"Here comes Santa Claus! Here comes Santa Claus! Here comes Santa Claus!”
The sound of Jenna Waverly's five-year-old son singing the same line of his favorite Christmas song over and over … and over again at the top of his lungs had a multi-faceted effect.
First, there was the natural human one—it was more than a little annoying, and she had to continually resist the urge to feed Bentley the next line for the sake of her own sanity. Second, it made her laugh. She adored her little guy with every ounce of her being, and the sight of him dancing around in circles, thrown a little off-balance by the overstuffed pants of his snow suit sent a wave of joy rushing through her that nothing else in the world could match. The only true happiness Jenna had ever found in her life was in being a mom.
But more staggering than both of those was the creeping sense of dread and sorrow that promised to overwhelm her in just a few short minutes—her first Christmas without Bent since the day he was born. In fact, it would be the first holiday she had spent alone since … well, ever, that she could recall. After her parents died when she was eight, there had been Grandma and Grandpa Hibbard, and by the time they died, she had already been with…
She gritted her teeth and growled.
"I keep telling you, you should just have him whacked."
Jenna shot a look at her next-door neighbor and only real adult friend, fantasy writer Shaz No-Last-Name-That-He-Ever-Used. He was handsome in a giant hobbit sort of way, with long, thick blonde hair almost as light as her own, pulled back in a tidy ponytail. A sharply trimmed mustache and beard framed his round face, and his big, brown eyes were lined with lashes so thick a supermodel would probably kill him on the street if she could take them.
Shaz was a surly, but sometimes helpful and amusing presence in her and Bent's life, with his oftentimes impractical advice and collection of fantasy toys worth millions, according to Shaz, that guaranteed Bent's worship of him for life. That alone made him a huge help. On those rare occasions when she needed a break, or had something to do that couldn't involve her son, her reclusive but fun neighbor was the perfect hero. Of course, at this particular moment, the only thing he was helping to do was make Bent spastic with his gift of chocolate covered cherries. Shaz leaned his substantial girth indolently against the front door frame, munching on the remainder and watching Jenna scramble around as she herded Bent and packed his things at the same time.
"Yeah, I was just going to call Tony Soprano after I got Bent ready to go," she replied as her son once again slipped from her grasp and went rocketing across the apartment, still screaming his single-line carol. Jenna didn't think she would ever be able to stand the sound of "Here Comes Santa Claus" again.
"Wouldn't be the worst thing you've ever done. That honor belongs to this abomination." Her neighbor made a vague gesture that encompassed the pile of luggage, sprinting Bentley, and Jenna's life in general.
"The custody agreement says that this is Leo's year. I don't get any say in the matter." She focused on putting the last of Bent's toys in the giant duffel at her feet.
Shaz snorted. "He's never bothered exercising it before. Why now?"
Jenna shook her head and made one last grab at Bent as his circuit brought the energetic monster close enough to reach. He squealed as she caught him up in her arms, tugged up his little shirt and planted a loud, wet raspberry on his round belly. She shot her neighbor a glare.
"No badmouthing the R-A-T B-A-S-T-A-R-D in front of B-E-N-T. 'Kay?"
"B-E-N-T!" Bent shrieked. "Here comes Santa Claus! Here comes Santa Claus! Here comes Santa Claus!"
Shaz grinned even as he backed away from the hyper kid and his flustered mom. "Aaaand on that note, I have a plane to catch."
"Oh, sure. Pump the kid up and run. Some friend you are."
"I live to serve," he said with a chuckle, and leaned down to kiss first Jenna's cheek, then Bent's. "Merry Christmas, Munchkin Head. You too, Jen. Don't let the R-A-T B-A-S-T-A-R-D get you down. By the way, what are you planning to do with an entire week to yourself?"
Jenna crouched down, shutting Bent up by stuffing him into the jacket of his snowsuit and trying to focus on not letting the phantom of dread and sorrow hovering nearby catch up with her.
"Standard girl stuff: endless romantic comedy marathon, trashy books, lots of hot baths in my big new bathtub, sleeping late, eating take out, and drinking wine. Not necessarily in that order."
"You shouldn't be alone, Jen. Are you sure you don't want to come to Minneapolis with me? We can do the movie marathon thing … but no chick flicks. You'd love my family. All loud, fat, and brilliant, like me."
