Dazzler ducked down a side street. Victorian homes rose gracefully from lawns, decked in Christmas decorations. Spiral turrets and gothic towers were painted in Jordan almond colors and trimmed with crisp white and gray. Along the white picket fences lining the streets hung garland and gold ribbons. Laughter emanated from the village green one street over.
Flying above her head, a handful of reindeer chased a maple leaf-tailed one with a candy cane ornament in his mouth. The lead reindeer tossed the decoration to the one closing in on his left and the herd veered after the new quarry.
Maybe she had overdone it by inciting the reindeer to play. She checked over her shoulder. No one followed. Her cousin Willa only <i>thought Dazzler was here, she didn’t <i>know it. Dazzler’s stomach clenched. She smoothed the flannel covering her belly.
How could Willa have shown up in Holly?
Her cousin must know how much her presence affected Todd. He didn’t need his ex-wife reminding him of his failed love life, not when the Holly festivities depended on his undivided attention. Just look how the townspeople had turned on him when the lights fell dark.
He was doing the best he could. That should count for something, shouldn’t it?
Fisting her hands, she squared her shoulders. She would find a way to stay and help him.
The maple leaf-tailed reindeer circled the herd before diving low and buzzing the street. Autumn leaves trembled on the trees and skittered along the cobblestone road in his wake. He spun and collided with a sycamore tree.
Leaves showered down. They condensed into a ball and eventually transformed him from a reindeer to a scarecrow. Cheddar stuffed leaves into a pair of jeans. Wiggling four stick fingers, he held them up for her to see.
“I always like it when I get improvements.” His smile crinkled his acorn eyes. As he walked, leaves solidified into boots. “It’s a shame to be leaving so soon.”
“Leave?” Dazzler blinked. Was the human magic affecting him? He’d never had problems remembering after so short a time between stuffings. “Why would we leave?”
“Because your cousin is here and is looking for us. With her lapdog Sterling in tow. They won’t allow you to finish your investigation.”
“We have to stay and protect Todd. Now more than ever.” Dazzler turned right onto Yule Street. “Didn’t you see his face when Willa appeared?”
She was sure his heart had broken, just a little. She scratched at the birthmark on her wrist.
Cheddar shrugged. Leaves fell out of his shirt and tumbled down the street. “I wasn’t paying much attention.”
Youngsters of all ages played tag on brown grass in front of a lavender Victorian. A woman rocked on the violet-trimmed wraparound porch. With an excited yip, a spotted dog joined in the children’s fun.
Dazzler’s footsteps slowed. Should she go to another street? From the corner of her eye, she watched the kids and their babysitter. No one paid attention to her. For once, she was thankful for her coloring. Here, she could blend in.
Her attention cut back to Cheddar. “Todd was horrified and devastated to see his ex.”
Her chest tightened at the memory. She had to find a way to mitigate that.
Cheddar tapped a stick finger against his stitched mouth. “If you really want to help, why not present yourself to your cousin, and the both of you return to the North Pole? She’d leave Todd alone then.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Dazzler snapped. Sometimes his stuffing got in the way of logical thought. “If I turn myself in, and Willa takes me to the North Pole, then who will make certain the festivities go off without a hitch and Todd gets to spend the holidays with his family? No one, that’s who. And that would ruin Christmas for everyone. It is our duty as Santa’s elves to do all we can to promote the spirit of Christmas.”
Cheddar’s fingers ticked against wooden slats as he ran them along the picket fence. “What if Todd turns you in?”
Her breath hitched in her throat. She coughed to clear it. “He had a chance back at the square and didn’t.”
“Maybe he didn’t see you.”
“I’m not invisible, Cheddar. He <i>pretended not to see me.” She was familiar with the technique. Most elves adopted it when she entered their department at the North Pole. She didn’t mind. Much. Besides, Todd had done it out of kindness, not because of her reputation.
Children screamed with delight as a new person was dubbed “it” in their game of tag.
Keeping her head turned away, Dazzler studied the homes on her side of the street. A buttercream-yellow Queen Anne, the third one from the end, drew her eye. Her skin itched at the neatly trimmed hedges, the even pile of the carpet of brown grass, and a tamed rosebush on the right. Just a little magic would free the vegetation. Flowers would cover the rose trellis and the bushes could reach the railing of the wraparound porch. Planting beds could break up the grass, giving homes to all sorts of woodland creatures.
