The final chapter in the saga of the Dugan Brothers
Dazzler Spitfire’s elven senses tingled, and her pointed ears twitched. Had her magic performed as asked? Standing on shaky legs, she slitted her eyes to peer at her surroundings. For a moment, sunlight sparked off the glitter in her lashes, blinding her, and then she saw it.
Across the two-lane road, boughs of holly climbed the sign welcoming visitors to town. Waxy green leaves and white berries complemented the cranberry script flowing across the walnut marquee: Welcome to Holly, the Most Enchanted Town in the West.
Yes. She’d accomplished the first step in her mission. She fist-pumped. A soft autumn breeze brushed her cheeks.
Gold, tangerine, and scarlet leaves swirled into a gourd-shape before lengthening into a mass resembling an eggplant on the ground in front of her. Two legs and two arms emerged from the torso. Moss knitted together, making a green uniform, and wild mushrooms added buttons and fleecy trim. Leaves wrapped an oval head before the newly formed scarecrow rolled onto his belly.
“Where are we this time?”
“Holly.” The name sweetened Dazzler’s tongue. Candy-cane lines of magic formed a ragged net around the village and blanketed the white church steeple rising above the pines. All this, and it wasn’t even the official holiday season for three more days. How strong would the magic grow after Thanksgiving?
She inhaled the scent, reveled in the cinnamon-and-vanilla aroma of human magic. So imperfect, yet she was so thankful humans took the time to create it.
This place felt like home. Why had she never visited before? Why had Todd always insisted they meet in Flagstaff?
“Holly?” Stick fingers dug into the ground as Cheddar levered up. His acorn eyes blinked twice before he raked red leaves into a pile and shaped them into a Santa Claus hat. “Why did you bring us to a magical town?” Screwing the cap down on his head, he adjusted his pinecone ears to hold it up. “I thought we’re supposed to be investigating why your magic always goes wrong.”
Skipping to his side, Dazzler offered her friend a hand. “We are. Santa recommended I start where my magic works best.”
Which was around Todd Dugan, a resident of Holly—a hub of human Christmas magic. Like elven magic, only different.
And meant to be shared by all.
Cheddar’s three fingers closed around her wrist. The digits were soft despite being made from twigs. Leaves rustled as he rose to his feet.
“The North Pole is full of Christmas magic. Human and elf. Your magic doesn’t work very well there. Why would it work here?”
“That’s what we’re going to find out.”
And Dazzler hoped Todd would help her. Surely, as her friend, he wouldn’t refuse otherwise she could be stripped of her magic.
She chewed on her bottom lip. Hopefully, Todd didn’t hate magic so much he’d allow the North Pole Review Board to take away her powers.
Releasing Cheddar’s hand, Dazzler traipsed through the dappled sunlight beneath the cottonwoods and pines lining the road. Between the evergreen boughs, she spied the snowy trunks of sycamores, aspen, and poplars. Red flashed as cardinals darted in the forest. The jingle of the bells at the tips of her pointed shoes echoed through the silent woods.
“It smells funny.” Straightening, the scarecrow plucked stray leaves off his velvet vest then tucked them inside.
“It smells wonderful.” Opening her arms, she spun in a circle. “The peppermint scent of elven magic is too…” She mentally fumbled for the right words. “Too harsh. This is warm. Welcoming.”
Antlers gleamed in the dim forest. An ear twitched, and innocent brown eyes scanned the woods. Figgy pudding! She’d forgotten the reindeer.
Dazzler leapt behind a thick pine trunk and held her breath. Her senses strained. Had they seen her? The whole herd were notorious gossips. Tarnished tinsel! The daily reindeer report accounted for more than half the names switching from the Nice list to the Naughty one.
Cheddar’s acorn eyes narrowed. “Why are you hiding?”
She flattened her hands on the trunk. Bark crackled and broke under her touch. She peered around the pine. No red glow of reindeer noses illuminated the shadowy forest. She was safe. For now. But she had to be careful. Sighing, she dusted her hands on her velvet pants.
“Hmm?” She glared at the bells on her shoes. If she wanted to avoid the gossipy reindeer, she’d better ditch the shoes. She closed her eyes and summoned her magic. Her soles tingled, then her toes. Her heart quickened. Please, work. Please…
“Dazzler.” Cheddar grumbled in a voice sounding like two stones rubbing together.
She lost focus. Magic drained down her legs and filtered out of her toes. She shivered at the loss.
Planting his hands on his hips, Cheddar stared up at her. “Did your magic cause letters to disappear again?”