She planted Bent back on the floor, and he immediately took off in his perpetual circles, singing his song again as she rose to look at her friend. They had known each other for two years—since the day he'd helped her and Bent move in—and he had never made even the slightest pass at her, but she had always thought he harbored unspoken feelings for her. There were little hints here and there: longing looks when he didn't think she would notice, along with constant presents—mostly for Bent, but for her as well. Bentley worshipped his buddy, who he affectionately titled "Shazam."
And Jenna valued his friendship enough to let all the little signs pass without acknowledgement. "No thanks, Shaz. You were right. I don't get enough time for myself. I figure now is the perfect opportunity to do something about that." At her friend's skeptical look, she added a tiny lie. "I'll be fine."
Bent came running back. "Santa Claus comes tonight, Mommy!" he announced.
But it wasn't Santa Claus that appeared in the doorway behind Shaz. In fact, it was the legendary joy-bringer's polar opposite, both in looks and in character.
Leonard Bentley Waverly the third looked like every society girl's wet dream: six foot one of firm, gym-worked, and plastic surgeon chiseled muscle draped in the latest stylish designer whatever that his endless money could buy. He had broad shoulders that tapered into a tight waist, athletic, toned legs, and a smile that could blind a room full of nuns with lust. All topped off with a haircut and highlight job she knew cost more than her rent. Once upon a time, all that glitz had indeed blinded Jenna, and she had been forced to spend every day of the last five years regretting that weakness.
Right now, however, he was wearing an unattractive scowl as he stood toe-to-toe with Shaz, whom Leo had never approved of. Jenna made the mistake of telling her ex that her next door neighbor was a best-selling fantasy writer, and Leo had commenced to spend an hour ranting and raving insensibly about basement-dwelling Internet predators. It was one of many times she had hung up on the snob she had once thought was the love of her life.
Of course, neither her behavior nor her choice of friends had changed Leo's mind about canceling yet another visitation the following weekend. If Jenna hadn't believed so strongly in the importance of Bent having his father in his life, and needed the child support money that was Leo's only steady contribution to his son's life so badly, she would have long ago indulged her petty urge and taken him back to court to have his custody rights revoked once and for all.
The two men glared at each other.
"And just when we started hoping you really had dropped off the face of the planet," Shaz drawled.
"How's the diet, elf boy?" Leo shot back with a flick of his hand against Shaz's belly. Jenna could swear she heard her best friend growl in response.
"Okay. That's enough," Jenna interrupted, stepping between the two … well, overgrown children, actually. She faced Shaz. "Shaz, you've got a plane to catch. Merry Christmas, and tell your mother I said hello and thank you for the invitation."
He blushed deeply when she kissed him on the cheek, and with one final dark look at her ex-husband, stepped out the door, calling a final, "Merry Christmas, Bentley Bam Bam!"
"BAM! BAM!" Bentley screamed as he came dashing into the room. "Ho ho HOOOOOO!"
Shaz left laughing. Jenna closed the door behind him and took a deep breath, preparing herself as much as possible to face the man she had once loved, and now despised, more than any other on this Earth.
Peace on Earth, good will toward men, she reminded herself over and over as she turned.
Leo was already occupied with greeting Bent and gathering up the luggage piled in the middle of the hallway. "You ready to go, pal?"
Bentley huddled nearby, hiding behind the coat rack, shy of this person he'd been told was his dad, but whom he had only seen maybe three or four times in the two years since Leo and Jenna had split. "You're not Santa Claus," the little boy complained.
From the mouths of babes.
"No, but I'm one of his East Coast affiliates. Wait'll you see what he left for you at my house." Leo rose, and his smile evaporated as he looked at Jenna. "He's only going for a week. Was it really necessary to pack everything he owns? He has plenty of toys at my house."
His "house" being the palatial six bedroom palace on the north side of the city, known not-so-affectionately in Jenna's working class neighborhood as "Posh End." It would no doubt be filled with food, music, and lights that the staff had worked diligently to prepare so that their employer could be too busy to bother enjoying them. So his shrieking harpy of a mother could totter around drunkenly, criticizing everything, and whatever high society bimbo Leo was banging at the moment could sit around looking bored in an outfit that cost more than Jenna made in a year, pricing the art on the walls and planning her future divorce settlement.
"I didn't think children's things fit in with the décor," she said. "I mean, it's not like he's had to stay there before."
"Don't start, Jenna. I'm not in the mood for your shit today."
