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Carol Kringle studied the dolls in front of her, glancing between each one on the conveyer belt and the corresponding number on the checklist affixed to her clipboard. She checked each one, ensuring there were no cracks in the porcelain, no holes in the dresses, and no synthetic hair out of place. Of course there weren’t.
Her husband, Chris, insisted the sophisticated machines made each doll perfectly. But Carol didn’t trust technology. How could she when building each toy by hand had ensured flawless Christmas toys for hundreds of years? One computer error could halt production. If that meant an imperfect gift, then technology wasn’t worth it. True, she was proud of the work her son Nicholas did by inventing machines and constantly updating them. But with each new gadget, she had less and less to do. She couldn’t help but feel as if the love were being taken out of the toys—replacing it instead with monotony and boredom.
“If you keep building these machines, what makes us any different from the box stores?” she had asked a hundred times.
“Because our toys are better, free, and exactly what the child wants,” Chris said.
“And what will the elves do?”
“They have to keep the machines intact, spot checks on the toys, and work on the sleigh. Plus, some gifts can’t be wrapped with the machine because they’re irregularly shaped. But now, the elves won’t be overworked,” Chris insisted, as always, whenever she brought it up. He was Santa, after all. For the last twenty-five years they’d been running the workshop, she’d trusted him. He’d never steered her wrong, but she couldn’t shake the sprinkles of doubt that fell over her whenever she passed the line of computers.
“I know. I just—”
“You worry because you care, dear, I know. But it’ll be okay. We have to keep up with the times. Simple toys aren’t enough anymore. Do you want to keep the children happy?” He was right—he usually was—but that never made anything easier to accept.
She hung her clipboard beside the others on the wall, then flipped the switch to convey the dolls into the next room for boxing. As usual, she was one of the last ones in Workshop A that evening. Her wrist was sore from writing notes and she had a crick in her neck, but she’d gotten a lot done. That sense of accomplishment was the perfect balm.
“Still here?” a voice asked.
Carol turned, hand on her chest. “Christopher Kringle, I’ve told you a million times to stop scaring me like that.”
“Sorry, dear, it’s not my fault I’m naturally graceful.”
Laughing, she hugged him. “Can’t argue with that, Santa.”
“But what are you still doing here? Aren’t you having a girls’ night?”
“Yes, Valentina and Eva will be here any minute. But there’s so much to do here. I cannot believe I agreed to dinner with Christmas only a few weeks away. I have no idea what I was thinking.”
“Go have fun with your friends. In fact, why don’t you take tomorrow off, too, so you can have some time to yourself? You seem stressed. The elves and I have things under control. Just a few more adjustments to make on the sleigh, and we’ll be calling it a night. And Nicholas…well, let’s just say if he keeps working as hard as he has been, he’ll be taking over my job soon enough. Then, I can retire with you.”
Smiling, she headed to the bright red door of the workshop. But before she left, she shifted to look at Chris. He was laughing with the last of the elves who were cleaning up, a tool belt around his hips. Carol loved watching him in his element, doing what he was born to do. He had changed in the twenty-six years since they met, had grown older, his beard now white, but his passion for Christmas never wavered. The twinkle in his eye was still as bright, and the enthusiasm he felt toward life was still evident. But try as she might over the last couple of years, she struggled to feel it, too. Instead, she was left feeling restless with not enough to do and way too much time on her hands.
Carol closed the door with a click behind her. She walked down the hall, her heels tapping on the dark hardwood as she went. The snow drummed softly against the line of arched windows, a constant soundtrack to her life. It was a peaceful sound that conjured images of roaring fireplaces and twinkling lights on trees. And those trees were the ones she spent hours decorating, partly because she loved it and partly because there simply wasn’t anything else to decorate. So, despite the peaceful hum of the snow, the glimmer of thousands of Christmas lights, all Carol felt was empty.
The massive chalet was quiet when she entered into the heart of it, as all the elves had gone home for the night. Guilt settled in her stomach at having dinner with the girls instead of helping Chris in the garage. True, she knew nothing about the sleigh, but maybe she could hand him tools or make cookies for when he finished. There had to be something she could do. But it was too late to cancel and the portals were opening in exactly two minutes, according to her watch.
The portal room was one of her favorites. Each of the twelve mirrors was a masterpiece with gold brocade frames and elaborate stands holding them up in a semicircle. The mirrors weren’t just decorative—they could take people wherever they wanted to go as long as the location had a mirror of its own. Any mirror would work, but Carol loved the drama of the long, six-foot-high masterpieces in front of her. It was the only way into the North Pole—except for flying reindeer—and the only way out for that matter. Chris had built them as a wedding gift fifteen years before. He’d modeled it after The Hall of Mirrors in the palace of Versailles, one of the many places they’d visited on their honeymoon.
