October 2000
Dorchester
ISBN 0843947780

A recipe for an unforgettable Christmas of Love and Laughter.

Serves: Everyone

Holly Berries

1 pair enchanted spectacles
4 couples
8 lonely hearts
1 fairy godmother
1 miracle
Elves

Take four heroines, created by some of Romance's hottest authors. Mix them up with an equal number of heroes until warm and sweet. Press together and add laughter. Set in delicious historical settings, seal with a kiss, and leave overnight. By morning, couples will have formed four delightful stories. Sprinkle liberally with... Mistletoe & Magic.


This set of short stories won the 2001 Pearl award. It was my first paranormal story and I had great fun stepping out of the limits set by straight Historicals and creating my medieval fairy tale, which even included a fairy godmother.


Chapter One

The lid of the sarcophagus settled into place with a deep, low grinding of stone on stone. There was silence for a moment, then everyone began to drift out, back to their daily chores and lives, leaving Odel alone. She was aware of their leave-taking and thought how funny it was that they still had things to do. Unlike herself, life continued for them much as it had before the death of their lord and master. Her father.

The priest patted her shoulder and Odel smiled at him stiffly, then watched him follow the others out of the building. He was leaving her alone to deal with her grief. Most considerate, she thought, almost ashamed that she was not feeling any. All she seemed filled with was an empty confusion, a sort of loss as to what to do next. It seemed the whole of her life had been centered around the selfish wants and needs of the man who now lay entombed in this last resting spot. Without him to order her about, she hadn't a clue really what to do now. So she stayed where she was, staring dry-eyed at the stone likeness laid out before her, waiting for an idea to strike her.

She was still standing there several moments later when the door opened again. An icy winter wind blew in, ruffling the black veil that shrouded Odel's still dry eyes. Positive it was the priest returned, she did not look about. But when a woman's voice rang out behind her, she nearly jumped out of her skin.

"Well, here I am. Late again as usual. But then, better late than not here at all, I always say," the high, clear voice chimed out, sounding almost bell-like in the small, stone building.

Lifting the black veil that covered her face, Odel tossed it back over her head and whirled toward the door. A round, little gray-haired lady dressed in the most horrid pink confection Odel had ever seen was trundling toward her. She was positive she had never met her before, but the woman's words seemed to suggest otherwise. The way she now charged up and enveloped her in a pink silk and perfumed hug also seemed to indicate they were not strangers. Eyes wide, Odel stood stiff in her embrace and racked her brain for who she might be.

"Toot-a-loo, dear. I am sorry you have had to see to all of this on your own. I came as soon as I could. Howbeit, that never seems quite soon enough." Releasing her, the woman stepped back to glance down at the stern, stone effigy atop the tomb of Odel's father, then sniffed with distaste. "Rather grim, is it not? But then he was a perfectly grim man. I never met a more cantankerous lout."

When Odel gaped at such irreverent words, the woman arched her eyebrows slightly. "Surely you do not disagree?"

"I...He was my father...And he is dead," was all she could come up with in answer. It was certain she could not refute the comment. At least not without outright lying. Lord Roswald certainly had been a cantankerous lout. But Odel would bite her own tongue off ere being disrespectful enough to say so about her own father.

"Hmm." The woman's mouth twisted at one corner. "I take it you believe that old adage about not speaking ill of the dead? Well, my dear, that is very good of you. I myself am of the firm belief that a man earns his praises or recriminations in life - and death - by his actions. And deserves every lick of it he earns. Your father, rest his soul, earned all the recrimination a body can spew. Why, what he did to your mother alone was enough to keep me recriminating for a century, never mind what he did to you."

Odel's eyes widened and brightened suddenly. "You knew my mother?"

"Knew her?" The odd little woman's smile softened. "My dear, we were best friends. As close as can be. Until your grandfather forced her to marry your father. What a tragedy that was." She moved to the second sarcophagus in the room as she spoke and peered sadly down at the likeness of the beautiful woman it held.

