he looked forward to seeing her, having the holiday off felt weird. Going out to Colorado next month for Christmas with his family would probably seem even weirder. Maybe to his sister and parents, too, seeing as how they’d all become accustomed to having him work on the holiday.

A familiar, green Jeep Cherokee came up the airport drive. Despite the distance, Stefan’s mage eyesight pegged the driver. His heart lifted.

Mel pulled up to the curb. Stefan tossed his bag in the back seat and climbed into the front. Leaning over to kiss her, he noted that her welcoming smile didn’t dispel the shadow of worry in her gray eyes. And her dark brown, shoulder-length bob looked slightly disordered, as though she’d run her hands through it.

Then his mouth met the warm, full softness of hers. The contact sizzled through him, and his hand rose automatically to cup her cheek.

But they were at the airport, so he made himself move back. “Hey,” he said, brushing her hair off her temple.

“Hey yourself.” Her smile seemed more relaxed now but didn’t entirely banish the strain in her eyes. With a glance at her rearview mirror and a peek over her shoulder, she pulled into traffic.

Stefan rested his arm over the back of her seat, just touching her shoulders, and reveled in the way she leaned into it. “So how’re things?” he asked.

Mel sighed. “Mom’s having a bad day, and Dad’s making noises about how this maybe isn’t the time for you to examine her.”

“What kind of bad day?” Regardless, he wasn’t taking the easy out–no matter how tempting–unless they forced it on him. This meant too much to Mel.

“She doesn’t recognize us or even seem to know where she is. As if that weren’t bad enough, she talks to people who aren’t there. People whose names we don’t recognize. At least she’s not talking about places we’ve never heard of, as she sometimes does.”

Damn it. He slid his arm off the seat and gripped her free hand on her knee.

Mel laced their fingers together. “They’re giving her something to calm her down,” she said. “I don’t fully understand how you do the magical healing thing, but wouldn’t that interfere?”

“Depends. If there’s some other force at work, drugs could hobble it and allow me a clearer sense of what’s going on. Or they could cloud her perceptions enough to make my probe inconclusive.”

“So there’s no way to know until you examine her.”

“Right.”

That new shadow in Mel’s eyes was not a good sign. Her father and sister hadn’t been wildly enthused by the news of Stefan and Mel’s engagement, and she’d been with them the past two days. “Your dad isn’t just making noises about my not seeing your mom today, is he, love?”

Mel sighed. Her fingers tightened on his. “Let’s drop your bag at the hotel and grab a cup of coffee. There are things we need to discuss.”

That line never boded well. “What kinds of things?”

“About this week.” She flicked him a worried glance. “I’m so glad you’re here–never doubt that–but you’re walking into a minefield.”

#

 An hour later, Mel walked into the coffee shop beside Stefan with frustration boiling in her throat. They hadn’t seen each other in three weeks, and now she had to cast a shadow over their reunion. Over their first holiday together in nine years.

“Hey.” He ran a hand lightly down her back, pressing just hard enough for her to feel through her quilted jacket. When she looked at him, he said, “Whatever it is, we’ll handle it. Okay?”

Hoping he was right, she nodded.

Stefan’s brown eyes scanned the room. About twenty feet on a side, with a counter at the far end, the room had only four or five of its small tables occupied, most by students bent over books and a couple by professorial types with papers spread out.

“I’ll get the coffee,” he offered, “if you’ll grab us a table. What do you want, sweet?”

“Coffee and a chocolate cookie would be great.”

A wry smile quirked up one corner of his mouth. “A chocolate-level talk, huh?”

“Worried now?” she asked lightly.

“Nah. Together, we’re invincible.” He gave her hand a quick squeeze. “I’ll get us some fuel, and then we’ll make a plan.”

Mel smiled to show him she was game, but she still hated this whole business. Her family hadn’t been protective when she was a kid bullied because of her mom’s fixation on the paranormal. Why did they have to turn sheltering and concerned now?

She grabbed a corner table and watched Stefan place their order. Possessive pride swelled her heart. Tall and lean, he was a handsome man with his dark hair and gold-flecked, brown eyes. He was also brilliant and brave and dedicated.

And hers.

Despite all the odds, they’d found their way back to each other. Nothing and no one was going to get in the way of that.

He brought his purchases, and Mel pushed a chair out for him with one foot. A tiny doubt, a vague fear that he wouldn’t want to put up with this crap, danced in her stomach, but she pushed it resolutely away. Trust had been part of their problem before. It wasn’t going to be again.

He set her coffee in front of her along with the cookie and one yellow packet. Dropping into his chair, he said, “We have fuel now, so tell me what’s up.”

Mel laid a hand over his and couldn’t help a flicker of relief when he grasped it. “Dad kind of segued from being worried about whether this was the time for Mom to see someone new to whether you had anything to offer her to whether I should give you the time of day.”

Stefan’s steady regard didn’t waver.

“You’re not surprised,” she noted. “Why?”

“Because your father loves you, and I suspect that in some corner of his heart, he knows he failed you when you were a kid. I wondered if he’d try to compensate for that at some point.”

