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"Is Rosie still having those awful dreams?"
Cate MacKiernan looked up from piping a sugary border onto the big birthday cake in front of her. She nodded her head in response to her sister-in-law's question, gathering her thoughts and steeling her emotions. The memory of the fear she'd seen in her seven-year-old's eyes brought a lump to her throat that she fought to force away.
"They've grown more frequent since we saw you last."
"Have you any ideas as to what's causing them?" Mairi MacKiernan Navarro ran her finger around the edge of the bowl on the table between the two women, scooping up frosting in the process.
"None at all." Cate tossed her pastry bag into the sink with more force than was necessary, spattering its contents up onto the surrounding marble.
They'd eliminated spicy foods, altered Rosie's bedtime, put a night-light in her room, and even limited her television time to only her most favorite feel-good, happy stories. Still, the child suffered through increasingly frequent night terrors.
"We've tried everything we can think of except taking her to a therapist."
"And?" Mairi's eyebrows rose and she shrugged her shoulders as she licked another gob of blue frosting from her finger.
"Are you kidding me? We can't take her to a therapist. Rosie starts sharing all her stories about Faerie ancestors and time travel and we'll all be living in padded rooms."
"No," Mairi scoffed. "I dinna mean a regular Mortal therapist. I was thinking more along the lines of one of those Faeries you were just talking about."
"I don't know if that's such a good "
Mairi cut her off. "Think about it. Dallyn was able to help Ramos. And what of Pol? He adores Rosie. You ken he'd do anything in his power to help her."
"It's that whole power thing that worries me. Besides, I haven't seen any major improvement in Jesse's attitude since he got home, and he said he spent some time with Dallyn. Stop that!" Cate pulled the bowl from Mairi's hands and put it in the sink, running water into the leftover frosting. "You'll make yourself sick if you keep eating that stuff."
"I wondered about Jess. We've no seen him since we returned from our own trip to Scotland. I'd hoped his visit there would have helped him get over that hateful woman." Mairi leaned forward in her chair and flipped her long blond braid over her shoulder. "I never did understand what he saw in that awful Lara. To my way of thinking, their breakup was the best thing that ever happened to him."
Cate felt exactly the same way. "I totally agree. But it doesn't matter what we think. It's not even like it's the first time some woman has been after him because his last name is Coryell." Even she hadn't been immune to that problem back in her dating days.
"Is he in love with her, do you think?"
Cate sighed and leaned back against the sink. "I asked him that very question. He just shrugged it off with one of his typical Jesse lines about how easy it was to throw that word around, especially for people who didn't have any idea what love really meant. So, no, I don't think he was in love with Lara, but for some reason I can't see, he took her walking away particularly hard. He's really disillusioned this time."
"When you think on it, Cate, it's no really so hard to understand. Time is passing him by and his Fae blood is calling out for his Soulmate."
"I don't know. Maybe." Cate wiped the last traces of frosting from the countertop and rinsed out the dishcloth, hanging it over the faucet.
"Now that I think on it..." Mairi straightened in her seat, her blue eyes widening. "I've just had meself a wild idea. We've the Faerie gifts, you and I. Why can we no do something for Jess? Between the two of us, there should be a way we can help him find the one woman meant for him."
"Absolutely not!" Cate leaned back against the kitchen counter, staring at her sister-in-law. "After all we've been through with the Faerie magic, you, of all people, should know better than to even suggest such a thing."
"Perhaps yer right," Mairi conceded with a sigh.
"Perhaps?" Cate could only shake her head. The Faerie magic had sent both women on trips through time that had very nearly cost them their lives. Even now they weren't sure whether or not Mairi's adventures had somehow altered history. "There's no perhaps to it. The magic of the Fae is unpredictable and uncontrollable. It's way too dangerous to use for something like finding Jesse a girlfriend."