“No.” She clucked her tongue. Just because one sack of mail went astray, everyone blamed her.
She bent over and plucked the bells off her shoes. The breeze caught the green thread and whisked it away.
“Good, because there aren’t any departments left for you to join if you knot ribbons in the mailroom.”
Dragging her heel across the dark loam, she dropped the bells inside the furrow and buried them. Rich soil sucked at her fingers as she changed the bells into truffles. The peppermint scent stung her nose, and she waved it away. The reindeer couldn’t know her location.
Straightening, she smoothed her red vest. “I didn’t screw up sorting letters in the mailroom.”
The job was practically Dazzler-proof. Everyone said so. It wasn’t her fault that not all the letters were sealed. Or that some wish lists fell out of their envelopes.
The scarecrow pursed his lips. “But your magic did mess something up, didn’t it?”
Tucking her fingers inside her vest pockets, she crossed them. A little white lie shouldn’t land her on the Naughty List.
Except this time the Review Board planned an in-depth investigation into her off-Pole activities. She boxed up the thoughts, added gift wrap and a ribbon for good measure. It was almost the Christmas season. No time for negativity.
Cheddar grimaced. Sometimes the scarecrow took his role as her conscience a little too seriously. He opened and closed his mouth then huffed a breath. Two leaves flaked off his cheek and drifted to the ground.
“Are we really on a mission for Santa?”
Santa? Well, technically… Dazzler shrugged.
His eyes widened. “Does he even know we’re here?”
She tweaked the pom-pom on his hat. “Not here, precisely. I mean, he ordered me to pull myself together, or I’ll lose my magic once the Board’s inquiry is complete.”
Using both hands to count the days, Cheddar shuffled forward.
“So, we have three days to fix a problem you’ve had for nearly twenty years?”
More than half her thirty-six. She nodded. “We could have longer than three days.”
They could have the whole season, if the reindeer spies didn’t tell the Board where to find her. She was certain Todd Dugan would help. They weren’t just ex-family but friends. She’d been told friends helped friends in times of trouble. And she was in trouble. By Kringle, he had to help.
Leaves swept toward Cheddar, stuffing and lengthening his limbs until he brushed shoulders with her.
“Why do you think Todd will help? The man hates magic. Doesn’t want anything to do with it.”
“I helped him with his daughter.” Candance was half-elf. Dazzler frowned. Of course, her help with the teenager had been more about normal-girl-growing-up stuff than her burgeoning powers. Dazzler shrugged and gift-wrapped the doubts to hide them from herself.
“I don’t know.” Cheddar chewed on the end of a twig. “You do remember he’s in charge of Holly’s Christmas display this year, right?”
“All the more reason for me to be here.” She flapped a hand, dismissing his concerns. “I can help him with the lights, make this the best year yet, and free him up to tend the reindeer.”
Since the town of Holly was one of the way stations for Santa’s midnight ride, its herd needed to be in tiptop shape. She could stop Todd from splitting his focus. The town might depend on the lights, but the world depended on Santa.
Skipping ahead, Cheddar pivoted. He walked backward, facing her.
“If you’re here in hiding, the reindeer can’t be allowed to see you. Just one report, and news of your location will spread among the elves before first cocoa is finished.”
She opened her mouth then shut it. She knew firsthand how much elves loved gossip.
“Don’t worry, I won’t let the reindeer see me.”
A white tail flashed in the woods. So, how was she to prevent it?
“Good.” Cheddar nodded then turned his body but not his head. “I was afraid you’d want to help him. The last thing we need is a repeat of last Christmas Eve.”
Heat flamed in Dazzler’s cheeks. “I didn’t know the magic corn had turned bad.”
“Santa nearly passed out from the fumes.” Cheddar faced front. “As it was, he had to backtrack to Boise because his eyes teared up, putting him behind schedule.”
And elves loved their schedules.
“That wasn’t my fault.” Despite the cool breeze, sweat beaded Dazzler’s forehead. Would she ever escape her reputation? Glancing down, she glared at the cranberry tunic and tights. Not in this uniform.
She zigged to the side of the road and pushed aside the drooping branches of a willow. Brown grass crunched underfoot as she leapt a drainage ditch. Planting her feet on a carpet of leaves, pine needles, and bark, she closed her eyes and inhaled.
A dollop of magic would fix her clothes.
She tapped into the leylines running underfoot. Leaves rustled. Grass whispered. Peppermint scented the air. A soft breeze picked up the forest offerings and swirled them around her. Her soles tingled; then the sensation climbed her legs, hit her torso, and radiated out her arms and head. The debris knit together, flattened, then stretched. Bark-brown pants wrapped her legs. Sleigh-red and pumpkin-orange colored her new sweater. The lemon-yellow collar of her undershirt hugged her neck.
