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Countdown to Christmas by Leta Nolan Childers

A Christmas Treasure by Rickey Mallory

Tarnished Angel by Jane Toombs

Silver Bells, Wedding Bells by Karen Wiesner

Countdown to Christmas

Chapter One

Juggling a heavy box in one arm, a briefcase and another box in her other arm with an Advent calendar tucked under her chin, Dee Saunders barely managed to fumble the key into the lock of her condominium door. Swearing softly under her breath, she managed to turn the key, sighing with relief when she heard the tumblers fall into place.

After pulling the key from the lock, Dee hefted her load more securely in her arms before carefully reaching out to turn the doorknob and push the door open. She hustled through the portal, reaching back with her foot to slam it shut. The door flew against the post and immediately bounced back-directly into Dee's posterior.

The boxes flew from her arms as Dee stumbled forward, dropping to her knees on the hard Italian tile of the entry. Unable to stop the momentum, the fall carried her face down-right on top of the Advent calendar. Pain jolted through her knees and her nose.

This day was becoming the worst day she had ever encountered in all of her entire twenty-nine years.

It hadn't started out so badly, she decided, rolling over to sit up and inspect the abrasions on her knees beneath the shredded hose. In fact, she had optimistically arisen early that morning feeling in her bones that something wonderful was going to happen to her.

Just went to prove how totally wrong a fortune cookie could be, too. That buoyant feeling carried her from getting dressed to work to scavenging cold Chinese food from the night before for breakfast. And, when she'd opened that fortune cookie, it had simply seemed like just another omen that she was headed for the best Christmas ever…even though that day had loomed darkly before her. No one particularly enjoyed turning thirty, but to do so on Christmas Day seemed absolutely unfair.

"Good fortune will shine on you today…bringing the promise of a happy future," was written on the fortune cookie that she'd broken open that morning after finishing off the ham-fried rice.

Dee had almost skipped to work. She just knew in her heart that the good news she was going to receive was going to come in the guise of a great promotion at work. Sure, the buzz around the cooler and in the break room had been filled with doom and gloom as word of the restructuring of the company had filtered down from the upper floors. But, that would never affect Dee. Not with the raves in her job performance assessments. Not after seven years with the company. Not after starting at Hudson Management Corporation as an intern working in the basement and hustling her behind off on the way up to the fifth floor and middle management.

Her pink slip arrived just after lunch, landing on her desk at approximately the same time as the Advent calendar, a "holiday memento" courtesy of HMC as a "thank you" for another wonderful year of service.

"Bah humbug," Dee growled, picking strands of hose away from her stinging knee.

"What on earth are you doing home so early?" A voice behind her called from the still open door. Dee twisted around to see her neighbor Carrie leaning, arms crossed, against the doorpost.

"Taking an early Christmas vacation along with about seventy-five other HMC loyal employees," Dee replied, picking herself up off the floor. She motioned Carrie into the condo before firmly closing the door. "Want to put the kettle on while I go change? I'm feeling a great need for some chocolate-hot chocolate."

Dee stomped past Carrie and walked into her bedroom. She closed the door and leaned against it for a moment. Carrie was her best friend, but right now Dee just wasn't in the mood for any company-especially Carrie's brand of optimism and perseverance. The last thing she wanted to hear was someone talking about closing doors and opening windows. At the moment, the only open window she wanted to see was one about twelve stories up-preferably with a plank and a line of HMC executives being forced to walk and jump.

What was she going to do now? Tears stung at her closed eyes. How was she going to survive this one?

She willed herself not to cry. She didn't want to give the creeps at HMC the satisfaction-even if they'd never know it-of breaking her into tears. Angrily, she pushed away from the door and quickly stripped off her nice, conservative wool business suit and pulled on her black sweats-they fit her mood well. She pulled the pins from her hair, whisked a brush through it and tied it back in a scrunchie.

The teakettle was just beginning its merry whistle as Dee strolled into her kitchen. Carrie had already deposited herself at the table, thumbing through a magazine.

"I feel much better now," Dee said, pulling two mugs down from the cupboard. "And I'll feel even better yet once I get some chocolate in me."

"So, you want to tell me what happened?" Carrie asked, tossing the magazine aside. "What is so disastrous that it's driven you to this?"

"Well, upper management refers to the blood letting today as a 'restructuring' of the corporate composite at HMC." Dee grabbed two packages of instant hot chocolate mix, opened them and dumped them into the mugs. "While all it really is is just an easy way to cut down on personnel expenses."

She poured the hot water into the mugs, grabbed two spoons and carried them to the table. Setting one in front of Carrie, Dee set hers on the table and walked quickly into the living room to retrieve the crushed Advent calendar.

"Okay…you know I'm not the business type. Explain how HMC is going to keep running if it's fired that many people?" Carrie asked, stirring her hot chocolate. Carrie, God love her, was absolutely correct in her self-assessment. She was in the fortunate business of being the only child of very wealthy parents. She had no need to work as long as she was able to keep an eye on her investments' manager-easy to accomplish as she was married to him. Dee felt an unexpected stab of envy. Carrie and Dirk's marriage was one of the happiest she'd ever seen. Certainly, occasionally they had their spats, but she'd never seen two people more devoted to one another.

"Okay…the company shares the costs of things like insurance and retirement benefits. Plus, there are bonuses and employee stock options. Well, one of the easiest ways for a company to save money is to not have to pay for those kinds of things. So, they clean house-starting with middle management people who cost them the most. They can fire us, hire kids straight out of college to do the same thing for far less salary and save a bundle. It's a cost-effective move," Dee admitted, poking open all twenty-one doors on the calendar. "It just sort of stinks on ice when you're the one getting fired…and it's this close to Christmas."

"Surely kids straight out of college can't perform those jobs as effectively as people like you with years of experience?" Carrie reached over and grabbed a small piece of Advent chocolate from the pile Dee was stacking in the middle of the table. "Aren't you supposed to limit yourself to one piece of this chocolate a day before Christmas?"

"This is a special occasion," Dee replied, raising one eyebrow. "And yes, they can't do our jobs as well as we can. But, a solid bottom line at the end of the year looks far better to investors than pictures of happy employees. Besides, at the same time we were fired, we were offered the option of working for HMC as temporary employees."

"Well, there you go then. See, you still have a job. At least for a while…Right?"

"Wrong. If I accepted the temp, it would be for as long as I wanted to stay with HMC. But, I wouldn't get any benefits. No insurance. Nothing." Dee stirred her hot chocolate, sipped it and grimaced. Not strong enough. She dropped three pieces of the Advent candy into her cup and stirred again. "Anyway, I guess I sort of let my temper get the best of me. When I handed in my separation papers, I sort of told the personnel director that he could stick his temp job up his temp-"

"You didn't!" Carrie interrupted, her blue eyes wide and round.

"Sure did. And I certainly wasn't the only one. If he took everyone's advice, I imagine he's in his proctologist's office right now for emergency treatment."

Carrie covered her mouth and giggled before pulling a serious look over her face. "So, what are you going to do now?"

"Get another job. And get while the getting is good. This couldn't have happened at a worse time for me. It's going to take at least three weeks before I get my final paycheck and my check for unused vacation and sick leave. I can't touch my retirement contribution because it's in a 401K plan. My savings are tied up in certificates of deposit, which I can cash in but at a hefty penalty. And I have the annual balloon payment as well as the mortgage payment to make on the condo. My car insurance is due in two weeks. And my car payment in one week. I really did count on keeping my job."

"How much do you need?" Dee couldn't resist smiling through her pain at her best friend. Carrie was always there for her, always ready to offer whatever she could to help and never with a thought of personal gain from it.

"No, Carrie. We are too good of friends for me to ever consider borrowing a dime from you. I never want filthy money to come between us," Dee said slowly. She dipped her fingers into the bowl of M&Ms on the table, gathered up a few and popped them into her mouth. Not bad. She grabbed some more and added them to her hot chocolate. "I'll make it one way or another. I just need to start first thing in the morning looking for another job. And that's not going to be easy with this many people looking at the same time in a town with an already low unemployment rate-especially among middle management people like me."

"I won't argue with you, but I really don't think my lending you a little money is going to hurt our friendship. You could just consider it a Christmas gift. Hey, what about your bonus from HMC. Does this mean you won't get one?" Carrie popped another piece of Advent candy into her mouth.

"You're eating my Christmas bonus." Dee pointed to the Advent calendar. "Just another cost-saving measure of HMC. And to think that I have been using my bonus to make the balloon payment on the condo. Suppose the condo committee would accept an empty and crushed piece of cardboard instead of money?"

Carrie's hand flew to her mouth. "You're kidding. This is their idea of a Christmas bonus?" she asked, while trying to swallow the chocolate.

