When Isolt Foxfoot, overworked caregiver at a facility for the elderly in the hidden magical community of Chicago, loses her grandfather, she’s faced with losing her little sister as well. Elaine is just eighteen, and as both sisters are part Fae, the kinship courts don’t consider the unmarried Isolt responsible enough to guide her sister through the special challenges of Fae adolescence. When Isolt confides her difficulties to Elaine’s handsome professor, Sebastian Seaborn, however, she finds he’s in a not dissimilar position. As a bachelor, he may not be able to gain tenure at the Academy. And after years spent training his brilliant but willful sister, the responsibility of a new emotional encumbrance is the last thing he wants.
But after a hasty wedding and an all-too-brief honeymoon, things become more complicated than either had anticipated. Sebastian is a man used to command, and his quiet dominance rouses the latent submissive instincts of both sisters. And as Elaine begins to look to her brother-in-law for guidance, affection and discipline, Isolt finds herself fiercely protective of her sister’s dependence and strangely jealous of her husband’s attention.
As wills clash and tempers flare, Isolt faces the truth. She must let go of her determined independence and embrace her submissive desires if she hopes to truly become Sebastian’s mate. But can he finally accept the call to true love he’s ignored for so long?
It was five minutes past four when Isolt Foxfoot, having dropped her adult dignity and made a mad dash down the corridors of Lyonesse Academy like a tardy schoolgirl, paused outside the office of Professor Sebastian Seaborn and tried to catch her breath as she knocked. “Enter,” called a deep voice from within, and Isolt tried to straighten her windblown black curls and touched her drab uniform collar lightly, then opened the door. She had never met Professor Seaborn before?though she made an effort to meet most of the faculty who taught her younger sister Elaine, her long work hours made it hard to be as involved as she would like. The man seated behind the desk was handsome?no, that was too ordinary a word. He was gorgeous: a little rugged, despite his urbane attire and bookish surroundings, with short blond hair, exquisitely blue eyes, and little laugh lines around his mouth and eyes that only made him more attractive to Isolt. He was a pureblooded Fae, but he didn’t wear robes like some of the magical faculty did; instead he was dressed in a crisp white dress shirt with his sleeves rolled up to the elbow.
“Professor Seaborn, I’m sorry to be late for our appointment,” she gasped, trying not to appear too obviously out of breath.
“It’s quite all right, Miss Foxfoot. I had just put the kettle on. May I offer you some tea?”
“Oh, no, that’s not necessary. I won’t take up much of your time, I hope.” Isolt was just a little intimidated?not just by the professor, but by the surroundings in general. She had never, herself, attended the Academy, or any kind of college at all. She had been only eighteen when the accident claimed her mother and father, forcing her to take on responsibility for Elaine. Now Elaine was here, living Isolt’s dreams, and that was enough. It had to be.
“I’m sure, but I like a cup this time of the afternoon, and I do hope you’ll join me. Please sit down.”
“Thank you,” Isolt replied, trying not to stare as he measured tea into the pot. “I’m sorry to have had to trouble you at all, but…”
“This is about Elaine’s midterms, I suppose. I can imagine you’re concerned, but I’m sure she can pull her grade up before the end of term. You shouldn’t be too hard on her?all students have bad days, and she’s a bright girl who works very hard.”
Isolt bit her lip, then took a very deep breath. “That’s just it?I haven’t until the end of the term, and I’ve come to ask you to let her retake the exam.”
Sebastian’s eyebrows shot up and he stopped in the middle of opening a cookie tin. “Excuse me?” His warm tone had become quite frosty.
“That grade won’t do,” Isolt said, trying for a steady tone. “I need you to let her retake it.”
He frowned, standing up very straight. “I had thought Elaine a sensible girl, and I had not thought her capable of stooping so low?to send you to beg for her to receive unfair advantages.”
“Oh, no!” Isolt’s meager composure was quite shredded by that. “No, you don’t understand?she begged me not to come today, so if you’re going to despise anyone, let it be me, please. My sister would never dream of asking such a thing!”
Sebastian tilted his head, taken aback by her urgency. “Then why would you? As I’ve said, she’s quite capable of recovering from the grade?if she works very hard, she can still even get an A. She’s quite engaged with the class, and seems to genuinely like the subject, which is more than I can say for most of my pupils.”