Mel shook her head. “You don’t get a do-over on your kid’s childhood. I’m an adult now, and I didn’t exactly rush into this engagement. I told him that.”

In fact, she’d walked away from Stefan before finally realizing she could make a place for herself in the mage world, but her dad, and her sister and brother-in-law, Lily and Todd, weren’t cleared to know that. She’d told them only that she’d thought long and hard before committing to the man she’d never stopped loving.

“They still think I cheated on you, don’t they?” Stefan asked.

“Maybe.” Mel shrugged.

Their earlier relationship had fallen apart because Stefan wasn’t where he’d said he would be and Mel had assumed he was cheating. Unable to tell her he was studying magical healing, he hadn’t been able to convince her he’d been faithful.

Only when he’d ended up as a consultant on a case she was working had they gotten their second chance. That road hadn’t been smooth, but she was smart enough to know, at last, that she and Stefan belonged together.

“I told them you were studying energy therapy, as we agreed, and didn’t tell me because you figured I wouldn’t believe you. They seemed doubtful but then acted as though they’d accepted it.” She rubbed her aching temple. “Now I don’t know what they think. Whether they’re reacting this way because they’re nervous about your seeing Mom or if there’s more to it.”

Stefan stroked his thumb lightly over the back of her hand. “I’ll try to smooth things over. I don’t want to cause a breach between you and your family.”

“A bigger breach, you mean.”

He raised an eyebrow in acknowledgement. Mel sighed and bit into her cookie. Stefan understood her as her family never had. Aside from the time she’d thought he was cheating and he’d known she wouldn’t believe the truth even if he were allowed to tell her, he and she had always been on the same wavelength.

“I’ve always been the changeling,” Mel reminded him. “The one who couldn’t handle a little razzing, as they saw it. Who didn’t love the farm enough to stay in Essex. I’ll always be out of step with them.”

“But you love them. And if they care enough to be protective, they love you.”

Mel shrugged. Her family probably did love her, but they’d never shown it in the ways that would’ve mattered most to her.

“How’re things in Georgia?” she asked.

Satisfaction lit Stefan’s face. “Griff and Val are in Macon with his family. Supposedly. I’ll want to verify that. Will’s folks are joining him for the holiday. Everyone made it abundantly clear that I was not needed. Even my staff pushed me out the door.”

As chief physician of the southeastern Collegium, the mages’ secret base near Brunswick, Stefan controlled the medical personnel’s schedules. The fact that his staff would push him to take both holidays, knowing that meant some of them would have to cover, said a lot about their feelings toward him.

“I hope everyone’s holiday is great,” Mel said. “Especially Griff and Val’s.”

Yet she couldn’t avoid a pang of envy. Griff’s parents adored Val. Too bad Mel’s family was so wary toward Stefan. And his sister, Annie, wasn’t exactly thrilled to have Mel back in his life, either, thanks to that old breakup.

Stefan sipped coffee and watched her finish her cookie. As she dusted her hands, he asked, “Ready to head to the hospital?”

“Are you ready? Maybe we should grab you some body armor first.”

He grinned, bringing the gold flecks in his eyes alight. “Nah. I have my own shielding.”

Magical shielding, he meant. Mel smiled. As always, she enjoyed being in on his secret. “Let’s hope you don’t need it.”

#

Walking across the hospital parking lot, Stefan’s magical senses picked up Mel’s growing tension. The tight line of her shoulders confirmed it.

He brought her hand to his lips. “It’ll be fine, sweet. If your dad won’t consent for me to treat your mom, then he won’t. We’ll make a tactical retreat and try again later. It’s not even certain that I can help her, after all.”

“I know. It’s just…” Mel blew out a breath. “I’m an FBI special agent, an ace cyber crimes analyst. I’m not an idiot who can’t make a rational decision.”

And there was the rub. He’d suspected as much.

“What matters most to you, sweet–that I see your mom or that we have an uneventful holiday with your family?” Her answer would determine how hard he pushed, and in what direction.

She grimaced. “Strange as it may sound, both. If they won’t let you see Mom, they don’t trust my judgment. In which case, they’ll be eagle-eyed for any sign that we–you and me, we–are a mistake. I don’t consider that a relaxing dinner.”

“No.”

They climbed a low rise to the blockish, brick building that housed her mom. Built by private grants to replace the state-run but now-closed Dorothea Dix Hospital, Layton Dale Institute housed a fraction of the patients Dix had. And it cost more. Mel’s mom had qualified for a subsidy to be here.

Stefan held the door for Mel. The lobby, at least, was bright, with sunlight coming in the big windows. The pastels of the furniture would be soothing.

She checked them in at the desk and led him to the elevator. As they waited for the car, he said, “If your dad has a problem with me, it’s better that the discussion be between him and me.” Mel opened her mouth, protest hot in her eyes, but he overrode her. “I won’t be perceived as hiding behind you.”

“As if you would.” Indignation laced the words.

“He doesn’t know that.”

The elevator dinged. The doors parted, and a middle-aged couple got off. The woman looked as though she’d been crying.

Stefan and Mel got on. As the doors closed, he said, “Places like this are seldom happy. Maybe that’s part of your dad’s problem this week, too. Seeing your mom here has to bother him. Especially if she isn’t doing well.”

