“The lights are out?” Cade Dugan squinted at the silhouette moving through the brightness of the afternoon sun.
“Just a few bulbs.” Metal rattled. The shadow shifted. Paul
Browning, the Mayor of Holly, climbed down the ladder. Colored- glass bulbs dribbled from his fingertips into the garbage can. “Were you expecting something different?”
“Not at all,” Cade answered, rocking back on his heels. He hadn’t paid the lights of Holly much attention lately. Other things had occupied his thoughts.
Blue flashed in the corner of his eye. Pine needles scratched his leather jacket and glass tinkled as he pressed further between the decorated trees lining the town square.
“Season’s almost over.” A horse-drawn omnibus swayed down Main Street. Happy tourists laughed and chattered into the steam rising from the mugs gripped in their mittens. “I’ll be glad not to have to worry about the lights going out.”
Cade peered around the edge of his sanctuary. That obnoxious shade of blue was nowhere in sight. Snow crunched as he stepped forward, tension draining off his shoulders. “No need to worry about that now.”
“Is that why you cringe every time you see the color blue?”
“The cold has affected your brain.”
“You should have stopped using the townsfolk as inspiration for
your figurines when the city council asked.”
Cade snorted. “Two councilmen volunteered to model for me if I agreed to create a companion piece according to their specifications.”
“Life does imitate art.”
“That’s a cliché, not the moral of the story.”
“Even the outsiders have commented on the resemblance between
the locals and the featured artwork.” The mayor moved the ladder down the red brick walk and fished fresh bulbs out of the paper bag by his feet. “They don’t realize half the people in the sets didn’t meet until after you created them.”
“The Blue Coats know,” Cade spat.
“Babbette, Sherry and Emma are more than happy to keep the legend alive. Heck, they even leave the pieces up all year round and point them out to everyone.”
“They’re stupid figurines.”
“That you created.” Paul glanced at the string of lights above his head then at Cade. Humor lifted his lips. “If you didn’t want the legend to continue why did you produce another couple? Face it, you want to meet your own soul mate.”
Unease disturbed Cade’s equilibrium. The set had been crafted to destroy the rumors of his artistic matchmaking. If he really were a twisted incarnation of Cupid, a woman would appear wearing a purple scarf and a blue coat. None had; they’d all aped the figurines available to the public—blue scarf and blue coat.
“Wearing a blue coat doesn’t mean a woman is destined to be my lifelong companion.”
“Then, why are you hiding?”
Irritation flayed Cade. His shoulders squared. “I am not hiding.” He had paused between the trees to catch his breath, not to hide. He scanned the town square. Hiding from the Blue Coats required more finesse than simply stepping between a few scrawny trees.
“I suppose your work has kept you locked in your house.”
“I work in my house. It’s where my studio is.” Cade shoved his fists into his pockets. A man understood a harmless bet; being transformed into a walking human punchline was too much. “You do remember my studio—it’s that big addition you labored all summer to build.”
“I thought artists like light. You cower behind drawn curtains and locked doors.”
“I’m not cowering.”
“Cade Dugan, Holly High football captain and debate champ.” Paul carved a marquee in the air. “Afraid of a teeny, tiny woman.”
“Women, not woman. There’s more than one of them.” Cade scanned the square. Length and width. Width and length. Superman had it easy. Every man should have x-ray vision. “They pop up everywhere, like toadstools after the rain.”
“Careful where you step, Cade. You might crush that egg under your tail feathers.”
Cade fisted his hands in his pockets. His gaze landed on the mayor. “I might crush something but it won’t be an egg.”
“Ohhh, I’m so scared.”
Cade stepped forward. A tiny fist thudded against his chest, laughter gurgled in his ears. Irritation dissolved in his growing confusion. He glanced down.
Brown eyes peered at him from under a mop of curly brown hair. A smile forced the concern from Emma Browning’s elfin features. The scent of rosewater mingled with that of baby powder wafting from the infant wiggling in her arms.
“Don’t mind him, Cade.” The mayor’s wife hitched her son higher on her hip, winced as a hank of hair was captured in a chubby fist. “He checks the lights every time someone new arrives in town.” She kissed her son’s hair while extricating her own. “It’s the price we pay for living in a magical town.”
