The last thing I expected to see when I stepped through the door of the coffee shop was a fairy godmother. Not that fairy godmothers are normally high on the list of things I expect to see, even as weird as my life is. I work for a magical company, so running into fairies, gnomes, elves, wizards, and talking gargoyles is something that happens every day. But I’d never yet seen an honest-to-goodness fairy godmother, and I really wasn’t expecting to see one that morning because, for the first time in my life, I really didn’t need one.
As of the night before, I had my Prince Charming. At the company Christmas party, Owen Palmer, the wonderfully handsome, brilliant, powerful wizard who also happened to be an incredibly nice guy, had kissed me like he meant it and told me he’d always had an interest in me. Yeah, the guy who was the magical world’s answer to a movie star liked plain old nonmagical Katie Chandler, the ordinary small-town girl from Texas. That Saturday morning was our first official date as two people who’d admitted that we had feelings for each other. We were meeting for brunch at a snug little coffee shop on Irving Place, possibly the most romantic New York setting I could imagine for a casual first date.
Which meant, of course, that the fairy godmother had to be waiting for someone else. At least, I assumed she was a fairy godmother. I know making assumptions can be dangerous, but I was pretty good about seeing the truth, and she looked like Central Casting’s idea of a fairy godmother. She looked older than the eternally youthful fairies I knew, and her wings were a fairly good sign that she wasn’t just another eccentric New Yorker. A star-topped wand lying on the table in front of her was yet another clue. None of the other magical folk I knew used wands. Anyone else would surely have made the same assumption, if they saw what I saw.
I almost felt sorry for whomever her Cinderella was because she didn’t exactly look like the top-of-the-line fairy godmother. Unlike most of the fairies I knew, she was squat and round, but I couldn’t tell if that was flesh or if it was her clothes. She looked like instead of taking off the previous day’s clothes and putting on something new each morning, she just put on a new outfit on top of the old one—and she’d been doing that for centuries. In all the layers of clothing I caught glimpses of calico, tulle, patchwork, satin, and velvet. The top layer was old, dusty rose velvet, worn threadbare in places. A rusty tiara missing a few stones sat haphazardly on top of her gray sausage curls, and one of her fairy wings was bent.
Of course, no one in the coffee shop seemed to notice that there was anyone odd among them, and it wasn’t simply because they were all distracted by their newspapers and conversations or because the caffeine hadn’t yet made it to their brains. I’m immune to magic, so the spell she used to hide her magical appearance didn’t work on me. I saw what was really there, while I was sure the rest of the patrons probably saw only an elderly woman wearing a tweed suit and sensible shoes.
But as I said, it wasn’t any of my business. I was about five minutes early because I knew Owen was relentlessly punctual and I was sadly overeager, but I figured I could use the time to stake out a table. Unfortunately, the shop was crowded, and there weren’t that many tables to begin with. I lingered near the doorway, waiting either for Owen to show up or for someone to vacate a table.
“Yoo hoo! Katie!” I turned when I heard my name and saw the fairy godmother waving at me. I waved back halfheartedly, and she pointed her wand at the empty seat across from her. With a shrug, I went over and took the seat. There was always a chance I could talk her into leaving, and then I would have managed to snag a table before Owen got there. “Oh good, you’re right on time,” she said as I sat down.
“On time for what?” I asked.
“Our meeting, of course.” She gave a tinkling little laugh. “But silly me, I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Ethelinda, your fairy godmother. I’ll be managing your case, helping you find true love.”
“There must have been some kind of mix-up then. I don’t need any help right now. You would have really come in handy for the past ten years, but now things are finally working out for me.”
She waved her star-topped wand over the table and an elaborately decorated china tea set appeared. As she poured two cups and dropped in lumps of sugar, she said, “We don’t make mistakes. You probably need more help than you think, and that’s why I was sent your way. Milk or lemon?”
“Milk, please. But I’m actually meeting someone for a date here in a minute or two. So, you see, I don’t need help right now, for probably the first time in my life. I’ve found Prince Charming, he’s found me, and all’s right with the world.”
Frowning, she waved her wand again, and a battered, dog-eared book appeared on the table. She took the pair of spectacles that hung on a cord around her neck and brought them up to rest on her nose. One of the earpieces was missing, so they hung lopsided on her face. “Hmmm,” she murmured as she flipped through the book. “Oh, yes, I see what you mean. I haven’t seen such a sad case in a very long time. You really could have used a helping hand or two, couldn’t you?”
I cringed at her description of what I assumed was my dating history. A lot of other people’s dating histories would also have had to be in that book, though, for it to be that fat. My relationship history wouldn’t have required much more than an index card. “That’s putting it mildly. So you can see why I’m confused. If you weren’t around all those years when almost every man I met acted like I was his little sister or thought I was too boring and nice, then I don’t see why you’re here now.”