Cheddar’s nose crinkled. “No jacket?”
Dazzler shrugged. Northern Arizona was warm compared to Santa’s place. “You know elves are quite at home in subzero temperatures. Why do you think Santa picked the North Pole?”
Cheddar scratched his chin. “You do seem to be able to control your magic here. Perhaps, we can solve the mystery after all.”
“I dress myself every day.” Dazzler tapped her toes as her shoes changed into sturdy boots. Changing clothes required minimal energy. Her unique magic traces were practically invisible in Holly’s fabric. She tilted Cheddar’s hat rakishly over his acorn eye. “Come on. Let’s go to town.”
Grumbling, he pushed back the hat.
She reached the side of the road and stomped her boots. Spare leaves and twigs dropped to the asphalt. The church spire rose above the pines.
“The town is this way.”
“I can’t believe Santa would approve of you coming into the human realm to solve your magic problem.” Cheddar’s attention snapped to her so fast two leaves fluttered off his neck. “Your ex-cousin-in-law has a daughter who is the same age as you were when your magic started acting up.”
She nodded. “Except she’s just now coming into her magic. And I’ve had mine since birth.”
Dazzler had been a master weaver at five. At seventeen, her spells had started to go awry. Hope fluttered inside her. Santa’s insights wouldn’t fail her.
Cheddar pushed the pompom on his hat to the back of his head. “You know Todd may not want to see you. He split with his wife at this time of year sixteen years ago. Despite your holidays together, he always makes sure to spend this time alone with his daughter and his family.”
She rubbed the heart birthmark on her wrist. Time didn’t matter when someone lost the love of their life.
“All the more reason for him to be supported by his friends and family.”
Cheddar glanced up at her. His uniform quickly morphed into a flannel shirt and black jeans.
“Have you ever been in love?”
“No.” But she knew what it was like to feel as if something was missing inside, of being incomplete.
She shook off the thought. There was nothing wrong with her.
Tilting his head, the scarecrow pursed his lips. “And if he asks us to leave?”
Todd wouldn’t. He couldn’t. She needed help.
“Then I’ll take my investigation elsewhere.” Stuffing her hands in her pockets, she hid her crossed fingers again. In Todd and Candance, Dazzler was certain she’d find the key to her malfunctioning magic.
They rounded the bend. On the right, a white farmhouse roosted in a meadow. Horses lipped at the yellowing grass. Pine boughs and red ribbons festooned the line of carriages parked along the driveway. On the left, pumpkins huddled in a patch where wooden cutouts of the Kringles, Santa’s sleigh, and his flying reindeer encroached on the symbols of fall.
A reindeer leapt over a hedge trimmed in twinkle lights.
“Ready or not, here I come.”
Antlers twinkled under the forest canopy. The reindeer loved their games.
Dazzler increased her pace. The forest gave way to bungalow suburbs. Wicker snowmen congregated on the right, taking shelter under two leafless apple trees. Lights outlined sloping eaves and spiraled down porch pillars. Oversized candy canes and ribbon candies lined walkways. The road forked near a butter-yellow Victorian offering homemade ornaments. Arrows pointed to the left, directing traffic.
Standing near a compost box, an old man leaned on the rake in his hands. Leaves formed a pile by his scuffed boots. The rolled-up sleeves of his faded blue thermal shirt revealed a faded anchor tattoo on his forearm. Age pleated ruddy features trimmed by the white hair sticking out from his moth-eaten cap.
“No. Not at all.” Her stomach cramped. She would be welcomed here. She would.
He squinted at her for a moment; then his attention shifted to Cheddar. Leaves from his pile formed orderly lines and slipped under the scarecrow’s pants, fattening him.
“The both of you are more suited to Pumpkin and their celebration of all things Halloween than Christmas.” The old man stabbed his rake tines into the leaves, stopping their exodus.
Gasping, Cheddar shifted behind her and set his hand against her back. His shudder of fear transmitted through his twig fingers to her.
Dazzler straightened. No one would harm her friend. “I’m Dazzler Spitfire, and this is Cheddar.”
“Ole Henderson.” The old man rubbed his cold-kissed nose and cheeks. “I knew you was magic, but you’re an elf.”
“Of course.” She tucked a black curl behind her pointed ear. Not many magical creatures had ears like hers, even in Halloween towns.
