Excerpt: It Happened at Christmas
Skylar Davis stood in the middle of Main Street wearing a sparkly purple dress with a wand in her hand and a cupcake tiara on her head, wondering where the magic had gone. For the last ten years, she’d flitted through life like a butterfly wearing rose-colored glasses.
Seven months ago, she’d had those glasses ripped right off her face, and her life had become stomach-churningly horrible. Six weeks ago, it went from horrible to downright scary. Which was why she was hiding out in the small town of Christmas, Colorado. Well, that and she only had a couple hundred pennies to her name.
Another reason for choosing Christmas, she had free room and board courtesy of her best friend Madison McBride— although she had a feeling that wasn’t going to last much longer. The fact her best friend was married to a big, hot sheriff didn’t hurt, either. At least Skye had protection if Scary Guy discovered where she was. But right now, the person she needed to avoid was her best friend.
Skye cast a nervous glance behind her, releasing a relieved breath when she didn’t spot a familiar face among the crowd. In the middle of a wave of people heading down Main Street, she bent her knees and bowed her head in an effort to make herself less visible. Granted, it was a little hard to be inconspicuous wearing a Sugar Plum Cake Fairy costume. And somehow she’d wound up in the middle of a group of tourists from Japan. Up ahead, she spotted a couple of men taller than she was and started toward them.
One of the tourists snagged her arm. “Picture.” He smiled, holding up his camera.
Two more men held up their cameras. “You. Picture.”
“At the park. Okay?” Skye smiled, pointing to where the Fourth of July festivities were being held. They’d draw less attention there, and if she spotted Maddie, Skye could duck behind a tree. She went to walk away and caught a glimpse of a tall, broad- shouldered man in a light gray suit, the sun glinting off his tawny blond hair as he held court on the sidewalk with a statuesque brunette at his side.
Skye’s smile froze on her face, a drawn-out no echoing in her head. She’d overheard someone say that Republican senatorial candidate Ethan O’Connor had another speaking engagement and was heading out of town. If she’d known he was sticking around, she would’ve hidden out at the bakery. She’d been humiliated enough for one day, thank you very much.
Her gaze shot to the pastel-painted shops across the street to her left. Seriously? she thought, at the sight of the beautiful blonde wearing a floral sundress standing beneath the purple-and-white-striped awning of the Sugar Plum Bakery. It was her best friend, Maddie McBride.
And one more example of how dramatically Skye’s luck had changed.
Since bemoaning the situation wasn’t going to save her further humiliation and neither was standing there, Skye did the only thing she could think of and dropped to her knees. Forcing a smile for the worried faces looking down at her, she said, “I lost my wand,” surreptitiously tucking the aforementioned item beneath her dress.
“Excuse me. Pardon me. Lost wand,” she explained, duckwalking through the crowd as fast as the position allowed.
“I’ll help you find it, Sugar Plum Cake Fairy,” offered a little girl, her dark curly hair caught up in red, white, and blue ribbons.
“Me too,” volunteered a little boy, a miniature American flag clutched in his small hand.
Before long, Skye had a line of children waddling after her. She was like a mother duck with her ducklings following behind. They looked so darn cute that she would’ve had an aw moment if she didn’t feel like throwing up. She’d been feeling that way a lot lately.
Her day so far wasn’t helping matters. Because she hadn’t contributed to the Jack-and-Grace fund, Maddie no doubt suspected that Skye, who’d once had more money than God, was now as poor as Jesus. And then there was Ethan O’Connor, the man she’d had a one-night stand with—and Skylar Davis did not do one-night stands—who was in town looking even more breath-stealingly gorgeous than she remembered. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the first time she saw Claudia Stevens, the bane
of her teenage existence, she was in Christmas on Ethan’s arm instead of in Texas where she belonged.
Skye’s father, William Davis, referenced Claudia—an old family friend—in every one of his it’s-time-to-grow-up lectures. “Why can’t you be more like Claudia?” was his constant refrain as he compared the other woman’s many accomplishments to Skye’s nonexistent ones.
With the reminder of just how crappy her day had been, Skye was more determined than ever to avoid all three of them and crouched lower. As she made her way to the front of the crowd, beads of perspiration rolled into her eyes, blurring her vision. She went to rub the drops away with the hand that held the wand. Oops. “Look at that,” she said, turning to the children. “It’s my magic wand. Silly me, I should’ve wished for it sooner.”