“She does,” Isolt answered in a small voice, forcing herself to keep her head erect, gaze fixed on his face. “She wants to work in spell translation eventually, and she loves your class. She says learning about cultural geography makes the words and languages come alive. But…as I said, there isn’t time. I?I need her grade to improve by the end of the week.”
There was a little quiet while Sebastian resumed his quiet tea making, then put a tray on the desk between them. “Milk? Sugar? What happens at the end of the week?”
“Just sugar.” Isolt closed her eyes for just a moment, summoning all her resolve. “I’m not sure if you know, but our grandfather died two weeks ago.”
“I didn’t know?my sympathies. You think that’s why Elaine performed badly on the exam?” The hostility that had evinced itself on Isolt’s request was quite gone now, and he seemed merely interested in the problem at hand.
“I know it is,” Isolt answered. “But that’s not why I’ve come to ask you to help us. You see?there’s a custody hearing at the end of this week. Elaine is still just eighteen years old, and because of our Fae blood…because the Fae don’t see me as a proper adult…I’m afraid they will take her away from me. And I can’t let that happen.” All her hesitation faded as a protective fierceness showed itself in her dark eyes. “I’m all she has. I’ve taken care of her almost by myself for the last ten years. We were both technically in my grandfather’s custody, but I’ve worked and worked to keep a roof over our heads…It’s ridiculous. I’m twenty-eight years old, and we’re not much more than a quarter Fae. There’s no reason for it.” The age of majority for the Fae was thirty years old, since their extended lifetime made the dangerous, reckless period of adolescence longer.
“And you think they are leaning towards taking her from you? Surely that’s not reasonable under the circumstances unless there’s a family member who can look after her.”
“There’s not,” Isolt said flatly. “But they think?they kept asking questions about the hours I work. It’s true, I’m not home often, but I take good care of her! You know what a good girl she is.”
Sebastian nudged a chocolate cookie towards her. “Of course I do. You’ve done a remarkable job raising her. Where do you work?”
“At the Elysian Fields?the care facility for the elderly. Mostly humans, of course, but some werewolves too, and a few clanless Fae. I’m a caregiver, and I get called on to take a second shift to cover for someone pretty often. And…well, we can’t very well leave the residents alone, and I need the money. Elaine never complains, but even just her books are so expensive that sometimes she has to use the library copies. The kinship courts think she’s left unsupervised too often, and they’re afraid her Fae blood will cause mischief. It doesn’t matter what I say, they don’t listen. And if they see this grade…I need to show them you see? That everything is well in hand.” Now that Isolt’s habitual proud reserve was broken, the words tumbled out, all the difficulties and worry. “They’ll send her to some kind of foster home, probably Fae, and that will ruin her, to be alone and frightened and perhaps harshly treated by strangers. She’s doing so well here?she needs stability. She needs me.” Isolt picked up the cookie finally; the flood of saliva in her mouth at the smell of the chocolate reminded her she hadn’t eaten since breakfast, and she crunched it eagerly, letting the simple food sustain her.
“Absolutely,” Sebastian agreed immediately. “If they’re at all concerned for Elaine, having her stay with you ought to be the first priority. But it sounds like they’re viewing her more as a potential liability than a person. You haven’t any ties to the Foxfoot clan?”
Isolt shook her head. “Our father was?he was expected to marry someone else. He never spoke to his parents or any of the Foxfoots after his marriage.”
“I see.” He thought about that for a long moment, sipping his tea. “Surely you can get character witnesses, though? Someone to speak for you?”
“Yes, but…mostly human, you see. So I’m afraid they won’t listen.” Isolt scowled. “If I were married, none of this would be an issue?they even told me that! As if a husband would make me any better able to care for her.”
“I suppose there’s not someone who could step into that role?” he asked, trying to be delicate about it. “Not an ideal solution, of course, but given the urgency…”
Isolt gave a little laugh and then winced at how ugly it sounded. “When have I had time for a boyfriend? Elaine is my whole life…and because of that, I’m going to lose her.” She swallowed hard, trying not to let her self-pity get the better of her, then looked at her watch. “I should be getting back to work now?I only have an hour off. About the midterm…”
“I’m happy to do what I can to help,” Sebastian answered readily. “But I’m not sure a high midterm is going to be enough, and if she’s under as much pressure as it seems, she might not perform well enough anyway?listen, when do you get off? Let me take you for coffee and we can talk about this more. There may be more I can do?at the least I could be a witness for you.”
“I?” Isolt looked flustered, not having expected such support. But his warm blue eyes were gentle and all too appealing. “Not till nine. Too late, I’m sure.”