“If you’re one of Santa’s helpers, how come you have a scarecrow with you?”
“Cheddar is my friend.” She raised her chin.
The old man grunted. “You ain’t got a real friend, so you had to make one? I thought everyone was friendly at the North Pole. What kind of elf doesn’t have friends at the North Pole?”
Black trimmed her vision as his words hit too close. She forced herself to breathe.
“Cheddar was a gift. We don’t return gifts at the North Pole.”
Especially after the great cookie fire a decade ago. Not that she’d tell the old man that. Humans needed to believe Santa’s place was perfect and magical.
Ole gathered the remaining leaves before resting the rake against the compost bin. “Thought you elves were supposed to be all white and silvery, like winter? You’re more like bark and leaves. You’d kinda stand out and all, up in the frozen north.”
Dazzler stumbled back a step. Her vision shimmered. “I’m a perfectly good elf.”
Most of the time.
Ole rubbed his chin. “I ain’t saying you’re not, just saying it would be easy for folks to see you from up high. Thought you’d be silver and white to blend in with the snow.”
Cheddar set his chin on her shoulder, stopping her retreat.
“Santa only works with Sylvan elves. Sylvan means woods.” He pointed a knobby twig finger toward the bare trees overhead. “Do you expect that tree to be like all the others? No. You want some trees for shade, others for fruit, and the evergreens for Christmas.”
Ole Henderson’s snowy hair twitched under his knit cap, and he raised his hands in surrender. “Just so long as you can do magic, you’re welcome.”
“Magic?” She blinked. “Holly has the strongest kind of magic outside of Santa’s realm.”
“You obviously have to be filled in about the town.” He removed his fleece-lined jacket from a bent nail on the compost bin and shrugged into it.
“I know all about Holly. The town was founded during the Gold Rush but didn’t really begin to attract a lot of settlers until after the wars that followed.” Dazzler smiled. She was good at research and remembered every bit of the history she’d looked into eighteen years ago. “After the First World War, Santa’s reindeer were exhausted by the time they hit the western US. He feared he wouldn’t keep Christmas for those in the newer states, but thankfully the settlers had a magical background and helped him corral enough elk to fill the team. The way station was created, and the townsfolk started raising reindeer.”
Ole shook his head. “I’m not talking about the town’s history. I’m talking about the man in charge.”
“Todd Dugan?” He was about as perfect as a human could be. Dazzler raised her chin. No one would besmirch her friend.
Ole set his hand on the small of her back and guided her down the lane.
“Guess I should have trusted the mayor to have a backup plan.”
Backup plan? Why would they need one? Dazzler blocked the old man’s view as Cheddar dove into the compost bin. The scarecrow muttered and hummed to the rotting vegetation, offering comfort.
“I know Todd Dugan.”
“Of course you do. He married one of your kind.”
The houses lining the lane grew closer together, then morphed into portly Victorians with white picket fences holding up garland bunting.
Dazzler mentally recited her favorite types of cookies in alphabetical order to cool her temper. At sugar cookies, she found her tongue.
“Todd has been nothing but kind. Why would the mayor need a backup plan?”
“Because of the curse.”
“Todd is the only Dugan to divorce his mate. Ever.” Ole nodded slowly as if weighed down by the importance of the revelation.
She shrugged. “I have met many humans. Divorce is common in families.” And a little magic went a long way to healing their broken hearts.
Ole tugged his hat off his head and wrung the knit material between his arthritic hands.
“Do you know why we teach science in high school and not magic?”
Dazzler squirmed. This had to be some kind of test. “Magic can’t be taught. It’s felt—in here.” She tapped her chest.
“Exactly.” Ole beamed as if she were a slow student who’d finally understood the lesson.
Except she didn’t understand. Not even a little. Still, she nodded as they turned down Main Street.
Garland arched overhead. Ribbons perched atop globe streetlamps. A man in a white apron scratched an advertisement for pumpkin pies and muffins off the bakery windows. A sandwich board in front of a red-brick diner counted the days remaining of pumpkin spice until the arrival of everything peppermint. A woman fiddled with a display of Santas at the souvenir shop but stopped to stare at them.
Dazzler waved at her, then at the man hanging wreaths on the signposts.
Carolers in street clothes paused at their marks on the corners and went over their playlist. On the marquee above the Art Deco theater, black letters listed the times classic holiday movies would play and boasted free popcorn.
