“The lights are out.”
Ignoring the mayor, Todd Dugan ground his back molars. The legend of the lights and the Dugans was magic. Just like the two elves in the audience. He’d learned long ago magic didn’t apply to him.
“I know the lights are out.”
He’d been there before when everything had gone sideways. So had most of the town.
The crowd’s murmurs lapped at the gazebo. Someone wanted him kicked out of town before too much damage was done. A baby cried. On the lawn behind him, the high school marching band hit a discordant note.
Todd’s skin prickled from the accusation in their eyes. This wasn’t his fault. It was a glitch. Pure and simple. He turned the tablet in his hands, and his fingers flew over the buttons. But where was the glitch? He’d checked and double-checked every connection with the lights. This really shouldn’t be happening. This <i>couldn’t be happening. He checked the signal from his device to the receiver that controlled the lights in the town square. Five bars. Sour eggnog!
In front of him, the townspeople shifted.
Old man Henderson muttered under his breath, “The boy is a disaster with magic.”
The prim librarian nodded. The baseball coach crossed his arms, pecs rippling under his sweatshirt.
“If you’ll bear with us.” Stepping forward, Mayor Browning raised his hands, a silent plea for calm. “I’m sure everything will be under control soon.”
Todd grunted. Nice to know one of them was sure. But even in high school, Paul Browning had always been the confident one.
Browning nudged Todd and lowered his voice. “I guess now isn’t the time to tell you I invited your ex-wife to emcee the festivities.”
Todd blinked. He’d known there had to be a reason for his ex to show up. Still…
His fingers hovered over the screen. “Is this about the bet?”
Ducking his head, Browning hid his grin from the restless crowd. “Magic, one; technology, zero. And I get your sleigh all winter.”
“You have coal for brains. And keep your mittens off my ride.” Todd didn’t need magic. Not at all. He just had to get his technology working. He ran a diagnostic and tapped his foot as the progress bar started to glow. Any second now. Any second…
Someone cleared her throat.
The crowd parted, opening an aisle between the silvery elf and the gazebo. Todd didn’t bother glancing up. He knew that sound. His stomach clenched, waiting for the lecture on what he was doing wrong.
“I think I have an explanation.” Willa Sparkles nodded in greeting as she glided forward. Sunlight glinted off her snowy hair. Her alabaster skin glowed, revealing iceberg-blue veins at her temples. Sooty lashes framed her pale-blue eyes.
A little girl stroked a chubby finger down the crisp white velvet of Willa’s jacket. Rainbow sparks took wing at the contact. The townsfolk oohed and ahhed. Santa’s elves had that effect on most people.
Thankfully, Todd wasn’t most people. He’d tired of such perfection a decade and a half ago. He preferred a warm soul, not an ice queen.
His tablet finished its diagnostics with a chime of bells. No error found. <i>That can’t be right. Digging his finger into the power button, he rebooted the tablet. As the wheel spun down, he scanned the crowd.
Brown eyes caught his. His ex-cousin-in-law Dazzler Spitfire smiled from behind the burly baker. With a twinkle in her eye, she flashed him a thumbs-up.
Todd’s chest constricted. Why was she here? No doubt his daughter had invited her. And Dazzler, being Dazzler, was always willing to help. He hoped she wouldn’t use her magic to assist him. He could handle a little glitch. Just as soon as he figured out where his tech had gone wrong.
“Pardon me, but perhaps I should have said <i>who is responsible.” Willa’s voice was a cold splash of water.
Mayor Browning stiffened, and his gaze cut to Todd. “Who is responsible?”
Todd shifted his attention to his ex-wife, and he clamped his lips together. Naturally, she’d blame him. She’d never liked his technology.
She arched an eyebrow. “My cousin Disaster, er, Dazzler.”
Todd gripped the tablet until it shook in his hands. He refused to look in Dazzler’s direction—his ex would notice.
“Mom.” Candance tugged on Willa’s sleeve. Their seventeen-year-old daughter’s chestnut hair was streaked with white. Her green eyes shimmered into blue. Sparkles faded her summer tan. Soon, his baby would resemble one of Santa’s elves and head off to her job in the North Pole.
And he would be left alone. He forced a smile.
Candance picked at the dry skin on her fingers, a nervous habit from when she was five. “That’s not a nice thing to say.”
Browning whistled low under his breath. “I can’t believe she’s your ex-wife.”
Obviously, the mayor saw the initial appeal of the elf. Heck, from the number of open mouths in the crowd, most of the town did, too. Even old man Henderson nearly lost his dentures.
“I’d marry her lights or no lights.” The ex-quarterback muscled aside the librarian. A few of the men nodded; two women glared.
The librarian, Mrs. Martin, dug a bony elbow into the quarterback’s side, stopping his progress. “The matter of the lights is not a joke. Where is this Disaster woman? Let’s ask her if she’s responsible for them being out.”