“Enchanted town, dear.” Mayor Browning lifted his son from her arms. “Like the sign says.” Husband and wife glanced towards the crowd huddled in the town square’s gazebo.
Outsiders. The town was flooded with them. They visited Holly from Thanksgiving till New Year’s, wallowed in the charm and quaintness of an old-fashioned Christmas. Applause filled the square, as much for the trio of Victorian carolers as to beat the feeling back into their frozen hands. Hums of appreciation greeted the town’s baker, Babbette, when she arrived with her tray of roasted chestnuts and tiny mince pies.
Pride swelled Cade’s chest. He loved his hometown. He just wished there were a few less people in it today. Not the harried outsiders. They could stay. But the Blue Coats…
Fleece brushed his ears. The Blue Coats had to go. Especially since their numbers continued to swell.
“Someone new arrived in town?”
Paul Browning grinned. “I thought you weren’t concerned about
Cade winced. He should never have stopped to talk with the
mayor. The slimy politician was bound to mention his interest in the lights. And if he snitched about Cade’s question regarding the newest Blue Coat…
A shudder rippled up his spine. Damn. It’s a good thing he was headed home. This little conversation was going to require major damage control.
“Don’t tease Cade,” Emma chided, picking up the bag of lights from the path and setting it next to the strings of lights on the green park bench. “You were just as nervous when I arrived in town.”
Browning took his son’s fist out of his mouth and glared at his wife. “I was stunned by your beauty, not scared that the love of my life had arrived.”
“You hid in your house for two days.” Emma winked at Cade and maneuvered the ladder under the next dark bulb. “Straight.”
Cade held the ladder as she climbed up the rungs. Finally, he had an ally. One person sympathetic to his plight. Things were looking up. “I had the flu. Geez, a guy does his civic duty by staying home when he’s sick and you turn it into a conspiracy.” Browning pinned Cade with a glare. “And we’re not talking about my behavior. We’re
talking about the poultry essence wafting off Cade.”
“Poultry essence?” Color left his knuckles as he tightened his grip
on the ladder. Browning danced beyond Cade’s reach. Damn manners. He couldn’t allow Emma to fall, even if he intended to make her a widow. Browning’s son grinned up at him. He re-evaluated his plan. Okay, not a widow, just a hospital visitor for the next several weeks.
“If it runs like a chicken…” Browning shrugged.
“Boys, boys.” Emma hopped off the last step of the ladder and stepped between her husband and Cade. “This isn’t helping.
Obviously, the newest Blue Coat isn’t Cade’s match. The lights haven’t gone out.” She shoved the ladder a few feet down the path then rummaged through the bag for a red bulb.
Coward, Cade mouthed as the mayor kept his wife and son between them.
Jealous, Browning mouthed back before turning his attention to his wife. “It doesn’t work that way, love.”
Emma Browning spun on her heel. “You said that when the lights in Holly fall dark someone has met their match. Did you lie to me?” she asked, poking her husband with the bulb.
“No. No, I would never lie to you.”
Cade grinned. Misery was better shared. Especially when someone else got the bigger share. Especially when that someone had been enjoying Cade’s suffering for the last two months. Yes, sir. This almost made up for those insufferable city council meetings. Almost, but not quite. There was still the matter of the bet.
“You know that, don’t you?” Wheedling infused the Mayor’s question.
Cade cleared his throat. Now, if he could get the rest of the gambling populace in trouble with their spouses…
“I thought I did. I thought that’s why we were checking the lights every day.” Emma cocked an eyebrow at Cade. He blinked then held the ladder steady. “I thought we were checking to see if Cade’s match has arrived. It has to be soon, or they’ll be forced to accept dates in January.”
Another month of betting. Another month of Blue Coats. Bile soured Cade’s tongue. Better to endure another month of Blue Coats than to marry one. A thought popped inside his skull. He glared at Emma’s back. “Are you part of the betting pool out of Babbette’s?”
“You asked for it.” Browning smirked.
“Don’t mind him.” Emma chucked the burnt-out bulb into the trashcan then snapped her fingers. “Give me a green one. This one is flickering.”
Cade reached in the bag. Glass slid over his fingers. He plucked out two bulbs. Both blue. He was beginning to hate that color. Another dip in the bag; he caught a yellow and a green. He offered Emma her choice. “I never pay your husband any mind.”
