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Princess Jasmine Arcelus had dressed for confidence this morning. She’d chosen a pair of coal black, textured strappy sandals with heels that gave her an extra three inches. Her business suit was impeccable, a fitted, black skirt with a white silk blouse, topped by a coordinating blazer with trendy leather details. She’d drawn her blonde hair into a loosely braided bun, which was neat without being severe. And her jewelry was subtle, an emerald pendant of her mother’s combined with her favorite diamond studs.
In the end, all of it, every bit, had been a colossal waste of time and effort.
Now, as her private plane taxied to a halt at the small airport outside Tucker, Maine, the neatly typed pages of her speech blurred in front of her eyes. The palace communications staff had polished it until it gleamed and she had memorized each sentence, every syllable. Under the watchful eye of her speaking coach, she’d practiced it over and over, experimenting with cadence and expression. She’d nailed it in rehearsal and she’d known she was finally ready.
Then, standing in front of the hand-picked diplomatic audience in New York City, she’d frozen. The faces had blurred in front of her. A ringing came up in her ears. And she couldn’t force her mouth to make a single sound. After several agonizing minutes, the emcee had stepped in and escorted her off stage.
Her failure was an embarrassment to her father, the king, and to the entire country of Vollan.
As the engines of the plane powered down and the jet rolled to a halt on the tarmac, her personal secretary Darren Matzer moved to the seat next to hers.
“It wasn’t so bad,” he said in a gentle voice.
“It was an unmitigated disaster,” Jasmine responded.
There was simply no other description that fit. The sight of her flawless manicure against the crisp pages made her want to throw up. How could someone be so polished on the outside and so terribly flawed underneath?
“I thought the emcee covered up quite smoothly,” Darren said.
“Please don’t coddle me.” When the keynote speaker didn’t even open her mouth, there was no way for an emcee to cover up, smoothly or otherwise.
“It was my fault,” Darren said with conviction. “We pushed you too hard. We should have recognized you weren’t ready.”
“But I was ready.”
There was no possible way to make her any more ready. And that was what had her terrified. How could she become queen if she couldn’t even interact with her people?
Darren didn’t seem to have another response. Either that or he could sense how close she was to the edge and was afraid to push her over.
She swallowed, moving the conversation on, knowing there was nothing anyone could say that would change what had happened this morning.
“How long is this likely to take?” she asked.
“A maintenance crew is meeting us here. The captain has a charging system warning on the left engine. He expects it’ll take about two hours to fix.”
Jasmine turned to gaze out the airplane window to the small, utilitarian terminal building at the edge of the runway in Tucker. It was late afternoon, under a thick gloomy sky, with snowflakes wafting down from the low-handing clouds.
She wanted to get airborne again, fly across the Atlantic, and be back home in Vollan, where she could wallow alone in self-pity. Facing her father was going to be brutal. But the sooner she got it over with, the better.
She set aside the speech, closing her eyes against the heavy headache that was forming in the base of her neck.
“I think I’d like to lie down for a while,” she told Darren.
His reaction was immediate. “Shall I have Mia turn down the bed?”
“No, thank you. I’ll manage.” Jasmine came to her feet, smoothing her skirt and checking her hair, still striving for confidence as she started down the wide aisle between the white leather seats and the matching sofa.
Since it was eight hours across the Atlantic, they’d flown in the royal family’s largest jet. It offered a private bedroom and a very comfortable bed. She needed some time alone. Some sleep would be even better. She didn’t have the slightest idea how she was going to explain her failure to her father.
The King of Vollan had been raised to be stoic not patient, and he was obviously baffled by her phobia. The people of Vollan overwhelmingly supported the royal family. When she was speaking to them, she was speaking to friends. There was no reason in the world for her to be frightened.
But she was. She was terrified at the thought of opening her mouth on a stage.
So far, she and her father been able to hide the fact she couldn’t speak in public. But that time was coming to an end. She was heir to the throne and she turned twenty-five next month. On her birthday, she’d be given the title of Princess Royal. With it came a lengthy inaugural speech, where she’d lay out the principles and plans as Princess Royal and that of her eventual reign as queen. It would be followed by a host of public speaking requirements for all the months and years to come.
This trip to New York was her dry run. At a private, diplomatic function, out of the limelight, away from her own people, she’d had a chance to prove her mettle. Truth was, she’d had many chances to prove it in the past, and this was to have been the final effort.
She moved from the main cabin to a narrowed passage that led to the bedroom. There, a gust of cool, fresh air crossed over her face. She paused to inhale, letting the freshness clear her head.