Cheddar stopped trailing his fingers along the fence. “What about that old man, Ole Henderson? He could turn you in.”
“He could, but he didn’t.” Her steps slowed in front of the house.
“That house is sad. There are no Christmas decorations, like the others.”
There was that. Her fingers curled into fists at her side. She daren’t do magic, fix the house and make it happy, not with Willa nearby.
“We need someplace to stay out of sight. The town has a bed-and-breakfast. Perhaps we should check in and consider the best way to help Todd over a cup of hot chocolate.”
“Chocolate solves a lot of problems.” Cheddar wrapped his fingers around the pickets in the gate. “But we can’t go to Charity and Patience’s bed-and-breakfast.”
“No, Willa said she was going there.” Cheddar lifted the latch and pushed the gate open. “Since this place looks deserted, we should hide here.” He shuffled down the flagstone path.
“Cheddar!” Dazzler hissed. Figgy pudding! He was going to get them caught.
The scarecrow increased his pace.
A house door slammed across the street. The skin between Dazzler’s shoulder blades tingled. They’d been spotted.
Slipping into the yard, she shut the gate behind her. Her heart thudded in her ears. If they were caught…
Cheddar ignored the porch and veered right onto the path leading to the backyard. Her legs trembled with the need to run and hide. She shouldn’t do anything to give herself away.
“Martha! Martha Dugan!” a woman called out.
Dazzler bit her lip. Martha was Todd’s mother. Was this her house? Would they take her in? Should she embroil them in her mess? She couldn’t.
He opened the wrought iron gate and strolled into the backyard.
“Mrs. Crumbie.” Another woman answered. “How are the children this morning?”
“They’re fine, but your reindeer are not. They’ve completely destroyed the light display and—”
Dazzler winced. Stuffed stockings! Had she solved the problem of the lighting glitch by causing another problem for Todd? She latched the gate behind her, shutting out their conversation.
After a short walk along the side of the clapboard house, the yard unrolled before her. An oak tree spread branches over the neatly trimmed lawn. Lemon-yellow and pumpkin-orange leaves clung to the black limbs. Fifty feet away, Cheddar plucked a few red ones from the ground and stuffed them into his shirt.
Her heart thudded at the pools of vegetation—isolated bushes and segregated annuals rooted in puddles of red bark mulch shivered in the autumn breeze. Knees trembling, she resisted the urge to drop to the ground, dig her fingers into the soil, and use magic to fill in the empty spaces.
As she tore her attention away, her gaze stuttered on the pristine swing set. Sleigh-red poles formed the A-frame and supports. For a moment, she pictured dark-haired girls and pointy-eared boys filling the marshmallow seats of the swings and air glider. She shook the nonsense from her head. When she dared to let herself dream of her forever home, she saw lush gardens bustling with wildlife.
Stick fingers raised, Cheddar raced after a falling leaf.
Dazzler turned and scanned the porch. She smiled at the rocking chair near the two-seater porch swing. That was a step in the right direction. She skimmed the Dutch back door; her breath caught in her throat. There it was. Right out of her dreams—an evergreen hammock. Two candy cane pillows topped the head and a fluffy throw blanket at the foot was perfect for snuggling and relaxing. She stumbled over the even grass. Would the chains squeak or be well-oiled?
Cheddar nibbled on the leaf he’d caught, watching her. Her boots were silent as she climbed the five steps to the porch. She trailed her fingers along the glossy white railing.
Leaves rustled behind her. Cheddar scaled the railing and flung a leg over to land on the porch.
“Well, that’s a relief. We can sleep out here under the stars.”
Nodding, she reached out. Her hand shook before she touched the gold braid running down the side of the hammock. By Kringle, she hadn’t imagined it. As she shifted her hand, her fingers dug into the white blanket.
Cheddar flopped into the hammock. The chains jangled softly as they adjusted to his weight. He patted the fabric beside him.
“This is comfortable. Not practical for the North Pole, but quite right here in the warmer climates.”
“Perfect.” Dazzler removed the blanket and raised the cable knit to her nose. Cedar and sunshine tickled her senses. It smelled like Todd. But how could she have picked his house out of everyone’s in town?