“Paul’s just cranky because he picked the eighteenth.”
“The eighteenth.” Five days ago. Five more losers. Cade smiled.
Maybe he’d mention the town’s wagering epidemic to Father Bridges. Surely, the priest would come up with a suitable sermon. After all, gambling was one of the seven deadly sins, wasn’t it?
“Hey, I figured you’d have wised up after a month and a half.” Browning dangled his son above his head. Drool dripped from the giggling infant. “Didn’t figure you for a runner.”
“I’m not a runner,” Cade snapped. He was a survivor. A survivor knew when to retreat.
“You’re avoiding them.” Browning tucked his son next to his chest and swiped at the moisture on his cheek.
“What does it matter?” Emma jumped off the last step and glared at her husband. “The lights haven’t gone out.”
“The lights go out when someone meets their match. Cade hasn’t met half of them. He’s been holed up in his house.”
Cade folded his arms over his chest. Holed up. He wasn’t hiding. He was biding his time. Waiting. “I fixed Babbette’s oven yesterday.” And was grilled while doing it. He hadn’t enjoyed his cinnamon roll, thanks to those Blue Coats. “There were four of them in the bakery.” Four blue-coated women touring Babbette’s small kitchen. How convenient for her oven to malfunction on the very day she selected.
“Four out of what?” Paul shuffled down the path next to his wife. “How many did Charity say are staying at the hotel?”
“Sixteen.” Metal complained as Cade folded the ladder. That made eighteen altogether. Two had given up and gone home. “I took one over this morning.” He resisted the urge to stick out his tongue. It was enough to win and foolish to gloat. Fate always smote those who gloated, and Charity’s Bed and Breakfast only had one unoccupied room.
Emma twirled a lock of hair around her finger. “I hadn’t realized Babbette was so clever. Imagine needing a repair…” Her brown eyes fixed on Cade. “Are you attending the city council meeting tonight?”
“No.” Cade shuddered as rows of Blue Coats filled his mind’s town hall. One-by-one, they would take the microphone and ask him questions. One kid or two? Long honeymoon or short? Boxers or briefs? He’d be dissected in front of his family and friends. Except, he wouldn’t. “The meeting was cancelled on account of the holidays.”
“Did you pick today, wife?” Browning peered at her over their son’s head.
“I most certainly did not.” Emma tugged her jacket over her belly. “I ran into Charity while picking up groceries. She said they’re guzzling cocoa faster than Santa in a blizzard and needed to know if she could bring tea to tonight’s meeting instead of hot chocolate.”
“So, what day did you pick?”
Cade swallowed his groan. The whole town was against him. He wouldn’t be surprised if the damn newspaper started printing the odds.
“I wasn’t going to. But then Marlene added a free highlighting kit to the pot and Janelle added three hours of babysitting.”
“Ha! I knew it.” Browning tossed the baby in the air. “Mommy bet. You know what that means, don’t you? No more preaching and lots of crow eating.” He set the laughing baby on his hip and regarded his wife. “So, if you didn’t pick today, what day did you chose?”
“Tomorrow?” Browning smacked his forehead. “Tomorrow’s Christmas Eve. Who’s going to be traveling on Christmas Eve? You should have picked the day after Christmas when people are returning home.”
“There weren’t that many choices left,” Emma sniffed.
Cade’s jaw clicked shut. The sound echoed in his skull. The world had gone mad. And these two were leading the loonies. “I can’t believe you two.”
“Why not?” Browning placed his arm around his wife’s shoulders. “You helped bring us together.”
Cade raked his hand through his hair. What did it take to get through to people? “Fate brought you together. God brought you together.” The same lines, a touch more anger. He should have the message recorded for posterity. Hell, he should have it broadcasted24/7 on the radio. “If you two had just kept your mouths shut…” “Babbette talks, and so does Sherry. Between them, they’ve talked to everyone in Holly at least once. And almost everyone in Holly has friends and family in other towns.” Emma crossed her arms and glared at him. “There are three couples as living proof of fate and destiny.”
“Face it, you were doomed when the die was cast.” Browning
elbowed his wife. “Get it? Dye cast?”
