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3 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – ADULT: Letting Go by Cassandra Page

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Christmas is getting so close now, so I thought you deserved a special treat – it’s Cassandra Page, author of Isla’s Inheritance, stepping out of her urban fantasy comfort zone into the world of the Adult. Cass is one of my nearest and dearest, and she’s a damn good writer. Check it out.
 


 
Letting Go
by Cassandra Page
 
 
Michelle decorates the house in silence.

In previous years, her home had been filled with carols and laughter. Her family decked the halls to Deck the Halls, and the night was anything but silent. At fifteen, Ben was too cool to hang baubles, and he’d ceded the right to top the tree back to his father after ten years of hogging the privilege. But Michelle caught glimpses of childhood delight behind his surly exterior, and hid her smile behind her hand.

That was before she found the emails.

Now she strings the tinsel alone, performing the familiar ritual not out of celebration but because she’s fallen into a rut with steep sides—too steep to climb. There is no joy in it. She hangs out his stocking next to hers, over the mantelpiece. The pair hang limply.

The phone rings, piercing the silence like a scream. A glass bauble slips from her fingers, shatters on the empty tiles beneath the tree.

“Hello?”

Silence on the other end. Then a familiar voice speaks. “Michelle.”

“Darren.” Her voice is as sharp as the glass shards. Glittering crimson.

“How are you?”

She fishes the dustpan and brush from under the sink, cradling the phone against her shoulder. “Fine,” she says. It’s even sort of true. She is hollow, mercifully empty of emotion behind carefully constructed walls. “Why?”

“Well, it’s the first of December, and I thought…” He trails off.

He knows her. After twenty years of marriage, he ought to. The first of December is when the decorations go up. And she’s alone.

“I’m fine.” A white-hot spot of anger flares, burning away some of the numbness. She grits her teeth, suppresses the emotion. If she lets anger in, the rest will follow. When she speaks, her voice is cool. “The divorce papers arrived yesterday.”

“You don’t have to do anything with them right now. Wait till after the holidays.”

“I signed them already.” She sweeps red shards onto the dustpan.

“Oh.” He sighs. “Did you want some company?”

“No.” She frowns. Why is he pretending to care? He left her after Ben— She can’t even think the word. “Is there anything else? I’m busy.”

He’s quiet for so long she wonders if he hung up and she didn’t notice. Then he says, “Have you read the emails yet?”

This old argument. When will he stop blaming her for what happened? “I read them last year.”

“Read them again. Properly, this time.”

“Leave me alone.”

“Goodbye, Michelle.”

She hangs up and tips the glass in the bin. It patters down onto a shrivelled banana peel, an empty milk carton, Darren’s discarded stocking.

It has been almost a year since her fight with Ben about the emails. Electronic love letters between him and that girl. Brittany. Bad enough that her boy was fourteen. Worse that the girl was so far from the wrong side of the tracks that she couldn’t even see them. Her older sister had died of a drug overdose; her father was an alcoholic who spent all his time at the RSL, feeding his welfare cheque into the poker machines.

Ben had stormed out of the house, hared off on his bike. The car hadn’t seen him in the dark.

The guilt claws at the walls around her emotions, tearing through them. Its talons are her grief, its wings her regret. She’s familiar with the beast. But before it can drag her down again, in a tangle of self-loathing and bourbon, a little mouse, curiosity, creeps in behind it.

The next afternoon, when the hangover recedes a little, she reads the emails.

***

The soup kitchen is bustling, the queue almost out the door. The first smell that invades her nose is of salty gravy, the next of unwashed bodies. She holds her breath and ducks inside.

“Hey, no cutting,” a bearded man mumbles, glaring at her from watery eyes.

“I’m not here to eat.” Her stomach churns. “I’m looking for someone.”

He smiles, gap-toothed. “Is it me?”

“No. Sorry.”

“Well, if you change your mind…” He winks, and she finds herself smiling back. Just a little.

“You might be able to help me. I’m looking for this girl.” She shows him the printout of the photo. It is pixelated, poor quality. Ben took it on his phone.

“Sure, I seen her. She’s up there.”

Michelle turns, squares her shoulders. Walks along the queue till she finds the girl.

“Excuse me.”

Brown eyes turn to her. There is no flash of recognition. Ben never introduced them. “Yes?”

“I’m Ben Rigby’s mother.”

Now there’s recognition. Also anger and grief. Brittany swallows the feelings, but Michelle can see they are old companions. As they are Michelle’s.

“What do you want?” Brittany says, eyes narrowed.

“To see you. I—” Michelle hesitates, looking the girl over. She’s the same age as Ben would have been, still a teenager, but looks older. Her hands are calloused from work; her bare arms bear faint green and yellow bruises, like bracelets.

“What?” The girl stares back, examining Michelle just as Michelle examines her. “If you came here to yell at me, forget it.”

“I didn’t. Actually, I’m planning Christmas dinner, and I wanted to invite you.”

Brittany’s mouth falls open. Then her expression hardens. “I ain’t interested in being your charity case.”

“It’s not about charity. I know you and Ben … cared for each other.” Brittany’s cheeks redden and she lifts her chin. Michelle looks down at her shoes, conspicuously expensive next to Brittany’s scuffed slip-ons. “I’ve spent the last year blaming you for taking him away from me, as much as I blamed myself for driving him away. And, well, Christmas is the season for forgiveness.”

“I don’t want your forgiveness,” Brittany says.

“No.” Michelle looks up, meets her gaze. “But I need to give it. If you’ll let me. I need to let go.”

The girl gnaws her lip, thinks for several moments. “I reckon Ben would want me to,” she murmurs. “Sure, I’ll come.”

Michelle feels something then that she hasn’t felt for almost a year. A tiny piece of joy. She gives the girl a piece of paper with details written on it. Brittany folds it, slides it inside her purse next to a battered photo. Ben smiles back at Michelle from the image, reminding her of Darren when they’d first met. She can’t help but smile back.

She pulls her phone out of her pocket. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s someone else I need to invite.”
 


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4 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – SATIRE: A Very Whedon Christmas by Angi Black

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Alright, you lovely ladies and gentlemen! Angi Black has done us the honour of writing an AMAZING satire. Read it, love it, and stick some words in that comment box at the bottom. Seriously, the title is ‘A Very Whedon Christmas’. GO!
 


 
A Very Whedon Christmas
by Angi Black
 
 
I sat at my desk, pouring over a story I was never going to finish. My editor had called four times and I’d ignored the ringing every time. I just wasn’t funny. There was nothing funny to me. I tapped on the keys wishing words as magical as rainbow-spewing unicorns would pour from my fingers. That didn’t happen. They looked more like the smiling pile of poo emolji on my phone.

I texted one to Bonnie, my editor.

The phone rang immediately. I picked it up, downing the last of my coffee.

“You missed deadline.”

“Fully aware, but trust me, you don’t want it.”

“Whether I want it or not, I have to have it. The anthology is happening.”

I huffed and puffed. “Tell me what to write then.”

I heard her nails clicking on her desk as she thought. “I don’t even care at this point, write me Christmas According to Whedon, for all I care, just have it to me by tonight. And make it funny!”

I sat there listening to dead air. Fine. Whedon Christmas it is.

**

A vampire with a soul, a slayer, and a witch walk into a bar.

They met up with Xander and danced to an emo 90’s band on a school night.

Ah, the good old days.

I deleted the joke. How do you write a Whedon Christmas? Hey kids, here’s Santa. He’s most likely a lovable demon whom you’ll adore and right after he’s redeemed and you’re feeling good about life – BAM – he dies.

Yeah. Merry Freaking Christmas.

I wracked my brain for good story ideas. How would The Night Before Christmas be different if it was a tale of Whedon? Maybe something like this:
 
 
T’was A Story By Whedon

T’was a story by Whedon, and all through the show
Your love for the characters was surely to grow.
But little Joss Whedon cares not one little bit
Their untimely end, so soon will they get.

The women were strong, not one needed saving.
They can fight crazy monsters without a head shaving.
Black Widow and Echo, and Zoe and Buffy,
Will always kickass, whether rainy or sunny.

The characters aware of their unusual plight,
Use witty banter to pull us into the fight.
They may not be perfect, or make the right choices,
But we root for the heroes with their snarky voices.

But after laughs and a cry and a cringe here and there,
A burst of song is coming, so please never fear.
Whether Lorne reads your soul or Dr. Horrible is reeling,
You can always count on Once More, With Feeling.

In Whedonverse, chaos is the order of the day
Fighting The Man is always the play.
The Mayor, The Alliance, the potent lure of power,
Order is the big bad sitting up in the tower.

Now Murder! Now Mayhem! Now heartbreak and fears!
On, Demons. On, witchcraft. On superhero tears.
To the deep darkest parts! To the edge of our soul!
Then tell us a joke to make big laughter roll!

Sometimes it’s goofy, and sometimes it’s rough,
But it’s always worth watching for any story buff.
A musical, a puppet, a sci-fi western in space,
In the big Whedonverse, they all have their place.

And then, just when you thought, what’s cooler than that,
Shakespeare at his house steps up to the bat.
With Wesley and Fred and Mal there to boot,
The movie shot in a month is just a real hoot.

Nothing is easy, not plain white and black,
Things are all gray, that’s a matter of fact.
Captain Hammer fights evil in sweet, singing style,
But Dr. Horrible still triumphs with a tear in his eye.

While Joss likes his heroes, and big storylines
He always makes time for the other little guys.
Like Xander and Tara and Coulson and Wash,
He’s happy to make their spotlight flash(ßMust be said with British accent to rhyme)

Each character is solid, a force all their own,
A story to tell, one that must be told.
As great as they are, they’re still individual,
But make them a team, they’re nearly invincible.

In the Whedonverse, you’ll meet lots of new faces,
But try not to worry because in all the right places,
You’ll see people you know and have come to love,
Fit seamlessly in, like a comfortable glove.

Sometimes Joss knows just when to quit,
Others get pulled too fast from his grip.
Firefly and Dollhouse, we miss you a lot.
Buffy season six, please run off to rot.

But to every project that’s been and the ones still to come,
To a place in our hearts, know you always can run.
For we Whedonites know it will all be all right
We hear those sweet words,
“Grr. Argh. And to all a good night!”
 
 
**
 
I looked over the words filling my screen. It could work, but what about plot. I mean, is Christmas a plot? Maybe I could make it easy and have a choir tell the story, like minstrels. Nothing is more Whedon than throwing in a song or two.

First, they can stop in Sunnydale:
 
 
Buffy the Vampire Slayer

You know Cordy and Willow
And Xander and Giles,
Dawn and Anya
And Angel and Spike.
But do you recall
The most badass slayer of all?

No?

She saved the world. A lot.

Buffy the Vampire slayer
Had a very pointy stake
And if you ever saw it
A big pile of dust you’d make.

All of the other Scoobies
Used to run and hide in fear
They always let poor Buffy
Save the day with her sweet gear.

Then one Graduation day
The mayor came to say,
Buffy with your plan so bright
Did you kill my Faith tonight?

And how Sunnydale loved her
As they shouted out, “Help me!”
Buffy the vampire slayer
You’ll go down in…well, the hellmouth, but really, that’s the same as history, right?

Next stop – L.A.:
 
 
Angel the Vampire

Angel, the vampire, had a tortured, hapless soul
With a leather jacket and the sewer track, and skin that’s really cold.

Angel the vampire, is a really old, they say.
He had a soul, but Buffy knows, Angelus came to life one day.

