“WAKE up, älskling.” Magnus’s voice was close enough to Lance’s ear for him to feel his lover’s hot breath on his skin. “We’re almost home.”
“Hm? What?” Lance opened one eye, only to quickly close it against the much too bright sunlight streaming through the plane’s window.
He’d had the most amazing dream about Magnus proposing to him in a mistletoe-covered gazebo in his parents’ garden in Stockholm, Sweden. The lovemaking that had followed the proposal had been wild enough to make him howl when he came. He blushed. His exuberance as such was really no surprise, but that it had happened outside, under the Swedish midnight sun, had made him feel somewhat embarrassed. Even now it felt like a dream. Stuff like that didn’t happen in reality, did it?
He snuggled back into his seat, not ready to wake up to find himself stuck back in the somewhat conservative town of Mistletoe, Wyoming. Magnus had a good job there, working as a Park Ranger and the resident glaciologist in the Grand Teton National Park. But their social life and acceptance as two men living together, raising Magnus’s orphaned nephew, wasn’t great.
Sweden had been so much nicer, nobody staring at them when they were holding hands in public. Wait. Snuggled into his seat? The droning noise of an engine made him sit up. He opened both eyes this time, forcing them to stay open, so he could take in his surroundings.
Shit, he really wasn’t in his bed at home. He was on a small plane, in the middle seat. Jakob was on his left, the eight-year old still blissfully asleep. Magnus, the boy’s uncle and now guardian, sat on Lance’s right.
“Älskling?” Magnus grinned, showing off his perfect white teeth in a face tanned by the summer sun. His silver-blue eyes sparkled with mischief. “Are you with us now?”
“It wasn’t a dream?” Lance slid his hand into his lover’s, the Swedish version of sweetheart making him instantly hot and all emotional at the same time.
“What wasn’t?” Magnus frowned.
“Sweden? The proposal and the—uhm, things we did afterwards?” Lance blushed despite the fact that he’d spoken low enough for no one to overhear him.
“No, it wasn’t a dream.” Magnus laughed and squeezed his hand. “Unless I had the same dream, that’s what happened on Midsummer Eve, just over a week ago.”
“Wow, I can’t believe we’re engaged. Having you and Jakob as my family makes me happier than I ever thought possible. It almost feels like it’s too good to be true, you know what I mean?” Lance’s heart jumped with happiness.
“We are most definitely engaged.” Magnus pointed at Lance’s left hand, where a wide yellow gold ring with three small square diamonds channel-set along its center now resided. He lifted his own left hand, still tightly held by Lance, to show that there was a matching ring. “It feels right, doesn’t it?”
“It does. More than I can say.” Lance smiled, feeling warm and fuzzy all over. “I’m so glad it wasn’t a dream.”
He thought back to everything that had happened in Sweden. The initial rebuff by Magnus’s parents, and their attempt to make Magnus marry that obnoxious Sigrid woman to start a new generation of their family had been bad enough. But the worst part of it had been that Magnus hadn’t understood why their cold reception had caused Lance’s insecurities to resurface. The attack on their relationship, coupled with being in a foreign country, had made him feel very unsettled. The proposal Magnus had made after thoroughly rebuffing Sigrid and setting his parents straight on their relationship had ensured that Lance would never doubt his love again.
“And you’re still okay with moving to Sweden, like we talked about?” Magnus smiled. “We don’t have to, you know?”
“Oh, but I think we should. People were so much more open and accepting of our relationship there than they are in Mistletoe. And it will be great for Jakob to be close to his grandparents and to grow up speaking two languages.” Lance smiled back at his fiancé, happier than he’d ever been.
“What about you, though? It’ll be a big change.” Magnus still looked a little worried, even though they’d talked about it a lot.
“Yeah, but a good one.” He shrugged. “I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve lived in Mistletoe practically all my life, and I’m ready for a change.”
“In that case, we’ll figure out the organizational details as soon as we can.” Magnus entwined their fingers and leaned back in the small plane’s seat.
Lance listened to the steward’s announcement about stowing their tables and wearing their seatbelts, just waiting for their imminent landing. He started thinking about all the things he needed to get done once they were back and made a quick mental to-do list. There was a visa for him to apply for, a house for them to find, Jakob’s schooling to organize, the move itself to set in motion. He knew he was going to be very busy if they wanted to make their relocation a reality by the end of the year.
DRIVING up to their house a little over two hours later made Lance realize how tired the long flights and the time change had made him. It was only early afternoon here, but he hadn’t slept much during their eighteen-hour trip, and his body was ready to sleep now. Getting Jakob settled back in and unpacking while Magnus aired out the house and went through their mail would have to be enough of a distraction to keep him going.
Lance was just starting to unpack their second bag when he heard Magnus’s voice coming from their study-playroom across the hall.
“Oh, no.” Magnus sounded alarmed.
Lance rushed over to see his fiancé holding an official looking envelope in his hands, staring at the letter he’d extracted from it. From his worried facial expression, it was clear that this piece of paper didn’t contain good news.
“What is it?” Lance stepped closer to try to read the letter.