“Maybe.” Frowning, Mel added, “I’d think he would try anything to get her out. Even if he doesn’t think you have any ability, what will it hurt to let you try?”

Before he could reply, she wrinkled her nose. “Never mind. Stupid question. False hope is always painful when it crashes and burns.”

The elevator stopped. He and Mel stepped out, and she led him to the left. Windowed doors set about twelve feet apart lined the corridor. Mel passed a lounge, also sunny and furnished with big, overstuffed pieces, and kept going.

“Mom’s door is locked unless one of us is there with her or just outside,” Mel said. Three doors from the end of the hall, she stopped, squared her shoulders, and knocked.

“Come in,” a man’s gravelly voice said.

Mel pushed the door open. The room held a narrow bed, an easy chair, and a dresser. The woman on the bed rocked back and forth, apparently oblivious to the new arrivals. The man in the easy chair stood, his expression grim. As Stefan had remembered, Mel had her father’s dark hair and her mother’s lithe build, gray eyes, and full mouth.

Her mom’s hair, sandy brown mixed with gray, was neatly combed, and she wore clean slacks and a red sweater. Had an attendant done that for Daisy Wray, or had her family seen to it?

Stefan opened his senses, extending them carefully. Daisy’s mood was a jumble of anxiety and anger but inwardly focused. He could tell nothing from his light probe, so he shut it down.

“Dad, Mom,” Mel said, “You remember Stefan.”

Daisy Wray didn’t react. Her stocky husband, Walker, gave a curt nod.

“We’ll talk outside,” Walker said. He gestured for Mel and Stefan to precede him.

They followed him a few feet from the door. In a gesture much like his daughter’s, he raised his chin. “She’s not doing well. I’m afraid you’ve wasted your trip, Harper.”

Mel bristled at the curt use of Stefan’s last name but didn’t say anything.

Stefan waited a deliberate beat, his eyes locked with the hostile blue ones of his future father-in-law. “No time I get to spend with Mel is a waste. Especially not when it’s our first chance to share Thanksgiving with her family.”

Walker flushed. “Cami,” he said, using the nickname for Camellia that Mel had abandoned when she joined the FBI, “sit with your mama. I want to talk to your boyfriend.”

Boyfriend. Not fiancé. The older man was deliberating trying to provoke him, but Stefan kept his face bland. Odds were, the hostility came from fear, for his wife or his daughter or both. Rising to the bait wouldn’t cut through that.

Mel raised an eyebrow at Stefan, who nodded.

Stefan walked beside Walker to the lounge. A couple of men and a woman were watching a game show, and a group of six who ranged in age to from midsixties to teens sat around a table. A scrubs-clad attendant monitored them all discreetly from a chair in one corner. Walker chose a table near the door, well away from the television.

“I don’t know what you think you’re doing. That whole business of energy healing is cockamamie.”

“Mrs. Wray believed in it,” Stefan said quietly.

“And it cost her,” Walker snapped back. “Crystals and fire rituals and candles and hogwash. Bent her mind, all that nonsense did.”

Yet he’d never done anything to stop it. Or to shield Mel from the ridicule it spurred in the local kids. But saying that would escalate the hostility.

“Sir,” Stefan said, figuring he hadn’t been given first-name status, “your wife’s interests were just that, interests shared by many, many people who never come to harm. I don’t know whether she had any actual skill. If she did, she may have encountered something–”

“Hogwash. You’re just looking for a way to reel Cami in.” Pointing, Walker said “You won’t use her mama to do it.”

Stefan clamped down hard on a rush of anger. Best to keep his tone even. “Mel has agreed to marry me. I don’t need subterfuge and, whether you believe me or not, I don’t think it’s a healthy basis for a relationship.”

The older man snorted and looked away. “You ain’t married yet.”

The comment hit Stefan in the gut. If her family tried to force a wedge between him and Mel, she would be the main casualty. He took a deep breath. “I know my history with Mel doesn’t inspire your confidence. But I love her. Finding her again is the best thing that’s ever happened to me, except for meeting her in the first place.”

“You’d say that,” Walker muttered.

“Because I mean it.” Stefan waited until Mel’s dad looked at him again. “I won’t stand by while anything–or anyone–hurts her.”

The other man scowled but said nothing.

Careful to keep his tone neutral, Stefan asked, “Why did you agree to let me examine your wife if you feel it’s all nonsense?”

Walker’s shoulders slumped. After a moment, he said, “I figured, what could it hurt?” He shot a bitter look across the table. “Cami don’t come home a lot. We got our differences, but she’s my baby. It meant so much to her….” He shrugged.

“I won’t have Daisy upset,” he continued. “And if you hurt Cami again, it’s gonna be me and you.”

“Fair enough,” Stefan said.

The older man’s brows rose in a surprised expression. He blinked.

Stefan regarded him steadily. “Give me time, and I’ll prove Mel can trust me.”

Frowning, Walker eyed him. At last, the older man grudgingly repeated, “Fair enough.”