There must have been a loophole in that gypsy curse they cast,
‘Cause when the slayer dropped that ring, he came back to Earth at last.
Angel, the vampire, was as souled as he could be
But Xander would say, he could kill and slay,
So you better watch out, Buffy!

Contrivancey, hey, hey, contrivancey, hey, hey,
Look at the Powers That Be.

Contrivancey, hey, hey, contrivancey, hey, hey,
Up in the clouds, Is that Cordy?

Angel the vampire, knew the LA sun was hot,
So he bought a convertible for his car, because he’s super smart.

All through the city, he saves them if he can,
Running here and there, jumping in the air,
Sayin’, “Please, don’t touch the hair!”

He follows Cordy’s visions, and sometimes Lorne helps out.
There’s Fred and Gunn and Wesley, too. Fang Gang, yo – shout out!

But Angel, the vampire, had redemption on his way
He saved and saved sayin’, “Don’t you cry, I’ll be back to brood someday.”
 
 
Then they can go to space, because every good story should go to space!
 
 
Carol of the Mal

Hark! Serenity
Sweet Serenity
Now flies away
Mal seems to say
“No, not today.”
Jayne is all that,
Bringing his hat.
Crocheted to say
I’m on ebay.

De-fine De-fine
Interesting.
Oh god, oh god
We’re all
Going to die.

Hey, River Tam.
Browncoat, I am.
Safeword you say
NO grenades!

Oh Serenity.
Sweet Serenity.
Capt Mal is the best,
Jayne stands the test.
Wash holds a stance,
Hello, it’s a lance.

No, never fear
Capt. Mal is here
Never, never, never, never take
Never, never, never, never take

Oh Serenity
Sweet Serenity
No, they’ll never take
The sky from me

De-fine, De-fine
Interesting.
 
 
And there could never be a choir stop of Whedonville, without a trip to New York.
 
 
The Avengers

The Avengers, Must Assemble,
It’s time to fight for the city.
Suit up to fight, day or night,
Soon it will be Shawarma time.

Tony Stark snarks, Jarvis remarks,
It’s Ironman in that suit.
Hawkeye charms
Hey! Nice arms!
Please shoot an arrow.
Captain America,
Gets a new style
Bruce Banner keeps a smile,
And through the halls of S.H.I.E.L.D. you’ll hear

The Avengers, Must Assemble,
It’s time to fight for the city.
Suit up to fight, day or night,
Soon it will be Shawarma time.

Loki comes to Earth,
Thor’s brother by birth,
Though he says he’s adopted.
Hulk gets to smash,
Just in time for the alien blitz.

See Natasha
(She’s Black Widow)
Convince Bruce Banner to join.
And make sure to look for
Stan Lee!

The Avengers, Must Assemble,
It’s time to fight for the city.
Suit up to fight, day or night,
Soon it will be Shawarma time.

Suit up to fight, day or night,
Soon it will be Shawarma time.
 
 
I read back over my work, just thankful I’d completed the project. Happy with my words and what I thought to be terribly clever, I sent an email to my editor, prose attached. I began to close down my computer for the night when gmail dinged at me.
 
That was so quick, she must have loved it. Clicking the icon, I couldn’t wait for it to open. The screen lit, all white save one line. That had to be good news, right?
 
“I’ll go ahead and extend your deadline.”

Balls!
 



8 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – SPY FICTION: Oh Come All Ye Assassins by Jolene Haley

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Can you believe it’s just over a week until Christmas? Today I bring tidings in the form of a snow-filled spy fic courtesy of the wonderful Jolene Haley. Jolene’s home-genres include YA horror and action/adventure, so she was out of her depth with this one, but she nailed it like a Chinese throwing star.
 


 
Oh Come All Ye Assassins
by Jolene Haley
 
 
Merry Christmas you heartless bastard, thought special agent Mason Blackwell.
 
He could have been home, in Oregon with his family and his high school sweetheart (who always seemed to linger), drinking eggnog from porcelain cups.
 
But no.
 
Instead he was in some New York hotel, thirty-nine floors up, utterly alone and loading a sniper rifle.
 
If he got the hit done quickly, Mason could be on a plane in a few hours, to be home before the snow melted on the ground. He only went home once a year, always at Christmas, which is why he was particularly peeved at his assignment.
 
An assignment on Christmas wasn’t normal for him. And if there was one thing Mason hated the most, it was a change of plans. It was a bad pet peeve for a secret agent.
 
Mason Blackwell was born a happy bouncing baby with brown hair and crystal blue eyes. He smiled often and visitors of the child would often comment on his good looks and cleverness. In thirty years, not much had changed except for the fact that now Mason (also known as Agent 99) rarely smiled and well, now he murdered people for a living.
 
Most people didn’t know Mason. He was a shadow in the night. A lone figure on a building top. A figure disappearing into the darkness of an alley.
 
Mason glanced at the clock.
 
11 o’clock.
 
The message with his target always came in at 11:01 on the dot. Anything else meant that the mission was compromised. He watched the clock, inching closer to the phone.
 
Exactly at 11:01 am the phone rang.
 
“Yes?” Mason said.
 
A robotic voice was on the other end. Mason knew from experience that it was a text based computer program that read type.
 
“99, this evening is the mayor’s ball. Wouldn’t it be nice for a dance?”
 
The line went dead.
 
He rolled his eyes. Sometimes the company was so dramatic.
 
Mason hated when an assassination wasn’t just a quick shot. He much preferred the calls that detailed only a name, a place, and a time. It was easy and quick, for him and his target. Instead, giving Mason only a location meant that there were more details to come and he’d likely have to take someone out at a close range. He hated that.
 
Seeing the light drain out of someone’s eyes was never something to get used to.
 
Mason much preferred intelligence-based missions over contract killing. He could extract information from any person with ease. It was a natural born talent. Sadly, those missions were few and far between.
 
Tonight, he’d probably have to strangle someone or inject a poison into some poor bastard. But this was just another hazard of being an agent at the Intelligence Rescue and Observation Network, or IRON for short.
 
Of course they couldn’t make it easy on him for Christmas. This whole thing was just plain wrong.
 
Mason was already dressed to a T, with an expensive black fitted suit and shoes the color of coal. His brown hair was gelled in place and his white teeth were dazzling. He’d be the last person anyone would expect of foul play. Mason always said that any person who said being good looking was not an advantage was either lying to themselves or just plain ugly.
 
At six o’clock, Mason walked into a ballroom filled with hundreds of people. The floors were covered in a rich, scarlet carpet and the walls were gold with crimson trim. The rest of the attendees were as put together as the décor.
 
And now the part that bugged him… the wait. Until next contact, he had no choice but to observe, mingle, and meet people. Since he spoke ten different languages fluently, he could easily move between them. One minute he would be Pierre Le Fonsec De Plume, foreign royalty, and the next he’d be Barry Barnes, powerful and rich investor. People were way too trusting with the information you told them.
 
“Excuse me.”
 
Mason felt a hand clutch his bicep.
 
Sometimes it was hard to balance his training with the real world. Normally anyone that touched him would be taken out with a swift thrust to the face. But here, in a crowded ballroom made of magnificent columns and velvet curtains, shedding a stranger’s blood wasn’t an option. He’d have to at least wait to get them in a janitor’s closet..
 
He unclenched his jaw, and turned with a smile.
 
In front of him stood a woman with golden brown hair and the face of an angel. Her dress was long, made of black lace, and hung just right on every curve of her body. Those types of girls were the most dangerous. She could be a spy—just like him, sent to distract him from his mission. She could be a fellow agent at IRON. Hell, she could be his mark.
 
“Yes, madam?” Mason took her hand in his, bent over in a bow, and kissed it while making eye contact.
 
She gave a slight smile before replying, “I saw you across the room and I had to meet you. I don’t think we’ve met. My name is Victoria Queen..”
 
Of course they haven’t met. It was one of Mason’s first times in New York.
 
“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” Mason said, grinning.
 
She didn’t move. She wanted to make small talk. Mason did not mind chitchat, but not while he was waiting for a sign.
 
Just keep walking lady, Mason thought. But no luck. She stood her ground.
 
“Are you from New York?” he asked to be polite, but made a point to look around as if he was looking for someone. You know, the way people with manners say, “fuck off.”
 
She didn’t answer his question. Instead, Victoria Queen held out her arm. “Would you like to dance?”
 
A smile spread across his face and Mason was torn between feelings of flattery and annoyance. Women. They could never resist him in a suit. Too bad Victoria wasn’t finding him at an airport bar or something. He’d dance alright, horizontally, until the early morning. But they weren’t at some dive bar and Mason was on official IRON business. Now wasn’t the time for distractions.
 
“Thank you for the offer, but I’m waiting for someone. A date.” He gave her a fake grin and spun away to keep looking around.
 
She leaned in, placing her hand back on his arm. “Don’t be a fucking liar, 99. It’s the mayor’s ball. Wouldn’t it be nice for a dance?”
 
It didn’t really matter who Victoria Queen was before that moment. But once those exact words left her mouth, she was much more. She was now a sexy walking and talking information database that knew about him and his mission. He needed to find out more about her.
 
Mason’s left brow rose. “I’d love to dance.”
 
She grabbed his arm and led him to the dance floor. His arm snaked around her waist, pulling her close. Mason led but only because Victoria let him.
 
Mason inhaled the scent of lavender that emanated off of Victoria’s body. She was mesmerizing to him in more ways than one.
 
“So?” Mason started, whispering into her ear, while keeping his eyes searching around the room. Sure he wanted to know what she was doing here, but Mason knew one thing: something felt off. IRON would never send an agent to him in person. He usually just received a sign of some sort or a coded message.
 
What exactly was Victoria Queen’s game?
 
“Listen very closely, 99. In a few moments a man in a red tie will walk past us while we dance. He will smile in your direction and then disappear up the stairwell. It’s not a chance encounter. Tonight, you’re his target. And I’ve been sent to save you.”
 
Mason blinked, trying to keep his feet moving while he wrapped his brain around Victoria’s words.
 
Ten years with IRON, and all of a sudden they want to take him out? Assuming it was true and Mason was a target, this Christmas could be his last. He shook his head to will away the idea of his family having Christmas day dinner without him.
 
Fuck that. Mason wasn’t going to die. He would save himself, just like he always had if an assignment went awry. Victoria seemed like she was there to help. But was she really? What if Victoria was full of shit? He needed to be careful. There were a million reasons not to trust her.
 
“Why would I be someone’s target?” Mason asked. “I haven’t compromised any information, I’ve followed every rule, and I’ve always done exactly what was asked of me. So what’s going on, Victoria? You’re doing to need to give me a little more information.”
 
Victoria’s skin glowed under the lights and her dazzling smile almost made him forget what a serious situation he was in. She took her time, but finally answered.
 
“That’s a great question, 99. Why would you be a target? Who exactly did you piss off?” Her expression changed from playful to dark in a moment. The smiling woman’s eyes had turned from playful to passion, treachery, and secrets.
 
Sure Mason had killed a lot of people with targeted hits, but they were controlled and calculated. Hell, those orders had come directly from the company! Was someone in his agency responsible for designing some type of sick game where the lion becomes the lamb?
 
Mason chewed his bottom lip as he tried to figure out Victoria. A color caught his attention.
 
Red.
 
A man with black hair walked past the dancing couple. He was wearing a red tie with his otherwise black ensemble. As he passed, he made direct eye contact with Mason, gave a smile and a wink, and headed up the stairs.
 
Victoria had seen the man too. “Believe me now?” Victoria said with a smirk.
 
“So, who exactly are you?” Mason asked. “Why would someone be after me? Why are you even here?”
 