"Yep. I figure that each of those twenty-one little pieces of chocolate is worth right at $125 each. Makes it taste all the sweeter, doesn't it?"

"No, it just makes it stick in my throat. I can't believe they are acting this way. Surely you could sue them or something. Get the media involved? Something…"

"Sure…and have my name splashed all over the city while I'm trying to find another position? I don't think so. Besides, while this is extremely cruel and distasteful to the folks involved, HMC hasn't broken any laws…they're just skirting around the edges."

"What about your parents? Can they help you?"

"No. And they aren't even going to know about this until I'm safely employed somewhere else. Since Dad's heart attack and Mom's near collapse from worry, neither one of them need any more stress in their lives. I'm just glad I was able to convince them to take that holiday cruise. They didn't want to be away from Tyler and me over Christmas, but it's just what they need."

"Well, what about Tyler?"

"My wonderful brother…Mr. Hot Shot Computer Programmer?" Dee snorted, scooping up more M&Ms. "He couldn't even be bothered to chip in for Mom and Dad's tickets. We aren't close enough for me to run to him to borrow money. Especially not after I reamed him a new one for not even bothering to send them fifty bucks mad money for their cruise."

"Let me guess…you sent them mad money in his name…after you paid for their tickets and other fees," Carrie suggested, carefully wiping her hands on a paper napkin. "And their new luggage…and sending them both a couple of boxes of cruise clothes…"

"And I'd do it all again in a heartbeat…even if I had to sell my condo. Besides, it was important that they thought that both of their kids cared enough about them to give them this kind of Christmas present."

Dee popped another handful of M&Ms in her mouth, before rising and fixing both herself and Carrie another mug of hot chocolate. She set Carrie's cup before her and sipped at her own, making a disgusted face. "Not enough chocolate." She turned and pulled a bottle of chocolate syrup from the refrigerator, poured a healthy dollop into her mug and offered the bottle to Carrie.

Carrie shook her head "no." "I can't see how you can pack in all this sugar and still remain so thin. You are going to be on a sugar high for the next week."

"Comfort food." Dee shrugged. "And I need plenty of comforting now. That…and a job…really quick. Doesn't have to be anything too special. Just something to tide me over until I can find a real job."

"I can ask Dirk…"

"No. Heavens, I wouldn't even know what to do in investments. I'd be afraid I'd be losing some poor soul all their savings. No…something in marketing, promotion or management." Dee took a long, deliberate sip of her hot chocolate. "You know…if I had to…I'd flip burgers at Mickey Dee's to hold onto what I've managed to build. I'm not opposed to hard work."

Carrie reached across the table and patted Dee on the arm. "I have no doubt that things won't just work out better than you think. You know-when God closes a door, he opens a window."

Dee forced smile on her face just before grabbing her mouth and rushing toward the bathroom. Too much sugar-both in the chocolate and in the sentiment.


Trevor DeWitt IV looked up from his afternoon cappuccino through the glass wall of his office and watched an incredibly tall, stacked goddess talking to herself outside the personnel office door across the hall. She glanced around self-consciously, though she continued what appeared a stern lecture, as she tucked her portfolio case between her knees and used both hands to pat and tuck a few errant stands of ebony hair back into the severe bun at the nape of her neck. Then, she reached up and tightened the cream silk bow gracing the collar of her blouse.

"Mmmmm-hmmmmm. Now that's a package I wouldn't mind unwrapping," Trevor whispered to himself. His reaction to this stranger was a bit of mystery to him as well. Normally, Trevor preferred brains to beauty, the challenge of the intellect rather than a nice trophy to display on his bed. For all he knew, this vision now pulling up her pantyhose and smoothing down that tight forest green skirt that enhanced length and shape of those great legs had the accumulate IQ of a swarm of buzzing gnats.

Yet…there was something about her. Maybe the way she held her head sort of cocked to one side as she again glanced up and down the hallway that revealed something in those dazzling dark eyes and told Trevor this was that most wonderful of creatures: a woman with looks to kill for and a brain to rival Einstein's. Of course, most of those rare creatures were handicapped by a heart made of stone-or at least that was Trevor's experience.

She straightened up, grabbed the portfolio from between her knees and squared her shoulders. He watched as she took a deep breath-again emphasizing a quality set of attributes even beneath the blouse and snug forest green jacket-and smiled. The smile dropped completely from her lips as she glanced across the hall and directly into his office for the first time. An orchard of apples grew ripe in her cheeks as her mouth dropped open.

Trevor couldn't keep the grin from forming on his own face as he nodded at her. Just as quickly as it seemed she'd lost her composure, she regained it, lifting her chin defiantly in the air and spinning away from him and walking straight into the closed personnel door.

He watched as she staggered back a step. Then, she tossed her head, kicked one foot back toward him and wiggled her butt before opening the door, strolling through and closing it firmly.

Unable to contain it any more, Trevor burst into laughter. It seemed she had spirit, too.

Too bad she was here for no reason. Sorting through the pile of papers on his desk, Trevor pulled out the personnel director's report and glanced at it. No room at this inn, he thought as he scanned down the recent hirings. Just that morning they had filled every position they had open from clerks to the one marketing position that had been open. HMC's loss was definitely Pinewood's gain.

Wait. There was still one position at the department store open, Trevor noticed as he got to the bottom of the report. But, that dish would never deign to take that job. No, he could tell from one look at her that she had corporate climber written all over her. She'd never settle for a temporary, three-week job as Santa's helper.

And speaking of which, Trevor decided glancing at the digital clock on his desk, it was just about time for him to climb into his costume for his turn downstairs. Ah, the benefit of owning the business…he got to play Santa every year, even though most of the staff who knew just who was behind the long, white beard and thirty pounds of stuffing thought he was nuts. It was the one perk of his job he wasn't about to give up. And they certainly didn't need to know exactly why he felt the need to do this every year. That was something very, very private.

He flipped on the intercom, calling to his secretary located in the office next door. "Cynthia…my turn downstairs. And I don't want to be disturbed this time. Looks a bit strange for Santa to be interrupted because ladies' shoes is looking for its shipment."

"Right. No interruptions. Gotcha, boss. And hey, be safe out there," Cynthia chuckled.

"Don't get smart with me, young lady, or you'll be finding coal in your pantyhose this year," Trevor laughed, before switching off the intercom and heading into the bathroom adjoining his office.


Dee looked into the mirror in the employee's changing room and grimaced. Were they selling sex or toys?

"A job is a job is a job," she repeated to herself like a mantra, hoping to convince herself she'd done the right thing in accepting a temporary position as Santa's helper. But, after a long day of trudging from one place to another and being told "sorry…positions all filled," she knew that pride made a lousy supper and if she wanted to keep food on the table, she'd better take what she could while she could. Besides, working the evening shift would give her plenty of time during the day to look for a permanent job. This was just temporary.

"It's just temporary…temporary…not forever," she repeated to her reflection, tugging up at the tight bodice of the costume which barely managed to cover her breasts. The tiny spaghetti straps holding it up were cutting into her shoulders as they strained to do their job.

"Yeah, one size fits all-if you're already an elf," she said, pulling down the tiny ruffle that was supposed to be the skirt. Unfortunately, it was a one-piece costume. So, the more she pulled down the skirt, the more of her breasts showed. It came down to a choice-chest cold or mooning an entire line of toddlers waiting to talk to Santa. Some choice.

She pulled the bodice up again-thankful for the heavy, dark green tights that covered her lower half. Evidently, the "moon" would be made of green cheese this night. Taking a deep breath, Dee squared her shoulders and pushed out of the room, each step accompanied by the merry tinkle of the jingle bells attached to the toes of her elf shoes.

As she walked through the bowels of the building, Dee was impressed with the organization of the warehoused merchandise waiting for room for display on one of the department store's six levels of shopping. Pinewood was one of her favorite stores. In fact, she'd delighted in nearly maxing out her charge cards only a few weeks before as she'd bought her parents everything they'd need on their cruise. She decided that it was ironic that Pinewood should now provide her with the means to remain somewhat financially solvent.

Dee climbed on the employee's elevator and pushed the button for the main floor, two stories above. Of course, part-time, temporary work wasn't going to solve all her problems. She'd just have to go to the bank and borrow money using her savings as collateral to make most of her major payments. But, at least she'd be able to keep her car and her condo. And wasn't that the kind of rainy day that savings were for?

