With one sweep of a golden scepter, the sentence and punishment was entered into the record books. Nods were exchanged around the Royal Court and stern looks given. There would be no going back and no reverse of the decision. Time was short, lessons needed to be learned. Some of them would be harsh.
He only hoped he'd be able to survive the ridicule and isolation among the humans.
* * * *
A gust of wind slammed against the side of the boarding house, stirring white, lacy curtains as the cold air seeped beneath the windowsill. Bethany Cundiff shivered. Stuffing the folded length of a tattered blanket along the seam, she hoped it would be enough to keep the room warm throughout the night. She looked at the bed where the two children were tucked; quilt to their chins, their big eyes staring back.
"You two are thinking about mischief. I can feel it." She sat on the side of the bed and brushed a mop of blond curls from the little boy's forehead. Her five-year-old nephew, John, nodded and grinned.
"Tell us a story."
From beside him, Sarah, his sister, nodded as well. "Yes, Aunt Bethany. We simply cannot sleep until you tell us a story." At eight years old, her blue eyes and honey colored curls had already proclaimed her a great beauty.
"Just this once." Bethany chuckled to herself. They indulged in this same routine every night. She'd put the two in bed, they begged for another story and she gave in every time. How could she not? Without the children, her life would be empty—and less complicated, but they were her reason for living and she wanted to make them happy. Stretching to the bedside table, she turned the oil lamp down until thick shadows crept into the corners of the room and across the ceiling.
"One night, almost like this one, while the cold wind howled across the land, a lonely man stole through the driving snow. He had a job to do and if he did not, children all over the world would be disappointed. The man carried a big leather bag with countless gifts inside, but how would he visit every child in the world before sunrise?"
John, his eyes wide and sparkling, sat up. "Magic."
"You are a very smart boy." Bethany patted his curls then pulled a knitted shawl tighter about her shoulders. "Yet how could this man in red velvet robes possibly accomplish this feat?"
This time Sarah shrugged out of the nest of blankets. "He whistled for his flying reindeer and that is how he did it."
"No! One of his elves helped him.” John quivered in the bed. “They have their own special magic."
"Ah, perhaps you are right or you have heard me tell this story too many times this Christmas season." Bethany smiled. "The man reached into a small pouch on his belt and withdrew dust from a thousand pixies. Taking the glittery substance in his palm, he blew it into the wind and that wind carried the magical dust through the air. All the children breathed it in and they grew very sleepy until they dropped off into dreamland."
"What if they refused to sleep? Sometimes I do not want to." Sarah's bottom lip stuck out in a pout.
"Then you would not get any presents." Her brother assumed a serious expression. "And if Santa did not visit because of you, I would not talk to you ever again."
"Now, now." Bethany swallowed down a laugh. "Suffice it to say, they did indeed want to sleep because it was enchanted dust. Only then was the man allowed enough time to visit each and every child around the world." She stood and pressed a kiss onto both warm, round cheeks. "He mounted his magical reindeer and delivered all the toys, once again making Christmas a happy time for everyone."
"I wonder what Santa will bring us this year." Excitement tinged Sarah's voice.
John grinned. "I hope it is toy soldiers."
"Anything you get will be a blessing. Do not be greedy." Bethany's stomach clenched with worry as she turned the oil lamp down until no more light shone from behind the glass. "Sleep well, my little angels. Tomorrow is another day."
"But what about the elf, Aunt Bethany?" John wanted to know.
She frowned. "Which elf? I would imagine there are quite a lot."
"The one who is Santa's assistant. The head elf. He writes the list every year and makes sure Santa is on time. Maybe he knows where all the toys come from."
"I do not know, John. Perhaps he has his own story to tell and if you ever see him, you can ask him yourself."
That seemed to satisfy the boy, for he remained quiet.
"Aunt Bethany?" This time Sarah called out and her voice shook with uncertainty.
"What is it, Sarah? You must sleep sometime tonight."
"Do you think Mama and Daddy remember us since it is Christmas?"
A wave of sadness washed over her as she considered her next words. "I think your parents think about you, no matter what time of year it is. As long as we keep them in our hearts, they will be with us always." Leaning over, she hugged the slender girl then gave the same attention to John, who squirmed, saying it wasn't proper for men to hug.
"Goodnight, Aunt Bethany. I love you." Sarah lay down and snuggled beneath the bedclothes.
John blinked. "I like you, Aunt Bethany. I love chocolate cake. Maybe there will be some for us tomorrow?"
As she swallowed sudden tears, Bethany nodded. "Perhaps. If you are good." Swiftly standing, a few strides took her across the room to the door. She left it open a crack and padded down a short hall to a cozy living area.