Victoria shook her head. “Why are all the pretty ones, little idiots? Don’t you see? We’re on the same team, Mason. I’m here to save your ass. So excuse me when I say suck it up and let’s go pay a visit to the man in the red tie.”
 
Victoria broke away from Mason and he followed her up the winding grand staircase.
 
They worked quickly and methodically, both clearing each room for the other assassin. So far, all five rooms upstairs in the left wing were empty.
 
Mason stared down the hallway at the right wing. The man that would try to kill Mason would be discovered in the next five rooms. Mason swallowed hard and shook his head. He could not believe that something like this could happen to him.
 
Let’s get this over with.
 
Each room was cleared on the right wing, except for one; the men’s bathroom.
 
Mason reached into his jacket pocket for his small, trusty handgun, and slowly opened the door, his heart thrummed against his ribcage. Even though Mason had faith in his abilities, the fact that he was a target was unnerving him. He couldn’t make his pulse slow down. Nerves meant mistakes, and Mason wouldn’t have it.
 
Mason plowed through the door, startling the man he’d seen downstairs, who was washing his hands at the bathroom faucet. Mason had his gun raised. This man sure didn’t look like some contract killer. In fact, with a deer-in-the-headlights expression and hands raised in the air, he looked like he was anything but a secret agent.
 
Moments later a woman’s voice rang from behind Mason.
 
“Lower your weapon.”
 
Mason turned his head back to see Victoria standing behind him, gun aimed at his head.
 
What the fuck.
 
Mason had to decide. Who was the bigger threat? Mason swiveled his body around, aiming his gun at Victoria. The man in the red tie ran from the room, cowering and whimpering.
 
“You,” I whispered to Victoria.
 
She smiled and slowly nodded. “Silly boy. Don’t you know better than to trust a complete stranger? I mean, how easy were you trying to make it for me?”
 
“But what about the man? The red tie? The wink?”
 
Victoria shook her head. “It’s called intelligence and observation, 99. That man was the mayor’s brother. I got here early to meet him and noticed he was greeting and winking at all the guests. He was easy bait.”
 
“Why me?” Mason’s eyes were darting back and forth between Victoria and the room. There had to be a way out.
 
“99, there are so many reasons for this but we don’t have time to go into it. Since you pulled a gun on the mayor’s brother like a genius, I’m betting we only have about three minutes left before police storm in.”
 
There were no large windows in the bathroom and nothing nearby that Mason could knock over to startle Victoria. There was no clean escape route except to run directly over her. He needed a plan, and he needed it now.
 
“What do you want, Victoria?”
 
“You, Mason. Don’t you get it? You’re my mark.”
 
Mason shook his head in disbelief. “After everything I’ve done for IRON. I can’t believe this. Let me go, Victoria. For all you know, you could be next. If they can turn on me, they can turn on you.”
 
Mason needed to keep her talking and distracted. Sadly, Victoria, didn’t take the bait.
 
A troubled looked flashed across her face, if only for a moment.
 
“One,” She started.
 
Mason could shoot her and hope she didn’t have time to pull the trigger herself. That was a tough plan, because most agents were sharp shooters.
 
“Two.”
 
Assuming she was only counting to three, Mason didn’t have much time left. His eyes worked from side to side. Shit. Shit. Shit.
 
“Merry Christmas, you poor bastard,” Victoria said.
 
Mason lunged at Victoria as the sound of her gun pierced their ears.
 



9 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – STEAMPUNK: My Brother’s Christmas Wedding by Bridget Shepherd

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I am so excited to be bringing you a steampunk Christmas story by the one and only Bridget Shepherd. I love steampunk, so I’ve been really excited about this one, and Bridget doesn’t disappoint. Although she usually writes sci-fi, fantasy and horror, Bridget kicks some clockwork ass in My Brother’s Christmas Wedding, so sit back and enjoy.
 


 
My Brother’s Christmas Wedding
by Bridget Shepherd
 
 
I slipped through the hive of bustling workmen rushing all manner of brass statues, figures and gears through the grand ballroom entrance without drawing more than a glance. Everyone here was fresh off the Fine Mechanical Services airship. They’d know my father and brother’s faces but not mine. Being the second son had its perks. It helped that I had dressed down in a black shirt and grey vest with matching slacks. At this time of day I should have been wearing an afternoon suit and jacket, preferably in brown or blue. Changing clothes four times a day had always seemed like a waste of time to me.

I ascended two flights of stairs and met Mrs. Mina Judson, the house staff overseer, on the mid-level balcony. My mother had asked me, without my father’s knowledge, to ensure that the decorations would be perfect for my brother’s Christmas wedding. Mina wouldn’t like this one bit. Sure enough, she wrinkled her nose when she saw me.

“Good afternoon to you too.” I smiled sardonically.

“Those mourning gloves give me the creeps, milord,” she said, staring at my hand like it might strangle her of its own accord.

“They’re not mourning gloves, Mina,” I said, though we’d been over this before. She’d been with the family since I was three and Martin five, and we were as close to friends as our stations allowed. “They’re work gloves. The black grease stains anything.”

“The Honorable Arthur St. Gale should not be wearing work gloves. On a lord, any black gloves look like mourning gloves.” She crossed herself superstitiously. “What’s milord’s fiancé going to think when she sees you in those?” She folded her arms over her well-worn mahogany corset and cream shirt.

“Good thing I haven’t got one then, isn’t it?” I grinned.

“As I heard it, you will soon enough.” It was her turn to grin.

“What in the world do you mean?” Please let her be kidding, I thought.

“Mr. Henley told me that Lord St. Gale has already drawn up a short list of suitable ladies. Lord Thornton will be married by December’s end. Milord will be married in the summer, no doubt.”

Lord Thornton was my brother Martin’s courtesy title as firstborn and heir to our father, the Earl of St. Gale and Viscount of Thornton. Mr. Henley was my father’s valet and the information was likely accurate. Me, engaged? I should have known this day was coming but it still hit me like an iron wall.

“If she doesn’t like them then she’s not the girl for me,” I managed to mumble, but the problem was so much deeper and more widespread than that. For one thing, I only felt that kind of attraction toward men. The enormity of my discontent with my lordly duties began to overwhelm me. I needed to do the one thing in my life that made sense to me. I needed to work on the machinery. “Anyway,” I said before Mina could say anything more on the subject, “mother asked me to personally oversee the installation of the mechanical decorations.” She made a face like she very much wanted to tell me that wasn’t a job for a man of my position, so I added, “You know my mother’s father dabbled in engineering and mechanics, and taught me what he knew. While you may find it unseemly, mother wants me to make sure the workmen don’t cut corners for Martin’s big day.”

“Begging Lady St. Gale’s pardon, I’m not the only one who finds it unseemly,” Mina said, “I can’t imagine them being very keen to work with you, milord. They’ll turn a cold shoulder as often as they can get away with.”

“What do you mean? Once I’ve shown them my skill shouldn’t they accept me?”

“It’s not about your skill, milord, it’s about your breeding. These workers would find me upscale while I’m decidedly middle class. The senior mechanics are upper working class and the junior mechanics and general laborers are lower. They’ll do their job because they have to put food on the table down below, but many of them resent your father and everything he stands for.”

“I’m not my father.” The venom in my voice surprised us both.

“I-I know,” she said, “I wouldn’t dare to talk about this with Lord St. Gale. Have I overstepped?”

“I’m sorry. No, I’d rather hear your thoughts.” I respected my father but on a bad day I’d call him a bloody tyrant under my breath.

“The fact is, they don’t know you, milord. Many of them have built up resentment, even rage coming from poverty down below. Many of these decorations,” she indicated the tall bronze statues and gold plated Christmas trees, “could feed their family for weeks, some even months. I’ve got a cousin down there who even I send money to when I can.”

I thought about it and frowned. “Frankly, I don’t know why we have so many expensive decorations, or a hundred sets of fine clothes for that matter. And I wish I understood large-scale economics, but I’m afraid I don’t.” I sighed.

“Milord really isn’t cut out to be a nobleman is he?” She smiled wryly.

An idea clicked into place like the last gear of a panel.

“You’re right,” I said, “that’s how I’ll do it.” I turned to leave.

“Milord?”
 
“I need to go talk to Jory. Thanks, Mina,” I said over my shoulder and trotted off.

*
 
Lucky for me, Mr. Jory Stedman, my father’s chief of security, had a soft spot for me. I explained that Mina felt my being a nobleman would get in the way of my mother’s task for me and therefore I had decided to go in disguise. I assured him that if my father found out what he was doing for me, he would blame me and not Jory. The next day Mina reluctantly introduced me to the supervising mechanic, Cole Ferris. Except I wasn’t the Honorable Arthur St. Gale anymore. I wore a mechanic’s uniform and my nametag read “Arthur Porter.”

“Mr. Ferris,” Mina said smoothly, showing no trace of the discomfort she must have been feeling, “might I introduce Arthur Porter. Here is his reference from Mr. Stedman.” She handed him a document stamped with the official wax seal. “He is a relative of Mr. Stedman who would be very much obliged if you would allow him to shadow your men. Of course, Mr. Stedman has made the arrangements for his wages. This will not deduct from your men’s existing pay in any way.”

“I won’t turn away extra help as long as he’s capable.” Ferris shrugged. “I reserve the right to show him the door if he gets in the way.”

Something passed over Mina’s features, I couldn’t be sure if she found the thought of him kicking me out unthinkably unseemly or unthinkably hilarious. Either way, she maintained her composure and said, “Of course.”

“Welcome aboard, Porter,” Ferris said and offered his gloved hand. A gentleman would have removed his glove before shaking but I appreciated not having to bother.

“Thank you, sir,” I said and gave him a firm gloved handshake. Mina must have been dying inside.

“I got Miller here shadowing me already,” Ferris said. A big gruff looking fellow behind him nodded to me, then glanced at Mina but didn’t acknowledge her. “He’s a transfer from an energy plant down below. So, you’re shadowing David Weldon.” Ferris turned to a man polishing brass figures a few feet away. “Oi, Carlson, grab that extra tool box and show Porter here to Weldon. Tell him he’s a local to shadow him. My authority.”

“Yes sir,” Carlson dropped his rag and rubbed his gloves on his pants. “How are ya?” He gave me a quick handshake. “It’s this way.” He turned to head off toward the small auditorium.

“Thank you for the introduction, Mrs. Judson,” I said to Mina.

She twitched. “You’re most welcome,” she said, swallowing the “milord.” Miller made a disgusted sound. I was beginning to think what Mina had said was true. He seemed to associate her with my father’s offices and didn’t find her worthy of thanks.

Carlson led me through the small auditorium. Despite its name, it still had space for both a dance floor and dining room seating for one hundred people. Mother had asked me to pay particular attention to this room as the groom’s banquet was to be held here next month and it was meant to be themed after Martin’s favorite Christmas decorations. I looked around furtively for estate servants who might recognize me but as I’d thought, I saw nothing but Fine Mechanical Services workmen. Relieved that my plan was not in danger of discovery, I took in the many works in progress all around the room.

On two sides men assembled eight foot tall nutcracker soldiers and mice. During dinner, a chamber orchestra would play a theme and they would spring to life and lumber across the dance floor, opening their mouths and raising their swords on cue. I knew because we’d had a much smaller set made by my grandfather which was among Martin’s favorites. Good for Mina for thinking of them.

