Dark Magick Rising (Draegan Lords Book 5) by M.L. Rhodes
Copyright 2019 by M.L. Rhodes, All Rights Reserved
Later that evening, Wesley found himself with time on his hands—something he hadn’t had much of lately. Training was over for the day, he’d grabbed something to eat with Al, and his guard shift with two of the trainees didn’t start for another couple of hours. Wen had left early tonight with Lord Rizik for their evening flight, so Wesley was at loose ends.
He went up to the library tower after dinner, in hopes he might take advantage of the rare free time to see if he could find books about the ondaen. The library was in the castle’s largest tower, and when he entered through the double doors, the first thing he saw was the massive table that dominated the center of the room. A dozen heavily carved wood chairs with royal blue velvet seat cushions sat around it. Wesley suspected this table was where Lord Rizik and his advisors met each day. Maps lay scattered across the tabletop, and numerous books sat stacked at the far end.
But in spite of its obvious beauty and sheer size, it wasn’t the furniture that riveted him. Aside from the tall, narrow windows that graced the tower, every single other available space on the curved stone walls was covered in bookshelves filled to overflowing. A stone staircase wound upward, and when Wesley craned his neck, following its path, his breath caught. The tower was open, all the way to the top, and there were books as far up as he could see.
The sight was awe inspiring. And overwhelming. Because once the pleasurable shock of such a magnificent collection had sunk it, he realized he had no clue where he’d even start. He moved to the stairs, perusing titles on the spines, some of which were in languages he didn’t even recognize, and quickly realized it could easily take hours, or maybe even days, to find anything specific about his race.
When Thomas entered the library and called hello to him, followed by a, “Careful! Careful! Many of the bindings are fragile!” it startled Wesley. He glanced down at the doorway to find Thomas eyeing him suspiciously.
Thomas always had been overly protective of his own books. Now, according to Wen, he had put himself in charge of the entire library. Given the expression on his face at the moment, and the flutter of anxiety Wesley read rippling off of him, he took the responsibility seriously.
“Are you looking for something in particular, Wesley?” he asked somewhat frantically, his eyes darting between Wesley and the books. He nervously jabbed a finger at the bridge of his nose, pushing up his wire-rimmed glasses. “If so, it’s probably best you let me find it for you.”
Wesley didn’t want to rouse any suspicions in Thomas about why he was looking for information on the ondaen, so he quickly said, “No, I…I’d just never been in here and Wen had told me how impressive the library tower is. I had some free time tonight and thought I’d see for myself.”
“Ah, yes, well, the book collection is rather extraordinary. And there are many, many rare tomes that simply can’t be found anywhere else. They’re utterly priceless. Which is why…yes, perhaps it’s best if you step back from the shelves.”
Wesley wasn’t sure whether to grit his teeth in frustration or laugh at Thomas’s concern. You’d think he’d drawn his sword and was threatening to slice up everything, the way Thomas was acting. But in the interest of soothing Thomas’s anxiety that he might breathe on something precious, he stepped away from the shelves and made his way back down the few steps he’d climbed.
His mind raced for several seconds, trying to think of a way to ask Thomas for books that might help without being specific.
“Actually, since I’m here…. Do you remember when I was younger and you used to let me look through that big book you had about mythology? The one with the gold-tinted pictures?”
Thomas blinked and then practically beamed. Wesley could tell he was pleased. “Yes! Mythos of a Faire Land. You did always enjoy it. I have it here”—he started toward the stairs—“if you’d like to look at it again.”
“I remember it fairly well.” Remembered clearly that it had contained no information on beings who could shift between human and water forms, because Wesley had read every word of the book years ago, hoping to find something to explain what he was. “I was wondering if, instead, maybe there were other books here in the library about mythological creatures. Or, perhaps…magickal creatures in general? Ones that really exist? Like the draegans and…others? It’s all fascinating to me and it would be…interesting…nice…to read some more about them.” He hoped he didn’t sound totally lame.
Apparently not since Thomas was nodding enthusiastically. “Why, yes, yes, of course there are many tomes of that nature here. If you’d like, later tonight I can bring a book or two down from the tower for you.”