"She was lovely. Even this cold stone cannot hide that," she murmured, then glanced at Odel. "They were not suited at all, of course. Your mother was young, beautiful, and light-hearted while your father was old and bitter. He had already had, and lost, one family and was determined to subdue and hold onto Lillith and whatever children she gave him any way he could." Her gaze moved back to the stone effigy and a whisper of a sigh slid from her lips as she caressed the cold marble cheek sadly. "He choked all the joy and youth out of her ere the first year of their marriage was ended. Her death when you were five was a mere formality. All the life had left her long ere that."

Odel dropped her gaze to the likeness of her mother, the first real sense of grief she had felt that day touching her. That sadness was quickly washed away by the woman's next words.

"You look much like her. Your mother, I mean. That should make things easier."

"Make what things easier?" she asked in confusion, but the woman wasn't listening. A frown had suddenly drawn her lips down as she considered the pallor of Odel's skin and the thinness of the body obvious beneath the sack-like black gown she wore. Odel knew that while her features were the same as her lovely mother's, they were presently tight pinched with stress, and that there were dark smudges beneath her eyes that nearly matched the unrelenting black of the veil that shrouded her hair.

The woman moved so swiftly that Odel couldn't stop her start of surprise when the veil was suddenly snatched from her head. The swift action tugged loose several of the pins that had held her hair in place, sending them to the floor with a hollow tinkle. Her hair slid eagerly down around her shoulders in waves of dull color.

Seeing the lifeless hair that should have shone fiery red-brown, the woman pursed her lips, concern furrowing her forehead. "He did not choke the life from you as well, did he?"

Odel's eyes dilated at the rude question, then she blurted, "Who are you?"

The old lady blinked at that. "Who? Me? Oh, dear, did I not introduce myself? How silly of me. My goodness, no wonder you look at me as if I were mad, dear. You haven't a clue who I am. Why I'm Tildy, child.

"Tildy?" Odel frowned over the name, memory pinching at her faintly.

"Your Godmother."

Odel's eyes widened at that. "My Godmother?"

"Aye. Aunt Matilda. But you may call me Tildy, dear. Matilda puts one in mind of large, horsy women with prominent teeth."

"Tildy," Odel murmured, obedience coming automatically to her, then she frowned as she stared at the little woman, her mind rushing with information. Matilda had actually been her mother's cousin. A poor orphaned cousin who had been taken in and raised with their own daughter by Odel's grandparents. The two girls had been as close as sisters. Closer. Best friends. And Lord Roswald had not suffered his wife to have friends. It had been his considered opinion, that all of Lillith's attention and affection should be shared only among himself and whatever children they had. He had forced her to end all contact with Matilda, or Tildy as she preferred, shortly after their marriage, but that hadn't stopped her mother from naming the woman Odel's Godmother. Unfortunately, it hadn't been long after that that Matilda had taken a fall from her horse that had ended in her breaking her neck.

Eyes widening incredulously, she whirled on the woman. "But you are dead!"

"Am I?" Tildy asked, seeming not the least perturbed at the observation. "Where did you ever hear a thing like that?"

"Well from..." Turning, Odel gestured vaguely toward the stone image of her father, then glanced back sharply when the little woman clucked without insult beside her.

"Aye. Well, we all have our faults, don't we?"

Odel merely stared at her uncertainly as she tried to discern which fault the woman was referring to exactly. Was she saying her father had lied? That seemed the obvious answer, since her Aunt now stood before her, not looking the least dead.

"You're named after me, did you know that?" Tildy said now cheerfully.

Odel blinked, distracted from her thoughts. "I am? But your name is-"

"Matilda Odel," Tildy told her promptly, then her expression softened affectionately as she reached out to brush a stray strand of hair off her cheek. "And I was so looking forward to being your Aunt. But of course, then there was that riding accident, and-" She shrugged over the accident Odel had been told killed the woman.

"The accident?" Odel asked with a frown.

"The one that ended my earthly life," Matilda said impatiently.

"You mean the accident did kill you?" Odel squeaked.

"Aye. In my prime too," Matilda murmured tragically, then sighed and straightened her shoulders. "Such is life. Anyway, I have been watching out for you all these years as a Godmother should, but I couldn't interfere before. Vlaster said it wasn't allowed."