Three giant brass Christmas trees with gold plated branches and tiers of rotating candle rings sat in various stages of completion. Elaborate flashing-candle arrays replaced the usual chandeliers. Everything was coming together nicely. I just wondered where the trains were. Martin had a fascination with trains that I didn’t think Mina would overlook for this occasion. I spotted a foot long brass train engine sticking out of a crate filled with train cars. It sat off to one side and a young man of similar age to Martin and I stood a few feet away working on an automatic meat slicer. He looked up when Carlson said “Hey, Weldon.”

The first thing I noticed about David was the warmth in his brown eyes. He shook my hand firmly as Carlson explained Arthur Porter’s situation in life.

“Great to have ya,” he said as Carlson left. “How’d ya like to get to work on setting up the punch bowl serving arm?” He said it with such enthusiasm that I smiled, knowing he shared my love for these machines.

“Would love it.”

I grinned and pulled the lid off of the labeled crate which was already on the temporary work bench. From the first piece I pulled out I saw the thing was a mess—just how I liked it. I vowed internally to get the thing working better than it had when it was new. David looked at the state of the punch bowl arm and then at me. Apparently satisfied, he got back to work securing the blades in the meat slicer. We worked in happy silence, the sounds of the fifty or so other workers providing cheerful background noise. The rusted iron in the arm’s joint began to pleasantly glide after a little spray and hammer. I recalibrated the spring loading action and had just finished applying a polish to the brass when David finished the meat slicer.

“That’s a great job ya done, Porter,” he said as we carried our machines over to the cooking appliances table. “It’s dinner time now. Would ya join us in the airship mess hall?”

“Thanks, but I’ve got other arrangements.” I wanted to go with him but I’d be missed at dinner and they weren’t getting paid any extra to feed another mouth.

“See ya tomorrow then?” He offered his hand.

We shook. “Wouldn’t miss it.”

*
 
I worked on cookware, serving ware and the odd automatic shoeshine machine the rest of November, until one day, three weeks into our time together, he asked for my help.

“Ya got a real eye for this work, Porter, maybe you can troubleshoot a little problem with me.”

“Bring it on.”

He led me over to the long neglected crate of trains.

“When I saw these trains on my list I knew I wanted them to run overhead here where Lord Thornton will be able to watch them while he’s dining. Seems trains are a favorite the lord and I share,” David said, gazing up at the ceiling like he could already see them chugging along in the air. This was the first time we’d talked about anything other than the machines. He hadn’t scoffed at my brother’s name. I wasn’t sure if that meant he didn’t hate the nobility or if he took such pride in his work that the art came first.

“That sounds like a wonderful idea,” I said. I knew Martin would love it.

“The problem is the fresco,” he said, pointing at the arches and angelic figures painted into this section of the high ceiling. “Can’t exactly drill holes in something like that.”

“Do you have any old train engines?” I asked.

“We have a few but nothing presentable for this kind of event.” David squinted at me like he was trying to read my mind about where this was going.

“That’s okay, they won’t be seen.” I grinned slyly. “Got any match-calibrated magnet boxes?” Grandfather had used them to put floating toys in our nurseries years ago.

David brightened. “If the middle attic above this room is accessible then you’re a genius.”

My face hurt from smiling so hard but I couldn’t stop. “I can get the key from Mr. Stedman.”

“Perks of knowing the local guy, eh?” He beamed at me and I realized that I liked this guy. Really, really liked this guy.

*
 
I went to Jory for the key and David went to get the magnet boxes from the airship. We met up at the door to the middle attic. It was nestled between the small auditorium and the guest rooms above. I felt like some damn kid sneaking around on Christmas night. I opened the latches, pulled a lever and the mechanical lighters brought all the wall candles to life. Boxes of summer decorations and sporting equipment were stacked two high on snaking rows of racks built up to the low ceiling.

“If these run the whole way we’re screwed,” David said.

“I haven’t been up here in years, but if I’m right, they don’t.” Everything looked so small now. The shelves were so tall when I was six years old and running amok anywhere and everywhere inside the estate walls.

We made our way through the maze of racks. As I had hoped, when we reached two thirds of the way through, the shelves ended. The rest of the room was like a ghost from my past. Illuminated by two small windows on the right, each chair, sofa and table was covered with a dusty white sheet but they were all exactly where I remembered them.

“When I was a child,” I said, “there were many live-in servants who had children. I used to play in here on rainy days.” I didn’t add that my father had forbidden me to and my mother had covered for me. My mother’s father had been possessed of some unusual views when it came to just about everything, including whether a gentleman should wear greasy work gloves from time to time, and whether or not a nobleman’s child should be allowed to associate with servant children.

“Hell’s bells, this is a common servant’s living room? Not just for the butler’s family or something?” David lifted a few sheet corners and whistled at the fine furniture.

“Is it not like this on other sky cities?”

“They call St. Gale a prize catch for an honest servant,” David said. “They say Lady St. Gale has a soft spot for her servants. Seeing this I believe it.”

Pride swelled in my chest at my mother’s kindness.

“And… none of your family or friends ever caught hell from Lord St. Gale then?” David looked at me like he wasn’t sure he should even be broaching the subject.

“I tend to fly under his radar these days,” I said wryly.

David blinked at me. “Is it not true then? Rumor is that any servant caught stealing, even food, loses a hand before he’s turned over to a jail down below. The lady’s the carrot and the lord’s the rod, they say.”

I went cold in the clammy attic. My father, have a man’s hand cut off?

“I-I don’t know anyone it’s happened to, anyway. No one talks about it.” Doubt formed a knot in my stomach.

“Sorry to ask,” David said. “Truth is, I’ve been penning a list of injustices.” He looked embarrassed. “I don’t rightly know what I’ll do with them, who I’d give them to, but I think people ought to talk about these things. The lords ought to abide by a kind of justice that’s fair. I try and get at least two people with firsthand knowledge of an injustice before I add it to the list. No sense writing up some bloody list of rumors.”

“Wow.” I was struck speechless. David Weldon, charismatic mechanic. David Weldon, man of fairness and justice. “You-You’re amazing.”

He turned beet red. “I don’t know.”

“I’d propose to you on the spot if I could,” I blurted, then flushed too.

David chuckled. “At least we could confirm whether Lord St. Gale punishes for that.”

“What would he chop off then?” I laughed.

David’s face fell.

“Wait, you’re not telling me…”

He nodded gravely. “It’s confirmed on St. Risden.”

I went pale.

“I know, no man wants to think of that, but it’s a real danger for some men,” he said quietly, and I saw then that he was like me.

“David,” I said, realizing I’d been thinking of him by his first name all along.

He caught the tone in my voice. “Then you’re..?” he asked barely above a whisper.

“Not only am I a man who loves other men, but I’m also Arthur St. Gale. The Earl’s second son. I’m a nobleman in love with mechanics. And I’m in love with you, David Weldon.”

David gaped at me and I steeled myself for rejection. I saw my mechanics career crashing and burning. It could never have lasted anyway, I thought.

But then, David kissed me.

*
 
After taking—ahem—far longer than necessary in that old middle attic, we had the magnet boxes installed in the tops of the shiny brass train sets and in the bottoms of the motley train engines. We left the latter running on a track and returned to the small auditorium with the former. Using a wooden ladder, I held up each engine until the matching engine passed by overhead and the magnet boxes zeroed in on each other. All in all we had five rings of train sets each floating along in the opposite direction of the one next to it.

“It’s perfect!” David shouted.

I grinned and almost fell off the ladder.

*
 
Mid December was upon us, and that meant David switched from fixing machines and designing displays to checking over the work that the junior mechanics had done without direct senior supervision. Not being an official Fine Mechanical Services workman, I wasn’t allowed to officially grade anyone so David gave me some homework.

A decoration’s interior would be designed and assembled in part on the airship and then matched with the gold plating and other fine pieces which belonged to and were kept here at the estate. This way the internal mechanics could actually be improved from year to year. My assignment was to compare a list of components and their respective weights with the weight that the preassembled pieces had been logged as when they were brought in for final assembly here at the estate. Of course, David expected them all to match up, this kind of comparison was only routinely done on parts made outside of Fine Mechanical Services, but since I had never performed such an examination before he considered it good practice for my future. Sweet that he thought I had a future in mechanics.

When I got to the grand Christmas tree directly behind the podium where my father would give his speech to Martin, I found a large discrepancy. I called David over.

He frowned. “You actually found something?”

“The spinning mechanism in the midsection of the tree is unaccountably heavy, look.” I pointed out the figures in the documentation.

“It must be some kind of upgrade. Maybe an extra stabilizer?”

“There’s another grand Christmas tree near the door.” I ran my thumb down the page until I found its figures. “Why upgrade only one?”

David sighed. “No dinner for us then. We’ll check it out after everyone’s left for the day.”

*
 
He went back and finished his examinations of the juniors’ work and at the end of the day when everyone had cleared out for dinner we both went hungry and opened up that sucker.

Doing so saved my father’s life. The middle spinning mechanism had been replaced with a time-bomb set to go off at the exact time my father was scheduled to be in the middle of his speech.

“My God,” I said. “What do we do?”

“Close it slowly,” David said. “And we’ll call the King’s explosive experts.”

Before I could, a slot that had read “set” flicked to a red panel that read “tamper.”

“Damnation!” David scrambled for a tool kit. The clock that had been ticking normally sped up and up, ringing in my ears.

“Have you done this before?” I asked hopefully.

He stuck a screw driver in the status slot and pulled it back to “set,” then to “off.” “Hold this,” he barked. I grabbed the handle from him and held it firm against the machine’s resistance. David sprayed an instant-dry fixative into a vent in the front of the bomb.

The ticking slowed.

And stopped.

“Oh God, thank God,” I gasped.

“Never,” he said.

“What?”

“I’ve never done that before.” He looked at me with a twitchy smile.

“Oh God.” We both laughed in hysteria.

Once we had composed ourselves, David and I closed the tree back up like nothing had happened and quietly took the matter directly to Mr. Stedman. David researched who had been assigned to that piece of the tree and it turned out to be Mitch Miller, the new guy shadowing Ferris. Somehow Miller had found out that we knew and was caught a few hours later trying to leave the city by trash barge. One of the King’s own explosives experts would be in the next morning to dispose of the device and take a sniffer dog around to check for any other explosives.

Mr. Stedman was called in to give an account to my father and, inevitably, David and I were named as his saviors and my whole charade was exposed. He called us to him separately. David would see him in his official receiving room and I would be sent into his study like the child he still considered me to be. Mother met with me in the adjoining library before I was to see him.

“He thanked your friend properly,” she told me, “your case is obviously more complicated.” She smiled sympathetically.

“Exposed because I saved his life. Good grief, the irony.” I groaned.

“What are you going to do with yourself, Arthur?” she asked, straightening my tie and tucking it back into my vest. “How are you going to have a happy future under your father’s thumb?”

“How do you have a happy life under his thumb?” I quipped.

“Your father has his problems,” she replied, “but he’s a smart enough man not to try to rule his wife the way he tries to rule his sons. Don’t worry about me, I have a happy life.”

I looked into her wise hazel eyes and believed her. “Does father chop off the hands of thieves before he sends them down below to jail?”

Her expression saddened. “Legally, he has the right. There’s nothing I can do besides try to counsel mercy.”

“And Martin? Will he continue that practice when he is Earl?”

“Oh, no. I’ve taught my boys better than that.”

Well, that was something at least. “And what would you recommend for my life then? The priesthood?” I asked somewhat feverishly.

“Why don’t you join Fine Mechanical Services?”

“Wha-” I sputtered.