“I don’t want to upset your wife,” Stefan began. “Her doctor and I thought I should just meet her, see how that goes, and maybe delay any examination a day or two so she has time to get used to me.”

The family would have a holiday lunch with Daisy tomorrow, and then gather for dinner at the hotel restaurant. That would give Mel’s mom a chance to get used to Stefan a bit and maybe relax around him.

Walker rubbed his chin. “I guess that’s all right, then,” he said.

A little more enthusiasm would’ve been reassuring, but Stefan would take what he could get. “How about we go back to the room, I say hello to her, and we see how that goes. Maybe Mel and I could stay and talk for a while.

“Lily and Todd’ll be here soon.” Mel’s dad pushed out of his chair. He and Stefan walked back down the hall together.

When they reached Daisy’s room, Walker tapped on the door and pushed it open. “We’re back, honey,” he said. Daisy continued to rock.

Stefan answered Mel’s questioning glance with a slight nod, and her shoulders relaxed.

“Your dad and I think it’s best to start slowly. Let your mom meet me again, and the three of us maybe hang out in here a while.”

“Okay.” Anxiety shadowed Mel’s eyes, but she reached for Stefan’s hand. Smiling, she drew him to the bed. “Mom, you remember Stefan. I told you we’re engaged now.”

Stefan opened his senses. Careful not to reach magically, to avoid anything other than merely being open, he extended his hand. “It’s good to see you again, Mrs. Wray.”

Daisy’s gray eyes shifted to him. Her brow furrowed. She reached out, and he gently clasped her hand.

Definite energy vibe there, even if not at the level of true magic. And…awareness. Consciousness that wasn’t hers–

“Get away,” she shrieked, recoiling. “No!

Stefan released her and stepped back, but Walker was already shoving in front of him.

“No,” Daisy sobbed, hunching her shoulders. “No, please.”

“Mom,” Mel said. “It’s just Stefan saying hello. There’s no–”

“I thought this was a bad idea,” Walker said. He scowled at Stefan. “Daisy don’t want this, so it’s done.”

“I sensed something,” Stefan said. Mel’s head snapped up, but he kept his gaze on her dad’s. “I think I can help her.”

“You call this help?” Walker demanded. “I won’t have her upset. You need to leave.”

 

Chapter 2

 “If he goes,” Mel said, “so do I.” Her insides quivered, but at least her voice stayed firm.

Hurt flashed across her father’s face, but he said, “Fine. Go, then. Get along so she can settle down. Go.”

Grief welled into her throat as she and Stefan walked out. In the hall, he turned to her. “You could stay, sweetheart. I can get a cab to the hotel, or else take the car and come back for you.”

How like him to put her first. But that went two ways.

She smoothed the already-tidy collar of his yellow shirt. His arms came around her, as she’d known they would. When she looked up at him, the love and concern in his eyes made her love for him swell within her.

Mel shook her head. “We’re a team. A unit. Maybe it’s best we leave, at least for now, but he could’ve been nicer about it.” She dropped her head against Stefan’s chest and listened to the steady beat of his heart.

“What did you mean about sensing something?” she asked.

He kissed her temple. “I’ll tell you in the car.”

They walked out of the building without talking but holding hands. In the parking lot, he asked, “Are you okay, or should I drive?”

Mel summoned a smile. “Is that guy code for I want to drive?”

“Hey, I’m secure enough in my manhood that I can be a passenger.” Stefan slung an arm around her shoulder for a quick squeeze.

When they’d gotten back on the road, she glanced at him. “So what did you sense? Spill.”

“There’s something in your mom’s energy field. At least, that’s what it seemed like in the brief impression I got when I was holding her hand. I didn’t probe in any way, just opened to whatever was there.”

“By something, you mean an intelligence?”

“Yes. I don’t know what kind, though. I didn’t have long enough.”

She was still digesting that when he added, “Did you notice that for an instant–maybe not even that–when she was so distressed, she looked almost sly?”

“Thinking back …” Mel frowned as she passed a semi. “Yes. I think so. I didn’t particularly notice it.”

“Yeah, well. We were in the midst of a mini-crisis.” He glanced down at his watch. “It’s not quite four. We could find a bookstore and browse.”

“Offering me the equivalent of crack is one way to lift my mood,” she said, her voice dry. But she didn’t really want to look at books. She was too aware of the man sitting beside her, too conscious of how smoothly he’d handled her father’s hostility and her mother’s withdrawal, too struck by the way his first concern had been for her.

No one else had ever put her first.

When she looked over at him, love rising in her throat threatened to choke her. They hadn’t been together in three weeks. It might be that long before they saw each other again. But they had these few days, and her family was not going to spoil them.

Mel reached for his warm, strong hand. His fingers linked with hers, and she said, “I’d rather go back to the hotel before rush hour traffic becomes even more insane than the holiday already has it.”

He looked steadily at her, his face giving nothing away, but his fingers tightened on hers. Somehow he’d realized this week had been rough. He wasn’t going to hurry her into bed. But that was okay. She was more than willing to do the hurrying.

In his arms, she could forget everything that wasn’t right and lose herself in the thing that most was, the love they shared.