"Who is Vlaster?" Odel asked absently, her gaze shifting to the door. It wasn't that far away. If she could just distract this madwoman for a moment...

"Oh, he is my supervisor." Odel glanced back at that claim to see the woman now peer at the floor about them as if in search of someone. "He is around here somewhere. He probably headed straight for the keep. He dislikes the cold, you see."

"I see," Odel said carefully, easing a cautious step to the side and a little closer to the door.

"Aye." Matilda made a face. "He was none too pleased to be coming down here at this time of year, but your case has rather reached a crisis point."

"Yes," Odel agreed, taking another sidling step.

"I was able to convince him thank goodness."

"Of what?" Odel murmured absently, taking another step.

"Why that your father's treatment of you had made you afraid of love. That without some serious intervention, he will have succeeded in his efforts to make you as bitter and lonely as he himself was," she explained patiently, then beamed at her. "But twill be all right now. I am here, specially sent to see you happy."

Odel paused and stared at the woman in amazement. "Are you saying, my lady, that you are some sort of guardian angel?"

"Well." She made a face. "I am not quite an angel yet. Angel's don't need canes and fairy dust."

"Canes and fairy dust?" Odel's eyes widened incredulously.

"Aye. I am just a Godmother, a fairy Godmother. I need a little help performing my miracles," she admitted unhappily, then brightened. "Though if I succeed at helping fifty of my wards, I shall graduate to angel."

"And what number am I?" Odel asked, curious despite thinking the woman quite mad.

Matilda winced at the question, her answer coming reluctantly. "You are my first. I have been in training up until now you see."

"It figures," Odel muttered.

"Never fear though, I graduated at the top- Well, close to the top of my- I didn't fail," she ended finally, then sighed and took Odel's arm, urging her toward the door she had been so eager to escape through just moments ago. "Never mind that. All will be well. But there is much to do."

"Much to do with what?" Odel asked warily as Tildy dragged the doors open. Sunlight and a crisp winter breeze immediately washed over them.

"With you, dear. I am here to find you a husband."

"Find me a husband?" Odel paused and stiffened at the claim. It was the last thing she had expected and the very last thing she would ever want to hear. "I have no need of a husband."

"Of course you do, dear. Oh my goodness yes. One can not procreate alone, you know. A man is needed for that chore."

Odel flushed, then paled by turn. "But I do not wish to procreate."

"Of course you do. 'Tis your duty. As the bible says, "go forth and multiply" and all that. Yes, yes it does and so you shall."

"But I am not even betrothed, I-"

"Aye, I know. Most remiss of your father. Terribly selfish too, keeping you chained to his side so. He wanted to keep you all to himself no doubt, but we shall fix that. We will have you betrothed and married off in no time."

"But-"

"Now, I'll have no arguing from you. I know your father insisted on your staying at his side until he died, but he's gone now. And it is my job now to look out for you. I do so want to attain angel status. They have wings, you know. After you I will only have forty-nine to go." Tildy's gaze settled on her determinedly. "And I do have something of a time limit. I have till Christmas to see you happy and married."

Odel stiffened at that. "Which is it?"

Tildy blinked at the question. "Which is what?"

"Which are you suppose to make me? Happy or married?" she asked bitterly, then turned to march across the bailey. Her heart was pounding something fierce, just as it had over the years when her father had raised his voice and his hand to her. Only this time was different. She wasn't feeling fear. In fact she was furious. She had spent the last twenty-five years under her father's thumb being yelled at, ordered about, and physically attacked. Every wish, every desire she had ever had had been belittled or thwarted by him. She had no intention of putting herself back under another man's thumb.

"But my dear!" Matilda rushed after her, alarmed beyond reason. "Every girl wants to be married. Every girl wants a husband, children and home."

"I am not every girl," Odel snapped, then suddenly remembered that the woman was quite mad and there was nothing to fear here. She need not fear losing her freedom. The thought made her slow somewhat with realization. She was free. A small laugh slid from her lips, then she picked up her pace again and began to hurry up the steps to the keep. She was free! Why she could go inside right now and.....And sit by the fire if she wished and her father would not be there yelling at her to fetch him this or do that for him. She could... Well, she could do whatever she wanted....For the most part.