“I looked it up,” she continued, smoothing the collar of my jacket. “Your father can’t disinherit you legally under the crown unless you commit a crime. Joining Fine Mechanical Services is not a crime. Just don’t tell him about your boyfriend.”

I sputtered some more and stared at her incredulously.

“I’m your mother,” she said in the same matter-of-fact tone, “I know everything.”

I shut my mouth and tried not to turn red.

“Stand up, shoulders straight.” She clapped me on the back. “Go in and face your father.”

I took a deep breath and entered my father’s study. I spoke to him frankly for the first time in my life.

*
 
Needless to say, my father was infuriated, but not enough to cancel Martin’s wedding. It helped that, as much as he considered my choice in career a wasteful embarrassment and mar on the St. Gale name, I had just saved his life. I told him not to worry about the mar. I was happy to keep the name Arthur Porter and leave my identity as Arthur St. Gale a secret until it suited me to reveal myself. Arthur St. Gale would be a target and I couldn’t put David in danger. As far as the servants of the house knew, Arthur St. Gale was going away to study business economics. And for all I knew, my father would actually pay tuition to a university to keep up the ruse. I couldn’t have cared less.

*
 
Christmas week was a wonderful success. Martin loved the trains, and the day after the groom’s banquet, he invited David and me to see him privately.

“Thank you for coming, and again for the trains.” He shook our hands, gloves off this time. “Mother’s told me everything and I wanted to tell you personally that you have my support. There are many areas where I agree with my mother rather than my father, and I hope you’ll feel more at home in St. Gale in ten or fifteen years when father’s retired and I take on the earldom.”

“Thanks, Martin,” I said and hugged him for the first time since we were kids. “I’m sorry we haven’t spent more time together as adults.”

“We’re on different paths, little brother.” He clapped me on the back, another trait he got from mother. “I’ll find a way to write to Arthur Porter, don’t worry about that.”

“I’ll count on it.”

“Lord Thornton, if I may,” David said and withdrew a folded envelope from his jacket pocket. “I took the liberty of copying you this list of injustices I have discovered in my travels around the kingdom. They are something a man of integrity like milord ought to be aware of.”

“David tries to get two firsthand witnesses before he adds anything to that list,” I added, and nodded for Martin to take it.

“Thank you for entrusting me with this list, Weldon,” Martin said solemnly as he took the envelope from David.

*
 
On Christmas Day, after the wedding and after Martin and his new bride had departed for their honeymoon on a luxury aircruiseship, David and I met in our cozy little middle attic. To our surprise, mother had furnished it like a bedroom, complete with candles and flower petals.

“She went overboard.” I rolled my eyes and blushed.

“It’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen,” David said, beaming.
“I should be grateful,” I said, becoming pensive. “Who knows the next time we’ll be able to safely sleep in a bed together.”

“Let’s enjoy it, worries are for the morning.” David sat down on the edge of the bed. “But before that, know this, Arthur. I love you. I’ll never tell your secrets, and you can always rely on me as a reference for your mechanical skills.”

“I love you too, David Weldon.”

***
 



12 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – CRIME FICTION: All I Want For Christmas by Greer M. Robinson and Melissa Petreshock

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Just 12 days until Christmas! Today I bring glad tidings and a gruesome present in the form of a Christmas Crime fest courtesy of two lovely ladies. Check out Greer M. Robinson and Melissa Petreshock on Twitter. Melissa is one of the best people you’ll ever meet; Greer is a young author, like me, and I think she absolutely nailed this. Show her some encouragement and love, peoples. I know I can count on you.
 


 
All I Want For Christmas
by Greer M. Robinson and Melissa Petreshock
 
 
“She’s not fucking here! What the hell do I do?”
 
“Are you sure the plane isn’t late?” I ask and nudge a full cup of percolator coffee around on the diner counter.
 
“No! I just forgot to mention it was delayed four hours,” Marge snaps.
 
“Okay. And you tried calling her?” I guide Marge through some logic. Someone has to keep his cool.
 
“Every minute! Jesus, the customer service desk has been paging for almost an hour, and I’m still running around looking for her. What are you doing?”
 
A waitress pops out of the kitchen, opening her mouth to ask if I want anything, but decides against it. “Waiting for Dan at Jay’s. I told you he has a twelve hour layover on the way to Indonesia and we’re going to the range.”
 
“I can’t find Kirstie and you’re going to play with man toys?”
 
“Maybe she missed the flight and her phone died.” Chances are Kirstie’s sitting in Chicago O’Hare in her leggings, purple neon leg warmers, and boots. Now that it’s cold she’d have stopped running as much, sporting an oversized sweater to blanket what she calls lumps. Bumming over her dead iPhone and forgotten charger, I’m sure slumping in those black covered airport seats, impatiently waiting for a lady from the gate desk to squeeze her onto another flight isn’t improving her mood either. “So she’s getting a hotel, or she’s already on another flight and her phone’s off.”
 
“Mark. Her bags are here. The stewardess told me she’s on the flight manifest.”
 
“Marge, honey, listen to me. Let’s assume she landed and someone else didn’t board the plane with her ticket. It means she left in a rush.” It’s all too easy to imagine her running out of the airport, mousy hair flying around those glasses she begged for after that pop country singer brought them back from the eighties.
 
“I swear to God if Jackson convinced her to come to his house I’ll—”
 
“Now, hon, don’t make me come out of retirement just to arrest you. Why don’t I swing by and see if she’s there as soon as Dan gets here. Just try to remember she’s engaged to Jackson.”
 
“I’d rather try to forget,” Marge snorts. “We’re not done talking about that either. Don’t you come back without her!”
 
The bell hanging above the diner door dings. In all these years, Dan still hasn’t changed, all slick business attire and buzzed hair. He clutches a box wrapped in Christmas theme paper, fitting in with much of the diner’s cliché Santa statues and white paper snowflakes.
 
“I know. I’ll call you when I’m at Jackson’s. Bye, hon.”
 
Dan sets the box, complete with a red reflective bow, on the counter, and I throw my arm around his shoulder. “It’s been way too long, man. How’s the Bureau treating you?”
 
“Considering you left me your position, I’m doing better than I ever could have.”
 
I’ll be damned if Dan ever owns up to any of his accomplishments. The boy’s humble to the end. “You’ve made it your own, I’m sure. You know you can always call me with questions, even the dumb ones. I never judged you, not once.”
 
“Thank you. I’ll keep that in mind. How’s the family?”
 
“Oh, good. Actually, I’ve got a little something I need to take care of. Kirstie came home from winter break today.”
 
“University of Chicago, correct?”
 
“Yeah. She’s only got one more semester. Marge is all in a twist, though, ‘cause she can’t find Kirstie at the airport and thinks she slipped away to her fiancé’s house.”
 
“Fiancé? When did that happen?”
 
“Oh, here about a year ago, I guess. Jackson’s a great guy, got his heart in the right place and all, but Marge just doesn’t like him. I promised I’d swing by his house and see if she’s there, but you can stay and have a cup of something.”
 
“It’s not a problem at all. I’ll come if you don’t mind—haven’t seen Kirstie since your retirement party.” Dan tucks the present under his arm and I slug down the last of my coffee, leaving a five under it.
 
“Sheesh, she’s a grown woman now. Sharp, too. She’ll remember your face just from that party.”
 
“She will,” Dan says, smiling. “I’m sure she will.”
 
#
 
“Well,” I say and shut off the grumbling engine. “This ‘ere’s the place.”
 
We both pile out of the truck—I didn’t trust that rental of his to handle to snow and hill up to Jackson’s—and hesitate crossing the white banked road. The two story bungalow is light up with Christmas strands round the porch rim, and the drawn curtains expose an ornamented tree through the front window.
 
“Lovely home.”
 
“Like I said, Jackson’s a solid man.” We cross the road and head up the drive, past the SUV. Least someone’s home. “I got no problem with ‘em.”
 
I knock on the door, and Jackson opens it within seconds, wiping his hands on his jeans. Kirstie always says he’s ruggedly handsome.
 
“Mr., Mr. Adams I wasn’t expecting you, if I’d know I’d—”
 
“Calm down, son,” I say. “I’m just dropping by.”
 
“C-come in, please. They say it’s the coldest day in fifty years.”
 
“I heard that.” Dan and I shed our jackets in the coat hall, leave them on a bench. Right inside is a cozy living room, a sofa and matching chair creating a sitting area with a crackling fireplace and luminous tree across from them.
 
“I was just about to make some espresso—would either of you like one?”
 
“I just had some, but thank you. Oh, sorry, this is Dan Harper, my trainee when I was back at the Bureau.”
 
“Nice to meet you,” Dan says and they shake hands. “Thank you, but I’m avoiding caffeine for the nerves.”
 
“I’ll just put one on for myself, then.” Jackson slips through a door next to the staircase, into the dated kitchen, and we crash on the couch.
 
Marge would never stand to live here, never stand for Kirstie to live here. She couldn’t imagine having one of those old white fridges or yellow laminate countertops, and God forbid a beautiful hand carved coffee table like this one. Something still so close to the outdoors would flare up her allergies.
 
“That’s how they fell in love, Kirstie and Jackson. Coffee. A new place opened up in town some years back and he was working it, made Kirstie the best damn espresso ever. No more percolator for her. Turned out he owns the entire shop, started a business and everything. Marge thinks it’ll go under, but I say it’s steady. Nothing like good Joe.”
 
“Interesting.” Dan’s mouth don’t even open as he says it. He pulls at the bow on top of that present. I bet it’s something he can’t leave out in the cold.
 
Jackson returns and perches on the air chair, no coffee. His eyes shift between us, settling on me as he fidgets with a throw over the arm of the chair.
 
“Jackson, I’m just looking for Kirstie. Marge went to the airport to pick her up, but she’s not there. Did she split and come here?”
 
“No, no sir. I haven’t seen her since September when she went back to school.”
 
“You know I’m fine with it,” I sigh. “The engagement. You’re a good kid. I just want to know she’s here. That’s all. Marge’s blood pressure is about to lose it.”
 
“She’s not here, I swear! She really isn’t at the airport? Where is she?”
 
The espresso maker dings and Jackson jumps up. “Oh, I’m sure she’s around. Probably just lost. You mind showing me how to work one of them espresso things? I’ve always wanted to learn.”
 
“No, um, it’s really easy. That was the noise for the water finished heating. I’ll show you real quick.”
 
Inside the tiny kitchen, I step away from in front of the door, out of sight. Bringing Dan along probably wasn’t the best way to make Jackson come out with it. “Is she here?”
 
“No, sir. She’s not.” Steam rises out of the espresso maker. “Sir, there’s something I have to—”
 
Jackson jerks forward, mouth wide open with a strangled, gargling sound, and keels over. He hits the wooden floor face down, arms straight at his sides, red hole in the back of his head staring me in the face. Above, a perfectly circular hole in the window. Through the window, a plethora of trees for camouflage.
 
I lunge forward and slam against the cabinets under the window, out of range. It’s the only damn window in this kitchen.
 
“Dan! Man down—sniper’s in the forest facing the kitchen!”
 
“I got it!” He shouts and the screen door bangs behind him.
 
No more shots. Just the one. Doesn’t mean there won’t be more. But no, this was targeted. Jackson. Kirstie.
I whip out my phone and dial 911. Dial tone, dial tone, dial tone. …
 
“911, what is your emergency?”
 
I assert my formal FBI credentials and prattle off the address, GSW in the back of the head. …
 
“Sir?” The operator’s voice rings in my ears. “You were saying you also have to report something?”
“A missing person. My daughter. Kirstie Meyers.”