She winced at the crestfallen expressions on their cute little faces because she’d found her wand without their help. In an effort to counter their disappointment, Skye raised it, nodding at the sparkly sugar plum on the end. “You know what, my wand just told me it didn’t find me because of my wishes, it was because of all of yours. Yay, you guys.” She clapped her hands, relieved when they joined in.
“That makes us your fairy helpers, doesn’t it?” said the first of her volunteers.
“Yes, it does.” Skye smiled, looking through a sea of legs to get her bearings. A few more yards and she’d be on the path to the park. She felt like clapping her hands again. “I have to go now. Thanks for all your help.”
“Can we have tiaras like yours?” asked a little girl, her blue eyes hopeful behind her pink-framed glasses.
Skye fingered the jeweled crown with the tiny cupcakes glued to each point. She’d love to give the tiara away. When Grace, her friend and boss, had first broached the idea of Skye being the Sugar Plum Cake Fairy, she’d jumped at the chance. But that was when she thought it was a paid position. When she found out it wasn’t, she kind of thought it was cool that she’d be the face of the Sugar Plum Cake Fairy in the book. It wasn’t until they fitted her with the costume, and she realized they meant for her to wear it in public, that she wanted to say,No way, no how. But she couldn’t. Even though Grace didn’t have the money in her budget to hire Skye, she’d given her a job at the bakery. So Skye had no choice but to accept the role as the bakery’s mascot to repay Grace for her kindness.
Today was Skye’s debut as the Sugar Plum Cake Fairy. And as her newfound bad luck would have it, she’d been in costume when she saw Ethan for the first time in three months and Claudia for the first time in ten years. Ethan had restrained his laughter. Claudia, not so much. And the woman was bound and determined to get a picture of Skye looking like an idiot to post on social media.
“I wish I could, sweetie, but there’s only one tiara like this in the whole, wide world.”
At the little girl’s disappointed look, Skye did a quick head count. She got paid next week, so she should be good. “But because you’re my special helpers, you all get a free cupcake from the bakery this week. You just tell them the Sugar Plum Cake Fairy sent you.”
“Yay.” The little girl bounced up and down, and her friends joined in.
Oh, gosh, they’re getting kind of loud. Afraid they were going to draw unwanted attention, Skye put a finger to her lips. “Shush, we don’t want anyone else to know. It’s our secret. Okay?”
They nodded, and Skye went to stand up. Several of the children threw their arms around her. “We love you, Sugar Plum Cake Fairy.”
“Aw, I love you guys too.” Maybe this job wasn’t so bad after all. She’d always enjoyed spending time with kids. Some people told her it was because she still thought she was one. She didn’t know what the big deal was. In her opinion, the world would be a better place if more adults kept their inner child alive, holding on to that natural curiosity, the ability to appreciate the simple things in life and have fun. She supposed that was easy for her to say. She’d never had to work for a living or worry about paying bills or putting a roof over her head or clothes on her back.
She sighed. Not until now she hadn’t.
Skye waved goodbye and speed-walked to the path. Maddie’s stepdaughter, Lily, ran toward Skye, her chestnut-colored ponytail bouncing, and caught her by the hand. “Auntie Skye, I’ve been looking all over for you. Mommy wants to talk to you.”
Skye couldn’t help but smile. She loved that Maddie’s stepdaughters called her Auntie. In a way, it was true. Since she was an only child, Skye thought of her best friends, Maddie and Vivi, as her sisters. But she wasn’t quite ready to face her sister just yet. Skye needed time to put a positive spin on her situation.
Her gaze darted to the park, and she spotted the bright blue port-a-potty in the distance. “Tell Mommy I’ll catch up with her in a bit. I have to go.” She nodded in the direction of the portable outdoor toilet.
Lily frowned. “Mommy’s at the bakery. It’s closer.”
Too bad Lily was as smart as she was adorable. Skye shot a look at the crowd working its way up the street and caught sight of the tourists. “Right, but I promised some people I’d take a picture with them. I won’t be long.”
Skye waved and headed down the path. To her left, a man shouted out for Ethan. Please, let it be another Ethan. She glanced in the direction he’d called from. Sure enough, there was the man himself entering the park with Claudia on his arm. Skye took off at a run. By the time she reached the port-a-potty, she was out of breath.
This hiding-out crap is exhausting.
A big, burly man with a full beard stepped out of the port-a-potty and gave her an apologetic shrug.