"Oh, I know, it's such an inconvenience to fulfill your responsibilities toward your son. Why the sudden interest? What, did you get a new girlfriend who likes kids?"
His handsome features collapsed into a truly unpleasant expression that made him look constipated. "You're still the same shrill, bitter shrew as always, I see."
"Shrew! I was perfectly happy and pleasant before I found out you were fu…” She cut herself off with a glance at her son, who now clutched her pants leg with one hand and had his other little fist stuffed in his mouth. His eyes, exactly the same deep green as his father's, were now wide with fear and confusion. She gently pried him free and gave him the most reassuring smile she could muster before looking up again. "You were the one having S-E-X with every female in a hundred mile radius."
"Whatever, Jenna. I'm not going through this with you again. Come on, Bent, let's get going." He swooped down and picked up the little bundle of outerwear, carefully tightening the hood and balancing the bags in his free hand. "Merry Christmas. See you next Wednesday."
And with that, he turned on his Timberland-clad heel and marched out the door, down the hall, and down the stairs without a backward glance. She could hear Bentley starting to sing again before they were even out of her sight. Already her friendly little guy was loosening up. Bent could get along with anyone, even his snake of a father.
Jenna shut the door, slid to her behind on the foyer floor, and wept.
* * * *
Jenna knew that the only way for her to get through the week was to strictly schedule every minute of the empty days. She had originally hoped to take on a few more shifts at work, but because pretty much every family who used the daycare center would be out of town for the holiday, her boss had decided to close entirely. That meant Jenna had even more lonely hours to fill until Bent and Shaz returned.
She scheduled herself only a single hour to wallow in her solitary misery. But she took full advantage of that time, indulging herself in a good, gut-wrenching crying jag that left her feeling both drained and cleansed. After her assigned mourning period was over, Jenna moved on to the next part of "Operation Christmas Survival"—a decadent dinner followed by gift-wrapping in front of the fire. In order to really treat herself, she bought her favorite pizza—pineapple and pepperoni—which she didn’t get to eat very often because Bent hated it. She also bought a nice bottle of wine, something she'd given up when she first got pregnant with Bent and hadn't picked up since.
With Christmas music playing like a dirge and the sounds weighing down the already oppressive, unnaturally vacant air of her apartment, she couldn't imagine too many ways that she could make herself feel more miserable. Maybe curling up in bed for a week wasn't such a bad idea after all. It was certainly an activity that would suit her frame of mind.
No, no. She was an adult, a healthy, mostly-fulfilled single mom who just happened to be childless for a few days. How many mothers would kill or die for some alone time like this? Time when nothing was expected of her, nothing was scheduled, and no one would make any demands on her. She didn't even have to work! This was a gift, not a curse! Why was she driving herself to a breakdown?
"I am going to have a good time, damn it!" she announced to her fat, longhaired gray cat, Dusty, who didn't even bother lifting his head to look at her, professional disinterest being his primary pastime after eating, sleeping, and shedding.
So she threw herself into dinner, wine, and wrapping with a single-minded focus usually reserved for delicate craft projects and the more elaborate of her novels. Her apartment looked like the North Pole had exploded inside it by the time she was done. Christmas was her and Bent's favorite holiday, a feeling that was reflected in the festive decorating scheme. Ornaments and holiday knick-knacks covered every available inch of space, from the green and red entwined garland lining the top of the walls to the hand-knit stockings with their names stitched in the furry cuffs hanging from the fireplace mantel. The pièce de résistance was a giant fir tree, far too big for the room. All eight feet of it was buried under a mishmash of Bent's homemade ornaments, paper chains, and popcorn strings plus the extensive collection of Hallmark keepsakes Jenna had been collecting since she was a kid, tied together with yet more garland, and enough lights to illuminate a small city.
There was even the new throw rug upon which her and Bent's presents were piled—a plush knit portraying a scene with Santa, Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman, and Mrs. Claus partying hearty before an only slightly larger mountain of toys than the one under the tree awaiting Bent's attention. Finally, the last present—a Tonka dump truck that made realistic "construction noises"—was wrapped, the pizza devoured, and the wine bottle all but empty. "Here Comes Santa Claus" came on the CD player, and Jenna burst into tears yet again.
So much for careful scheduling. She should have known she couldn't out-schedule loneliness and heartbreak.