 
#
 
I stick Jackson’s photo up on the murder board with a magnet. Between that and a town map, the entire surface is covered. The local station just doesn’t have the resources we have in New York, but for now it’s all we’ve got.
“Ballistics came in from the rifle I found in the woods. Just an M40 sniper rifle.” He sticks the picture of the murder weapon under the same magnet holding Jackson’s photo. “How long ago did the hospital call?”
 
“Hour or so. They tried to operate but the damage was irreparable.”
 
Kirstie most definitely gone, Jackson assassinated, cops are going door to door at this point. Thank God I was FBI or no one would’ve responded like this. It would’ve been, “Oh just wait. I’m sure she just ran off a bit—college girls and all.”
 
So many families lose kids with the same treatment, the message they receive when their stomachs know otherwise, tumbling, rolling around with the truth that someone has their baby.
 
“Oh, God Marge. I have to go home, Dan I have to—”
 
“I know. I’ll drive you. The entire station is on this, and they’re sending over other guys from New York. My guys. It’s going to work out.”
 
“Work out? How can you say it like—what do you mean other guys?”
 
“I have a plane ticket, Mark,” he says stiffly. “And the Bureau says I can’t work this, even though you trained me. I’ve gone too long without taking time off.”
 
“You’re leaving? Kirstie is gone and you’re—you know what, fucking go. All you’ve done is walk around with that stupid present anyway. I swear to God I trained you better than this shit.”
 
“I’ll take a cab, then.” Dan sets the present down next to a cup of coffee on the conference table and leaves with perfect composure.
 
I collapse in a chair. Dan flying off to Christ-knows-where Indonesia and Kirstie’s gone and there’s nothing except for Jackson’s body—poor Jackson—and the sneaking suspicion Kirstie just fled on childish impulses to be free and avoid Marge’s lectures on the engagement and—
 
My phone ringing pierces the silence. It’s the cop temporarily heading up the investigation, name elusive.
 
“What is it?” I grip my phone.
 
“We searched Jackson’s phone calls and found a new phone number started calling roughly ten days ago, every day for no longer than three minutes. He never calls it back.”
 
The number. Of whoever did this.
 
“Shit, Mark,” the commander continues. “We tracked the cell to an apartment. It’s here, but the place is covered in evidence. Whoever did this has known Kirstie for at least a year—there’re pictures of her before the engagement ring. But a lot more of the ring.”
 
A type, a profile, someone obsessed with Kirstie, someone who can’t stand the ring.
 
“I want it all in. I want to see all the evidence when I get back.” I shrug on my coat and grab the present. The tag is addressed to me and Marge. He probably couldn’t bear to give us whatever he planned. “I have to see Marge.”
 
“It’ll all be at the station, sir.”
 
I hang up. I don’t want it, any of it. I want my little girl.
 
#
 
I hand Marge the tissue box next to the present on the coffee table and she blows hard into it before discarding it to the floor with all the others. She curls back up against my side and squeezes my arm, a dense lump of tears discoloring the back of the couch.
 
She’s out of water again.
 
“I’m going for water, hon,” I whisper and run my fingers through her colored hair briefly, taking longer to detach myself from her.
 
The water dispenses slowly out of the fridge, drops grabbing on to each other and holding tight. God, if I had listened to her maybe we would’ve found Kirstie by now—because now she’s gone. Kidnapped kids don’t come back. And I was the one who said it was nothing, who let her get engaged so young, who let her drift into the unknown.
 
“Mark,” Marge cries from the living room. The glass is full, almost too full, but she needs water after crying for hours.
 
“Hon, I—”
 
She stares at me with wide eyes, mouth open, but blank, so blank.
 
A severed finger like a hot dog, the bloody end covered with gauze, sits at the bottom of the box. Matching the manicured nail, the bright red bow tied neatly around the middle joint does not obstruct the humble diamond engagement ring between it and the bloody stump.
 



22 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – CLASSIC: Christmas Present by Leah Rhyne

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Just 22 days ’til Christmas (which happens to be The Vamp’s lucky number, and not just because it rhymes with her name.) Today’s Christmas countdown treat comes courtesy of the delectable Leah Rhyne. Leah normally writes in the speculative fiction genre, so I shook things up and assigned her the Classic genre, with a nod to Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice. Read on for a beautiful Christmas story worthy of Mr Darcy…
 


 
Christmas Present
by Leah Rhyne

 

The air in the ballroom was thick and steamy. Sparkling embers from the roaring fire flickered on the hearth. Shimmering perspiration from the dancers lent the atmosphere a sticky bodily odor barely suppressed by cinnamon sticks and cloves boiling in small pots along the walls. And as the latest reel drew to a close, the partner of Miss Violet Billingsly, the eldest daughter of the Lord and Lady of the house, kissed her hand and stole toward the door of the anteroom. There sat the Lord himself, playing a round of whist, and Mr. Wick, a man of ten thousand pounds per annum, sought his audience.
 
Pressing a hand to her forehead when she found herself without a partner in the middle of the dance floor, Violet sought escape, scanning the vast ballroom of her father’s home. The walls were drenched with rich velvet drapes – the customary red for the holiday season – and candles stood in sconces nestled safely away from the heavy fabrics. In one corner stood a tree, decorated with crimson holly berries and still more candles flickering merrily in the dim room. The band struck up a lively waltz, and couples paired around her. Violet took small, short steps, hindered by her high-heeled slippers and the train of her dress, which she draped over her forearm to aid in a quicker escape.
 
I’ve drunk too much champagne. The room wavered before her eyes like waning candlelight.
 
As she neared the small, plain door that led to the hallway between the ballroom and the kitchens, a voice sounded in her ear.
 
“Going so soon? While Mr. Wick rushes off to speak to Papa?”
 
Violet forced a smile, though she knew the high color of her cheeks would give her away as plainly as any words. “Oh, Rose. Merry Christmas, dear. I saw you dancing with that fine young officer from town. Did you enjoy his company?”
 
Rose kept in step with Violet, providing a pleasant distraction while Violet expedited her escape.
 
“He was a pleasant dancer, yes,” said Rose, taking hold of Violet’s elbow with her small, gloved hand. The scent of primrose from the hothouse bouquet she carried filled Violet’s nose. Candlelight glittered on the jeweled combs in Rose’s yellow curls as she tossed her head with a laugh. “But I’m here to ask you why Mr. Wick rushed away with such a look of bold determination.”
 
Violet’s own laugh was unnatural to her ears. Rose didn’t seem to notice. “What a funny sister you are,” said Violet. “Always concerned about your eldest sister’s affairs. Some would call you nosy.”
 
Rose feigned surprise. “Some would, perhaps. Or perhaps only you, dear. Am I to assume, based on your playing coy, that I will hear nothing of the business passed between you and Mr. Wick until after he’s spoken to Papa? But can I also assume that the news will be a wonderful Christmas gift to my mother? You know how she so worries about our futures.”
 
They neared the door. Rose, Violet was sure, knew of her destination, and wouldn’t keep her. The two sisters were close friends and confidants, their teasing banter a hearty escape from the doldrums of life in the country. Tears filled Violet’s eyes and she turned away, her hand reaching for the door. She heard the catch in her voice as she spoke. “Assume nothing, dearest, but that I will do my duty, as always, and marry well. That’s all a woman can hope for, isn’t it?”
 
She didn’t wait for the answer, but instead slipped silently from the glittering ballroom into the darkness of the servants’ hall.

****

Violet paused to catch her breath. Her head swam, with champagne or with music she couldn’t tell. The darkness of the hall was soothing, though, and she hoped a few minutes would put her to rights. The servants would be in the kitchens, preparing for the supper that capped the festivities of her parents’ annual Christmas Eve balls. She would have a few moments of peace there in the darkened hall.
 
“Ten thousand per annum,” she whispered to no one at all. “Ten thousand.” Truly her life would become what her mother hoped for her, and truly she should be delighted. That Mr. Wick was nearly thrice her age, that she would be his third wife, and that she would become mother to his seven children, the eldest of whom was less than two years younger than herself, should hardly matter in such a match.
 
Violet knew as much, but tears spilled forth from her eyes. From her pocket she drew a lace handkerchief and dabbed the evidence of her despair from her cheeks.
 
From the shadows came a deep voice. “Miss Billingsly, why do you cry?”
 
Violet startled, but covered her movement with a cough. “William! What are you doing, lurking in the shadows that way?”
 
The footman stepped into the beam of light cast from the ballroom through a colored glass window. “Begging your pardon, ma’am. Mrs. Marsh sent me to check on poor old Mr. Spitz. Apparently he was feeling ill, but by the time I reached him he waved me away. A pretty girl was by his side, I suppose that’s why.” His smile was tentative, as though he knew he shouldn’t speak that way of his Lord’s guests. “When I saw you walk this way I came ahead to wait. You looked ill, and I wanted only to help.”
 
“I’m fine, thank you William. A little lightheaded from champagne, perhaps, but no cause for alarm.”
 
“You’re pale. Let me help you to the parlor.” He took her arm, his hand warm and gentle, the cotton of his glove smooth against her bare skin.
 
“No!”
 
She pushed him away with a firm shove. The parlor was too close to the ball, and there she might meet her father, or worse, Mr. Wick. She shuddered.
 
William stepped closer. She felt his breath, hot against her neck. “Miss Billinglsy! Please! You’re not well. Let me help you.”
 
Violet forced herself to laugh. “Yes, perhaps you’re right. Too much dancing and champagne, like I said. But please, not the main parlor. The servant’s sitting room is closer. Please, William. Please take me there.”
 
“Yes, ma’am.”

****

A fire warmed the servants’ sitting room, and a modest tree stood decorated with popped corn and cranberries. Beneath it sat gifts, festively decked with ribbons and colored paper. The room smelled of pine and cinder. A more pleasant space, Violet could never have imagined.
 
“The servants trade gifts?” she said as William led her to a tattered old armchair near the fire. “I never knew.”
 
“May I get you some tea, Miss Billingsly?” he asked as he helped her sit. Before she could respond he pulled a small stool from beside the hearth and placed it before her. “Here, rest your feet on this.”
 
Violet smiled. “Tea would be lovely. Thank you, William.”
 
As William busied himself with the kettle near the fire, Violet watched. William had been with the Billingsly family since he was a boy, in the stables until proving himself worthy to be admitted to the footmen service. A particular favorite of Lord Billingsly, it was murmured that when Old Fitzsimmons grew too feeble, William would become butler, a high station for a boy from the hovels outside the village.
 
What Violet had never noticed before, though, was the breadth of his shoulders, and the strength they belied beneath the fine, dark coat he wore. She’d never noticed his smooth, dark hair – almost black – and the way it absorbed the firelight.
 
When he turned, a cup of tea balanced on a small, plain saucer, she also noticed the way his eyes were the blue of the sky on a crisp winter’s day. They snapped and smiled, somehow, in a way Violet had never seen.
He was different, so different, from the aging Mr. Wick. Violet’s lips parted and curled into a smile as he leaned over, teacup in hand.
 
“Here you go, Miss Billingsly,” he said.
 
Violet took the cup. “William, why have you never used my Christian name? It’s Violet.”
 
“Yes, I know, Miss Billingsly, but it wouldn’t be proper to use it, ma’am.”
 
Her head still swimming, but now with giddiness, Violet set the tea on the stool and stood, ignoring the brief look of concern that appeared upon William’s face. She stepped closer to him. “But if I tell you it’s proper, then is it not? And I think, with as long as we’ve known one another, it would be proper.”
 
She stepped closer, a hand reaching for him. He pulled away.
 