“We could catch up,” she said, flashing him her best inviting look before turning her attention back to the road. “Go to dinner after.”

Stefan lifted their joined hands to his mouth and brushed his lips over her knuckles. Heat flashed up her arm, tightened her breasts, and simmered deep within her. “There’s always room service,” he murmured.

Stopping at a red light, Mel glanced at him. He was smiling, his eyes warm and tender.

She ran her thumb over the back of his hand. “I’d love room service.”

#

Drifting into wakefulness the next morning, Stefan reached for Mel. But his hand encountered only the bedding. Was she in the bathroom? He forced his eyes open. A note written on one of the hotel memo pads lay on her pillow. Pushing himself up on an elbow, he snagged it.

S–Had a text from Dad telling us not to come to lunch. Have gone down to hit the treadmill instead of having a screaming fit. Love you!–M

Well, hell. That message had gotten her Thanksgiving off to a crappy start.

Scowling, he sat up and rubbed grit from his eyes. Her dad had probably only embargoed her less-than-welcome fiancé, not Mel herself. She shouldn’t miss the holiday with her family on his account.

Though she didn’t exactly find family time relaxing.

Stefan climbed out of bed and stumbled to the bathroom. As he neared it, he caught the whiff of coffee from the hospitality stand. Bless you, sweet.

He tended to business, washed his face, and then poured a cup. His shower could wait until Mel came back. She would want one after her workout, and they could share.

Grinning, he settled onto the bed and sipped his coffee. But the grin faded as he pondered Mel’s situation. Despite her differences with her family, she loved them. He was pretty sure they loved her, too, even if they didn’t understand her.

So he would do whatever he could to smooth things over. Except leave her. That not only wasn’t on table but wasn’t anywhere near it. He and she completed each other. If her family couldn’t appreciate that, it would have to be their problem.

Feeling more alert, he grabbed his phone from the nightstand. There was something he could do while he waited, so he punched a familiar contact. Once upon a time, having that number in memory would’ve been too dangerous for him and for its owner, Griffin Dare. Now, though–

“Hey, Stefan,” Griff’s voice said. “Don’t tell me you’ve been kicked out of Raleigh and need a pickup.”

“Hah. No. Mel’s out, so I thought I’d give you a call. See how Thanksgiving in Macon is going.”

A brief pause, and then Griff spoke in a dry tone. “It’s fine, Mom. I can let you speak to my actual mother so you can verify I’m here. Or we can revel in technology with Facetime.”

“Hey, you can’t blame me for checking. Considering that Will’s in the ghouls’ sights down at the swamp, I wondered if you’d bail at the last minute to watch his back.”

The ghouls, users of dark magic who couldn’t breed on their own, preyed on mages and Mundanes as breeders and sometimes as snacks. They were also trying to open a portal that would let demons from the Void between worlds reach Earth.

“I might’ve, but the Collegium has him covered, and he won’t be in the swamp during the holiday anyway,” Griff said of the mage archaeologist and loremaster who was close as a brother to him. “Besides, he threatened me with the wrath of his mom and mine if I didn’t come home.”

“That would do it.” Stefan smiled. The warmth in Griff’s voice said more than his actual words about the pleasure he took at once again enjoying the holiday in a way so many people took for granted. Even if he didn’t have his magic.

Griff added, “As Val and I packed the car, Will threw in Mel for good measure. He pointed out that you hadn’t taken a family holiday, either, in the last six years and predicted that if I bailed, you would. Then he promised all kinds of dire consequences starting with Mel not getting you to take a holiday ever again and ending with every woman we know pissed at me. And possibly at him, but definitely at me.”

“Well, I can see why you wouldn’t risk that.”

“Damn straight. Most of those women go armed.”

Considering that they were almost all mages, they certainly would.

“So what’ve you been doing?” Stefan asked.

“Eating,” Griff said cheerfully. “Valeria made a frittata for breakfast. Now she’s in the kitchen doing myserious things about dinner with Mom and Caro while I watch football with Dad and Rick. And the dog, but Rocket doesn’t seem to care who wins.”

“Sounds great.” This was what Stefan had wanted for his friend, holidays with his parents, sister, and brother-in-law. The knot of guilt inside him eased a little.

Griff said, “Great is a perfect word for it. And it’s…blessedly normal.” He paused. “So stop beating yourself up over the six years. That’s over, too, and partly because of you.”

“Okay.” Though the guilt wouldn’t fade completely until Griff had his magic back.

The door locked whirred. The door opened and closed quietly, and Mel tiptoed in. When she saw him awake, she smiled. Stefan held out a hand to her. She dropped onto the bed beside him and linked her fingers with his.

Despite her smile, she still looked unhappy, and he swallowed a fat wad of resentment at her family’s obstinacy. To Griff, he said, “Gotta go, bro. Happy Thanksgiving.”

“Back atcha. And hey–good luck.”

“Yeah. Thanks.” Stefan pocketed his phone. As a mage, Griff understood the delicacy of the situation with Mel’s mom. Stefan could be frank with him as well as with Mel.

Setting the phone aside, he leaned in to kiss her. She drew back after only a peck, her hand on his bare chest keeping him at a distance and stirring heat that made him want her closer.