“Her name isn’t Disaster. It’s Dazzler.” Light flickered over Todd as his tablet started up. “And she isn’t a woman.”
Mayor Browning cocked a brown eyebrow.
“She’s an elf. Like Willa.” But warm, and kind, and always smiling. Todd’s skin heated.
His ex-wife squinted at him.
Deer droppings! He was glad she couldn’t hear his thoughts. Ducking his head, he entered his passcode and reconnected with the computer coordinating the light display. He waited for the app to open and peeked toward Dazzler. Her spot was empty.
“And she isn’t here. She’s also not responsible for the lights.”
“So, it is you!” Old man Henderson jabbed a gnarled digit at Todd.
He tamped down the feeling of abandonment. His ex-cousin had been there during his divorce, the insanity of raising his daughter, and helping Candance transition from human teen to newly empowered elf. He exhaled slowly as the tablet reported it couldn’t connect with the control panel. Relief bowed his shoulders.
“It’s just a technical glitch.” He flashed the screen with its scarlet bars at the crowd.
Mrs. Martin tugged her readers out of her flame-red hair and perched them on her nose. “I hope you can fix it, young man. We can’t have Christmas ruined on a technicality.”
Hashmarks appeared on his ex-wife’s alabaster forehead. “I won’t allow Christmas to be ruined. I—”
A little girl squealed then clapped. Candance pointed to the columns of the Greek Revival courthouse plopped in the center of the town square.
“Some of the lights are back on.”
“Maybe it was a short.” Returning her glasses to her hair, Mrs. Martin pursed her lips as if the admission tasted tart.
Todd’s nose twitched with the scent of peppermint. One bar turned green. It wasn’t a short. His tech was starting to work again, just like he knew it would.
Old man Henderson snorted. “There’s a more likely explanation.”
A reindeer galloped across the flat roof of the courthouse, a string of lights tangled around his antlers. He took to the air with another reindeer hard on his hooves. Two more played tug-of-war with a strand of red bulbs near the fountain.
Todd eyed the first reindeer. He knew his family herd; none had markings like that. And was that a maple leaf tail? Where had that creature come from? There could be only one place—the North Pole. Willa must have ridden it down.
Old man Henderson scratched the ring of white hair circling his pink scalp. “When are you going to corral them reindeer? You know how they love their games.”
The crowd peeled away in threes and fours. Youngsters chased the strings of lights the reindeer trailed across the ground. Teens scrambled up bare trees and retrieved snowmen, elves, and reindeer lawn ornaments. Adults collected bouquets of glowing candy canes and lollipops before drilling them into the ground to light the sidewalks.
His ex-wife stomped her foot. Bells jingled at the tips of her boots. “I’m telling you this isn’t the work of playful reindeer.”
Todd shook his head. Willa could never admit to a mistake. Well, none besides the mistake of marrying him.
Old man Henderson hunched over, blew on the plug of the lights outlining the gazebo, then plugged it into an outlet. Todd held his breath. The lights had to work. The curse couldn’t be responsible. It just couldn’t.
After a moment, red lights trimmed the white woodwork. Old man Henderson grunted at the success then shuffled off to the next outlet.
Across the cobblestone street, the lights on the barber shop, drugstore, hardware store, and candy store glowed brightly in the afternoon sunshine. Half the town was lit.
Todd switched off the power on his tablet. He’d best help gather the lights.
Mayor Browning clamped a hand on Todd’s shoulder. Willa planted two ivory boots on the bottom step of the gazebo. Jingle bells glinted at their pointed tips.
“I’m telling you, it’s not a short. This has Disas—Dazzler’s magic written all over it.”
“Why don’t you tell us about it?” With his free hand, Browning gestured toward the wooden benches lining the gazebo before taking a seat in the back.
Todd shrugged off his friend’s grip. The man was determined to win the bet. There wasn’t enough icing in Holly for that to happen. Dropping to a bench, he tucked the tablet inside his jacket and turned the collar up against the arctic breeze his ex always brought with her.
Like a fluffy white cloud fleeing a winter gale, Willa sailed into the gazebo. She ignored him and focused on the mayor. “My cousin Disaster—”
“Mom.” Candance flopped onto the bench beside Todd. She smiled at him before dipping her hand in his pocket to hold his. Todd squeezed her fingers like he had when she was younger, except now they didn’t need warming up. Her elven nature was making her immune to the cold.
Willa rolled her eyes. “<i>Dazzler’s…” She stressed the name. “…magic always goes awry. Things happen. Bad things. Like the lights going out for your important season.”
“Auntie D means well, Mom.” Candance rested her head against Todd’s shoulder. Removing his hand from his pocket, he looped an arm around her shoulders. No matter how she changed, she’d always be his daughter.
Willa’s mouth firmed; a heartbeat later, she shook herself. “Dazzler always means well. Unfortunately, she doesn’t <i>do well. She’s been kicked out of one department after another at the North Pole. And let’s not forget last Christmas, when she nearly messed up Santa’s midnight ride.”