As she waited for her friends to show up, Carol thought about the last time she saw them. Frankly, it had to have been ages ago. Maybe when Eva’s son had gotten married. Either way, it wasn’t just time for them to reconnect. She felt like she needed her friends. They were busy women, too, but there had to have been times in their lives when they felt a little lost.
Valentina was first to arrive in a flash of white light, dressed head to toe in a shade of red that made the copper undertones of her skin shine, giving her a glow no beautician could recreate. Some would think she was playing to the Christmas spirit, but then again, those people didn’t know she was Cupid. Her crushed velvet blazer, buttoned in the middle, showed off a tiny waist most models would’ve killed for, and the deep red pencil skirt flowed with her curves. But what had Carol drooling was the knee-high stiletto boots. Valentina thought the baby-in-a-diaper idea was ridiculous, so she vowed to always look her best. After all, she was in charge of love, and she was madly in love with fashion.
“Val, don’t you look beautiful? It’s nice to see you.” Carol kissed her on both cheeks.
“And you, Carol? With Christmas coming up, I am so glad you were able to meet. I’ve been so busy, and I desperately needed this break. And six months? It’s much too long to go between visits.”
“I agree. We’re the lucky ones, though. Christmas is just one day a year. But people need love every day.”
Sighing, Val tossed her black braids over one shoulder. “Especially during the holidays. You know this is my busiest time of year, too. So many people alone… I just can’t handle it.”
“I hope this dinner isn’t ruining your work time. If you need to leave, Val, I completely understand.”
“No, I have some of the interns working. It’s important we get together.”
“Yes, it is. Now, we just have to wait for Eva.”
Val strode along the mirrors, each connected to someone or some place of importance. “I’m dying to see if her son—” One of the mirrors etched with gilt leaves flashed and spun. “Look, Mother Nature is gracing us with her presence.”
Eva walked out of the mirror, her outfit a complete contrast to Valentina’s, as usual. She was dressed in teal paisley bell-bottom pants and a flowing cream blouse with an embroidered cardigan that fell behind her like a train. The scent of rain followed her entrance as if to announce her arrival.
“Ladies, I am so sorry I’m late. You wouldn’t believe the snowstorm happening in Austria right now. I think my son got excited for the holiday season, and I needed to calm him down a little.”
“How is Hank doing? Is he still enjoying the newlywed period with Hannah?” Valentina asked. She’d set them up the year before.
“Well…” Eva looked down and paused, as if for dramatic effect. “Ladies, I’m going to be a grandmother! Hannah is entering her second trimester, and I’ve been given the all-clear to tell my nearest and dearest.”
Val and Carol both hugged her. Each baby born into one of their families was another child who would grow up in a magical world with all the duties and honors that came with it. Hank’s new edition would be the next in an extensive line of deities who controlled nature.
“Come, let’s all go get some dinner and have a glass of champagne,” Carol said when she pulled away. “Eva, I’m so excited to hear about your news. I’ll have Chris make a little something special for the baby. Just because they’re not here yet doesn’t mean he or she can’t have something under the tree.”
“She,” Eva whispered. “I have a feeling.”
Carol laughed. “You would know.”
She escorted them down the short hallway to the dining room. It was hardly used, but Carol wanted to put on a little show for the girls. The room was one of the original areas of the chalet, and it reflected the history in the deep woods and red velvet drapery. There was a large space with a table covered in a white cloth. It could seat twenty, but it was only set for three. A fireplace on one end blazed, making the gold reindeer statuettes on the centerpiece glow. There was a row of stockings across the mantel—one for each of the baby elves born that year.
Their meals had already been plated and served, still steaming with help from the charmed dishes that ensured food never grew cold. The kitchen elves had prepared a beautiful Italian meal, straight from a cookbook Carol had Chris pick up during his last visit to the mainland. There was pasta with homemade sauce, roast lamb, a colorful salad, and cheesecake so decadent that no one could ever resist.
Their dinner conversation centered on Eva’s future grandchild, her first. Val already had three. With Carol’s friends having such large families, she was beginning to feel left behind. They had all grown into their full powers together, with Eva and Val being born into theirs, but unable to tap into them until their twentieth birthday. Carol had married into them at twenty-one. Their weddings had actually only been weeks apart, then they had been pregnant together. Now, for the first time, Carol was the only one not celebrating new life.
She was happy for her friends. They deserved the best in life, and their children were such good people. But she couldn’t help but feel envious, something she wasn’t accustomed to. Carol shook her head, reminding herself Nicholas was healthy. Logically, she knew she was luckier than most. He still had plenty of time to find someone. She needed to be patient.
As they finished their dessert, Eva turned to Carol. “So, we’ve talked about my Hank and Valentina’s beautiful family with her children and grandchildren. But how is Nicholas? Is he here today?”