“Cheddar, did you happen to see whose name is on the mailbox?”
Cheddar shrugged. “I don’t recall.”
Cradling the throw against her chest, Dazzler crossed to the nearest window and pressed her nose against the pane. Dried-up sticks were all that remained in the pots on the windowsill. Cherry cabinets hung on the walls, and sparkling appliances gleamed on the cream granite countertops. Faces smiled at her from the photographs stuck to the stainless steel fridge. Cool air filled her mouth. <i>Beauty and the Beast<i>’s Belle took center stage between her, Todd, and Candance.
“This is Todd’s house.”
“It is?” Cheddar clasped his fingers behind his head and crossed his feet at the ankles. “Then he won’t mind if we take a little nap. Reforming myself multiple times takes a lot of energy.”
He snuggled deeper into the pillow, and his eyes drifted closed.
“I don’t think Todd would mind if we rested here for a minute or two.” At least, she hoped not.
She yawned. It had been a long day, but they were safe. Placing her hand on the hammock, she steadied it before lowering her bottom. That hadn’t been so bad. Raising her legs, she swung them up. The hammock tilted left then right, nearly dumping her on the ground. She hung on.
Cheddar snored, but his chest squeaked and a fuzzy nose and twitching whiskers poked out of his shirt. The squirrel chittered and shook his finger at her before leaping to the ground.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.” She relaxed her hold as the hammock steadied. “I promise you that you are safe.”
Tail twitching in annoyance, the squirrel thundered across the porch then raced across the yard.
Dazzler spread the blanket across them and sank into the candy cane pillow. Her eyes flickered close. Only a moment. Just a short nap.
Her eyes flew open. The sun was lower on the western horizon than it had been a moment ago. Hours ago, she mentally corrected herself. She’d slept for hours. Her senses reached out, picked up the squirrel inspecting his new home in the tree. A cardinal perched on a branch. Her muscles relaxed, and she inhaled a calming breath. This was Todd’s house. She should be safe here.
Cheddar sat up. His pinecone ears twitched. “Somebody’s coming.”
Her breath caught in her throat. Who would be coming? And why would they be coming into the back yard? She scanned the area. No hiding place in the well-tended space. And if she used magic, Willa would find her. Tarnished tinsel!
Rolling off the hammock, she landed on the porch with a thud.
“Cheddar,” she whispered, scrambling under the hammock. Her nails dug into the painted slats.
The scarecrow landed beside her in a flutter of leaves. Fabric rustled as he took up space beside her. “I don’t think this is a very good hiding spot.”
The latch on the gate clicked. They were in the side yard.
“Shhh.” Her ears pricked in the silence. Who was it? It had better not be Willa. Her cousin needed to stay far away from Todd.
Cheddar rolled on top of her and dissolved in a heap. She blew a leaf out of her eyes.
“I understand, Nonna.” Candance’s voice filtered into the backyard. “I just had my headphones in while listening to my music. I’ll keep them out in the future.”
Footsteps crunched on the dying blades of grass. Not Willa’s, someone heavier, bigger. Afternoon sunshine glinted on a head of brown hair. Her heart raced. Todd.
“Dazzler?” he whispered. “Are you here?”
“Da-ad.” Candance’s singsong voice rose at the end. “You told Mom Auntie D isn’t here.”
“She wasn’t at the time I answered your mother,” he shot back.
Sloughing off her blanket of leaves, Dazzler rolled out from under the hammock. “I’m here.”
“Auntie D! You came!” Candance squealed and rushed forward. Peppermint and sunshine preceded the seventeen-year-old. A smile lit her heart-shaped face as her thin arms wrapped around Dazzler. “I missed you. I wanted to visit you once I got up north, but Mom said it was best if I didn’t.”
Candace rested her chin on Dazzler’s shoulder. Dazzler ruffled the girl’s hair, enjoying the silky feel of the white highlights.
“Your Mom was right.” She closed her eyes and tamped down the pain as the admission shredded her throat. Willa never acknowledged their relationship unless pushed. “We’ll make plans while I’m here, and you can sneak away so we can enjoy cocoa and cookies.”
“We better.” Leaning back, Candance shook her finger at Dazzler. “I think you got me in trouble with Nonna. She said I ignored her when I was sneaking in the backyard.”