The rear cabin door was opened. Through it, she could see past the tarmac to a cluster of evergreens dappled with snow. It looked like a fairy tale Christmas forest—crisp, clean, and simple.
A narrow, metal staircase led down to the runway. From there, she could walk to the woods, disappear into them for just a little while. She wished it was possible. But it was freezing outside, the wind and snow were picking up, and she definitely wasn’t dressed for a winter stroll.
She gave up on the fantasy, focusing on the bedroom instead. But then she caught sight of a cupboard, its door slightly ajar. A closer look revealed a navy blue work jacket and a pair of lined, rubber boots.
She made up her mind. Fresh air might clear her headache, and a brisk walk would help her sleep. And there was nobody out there in that Christmas tree forest to pity or judge her. She needed that right now. She needed it badly.
She shrugged into the jacket, popped up the hood, and stepped into the boots.
The corrugated metal stairway felt rickety beneath her feet. It was narrower than the one that led to the front cabin door, and a wind was gusting against it, making it rattle and sway. But she held onto the rails and easily made it to the bottom, stepping onto solid ground. She felt like she could breathe for the first time in a week.
The boots were big and clunky, but the jacket was warm, the sleeves coming down to cover her hands. The snowflakes were big, tapping against her face and melting on her cheeks and nose. Her knees were bare and felt the cold, but she wasn’t going to let that stop her. It wasn’t very far to the edge of the woods.
As she walked, the speech played through her mind, and she began reciting it out loud. There were few planes on the tarmac, none of them running. Only a couple of trucks and a few members of the ground crew were on the runway apron. They were working near the terminal building, which was fading in the gloom. Nobody was close enough to overhear her and her voice rose with confidence.
She nailed every beat. And by the time she made it to the fence, she was kicking herself all over again. She grasped the chain link, but quickly pulled her hands back from the sting of the cold metal. The trees were only twenty feet away. She was almost there.
She glanced up and down the fence line, spying a gate.
She expected to find it locked. But it was slightly ajar, blocked open by the large stone. Since there was no one around to object, she slipped through the opening.
Sam Cutler swung his pickup truck to the curb at the corner of Main and Pine Tree Avenue, grateful to see the end of another emotionally grueling day. As the holidays crept closer, he felt a rising sense of anxiety, even panic at the thought of smiling his way through Tucker’s annual celebrations.
Inside the truck’s cab, his nine-year-old daughter Amelia bounced to the middle of the bench seat to make room, while her twin sister Sophie glided down the steps of the community center in her white down-filled coat with the fuzzy fur collar. Her cheeks were flushed from the exertion of her dance class, and there was a smile on her face.
“Hi, Sophie,” Amelia said.
Sophie climbed gracefully into the cab, shutting the door and reaching for her seatbelt.
“Did you do it?” Sophie asked her sister as she buckled up.
“I did it,” Amelia sang out. “I hit the bull’s-eye.”
Sophie raised her palm to give her sister a high five.
Amelia’s archery lessons were in stark contrast to Sophie’s dance, but the girls had always taken their differences in stride.
“Can we cut the tree tonight?” asked Amelia. “Can we, Daddy?”
“Oh, can we?” asked Sophie, all but holding her breath in anticipation.
A lump formed in Sam’s throat, but he swallowed it down. He’d been hoping for a few more days before they brought a Christmas into the house.
“How are we going to cut a Christmas tree in the dark?” he asked.
“Mr. Harry says he’s lighting up the Christmas tree forest tonight,” Amelia said. “And if we go right away, we’ll get one of the first picks.”
The Christmas tree forest had been a tradition in Tucker, Maine for nearly fifty years. Every Christmas, families cut a tree from a special section of woods on Bert Harry’s hobby farm. Then every spring, the school children planted new trees. The result was a constant supply of trees the right age and size for harvesting.
Sam knew a tree was inevitable, but he hadn’t had time to mentally prepare himself for the ordeal. Every light, every ornament, every string of tinsel would be a stark reminder of his wife Kara and the horrible accident two years ago.
He was happy his daughters were recovering, finding the joy in Christmas once again. He told himself to follow their example. He knew he could be more resilient if he put his mind to it. Tragedies happened and people moved on. There was no other choice.
“Sure,” he said, forcing some enthusiasm into his voice. “But I called ahead and ordered pizza. So let’s get changed and eat first.”
“Goody!” Both girls squealed in unison.
Sam drove a few more blocks before pulling the pickup truck into the driveway of his mother-in-law’s historic mansion. He was renovating his own house and they were temporarily staying with Belle until it was done.