"Well, I wasn't thinking of just any girlfriend, but I suppose you've a point about the danger." Mairi tapped her fingernail against the shiny wooden tabletop. "So, what about some plain old matchmaking, then? We know lots of people. Surely we can come up with someone to take his mind off that little harlot he was dating. What's the harm in that?"
Cate sighed as she dropped into a chair across from Mairi. "You mean other than the grief we'll both take from our husbands if they find out what we're thinking of doing?" She felt a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth, mirroring Mairi's. "I don't suppose there's any harm in trying that. And you are absolutely right that Jesse needs a woman. Who knows? Maybe we'll even get lucky and find one who'll actually make him happy. It's about time his life settled down."
Rosie MacKiernan leaned her chin into her hands as she sat on the floor, her back against the wall, listening in on the conversation of the two women in the kitchen.
How could anyone as smart as her mommy and Auntie Mairi not realize they had it all wrong? The Faerie magic might be unpredictable, but it wasn't dangerous. Grandpapa Pol had told her it was like a living creature. Tell the magic what you want, and it finds a way.
You simply needed to be very, very careful of the words you said when you told it what you wanted.
Auntie Mairi was right about one thing, though. As a descendant of the Fae, Uncle Jesse didn't need to find just any old woman. He had to find his True Love, the other half of his soul. Only then would he be happy.
Rosie scrubbed at her eyes, trying to make up her mind about what she should do.
Grandpapa Pol had told her it was a very bad thing to use the magic on anyone against their will, so maybe she should try to find out what Uncle Jesse really wanted.
It would be easy enough to set him on the path to find the one meant for him, but she wasn't sure she should. That path was dark and scary, and if he wasn't ready for it, he could get hurt really bad.
She knew for a fact because it was what she saw in the awful dreams she had so often now. Dreams of something mean and terrible, a huge evil blackness creeping over the whole world, covering everything in blood. She'd told Mommy that much about her nightmares.
What she hadn't told Mommy was who she'd seen standing directly in the path of all the nasty evil.
But truly, she was getting so tired standing in between the two, holding back the evil until Uncle Jesse was ready to deal with it.
Grandpapa Pol had also told her she was very special because even though she was a little girl, she had a powerful, ancient soul. Rosie just hoped that didn't mean she was supposed to know the answers to stuff because she certainly didn't.
It didn't make sense that the Faeries would expect her to have all the answers. Even Mortals understood it took time to learn, and until you did you went to the grown-ups and they told you what to do.
Her hand flew to her face, covering her open mouth when the obvious came to her.
Maybe she didn't need to know stuff! Maybe she only needed to ask the people who did know.
Leaning her head back against the wall, she smiled for the first time all day. She felt better already, just having made up her mind.
At the sound of Beast's first excited bark, she sat up straight, straining to listen for what the dog had already heard.
The roar of a motorcycle in the distance drew nearer.
Rosie jumped up and pushed her tousled golden curls behind her ears, joy racing through her little body.
"Oh, goody," she whispered as she raced for the door. Uncle Jesse had arrived.
Jesse Coryell slung a long leg over his brand-new Harley and hung his helmet on the handlebar. The gentle mountain breeze felt good blowing through his dark copper hair after the confinement of the stifling safety device.
His new Bertha didn't have the speed of his old Triumph Sprint RS, but he'd take care of that as soon as he had a chance to do a few modifications of his own.
With one last appreciative glance, he turned his back on his shiny new baby just in time to catch the full weight of his favorite real-life baby, his precocious little niece, Rosie.
With her halo of blond curls blowing in the breeze, she hurtled full speed into his arms, clasping her little hands behind his neck as he stood and lifted her into the air.
Her grin of welcome alone was worth the trip up here. The loud smack of her kiss on his cheek simply served to seal the deal.
"I missed you, Uncle Jesse," she squealed, squeezing her little arms around him. "You've been gone so long."