The elevator doors opened and Dee stepped out, momentarily confused as to which direction to go. The personnel director had escorted her down to the employee's changing room and given her directions to come back up. She was supposed to proceed through the back halls to a small room the store was using for Santa and his crew. To keep the illusion of one Santa, the store used the room for changes in shift. When one Santa's shift was done, he was supposed to rise, stretch and politely tell anyone waiting that he needed to check on Rudolph, but that he'd be right back. Then, he'd disappear through the outer door to the room and the next Santa coming on duty would wait a couple of minutes before reappearing. The personnel director boasted long and loud about how no detail concerning the operation escaped the watchful eye of the store's owner, Trevor DeWitt the Fourth.

Trevor DeWitt the Fourth. Dee wondered what he was like. Probably ancient-gray and bent over, using a cane or a pretty nurse for support. He certainly did, however, know how to run a business…both to the benefit of the customers and the employees. As she'd waited for her interview, Dee casually read through the employee's handbook. Of course, the information was intended for full-time, permanent employees, but Pinewood certainly put HMC to shame in the benefits that they offered. Although, at this point a vicious taskmaster with a whip would beat out HMC in Dee's estimation.

Getting her bearings, Dee set off jingling down the passageway, delighted when she saw a Santa-clad figure standing next to a door. He was just pulling his beard out as if to settle it properly when she noticed him glance her way. His mouth dropped open and his blue eyes grew round. The beard slipped from his fingers, the elastic strap working properly and recoiling into place. Dee could hear it sting as it slapped Santa on the face. His hands flew to his cheeks as he turned to look at her.

And look he did, making no guise of politeness. He started at her toes. She followed his gaze up her legs to her waist to her bosom to her face-then directly back to her bosom. Her cheeks burned in embarrassment, but she strode determinedly straight toward him, refusing the impulse to pull this up and that down.

"What the heck are you dressed up as? Santa's hooker?" he asked, his gaze again dropping to her thighs before returning again to her bosom. This guy had the manners of a pig. Who would ever pick him as a Santa?

"I'm Santa's helper, buddy. Not my fault if Pinewood can't afford more than a 'one-size-fits-all' costume." Dee reached over and grabbed Santa's chin, forcing his face up and his eyes to meet hers. "Hey, I'm up here."

He was only a couple of inches taller than she was-making him about six feet tall.

"'Up here' isn't what I'm concerned about. It's what your exposing down there that concerns me. This is totally unsuitable."

"Like it or not, buddy, I'm all you've got. So get used to it. I need this job."

"We have an image to uphold here. And I'm sorry…but dressed like that just doesn't bring the notion of a cheery, happy Christmas to mind. No. What it brings to mind are motels you can rent by the hour and industrial-strength condoms. Sorry, lady, but you can't go out there like that whether you need this job or not. I'll just have to fly solo tonight."

Dee opened her mouth to tell this pseudo-Santa where he could stick his opinion when the door opened and another Santa and his helper came pushing in. The helper tossed a wave and continued on down the hallway. Dee watched her in envy. The other helper's costume fit the woman's more petite frame. Nothing was revealed there.

"Man, oh man…it's brutal out there. Am I ever glad I'm done for the day. You've got kids lined up all the way to housewares," the second Santa warned before making his own way down the hall.

"Don't worry. I'll get to them all, even if I have to go past nine," Santa said, glancing again at Dee. "Really, you better get down and put some clothes on. Check back with personnel tomorrow. I'll square it with them."

"You're not botching this job up for me," Dee declared, stomping her elf boot on the cement floor. She put out her arm and pushed him aside, strolling through the door as a chorus of cheers arose before her.

The first Santa hadn't exaggerated. The line of children extended far beyond the corridor created by a velvet rope. All of their eyes were trained on her as they hollered their greetings.

Dee's step hesitated before she collected herself, smiled and strolled toward the large throne where Santa was supposed to sit. Santa was faster. An even louder cheer rose from the crowd as he walked out and jogged past her toward his throne.

"Stay behind the chair and just hand me the trinkets to give to the kids," he ordered sternly, as he took his place and welcomed the first child into his arms and onto his lap. "Well, ho ho ho. What's your name, little one?"

And from there, it started. Dee stood behind the chair, reached into the huge bag of trinkets setting beside the throne, grabbed one and slapped it into Santa's hand when he reached back. Slowly she watched the big hand on the huge clock over the door slowly travel its full circle. At first watching the kids light up at Santa was sort of fun…and she did feel less conspicuous standing behind the chair. But now the monotonous repetition of picking a trinket, slapping it in Santa's hand and standing and waiting to do it all over again was becoming a huge bore. The only tiny thrill she got was occasionally slapping that trinket just a little too hard in his hand. Even through the thickness of his mittens, it must have smarted judging from the tiny grimace that she'd see in his eyes when she did it.

It was a perverse pleasure, she acknowledged, but a pleasure none the less.

Dee found herself watching him more closely with the children. He must have kids of his own. He was patient, teasing them just a bit and then reassuring them that he'd find his way to them at Christmas. He told them to do their schoolwork, brush their teeth and mind their parents. Then, he'd toss in a line or two about work at the North Pole or about the reindeer.

She found his deep voice rather warming-even if he was a pig. And his laugh sort of embraced all who heard it-or at least she hoped others were affected as she was. She imagined that under the padding and the wig and the beard he was probably very good looking.

Wasn't that always the case, though? Great looks. A voice to die for. And a creep. Sure, it was okay for him to give her the once over about a dozen times, but nobody else better look at her. Heck, she wasn't even able to do her job the way the personnel director explained it to her. She was supposed to be at the head of the line, getting the children's names and their secret wish and then letting him know through a small candy cane microphone connected somehow to an ear piece he was supposed to wear.

Was it her fault the store obviously didn't have a costume in her size? Was it her fault that she was trying to make a bad situation better? Heck no. Did he have to be such a contradictory puritan/pig? And "Santa" was her boss in appearances only. He was just another employee of Pinewood's the same way she was-so just who did he think he was anyway?

Dee glanced up at the clock. Another two hours until they took a fifteen-minute break. Well, she'd just set old Santa straight as soon as they were back behind that closed door. She glanced around at the milling crowd in front of them. A group of boisterous teen-aged boys was just pushing through the double revolving doors. Three blue-haired, elderly ladies were sorting through a display of bright Christmas scarves on a table. The entire area around the Santa display was filled with seasonal items-from the tables holding stocking stuffers to the square of glass counters holding delicate Christmas china and crystal.

Dee's gaze followed a stately and handsome man dressed in a great camel hair coat when something caught the corner of her vision. She turned back toward the crystal display just in time to see a toddler of three reaching up toward an elaborate, tall crystal Christmas tree too close to the edge of the counter. The child's mother was obviously distracted and talking to the clerk. Couldn't she see that her child could be seriously hurt if she managed to catch hold of that tree?


It was that aroma that was driving him mad-making him forget just why he was there. It was more powerful than the scent of pine from the Christmas tree setting next to the chair. It was more potent than the peppermint candy canes he was giving each child with their trinket. A soft concoction of wild flowers, it floated over Trevor's shoulder every time she bent over and slapped a tiny toy in his hand. How could anything that light and airy overshadow everything else around him? It was maddening.

Just another part of the mystery woman behind him. When he'd seen her primping before walking into the personnel office, he'd never imagined that Miss Dress-for-success would stoop so low as to take this kind of a job. The memory of her smoothing her hose, adjusting the waistband of her skirt, tugging her jacket down over those incredible…well, he'd never have thought that she could have looked more appealing-unless it was clad in nothing but a black teddy and a smile. But the sight of her in that much-too-small elf's costume…wow! If it had been the real Santa to see that, well the North Pole would be looking for a new tenant because the heart attack would have killed the old guy off straight away.

Trevor pulled another child on his lap and was just settling the child on his lap when a flash of red jumped past him trailing that impossible to forget fragrance. His mouth opened in shock as his helper's long legs stretched out as she hurdled the velvet rope cordoning off Santa's domain. Everyone in the area seemed to freeze as she loped toward the crystal display.

Just as he was setting the child in his arms back to his feet, he saw why she was streaking away. Her arms reached out and plunked a little girl away from the counter, just as a huge crystal Christmas tree came crashing to the floor. Shards of glass flew everywhere as she hunched over the screaming child she cradled in her arms.

As she hunched over, the bottom of her costume pulled up-giving an almost thong-like effect certainly unintended by the designer and the wearer. A nicely dressed businessman was walking by at that very moment and, distracted by the full green moon rising in front of him, managed to walk straight into the crystal display. As he caught himself, he pushed against the counter. The clerk standing behind it managed just in time to jump clear as several thousand dollars of crystal fell to the floor in a thunderous burst.

Immediately, Santa's helper thrust the child into her mother's arms and spun to help the man-his arms windmilling wildly at his sides as he tried to catch his balance. Blindly, he reached out for her, managing finally to catch his fingers in the tiny spaghetti straps that held up her costume.