How had her life gone so horribly wrong? All she had ever wanted was to be a wife and mother, to create the home that she had lost when she was small, and to love a child as she had only really been loved for such a short time. She’d thought she had everything—the handsome, successful husband, the beautiful home. And best of all, the bubbly, vivacious, wonderful person that was her son. But pretty much from the moment she and Leo had returned from their honeymoon, he was occupied with "business" most of the time—nights, weekends, and holidays included—and Jenna had been forced to face the fact that her dream life was a farce. She was just another one of Leo's pretty possessions to be ignored until she was needed to advance something on his agenda, be it business or social.
One of the sparkling decorations hanging from the very bottom bough of the tree caught her eye through the wavering veil of her tears, and Jenna reached out, compelled to touch its shimmering surface. It was a piece she didn't remember seeing before—a purple, winged elf carved of what looked and felt like ivory, warmed from the lights so that it almost felt alive in her hand. A strangely realistic figure, very masculine, with long hair, chiseled features, and wings shaped like those of a very elegant moth.
"I didn’t think elves had wings," she muttered to it, mopping the tears from her face with her free hand. It looked like a character from one of Shaz's books, actually, and she wondered if maybe her friend and neighbor had smuggled this in as a joke. Jenna had a secret weakness for fairy stories and romance novels, although confessing to either guilty pleasure made her blush. When Shaz found out her proclivities were so close to his life's work, he had teased her mercilessly, and he never passed up an opportunity to remind her that she was as geeky as he at heart.
Although Shaz was fairly well-off, the ornament still looked like sort of an expensive item for a joke. An intricate work of art rather than one of the action figures Shaz had displayed all over his apartment next door. Jenna turned the statue over and over again in her hands, oblivious to the tears still running down her face and dripping onto the smooth surface of the strange piece.
As she caressed it, appreciating its masculine beauty and remembering, on top of everything else, that she hadn't had sex in over two years, the statue started trembling in her hand. Startled, Jenna dropped it on the rug with a thunk and leapt to her feet. The statue kept moving, shuddering and shaking as if there was an earthquake, and then started making a tinkling sound like wind chimes tossed in a strong breeze. The pale lavender hue of the ivory deepened, turned wine grape purple, and began to twinkle, spark, and undulate like the statue was melting under a super charge of electricity.
Muddled by confusion, the wine, and her own depression, Jenna stared at the strange statue, which began to grow before her eyes, the tinkle of chimes expanding, growing ever louder until they were more reminiscent of cathedral bells tolling, echoing through the room and thundering in her ears. Maybe she had been watching too much CNN lately, or maybe it was just the wine, but her mind somehow glommed onto the notion that this was some kind of chemical bomb. She kicked the shuddering, pealing statue across the room and made a mad dash for the door, throwing it open and diving into the hallway like she'd seen action heroes do in the movies. The statue exploded behind her, and the ensuing concussion knocked her senseless for a moment, huddling at the base of one standard, apartment-building cream-colored wall with her arms over her head.
In the ringing silence of the next few minutes, Jenna crouched there, fully convinced she was going to die of some kind of horrible chemical poisoning at any moment. She was surprised that none of the building's sophisticated alarm systems or sprinklers had gone off, and none of her notoriously nosy neighbors from other floors or down the hall had come to look. After a while, a cloud of something reached her, and she cringed … until she realized that it smelled a lot less like tear gas, and a lot more like … lilac? Lavender? The scent of those and other assorted flowers permeated the atmosphere, like a garden had exploded in her living room instead of a bomb. Instead of smoke, there were purple and silver sparkles glittering in the air all around her. Who the hell had bombed her apartment, a confetti store? She crept back into the living room on tiptoe, hunched over and hugging the walls like she'd seen in the cop shows, then poked her head around the corner and found…
The statue had come to life. A tall, beautiful winged man with hair as shining black as a crow's wing and pale skin with a slight purple undertone stood next to her Christmas tree, looking a little put out.
"Wuh … who…?" she stammered. "Oh my God! You're an elf!"
He grinned and she was half blinded by his incredible, unearthly beauty, the shining white of his teeth. His lean, muscular frame, dressed in nothing but a tiny, sparkling purple loincloth, left little about his apparently substantial masculine attributes to the imagination. And he was clearly happy to meet her.
"There is no such thing as elves," he said, very matter-of-factly, as though he materialized in an explosion of sparkles and wildflower scent in strange women's living rooms every day. "I am Phinn of the Unseelie Court. I have come to answer your call."
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