Carol took a deep breath. She had held back on calling them to vent about her fears for weeks, but she needed to get it all out in the open. Maybe they could help. “Well, I just don’t know what to do about him. All he does is work. When I bring up the idea of finding someone, or even going out for a day, he says work is fun for him. He spent years in the real world going to that boarding school, then college, but he doesn’t make time to visit his friends. I mean, I guess it doesn’t surprise me since Chris is the same, but I feel like Nicholas is throwing his life away. He’ll make a great Santa one day, I know it. I just don’t want him to only be Santa. He needs more.”
Carol refrained from adding, I need more.
“This is the worry of moms everywhere,” Valentina said, sipping her post-dinner latte. “I get so many wishes from them, begging me to help their children find love. What has Nicholas said when you’ve brought it up to him?”
“He just says he’s too busy, then tells me to relax.”
“Are you ready for my help, or do you still want it to happen naturally?”
“Val, you’re so busy right now. I can’t ask that from you. Besides, I’ve brought it up to Nicholas. He is very against it.”
“It’s true. I am busy. People don’t want to spend the holidays alone, and I don’t blame them. But for Nicholas? I can make a little room in my schedule.”
“Carol,” Eva started softly. “Is Nicholas still going to the real world in a few days? Why don’t you go with him? Maybe if you’re there to help, he can take some time off to meet someone. I’m sure Val can provide some suggestions without the arrows. There are ways for her to help that don’t include complete interference.”
Smiling, Valentina put her cup down. “I could make a list, but it would be easier if we just used magic. Just say the word and I’ll snap my fingers. We’ll have him married before the final frost.”
“No, we can’t use magic. Nicholas is totally against using it where love is concerned. He would kill me if I got too involved. I suppose I could go with him, though, and just help a teensy bit.” She focused on her last few words. It was a mother’s job, after all, and she’d just assist a little.
“Knowing Nicholas, he’ll fight it,” Eva said in a soothing tone she normally reserved for frightened animals. “Our children have grown up surrounded by magic. Yet, most fight against that same magic for anything that matters, like love. You set up Hank and Hannah, but he asked you to do it. You wouldn’t want Nicholas to get upset because you’re butting into his personal life and magically arranging it. That’s no holiday for your family. It may even ruin Christmas for you. Or worse, your entire relationship. Val, you must’ve seen mother-and-son relationships ruined by meddling over love.”
“Yes, I have to admit I have.”
Carol had to concede Eva had a point. But then again, that was what happened when Mother Nature was asked a caregiving question. She gave advice one didn’t always want to hear but knew was needed. Still, there was always a loophole when it came to making a match.
“Okay, so Nicholas can’t know I’m involved, so that probably means arrows are out of the picture. It will have to be stealthy and under the radar,” Carol said.
Valentina laughed. “Carol, when was the last time you did anything under the radar? That’s what makes you the perfect Mrs. Claus. Everything is big, loud, and filled with love, excitement, and cheer.”
“Well, Val, you go around the world as Cupid and you’re never caught. You’ll just have to help me be like a…like a super spy for love.”
“That’s going to go on my business cards. ‘Valentina Cupid, Super Spy for Love.’”
“So you’ll help?”
“Absolutely. You’re going to bring your portal watch, right?”
“Yes. I’ll probably take a reindeer down because of my luggage, but after Prancer broke his leg a couple of years ago, I’m afraid to travel without my watch. Besides, I don’t like opening the portals around people. It’s risking exposure.”
“Well, bring the watch and hide when you want to use it. This way, you can call me through my portal to chat.”
“Hold on, ladies,” Eva cut in. “It should be a three-way portal. I want to be in on everything that happens in case you need my advice as well. Someone needs to keep you two in line.” She winked.
“Eva,” Val began in mock outrage, clutching her hand to her chest. “It’s as if you don’t trust us.”
“Oh, I trust you. But I also know you.”
They laughed, the way good friends did when they reconnected. Carol had missed them. It had been a mistake not to reach out to them about Nicholas sooner. They loved him, too. And with that, she felt her body fill with purpose. The restlessness had a place to go, a constructive outlet that would change her son’s life for the better. She would use the little trip to help Nicholas settle down. And, on top of that, maybe she’d take some time away from the workshop. It’d been years since she’d been away for more than a day. Maybe it was time Carol found out what else was out there for her besides work. Starting with a daughter-in-law.
Carol was determined to find a woman for Nicholas to spend Christmas with. Maybe it would be love, or maybe it would at least open him up to the possibility of love. But one thing was for sure, she’d show him there was enough room in his heart for his Santa duties and his future Mrs. Claus. Chris made it work every single day, and it was about time Nicholas tried.
End of Excerpt