"I missed you, too, Tinker Bell." He hefted her over to one arm as he made his way up the curving stone path toward the big front porch, wary of stumbling over the massive wolfhound bounding up, demanding his attention. "Where are the boys?" His two nephews should be around here somewhere.
"They're out at the horses with Da and Uncle Ramos." Rosie tilted her head and gave him a flirty little grin before squashing his head in another bear hug. "You're all mine for right now!"
If she'd already mastered a look like that at seven, he pitied his poor sister and her husband when this kid turned sixteen. Of course, with him for an uncle and Connor MacKiernan as a dad, it wasn't exactly like the local boys stood much of a chance in getting to first base. It would, however, be entertaining to be around to watch the overprotective Highlander try to manage his daughter as a teen. Just the idea brought a smile to his lips.
"Come on, let's get this show on the road." He grabbed her arms and twirled her up on his shoulders, enjoying her carefree giggles, losing himself for a moment in her happiness.
If only he could stay lost there.
But he knew it wouldn't last. The gloomy depression, the lost feeling of having nothing waiting for him at the end of the day would overtake him again. The anxiety of some disaster looming on his horizon would eat away at his happiness soon enough. It was only a matter of time.
Mairi and Cate waited on the steps to greet him, twin looks of concern masking both their faces.
Just exactly what he'd been afraid of and the very reason he almost hadn't come up here today. A whole day of family pity was more than he could stomach.
But he knew Cate had put so much work into organizing this birthday bash for him. All his family would be here. He simply couldn't bring himself to disappoint his sister.
"It's okay," Rosie whispered in his ear, one little hand patting his shoulder as if she read his thoughts.
Jesse made a conscious effort to relax his shoulders in preparation for playing the part his family expected of him.
"How's my favorite witchy woman?" he teased as he leaned down to kiss his sister's cheek.
"Concerned about how you are," she returned, not fooled by his act in the least.
"Happy birthday, Jess." Mairi held her arms out, her expression telling him she wasn't taken in either.
His best bet with these two perceptive women was to forge ahead as if everything was fine. One show of weakness and they'd be all over him, mothering him half to death.
He lifted Rosie off his shoulders and stood her on her feet before giving Mairi the hug she waited for. "I heard you and Ramos were in Scotland. Sorry I missed you at Ian and Sarah's."
If he could distract her early, perhaps he wouldn't have to face any questions about where he'd been. Questions he didn't plan to answer. No one needed to know he'd spent the last four months in the Realm of Faerie, training with Dallyn's Elite Guard.
No more than they needed to know about the property he'd bought in the Scottish Highlands and his plans to move there. Not yet, at least. There would be plenty of time to discuss that in the coming weeks.
No, diverting her attention seemed a much better idea for now.
"Did you get to see the twins?" He grinned, hoping to disarm any prying she might attempt.
"Yes," Mairi answered slowly, pausing as if she had wanted the conversation to go elsewhere. Her blue gaze bore into him a moment longer before she continued. "They're adorable babies. Sarah and Ian are planning on bringing them over for a visit next month."
"Did you get to see them, Uncle Jesse? Alexander and Aislinn, I mean?" Rosie tugged at his leg. "We have pictures of them on Mommy's computer if you want to come see them with me."
"Okay, Tink, give me just a minute and then you can show me the photos. Are the guys still down at the barn?"
Cate nodded, holding open the screen door for them all to enter. "Robert got here about half an hour ago. They're all down admiring the new colts. Dad and Cody picked Cass up at the airport this morning. They should be here any time now. You can either go on down there or hang with Rosie while we finish up in the kitchen." His sister had gone out all out to make sure the whole family would be at his birthday party. Since he hadn't seen his dad and brothers for months, he was pleased they'd be here. And Robert, Connor's friend they'd brought forward from the thirteenth century in order to save his life, happened to be one of Jesse's closest friends now.
Still, whether to go outside or remain with his little niece was an easy choice. He was much less likely to run into any uncomfortable questions about how he'd spent his last few months from Rosie.