“It isn’t. Ma’am.
 
“William.” She dropped her voice. “Whisper it then. Barely let me hear it. But please do let me hear it. It is, after all, Christmas Eve. Let that be my Christmas present.”
 
“I cannot.” He cast his eyes to the fire, refusing to meet her gaze. But she saw something in them, something she desired. Something she knew she’d never find in Mr. Wick.
 
Violet pulled her glove from her hand and touched his cheek with her bare fingertips. He jerked but did not pull away.
 
William’s skin was smooth, as though he’d not yet begun to shave, though she could see in the firelight where the hair of a fine beard could grow. She allowed her fingertips to trace William’s jawline. She touched his hair. He stood as though made of marble, his eyes watching her every move with suspicion…and desire. Yes, she could see the desire.
 
She touched his lips. “Do you want me? William?”
 
“I cannot have the things I want. Especially not you, miss.”
 
“Call me Violet.”
 
“Violet.”
 
Her heart racing, Violet pressed her body to William’s, but still he stood stiff. Violet was suddenly, achingly aware of the many layers of thick fabrics separating them, and she reached around William to pull off her other glove. She dropped both to the floor where they puddled and shined in the dim light.
She stood on her toes – William was taller than she by far – and pressed her cheek to his. He neither leaned into her nor pulled away.
 
“Why will you not hold me?” Violet’s voice was deep and husky. She’d never heard herself like that before. “I’m asking you to. Are you not supposed to do as I say?”
 
The slightest shake of his head. “No, ma’am. Not when it’s something I cannot do.”
 
“You can do this.”
 
She slid her hand to his neck, then back to his cheek, marveling at the smooth warmth of his skin. Still their faces touched. She had never been so close to a man before.
 
“I can’t.”
 
“But I’ve always wanted this.”
 
As soon as the words left her lips they were true. Yes. She had always wanted William, had she not? Hadn’t his face always been the one to catch her eye among the footmen? Hadn’t he always been the biggest and the handsomest? Yes, now it seemed to have always been true.
 
“So have I.”
 
William caved. He melted, his body curving into hers as though he, himself, was her body’s glove. His hands slipped to her waist.
 
“It’s Christmas.” She whispered the words. “Tonight you can have me. Tonight I can be yours.”
 
Violet had never been so bold. But neither had she ever wanted something so desperately.
 
“Tonight can be ours.”
 
William pulled his head back, a sigh escaping his lips. “But I can’t keep you.”
 
“So let us make tonight special.”
 
“Violet. Beautiful Violet.”
 
He was hers. Their lips met as the fire raged and Violet’s head filled with feelings she’d never imagined. William was warm and held her strong within his arms, and it was her turn to melt.
 
It lasted only a moment, a heartbeat, before William pulled away with a sudden jerk, a finality, his face awash in terror. “Miss…ma’am…I shouldn’t have…” He turned and left the room, leaving Violet behind. Her knees trembled and threatened to give way, so she sank heavily to the stool.
 
When Fitzsimmons appeared in the doorway a moment later, carrying a tray of champagne, his face paled, and he set the tray down on the ground with a clatter.
 
He knelt beside her. “Miss Billingsly, what ails you? Shall I get your father?”
 
“No!”
 
For the second time that night, Violet forced herself calm. She drew her lips back in what she hoped was a smile. “No. Fitzsimmons, please. Be a dear and find my maid? I’d like to go to bed now. Something in the party…didn’t agree with me. I’m not well.”
 
He stood, surprisingly spry for an elderly butler, and nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

****

The morning sun peeked through the drapes pulled tight across Violet’s window as her bedroom door opened with a creaky wail. Rose appeared, holding a lit candle and wearing her nightclothes.
 
“Merry Christmas, sweet sister,” Rose said, rushing to Violet’s bed. She slipped beneath the thick coverlet, setting her candle down on the small night table and blowing it out. “I noticed you left the ball quite early.”
 
“I think I sipped too much champagne, and it’s left a storm raging in my head.” Violet closed her eyes against the bright, probing fingers of sunlight. A storm indeed.
 
“Well, you must wake up and start moving, then, dearest. Christmas breakfast will be soon, and I hear your fiancé will be joining us.” Rose giggled. “Fiancé. It still feels queer to say that, but I’ve been practicing all night. I’ll be so sad to see you go, but please do accept my congratulations. I’m sure Mr. Wick will make a perfectly amiable husband.” Rose kissed her cheek.
 
Violet sat up with a start. Mr. Wick? Fiancé? The events of the night before flooded back into her memory, setting the storm to raging even more desperately. Yes, she’d accepted his proposal. But then she had gone and seen William and…
 
“Violet! Dear! What’s wrong? Why, you’re white as a ghost!”
 
Just then, a knock came at the door, and Violet’s maid Eliza pushed it open. She carried a small tray with tea for the sisters, which she set down at the foot of the bed. “My Christmas greetings,” she said with a slight curtsey. “And if you don’t mind me being so bold, my sincerest congratulations.”
 
When Violet didn’t respond, Rose nodded. “Thank you, Eliza. That will be all for now. My sister and I are going to enjoy the quiet before the storm.”
 
The storm, thought Violet. Yes, the storm.
 
On the silver tray sat a small envelope with her name.
 
“What’s that,” said Rose.
 
“I don’t know.”
 
Violet opened it. The handwriting within was less than refined, but the name at the bottom caused her face to burn. William.
 
Rose pressed her cheek to Violet’s, and together the young ladies read.
 
My dear Miss Billingsly,
 
Or shall I now say, “my dearest Violet,” for after last night you’ll never be anything but the most beautiful, most dear, Violet to me for the rest of my life.
 
I have given my resignation to your father, my Lord Billingsly, at dawn this very morning, and am hastening away to find my fortune on the high seas. I expect to be away for several years, but then, my dearest Violet, I’ll return to you with enough land and holdings to have earned your hand in marriage.
Will you wait for me, dearest Violet? Will you allow me to earn the right to call you mine on a night that isn’t Christmas Eve?
 
I shan’t await a reply, but will instead get to work. I will come back, my darling. Wait for me.
 
Your,
William

 
“Violet Billingsly, you tell me what happened last night.”
 
Violet’s head pounded and throbbed. I will never taste another sip of champagne, not as long as I live. She closed her eyes and tried to muster the appropriate words. Mr. Wick’s proposal. Her public joy and private dismay. Leaving the ball. William. The servant’s quarters.
 
Her behavior in the cozy room below the ball flooded back as though she stood still in William’s arms. A tear slid from between her clasped lids and she shuddered. Rose slipped an arm around her shoulders and squeezed.
 
“It’s all right, dear. Whatever happened, we’ll make it better.”
 
I will not cry again, she told herself in silence. To Rose she spoke aloud. “I’m afraid he mistook a bit of flirtation for love, and now he’s gone and ruined his affairs.”
 
She told Rose of the pertinent parts of her evening of flirtation, leaving off before she kissed William beside the raging fire. “I meant only to have a bit of fun. It was abominable of him to so mistake it.”
 
Her determination not to cry set firmer in her stomach at the sound of her own words. Never had she spoken so true, she was sure of it.
 
Rose paused a moment before speaking. “It’s all very romantic, though, is it not? No one has ever behaved thus for me. But I wonder. Will you wait for him? Are you in love? What about Mr. Wick?”
 
The utterance of her fiancé’s name cleared Violet’s head completely. She no longer had any doubts. “No,” she said, her voice suddenly low and firm. “It was only the champagne last night. Lesson learned, if in a dreadful fashion for William. I’ll not stray again.”
 
She reached to the night table and gave a small silver bell a decided ring. “Eliza,” she called. “Please come in.”
The maid appeared in the doorway and Violet reached out to her with a steady hand. “Help me dress now, please, Eliza. It’s going to be an eventful Christmas day.”
 
Leaving Rose beneath the covers on the bed, Violet rose and walked toward her dressing room with Eliza. “Can you imagine, dear? Ten thousand per annum. We’ll be living in style once I’ve married Mr. Wick.”
 
From the bed, Rose made a small sound. Violet turned to face her. “But what about…” Rose began.
 
Violet silenced her with a look. “Rose, as the eldest daughter of our father, Lord Billingsly, I will do my duty. I will marry Mr. Wick. Ten thousand per annum. As we both know, a Lordship does not equate wealth such as that. My marriage will open doors to better society for you and our dear sisters. So yes, Rose, I will do my duty, and I will smile as I do it. For I am a Billingsly, just like Papa. Congratulate me again, sister, and to you I wish the merriest of all merry Christmases. ”

****

At breakfast, Rose was quiet and withdrawn. Violet endeavored to cover her sister’s reticence with her own ebullience; to Mr. Wick she was charming and flirtatious. To her mother and father she was complimentary – never had there been such a joyous Christmas breakfast as the one before her on that fine, cold morning. In time, she believed her own words and actions, never guessing at Rose’s silent resolution to wait for William, and to be worthy of his love in a way her sister Violet never would.
 
When, three months later, word reached the Billingsly estate that a man who was once in their employ, a young man named William, was killed at sea when pirates attacked his merchant’s vessel, Violet was away, celebrating her honeymoon with her husband Mr. Wick on European holiday.
 
Among the servants, grief was vast, but among the family, Rose was the only one to mourn.



23 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – WESTERN: Christmas Wish by Beau Barnett

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*town crier* Only 23 days left ’til Christmas! *rings loud obnoxious bell*

Behind today’s genre mix-up advent calendar door we find Beau Barnett with his Western-style short story, Christmas Wish. Beau usually dips his toe into the pool of YA romance, but see him kick ass in the world of cowboys and cowbells…
 


Christmas Wish
by Beau Barnett

 
Despite the day being so cold and blustery, almost the entire town of Rhapsody had packed into Main Street. Old Man Lee had been going on for days that an old friend would be in town and that every family with a child would want to meet him. I stood in the cold with my daughter, Lottie, wishing my head would quit pounding from last night’s whiskey. Just when the crowd started getting restless, Old Man Lee walked out of his general store, raised his hands, and asked the murmuring, shivering crowd to quiet down.
 
“Ladies and gentlemen, I know it’s cold, but I promise if you’ll just bear with me your children are in for a special treat,” he called, his raspy voice carrying easily over the crowding throng. A man at least as old as Lee emerged and stood beside him.
 
“Look at his beard!” a child squealed in glee. The beard was full and gray. He wore glasses, and his cheeks were as red as a rose from the biting wind. I glanced down at my daughter and ruffled her hair. She hardly noticed, staring wide eyed at the visitor.
 
“You may be wondering who my friend is,” Lee said. “He’s visiting from a faraway place, where it’s very cold and there’s snow on the ground year round. Boys and girls, line up inside for a chance to tell my friend Nick your heart’s desire for Christmas.”
 
Most of the folks were visibly angry at the ridiculous reason we had all stood in the cold, and some of them left, dragging their children behind them. With my aching head, I wanted nothing more than to do the same, but little Lottie was so excited I couldn’t bear to disappoint her. I picked her up and carried her inside the store. The line formed quickly and orderly, with most of the kids too mesmerized by the sight of Santa Claus to make a lot of noise. Old Man Lee had set up a chair for Nick to sit in–a child would sit in his lap and tell him what they wanted to get for Christmas. Without fail, when Nick would ask if he or she had been good that year, the child would reply emphatically that they had, often bringing a knowing chuckle from their parents. Nick would laugh, remind them that he liked a jar of milk every now and then, and send the child, smiling from ear to ear and almost glowing in their joy, on their merry way. The excitement on the kids’ faces quickly improved the moods of even the sourest scrooges. The line moved quickly, and soon Lottie went running up to Nick, plopping down in his lap.
 