“Sweaty,” she informed him.

“Don’t care.” He whipped an arm around her and drew her in.

Mel laughed and collapsed against him for a deep, eager kiss. When it broke, she rested her head on his shoulder. “Now you need a shower,” she commented, sliding her fingers lightly through his chest hair.

“Counting on it,” he said. Already hard for her, Stefan cupped her breast. Her shiver of pleasure and the tightening of her hand at his waist sent satisfaction roaring through him.

Before she could move, he stood and scooped her up. Her delighted laughter lit happy fire in his soul. As long as they could laugh together, the holiday wasn’t ruined for her.

#

An hour later, Mel rested in Stefan’s arms. Making love in the shower had banished her blahs, and the encore in the bed had her almost dozing. Lying against his side, resting in the warmth of love and trust, made her worries about her family seem much less urgent.

She brushed a light kiss over his shoulder. “I’m so glad you didn’t give up on me.”

“No chance of that.” He pressed his lips to her damp hair. “I realize how strange the mage world must seem to others. Don’t ever think I don’t.”

“I know.”

“I’m just glad you could accept it.” He tipped her face up for a kiss that warmed her blood.

She snuggled closer, and his arm tightened around her.

Mel sighed. “I guess we should deal with the elephant in the room. Dinner.”

“You know, if you want to go to lunch–”

“Without you? No, love. They need to respect our commitment to each other. I can sort of understand why Dad would be worried about Mom seeing you, but you’re going to be her son-in-law. We should at least see if she’s less hyper around you today. What happened yesterday could have been all about something in her head and nothing to do with you.”

“Maybe, but my gut says the entity I sensed was reacting to me through her.”

“Which makes it all the more important that you have a chance to rid her of it.”

“If I get the chance, I’ll certainly try.” His lips caressed her hairline. “But your happiness comes above all else.”

With him, it did, and that was priceless. “Thanks for that. If you don’t want to go to dinner, that’s fine. Even if my folks are gathering in the hotel restaurant, we can eat at a different time.”

“I don’t want to start our marriage estranged from your family, sweetheart.”

“Neither do I, but I’ve had enough of always being the weird one. There’s nothing wrong with any of my choices. I don’t see why they can’t acknowledge that.”

“People get stuck in ruts.” Stefan shrugged. “Let’s go to dinner and see if we can find some common ground.”

“Okay.” Idly, Mel stroked the hair at his nape. “You know, Dr. Harper, you come first, too. We escaped from a ghoul nest. If we have to, we can escape from my family.”

“I know, but that’s not what either of us really wants. Let’s consider it the nuclear option.”

“Fair enough.” Love for him welled into her throat. Smiling, Mel slid her hand down his body. “How about brunch from room service?”

Stefan caught her mouth in a hard, deep, possessive kiss. Nuzzling her neck, he rolled her under him. “Sounds great,” he murmured, his breath tickling her ear and making her gasp with pleasure. “In a bit.”

 

Chapter 3

Tension crackled in the air and roiled in Mel’s gut as she and Stefan walked up to her family’s table in the hotel restaurant. The restaurant was decorated with a cornucopia behind the hostess stand and russet candles on the linen-covered tables. The low light offered relaxation, but the family dynamic precluded it.

As it so often did.

Her sister and brother-in-law, Lily and Todd Locklear, were already at the round, six-top table with Dad. They all smiled but without real warmth.

If this dinner sucks, Mel decided, I’m through trying. I won’t put Stefan through years of the strained holidays that’ve been my norm for so long. He and she would be their own family, with or without the people who were related to them.

Everyone stood. Tall, solid Todd gave Mel and quick hug.  He and Stefan introduced themselves to each other and shook hands. Lily, who had her dad’s stocky build and blue eyes, offered her future brother-in-law a quick semi-hug and air kiss.

Stefan seated Mel and took the chair beside her.

A waitress bustled up to take drink orders. As expected, everyone asked for iced tea. Mel was about to do the same, but she wanted wine with her turkey. Quietly, she ordered a glass of white and ignored Lily’s raised eyebrow. And her disapproving frown when Stefan echoed Mel’s request.

“So,” he asked, shaking out his napkin, “how’s Mrs. Wray today?”

“Better,” Walker said. He paused. “She doesn’t want to see you.”

Mel stiffened, but Stefan’s hand on her knee asked her to wait. She swallowed the frustration that lay bitter on her tongue.

“What do you all want?” Stefan asked. “If it’s your wife and mother back, then I need to see her. I think I can help.”

Lily rolled her eyes. “I’m sure you mean well, Stefan, but I don’t think any more of this energy stuff now than I did when Mama dabbled in it. She shouldn’t be upset for something that won’t help.”

“But what if it can?” Mel gave herself an A for not sounding as irritated as she felt. “If Stefan truly can’t do anything, letting him try won’t harm Mom. And isn’t the chance that we could have her back worth a little bit of upset?”

“Oh, that’s rich,” Lily snapped. “You resented Mama your whole life, and now you’re so concerned?”

Todd put an arm around her. “Honey–”

“Mama was upset all last night. Had to be sedated. She’s not going to be a guinea pig to make your man feel important.”