But Sebastian shook his head. “Nine will do very well. I’ll pick you up at work, Miss Foxfoot?Isolt, if I may.”
She gave a little, quick nod, then said, “Yes?yes, S-Sebastian. Thank you.” She rose, wanting to get out of his office before she made a fool of herself?assuming she hadn’t done so already. What a fool she was, growing as flustered as one of his silliest students at the prospect of talking to him again. He was so handsome that women probably swooned over him all the time. He’d probably be horribly embarrassed if she didn’t pull herself together. Cool. Mature. She could do that. “I’ll see you this evening.”
* * *
It was early evening when Sebastian arrived at his sister’s apartment, looking a little sheepish. “I didn’t mean to drop by at dinner time?it just happened that way.”
“Mmhmm. It always just happens that way. Good thing Roger doesn’t mind.” But for all her sharp words, Freya kissed her brother’s cheek tenderly and took his coat with a gently solicitous air. “Drink?”
“Please.” Sebastian sank into a chair, sniffing the air. “Spirits, that smells incredible.” Sebastian’s brother-in-law, Roger, was an executive chef who enjoyed spoiling his beautiful wife on his days off.
“Paella. Easy to add another dish, thankfully.” Freya brought a couple of whiskey and sodas then perched on the arm of his chair. “What’s up?everything all right?”
“It’s fine?better than, maybe. Freya, what would you think about my getting married?”
There was a pause, then she said, almost a shade too readily, “I should think it was high time, of course. I’ve told you for years you ought to find someone to keep you from getting old and cranky.”
“Ah, but for years I had a little sister who was more trouble to me than half a dozen wives,” he said, taking her hand and squeezing it affectionately. “But?it’s not exactly a love match I mean.”
“What is it then?” Freya asked. “Did Mother come up with some abominable cross-eyed third cousin for you? I thought she’d given up on that.”
“She has?at least, I hope so. No, I had a meeting with the foreign studies department chair last week. He wanted to warn me my tenure hearing could be difficult, as a ‘bachelor.’”
“How stupid! Why? It’s not as if you need a wife to teach.”
“It’s not that?it’s the social events, hosting visiting scholars, things like that. Apparently it’s not collegial to be single. I didn’t tell you before because I couldn’t see what to do about it. But today…well, I met a woman who might do.”
“Might do, you say? Did you check her teeth and veterinary records?” Freya tossed back half her drink, her almost platinum hair rippling down her back, then nodded at a signal from her husband that dinner was ready. She stood up, tugging Sebastian out of his chair and leading him into the dining room. “Roger, Sebastian met a girl.”
“Congratulations.” Roger Paillet was half-Fae, of Haitian origin, and tended more often than not to play the straight man to his wife’s little comedy routines. There could be little doubt, though, of the mutual regard between the two, and Freya fussed over pouring out the wine before she took her seat.
“It’s hardly a matter for congratulations yet,” Sebastian answered. “But she might say yes. She needs a husband, you see.”
“Where did you find her, some anti-romance seminar? You make it sound dreadful. What can you mean, needs a husband? Is she pregnant?”
“Hardly. That would be a nightmare.” Sebastian briefly outlined his conversation with Isolt that afternoon. “Of course, I can help her find a competent advocate, and that might do?but if it didn’t, it would be too late to try anything else.”
“Sebastian, if you put your mind to it, you could woo and win any woman in Chicago in twenty-four hours,” Freya said, exasperated. “Are you really sure this is a good idea? You can’t just divorce her immediately.”
“Yes, but any other woman would expect too much, don’t you see? She’d expect, if not claiming, at least love.”
Roger, who had been listening quietly, at last spoke his thoughts. “You disdain what is very precious, brother. Loving a woman is not a burden to be feared.” He fixed his pure gold eyes on his wife, and a long look passed between them, Freya uncharacteristically solemn at the words of tenderness from her husband, but glowing with affection.
“I raised you the best of wives, so you’re right to say so. But…the nagging, all the tiresome demands. I couldn’t bear it,” Sebastian said positively. “I can’t.”
“Did I really use up all your love, Sebastian?” Freya asked, rather plaintively. “I did not think I would leave you so bereft…”
“Don’t be an ass,” he replied grumpily. “You know that’s not it. Watching you blossom in my care was the sweetest thing that has ever happened to me. But you’re my sister. It’s different. I am…too cold to form new attachments readily, and I haven’t the time to devote to it. If my tenure is approved, I’ll be eligible for a sabbatical in a few years, and I’d thought of a trip to visit the shamans of Kamchatka to do research for my next book. How would a wife like that, being dragged off to Siberia, or else left alone for a whole year?”