“Ho, ho, ho!” the red faced man said. “What’s your name, little girl?”
 
“L-L-Lottie,” she replied, nervous but smiling.
 
“That’s a beautiful name, Lottie. What would you like me to bring you for Christmas?”
 
I stood there, watching as my daughter’s face became serious. “Nick, can I ask you for two things?”
 
Nick chuckled. “I don’t know, Lottie. Have you been a good girl for your father this year?”
 
“I think so,” she stammered. “I mean, I hope so.”
 
“Okay, Lottie. What two things would you like on Christmas morning?”
 
“It’s not very much, I promise! I just want a game of jacks, and-and-uh, can you keep the second one just between us?”
 
“Sure I can, Lottie.” She glanced quickly at me before leaning in close and whispering something into Nick’s ear. His smile disappeared, and as she pulled away from his ear his face became grim, even the rosiness in his cheeks disappearing. “Nobody’s ever asked me for that, Lottie. I’ll try, honey,” he looked into my eyes for an instant before adding, simply, “I promise.”
 
She nodded. “Thank you, Nick,” she said, then she hugged him. The happy smile returned to her face just before she bounded down from his lap and ran over to me, taking my hand. “I can’t believe I got to meet Santa!” she squealed. “Let’s go home, Daddy.” I couldn’t help but be curious about what she had asked for that seemed so important, but, sensing from the way his eyes had met mine, I was sure she wouldn’t tell me anyway.

#

The next day I went over to Old Man Lee’s general store, to see how much a game of jacks would cost. He had them for a dime. He also had a long brown haired doll that I had seen Lottie eying every time she went in for a piece of candy. Thirty-five cents. Lee must have seen it in my hands because he wandered over.
 
“Evening, Charlie,” he said.
 
Tipping my hat, I replied, “G’evening, Mister Lee.”
 
He ran his hand through his wispy, graying hair. “Little Lottie would love that doll, wouldn’t she?” I nodded, placing it carefully back on the table it was displayed on. “I’ll tell you what. It’s Christmas, and I know how tough things have been for you since your wife died, Charlie. Get her the jacks game she wants, and I’ll throw in the doll. A girl should have a nice Christmas.”
 
I checked my pockets, but didn’t even have a dime on me. I promised him I’d come back later. He clapped me on the shoulder and nodded.
 
I walked outside and ambled in the direction of home. Walking by the saloon, the one person I didn’t want to see was sitting in a rocking chair just outside the doors. I eyed him warily as I walked by, hoping he wasn’t paying attention. He was. I saw his mouth twist into an ugly smile when he spotted me. His hand went straight to the holster on his hip as he leapt up and hurried towards me. I could smell the alcohol on his breath as he approached.
 
“Charlie! You got my money?”
 
“You know I don’t, Billy,” I replied, keeping an eye on the hand over his holster.
 
“That’s too bad, Charlie.” He yanked the gun out and stuck it up against my chin, the steel so cold it almost burned. “You know I don’t take too kindly to people that ain’t got my money.”
 
“I just need some time, Billy. You’ll get your money.” I swatted the gun away from my face. He smiled, grabbed me by the shirt and twisted me down to the ground.
 
“You got three days, Charlie,” he yelled. “150 bucks, or your daughter’ll wake up Christmas morning without a father. Maybe I’ll let you watch me kill her first.”
 
“I’ll get it,” I said.
 
He kicked me in the gut, hard. “Just in case you forget,” he spat in my face. He stalked away, laughing. As I struggled to my knees, coughing, he turned and called, “I can’t wait to kill you.”

#

Christmas Eve was a typically beautiful December morning, though I hardly noticed. I didn’t have the money I owed Billy. I was in the saloon, where a few of the local tough guys often played poker. Of course, Billy was there, too. He threw back a shot of whiskey and called out, “You got my money?”
 
I swallowed my fear. “Not yet, Billy.” Billy jumped up, his chair falling over, drew his gun, and leveled it at my chest, pulling the hammer back with a click. “You know what that means.” I slowly eased my hand towards my gun, but his eyes settled on my hand just as my fingertips brushed the cold steel. “Don’t even think about it, hotshot,” he growled, jerking his gun. “You know you ain’t quick enough.”
 
“Billy, stow it. It’s Christmas. He’s going to get your money,” a familiar voice said from behind me. “Put your gun away, nobody’s going to die tonight.”
 
“And just how is he going to go about doing that, old man?” Billy asked. With Billy distracted, I risked a glance towards the voice. The man from the general store. Nick.
 
“He’s going to agree right now to do something for me, and when he does, I’m going to pay him the 150 bucks he owes you.”
 
“How do you know what he owes me?”
 
“Don’t worry about that, Billy.”
 
Billy cut his eyes to me. “You got three hours, Charlie. That money ain’t in my hands then, I will shoot you and your daughter both.” He spat on the floor.
 
“Charlie, come on, let’s talk at Lee’s, where we can have a little privacy,” Nick said, squeezing my shoulder.
 
My daughter had been telling everyone that would listen the past few days she had met Santa Claus. As I followed him out, I couldn’t help but notice the resemblance was striking. We hurried down the dusty road to Lee’s. I checked a couple of times to see if Billy was following, but I didn’t notice anybody else leave the saloon. There were two sparsely furnished rooms behind the counter where Lee lived. A fire was roaring, and I shrugged off my jacket. I could hear Lee’s belabored snores coming from the other room.
 
“Mister, I don’t know you. Why are you helping me?” I asked.
 
“Because I remember what your daughter asked me for,” he replied. “Lottie, wasn’t it?”
 
“Yes, that’s my angel. What do you want me to do for you?”
 
Nick smiled, his gray eyes twinkling in the firelight. “You’ve of course heard of the legend of Santa Claus?”
I nodded, and he continued. “Well, it’s not exactly a legend. It’s true. I am he.” My eyes widened in bewilderment at his ridiculous statement. He chuckled, his belly shaking like jelly. “It’s true. Look out the window.” I walked to the window, and pulled back the curtain. In the moonlight sat a sleigh, with eight reindeer attached to it, just like the storybooks said.
 
“Every year, I hop into my sleigh and deliver toys to all the good boys and girls in the world. I love knowing the joy I bring them. Because I do that, I can’t give my wife, the one person who means more to me than anybody, the one thing she wants for Christmas.”
 
“What’s that?” I asked.
 
“She wants to spend Christmas Eve with me. She knows that she can’t; there’s only room for one person in the sleigh. I’m asking you to deliver the gifts to everyone tonight, so that I can spend Christmas Eve with the missus.”
 
My mouth fell open. “How can I possibly do that, Nick? I’ve never been out of Oklahoma Territory. How in the world am I supposed to get way across the world, anyway? And do it all in one night?”
 
“The reindeer really do fly, Charlie. They know where to go, and time passes differently when you’re out in the sleigh. No matter how long it takes you, when you get off the sleigh after delivering the last gift, it will be Christmas morning. It’s easy.”
 
I considered his request, as well as the ridiculousness of the story he weaved. For some reason, I believed this stranger truly was Santa Claus. I slowly nodded. “Thank you, Nick.”
 
He waved it away. “It’s my job to make children happy. This will make Lottie happy. Thank you for making my wife happy this Christmas. Now take this to Billy, then get some rest, you’ve got a long night ahead of you. Be here at midnight.” He handed me fifteen ten dollar bills. I nodded my thanks.
 
Billy was, to say the least, surprised when I walked into the saloon and threw the money on the table in front of him. He snatched it from the table and counted it. Satisfied, he lifted his eyes up to my own, glowering. “Merry Christmas, Charlie. I was looking forward to killing you.”
 
“Leave me and my family alone, Billy. Merry Christmas.” I stormed out of the saloon, and walked the short distance home.

#

When I left to meet Nick, it had begun to snow lightly, a white dusting covering the road. He was waiting outside the store.
 
“The bag of toys is loaded in the sleigh,” he said as I approached. “It should be smooth sailing from here.”
 
“How are you going to make it to your wife?”
 
Placing his finger on the side of his nose, he winked. A strange green light engulfed him, causing me to shield my eyes. After a few seconds, the light vanished. Though Nick disappeared with the light, I could hear his now familiar voice surround me. “Santa has his ways, Charlie. Ho, ho ho! Merry Christmas!”
 
Not knowing what else to do, I meandered around the back of the store. The sleigh and reindeer were in the same spot they had been earlier that evening. I climbed into the sleigh, waiting for something to happen. Nothing did. As soon as I thought to pick up the reins, the sleigh took off like a flash, flying into the night. It was as easy as I had been promised. The reindeer knew exactly where to go. At each house, the door would just open as I approached it, and every time I reached into the bag of toys, I couldn’t help but choose the perfect ones for each child. The occasional home left a glass of milk, which I would drink quickly.
 
As I made my final approach back to Rhapsody, bag of toys empty, I realized I had been everywhere in the world. From a strange place called Greenland that was covered in ice, to a beautiful land called Iceland, to China and Japan, dropping off toys in the homes of good children in the world–except for my precious Lottie. The reindeer were intent on landing behind Old Man Lee’s and wouldn’t listen at all to my commands to stop by my house. After landing, I sat in the sleigh for a moment, despairing for my daughter. Not knowing what else to do, I clambered out of the sleigh. As soon as my feet hit the snow covered ground, the strange green light appeared, and out of it stepped Nick.
 
“Everything go ok?” he asked. I nodded. “Good. I didn’t forget about Lottie, Charlie. I wanted you to be able to give her gift to her yourself.” He handed me the very game of jacks and doll I had been looking at a few days before.
 
I took his hand and shook it. “Thank you, Nick. What did she ask for?”
 
“She wanted you to wake up Christmas morning and feel like eating breakfast with her instead of sleeping away half the day after drinking at the saloon all night. She worries about you getting into trouble, and doesn’t want to upset you.”
 
“That’s all?” I asked, incredulous. “She could have just asked me to do that. I would love that. When I got mixed up in that mess with Billy, I didn’t know how I was going to be able to pay him. The whiskey made me not worry about it so much.”
 
I couldn’t believe how much of a monster I had been. My precious daughter deserved so much more. I promised myself I’d be the man she deserved, starting immediately.
 
The old man chuckled. “Well, with Billy taken care of, now you can concentrate on being a good father to her.” I nodded, knowing that he was absolutely right. He saw that I understood, and held out his hand. I clasped it. “Merry Christmas, Charlie.”
 
“Thank you. Merry Christmas, Santa.”
 
He put his finger to his nose and winked again. He was gone.

#

A couple of hours later, I was cooking a little breakfast when Lottie came bounding out of her bedroom. “Merry Christmas, Sleepyhead. How many eggs do you want?”
 
She beamed. “You’re making breakfast, Daddy?” She ran up to me and threw her arms around me in a hug. “Merry Christmas, Daddy. I love you. Thank you.”
 
I bent down and kissed her on the top of her had. “Merry Christmas, Lot. I love you, too. Don’t thank me, honey…thank Santa.” I pointed at two small wrapped presents on the table. “Those are for you.”
 
The joy on her face as she opened her gifts and saw the doll and the jacks made it the best Christmas of my life.
 
“Daddy, look!” she exclaimed, pointing out the window. “It’s snowing!” We hurried outside. She gathered some snow and launched it at me, hitting me square in the face. As I raised my eyes skyward and laughed, I swear I heard Nick’s voice bellow, “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas, Charlie!”