“We don’t waste time with the little things. We only step in when destiny is at stake, when it matters in the grand scheme of the universe whether or not you find your fated true love.”
“Fated true love” sounded like something out of the worst kind of romance novels. It also sounded like something out of my wildest fantasies. Fate sure would make finding Mr. Right and knowing he was Mr. Right a lot easier. If Owen and I really were meant to be together, then I could relax about whether or not a super-powerful wizard could stay interested in someone like me. Then a doubt struck me. “Um, we are talking about Owen Palmer here, aren’t we?” It would have been just my luck if she’d shown up at this particular time to hook me up with someone entirely different.
She consulted her book again, flipping through pages and making little humming noises to herself as she did so. At last she said, “Most definitely. And, my, he seems to have needed even more help than you did with his past romances. He’s awfully shy, isn’t he? But then, we only work for women. The men are on their own.” She gave a tittering laugh. “After all, you don’t hear much about Prince Charming getting any help from a fairy godmother, only Cinderella.”
“Yeah, but isn’t Cinderella a—” I almost said “a fairy tale,” but then wondered if that might be considered offensive. “—fiction?”
She raised one eyebrow above the frame of her glasses, giving her face an even more lopsided appearance as the glasses dangled precariously off one side of her nose. “Then how would you explain the fact that almost every human culture has some variation of the classic Cinderella story?” She sniffed disdainfully. “That was one of my biggest triumphs. I even won an award.” She fished around her neckline until she hooked a finger on a golden chain, then pulled on the chain to raise a star-shaped medal from somewhere deep within the layers of clothes. “See? My claim to fame.”
“Very nice,” I said, even though the medal was so tarnished it may have been an award for best apple pie at the county fair, for all I could tell. I tried to remember all the fairy tales I’d read and heard—beyond the Disney versions. “But aren’t there also a lot of stories about fairies helping out good-hearted younger sons on quests?”
“Those are fairies, not fairy godmothers,” she said with an exasperated sigh, like she got that question a lot. “There is a significant difference, you know. We have our own kind of magic, very specific powers and all that. Now, about your case.”
I heard the door open and turned to look, hoping it wouldn’t be Owen, not yet. Fortunately, it wasn’t. He’d picked a very good time to break his punctuality habit. The last thing I wanted was for him to catch me consulting a fairy godmother. It would give him the totally wrong impression. I turned back to Ethelinda. “Not that I don’t appreciate the offer, but I really don’t think I need help right now. I’d like to try to work things out on my own.”
Her glasses fell off her face, bouncing once on their cord against her ample chest. She looked positively heartbroken. “Whatever you think is best,” she said, her tone chilly, but with enough breaks in her voice to make it clear that she’d put on the ice as a way of covering her hurt.
I couldn’t stand to make an old woman—fairy godmother or otherwise—cry. “I suppose if it starts to be a total disaster, then maybe I could give you a call.”
She brightened immediately. Her book disappeared, and a golden heart-shaped locket appeared in her left hand. “You can contact me through this,” she said, handing it to me across the table. “Open it when you need me. You’ll know what to do from there.” And then before I could ask any questions, she was gone, vanished into thin air, along with her tea set.
As I dropped the locket into my jacket pocket, I felt a gust of cold air and thought for a second that it was an aftereffect of her vanishing spell, but then I realized the door had opened. I looked up and saw Owen entering the coffee shop. I wasn’t the only one gazing at him. He looked like a celebrity heartthrob, he was so ridiculously handsome. I could practically hear the other patrons trying to remember what movie they’d seen him in as he spotted me and hurried across the room to fall into the seat Ethelinda had just vacated.
On this particular morning, he looked like something out of a paparazzi photo of a celebrity in his off-hours. His nearly black hair was still slightly damp, as if from a shower, and it curled up a little around his ears and at the back of his neck. There was a faint shadow on his strong jaw, and his dark blue eyes were hidden behind wire-rimmed glasses.
I might have been put out that he hadn’t made at least some effort on our first official date if he hadn’t appeared so flustered. “Sorry I’m late,” he said, slightly out of breath. “There’s been a bit of a crisis.”
“What is it?” I asked, immediately concerned.
A paper cup bearing the shop’s logo appeared between his hands, and he picked it up and took a long sip. I noticed then that a similar cup had appeared in front of me, so I got a little caffeine into my system while I waited for him to answer. Cups appearing out of nowhere were practically normal in my life, especially around Owen, so I’d long since gotten used to it.
“Ari got away last night,” he said at last, sounding like he’d finally caught his breath and settled down some. Ari was the wicked fairy—and my ex-friend—who’d been helping our company’s enemy by spying and sabotaging from within Magic, Spells, and Illusions, Inc., the company where both Owen and I worked. We’d exposed her at the company party the night before, and she’d been taken into custody by the company security forces.
“How’d she escape?” I asked.
Excerpted from Damsel Under Stress by Shanna Swendson. Copyright © 2007 by Shanna Swendson. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.