“And what about this woman?what’s her name?” Freya asked.
“Isolt Foxfoot?pretty, no?”
“Very. What will you do with her?”
“She won’t mind. She’s alone now but for her sister, I can’t leave her any worse off. I shall be quite sure she understands.” Sebastian played with his napkin ring, spinning it on the table as he tried to organize his thoughts. “I know I seem callous, even cruel, but I do want to help her and Elaine. The thought of that poor girl being fostered with the wrong people makes me want to smash something.”
“And what when she’s grown? Will you divorce Isolt?” Divorce was not unknown in the Fae community?their sister Liesl had divorced her cold, domineering husband some years before, fleeing to a Fae commune near San Francisco?but it was certainly not as common as among humans, and considered somewhat scandalous.
“If she wishes. Once I’m tenured, it won’t matter very much. But if we get on well, there’s no reason for it. It will be pleasant enough, I daresay, and keep my solicitous little sister from fussing over me. Isolt is very poor. I can provide her with a much more comfortable life.”
Freya gave a long sigh, and her wide mouth drooped just a little, but finally she said, “If you came to ask my blessing, I suppose you have it. I hate to think of you, who sacrificed so much for me, having a happiness that is even a particle less than mine…but we all must find our own happiness, and I suppose this may be yours.”
* * *
Isolt took a few minutes at the end of her shift to put on a little lipstick and comb her hair, even though she was so tired that part of her wanted to beg Sebastian to let her go home and reserve their conference for her day off, when she could think. But there was no time for that. If the hearing went badly, and Elaine was taken from her, it would be much harder to get her back. If he was willing to serve as a witness, or if he had any family connections he could use, as Isolt thought his vague hints might mean, it could make all the difference. She owed it to Elaine to talk to with him, and at that thought, Isolt straightened her spine and forced herself to smile in the mirror.
Sebastian was waiting for her outside the entrance, and he greeted Isolt warmly. “When I asked you for coffee, I forgot you mightn’t have had supper yet?may I take you to a restaurant?”
“Oh…” Isolt flushed and began to demur. Why did he affect her so powerfully? That smile, the vivid shade of his eyes…they disarmed her entirely, resolved as she was. “That’s very kind, but Elaine always keeps something back for me. And I’m sure you must have eaten already.”
“And am in just the humor to pick off your plate and have a drink,” he said agreeably, tucking her arm into his and beginning to walk.
Isolt laughed then, and the tight knot created by her long hours of difficult work loosened just a bit. How long had it been since she’d walked like this with a handsome man? Five years? More? It affected her like a gulp of brandy to a teetotaler, going straight to her head, and it took her a moment to remember that they were just going to discuss how he could help her with the hearing. Thinking about that dashed her right back to earth again. She really should get home?suppose a neighbor reported how late she’d been out, leaving Elaine alone? But she’d already implicitly agreed, and she’d seem mad if she refused now.
Sebastian led them further into one of the small magical enclaves nearby. “Do you like soul food? There’s a good voodoo cafe near here that does the best fried chicken I’ve ever had. They have gumbo worthy of the name too.”
“That sounds good,” Isolt agreed, a little surprised at his choice. He seemed so refined, with his french cuffs and short-cropped hair, she wouldn’t have expected him to pick a place like that. But she was glad?she much preferred something simple and hearty to some tortured delicacy she’d have no idea how to eat. Before long they were in Mama Laveau’s Hoodoo Eats, a rather dim and smoky establishment with vividly painted walls, an atmosphere of mystery and just a slight undercurrent of danger, as beautiful women smiled seduction at their partners and hard-eyed men talked business in low voices.
Isolt ordered a pulled pork sandwich and an iced tea, but when Sebastian ordered a beer, she changed her mind and asked for one too. It had been a long day, a long month?a long life, she thought rather dourly. She could use the opportunity to relax. She’d just taken the first pull from the ice-cold bottle when Sebastian began to speak.
“I want to tell you a little bit about me first, if I may,” he began, “so that you’ll see I understand your plight rather better than you might think.”
“Of course.” Isolt was too tired to talk much anyway.