“That would be great. Thank you.”
Whoa. That had been easier than he’d expected. Of course he’d prefer to be able to have a book or two in his hands right now so he could go to the privacy of his and Wen’s rooms and start reading before his guard shift. But knowing he could get them later was almost as good.
Thomas quickly burst his bubble, though. “You will, of course, have to read them here. Here at the table. We can’t have any valuable copies of anything roaming about the castle. No, no. That would be bad. No books leaving the library under my watch,” he said breathlessly. “Far too precious to take any chances.”
Okay, first of all, Wesley seldom had enough free time to lounge about the library reading. And, second, if he had to keep the books here at the table, he had no doubt Thomas would be hanging over his shoulder every second, which meant even if he came across anything about the ondaen, he’d have little chance to linger over it or pay any more attention to it than he would anything else. Ugh.
Still. He supposed it was better than nothing.
With an internal sigh, he nodded.
“I’ll see what I can find for you. Come back tomorrow,” Thomas said.
“Sorry to rush you out, but I’ve got some reading of my own to do this evening. Yes. So much reading to do.”
He ushered Wesley toward the library doors, and before Wesley had time to so much as blink, he found himself out of the tower with the doors shut behind him.
What in hel?
Well, so much for that brilliant idea. Wesley had a feeling even if he did get a chance to come back tomorrow or the next day to look through the books Thomas found for him, he’d find little to no information on the ondaen. Maybe a brief paragraph with the basics, but it was unlikely he’d find detailed information…like why, ever since he’d used his blood to heal, he’d been craving blood. Gods.
What he needed was a damned “how-to-be-an-ondaen” manual.
Standing outside the library, in the windowed atrium where he’d first seen Wen after weeks apart, he wondered what he could do with his time now that his library plan had been foiled.
He could go back to his and Wen’s chambers and use the bathing pool. He had to admit, he loved that thing. But he discounted the idea almost as quickly as he thought it, since it would only relax him and then he’d want to sleep. Which obviously wasn’t good, since he still had a full guard shift to do tonight before he’d earned that luxury.
His next thought was to find a quiet place where he could practice reading people.
If he did that, then maybe he could also check in on Jarrad.
Then he remembered…Jarrad was already out his reach.
During a break this afternoon, a member of the draeganjhere had mentioned that Jarrad had traded assignments with him. When Wesley asked the other guard what assignment Jarrad had traded for, he’d said it was a scouting mission and that Jarrad would likely be gone for several days at least, if not longer. Which meant, Jarrad had left, just as he’d threatened to do.
Wesley was trying hard to adopt Wen’s belief that Jarrad would come to them if he really needed them. Still, he wondered where Jarrad was and how he was doing.
Thinking of Jarrad reminded him of Lochlann…and that was another worry that weighed heavily on Wesley.
Risa had agreed with them that having Lochlann leave seemed the best plan. She admitted she was sad it had come to the point where her brother had to be sent away, and she said she’d worry about him because he’d always had family around and never been totally on his own. But at the same time, knowing he was leaving made her more optimistic for herself and her little brother than she’d felt since their parents died, as if a sense of heaviness had lifted from her chest.
With Lochlann’s own sister feeling that way, his leaving was clearly for the best.
Wesley’d had to get back to work after they’d spoken to Risa, but Wen had gone straight to Lochlann after their talk to give him the news he was going to have to leave Kellesborne. The plan was to have him escorted down the mountain tomorrow morning.
Wesley had tried to eavesdrop empathically on Wen and Lochlann’s conversation, but it had been hard to concentrate on that and his job at the same time, so mostly all he’d picked up was more of Lochlann’s anger and the constant simmer of Wen’s frustration—nothing really any different from when they’d been in Lochlann’s room earlier in the day.
Making Lochlann leave—if you could call it “making” when it was clearly what he wanted—had been the only real choice in the situation. Wesley knew that. As Wen had reminded him earlier, their first duty was to protect the draegan lord and the people who lived here, and the idea of having Lochlann walking the castle, spouting hate and lashing out at any who crossed him, wasn’t acceptable.