Like a tall, dead tree in the forest, Trevor watched as if in almost slow motion the man began falling backwards. His fingers were ripped from the straps. The straps were ripped from the costume.

For one brief second-that seemed to last decades-Trevor watched as one perfectly formed, milky white breast tipped with a rosebud nipple popped into full and public view. It seemed as if she hadn't even noticed. She was still reaching for the falling man, who had also evidently seen her exposure. The man's arms rose from his sides as he reached for her.

"Holy cow!" the man yelled as he rebounded off the floor. A loud wolf whistle split the air-completely drowning out the canned Christmas music playing over the store's stereo system. Trevor's gaze flashed from his helper's breast to seek the source of the whistle. He glanced over at a group of teen-aged boys standing in front of the long row of Christmas trees on display. It was evident all were enjoying the rare glimpse they had of an exposed breast. He watched as one of the front boys leaned back to elbow the boy behind him.

In his enthusiasm, the boy applied the elbow just a bit too hard. It caught the second boy directly in the gut, which propelled him back into another boy. The third boy fell back against a Christmas tree. As he landed amid the satin ribbons and soft boughs of the tree, it toppled, taking with it the next tree.

Like a row of dominoes, Trevor watched in horror as one tree after another toppled over into the next sending them all down. Ornaments shattered. Others rolled. Candy canes flew through the air. Twinkling lights fluttered and died.

"My store…my beautiful store," Trevor groaned. He felt a tug at the hem of his jacket. He looked down at the child standing next to him.

"Santa, do you own this store?" she asked, all big eyes and smiles.

"Not once the lawyers get done with me," he sighed. "Santa will be right back." He patted her on the head and walked over toward the helper from hell. She was quickly tucking herself back into her costume.

"You better stay put. We'll call an ambulance. Have the EMTs check you over," Trevor called down to the man lying on the floor who seemed to be staring in space with a crazy sort of grin frozen on his face.

He glanced over at the crystal clerk who was staring at all of her broken merchandise while bawling her eyes out. "Janice, you okay?" She was probably wondering if he planned to take the damage out of her salary. "It will be okay, Janice. Go call for maintenance to come clean up this mess."

He watched as she flew away from the display. He strolled up to his helper, shaking his head. She raised her chin. For a second, he expected her to again stick her tongue out at him again. Instead she took a deep breath.

"I quit. I'd rather starve to death than work in this lunatic asylum." The fingers that held the bodice of her costume up were white and shaking.

"You can't quit."

"And why not?"

"Because I already fired you."

Some of the teen-aged boys pushed past him. "That was awesome, lady. Totally awesome."

She at least had the courtesy of blushing profusely at his earnest compliment. "Glad you enjoyed the floor show," she said, shrugging and looking away. "Guess I better be glad that you didn't have a camera."

"Wow. Totally together," the boy said, turning to Trevor. "Hey man, do they have security cameras here? Suppose we could buy a copy of the tape? More action than Schwarzenegger and more skin than Demi Moore."

Trevor almost laughed until he noted the look of absolute mortification appear in her eyes. "Anything caught on tape by the security cameras is confidential and only used in legal matters," he told the boy sternly. Though, he might want a copy himself, just to prove that what appeared to happen really did happen. Although, another peek at her…no that was even beneath him.

"Thank God for small favors," she muttered, mustering it seemed a big of haughty dignity as she pushed past both of them and headed toward the Santa exit door.

Trevor watched her go, his gaze traveling from the top of her head down to the curve of the small of her back to the round sway of her hips. As he enjoyed the view, his gaze dropped lower. What he saw filled him with true alarm. The backs of her legs were covered with shards of crystal, blood staining the green tights she wore.

"Wait!" he hollered, running toward her. "You've been hurt."

She stopped and glanced around at him. He pointed at the backs of her legs and she twisted around to look. Then, her face whitened and her eyes rolled back in her head. Before he could reach her, she'd swooned to the floor. Thankfully, she lay on her side, preventing the glass from embedding itself any deeper.

He knelt down beside her, calling out for someone to call another ambulance. As he reached out a hand to lay on her forehead, elasticity proved it still worked. The bodice of her costume pulled back and out popped her breast.

Trevor did the only gentlemanly thing he could in the circumstance. He pulled off his Santa hat to cover her. Only he hadn't counted on it being attached to the elastic band holding his beard in place. As the cap pulled away, the elastic snapped him in the back of the head. Unprepared, he fell on top of her.

"Hey, Mommy," called one of the older children still waiting in line. "How come Santa gets to do that? When Daddy does that you tell him to wait until we're in bed."

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A Christmas Treasure

Chapter One

Christmas Eve, 1851

The change in the rhythm of the wheels woke Lorilla Harmon. She straightened and winced as her back muscles protested. Squinting against the late afternoon sunlight, she thought about her dream and frowned. She'd been back there, under Ray's thumb, little more than a maidservant to him and his sons, her stepbrothers.

The wagon hit a bump, jolting her back to the present. She was no longer in St. Louis. For the past five months she'd traveled with a wagon train headed to Santa Fe, New Mexico, over some of the roughest, most dangerous terrain in the entire country.

The middle-aged priest who had traveled with her from Pueblo Mission nodded toward the horizon. "Look, Miss Harmon," he said.

Lorilla craned her neck but all she saw were the other wagons and the same red hills she had seen for days. Red hills and odd, dark green trees.

But then, her eyes were drawn to a patch of paler red. "Oh, look!" she cried. "A town. That's Santa Fe, isn't it?" The cluster of rose colored buildings sat nestled in a valley. As the wagons rolled slowly on, Lorilla sat up straighter, stretching her cramped limbs. "It's larger than I expected."

"Well, it's certainly not as large as St. Louis."

"No," Lorilla shook her head. "But then, I never saw that much of St. Louis."

"Oh, look," breathed the priest. "The church."

At the far end of the street stood a pink building with twin towers and a tall steeple. The other low buildings, with their arched doorways and unpainted boardwalks, faded to a blur. She would be married there.

Married. For five months, she had dreamed about this day, and now she was here. Moistening her dry lips with her tongue, Lorilla squeezed her hands together. Oh, God, did I do the right thing? Although she really hadn't a choice.

As the wagons rolled down the street, Lorilla saw a crowd of people in the courtyard in front of the church. "What are all the people doing?"

The priest smiled. "Today is Noches Bueno, the Mexican words for Christmas Eve. There have been celebrations all week. Tonight they will hold the Miso de Gallo, the Rooster Mass. Then tomorrow, Christmas Day, is observed as a day of rest."

"I forgot that it was Christmas Eve." A pang of loneliness gripped her and her eyes stung and her chest ached with barely concealed panic.

"Miss Harmon, is something wrong?"

"No, no," she said tightly. "I just realized how far I am, from…"

"From home?"

Lorilla shook her head as she blinked back tears. She had not cried yet, and she would not cry now. She swallowed. Home? No. Not home. How could she explain to the priest that she hadn't truly had a home since her mother died when she was eleven? Since then, she'd kept house for her stepfather and her half-brothers. Her stepfather considered her a burden, excess baggage, suffered only for the work she did.

Lorilla fought the panic, which threatened to overwhelm her. She'd had five months to prepare for this day. But she wasn't ready. The man she'd traveled cross-country to marry was a stranger.

"I don't even know him," she whispered.

"Miss Harmon, many very good marriages are arranged ahead of time," the kindly priest said. "Just remember what the Bible says about your duties as a wife. And don't forget, you may always come to the Church for solace."

"Thank you, Father. That is a comfort." Lorilla silently asked forgiveness for the lie. The priest's words did nothing to ease her fears.

"Tell me again what you know of Gabriel Beltran."

Father O'Malley smiled. "You've heard the little I know a dozen times, child. He is wealthy; he is respected. He's a good man."

A good man. After years of hearing people refer to her stepfather, Ray Stegall, as a good man, Lorilla found little solace in those words.

"Well," the priest said, as the wagon creaked to a halt, and men began unloading supplies. "Here we are. I must say I'm curious about the church. May I help you with your things?"

"Why yes, thank --"

"Senora Lorilla Harmon?"

Lorilla started at the sound of her name. She turned and met the bright, black gaze of a wizened little man.

"Yes?" she responded cautiously. "I'm Lorilla Harmon." Her heart raced. Her throat closed in apprehension. "Are you Gabriel Beltran?"

"Buenos dias, Senora. I am Benito la Hoya." He removed the straight-brimmed black hat he wore and inclined his head slightly, then gestured to someone.

Lorilla allowed Benito to help her down from the wagon. She groaned as her cramped muscles protested and straightened gratefully once her feet were firmly planted on the ground.

"A dios, Miss Harmon," Father O'Malley said. "God be with you."