“It’s the court summons we’ve been waiting for.” Magnus dropped the hand holding the letter and took a deep breath. “We knew it was coming, but it still got to me, seeing it like that amongst our mail just now.”
“We’ve got to tell Jakob.” Lance didn’t look forward to that. “I assume he’s being asked to testify?”
“Yeah, it looks like they want him to tell his own story of the kidnapping.” Magnus rubbed his face with his free hand. “I mean, it sort of makes sense to have the victim there, and I’m sure it’ll help the jury see how cruel and wrong Brian and Nancy were when they tried to take him away from me. But, shit, it’ll bring the trauma from last December back to him, now that he’s just barely managed to get over it.”
Yeah, shit was right. Brian and Nancy Tabbart, Jakob’s mother’s brother and his wife, had been a piece of work. Even though Magnus’s brother, Mikkel, and his wife, Irene, had named Magnus as Jakob’s guardian in their will, the Tabbarts had not only fought Magnus over custody, but had come after him to Mistletoe to take matters into their own hands. They didn’t believe a gay man should be raising children. They’d complained to the local sheriff, but the man had sided with Magnus, since he was legally in charge, and there was no reason to take a very well-adjusted and happy Jakob away from him.
Seeing their efforts thwarted, Brian and Nancy had kidnapped Jakob, attempting to take him back with them to Florida. They’d been caught with the help of the police and the FBI, but the whole episode had left all of them severely shaken.
Now it was all going to be unearthed again, the old emotions and fears certain to have a negative impact on their little family. He could only hope that they were all strong enough to deal with it. Those bigoted criminals couldn’t be convicted and sent to prison fast enough for his liking.
MAGNUS sat on the wooden bench in the Cheyenne District Court’s corridor, hoping that his nervousness about their testimony at the trial didn’t show. Jakob was tense enough without Magnus adding to his discomfort. The boy’s little hand held onto his larger one, but it was cold and clammy. Jakob had said that he didn’t want to tell a courtroom full of people about the kidnapping, but he’d eventually understood that it would help make sure his tormentors went to prison. Magnus sighed. He was such a brave kid.
Lance sat on Jakob’s other side, and Magnus relaxed a little at the sight of his beautiful fiancé. Sometimes Magnus still felt the butterflies from proposing to him after the most memorable solstice celebration ever. His own stupidity had almost cost him the man he loved, but Lance was a forgiving soul. The man made him happier than he’d ever been, and not just because he was gorgeous, with his dark hair and Latino looks. His giving nature and the way he’d made an immediate connection with Jakob had a lot to do with the deep love Magnus felt for him. He couldn’t imagine ever living without him.
“We’ll be fine.” Lance smiled at them both, and squeezed Jakob’s other hand. “The judge isn’t going to let anyone scare you.”
“I know.” Jakob’s voice was low, and the boy didn’t look up. “But Uncle Brian and Aunt Nancy are still going to be there, and I don’t want to see them again.”
“You know they have to be there, even if you don’t like it, right?” Magnus was ready to ask for special treatment, though, if that was needed to protect Jakob. “It’s why we made sure that I go first, so that I’ll be in the courtroom by the time you come in. The court officials will also watch them like hawks.”
“Why can’t Lance be there with us too?” Jakob looked up, his blue eyes bright with unshed tears.
“Because a witness can’t stay in the courtroom until after they tell their story. People might get confused by what they hear other people say, and the judge wants to make sure that doesn’t happen.” Lance smiled again. “It’s all part of having a fair trial.”
“But they did a very bad thing. I just want them to go to prison.” Jakob’s stubborn pout had become very rare since Lance had moved in with them last December, but it was back in full force now.
“I’m certain they will go to prison for a very long time.” Lance frowned. “We just need to tell the judge and the jury exactly what happened.”
“Mr. Magnus Carstens?” A court official stuck his head into the waiting room. “They’re ready to see you now.”
“I’ll be right there.” Magnus hugged Jakob, squeezed Lance’s hand, and followed the guard through the thick wooden doors.
He looked around as he was shown to the witness stand. The courtroom looked no different than anything he’d seen on TV. The twelve members of the jury sat silently and mostly attentively on one side; only one of them, an older man wearing a plaid shirt, about to fall asleep.
Across from the witness stand was the prosecutor, Ms. Baxter, a young-looking woman with a tight blonde bun and wearing a well-tailored pants suit. They’d briefly met before the trial to discuss strategy, mainly so he and Lance would be able to tell Jakob what would happen. She’d also outlined the defense’s potential strategies and had reminded him to keep his answers short and to the point.
Magnus was sworn in and took his seat. He answered the prosecution’s questions, but it was even harder than he’d expected to relive the emotional hours of last December, after he’d realized Jakob had been taken from his room. But Ms. Baxter got him through it, sticking to the facts and supporting him with glances and smiles.
When it was the defense lawyer’s turn, the painfully thin man rose and wandered over to the witness stand, seemingly in deep thought.
“So, let me get this straight, Mr. Carstens.” The defense attorney stopped in front of him, making sure the members of the jury could see them both. “You were awarded custody over your nephew after your brother, Mikkel Carstens, and his wife, Irene Carstens, nee Tabbart, died in a plane crash in Africa.”