Yet, all day, whenever Wesley thought of Lochlann, he couldn’t shake the sensation that perhaps they could or should have thought of some other way to deal with him. Wesley had a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach that something, he had no idea what, but something troubling was going to happen because of him leaving.
With a sigh, Wesley decided that right now, instead of finding a quiet spot on his own, he’d be better off seeking out some company and conversation. Because alone he’d just keep on with this same useless litany of worry.
He hadn’t seen his mother in a couple of days and her calm demeanor might be just what he needed right now for his overactive anxiety.
Unfortunately, she didn’t answer his knock when he went to her rooms.
Not to be daunted, he reached out with this senses, searching for her, and felt her presence in the greenhouses on the main level.
He found her in the large, enclosed workroom next to the windowed growing areas. Fires burned in grates on either end of the workroom, and between them, they created enough light to see quite well. They also generated a wealth of heat that hit him the moment he walked in. It felt wonderful after another particularly cold day spent outside in the training courtyard.
The heat, along with the damp, warm scent of fresh-tilled soil stirred pleasant memories of being in the old forest in the summertime when he was a kid.
“Wesley!” His mother looked up from where she was sitting cross-legged on the ground, filling clay pots with soil. She’d always loved growing things, being around plants and trees, flowers and vegetables. Some of his earliest memories were of kneeling in sun-warmed dirt alongside her, planting seeds or picking flowers.
Tonight, he was surprised to find a little boy with her, no older than maybe two or three. The child was standing next to Wesley’s mum, leaning against her shoulder, watching her. He turned to look at Wesley when Wesley’s mother spoke, his eyes wide.
“Hi, Mum. No, don’t get up. I’ll come to you.” He crossed over to her and, bending down, pressed a kiss against the warm cheek she offered him.
“And who’s this?” he asked, unable to resist scuffing a hand over the child’s tangled dark waves of hair that fell around his shoulders.
“This is Neric,” his mother said, smiling.
“Neric? Risa’s little brother?”
“Mm-hmm. Neric,” she said to the boy, “this is my little boy, Wesley.”
“Little boy?” Wesley murmured, but couldn’t help smiling.
“Shush,” his mother said with another smile. “Can you say hi, Neric?”
The child gazed up at Wesley with wide brown eyes, as if assessing him, then he quickly popped the thumb he’d been sucking out of his mouth and grinned a snaggle-toothed smile. “Wessy!”
Wesley laughed at that. He had to admit, the little guy was pretty adorable. Patting the tangled head again, he said, “It’s nice to meet you, Neric. I know your sister.”
“Risa!” he shouted.
Wesley looked at his mum. “How’d you end up with him here in the greenhouses? I didn’t know you knew Risa.”
“I didn’t until yesterday. Marta told me about them and their situation, and I offered to help keep an eye on him from time to time. I think he rather enjoys visiting with me here, don’t you, Neric?”
“Food and petty flowers,” he said. “They grow big!” He shouted the last word—he was clearly an excitable little guy—and pointed up at the ceiling.
“Pretty flowers,” Wesley’s mum corrected him. “And, yes, some of them will grow big. Bigger than you even.”
Her gaze returning to Wesley, she asked, “What brings you here, sweetheart?”
“Had some time before I start a guard shift and I haven’t seen you in a couple of days.”
She smiled at him fondly. “I know you’re busy, not to mention you have a certain someone who, I suspect, keeps you busy even when you’re not working.”
Heat crept up his cheeks. “Mum!”
She laughed. “I’m sorry, but I can’t help teasing you. Your reaction is worth it every time.”
“Yeah, okay,” he said, smiling. He took off his weapons, setting them on a nearby table since he wasn’t comfortable having them within reach of the child, then sank onto the floor cross-legged next to his mother.
Neric promptly crawled into Wesley’s lap as if it were the most natural thing in the world, his thumb back in his mouth, and the other hand stroking Wesley’s arm.