“Doomed?” Emma shrugged off her husband’s embrace. She
snatched her son from his arms. A muscle twitched in her jaw. “He is destined to meet the future Mrs. Dugan, and you say he’s doomed.” Her voice climbed an octave on the last syllable.
“Now, honey, you know I didn’t mean it that way.” Browning flashed his palms at his wife.
“Really?” She raised her chin and marched down the path. “Cade’s suit has certainly put our courtship in a whole new perspective.”
“Thanks a lot, Cade.” Browning tossed a glare over his shoulder as he loped after his wife. “You better meet Miss Right tomorrow, or my wife will never talk to me.”
“Hey, you cast your own dye.”
Browning made an obscene gesture than skidded to a halt. He turned left, cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Oh, ladies! If you’re looking for the artist formerly known as Cade Dugan, he’s over here!”
“Son of a— ” Cade pivoted about. Bones shuddered under flesh as he aborted his flight.
“Wouldn’t waste your time swearing, boy.” The town’s oldest resident planted himself on the path, as insubstantial as a blade of grass and as firmly rooted as a centuries-old oak. His cane thumped Cade’s boot.
Pain rattled up his shin. Great! Now he’d have a limp. “Mr. Henderson, I didn’t see you there.” Cade glanced through the tufts of hair on the old man’s pink pate. He could still make it to the corner, but he’d have to hurry.
“Wasn’t here a moment ago. Just came to see who won.”
“Won?” Cade stepped left. The wizened man shadowed his movements.
“Your mama’s family is known for their wit, boy. Guess you take after your pa’s side.”
This time the older man thumped his cane on Cade’s chest. Excited chatter disturbed the air behind him. Damn, the Blue Coats were gaining, and Old Man Henderson was settling in for a chat. “I– I— ”
“You resemble a fish with your jaw flapping like that.” The old man rubbed his hands together. “I’m talking about the bet, boy. The bet. Today’s my day, came to see if I could give the odds a little nudge in my favor.”
Cade smoothed his furrowed brow. He should have stayed home. He was safe at home. He placed his hands on the human blockade’s shoulders. Either the man stayed put, or he’d find himself on the bottom of a game of leapfrog. “I have to go now.”
“I understand.” Mischief twinkled in Mr. Henderson’s rheumy blue eyes. A gnarled hand rested on Cade’s forearm. “Just want ya ta know one thing.”
“What.” The jabber increased in volume. They were closer now. Cade’s muscles locked. He refused to look. The hunted always tripped if they looked over their shoulder.
“I’m real sorry.”
“Sorry?” Cade snapped his attention back to Mr. Henderson. Was someone actually apologizing for trying to profit from his misery?
“Yep.” Gnarled hands gripped the cane.
“This.” The cane moved with the fluid grace of a striking cobra. Its brass
knob plunged into Cade’s gut, prodded the air out of his lungs. Muscles contracted, folding him over at the waist. Blue filled in his peripheral vision. The lead Blue Coat tackled him, knocking him to the ground, rattling the teeth in his head. Arms and legs tangled around his. Something hard banged into his ankle, added to the cacophony jangling along his nerves. The cool pavement leached his body heat, numbed some of the pain.
A fluffy white cloud scuttled across the blue sky. White. Surrender. Cade shook his head. He might not be able to escape at the moment, but he would never surrender.
He sipped air into his lungs. The pain receded to distant thunder. When he got out of this mess he would need a peek at that betting book. It was the only thing that could tell him who to avoid on what day.
A shadow blocked out the sky. Gradually, his eyes adjusted and a face appeared. A female face.
“Oh.” Hands pressed into his chest, pinning him to the ground. “Oh, it’s you.”
Cade spit the blue scarf out of his mouth then gazed at the string of lights twinkling overhead. She wasn’t his mate. Not that he’d actually believed differently. The pairings of local townsfolk had been a coincidence, nothing more.
“Darn.” A cane tapped the ground beside Cade’s head. “I thought she’d be the one.”
Cade shoved the Blue Coat off his lap and sat up. Pain stitched up his side. Great, now he’d have to deal with one of them plus some bruised ribs. He glared at Mr. Henderson. Meddlesome old coot. It was past time someone locked up the old fart. He gingerly rose to his feet.