How bad could it be? Skye thought, stepping inside. She slapped a hand to her mouth and nose. It smelled like someone had died in there. Several someones, and a long time ago. She whipped around, about to get out, when she heard, “Is that Kendall?”
Skye ducked inside, slammed the door, and locked it. There was only one person who called her by her legal name, and that was Claudia. Skye had started using her middle name when she left Texas. The one her mother had chosen. It was Skye’s way of thumbing her nose at her father’s attempt to change her into the daughter he wanted her to be. Someone William Davis, the former governor of Texas and right- wing Republican, could be proud of.
Someone like Claudia.
Breathe, Skye told herself in hopes of calming her jackrabbiting pulse. For goodness’ sakes, you idiot, don’t breathe! She lifted the hem of her dress and pressed it to her face, gagging into the silky fabric. The claustrophobic space was closing in around her, and the temperature felt twenty degrees hotter than outside. Holding her breath, she fanned herself with her dress. When the lack of oxygen began to make her dizzy, she once again buried her nose in the purple fabric and released it.
Okay, relax. Think of walking through the forest in winter, the snow crunching underfoot, your breath a crystallized cloud. Yes, she almost cheered; it was working. The room felt cooler, the space less confining. But the smell . . . she retched, automatically leaning toward the black hole. She jerked back when she realized what she was doing. Hurry up, think of . . . think of something that smells amazing, something you want to . . . Do not think of that!
She couldn’t help it. Once the images started, she couldn’t make them stop. The memory of that night with Ethan played out in her mind.Oh, but he had smelled amazing, and all that lean, sculpted muscle, his large . . . arms, his arms! Voices coming in her direction snapped her back to the here and now.
Good, that was good.
“Claudia said she saw her going in there, Madison.”
Bad. Very bad.
That was Ethan’s voice. Ethan’s incredible, swoon- worthy voice. She scowled as the thought popped into her head. The sewage must be poisoning her brain, she decided, pinching her nose and breathing through her mouth. The man was a right-wing, judgmental conservative who was as critical of Skye’s lifestyle as her father was. Oh no, now she could taste it. She made small, retching sounds as the cupcakes she’d eaten earlier curdled in her stomach.
“Skye, are you in there?” Maddie asked, tapping on the door. “Skye?” She tapped again.
If Skye stayed quiet, maybe they’d leave. She moved away from the door, which put her closer . . . She started gagging, and stumbled backward, bouncing off the wall.
“Skye, Lily said she saw you running over here. Are you okay? Do you need help?”
“I’m fine. I’ll be out in a minute. You can go . . .” She started gagging again before she got back to the bakery out.
“You don’t sound fine, and we’re not going anywhere until we know you’re all right,” Ethan said, his voice whiskey smooth and deep.
“I am. It’s the door.” She rattled it for effect. “It’s stuck, and I can’t get out. So if you could go and get someone . . . if all of you could go and get someone, that’d be great. Thanks.” And when they did, she’d escape to the woods. The sweat trickling down her chest and back had turned the sparkly purple fabric to shrink-wrap, while the humidity had turned her long, wavy hair into a frizz ball. There was no way she was going to face Mr. and Ms. Perfect looking like something the dog had dragged in and shaken a couple of times before he did.
“Okay, I’ll try and get it to open,” she heard Ethan say.
“No, that’s not a good idea.” The door handle moved, and a metallic scraping sound came from the other side. “What are you doing?”
“Picking the lock.”
“You can’t pick locks,” she blurted in desperation, swiping her arm across her damp forehead. “You’re a lawyer, and you’re running for political office.”
“Appreciate the concern for my reputation, cupcake. But it’s a port-a-potty, and I’m rescuing a damsel in distress.”
She heard the amusement in his voice. “I don’t need rescuing. Go away.” She stupidly took a deep breath to calm herself and started retching again. She sounded like she was horking up a hairball. Covering her mouth and nose with both hands, she turned away, hoping to muffle the noise.
“Hang in there, sweetheart. Just a little bit . . . There, got it.”
Her eyes widened, and she whipped her head around, reaching for the handle just as it turned. She dug her heels in the damp floorboard, holding on to the handle with both hands.
“Huh, the lock released, how come . . .” He pulled on the door, a sliver of light entering the space.
They played a silent game of tug of war; she leaned back, he inched her forward, she leaned back, he inched her forward. Then, with one last yank from his side, she went flying out the door. Landing hard on her hands and knees at his feet, her tiara askew, Skye threw up on Ethan’s Italian leather shoes.