“She didn’t call out.” Dazzler offered in her defense. After planting a quick kiss on Candance’s cheek, she tucked a white lock behind the girl’s ears. The little girl was growing up—her ears were starting to gather into points at the top. “And I’m sorry I got you in trouble. Cookies and cocoa are never to be used to make amends. They are to be enjoyed whenever you are with those you love.”
Candance squinted. Her cobalt-blue eyes shifted to silver. “Even when you’re mad at that someone?”
Dazzler nodded. Friends and family were to be cherished, always. “Even then.”
“Then my stomach will soon be as big a bowl of jelly as Saint Nick himself, because everyone has been very welcoming at the North Pole.” Candance beamed. “I have so many cousins.”
Forcing a smile, Dazzler tucked her hands in her pockets. “Everyone at the North Pole is related.”
Todd cleared his throat. “Candance, honey, why don’t you get the grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup cooking while I talk to Dazzler for a minute.”
Dazzler’s stomach clenched. He sounded so serious. Was he upset at her arrival? Did he blame her for the failing lights?
“Sure, Dad.” Candance hugged Dazzler quickly before skipping into the house. “I’m glad you’re going to spend the holidays with us. It was something I’ve dreamed of since forever.”
Dazzler glanced down at her boots.
Twig fingers raked the leaves into a pile and slid back under the hammock. Too bad she couldn’t hide like Cheddar. Still, if Todd was going to ask her to leave, she’d best get it over with. She could be in Flagstaff before the hospital closed. Nurse Paula was bound to still be working. And the kids always welcomed her visits. She glanced up.
Todd raked his fingers through his dark-brown hair. “I wish you’d told me you were coming.”
Knees trembling, Dazzler rested her hand on his forearm. Was he going to turn her away? “I’m sorry. It was kind of a last-minute thing.”
Covering her hand, Todd tugged her down onto the top step. A moment passed. Then two. He stared at his back yard; his thumb swept back and forth across her knuckles. “Since you’re here, I won’t turn you away. But I have one condition. No magic.”
“No magic?” Dazzler’s insides did a funny dance. Hunger was getting to her. She studied his profile, the jutting of his chin, the firming of his lips. Had he heard the rumors? Did he believe them? “Why?”
“With Candance coming into <i>her magic, I’m losing her to your world.” He shifted so his thigh pressed against hers.
“My world.” She rubbed her sternum with her free hand. He didn’t consider her part of his world. Did that mean he didn’t consider them to be friends?
“I need Candance to see that human Christmases are great even without magic. That it’s the loved ones you surround yourself with that matter, not the ability to create something from thin air or have pointed ears.”
Scooting closer, she forced a smile. “But don’t you see, love <i>is magic? It’s—”
“My house, my rules.” His eyes glinted with determination. “Besides, you don’t want to disappoint Candance. Actually, your being here might work to my advantage. She’ll see elves don’t need magic to be happy.”
Not need magic?
“I see.” On one hand, Dazzler would be wanted, needed. Just not her magic, a magic she’d come here to save. Still, she could be with Candance, observe the teenager, and maybe find the root of her own magical mishaps in the process. Maybe even perform a little magic when no one was looking. “What do you want me to do?”
“Do? You can’t do anything. I don’t even think you’ll be able to leave the house.” Todd shook his head, shifting away from her. “Willa and Frost are looking for you. If they find you, then Candance’s Christmas will be ruined, and everything will be for nothing.”
“Not leave the house?” Dazzler groaned. There had to be a way around that caveat.
Todd glanced at her ears. “People will notice two elves in town.”
Cheddar slid out from under the hammock and stared at Todd with unblinking acorn eyes. “Dazzler is a Sylvan elf. She gets her power from the woods. If you keep her locked up inside, she could get sick. Do you want that?”
“No. Of course not. I…” Color flushed Todd’s cheeks, and he dropped her hand. “This was a bad idea. I should have stuck with my original plan. You’ll have to leave. Elves and humans shouldn’t mix.”
“I have it!” The heart-shaped birthmark on her arm tingled. “Since everyone has already seen Willa and are expecting to see her, I’ll change my appearance to look like her. Problem solved! It’s brilliant!”