After giving his mum a surprised look, Wesley snuggled him into a more comfortable position, and was even more surprised at the ribbon of warmth that slid through his veins at the little guy’s trust and open affection. “So, what are you guys up to?”
“Well, we’re filling these pots with soil and then we’re going to plant these choku melon seeds in them.”
“I wondered where those choku melons had come from that Wen brought up from the kitchen a week or so ago. I didn’t remember seeing any in the greenhouses when I’d visited you that day.”
“Probably because it was the last of the harvest. They had come up volunteer during the years the castle sat empty. We ate them the first few weeks we were here, but they’re gone now. The good news is that I saved out a pile of seeds so we can replant. They don’t do well in a community grow or else their vines take over. Since I don’t want them overrunning any of the areas I’ve managed to clean up so far, I’ll start them in these small pots, then when they’re up and hearty enough, I’ll transplant them into a bed of their own, apart from the other plants.”
“Choku!” Neric said with another grin after pulling his thumb out of his mouth again. He reached to take one of the large purple seeds Wesley’s mother held in her hand. Then he leaned forward in Wesley’s lap so he could reach the pot, and his chubby little fingers poked the seed down into the dirt.
“That right. Very good,” Wesley’s mother said, smiling indulgently at the little boy. “When these grow big, they’ll make melons, and then we’ll eat them.”
Wesley laughed again. “They are yum. I like them, too.”
“Wessy like!” Neric told Wesley’s mother.
“I know.” She nodded, then picking up a damp rag sitting next to her, scrubbed the dirt off his hand. Good thing, too, since the moment she was done, his thumb went right back into his mouth.
To Wesley she said, “He reminds me of you when you were this age.” He felt her emotions turn sweet and nostalgic. “I remember teaching you to plant seeds. You loved digging in the dirt. But, of course, you especially loved it when we watered the plants. You were always fascinated by the water. I’d pour a bucket out onto the greenery, and you’d amuse yourself making channels and pools in the dirt for it to flow into.”
“Did you suspect even back then?”
She didn’t have to ask to what he referred. “I suspected. But as I’ve said before, I wasn’t sure. I didn’t know for certain until you were a teenager and told me about your full shift.”
“I’ve discovered a few other things about myself these past weeks,” he said. “Things having to do with who, with what, I am.”
Her brows drew together and she tilted her head to the side in question. “You are a who, sweetheart, not a what. But what kind of things have you discovered?”
He had no idea why he suddenly felt compelled to share. He hadn’t come to see her with any intention in particular, but it suddenly felt important to have someone besides Wen to talk to about some of the things that constantly weighed on him. Not that he was even remotely ready to tell her about how he’d healed Wen with his blood, and what had happened afterward—what almost kept happening each time he’d been around blood since then. But the empath stuff was different. It felt shareable. The only reason he hadn’t talked to her about it sooner was that it seemed like every time he’d seen her since he’d been back from his trip with Al, there’d always been other people around who might overhear.
“I can read people’s emotions.”
Her eyes opened wide. He felt her surprise. But then she began nodding. “That actually explains so much.”
“Yes. You were always intuitive, even as a little guy, responding to the people around you when they were happy or angry or sad. I thought maybe you were just good at instinctively reading body language. But you’re saying you can actually pick up on specific emotions?”
“Wesley, that’s such a gift, being an empath.”
He shrugged. “Growing up, I had no idea it was anything out of the ordinary. I always assumed everyone could do it. Which is why I guess I never mentioned it.”
“Most people can’t do it.”
“So I’ve been told.”
He nodded. “He knows everything now. And since he and I…since we’ve been together, my ability seems to be growing stronger. The combination of his draegan magick and my”—he lowered his voice out of habit, in case anyone might walk in and overhear—“ondaen magick merging might be what’s giving me a heightened ability.”
“Fascinating. Do you suppose empathy is natural for your people? Or it something additional you’ve been gifted with?”
“I don’t know for sure, but Wen is under the impression it’s a my people thing since he views it as a magick ability. And the longer we’re together, and the more we…um…well…the more we…”
She smiled again. “I think I get the picture from your blushing. The more you’re intimate?”