He allowed his niece to take his hand and lead him into Cate's office. As soon as he sat, Rosie perched on his knee and opened up the files with the photos she wanted to show him. Not for the first time, he marveled at how quickly she learned to do things he'd expect of an older child. Seven going on seventeen.
"Here." She pushed the mouse over to him as she hopped off his lap. "You can look through them by just rolling that thing on the mouse."
Barely a minute passed before he became aware of the child staring at him.
"What?" he asked without taking his eyes from the screen.
"You okay, Uncle Jesse? You look sad."
Rosie leaned onto the desk a couple of feet away, her elbows propped up, her chin cradled in her palms. Her penetrating blue eyes bore into him, making him feel as if she could see to the depths of his soul.
As if she knew the turmoil living there, the uncertainty that had driven him to Scotland and beyond, all the way to the Realm of Faerie, searching for answers.
"I'm fine, baby girl."
The disbelief clear in her arched eyebrows reminded him so much of Cate, he had to bite back the urge to laugh. Instead he continued to page through the photos of the adorable babies on the screen in front of him.
"You save people, don't you, Uncle Jesse? Like the heroes in stories."
He turned his attention to her fully, finding her gaze just as piercing as before.
"I don't know about any hero stuff. Saving people is what your granddad's company is all about. We all do our best. Your daddy, the uncles, me, all of us. One day, maybe you and Dougie and even little Cory will work there, too."
"Yeah." She lifted a hand and waved her little fingers as if to brush away all the words she didn't find important. "But you? If there was some lady in big trouble and only you could help save her, would you do it?"
He smiled at her earnest expression now. Cate must be drowning the kid in romantic fairy tales. "That's what I do, Tink."
He reached out to tweak her on the end of her turned-up nose, but she pulled away, her head tilted, her brows drawn together in seriousness.
"Even if it was really dangerous and scary and you could get hurt bad?"
Her frown melted and she crawled back up into his lap, snagging an arm around his neck. "Do you like what you do, Uncle Jesse?"
"I wouldn't give it up for anything." A truth none of the women he'd dated ever seemed to understand. Except the ones who didn't care and only wanted their name on the insurance papers so they'd have a steady supply of his money should anything happen to him. Like Lara. "My work means everything to me. It's more important to me than anything in the world. Well, anything except you and the boys, that is."
He ran his finger down the slope of her nose and poked the tip into the middle of her belly, holding on to her as she flopped over backward, giggling.
After a moment, she snuggled back into his lap, her hands on either side of his face, her expression once again serious. "You need to go after your destiny. It's time."
"Time for what? What are you talking about?"
Rosie's blue gaze bore into him, almost unnerving in its intensity.
"You just got to find your destiny, Uncle Jesse. Believe in your destiny and fight real hard and then everything will be okay."
"My destiny, huh?"
She nodded her little head, the curls bouncing around, reminding him more of a Christmas angel than the New Age guru she'd sounded like a moment before. He'd have to remember to give Cate grief about letting her kids spend way too much unsupervised time playing those RPG fantasy world video games.
Sliding out of his lap, Rosie tugged on his hand. "Let's go to the barn and I'll show you the baby horses. One of them has spots on his legs and looks just like he's wearing socks."
Once again he allowed the little girl to drag him along, this time out the back door and across the lawn toward the barns.
Maybe that was what he needed. To search for what meant the most to him rather than simply allowing life to toss him around like a leaf floating in water.
He'd always known he wanted to help those who couldn't help themselves. It was why he'd fallen so easily into working for his father's company. It was why he was so good at what he did.
The last few months had shown him a variation on how he could help. A new path he could walk. A path that could lead to a safer world. Maybe that was the whole key.
Figure out who he was, what his destiny was, and that lonely hole in his soul would be filled at last.
Out of the mouths of babes, as the saying went.
Copyright © 2010 by Melissa Mayhue