“I sent you a link to Stefan’s resumé,” Mel reminded her. Cold inside, she continued, “He doesn’t need to feel important. He is important. And respected around the world.”

“But not in psychiatry,” Todd said, his brown eyes grave.

At least he didn’t sound hostile, as Lily had.

Stefan said, “No, psychiatry isn’t my specialty. And you can believe in energy therapy or not. Mr. Wray, you have the right to decide who treats your wife, even who sees her. I think I can help, and I’d like to, but that’s up to you.”

The tension in the air seemed to ease.

The waitress arrived with their drinks. The poor woman seemed to sense that she’d interrupted something. She took their food orders and departed quickly.

Stefan glanced around the table. “What’s more important to me is that we all get along. I want to be part of this family.”

Mel wanted that, too, but if Lily thought she resented Mom… “I don’t resent Mom,” she said, looking straight at her sister. “I did resent the flak I took because of her interests.”

Lily opened her mouth, bristling. Mel raised a hand to stop her and reinforced the gesture with the sit down and shut up look she usually saved for suspects.

“I remember your opinion of that,” she continued, “so there’s no need to repeat it. We’re never going to agree about that. I’ve put it behind me, thanks in part to Stefan.” Certainly not thanks to any of them. “I love her and want her back. You can believe that or not–” Her voice shook, and her throat tightened.

Stefan’s hand closed over hers in her lap, steadying her.

“What you believe doesn’t change the truth of it. I’m tired of being looked down on because I wanted out of Essex, and I will not tolerate hostility toward Stefan. Accept me–us–as we are, or I’m done.”

Lily’s eyes fired, but her father quietly said, “No, Lily.” Her jaw dropped as Todd’s eyebrows rose.

Walker turned to Mel. To her surprise, he looked shaken. Even hurt. “Honey, I had no idea you felt that way. Truth is, we thought you looked down on us. That we wasn’t good enough for you, us country people.”

“Dad, no,” Mel managed, appalled. “It’s not like that.”

He shrugged. “I’m just tellin’ you how it seems to us. Lily and Todd went to State and came back to Essex. You went to Georgetown and then Atlanta. And you never seem comfortable when you’re home.”

Stefan shifted in his chair, but Mel tightened her fingers on his. “Dad, I felt like you disapproved of my choices.” With a glance at Lily, she added, “I admire the way you’ve all kept the farm going and taken care of Mom. But I don’t see what’s wrong with wanting something different.”

“There’s nothing wrong with it,” her dad said. “If that’s what makes you happy.” His gaze shifted to Stefan. “I’m glad to have Stefan here, and I want you both to feel welcome. “ Awkwardly, he added, “I’d like to see you more. If you can get up here.”

“Thanks, Dad.” Mel pushed words past the lump in her throat. Looking from him to Lily to Todd, she added, “I’m sorry I made you feel that I didn’t accept you.”

Lily looked unconvinced, but Todd nodded.

Dad said, “There’s fault on our side, too, honey. I’m sorry for it. Whatever else happens, you’re my little girl.”

Mel’s eyes teared. If she tried to talk, the tears would overflow, so she nodded.

Her dad shot a warning glance at Lily. “Your mom’s sedated. That might make it easier for her to see Stefan. If y’all want to come to the hospital in the morning, we can see how that goes.”

“Thank you, sir,” Stefan said. “I’ll do my best.”

Walker leaned back in his chair. Hesitantly, he said, “I know you will, son, and I think it’s time you called me Walker.”

“I’d be honored,” Stefan said as Mel squeezed his hand.

The waitress arrived with their dinners. Mel traded a relieved glance with Stefan. Whatever happened tomorrow, they’d made progress with her dad, at least, and she was truly thankful for that.

#

At mid-morning the next day, Walker slipped out of his wife’s room. “She’s asleep. The sedative sometimes makes her real drowsy.”

“That might be as well,” Stefan said, trying not to think about what could ride on this. “Walker, if she becomes agitated, I can ease her into a deeper sleep, and I’d like your permission for that in advance.”

“What does that mean, a deeper sleep? Like, with drugs?” He shook his head.

Quickly, Stefan said, “No. I can tap into her personal energy field and, for lack of a better word, alter it to relax her.”

The older man looked skeptical but finally nodded. “As long as you don’t use drugs. She has enough of those in her already.”

“Agreed,” Stefan said. “Ready?”

Silently, Walker opened the door. Stefan had no doubt that Mel’s dad had consented to this only for her and only because it couldn’t do any real harm. Stefan let Mel go ahead of him and brought up the rear. At least Walker had decreed that Lily and Todd should come in the afternoon. Stefan needed to focus on the task at hand, not worry about hostility at his back.

Mel leaned against the wall facing the bed while her dad ushered Stefan up to his wife.

“Daisy, honey, Mel and her Stefan are here.”

The woman’s eyelids fluttered. Her brows knitted.

Stefan touched Walker’s shoulder, and Mel’s dad stepped aside.

“Hello, Mrs. Wray,” Stefan said quietly, clasping her hand with his senses open. Again that sense of a presence filtered through the magic. “Happy Thanksgiving.”

Her frown deepened. She made a whimpering noise.

Stefan let out a trickle of magic imbued with a desire to soothe. To help. Mel’s mom shifted on the bed but didn’t seem to be rousing.

Trick, said a tiny voice in his head. Hurt.

The message was clear, though it came partly from imagery and partly in words. But there was no malevolence in it. Unlike the piggyback entity Stefan had recently encountered in a latent mage, this being gave off only confusion and fear.

Help, Stefan asserted silently.

A pause, maybe while the entity considered. Then it sent, Trapped.

Stefan responded with a wordless question. A cascade of images came back–a younger Daisy standing in a yard behind a white, clapboard house, probably their house in Essex. A flicker of energy that drew the being. Daisy turning to it, smiling.

Curious, the creature moving forward, just as her energy reached out.

A sudden tug forward. A collision, confusion, and then imprisonment in her consciousness.

Stefan drew a careful breath. No wonder Daisy seemed so out of it. Another creature’s memories were crowded into her mind. And its perceptions, so different from human ones, were tangled with her.

He’d heard of incidents like this but never actually handled one. They were that rare. This was the magical essence of a sprite or a pixie, ancient creatures that roamed the world, their numbers diminished now.  Daisy must have a little magical ability if she’d drawn it in that way.

Come out? he asked, hoping that was the right tack.

Hesitation.

Stefan shielded himself. If the creature was playing him, this could be a trap.

Slowly, carefully, he slid a tendril of magic into Daisy’s life energy. He usually did this to add support to patients he healed. This time, he wanted it to be a pathway.

Something brushed it hesitantly. Then came a rush that staggered him. Knocked backward, he instinctively firmed his shields.

When his head cleared, Mel and her dad braced him on either side.

“Stefan?” she said.

He took a minute to be sure he didn’t have a passenger. “I’m good.” He stood upright, and they released him. Mel’s dad turned to the bed, but she hovered at Stefan’s elbow.

He squeezed her hand. “I’m fine, sweet. Truly. Let me check your mom.”

Leading with his magic, he stepped back to the bed. Daisy Wray seemed to be resting more easily, but maybe that was just his hope talking. He found the pulse point in her wrist.

She didn’t react. No fear or agitation. Good.

Her pulse was steady, and her respiration, normal. Brain activity seemed steady, without irregular spikes, when he checked it magically.

He turned to the anxious man at his side. “I think we solved the problem.” Explaining what had happened took only a few minutes, though he had to gloss over any reference to magic and explain the entity as a tangle in her brain’s energy.

At the end, Mel’s dad said, “I don’t understand all that, Stefan, but I don’t reckon I have to. What does it mean for Daisy?”

“Based on what I’ve read, she may continue to be confused, even uncertain, at times.” He couldn’t tell them she’d had someone else’s memories crammed into her own. “But the psychosis never really was that. Dr. Maxton will see what residual effects there are, but I’m optimistic.”

Mel’s mom sighed. Her eyelids slowly rose.

Stefan made himself breathe, and Mel caught his hand in a tight grip.

“Walker?” her mom said. “I had the strangest dream.” Her gaze shifted, to Mel’s face, and her lips curled in a tentative smile. “Cami. You came to see me?”

“Yes, Mom.” Mel’s eyes were suspiciously bright as she leaned into Stefan. “You remember Stefan. Do you remember I told you we’re engaged?”

Daisy’s gray eyes narrowed. “I remember a good bit about Stefan.”

Uh-oh.

“He gonna treat you right this time?” she continued.

“Guaranteed.” Mel smiled.

“If I don’t,” Stefan added, “your husband has already promised me I’ll be sorry.” He tugged his hand free to put his arm around his future bride.

“All right, then,” Daisy said. Frowning, she peered out the window. “What day is it?”

“It’s Thursday, darlin,” Walker said. He pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped his nose. “It’s Thanksgiving.”

She sighed. “I get so confused.”

“Lemme talk to her,” Walker suggested, glancing at Stefan and Mel. “You can explain everything to her in a bit.”

Stefan looked down at Mel. When she nodded, he said, “We’ll be in the lounge if you need us.”

Walker nodded, but his attention was all for the woman on the bed. Stefan escorted Mel into the hallway.

A few doors down, she stopped him. Unshed tears glazed her eyes, and he swept her into his arms. Her choked sob was muffled against his chest.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

He kissed the top of her head. “I’m glad I could help.”

“Maybe Mom can be at our wedding.”

“Maybe.” It was best not to assume too much for a few days, but that was possible. Considering that they’d decided Mel would move to Brunswick and she still didn’t have a job in the area, they had time for her mom to recover.

One problem at a time, he reminded himself.

Mel raised her head, and he used his thumbs to wipe the tear tracks off her cheek.

“Okay?” he asked as she wrapped her hand around his.

Mel’s smile ignited sunrise in his heart. “Better than,” she said. “I’ve never had so many reasons to be thankful.”

“Me neither.” Stefan drew her close and kissed the top of her head. His holiday work here was done.

 The End

 

 

Nov 22 2014, 1:18 am No Comments

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