Wesley felt even more heat slide up his cheeks again, damn it. But he nodded. “Yeah, the more we’re intimate, the better my abilities seem to be. But it’s strongest with him. I’m not just able to read his emotions, I can actually feel them as he’s feeling them. And same for him—he’s not an empath, but he can feel my emotions, too, when we’re near one another. Again, something about our magick merging. The thing is…I can feel him not just when I’m with him, but even from a distance.”
“Like, the next room kind of distance?”
“More like all the way down at the guard camp at the base of the mountain kind of distance. Or sometimes, like leagues away distance. The night of the nyctophan attack, I felt Wen’s emotions as it was happening, and he was somewhere near Thrythgar.”
He expected her to be surprised, but instead her face creased with sympathy. “That must have been awful, sweetheart. To know Wen was going through that with the nyctophans, to experience it through him, and be so far away from him.”
He drew in a deep breath and released it as a shadow memory of that night crept through him. “It was. I felt helpless and I hated it.” Except then he wasn’t so helpless. But he couldn’t quite bring himself to tell her about the water and shield either. He still wasn’t sure what to make of that, much less put it into words for her.
“Your connection with Wen is extraordinary. Being human, I don’t fully understand how magick works—”
“Believe me, neither do I,” Wesley interjected.
She smiled. “But it’s quite fascinating to think that your two different types of magick are able to blend together. To clarify, it’s only Wen you can sense from afar?”
“From that far? Yes. It’s different with Wen because, again, I don’t just read him, I actually experience his emotions as if they’re my own—it’s like we’re linked and we can feel each other all the time. But I’ve been working on sensing other people from a distance as well. It’s how I found you tonight and knew you were here in the greenhouses. I went to your rooms, and when you weren’t there, I reached out to find you and sensed you here.”
She looked impressed.
“But there are limitations,” he continued. “It has to be someone I know well, or at least well enough to be familiar with their unique emotional… I call it a flavor or aura. Everyone has their own individual emotional flavor to them that’s different from anyone else’s. And whoever it is, they have to be within a certain distance from me. If I’m in the castle, for example, the person has to be within the main part of the fortress. Beyond that, the external buildings, outside, it gets too murky and I can’t tell anyone apart even if I get a general buzz of emotion.”
“I would imagine being able to do that, either face-to-face or at a distance, must be an advantage to you in your job. Being able to read how people are reacting.”
“Sometimes. Though it’s hard to sort through it all when more than one person is experiencing a lot of intense emotions. Yesterday, when the fight happened between Jarrad and…” He glanced down at Neric to see if he was listening, and discovered the little boy had fallen sound asleep on his lap. Once again he felt the thread of warmth curling through him.
“He’s out,” his mum said softly, smiling. “You’re a natural with kids.”
“I’ve never really been around them, but he is awfully cute.” His smile quickly morphed into a frown, though, as a thought hit him hard.
“Gods, how could anyone, anyone, put this little guy’s life at risk? I’ve known him all of half an hour and I can’t imagine it. And yet, that’s exactly what his own brother did,” he said, keeping his voice low so he wouldn’t wake Neric. “Risa and Lilia both said the older brother, Lochlann, didn’t want a human healer to treat him. He tried to leave with Neric, not caring that Neric could have died.”
His mother put a gentle hand on his arm. “But he didn’t. His sister made sure of that. And now, he’s almost fully well again.”
“No thanks to his brother,” Wesley said bitterly. “I was the one who broke up that fight, Mum. I heard about the awful things Lochlann said regarding humans. I went with Wen this morning to question him and to read him—”
“Read his emotions?”
Wesley nodded. “He was so angry. It radiated off him like a black haze. He’s furious at humans. Furious at the whole world. To the point it’s all he cares about. He hurt Risa. He almost hurt this little guy by not wanting to do what was best for him. Wen was afraid he might try to hurt Lord Rizik or someone else. So tomorrow morning he’s being escorted away from Kellesborne. Yet in spite everything he’s done, I haven’t been able to stop wondering if banishing him is the right thing to do. If maybe we should try to help him somehow, because probably the only reason he is the way he is, is because he’s been hurt in the past. All day I’ve been asking myself if it’s fair to punish someone for reacting to their own pain? But now…”
A lump filled his throat as he looked down at the warm, innocent, sleeping child in his lap, and all of his previous concerns about his and Wen’s decision fled. He shook his head.