She smiled gratefully at him. "Thank you, Father."


Lorilla turned, relieved to hear a woman's voice. Her relief soon gave way to panic as several black-haired women surrounded her and herded her off with them. Helpless to resist their insistent urging and confused by their lyrical chatter of which she understood not a word, Lorilla found herself taken around the back of the church into a small room.

"What are you doing?" she asked, over and over again. "Where are we going?"

But the women just buzzed around her like bees around their queen. An ivory lace dress appeared from nowhere, and quick, browned hands removed her dusty traveling dress.

She was led to a bowl and handed a washcloth. "Oh, thank you," she said, and was rewarded with a smile from one of the women. She gratefully washed her face, neck and shoulders. The cool, clean water was heavenly, after days without a bath.

But all too soon she was hurried into the dress, a comb was applied to her hair, and a beautiful lace mantilla was draped over her head. Then she was led outside and back around to the front of the church.

The wizened little man waited for her.

"Excuse me, Mr. la Hoya?" She brushed her hands down the front of the ivory gown, feeling the sleek material covered with tiny pearls and delicate lace. She took a deep breath. "What's going on?"

"Father Larue and Senor Beltran are waiting."

"Waiting? For what?"

"For the wedding, Senora."

"Wedding? You mean now?" Lorilla gaped at him. "No. No. That's impossible. I need some time. This has all been too fast, too sudden."

Benito's eyes glinted with compassion as he shook his head. "My pardon, Senora, but the Patron, he is ready. I am afraid that is all that matters."

Lorilla looked at him in disbelief. He shrugged, putting a wealth of information in that one gesture. What can I do, it said. I merely work for him. I have no control.

"Yes well, I understand that feeling," she muttered.

She swallowed her apprehension and straightened her aching shoulders. She touched the lace that covered her head and pushed an errant strand of hair back. The gestures calmed her nerves a bit, although nothing could remove the panic that hovered at the edge of her brain. She had traveled all this way in the hope that she could find a better life.

"All right," she said bravely, lifting her chin. "But tell me, Mr. la Hoya? Isn't today Christmas Eve?"

"Si, Senora. Noches Buena."

"Noches Buena?"

"Si. And you must call me Benito."

"Benito." As he escorted her through the courtyard toward the church, she realized all the people who had been there earlier were gone.

They entered a small foyer that led into the sanctuary of the church. Lorilla stopped, gazing in shocked wonder at the splendor. Even here on the edge of the frontier, the church was magnificent. Stained glass windows lined the walls. Through them jeweled sunlight shone upon the heads of people seated in polished wooden pews, and glinted off the gold-plated altar and statues. Through the dappled darkness, Lorilla recognized the flowing robes of the priest. A tall, dark figure stood next to him.

Her wedding.

She stopped. "Oh God, I can't do this!" Panic threatened to steal the last of her breath. She wanted to turn around and run, but there was no place for her to go.

"Oh God," she whispered hoarsely, "It can't happen like this. It's too fast. Benito?"

"Si, Senora?"

She gestured toward the sanctuary's interior. "Why is everyone here? How did they know?"

Benito shrugged. "Today is the celebration of Noches Buena. Plus riders reported to the Patron two days ago that the wagons bringing you to Santa Fe would arrive today. So the Patron, he say to prepare you as soon as you arrive, then start the ceremony."

"Oh." Lorilla admitted defeat in the face of Benito's placid logic. The Patron said so. Therefore it must be so. A hollow, queasy apprehension built in the pit of her stomach. She wasn't at all sure she liked this Patron, who controlled everything, even to the clothes she wore for her wedding.

What had she done? She was here on the promise of a man she had never met, never even spoken to. According to Ray, Gabriel Beltran had seen her from afar and offered for her hand. Five months ago, Lorilla had been entranced by the romance of it, but now, Ray's story sounded weak and implausible.

She stepped into a beam of sunlight, turned red and yellow by the stained glass. Across the heads of the guests, down at the altar, the priest touched the tall man's arm. The man's head jerked up, and with a muted rustle of fabric, every head followed his gaze. A quiet gasp, then a lyrical murmur swelled. The priest lifted his hand and all was quiet.

Lorilla clutched her hands together in front of her, and took her first step down the aisle.

She tried to keep her eyes on the priest, an elderly man whose dark face and hair bespoke his Mexican heritage. But the figure of the tall man drew her gaze. Finally, she was compelled to look at him.

Her first, hazy impression was of a looming figure dressed in black. As she approached, she saw him more clearly. He was taller by a foot than the priest, and his stance was at once arrogant and relaxed. From his polished boots to the broad shoulders of his embroidered jacket, he stood like a proud king, awaiting the homage of his subjects. This then, was Gabriel Beltran, the Patron.

Lorilla forced herself to look at his face and met shockingly intense blue eyes. His unreadable gaze raked her up and down as she stopped before the altar. She stood, quaking under his fathomless stare, but couldn't tear her gaze from his. He stepped to her side, facing the priest.

His presence beside her was worse than his eyes on her. He towered over her, and she felt the heat from his body. Gabriel Beltran was nothing like she had imagined. Wealthy and respected to her conjured an image of a kindly gray-haired gentleman. Someone old. But the man standing beside her was certainly not old. He was a man in his prime. The thought convulsed Lorilla's dry throat. She swallowed nervously.

The priest murmured in Latin. Lorilla tried to drag her attention away from the man at her side. The task was impossible.

Then, to her shock, Gabriel Beltran bent toward her, his mouth near her ear. Lorilla stiffened, unable to breathe.

"Mrs. Harmon," he said, his rumbling whisper echoing through her body. "Welcome to Santa Fe."

She bit her lip as the priest looked at her expectantly.

Gabriel touched her elbow, sending little shocks like lightning through her arm. "You are to say 'I do' now, Mrs. Harmon."

Her tongue moistened dry lips. "I --" she croaked. "I . . . do?" She could hardly breathe, her heart was pounding so fast.

The priest spoke again.

"Si, I do," Gabriel answered, his voice dark and smooth as cane syrup, as he reached for her left hand. Lorilla's breath came in tiny jagged gasps, and she felt dizzy. It was too soon, too sudden. She needed time to rest, to gather her thoughts, before she actually had to marry the man. But he was holding her trembling hand in his larger, darker one and slipping a cool, bright ring on her finger. She stared at the gold band, studded all around with small diamonds.

Feeling his icy eyes on her, she raised her head and against her will met his disturbing gaze. His expression was carefully blank, but a dark shadow lurked behind his cool blue gaze. Was he nervous, too?

The priest raised his hands heavenward and spoke again. Then he leaned toward her new husband, and whispered. Gabriel reached out his hand and it was all Lorilla could do not to recoil. But she stood fast, her fingers curling into fists, as his hand slid along the side of her neck to curve around the back of her head. Then he nudged her chin up with his thumb and leaned over and kissed her on the mouth.

On the mouth. Lorilla's lips trembled and her tongue darted out reflexively to moisten them. To her embarrassment her tongue accidentally touched his lips. His fingers tightened around her neck. For an endless moment he deepened his kiss, shocking Lorilla with the intimacy of his tongue touching her mouth. Then, he pulled away, his eyes blazing fiercely.

A smile barely touched his lips. "Ah, Senora, you must be patient." His hand slid from her neck to the small of her back, and he guided her past the smiling, applauding onlookers.

Lorilla felt like she had once in a fever, disconnected, weightless, as they walked out into the sunlight. She had spent hours imagining this moment, but her fantasies had included a faceless, harmless old man, not this strong, handsome stranger who had already touched her in places and in ways no man had ever done before.

Lorilla's tongue flicked out to moisten her lips. Immediately, she remembered his kiss. She almost covered her mouth with her hand. How had she never before noticed this annoying habit?

She stole a glance at his face, but his even features and the hard line of his jaw told her nothing of his thoughts. He bowed and smiled at people, and with a firm pressure on the small of her back, included her in the greetings, although many of the people were Mexican, and she didn't understand a word they said.

She forced a tremulous smile as the sea of faces parted and her new husband guided her out to the courtyard just as a band began to play.

The afternoon flew by in a brightly colored daze. As the sun faded over the red hills, bright lanterns were lit. Whirling dancers flew about her in a kaleidoscope of color while guitars and drums and fiddles filled her ears, accompanied by raucous laughter and smiling faces, blending in odd harmony with the lilting murmur of their language. Probably two-thirds of the guests were Mexican.

She met the sheriff and his young wife. Lorilla almost cried with relief when the young woman spoke to her in English.

"Oh, my. Senora Beltran, your ears must truly be burning," Sarah Gentry said, taking Lorilla's hands in hers.

"Thank God," Lorilla said gratefully, then leaned close to the other's ear. "Please call me Lorilla and talk to me. I have no idea what they're saying."