"Oh my!"

Odel paused just inside the door of the keep at Matilda's exclamation. She did not have to think hard to figure out what had brought that gasp from her lips. Roswald castle had done that and she felt all of her excitement of a moment ago slip away under depression as she peered over the great hall. Her father's presence was everywhere here. It was like an extension of him, as if he were not truly dead at all. Odel peered about her and sighed. "It is rather grim and gloomy is it not?"

"Aye," Matilda nodded solemnly.

"Father never liked the sun much," she muttered unhappily as her eyes adjusted to the dim interior. "He always insisted the arrow slits be covered with leather no matter the season and..."

"There is only one chair in here," Matilda pointed out as if Odel may not have noticed that.

"Aye," Odel agreed unhappily. In the whole huge great hall, the only stick of furniture was her father's large chair by the fire. He always insisted the tables and benches used at mealtimes be collapsed and leaned against the walls 'lest some lazy loafer waste time sitting about'.

"And there are not even any rushes on the floor," Matilda added with amazement.

"Father said that was just a lazy servants invention to keep from having to scrub the floor daily."

"Scrub the floor!! But these stone floors are so cold without rushes that the cold is seeping right through my slippers."

"I know," Odel almost moaned the two words. "I have always wished it were other wise." She glanced at Matilda and mocked. "If you really wished to make me happy, you could send me a wagon load of rushes, not some useless bossy man."

"That, my dear, is a very good idea," Matilda decided grimly and immediately tugged open the small pink sack that hung from her wrist. She slipped her hand inside, pulled it out closed a moment later, then raised her hand in front of her face. After muttering a couple of sentences, she opened her fingers and began to turn in a circle, blowing on the glittering dust that rested in her palm as she did.

Odel was busy gaping at this, her mouth hanging open like a fish, when Matilda's little turn brought them face to face. Finding herself in the center of a small cloud of the glittering substance, Odel gasped in surprise, then quickly closed her eyes, and tried to step back out of the way. She was too late. She had already breathed in a good deal of the dust, and it sent her into a fit of coughing and sneezing.

"Oh dear!" Matilda was at her side and thumping her back at once. "I am sorry, my dear. I had no intention of blowing it in your face. I am sorry."

"Fairy dust?!" Odel choked out, straightening slowly as her sneezes and coughs subsided.

"Aye. Well I did mention that where Angels could perform miracles without it, I need it to-"

"Oh my God!!"

"What is it?" Matilda asked, then turned to survey the room the girl was now gaping at. "Oh." She grimaced uncertainly. "Too much, do you think? Perhaps I should have used a little less fairy dust, hmmm?"

"Fairy dust?" Odel repeated faintly, her eyes sliding over the room in shock as she began to actually believe the woman's mad claims. The floor was now covered with a plush carpet of rushes, the walls were so white, the brightness almost hurt the eyes, but were saved from being blinding by several huge tapestries adorning them. Odel had never before seen such beautiful, rich tapestries and she marveled at them briefly before taking in the rest of the room. The lone chair that had sat by the fire, was no more. Now the room was full of furnishings. Several large carved chairs sat grouped around the fire, large soft cushions on each, making them look comfy. The trestle tables and benches that had been collapsed and leaning against the wall were now set up, long white cloths covering the tables rough surfaces, and two dainty little pillows on the center of the bench of the upper table denoted where she and Matilda would sit.

"My God," Odel breathed, then whirled on Tildy accusingly. "You do have magic!"

Matilda sighed at her expression. "Aye, dear. Did I not say so? I told you I have fairy dust to help- Oh! There you are Vlaster." Bending, she picked up a cat that slid through the open door behind them.

"Vlaster?" Odel echoed, then her eyebrows rose as she recalled Tildy mentioning the name earlier. "Your superior is a cat?"

"At the moment, yes."

"At the moment?" Odel repeated archly, and started to turn away, only to pause as her gaze took in the room again. Moaning, she closed her eyes and swayed slightly. "This can not be happening."