“Now, I look at Neric and I realize that Lochlann can’t be here right now. He can never, ever be allowed to hurt his sister and brother again, and if that means we have to keep him far away from here for them to be safe, then so be it.”
His mother rubbed his shoulder in a soothing motion, much as she’d done when he was young. “I wish I could tell you that making decisions gets easier as you get older, but it doesn’t. Few things are ever as simple as right or wrong, good or bad. This Lochlann sounds like a troubled soul, and in a perfect world, it would be wonderful if we could help all such souls. But at this place and time, I’m not sure anything we have to offer here could help him.”
“And in the meantime, he might have continued to harm innocents who also needed help.” He smoothed a hand over Neric’s hair.
“Exactly,” his mother said. “So we prioritize the best we can, knowing we can’t help everyone, but instead choosing to help those who can’t protect themselves.”
“Like this little guy.” Wesley let out a slow, heavy sigh. “I’ve been trying to compare Lochlann to Jarrad. I think that’s what really bothered me all day today, because I kept trying to force them into the same mold, even though it didn’t exactly feel right to do so.”
“Why would you compare the two of them?”
“Lochlann provoked Jarrad yesterday, threw the first punch, but even though Jarrad has a quick temper, normally he would never have beaten Lochlann the way he did. It only happened because, as Lochlann was hitting him, Jarrad’s memories of the nyctophan attack flooded over him, making him think he was there again. He’s still really struggling from the emotional impact of what happened with the nyctophans, and he thought he was fighting them yesterday, fighting for his very life.”
“That must have been horrible for him, to think he was reliving it.”
“It was. It wasn’t until I pulled him off Lochlann that he came back to himself. Once he did, he instantly felt guilty over what he’d done. And now he’s off, gods know where, working alone, because he’s afraid of losing control and hurting someone again. Meanwhile, we’re kicking Lochlann out of Kellesborne because he lost control due to his inner struggles. I wondered if we were being hypocritical by worrying about Jarrad and wanting to help him, while we punished Lochlann for nearly the same offense.”
He shook his head. “Now I can see the difference between the two of them. Jarrad hurt someone and was so ashamed and afraid, that he left in order to protect people. He knew what he’d done was wrong and he didn’t want it to happen again, so he took action himself to make sure it didn’t.
“Lochlann, on the other hand,” he continued, “is so caught up in his pain and anger that it feels as if he can’t distinguish between right and wrong. Even if he experiences remorse afterward, it’s not strong enough to make him want to stop himself and keep it from happening again. He’s driven by his pain to the point he can’t see what it’s doing to the people around him, while Jarrad knows full well and doesn’t want to continue the cycle.”
“I can see why the comparison might have troubled you,” his mum said. “But everyone deals with pain, fear, anger in their own way.”
She smiled then and brushed her fingers over his cheek. “I’ve traveled across Velensperia, lived a full life for the past almost fifty years. I’ve loved and lost and loved again. I’ve seen things that have left me breathless with pleasure, and others that have horrified me. And I’ve met people of all walks of life. The one thing that’s always struck me is that most people have good hearts and do their best to live their lives accordingly, even if they’ve been hurt. But, sadly, not everyone is able to stay hopeful. Some succumb to their despair by giving up. Others, by lashing out. Sometimes they can be helped, while other times they can’t because their despair and anger at the world, at themselves, eats away at them until there’s little left to help.”
“I hate to think that Lochlann is one of those latter ones. I still have hope for him,” Wesley said. “But not at Risa and Neric’s expense.”
“And that, my darling, is why you’re one of the good guys. Because you do still see hope…for all of them. Because you’re able to put yourself in their shoes, see through their eyes, and feel through their hearts. That’s called empathy.”