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Tarnished Angel

Chapter 1

Seekers here ye find sustenance. The carved wooden letters with their faded paint blurred in Lady Phillipa's vision as she blinked back tears.

Weeping like a crossed child will not do, she warned herself. Nay, never.

The gilded angel, also of wood, affixed to the hut over the serving window, looked sternly down, reminding her that, as the last but one of the Penningtons, she must fulfill her duty on the eve of Christmas, even if every minion of the devil should try to prevent her. Some called Lord Kilworth the devil himself--which, of course, he was not. Though one might acknowledge he had the very devil of a temper.

She would not give him the satisfaction of knowing he had reduced her to leaking tears like a sieve. Raising her chin, she marched under the wooden arch that held the lettered sign as well as the summoning bell, opened the door to the small stone building and carried her basket inside.

Let him sit on that fractious stallion of his and wait. He'd be a fair way along to acquiring chilblains before she'd change her mind.

Jensen had seen to it a fire had been lit and she welcomed the warmth that took some of the chill from the stone hut sitting beside the drive leading to Pennington Hall. Two lanterns lit the dark, windowless interior. Phillipa opened the basket, laid the threadbare traveler's cloth on the counter running underneath the presently closed opening to the outside and set out the cheese, the bread and the ale.

The eldest male Pennington had done just this every Christmas Eve since the reign of King Charles, for two hundred years offering food and drink to the weary traveler benighted on this night of all nights. Why Lord Kilworth-- she did not care to call him Randolph at this moment, even in her mind--objected, she could not fathom.

Her brother Bertie had undertaken the task since their father's death, but he and his wife had been killed last May in a tragic carriage accident, leaving her to care for their small son. Obviously little Walter was not yet capable of carrying out this duty. Though she was not a male, she was a Pennington. Why couldn't Kilworth understand it was up to her to see that the family tradition was kept?

The bell outside clanked demandingly, startling her. A traveler on this cold night, with the promise of snow in the air? No one had stopped by for the past five years. Which, of course, was the crux of the argument Kilworth had used to try to dissuade her.

With some effort, Phillipa slid aside the wooden panel over the opening. Randolph glared in at her, his dark eyes glittering, his nose red from the cold.

"Any traveler fool enough to be abroad on a night like this deserves to go without sustenance," he growled at her. "Do be reasonable, Phillipa, and give up this goose-witted, nonsensical scheme."

She scowled. "How dare you refer to the Pennington tradition as nonsense? I shall remain here until midnight, as is the custom. Since you are not a traveler, I'll thank you not to ring that bell again." She did her best to slam the sliding panel shut but, since it stuck from disuse, had to be satisfied with inching it closed.

Before she succeeded in shutting the panel more than half-way, she caught sight of a light glimmering through the leafless trees that lined the road. She held, staring. As Randolph had asked, who would be abroad on a night like this?

As the light grew closer, the half-moon temporarily eased from behind a cloud and cast its begrudging rays on what looked to be a ramshackle curricle pulled by a sway-backed nag. The vehicle ground to a halt and Phillipa watched in amazement as a figure in a hooded cloak climbed down, limped through the open gates and approached the hut.

The man, for man he must be--no woman would be out alone--paused to stare at the words on the sign.

He nodded and came on, reaching a hand to the bell pull. Randolph, Phillipa saw, had stepped aside, standing near his horse. The bell clanged and she slid the panel all the way open.

"Welcome, traveler," she said. Then, gesturing at the food and drink on the shelf, she repeated the words on the sign. "Seekers here ye find sustenance."

She found it impossible to form any opinion of the traveler since the hood of his garment effectively shielded his countenance from her view. He did not reach a hand for what she offered, instead he stepped back and gazed up above the opening.

"I have found what I seek," he said at last, his words muffled by the folds of the hood. "The sustenance I require is yours to bestow, if you will be so kind."

Not understanding, Phillipa said, "Do you ask for bread and cheese and ale, traveler?"

He shook his head. "The angel, if you please."

She blinked. The angel? The wooden figure's gilt was as faded as the paint on the sign--it was surely not anything a man might covet. Yet she hesitated. The Pennington angel, though more or less worthless in monetary value, was a family heirloom. Whether or not it had been given to an ancestor by King Charles himself had never been firmly established, but the angel had been in the family for uncounted years.

From the corner of her eye she saw Randolph stir, taking a step toward the traveler. Certain he was about to chastise the man for his boldness in asking for the angel, she made up her mind to thwart any such attempt.

"On this night," she said, "the Penningtons have sworn to provide sustenance to travelers. If you require the angel, sir, then the angel you shall have."

She fixed her gaze on Randolph. "Would you be kind enough, Lord Kilworth, to summon one of the footmen to detach the angel from its place?"

Equally formal, he replied, "Are you quite sure, Lady Phillipa, you wish to part with this relic?

"I have given my word," she said haughtily.

Randolph shrugged and moved closer. "No need to call for help." Since he was half a head taller than the hooded man, he had no trouble reaching up as high as the angel. One yank and he had the tarnished figure in his hand. He offered it to Phillipa.

Murmuring her thanks, she took the angel, turning it over in her fingers before making her presentation to the traveler. How cracked and worn it was. Whatever did this man want with such a thing? Ignoring her reluctance to give it up, she held the angel out to the hooded traveler.

He took the angel from her and thrust it inside his cape. "May your dearest wish come true," he murmured. With a nod of his head, he turned and made his way back to the curricle.

As he rattled off, Randolph said to her, "I trust you will not regret your impulsive offer."

Since she already did, but would rather die that admit it to him, Phillipa said tartly, "What use is regret when one must abide by tradition? As you, of all people, should know."

The words were no sooner out of her mouth than she wished she had not uttered them. The tightening of Randolph's jaw told her she'd struck home and she felt a stab in her own heart. She had been annoyed with him because of the argument about tonight, but she had not meant to strike so deeply. To tell the truth she had hurt herself as well.

"Please go home!" she cried. "I cannot bear to have you here." With that she forced the window shut and burst into tears.

Why oh why must she turn into a watering pot every time she and Randolph met? Never mind that she would never love any other man, she well knew it was an impossibility for them ever to wed. It was past time for her to accept what had happened and stop yearning after him.

If only he had not chosen that particular route on that fateful day. It only he was not so inclined to be helpful. If only his sister, Margaret, had been with him.

Phillipa mopped her eyes with a lace-edged square of lawn. Naturally poor Margaret had not been riding with Randolph that day because, after what had happened to her, she almost never left the house.

If anyone had cause to sit around weeping, it was Margaret, not she.

Randolph Essex, Lord Kilworth, Fourth Earl of Trevelan, woke to a snowy morning in a foul temper. Christmas this year was not an occasion for enjoyment. The sight of his sister seated in the morning room, offering him her habitual resigned smile, did nothing to cheer him.

"I am so glad you saw Philippa safely to her door last night," she said. "I, too, worried lest she come to harm in that isolated little hut."

"You may have been glad; she certainly was not," he muttered. "I've never seen her in such a fractious temper. And the capper was that she gave away the angel."

"The Pennington angel? How strange."

"The sole traveler of the evening asked for it instead of food."

"How very peculiar. As I recall, the angel was not at all prepossessing." Her voice caught on the last few words, for no reason Randolph could discern.

Whatever regrets Margaret might have, at least she was not a weeping willow. He wished there might be a way to bring back the lilt to her voice, the joy to her smile and her former appetite for life. But all that was gone with the rotter who had compromised her and then vanished. He sincerely hoped he'd never hear the name of Gregory Elwood again. Or meet him. Because, inevitably, he would be forced to kill the bounder.

"I have a present for Phillipa," Margaret said. "Is she, do you think, likely to visit today?"

He shook his head, scowling. "Judging from her attitude last evening, Trevelan Hall is the last place she would wish to be."

"Then I must ask Bevins to have the sleigh hitched up for 'tis too cold to go on foot."

"I shall take care of that." Randolph's tone was gruff.

"Thank you. My fondest wish would be for you to accompany me. It is Christmas Day, after all." She sighed. "What fun the four of us were wont to have at Yuletide when we were children. And now poor Bertie is dead and buried. He was far too young to die so unexpectedly. Still, what a blessing that he and Laurine did not have little Walter with them that fateful day."

"Leaving his son without a feather to fly was typical of Bertie, he being cork-brained enough to fancy himself a dab hand at cards."

"If only--" Margaret broke off just in time, she knew. It would not do to mention the calamity that had overtaken Randolph, depriving him of Phillipa, whom he had loved most of their lives. She did not go on and he did not ask her to.

"I regret I cannot ride with you to Pennington Hall," he said.