Truth was that temporarily had turned into more months than he cared to count. But his mother-in-law seemed happy to have them there, so he’d stopped worrying about the timeline.
“I want a bushy one,” Sophie said as she slid to the ground.
“I want a tall one,” Amelia said, closing the truck door. “Daddy, can we make gingerbread for decorations?”
The last thing Sam wanted was a house filled with sweet Christmas smells, but he couldn’t refuse them their treasured traditions. “We’ll have to ask Grandma about that.”
“You ate all the peppermints last time,” Sophie said to her sister as the made their way up the walk.
“You ate the jellies,” Amelia responded.
The good natured argument brought back memories of Kara in the kitchen, the girls, barely six at the time, encased in big aprons, covered in flour, licking green icing from a spoon. Like most kids, they each had a sweet tooth. Sam and Kara normally tried to keep their daughter’s candy consumption to a minimum. But when Christmas rolled around, they pretty much gave up.
He lifted his tool belt from the pickup box, following the girls in through the side door of the old colonial. Belle had purchased the aging mansion when Sam was a teenager and already dating Kara. Helping her fix it up had triggered his first interest in carpentry.
It was a stately brick house with a fresh airy interior. The rooms were large, the walls white, and the arched windows let in plenty of sunlight. He was always careful of the ivory marble floors, removing his work boots in the mud room. Although the front entrance and the living room were opulent, the kitchen was more rustic. The girls’ room was a cozy blend of creams and pastels.
He could tell by the quiet, that Belle wasn’t yet home. The girls kicked off their boots and raced for the den to watch the next episode of their favorite comedy series. He knew they were banking on Belle being late. If she arrived before the pizza, they’d have to eat at the table in the kitchen. But if Belle wasn’t around, especially on nights when he was feeling particularly drained, Sam sometimes let them have their pizza in front of the television.
Tonight was one of those nights. Like his daughters, he was secretly hoping his mother-in-law would be late.
The pizza arrived before Belle. And though Sam had little interest in the rollicking adventures of a group of teenage girlfriends in the California suburbs, he watched the program with his daughters and devoured several slices.
“Do you think I could get a pair of glasses like Nina’s?” Amelia asked Sam as she finished a second slice of pizza. Nina was a main character on the show.
“You don’t need glasses,” he said.
“I could get some with clear lenses. They’d look really cool. Plus, it would help people tell me and Sophie apart.”
“Do people have trouble telling you apart?” he asked, knowing their friends and family had no trouble at all.
If nothing else, their clothes were a dead giveaway. Sophie liked color and flash, while Amelia went for earth tones and neutrals.
“Not the people who know us,” Amelia said. “But sometimes we have substitute teachers.”
“I don’t think we need to buy you unnecessary glasses to help the occasional substitute teacher.” He couldn’t for the life of him figure out why someone with perfect vision would want the inconvenience of glasses.
“You could get sunglasses,” Sophie said. “Daddy would let you get sunglasses.”
“It’s December,” Amelia said.
“Tonight,” Sam said. “Daddy is letting you both get a Christmas tree.”
He was proud of his enthusiastic tone. It almost sounded like he was looking forward to the expedition.
“We’re ready,” Amelia said. She hit the remote to turn off the television.
“Did you bring home a saw?” Sophie asked, ever practical.
Sam gathered the pizza box. “I have one in my truck. You both have some old mitts that can get dirty?”
“We’ll find some,” Amelia called over her shoulder as they headed through the kitchen.
Sam disposed of the carton and put the leftovers in the fridge. The girls were waiting, dressed to go, when he entered the laundry room.
He found a pair of worn leather work gloves in the bin beside the door. “Are you ready to go?”
“Yes!” They scrambled through the door and down the short staircase.
It was a fifteen-minute drive to the edge of town and the Harry farm. The forecast was for several inches of snow, and it was already falling hard, building up on the streets and sidewalks. He had a snowplow blade in the garage, and he was thinking it might be time to put it on the truck.
Pulling up, he could see they weren’t the only ones who had decided to buy a tree tonight. He steeled himself at the sight of so many other cars. Some of them he recognized, the Atkinsons’ and the Darrows’ among others. He expected they’d want to talk to him, feel him out, gauge how he was doing as the holiday season grew close.
He knew everybody meant well. They were good people, and they were anxious to see him to move on with his life. They had the best of intentions, but he wasn’t nearly ready to move on. He’d loved Kara with all his heart, and it was his fault she’d died. How was a man supposed to move on from that?