A dying fire flickered in the hearth. She moved to the rocking chair, sat down and covered herself with a worn quilt handed down from her grandmother. Only then did she give into the tears she held back. Her sister and brother-in-law had died two years before in a carriage accident. Something had spooked their horse and he bolted, eventually dumping the conveyance into a ditch.
Their premature deaths left her with an instant family and no means to care for them, especially since her own parents had perished several years earlier in a hotel fire. Never well off to begin with, her brother-in-law hadn't owned property of his own and the rent on his house was too high for her to move into. The choice between keeping the children, her own flesh and blood, or begging distant relatives to take them in had been hard. In the end, Bethany moved the kids into two rooms at a boardinghouse near the heart of Indianapolis.
She gave them her bed and she slept on the lumpy sofa in the front room. Not an ideal arrangement by any stretch and eventually, she'd need to consider the future, but working in the dining room at a local hotel didn't lend itself to many options. She'd been fortunate to make ends meet to this point; however, she'd heard rumors around the hotel that the owner was considering massive staff changes.
That meant reduced hours or even a loss of the job. She needed to conserve every penny she had now.
Sarah went to school during the day while Bethany's landlady looked after John. By the time she dragged herself home by eight in the evenings, there were the children to pay attention to and no time for proper mourning.
Now, ten days before Christmas, she was no farther ahead than she'd been when she'd first taken the children in. Even worse, the rent was late since she'd gotten less hours and Mrs. Hall began grousing about the money every time Bethany retrieved the kids in the evening. The cupboards were bare. Any chance of John getting that chocolate cake, let alone dinner the next evening, were slim. Not to mention gifts for Christmas.
She desperately needed a miracle, and that was as likely to happen as meeting the elf John seemed to be obsessed with.
For once she wanted the children to know how special and happy the Christmas season could be. Growing up, she and her sister had been given baked goods of the holiday, knew laughter and gaiety as the house was decorated and every now and again, peppermint sticks and gumdrops were offered.
She couldn't remember the last time Sarah had laughed.
Mentally berating herself for being a fool, Bethany rocked the chair with a push of her foot. Miracles didn't happen to hopeless causes. What she really needed was money. Sure, it was the root of all evil but it also made life bearable and life's essentials didn't come cheap.
Barring a miracle, she couldn't see a way out. She lifted a china teacup from the hearth and sipped the cold tea. What was the bigger evil? Sending the children to relatives or keeping them here to scrape out a poor existence? As a whole, they weren't unhappy. Their tiny home was always full of love. Would they experience that with another family who already had children of their own?
Marriage would solve all my problems.
She uttered an unladylike snort. Perhaps, or add another couple to the growing pile, or so she’d always thought. Unfortunately, any opportunity for wedded bliss had run away as soon as the children took up residence. No self-respecting gentleman would agree to take on a woman with children, and the ones that were interested only wanted a nanny for their own brood. Unfortunately, it was the widowers who looked her way now. At the age of twenty-nine, Bethany was out of luck and out of time.
Tears fell to her cheeks and she brushed them away. Life shouldn't be this hard. Growing up, she thought she'd be someone's wife at this point, with a few kids of her own and a husband who showered her with love and a cozy home she could take care of. Instead, she had the children but nothing else.
Only heartache and worry.
With a sigh, Bethany wiped her face with a corner of the quilt. Above everything, she wanted to keep the children with her. They were all she had left of her little sister. They were her family and she would keep them safe and innocent regardless of life's hardships. What did it matter that a tiny part of her wanted a love she could call her own? No use wishing for the impossible when there was work to be done.
* * * *
Blake Wenchal twirled the stem of his wineglass between his thumb and forefinger as he attempted, unsuccessfully, to focus on what his best friend was saying. Andrew'd been gushing—there really was no other word to describe it—for fifteen straight minutes about every woman he'd ever been with and it was enough to turn his stomach. With a heavy sigh, he pushed back from the table and threw his linen napkin across his plate.
In the entire world, there had never been a bigger braggart.
"Andrew, enough. You and I both know half those women have merely told you hello in passing. And the actress? You bumped into her in the hall after a show. She did not throw herself into your arms as you said." He grinned when he friend's slightly pudgy face reddened. "Tell the truth. You wouldn't know what to do with a woman on a permanent basis." He enjoyed teasing the man who'd become his only friend since he'd been in the area.
Making friends and keeping acquaintances was not an easy feat for him since the banishment. It wasn't easy to do outside of one's kin.
"If we are telling truths, neither would you." Andrew laid his knife and fork across his empty plate. "You have evaded every attempt from hopeful mothers with marriageable daughters. I thought, out of all of our friends, you would be the most likely to settle down with a couple of brats."