“You’re saying because I’m an empath I can see all sides?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying. And that’s why it’s a gift. I suspect your ability to read emotions gives you insight others can’t possibly glean. And that allows you to be understanding even of those whom others might brush off as purely bad seeds. Because you can sympathize with why they behave as they do.”
“That ability doesn’t exactly make my life easier, believe me,” he grumbled. “It just makes everything more complicated.”
“Yet, it’s important to have people like you in the world. Because you’re able to present information others might never know about or consider otherwise. And that, in turn, will no doubt always help those around you make better decisions.”
Wesley pondered her words, thinking of Wen’s anger after they’d first come out of Lochlann’s room this morning. He’d been so frustrated with Lochlann’s attitude and his refusal to answer questions. If they’d had nothing else to go on, Wen might have decided to keep Lochlann locked up, badgering him until he gave answers. But once Wesley had told him about that little flicker of remorse he’d sensed in Lochlann, Wen had immediately asked if Lochlann could be helped. His attitude had shifted from anger and what might have ended up being the desire to punish the man, to that of balancing their mission to protect the draegan lord and the people in the castle with a compassionate way of dealing with Lochlann’s pain-fed anger.
“I guess I hadn’t ever really thought of it that way,” he said quietly.
“We all have our strengths, sweetheart. Yours has always been your kind soul. You want to help people, and that’s not a bad thing, even if it does occasionally get messy.”
“Messy? That doesn’t even begin to cover it sometimes. Ugh.”
She laughed, then leaned in and kissed his temple.
“Hello!” a female voice called softly from behind them. “Anybody here?”
Wesley and his mother both turned their heads to see Risa entering the workroom, peering from side to side, as if uncertain where she might find someone.
“We’re over here,” Wesley’s mum said.
“I came to pick up Neric.” Her eyes widened she saw Wesley. “Wesley, hi. I didn’t know you were here.”
“Actually, you caught me about to leave. I have a guard shift to get to.”
“Where’s Neric?” Risa asked, looking around again.
Wesley turned enough for her to see her brother, still sound asleep in his lap.
Her eyebrows shot up and she smiled. “He isn’t usually comfortable with men. I’m surprised he let you hold him, much less put him to sleep.”
“There wasn’t any ‘letting’ involved. He climbed into my lap himself, and then passed out while Mum and I were talking.”
He felt Risa’s surprise rippling around him, and realized she hadn’t simply been making conversation. She was truly astonished. Which made him wonder if Lochlann was the reason Neric wasn’t comfortable with men… Gods, he didn’t want to think too hard about why that might be.
He was distracted from the thought by her grateful expression. “You always know how to make people feel better. Even, it seems, my baby brother.”
Wesley ducked his head to hide yet another twinge of heat he felt creeping onto his face. “I don’t know about that. I think it was mostly that I was a convenient warm lap. Here, you want to take him?”
She bent down to wrap her arms around her brother, then deftly lifted him without waking him. When she had him cuddled against her chest, she smiled at Wesley’s mother.
“Thank you so much for watching him, Sarah. I hate having to impose on anyone.”
“It was my pleasure, believe me.”
Wesley stood, then held his hand out to his mum, to help her up.
“I’m happy to help any time,” his mum told Risa. “And I mean that. Neric was completely content down here with me this afternoon. We had a bit of fun.”
Wesley looked fondly at her, but his words were directed at Risa. “She knows a thing or two about little boys.”
His mother chuckled. “A thing or two.”
“Well, I really appreciate it,” Risa said, smiling. “I should go now, though. I need to get Neric to bed. Good night. And thank you again.”
“See you in the morning,” Wesley told her.
When she’d gone, he turned to him mother and hugged her. “You’ve been telling me all evening about my gifts. But do you know what your gift is?”
She looked up at him, curious. “What?”
“Opening your heart and arms to anyone in need. Though you seem to have a particular soft spot for orphaned babies who desperately need the love and attention you share so unconditionally.”
Her eyes grew damp as she smiled. Standing on tiptoe, she pressed a kiss against his cheek, then said, “And I have no regrets. Love is always the right answer.”