He’d barely shut off the engine and his daughters were bouncing out of the truck.
“Let’s take the snowman path,” Amelia shouted out.
“Come on, Daddy. Come on,” Sophie called over her shoulder.
Sam wasn’t worried about losing them. The area was fenced, and the paths were well lit. The Christmas tree forest was filled with friends and neighbors. The girls would know nearly everyone here.
“Sam?” came a familiar voice from behind him.
Sam tensed, mentally preparing himself for the first of what was sure to be several uncomfortable conversations tonight. He neutralized his features before turning.
“It’s great to see you.” His friend Brock Montrose grasped his hand.
Brock’s wife Melanie came forward as well, a bright smile on her face. She was dressed in a bright purple ski jacket with a white knit hat. “Hi, Sam.”
Sam gave her a quick hug.
“How’ve you been?” she asked, drawing back. “The girls are here with you?”
“They just took off down the path,” Sam said. “Libby?” he asked, noting their six and four year old sons by their side, but not seeing their daughter.
“She’s off inspecting the trees,” Melanie said with a laugh. “How are you?”
“I’m fine,” he answered heartily, giving her a broad smile. “We’re picking the tree.”
“Aren’t we all?” She watched him closely.
He loved Melanie and Brock, but he hated being the object of pity.
“Daddy, Daddy,” came Amelia’s high voice.
Sam turned, grateful for the distraction.
“We found Libby,” Amelia said. “They’re getting a tree tonight, too.”
“Hello, Libby,” Sam said. Then he looked to the boys. “And hello to Grant and Foster. How are you boys?”
“I’m fine,” six-year-old Grant answered dutifully.
Foster plunked his thumb into his mouth and clung silently to his mother’s leg.
Sam didn’t blame him. Grant had barely turned four when Sam and the girls moved out of the house next door to the Montrose’s. Foster wouldn’t even remember them.
“Can we have some hot chocolate?” Sophie asked.
“They have marshmallows,” Libby sang out.
“Sure you can,” Sam said.
“Me too, Mommy,” Grant said.
Melanie gave Sam a helpless grin. “All part of the experience.”
“All part,” he agreed.
The three girls scampered away. Melanie followed with the two boys.
“So, what’s up?” Brock sounded serious, getting down to it, the way Brock always did. It was why Sam tried to avoid him.
“It’s all good,” Sam said, making a show of watching the girls talking and laughing as they joined the hot chocolate lineup.
“What do you mean good? You haven’t been near your place in weeks, probably more like months.”
“I’ve been busy,” Sam answered casually. “The shop’s slammed with orders.”
“Libby misses the twins.”
A wave of guilt hit Sam. The three girls had been inseparable since they’d learned to walk. Brock and Melanie had been his and Kara’s best friends. They’d spent countess days in each other’s backyards, countless evenings sprawled in one of their living rooms, watching movies on sleepovers. They’d shared picnics on the beach and drives to the aquarium. Seeing each other at school and on occasion, wasn’t the same thing.
“I’m—” Sam started, but he couldn’t finish.
Brock clamped an understanding hand on Sam’s shoulder. “Toughing it out on your own isn’t going to make it any easier.
Sam pulled a breath into his tight chest. “Nothing will make it easier.”
“I wish you’d let us help. Or at least let me help. I get that you can’t come back to the house right now.”
“I’m too busy to—”
“You’re not too busy for lunch. Everybody’s got to eat. Or a beer. We can meet for a beer anytime you want.”
Brock wasn’t helping. He was making Sam feel even worse. It was bad enough that he missed Kara so much that his bones ached, bad enough that Christmas was almost upon them and he could barely be a decent father, but now he had to feel guilty for blowing off his best friend.
“Is there any way to make it worse?” Brock asked in an undertone.
Sam hoped not. He didn’t think he could tolerate feeling any worse.
“I’m guessing the answer is no,” Brock continued. “So why not give it a shot? Have a beer with me. We talk about anything or nothing. But you’ve got to try something, man. Anything’s better than gritting your teeth through the next ten days.” He paused. “Your kids deserve better than that.”
That criticism hit Sam harder than anything could. He knew Brock was counting on that as a way to shake him up. But he also knew Brock was right. Amelia and Sophie deserved better than Sam had been giving.
He knew a beer wouldn’t help. But Brock was a loyal friend who was trying hard to help. The least Sam could do was meet him half way.
“Okay,” he agreed. “Let’s have a beer.”
“Tomorrow,” Brock said.