“That is correct.” Magnus nodded.
“You didn’t think that was rather irresponsible of them?” The defense lawyer frowned.
“What, the fact that they died?” What the hell?
“Don’t be ridiculous, Mr. Carstens.” The man shook his head. “The fact that they wanted you, a confirmed, gay bachelor, to take—”
“Objection!” Ms. Baxter raised her hand. “I fail to see what Mr. Carstens’s sexual orientation has to do with the kidnapping.”
“Mr. Leahy, please approach the bench.” The judge looked like a man who didn’t allow any nonsense in his courtroom, despite his youthful appearance.
Mr. Leahy had a short, intense conversation with the judge before he returned to his previous position. He looked slightly chastised, but none the worse for wear.
“Let’s approach this from a different angle.” Mr. Leahy pinched his nose briefly. “Once Mr. and Mrs. Tabbart fought you for custody, didn’t their reasoning make you think that maybe the child would be better off with them?”
“No, it did not.” He’d had his doubts all right, but if Mikkel and Irene wanted him to take care of Jakob, he would. That had never been up for debate.
“So, you didn’t think that a young boy would be better off with a couple who can offer him a normal life?” Mr. Leahy played the role of slightly surprised man really well. “A life with a female as well as a male role model, with a stay-at-home parent and in a city large enough to offer him lots of friends and a good school?”
“No, I didn’t think so then, and I certainly don’t think so now.” Magnus smiled. “I thought that whatever the boy’s parents considered was right for Jakob is what I should do. Even if I had to change my life to take care of him, which I did. Jakob became my first priority from the moment the responsibility for raising him passed to me.”
Half the members of the jury were frowning, the other half looked thoughtful. Except for the old man in the plaid shirt, who looked like he was about to nod off, his eyelids clearly drooping as his head sank farther and farther forward. His neighbor, a young woman in a bright yellow dress, touched his shoulder and he pulled himself upright again.
“So, if the boy’s welfare was so important to you, why did you take a complete stranger into your home, just days after you’d met him?” Mr. Leahy’s eyes widened, as if this really surprised or shocked him.
“Objection, your honor!” Ms. Baxter rose from her seat. “This line of reasoning is completely inappropriate and unrelated to the case.”
“Your honor, I am simply trying to prove that Mr. Carstens is an unfit guardian and that my clients had good reason to want the child removed from his care.” Mr. Leahy glared at Magnus. “People like you shouldn’t be allowed to raise children.”
“Mr. Leahy!” The judge banged his gavel. “You will refrain from judgmental statements like that last one, or I will find you in contempt of court. We are here to try Mr. and Mrs. Tabbart for the kidnapping of Jakob Carstens, not to make value judgments about Mr. Carstens’s fitness as a guardian.”
Magnus found it difficult to suppress a smile. It looked like the Tabbarts’ defense had hit a bit of a roadblock.
“Now, will everyone come back to order, please.” The judge looked around the courtroom. Nobody dared to move. “Mr. Carstens, you may answer the question relating to your reasons for bringing Mr. Rivera into your home, since that seems relevant to what happened later.”
How was he going to answer that question? He couldn’t very well explain what he had come to think of as the Mistletoe Phenomenon to the judge, could he? It was clear to him, and of course to Lance, that kissing under the mistletoe just before last Christmas had had some effect on the speed of their relationship’s development. But that was only part of the reason, and he felt that it was a part best left out of the official explanation.
“One of the things I found most difficult after my brother’s death was making an emotional connection to Jakob that was more permanent than that of a visiting uncle.” Magnus swallowed. “Jakob and I used to see each other on a regular basis, but I was never the person who raised him. I felt that I needed a different kind of connection with him for that to be a success. Adding his parents’ recent deaths to the mixture only made this more difficult.”
“What you’re saying is that you were having trouble relating to the child, isn’t it?” Mr. Leahy had apparently recovered from the shock of being reprimanded by the judge.
“Yes.” Magnus could only hope that this admission wouldn’t damage the case. But he couldn’t very well lie about what had happened. “We were slowly beginning to trust each other more. Partly, I think, because Jakob saw the changes I made in my life to make sure that I was around for him when he needed me. But it still wasn’t easy. When we met Lance, the connection he made with Jakob was immediate. Jakob responded to him, and opened up. Lance helped him begin to deal with his parents’ deaths. I brought him into our home as a caregiver for Jakob.”
“And that was the only reason?” Mr. Leahy barely suppressed his smirk.
“That was the only reason that was truly important.” Magnus smiled.
He wouldn’t give this idiot the satisfaction of walking into his trap. The fact that he’d fallen in love with Lance rather quickly had played a role, even though it had taken him longer to realize and admit it. But the reality of it was that without Lance’s ability to help him with Jakob, he would not have moved that quickly.
Whatever they tried to make him look bad, or their little family look “abnormal”, he was going to fight tooth and nail. He was no longer willing to tolerate uneducated, short-sighted bigots interrupting their lives. He had a family to defend, and he was going to do that to the best of his ability.