Saturday, June 27, 2009

Bearing Armen by Brenna Lyons

James reached out and took the bonnet from Beth’s hand, settling it on the little girl’s head, covering her blonde curls, chuckling as she fought the process. Twins! He could barely comprehend how lucky she was to have two precious baby girls. They were beautiful babies.

A few moments’ delay, and I would have orphaned them. I considered ignoring their need for a damned hamburger! He swallowed a cry of dismay at that thought. It was the truth. Ani help him, he’d honestly considered taking the time to eat at the risk of this woman and her children.

Never again. He touched the baby’s chubby cheek, managing an honest smile as she honored him with one of her own. “I’ll see you home,” he assured her.

“That’s really not—”

He snapped his gaze to Beth and the other baby, rising to his feet slowly. She took a deep breath, meeting his eyes steadily. James lifted the child from her arms, untangling the baby’s fist from her mother’s shoulder-length, slightly-darker than honey hair. He strapped her into the stroller behind her sister, topping off the job with the second bonnet.

Then he smiled at the sitter. “Good night, Alice.”

The silver-haired woman straightened her dress with a blush. “And to you.”

James rolled the stroller onto the front porch.

Behind him, Alice whispered to Beth, “That man is one you grab onto and hold tight, dear.”

He smiled at that, lifting the stroller down the single step to the sidewalk. Why couldn’t he pursue this? Not that I have much of a choice with my family history. Armens are fond of saving the ladies in distress and bringing them home as mates.
If Beth were willing, he could have more than he’d ever dreamed of. Few Warriors were lucky enough to have a daughter, and two were unheard of, even when they adopted daughters in.

His smile faded at the sight of Beth, her amber eyes assessing him. She wouldn’t be easy to court. She was a sensible woman. On the surface, his life wouldn’t seem a sensible choice.

“You didn’t have to do that,” she began cautiously.

“It was nothing.” It was. Most Warriors carried much more than that for emergencies. In truth, James had been lax by carrying so little pocket money. “Which way? Or should I drive you?”

She blushed. “No. It’s close, but you don’t have to—”

“I do.” Step one. “There are dangerous beings about.”

Beth scooped her shoulder-length hair behind her ear, motioning him east and falling into step beside him. “I’ll pay you back,” she stated proudly. “In two weeks—”

“There’s no need to. It was my fault you were late.”

“It was the vampire’s fault...and my own. I was already late.” She grimaced, as if admitting that was painful for her.

“You don’t owe me anything.” James rolled the stroller around a heave in the concrete.

“I don’t need your charity,” she snapped.

“It’s not charity. It’s a gift.”

She shot him a wary look. “You don’t even know me. Why would you give me a gift?”

“I didn’t. I gave your daughters a gift.”

Beth looked away, seemingly rattled by the concept.

James ached to take her hand and comfort her, but he had no doubts that she wouldn’t allow that. It simply wasn’t fair. The type of woman he wanted most was least likely to accept him in her life. Why couldn’t he just be happy with the typical blade chasers?

He turned to a door as she did, subconsciously matching her movements. Beth unlocked it, and James removed the baby from the front seat, anticipating her dismissal at the door.

She turned back, looking at the stroller and then James, her expression pained. “I can get them—”

“I need to talk to you.” He tried to state it calmly, but it came out as a plea.

She hesitated, glancing at the door nervously.

“Please. Have I done anything to prove myself untrustworthy?”

Beth looked as if she might say that he had. She sighed, shaking her head.

“It will only take a few minutes. You have my vow.”

She lifted the other child and pushed the door wide. “Park the stroller beneath the mail slots,” she instructed, heading for the stairs without a backward glance.

The baby in his arms yawned widely and snuggled into his shoulder, and James bit back a laugh. Even if Beth refused his bid for a relationship, this moment was priceless to him.

He followed her up the stairs and into a cramped apartment. Beth breezed through the front room and into the kitchen, removing the baby’s coat and bonnet and setting her in a playpen. She turned on a pot of water already set on the stove. She peeled off her own coat, revealing a trim body, maybe a touch on the thin side but still nicely rounded.

James took her hint, removing the coat and bonnet from his little charge. He glanced into the refrigerator as Beth opened it, then away to the baby in his arms, his heart aching as she stuffed her thumb in her mouth. There was little in the fridge, and what there was inside seemed to be primarily for the babies. He smoothed his hand in circles over her back and promised his protection silently.

“What did you need to talk to me about?” Beth asked, setting two glass bottles in the pot to heat.

His head spun. James had to make his continued presence a sensible move. “I want to offer you protection.” He didn’t stop to consider how he’d justify that to Carrick.

She went still, staring at the stovetop. “What does that mean?”

“You know what’s out there, Beth. You know about the beasts.”

Beth turned, looking at her girls in horror. “They’ll come back?”

James cursed his inability to lie to her. As much as he’d like to lie to gain the advantage, it would be dishonorable, and he wouldn’t do it. “Probably not, but anything is possible.” After all, Veriel had fixated on Corwyn’s mate. The thought of a beast doing the same with Beth made his stomach clench. “What I want to do is a simple thing—just an amulet and a blessing that keeps them from harming you.”

She fingered the silver cross at her throat.

“As you saw tonight, it doesn’t work. What I offer does.” He paused, gauging the effects of his words on her. “For your girls. I offer them protection as well. If something happened to you—”

“Yes.” Her voice was a strained whisper.

He sighed, relieved that she’d accepted his offer.

Beth stepped toward him, watching James pull the amulet from his jacket pocket. He settled it over her shoulders and cupped his hand behind her head, whispering the words of protection. He didn’t hesitate, pressing his lips to her forehead, then releasing her immediately.

She stared at him, touching the spot he’d kissed, moving her mouth as if she couldn’t decide what to ask first.

“It’s required,” he assured her.

Beth cleared her throat. “And this will work?”

“Guaranteed, as long as you keep the amulet next to your body.”

“But the girls—”

“We typically pin them to the inside of a child’s clothing until the age of four. Do you have spare diaper pins?”

“Yes. Of course.” She retrieved two from a Life Savers stacked bowl set on the counter, offering them to him.

James accepted them, then stared at the sleepy baby in his arms. “I need to know your name, princess,” he hinted.

Beth darkened. “You’re holding Michelle. Melissa is in the playpen.”

“Michelle. What a beautiful name for a princess.”