“I have two sisters,” he began slowly. “Liesl and Freya.” A little hint of pleasure colored Sebastian’s voice as he spoke his younger sister’s name. “Liesl was my elder sister. My parents were very old-fashioned, and as soon as she was mature enough, they put her into training of the most restrictive type, and she, a docile girl, never objected. They constrained her will absolutely, punished her severely for tiny faults?they crushed my poor sister’s spirit until there was almost nothing left of her. Though she was docile, you see, she wasn’t a good candidate for that sort of training to be claimed by a mate. She needed encouragement, not restriction. They married her off to a man of more wealth than tenderness, and I’m very glad to say that she eventually divorced him. She lives in a commune in California now. I visit her sometimes and we smoke spiritgrass and I help look after the goats.”
The last statement, and the little, quirky smile that accompanied it, surprised Isolt again. Apparently he wasn’t really so traditional as she’d imagined at all. She realized, after a moment, that she’d been staring long and boldly into his beautiful eyes as she listened, and she dropped her gaze, waiting for him to continue.
“Freya was only a very little girl then, but seeing Liesl’s unhappiness, I forbade my parents to train her. I said I’d kidnap her and take her to South America if they so much as tried. She was such a bright, special child?both my sisters are special, but Freya…Freya is a shooting star. Anyway, that didn’t turn out well either. When she was twenty, and I was in the Fae Naval Services?I had just made Lieutenant Commander and was stationed in the Caribbean, Bermuda Triangle Search and Rescue?Freya had a bad accident. She’d been driving a car while she was high on some extremely illegal potions. She had a broken arm, a concussion, and enough destructive drive to do it all over again right then. I saw then that as much as training had been a danger to Liesl, lack of training was a danger for Freya. My little sister has never lacked for will, you see. But I didn’t trust my parents to do it properly?I insisted she should be under my hand alone, and they were frightened and unhappy enough to agree.”
Sebastian paused as Isolt’s food arrived, and when the waiter left, she put in a question. “And that’s why you want to help? Because of your little sister?”
He nodded. “More or less. I gave up my command and came back here to take Freya in hand. It was both the most rewarding and most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life. You see?you know about blossoming?”
Isolt, mouth full of tender, spicy barbecue, simply shook her head. She only vaguely knew what he meant about training. It was very much a Fae thing, and not something that had been part of her more diverse family’s beliefs. She knew that it was a sort of preparation for the ritual of claiming that had been practiced by the Fae for millennia, though much less so in recent centuries as they became more influenced by human ideas. The claiming involved the complete surrender of a female to her mate, and involved the male publicly marking her by biting the back of her neck. Rather like cats, Isolt thought unkindly, though of course that wasn’t surprising given the different evolutionary paths humans and Fae had traveled down.
“It’s rare, but sometimes, when a girl gives up her will?or as in Freya’s case, has it taken from her?it acts as a catalyst to dramatically heighten her magical abilities. Because she has no anxiety of choice, her development proceeds exponentially, and she’s able to focus entirely on becoming. That is what happened to Freya. She’s an augur, and a very powerful one. The flight of a single bird across the sky allows her to foretell the day with almost frightening accuracy. Knowing that the discipline I provided her enabled that was very beautiful. It nearly made up for how naughty she was,” he laughed, stealing a french fry off Isolt’s plate.
Isolt looked wistful. “You must be so proud of her. If I could give Elaine a gift like that, it would be the most wonderful thing I could do. But we’re only a little Fae, of course,” she said, deprecatingly, worried he’d think she was getting above herself.
Sebastian nodded. “Ridiculously proud, yes. She’s married now, and very happy in her work. But I wanted you to know about her so you’d see that I understand about the need to protect someone you love very much. I want to help you and Elaine. She’s a good girl, and you’re right that such a frightening, strange transition would be very dangerous for her. Especially if she landed with the wrong family?one that might even force her into training for no reason. I will speak out as a character witness for you both, certainly, and I can talk to my cousin Jack about getting a competent advocate for you. He’d surely know one. But…”
“But?” Isolt prompted gently, continuing to eat, relaxing more as the meal settled her uncertain nerves.
Sebastian dropped his gaze, looking very uncomfortable now and stirring a french fry around in the ketchup moodily. “I will gladly do that or anything else within my power?only I have a dilemma myself…you see, I thought…” In contrast to his usual calm assurance, he was now very nearly stammering.
“What is it? What did you think?”
“Isolt, would you like to marry me?”