Browning arched an eyebrow then stared at Todd.
Todd shrugged. He had no idea what event Willa spoke about. Heck, there hadn’t even been a rumor about last Christmas. Then again, elves were notoriously close-lipped and clannish. He might never have found out about Willa’s affair if humans hadn’t also worked in Santa’s workshop.
“Dazzler has been nothing but kind to our daughter. She was always there for Candance’s plays and sporting events. Even when she delivered her first reindeer and lost her first tooth.”
Of course, he’d asked her to stop visiting him once he’d moved out of Flagstaff and back to Holly. Yet, she was here now. He shook off his doubts. Dazzler knew his thoughts on magic. She wouldn’t use it around him.
Willa’s nostrils flared, and her jaw clenched. “I have a very important job at the North Pole, Todd. I can’t just leave willy-nilly. Despite what people think, we work twelve months a year just like everyone else.”
Mayor Browning cleared his throat, interrupting the brewing squabble. “The lights went out due to the reindeer games. And I’m certain someone would have noticed another elf like you in town.”
“Dazzler isn’t like me.” Willa sniffed. “She’s dark, like the woods outside in winter. All browns and greens. You might not recognize her because she can change her appearance like the Earth does from one season to the next.”
“Auntie D resembles the Sylvan elves before they followed Santa north.” Candance sat up straight. “Now, almost all of them use winter magic exclusively.”
“Disas—Dazzler’s coloring allows her to tap into all the seasons’ magic. A magic she cannot control.” With a toss of her head, Willa flicked a lock of white hair over her shoulder while glancing around the town square. “At least at home we can contain her damage. But she insists on wandering around, violating the Starlight Treaty, and causing problems everywhere.”
Starlight Treaty? The words niggled Todd’s memory. If he remembered right, the agreement had nothing to do with magic, but with humans and elves mingling outside of Santa’s realm. He shut down the thought. Time to get his ex-wife to leave.
“Either way, Dazzler’s not here. It’s just a loose bulb.”
Willa’s eyes narrowed. “Oh, she’s here. After her last outing, I had no choice but to call an inquiry by the Review Board. This time, they’ll take her magic. They’ll have no choice.”
“Mom. Auntie D helped that family, and—” Candance pushed to her feet, her fists curled at her sides.
“She broke the rules, Candance.” Willa raised a finger; snowflakes swirled from the tip. “Those rules protect all of us. Do you know what would happen to us if people found out we really existed? They would hurt you.”
Candance clamped her lips together. The resemblance to her mother caused Todd’s stomach to clench. He shook off the moment of unease. Candance was still his daughter; he’d protected her his entire life. So had Dazzler. As usual, his ex was overreacting to get her way.
“While this is interesting, it doesn’t alter the facts.” Mayor Browning checked his watch before rising to his feet. “This Dazzler isn’t here, and we have a lot of reindeer damage to undo.”
Willa crossed her arms over her chest. “Then I guess I’ll just stay and emcee the festivities as you asked me, Mr. Mayor.”
Browning slanted Todd a glance. A winning glint shone in his eye. “That sounds fine to me. Todd?”
Todd forced a smile. If his friend thought that would roast his chestnuts, he was in for a surprise.
“Candance, why don’t you take your mom to Patience and Charity’s Bed and Breakfast. I’m sure they’ll make room for our honored guests.”
Candance opened and closed her mouth. “All right.”
“We’ll need two rooms.” Willa hooked her arm through her daughter’s and glided down the steps. “Sterling Frost will be joining me.”
Todd sagged on the bench. Sterling Frost. If he never heard that name, he could have died a happy man.
Applause washed over him as the bakery, hair salon, and clothing store lit up.
Browning kicked Todd’s boot. “Do you think this Sterling elf will be as good-looking as your ex?”
“Sterling Frost is not an elf.” If he had been, Todd would have punched him in the nose for sleeping with Willa. “Sterling is a descendant of the original Jack Frost.”
And his heart was twice as cold.
“Too bad, for you.” Browning paused on the top step of the gazebo. “Of course, if there were two elves in town, and the lights went out again, proving the curse extends to you, then you could have your choice of elves to marry.”
Todd shook his head. “It was a technical glitch. Nothing more. Magic doesn’t apply to me.”
“We shall see.” Browning rubbed his hands together. “I think I’ll ask Santa for a new set of gloves. Ones thick enough to handle sleigh reins.”
Todd rubbed his eye with his middle finger.
Clomping down the stairs, Browning chuckled. “I look forward to seeing you win your ex-wife back.”
The mayor wouldn’t live long enough to see that day. No one would. Todd would prove to them all that technology performed just as good as magic. As for Dazzler…
He sighed as another item joined his to-do list. A simple warning that others were looking for her should convince her to leave town. He didn’t need another distraction.
And Dazzler was always distracting.