"Perhaps, but a few years of being shoved in the path of such young ladies by my own mother has made me bitter about matrimony. Why do you think I moved here from New York?"
It wasn't just his occasional odd appearance that set him apart. He found he couldn't relate to people. He found their problems petty and boring and their worries trivial and stupid. Why Andrew decided to hang around baffled him.
"It is not as bad as you make it out to be," Andrew postulated.
"Mmmhmm." His parents'—or rather his mother and his stepfather's—representation of that holy estate was shaky at best. Whenever he'd gone back to visit his mother’s home in a fashionable area of New York City, the arguments and spats hadn't lessened. It seemed the most interesting topic of conversation at the dinner table was his lack of producing grandchildren. Of course, part of those disagreements could possibly stem from his mother's inability to relate to her son any longer.
His father had opted to remain in the Northern Realm and had divorced his mother many years before. She'd resettled in New York after passing through customs and had married a wealthy gentleman she'd met in a clothing shop.
And now she had her sights turned on him, needing grandchildren and normalcy to wipe away the unsavory years of before, to remind her that she was, after all, human.
If only there was a way to accomplish that. Forgetting her son was an elf wouldn't come with the appearance of grandchildren.
Andrew, apparently annoyed at being ignored, cleared his throat. "You need a woman, or a string of them. Perhaps marriage would be the best thing for you."
Blake shuddered and downed the remainder of his wine. "It would need to be an extraordinary circumstance with a remarkable woman for me to be interested." And one who would believe his fantastical life story. He watched as Andrew wiped his thick lips with a napkin. "Why do you badger me about this?"
"Because you are not much company when you mope."
"I do not mope." He glared at his friend, then the glare turned into a reluctant grin. "Perhaps I do, but it is merely a side effect of the holiday season. Nothing more." In an effort to avoid his friend's intense gaze, Blake glanced about the dining room.
Candlelight glowed on each table and softened the centerpieces of pine boughs and red roses. The gentle ebb and flow of conversation drifted around him; low masculine voices blended with the more dainty sound of feminine agreement and laughter. In one corner, a Christmas tree stood, decorated with velvet bows and ribbon and the most hideous stuffed birds he'd ever seen.
Christmas. Another holiday that reminded him of how alone he really was, thanks to that fateful order from the Royal Court. A day that should be shared with loved ones and that special warmth of ringing in the celebration with thankfulness and joy.
He snorted. As if there was any such thing in this world of material worth and spending every cent one made on mounds of things that could never be used in two lifetimes.
Who needed the silly holiday? At this point, he'd settle for a heady romp with a willing woman—anything to help him forget.
Stopping short of appearing as the grumpy old man Dickens wrote about, Blake shoved the fingers of one hand through his hair; sure he'd upended the careful style. He sucked in a surprised breath and leaned forward to place an elbow on the tabletop. "Andrew, look at that woman near the Christmas tree. The one with the wine bottle."
He didn't care if his friend did as he asked. Instead, he studied the woman more openly. She wore a black dress like her peers, with a frilly white apron covering the front and tied in a crisp bow in back, drawing his interest to her natural curves. He let his gaze drift up her body, watching as she chatted with a couple at another table and refilled their glasses.
"She ain't a beauty by any stretch. Average if you want my opinion.” Andrew’s assessment cut through Blake’s enchantment. “Although, there are worse ways to pass a night."
Unaccountable anger rose in Blake's chest at his friend's cavalier attitude toward the woman. Plain and simple she may be, but not average. "She's elegant. Charming. However, I am not in the mood for an affair." He continued to appraise the vision as she moved to another table. No, she glided, graceful and adept as she slipped between chairs and diners. Blonde ringlets escaped from her chignon to frame a round face and highlight expressive blue eyes. Once, when she lifted her head, her gaze met his for a fleeting second. Heat streaked through his bloodstream to lodge in his groin from the impact.
"No affair, eh?"
"Too much work. I'd spend too much money on fripperies and have to listen to hours of pointless conversation."
He wrenched his gaze away and back to Andrew's knowing smile. "What?" He swallowed, and when no moisture could be summoned, he grabbed his water goblet and gulped a mouthful. He'd never felt such an immediate connection with a woman since leaving the Court.
Maybe he should consider an affair, especially with the woman he'd nearly drooled over.
"Her body should grace someone's bed and you know it. Might as well make it yours." A grin slid across Andrew's face. "I dare you to make her an offer. Consider it an early Christmas gift to yourself."
"Of marriage? We have not been introduced." Not even a pretty face could sweeten the sourness of pledging his life permanently to someone else. A woman who would spend his hard-earned cash and badger him into an early grave.