"Are you feeling faint?" Tildy asked with alarm, letting the cat drop to the floor so that she could put a supporting arm around her. "Just breathe deeply. Breathe."

Odel obediently took a couple of deep breaths, relieved when some of the tightness in her chest eased and the buzzing that had been ringing in her ears went away.

"Better?" Matilda asked solicitously and Odel nodded.

"Aye, but-"

"But?"

"You have to put this back the way it was."

Matilda frowned. "Do you not like it? I could-"

She shook her head, her eyes opening and scanning the room. "I like it but.. What will the servants think? They will know something is amiss."

"Oh ta ra," Matilda laughed that worry away and waved her cane vaguely in a circle. "There! They shall all just believe that my servants did it."

"You have servants?"

Matilda stilled and frowned at that, then peered down at the cat she had set down. "Vlaster?"

In the blink of an eye, the cat was gone, and in it's place stood a man. Tall and thin, dressed in a frock and brais of black, he wiggled a black mustache at her then ran one hand through his equally black hair...Hair as black as the cat's fur had been.

"Oh, no no no," Odel began to back slowly away, her head shaking.

"Aye. It is perfect," Matilda said gaily. "My dear, meet my man-servant, Vlaster. Vlaster, my niece, Odel."

"Man-servant?" There was a touch of irritation in the man's voice, but Odel was too busy shaking her head to notice.

"Nay," Odel repeated faintly and Matilda hesitated, then frowned.

"Aye, I suppose he alone could not have achieved all this could he?" Turning, she marched to the door, peered out into the bailey, glanced around briefly, then stilled suddenly and smiled in satisfaction. Putting her hand to her mouth, she began making the most god-awful quacking sounds.

"What are you doing?!" Odel hissed, hurrying to her side. "You sound like a-" Her eyes widened, and she stepped back from the door abruptly as six of the brown female ducks that had been penned by the stables, came waddling through the keep door. "Duck," she breathed in amazement, then frowned and closed her eyes, waving her hand impatiently in front of her face as Matilda unloosed some more of her dust.

Despite having seen the results of Matilda's dust before, she was not all prepared to find six women of varying age and size suddenly standing where the ducks had been but a moment ago. Each of them wearing a gown the same dull gray-brown color as the ducks feathers had been. The ducks were no where in sight now. Still, they could not be- "Oh," Odel moaned, her hand going to her forehead as horror at her own thoughts rolled around in her head.

"Mayhap you should lay down my dear, you appear to have gone quite white."

"Nay, nay, I..." Odel forced her hands down and her eyes to open, but the moment her gaze took in the new room, the furniture, the six maids and the tall dark Vlaster, she closed her eyes again. "Aye, mayhap I should."

"Aye, I think so," Matilda said gently and took her arm to urge her toward the stairs to the upper floor. "A nice little nap will do you the world of good. I will wake you when it is time for the sup. No doubt you have been sitting up by your father's bedside since he fell ill and are exceedingly weary. A little nap, then a nice meal will set everything right."

"Aye," Odel grasped eagerly onto that excuse for the odd things happening in her home. "I am just over tired. A little nap, then something to eat and everything will be back to normal."

"Well, I hope not," Matilda muttered a little wryly as she opened the door to Odel's room for her.

"How did you know which room was mine?" Odel asked curiously, then stiffened and quickly turned her back to the room, her eyes closing firmly.

"What is it?" Matilda asked with alarm, peering past her into the room. Then understanding crossed her face as she took in the large comfy looking bed, the cushioned chairs by the fire, and the lush rose colored curtains that hung above the bed. The room looked warm and cozy. It was doubtful it had looked like that several moments ago. Roswald had been too mean and cheap to see to his daughter's comfort. "Hmmm I did use quite a bit of dust, but it just saves me from having to tend to this now. Are you not happy with it?"

Eyes still squeezed firmly shut, Odel merely began to chant under her breath. "This is not happening, this could not be happening, it is not happening."

"There there," Matilda murmured steering her back around and urging her toward the bed. "A nice nap is what you need."

"This is not happening," Odel muttered, collapsing onto the bed when Matilda pushed her against it. "This is not happening."

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