Which course Margaret had known all along he would take. He made a point of seeing as little as possible of Phillipa.

As the sleigh glided over the newly fallen snow, the bells on the harnesses of the matched grays jingling merrily, Margaret made an effort to bring herself up to snuff. As she had reminded her brother, it was Christmas.

Phillipa would not have invited people to celebrate the day any more than she and Randolph had. What a sad state of affairs the two families had fallen into. The reasons might be different but the outcome was the same. Phillipa had not the wherewithal to afford to entertain and, besides, it was not yet a full year since Bertie and Laurine were killed in that terrible accident.

Randolph refused to invite anyone to the Hall because he did not wish his sister to be snubbed. Margaret shook her head. She would not mind so much being beyond the pale if only she knew what calamity had befallen Gregory. Though she did not expect anyone to believe her, she knew in her heart that he never would have deserted her of his own will. She greatly feared he might be dead.

Reaching Pennington Hall, Margaret gathered her presents and was assisted from the sleigh by the groom. Jensen met her at the front door with as close to a smile as he ever permitted to crack his solemn facade. He, at least, treated her no differently than he always had.

"Lady Phillipa is in the library, Lady Margaret," he said. "She informed me earlier that she expected you might visit."

Relieved of her outer trappings, Margaret carried the presents with her into the library. Phillipa's house looked far more festive than the Hall, no doubt it had been decorated to please and delight little Walter. Of late, Margaret had come to feel Christmas was best left for children. How it grieved her that she would never have her own.

Phillipa greeted her with open arms. "How good of you to visit," she said. "And on such a cold day. Come near the fire and warm yourself. I shall ring for some tea."

As she toasted herself before the flickering flames, Margaret felt transported back to earlier, better times. "Remember how we used to gather round the nursery fire after playing in the snow?" she said. "You and Bertie, Randolph and me, with your nanny doling out hot chocolate and biscuits and scolding us for getting our clothes wet."

"Those were wonderful days," Phillipa agreed. "Somehow one believes they will never end. But then everyone grows up and nothing is ever the same."

Saddened by her friend's unhappy face, Margaret said impulsively, "Perhaps Eve Kendrick's illness will prove to be a fatal decline." Immediate guilt assailed her. What right had she to wish the poor girl dead?

Phillipa offered her a wan smile. "I know you do not mean that as unkindly as it sounds."

"No, but I find it difficult to see you constantly in the doldrums. As for Randolph, he grows more difficult to live with every day. It was a cruel fate that thrust you two apart. Unlike me, neither of you were to blame, which makes it even more unfair."

"You were never to blame." Phillipa told her firmly. "Nor was Mr. Elwood."

Grateful that her friend supported her and, at the same time, did not say unkind words about poor Gregory, Margaret said. "Nevertheless, I am fatally compromised in the eyes of society. Sometimes I wonder if it was not my downfall that made Randolph so determined to offer for Eve Kendrick. He would have had a dread of compromising her."

"Don't distress yourself with such a thought. We both know Randolph is too much of a gentleman not to behave in what he believes is the proper manner."

"I feel I should add that society believes along with him. An unmarried lady does not ever allow herself to be alone in the company of a gentleman in any situation where such conduct might be misconstrued."

"Such as an isolated inn," Phillipa said and sighed. "I am sure Miss Kendrick did not deliberately allow her horse to run away with her so that she was thrown. But why did it have to be Randolph who came across her?"

"Where was her groom all this time?" Margaret put in. "Why was she jauntering about alone?

Phillipa slanted her a look. "If you and I counted all the times we slipped off to ride without a groom, I am sure we would be appalled. I cannot fault Miss Kendrick for that. Furthermore, blame cannot be laid at anyone's door for the consequences of his rescue.

"Randolph finds her in distress, transports her to this tiny inn, a storm follows, forcing an overnight stay and the two of them are found there by her father early the next morning. In separate rooms, of course, but that was of no consequence. Randolph had no real choice."

"But my brother did not even know the girl," Margaret protested. When Gregory and I were caught meeting clandestinely, we'd been friends for years and had our own plans to marry, could we but circumvent Papa."

"Why did you not continue to meet near the stone hut with the angel? No one would ever have suspected."

"I believe they might have. Jensen knew we met there for he saw us once, which is why we changed to the summer house near the river. Where, of course my father found us. I cannot help but blame Papa, wrong as it is to speak ill of the dead. If he had listened to reason, Gregory and I would be happily married today.

"But, no, Papa had to order him to begone forever. Randolph eventually brought Papa to his senses by pointing out marriage was the only possible solution for me since my reputation was irrevocably ruined. Alas, by then poor Gregory had disappeared without a trace."

"I know your father had forbade you to allow Gregory to visit you and that was why you met him in secret, but I never knew why. Was it because Gregory happened to be a third son with what your father felt to be too few prospects?"

"Perhaps. Though I do believe it was more that he and Gregory's father had had a falling out years before over Gregory's mother prior to her marrying Elwood. I've heard a duel was in the offing, but wiser heads prevailed." Margaret shook her head. "Men can be such ninnyhammers."

She and Phillipa exchanged a speaking look before Phillipa said, "Resulting in the two of us doomed to spinsterhood."

Margaret started to mention that Phillipa, with her spotless reputation and striking looks, could still hope for a match, despite her reduced fortunes, but decided not to. Philippa would not want to hear it. "I've been told you gave away the Pennington angel last evening," she said instead. "Indeed, I noted it was missing when we drove by the stone hut."

"I felt I must, since the traveler claimed it for his sustenance. I did receive a blessing of sorts in exchange. He said, 'May your dearest wish come true.' I realize words are cheap, but he did sound like he meant it. If only--"

When Phillipa left the if only dangling, Margaret, feeling she knew what that wish might be, decided to alter the course of the conversation slightly. "What did this traveler look like?"

Phillipa shrugged. "He wore a hooded cloak, making it impossible to discern any of his features. I do remember he walked with a limp."

"I find it a strange request, wanting that angel. I recall Gregory remarking once that it appeared too badly worn to be refurbished." The only person she could mention his name to was Phillipa. Margaret found it a solace, but also painful.

"I trust possessing the angel will bring him good fortune, whoever he is," Phillipa said. "Since this is Christmas, after all, perhaps it will."

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Silver Bells, Wedding Bells


He was engaged.

Rudy Tadeas still couldn't believe it, although he and his fiancée, Falina Davis, had just announced it to their church congregation.

He glanced over at Falina in the passenger's seat of his car. She hadn't spoken much tonight, since he picked her up for the Wednesday prayer meeting.

Last night, he and Falina tested the announcement out on his friend Frank, who'd done everything short of dropping dead of shock. Rudy had slept little, after Frank drove Falina home, wondering if they'd done the right thing getting engaged. Falina look exhausted herself.

At the church, she'd been pale, her expression pinched with fear, as everyone at the church congratulated them. They were taking a huge step, setting a barely-time-to-back-out wedding date for Christmas day--only three weeks away.

Her parents had been thrilled. His family responded exactly the way he expected. They'd taken him aside and demanded "What about Jayme?"

Jayme Conrad--the girl he'd always wanted to marry. The love of his life. The one off pursuing her career. At twenty-five, Rudy needed more than Jayme's no-commitment phone calls. He needed someone who could be a friend, a lover and someone who could share a family with him. Jayme wasn't ready for those things. Falina was.

Maybe marrying for love wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Maybe marrying someone you actually had something in common with was better. He'd fall in love with Falina someday--more than friendship love--and maybe he'd even forget Jayme.

For now, he and Falina wanted the same things in life. At one time, he and Jayme had all the same aspirations. Now the only things he had were unrequited emotions that ate at him like acid burning whenever he let them come to the fore . . .and he had the chance to start a new life with Falina.

Rudy glanced across the seat again.

"Are we doing the right thing?" Falina asked quietly, with her hands tightly clasped on her lap. "Do we have what a marriage takes?"

He didn't begrudge Falina her doubts. The announcement had forced them both to evaluate the realities of what they were doing.

What had convinced him he was doing the right thing was the thought No more phone calls, no more waiting and wanting. In the flesh, wanting and having now.

"I'm sure of this," he told Falina exactly what he'd told his family.

When he took her hand, she gave him a brave smile.

Come Christmas day, he'd make Falina Davis his wife. Time for him to move on and start the life he'd always wanted.


"Mom, Rudy Tadeas is not getting married."

Jayme Conrad even laughed slightly, but she wasn't calm enough to do it without a catch. Rudy couldn't get married. He couldn't. That was that.

"I talked to him. . .two. . .two months ago. He wasn't even dating!"

But you really don't know that, do you? Especially in light of what he'd said during that short conversation.