“Tomorrow,” Sam agreed, knowing it was better to get it over with.
Jasmine had found a pathway off the tarmac that wound its way through the quiet woods. Snow clung to the delicate tree branches surrounding her, shining against hundreds of tiny white lights that decorated the edges of the pathway. The flakes were falling harder now, growing in size, giving a fairyland sparkle to the scene.
Around a corner, a colorful gazebo appeared. It was decked out for the season and unbelievably beautiful. She picked up her pace and walked into the magical scene. Surrounded by color and light, she tipped her head back, holding out her tongue to catch a snowflake. Wind whispered, muted through the trees, and a feeling of calm enveloped her.
She opened her eyes again and stared at it all for a long time. Then as the cold seeped in, she made her way past ice sculptures, snowmen, and a whimsical miniature train.
Beyond the clearing, the woods opened up. A wider pathway led to the airport parking lot that wrapped around the small terminal building. The parked cars were covered in a thick layer of snow. The owners must have been gone for a while. She imagined them as passengers on an outbound flight, maybe to Florida or the Caribbean.
She felt a brief flash of envy. She’d never spent Christmas on a beach. There were far too many holiday duties for the royal family in Vollan.
The thought drew her back into her real life. The king’s children’s gala would be next weekend, and she’d spend two days at those events. She was happiest talking one-on-one to the children, seeing the excitement shining in their eyes, hearing their hopes and dreams for Christmas morning.
She would also attend the capital city’s symphony and choir night, ride in the parade, and sit with her father, her uncle, and her cousin Adara during Christmas Eve services. The list went on and on.
She savored the last few moments of peace, knowing the interlude was over, and she had to head back to the plane. Hopefully, she’d be able to sleep most of the way to Vollan. It would help to be sharp when she got home. Her father would have questions. He’d expect an explanation.
She hoped she could come up with one that made sense. Right now, all she knew was that her panic was irrational. And irrational emotions were unfathomable to the king.
From the airport parking lot, she could see the main entrance to the terminal. It seemed easier to go through the building than to retrace her steps, so she trudged along the sidewalk, snowflakes building up on her jacket, the oversized rubber boots slipping against her feet. The wind was picking up, blowing snow across her bare knees—the idea of getting inside looked better and better.
Through the glass front doors, the terminal was quiet. Two luggage carousals were still. A long bank of check-in counters stood empty. And a lone security guard was stationed at the far end of the terminal. The arrivals and departures boards showed only two flights, both were flagged as cancelled.
“Can I help you, dear?” A sixty-ish woman approached Jasmine. She wore a bright blue plaid vest over a white blouse. Her name tag identified her as “Belle” in stylized script above the words “Welcome to Tucker”.
“Yes. Thank you,” Jasmine answered, looking along the back wall for a likely exit. “I need to get back outside.”
The woman seemed puzzled, glancing behind Jasmine to the main doors.
“Oh, not to the parking lot,” Jasmine explained. “My plane is on the tarmac. I need to get back on board.”
“I’m afraid all the flights are cancelled tonight,” Belle said.
“Not mine. I’m traveling on a private plane.”
Belle seemed to take in Jasmine’s clothing. Her expression wasn’t judgmental, more curious.
Jasmine was reminded of her outlandish outfit.
She smiled, feeling self-conscious as she gestured to the oversized coat and boots. “I stepped out for a breath of fresh air.”
She noted the security guard was approaching them.
“Is everything okay, Belle?” the man asked as he grew close.
“This young lady says she’s here to catch a plane,” said Belle.
There was an odd inflection in her tone, a gentleness, as if she was taking about a child, and Jasmine realized Belle might be wondering about her mental state.
“I’m so sorry for the confusion,” she told the security guard. “I’m Jasmine Arcelus. I flew in on a private plane about an hour ago. It’s a diplomatic aircraft from Vollan. We’re on our way home from New York, and we had to stop for a mechanical repair. Maybe you could radio the captain?”
The two exchanged a look, and Jasmine realized they weren’t yet sure what to make of her. She wasn’t worried. As soon as they spoke to the flight crew, everything would be cleared up.
“I can go make a call,” the security guard said.
“Thank you, Nolan,” Belle said. To Jasmine, she said. “Why don’t we sit down?” Her voice still seemed too carefully kind.
“I haven’t lost my mind,” said Jasmine.
“Of course you haven’t. But let’s let Nolan look into it for us?”
“If you check out the window.” Jasmine glanced around the terminal, looking for a place that would give a view of the tarmac. “You’ll see the plane. