Magic & Mistletoe

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From Chapter 2...

Sometimes the ogre did get to dance with the princess. Roland savored that thought as he and Peri swayed to the music. Petite and strawberry blonde, she’d always reminded him of fairytale royalty, while his looks seemed more fitting for an ogre than a storybook hero.

Holding her firmly but with a good two inches between their bodies, he grinned at her.

Peri grinned back, blue eyes sparkling, and heat sizzled through him.

His looks had scared her before, so he would be extra careful with her tonight. Take it slow. But he couldn’t resist letting his chin brush the top of her head--just a touch of silky hair against his jaw.

Peri sighed and moved a fraction closer. Swallowing a jubilant shout, Roland kept his chin where it was.

Oh, yeah.

He lost himself in the music, in the feel of the woman in his arms, until the song ended. When he squeezed her hand, she smiled up at him.

“I need to powder my nose,” she said.

“I’ll walk you.”

Setting her hand in the crook of his elbow, she squeezed his arm companionably. The flash of heat to his groin that resulted wasn’t companionable at all. Roland swallowed hard.

The bronze and gold, scoop-necked top not only set off her coloring but clung to her slim body, revealing enticing curves in the right places. The sway of her hips in her long, black skirt had his trousers going tight when she walked away from him at the rest room door.

He tugged carefully at his black bow tie. Best to get his mind off Peri’s body. First date, dude. Chill.

Resolute, he turned his attention back to the decorations.

In one corner, a twelve-foot Frasier fir decked in holiday lights and a hodgepodge of ornaments underlined the season. The winter solstice, the longest night of the year, was the official reason for this celebration, but many of those here tonight would also celebrate Christmas in a few days.

Christmas. Hmm. Should he get Peri a gift?

Nah, too soon. Still...

“There he is,” a familiar voice said. Broderick Hamilton, a fellow deputy, gripped Roland’s shoulder and gave it a shake. “Having a good time with the princess?”

“Shit. Keep your voice down,” Roland muttered, glancing around. Mages had extraordinarily keen senses, but no one stood near enough to hear over the music.

Broderick grinned, his teeth flashing white in his tanned face and his brown eyes bright with glee. He could’ve been cast as a storybook prince, tall, good-looking in a way that made women watch him, and with thick, black hair.

“I should never have mentioned that to you,” Roland added.

“Hey, relax. You’re here with her, and that’s what counts.”

“I thought you had a date.” Roland made a show of looking behind Broderick.

The other deputy shrugged. “My friend Stacie. You’ve met her.”

“Yeah, nice girl.” Roland waited a beat. “Guess she felt sorry for your dateless ass.”

“We have an understanding.” Broderick shook his head. “Seriously, bro, events like this are a big deal to women. I don’t want to give one the wrong impression.”

“Of course not.”

But, speaking of impressions, why had Peri come with him?

It would really chap his shorts if she’d come only to atone for her earlier misjudgment of him.

#

“Having fun with the big guy?” Peri’s friend Dana, an English teacher, asked as the two women checked their makeup in the rest room mirror. “He’s a hunk.”

“No argument here. And yes, I am.” Just thinking about dancing in his arms, with those big, capable hands so firm but gentle at her waist, made Peri’s heart beat faster.

Dana brushed a stray wisp of blonde hair back into her updo and smiled at Peri in the mirror. “You like him. Maybe more than you want to.”

“We’ll see.” Peri kept her voice light to cover her dismay at being pegged so accurately. Roland was tough, brave, fun, and treated her like a princess. All that made keeping perspective tough. After all, this was only their first date. There might not be another.

Dana patted her on the shoulder. Turning toward the stalls, she added, “For what it’s worth, Peri, I think the guy is smitten.”

Smitten. A little thrill went through Peri at the word. Not for the first time, she wondered what a man as brave and capable as Roland saw in a bookworm like her.

But she could worry about that later, when he wasn’t waiting for her. She picked up her beaded bag and hurried out of the lounge.

In the ballroom, she spotted him immediately. He was standing a few feet from the door, but a guy his size was tough to miss anyway. The tux he wore so well was just icing on the Roland cake.

His lips curved upward slightly, and Peri’s pulse kicked. A dark-haired man and a woman in a close-fitting gown of red velvet stood facing him. Roland continued listening to the man, but his warm, brown eyes followed Peri as she approached.

The man turned, and she recognized Stefan Harper, the Collegium’s chief physician.

Roland said, “Peri, do you know Stefan?”

“I haven’t had the pleasure.” She and the doctor shook hands as Roland introduced them. Peri added, “I’ve heard your talks to the incoming students about the dangers of experimenting with dark magic. You have a nice balance of scaring them witless and reassuring them.”

“I try. Either they’ll listen or they won’t.” Harper gave her a rueful smile. Pride rang in his voice as he added, “Peri, this is my fiancée, Mel Wray.”

Gossip said she was a Mundane as well as an FBI agent, but the governing council must’ve approved her if she was here tonight. Peri smiled and shook hands with the taller woman, whose height and elegance made her feel a bit like a munchkin in comparison.

Harper and his date drifted away. Roland offered Peri his arm, as he had before, and the courtly gesture again stirred warm fizzies in her blood.

“How do you know Dr. Harper?” Peri asked.

“He’s been the field medic on several raids I was on. He patched me up after a big fight in the Okefenokee Swamp after Thanksgiving.”

“Patched you up?” Fear icing her throat stopped Peri in her tracks. “Was it serious?”

Roland shrugged. Suddenly looking as though his shoes might be pinching, he said, “Not as stuff like that goes.”

“That doesn’t tell me anything.”

If possible, he looked even more uncomfortable. “I had some talon wounds. Venom in them. But I’m fine now.” He patted her hand, making her breath hitch despite her worry for him.

“When you fight ghouls up close and personal,” he added with another shrug, “it happens.”

“I guess.” But she wasn’t sure she wanted to invest emotionally in someone who was so often at risk.

Yeah, that was a chickenshit attitude, but after living with constant fear as a child, she wanted some degree of security in her life.