Where was the cheer and goodwill in that?
"I'm not talking about marriage. Make her an offer, an exchange if you will. Everyone needs something. If your libido needs stroking, you can bet that woman has a pressing want in her life. Find out what it is and strike a deal." Andrew downed the remainder of his wine. "You know I am right. Hell, aren't you the one who keeps telling me everyone has an angle, especially at this time of the year?"
"I do not." What a lie. It was exactly the reason he'd been banished in the first place.
Blake spared another glance toward the table where he'd last seen the woman and a stab of disappointment worried his stomach when she'd moved on. "Besides, she does not have the look of that sort of woman. Not to mention I have never paid a woman to warm my bed. Women come of their own free will."
And there was that swift glance of knowing…
"For God's sake, man, she works in a hotel dining room clearing off dirty plates that other people have eaten from. How much money can such a job possibly pay?" With a sly glint in his eye, Andrew raised a hand. "Let's get the girl over here so you can look her over from a better distance."
"What the hell are you doing?" His hiss of warning went ignored. "Besides, if I suggest payment for a night of pleasure, she is likely to slap me and call the authorities." Such behavior would hardly help his cause to re-enter the Court.
He glanced up and his heart lodged in his throat. The woman in question nodded to Andrew from across the room and was headed their way.
"She could. I doubt it, though. Look closely. I may not know women as well as you, but even I know desperation in someone's expression. With enough money, anyone can be bought. You merely need to find the price." When the woman reached their table, Andrew's grin widened. "I'd like a bottle of port, please, and Blake, do you require something as well?"
Insanity reigned for a few seconds while he gazed at the woman who waited quietly near his elbow. While she looked at him with a mix of expectation and mild annoyance, he felt trapped in her blue eyes and chastised all at once. He swallowed. "Nothing for me, thank you."
She nodded. "Very well." When she turned away, Blake shot out a hand and wrapped his fingers around her wrist.
"Wait." Mild shockwaves danced over his arm from the contact.
"Pardon me, sir." She yanked out of his grasp. The shock in her eyes told him she'd felt it, too. "Such familiar interaction with the wait staff is not allowed."
"I apologize." The warmth of her skin lingered. He was as nervous as a youth making conversation about the weather. "If you would, may I have your name?"
"That is highly improper."
"Please." He couldn't explain the irrational need.
Her lips trembled as if she would smile then she pressed them into a thin line. She twisted her apron in her hands. "Bethany Cundiff. Now, please excuse me."
Blake stared after her until she vanished from his view into a back room. "I cannot ask her to begin an affair." Although he'd had relationships with other women for far less, he couldn't shake the feeling that Bethany was different.
That she would understand him.
Andrew's grin went wide. "Ah. You find her intriguing. Rephrase your invitation. Offer the money upfront and let her draw her own conclusions."
"You must be mad." He stood so abruptly from the table his chair crashed into the diner behind him. Apologizing, he gathered his bowler hat and overcoat. "I am going home."
"What about the club? You still owe Edwards a rematch at cards."
Blake shrugged. "Tell him I will pay the price of the forfeit. Goodnight." His long strides ate up the dining room. Once he'd gained the sidewalk outside, he drew in lungfuls of cool air. His mind cleared. With new resolve, he walked along the pavement when a sound in the alleyway caught his attention.
Thinking it was probably a stray cat or dog, his curiosity wouldn't leave him be until he confirmed what the noise was. He crept into the darkness, careful to avoid the puddles and lumps of questionable debris.
A nondescript door opened into the alley and the shadowy form of a woman stepped out. He inhaled sharply. He recognized that silhouette. It was the server from the dining room.
"Miss Cundiff." He stepped deeper into the alleyway, heart pounding. He moved closer so she could see him clearly. "Is your shift over?" Thoughts and questions tumbled about his mind. What should he say? What would she do if he asked?
She snapped her head up. "Yes." The woman shied away and kept one hand on the door. "Please, leave me alone. I believe a police captain is dining with us this evening. I have no qualms about summoning him."
He grinned into the darkness. She had spirit. "There is no need. I simply wish to talk with you." He inched forward, slowly as if she were a startled animal. "My name is Blake Wenchal. We met earlier."
In the dim light, he saw one of her eyebrows raise. "I remember. Now please, let me pass." Apparently confident that he'd do just that, she squared her shoulders and moved purposefully toward him.
Her eyes glittered in the dim light from the kitchen window. With her full lips parted and splotches of color blooming on her cheeks, she enticed him with no conscious thought. He reacted by instinct alone and swept her into his arms.
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