Jayme turned to get her cranberry juice with a hand that hadn't shook before her mother's call. Instead of cupping it, she misjudged her aim and sent the glass flying. "Oh no!"

"Honey, are you all right?" her mother demanded anxiously. Her first words into this conversation had been, "I wish I didn't have to tell you this, darling. . ." Jayme now understood why. Apparently her mother thought she'd cried out over the announcement, not over spilled juice.

"Mom, I'm fine. I. . . Ew! I knocked over a glass of cranberry juice." She retrieved the delicate wine glass, not at all sure what to do to clean up the rest. "I don't think the hotel will be happy. This is a really nice carpet. Really, really nice. A person could sleep on--"

"Jayme, did you hear me? Rudy is engaged to another girl. They're getting married on Christmas Day. We met his fiancée--Falina Davis--tonight at the prayer service. I know you always imagined that the two of you would--"

Jayme kneeled on the carpet with the phone held between ear and shoulder. She pressed a napkin on the biggest puddle. When she saw the burgundy colored juice bleed into the beautiful white napkin that came with her dinner, she mumbled "Uh-oh" softly.

Her mother still talked. "Mom. Mom? Listen, I have to go now, but I'm coming home."

Her mother's pause came riddled with silent shock. Jayme heard it in her voice when she finally asked "Coming home? When?"

"Tomorrow, of course." Jayme sat back on her knees. "Rudy isn't himself, Mom. He needs his best friend, he needs me to help him figure things out." She had no time to waste either, since his wedding was only a few weeks away.

"He sounded so. . .sure."

"You don't know him the way I do," Jayme insisted. "I'll call you tomorrow with my flight itinerary."

If mothers were put on this earth to worry, hers could win an award for it. Jayme heard the uncertainty in her mother's voice as she said "Well, all right, dear. Good night. I love you."

"I love you too, Mom. Tell Daddy the same. See you soon."

Before the nerve impulse to hang up reached her brain, Jayme looked at the mess in front of her again. "Mom! Mom!" she tried to catch her before she disconnected.

"I'm here."

Jayme pursed her lips for an instant. "How do you get cranberry juice out of a plush white carpet. . .and, uh, a linen napkin?"

* * *

She'd been in love with Rudy Tadeas since she was a teenager. They'd been best friends. . .simply forever. He loved her too. She'd never forget the day he asked her to marry him.

And she'd never forget what he'd said to her two months ago.

Jayme sat on the hotel bed with the phone sitting expectantly in front of her. Wiping the tears from her cheeks, she took a deep breath.

That phone call two months ago was what kept her from calling Rudy the instant she hung up with her mother. She'd asked him where he was the night before; she'd tried to call. Simple question. No agenda.

"I have a life, you know. I don't stay home every night waiting by the phone, hoping you'll call."

Apparently he hadn't been waiting for her. Not only had he dated, he'd gotten engaged.

She didn't want to be put in her place like that again.

Another swipe across her cheeks, another deep breath, and she picked up the phone.

Calm. Cool. You're his best friend. You're not feeling this clawing, desperate How-could-you? feeling.

She dialed, scrambling for some clever greeting that wouldn't put him on the defensive or make him suspect her true motive.


His deep, smooth voice on the line brought a string of bittersweet memories to her mind. Rudy chasing her around the pews in the empty sanctuary of the church they both grew up in. Snowball fights in their backyards as kids. Rudy holding her and telling her she was perfect when some kid at school called her "Chipmunk Cheeks Conrad." The taste of him in the cold, crisp air when snowball fights had taken on a whole different meaning for them. The snow angel they'd made together the day he asked her to marry him.


Jayme exhaled, then said softly "It's me."

Her own words revealed the change in their relationship. She was no longer the "It's me" in his life. His fiancée, Falina Davis, Falina? what kind of name was that? had replaced her as "It's me."


"I knew you'd call. Your mom told you, huh?"

She wanted to ask 'Would you have told me yourself? Even invited me?' but she didn't. That would definitely put him on the defensive, like last time.

"Yeah. She told me. So, you're in love." With another woman.

"I'm getting married."

The distinction didn't escape Jayme's notice. For whatever reason, he hadn't said "Yes, I'm in love." He'd simply affirmed the change in his martial status.

"So where are you now, Jaymes?"

"Jaymes"--his nickname for her. Only Rudy called her that. And only Rudy could say her name like it was the most cherished word in any and all languages.

"Oh. Um, I'm on assignment in Seattle. There's a computer and software company that may or may not be creating viruses and sending them anonymously out on the web in order to sell more computers, hardware and software virus protection programs. It's pretty boring."

Jayme worked for a magazine called EXPOSE that uncovered alleged scams of concern to most Americans. Nothing cheesy or sleazy. The magazine had only been in circulation for eight years. Jayme had worked for them since her freshman year in college. She'd been a part-time researcher to begin with, but after uncovering the insurance scam her superior had been working on, she became a full-fledged reporter for the magazine and now got her choice of assignments.

Her current assignment was boring. Her experience and expertise with computers, along with the requisite false record of employment history, had been impressive enough to get her a job in the software development department of the company. And, though she had a good idea who to target in finding out which of the employees was creating the anonymous viruses for the company, she'd made no headway in befriending the suspect, let alone getting him to spill the truth to her. A part of her had wondered if it was just a nasty rumor that was going around about the company, but her gut instinct told her there was something here. It could take awhile getting to it.

"Isn't that dangerous?" Rudy demanded.

Jayme sighed. She'd told him countless times her job wasn't dangerous. Depending on how far up the company ladder the scam went, this one had the potential for danger. At one time, the danger had been part of the thrill for her. Now she thought My work isn't important to me anymore, Rudy. It used to be, but. . . Why didn't you tell me you'd given up on me? Why didn't you give me a chance to say yes this time? Why did I allow my pride to keep me from being the first to make amends two months ago?

Or had he been dating the other woman before then?

His thoughts seemed to be on that last conversation too. "I'm sorry I said that to you last time, Jaymes. And I'm sorry I haven't called since then. I didn't know how to tell you I was dating someone."

Someone else, Jayme added to herself. A surge of jealousy slammed through her, doing everything short of knocking her off the bed.

Did you give her my ring? Do you ever kiss her and think of me? And how could you choose Christmas Day--the day we'd picked out for our wedding day!--to marry someone else?

"You OK, Jayme?" he asked, probably because she'd been silent so long.

"So, how did you meet her?" She could hear the stiffness in her own voice and hoped he didn't.

He sounded uncomfortable discussing this with her. They'd talked about everything. All her life she'd had someone to go to with anything she felt. Rudy had done the same with her. Now he felt uncomfortable.

"Her family moved to Marshfield. . .oh, about a year ago and started going to our church. She'd just graduated college. She. . .works at the Christian radio station in--"

Jayme realized he didn't know when to stop. How much should he tell the woman he'd "wait a lifetime for" about the woman he'd be spending his life with starting Christmas Day?

"I think you'll like her, Jayme. She's really sweet. You're coming home for Christmas, aren't you?"

The fact that he even had to ask bothered her. Christmas was important to her. She needed that contact with her family and friends and Rudy, because sometimes it was the only time of year she got home. She'd quit her job if it prevented her from spending Christmas anywhere except home in Wisconsin. Rudy knew that. How could he even ask?

"I'm coming home tomorrow," she told him definitely.


Jayme bit her lip and when that wasn't enough to keep her from screaming out "Of course tomorrow! I'm getting you back!", she squished a pillow against her chest.

"No matter what's happened, we're best friends, Rudy. That hasn't changed, has it?"

Jayme glanced down, only slightly relieved that the pillow hadn't become a pile of fluff from her ruthless treatment of it. The hotel wasn't too happy with her anyway, after the carpet incident.

"Of course you're still my best friend, Jaymes."

So relieved she almost burst into tears and laughter, Jayme said "OK then, you need me. You need to talk to someone, face to face. To make sure you're one hundred percent sure this is what you want."

"Jayme--" His tone revealed shock and utter frustration. He didn't trust her motives.

"And besides, I want to meet this woman who swept you off your feet so fast, you have to marry her on Christmas."

Because she had to, Jayme told herself if he really loved this woman he'd not only confirm her statement, he'd start going on and on about the wonders of Falina Davis.

He didn't. "Jayme, you're not coming home to talk me out of this, are you? Because I'm sure this is what I want."

"This is what I want", not "Falina is who I want."

"You can't talk me out of this, Rudy. I'm coming home. My flight leaves first thing in the morning. I better get some sleep."

He wanted to talk her out of it. She didn't give him the chance. "See you tomorrow."

With that, she hung up.

The instant she laid eyes on Rudy, she'd know if she'd lost him. It might take until Christmas to get him back. But get him back she would!

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