“This is so perfect.” A well-manicured hand latched on his forearm. “Look, I’m even wearing pink skates like the figurine. I bet none of the others wore skates. That just proves I’m your true love.”
Cade plucked at the fingers. They wouldn’t budge. Damn, now he knew why trapped animals gnawed off their legs to escape. Too bad he needed both of his hands in his line of work. “I see, Miss— ”
“Petrie. Deborah Petrie. I hope you don’t mind, but I plan to keep my name after we’re married.”
“Damn Blue Coats.”
“Blue Coat? Is that what you call them?” She flashed her straight teeth at him. “No wonder they’re cooped up in the hotel drowning their sorrows with Christmas cookies and hot chocolate. Blue.” She shook her head woefully. “The coat is distinctly turquoise, not blue. I took the figurine to the milliners. We matched it perfectly.”
“You did?” Colored glass winked at Cade from the bench. Someone had forgotten to put away the extra strings of lights.
“Of course. It will make lovely bridesmaids’ dresses, too. We are planning to marry in the spring, aren’t we?”
An idea grew in his skull. It might work. He wouldn’t know until he tried. He smiled at her. “I think you should sit down.”
He gestured to the bench and gallantly scooped the string of lights out of her way. To his surprise, she released her grip and complied. Laughter buoyed his spirits. This was almost too easy.
“Oh, yes. Yes, of course.” She hand-pressed her wool coat. “I knew it would be like this.”
“You did?” The bulbs clunked together as he looped one end.
“Everyone knows the man proposes on bended knee. It’s very romantic.”
Cade’s thoughts skipped two steps ahead. He’d loop the strand of lights around the back of the bench and tie it off around the opposite end. A small delay that would allow him to escape. But how to draw them across her without giving away his plan?
“You will propose on bended knee?”
He returned to the moment. “Uh, I hadn’t— ”
“Don’t be silly.” She jerked on his coat. “Just bend down.
Everyone is expecting it.” A storm brewed in her eyes. She didn’t like being thwarted.
Good thing he wasn’t planning on being caught. “I’ll get on my knees if you close your eyes, Deborah.”
“Close my eyes?”
“Just for a moment.” Just long enough for him to lash her to the bench. “I want to compose my thoughts. It wouldn’t do to mess this up. It’s too important.” His freedom hung in the balance.
“All right.” Her eyes flickered closed.
Cade waited a few seconds then looped one end of the string of lights around the bench. He winced as the bulbs clacked together. His soon-to-be-captive audience didn’t seem to notice. Guilt nudged his determination. He wasn’t her soul mate. The lights proved it. The scarf proved it. She would be better with someone else. This would simply help her see that.
He threaded the string around the bench seat and tied the ends together. Besides, it wasn’t as if she would be stuck here all night. Someone would rescue her in a few minutes.
“You don’t have to think of anything fancy, Cade. Just ask.”
Cade straightened and backed away. Not one word. His tone could give away his intentions. Another step. Five more and he should be able to break into a run.
“Cade?” Irritation honed her notes. She shifted on the bench.
Two more steps. He pivoted on his heel. Old Man Henderson shook his head then stepped aside. “I’ll see she gets to Charity’s.”
“Really, Cade, I—” The shrill notes cut through the air as he rounded the corner. “Where did he go?”
“Home would be my guess.” Mr. Henderson answered.
“Home?” Confusion and doubt rippled through the trees.
Cade stopped at the corner as a horse and carriage jingled past.
His leg jumped. Two Blue Coats stood on the opposite side of the street. Damn. He couldn’t tie those two up. A sleigh and another omnibus clattered by, and judging by the sound of voices, the latest Blue Coat was free and on the move. He’d have to cut across the park, take the alley behind the courthouse and slip through the Arts and Crafts neighborhood.
“But he can’t. I’m the one he’s waiting for.”
“The lights told him otherwise.”
“They always go dark when someone’s match arrives.”
“Oh, drat. I should have known Holly would have something like
that. So, now what am I supposed to do?” Blue flashed. He plunged through the trees where the pine needles scratched his cheek. Snow crunched under his feet. He would make it home and not come out until after New Year’s Day.
“Don’t worry. I believe Charity has just made a fresh batch of sugar cookies.”