Ole huffed. “You don’t see the problem at all. When a Dugan meets his match, the lights go out in Holly. Once a Dugan wins the love of his mate, his heart overflows, causing every light in town to blaze. What if Todd can’t hold enough magic in his broken heart, and the town stays dark? A lot of folks’s holiday will be ruined. Heavens to Betsy, some might stop believing and dim the fat man’s power. We don’t even know if evicting Todd from town would fix the problem.”
Dazzler caught her breath. Evict Todd, tear him away from his family and friends at the holidays? Surely, no one would be so cruel. She glanced at her human companion. From the set of his jaw, that’s exactly what Ole would do.
Well, not on her watch.
She cracked her knuckles. She’d protect Todd. “Everything will go off without a hitch. You’ll see.”
Ole pursed then flattened his lips. “But…”
“Todd’s heart is here in Holly. His family lives here. His daughter lives here. Everything he loves is here.”
Voices swelled from the town’s center. Men, women, and children poured out of the businesses lining the square. Ribbons of lights wrapped the lampposts. Clusters of red and green bulbs streamed from the pines lining the walk to the Greek revival courthouse in the center. A marching band practiced Christmas carols in the snow-white gazebo on the right. Around it, wrought iron cafe tables and chairs waited to be filled.
Dazzler floated on a cloud of vanilla and cinnamon. Inhaling deeply, she filled her lungs. Warmth radiated from her center and infused her fingers and toes. Such strong magic. It was wonderful. Amazing. She spun in a circle taking it all in.
“Not bad, eh?” Ole rubbed his hands together. “For those that don’t believe, there’s a logical reason for everything. But for those who do, it’s pure magic.”
A lump formed in her throat. Her feet left the ground, and sugar plums circled her, tickling as they twirled.
“I love it.”
A crowd gathered in the square. Steam danced above mugs of coffee, hot cocoa, and tea. A few reindeer gathered near a grass patch behind the gazebo. Returning to earth, Dazzler shifted into the center of the crowd, glad she was short enough to hide from the four-legged snitches.
The mayor bounded into the gazebo. The crowd quieted. He straightened his suit jacket, pushed up his wire-rim glasses, grinned, and then addressed the crowd.
“I’ll save my speech for Thanksgiving and the few polite citizens who’ll pretend it’s not the same one I give every year.”
Dazzler chuckled along with everyone else. This camaraderie was nice.
“And now for the man to help us usher in the season for ourselves and so many of our town’s visitors.” Mayor Browning pointed to a dark-haired man at the front of the crowd. “Please welcome Todd Dugan.”
The crowd clapped. A few cheered.
Todd climbed the steps two at a time. Cold brushed color on his high cheekbones and crooked nose. His cobalt eyes crackled with energy and enthusiasm. Rolling his broad shoulders, he tugged a tablet from his fawn-colored jacket.
“As we all know, the spirit of Christmas is strongest in the heart of a child.”
He beamed. She smiled back. Joy was so infectious.
Shifting to the edge of the gazebo, he turned the tablet toward a little girl drowsing in her mother’s arms.
“Can you tap that button here?” He pointed to a green box on the screen.
The girl nodded and sucked her thumb. The crowd twittered in sympathy.
But Dazzler sniffed acrid notes of unease. Everyone knew the importance of the Christmas spirit in Santa’s magic. She muttered a little calming spell—everything would be perfect.
The mother removed her daughter’s thumb from her mouth with a pop and pressed it against the box. Magic filled the nooks and crannies of the square. Lights twinkled in trees and on eaves. Pixie-dust trails wrote welcoming messages above the courthouse. An animated Santa and workshop elves danced and hummed as they worked on toys for good boys and girls.
Wonderful. Amazing. Dazzler clapped until her palms hurt. Why had everyone been worried? Todd Dugan could do anything.
Todd straightened. His gaze fell on her, and his eyes wid-ened with shock.
Then he smiled.
Her joy increased. Everything was always better when it was shared.
His lips parted as if he were about to speak.
A voice rang across the square. “It certainly says Christmas.”
Dazzler froze. No. No, this couldn’t be happening. Her cousin Willa couldn’t be here. Then she spied it. The sparkle of glitter on snow-white hair. Elven hair.
Todd tore his attention from Dazzler and pinned his ex-wife with a stare.
And the lights went dark.
STRANGE MAGIC (The Dugan Brothers Book 5), by Linda Andrews, from Zumaya Embraces; Trade paperback, $18.99, ISBN 978-1-61271-374-8, 278 pp.; Ebook, $5.00, ISBN 978-1-61271-375-5 (Kindle), 978-1-61271-376-2 (epub)
Coming soon to wherever fine books and ebooks are sold and at http://www.irresponsiblereading.com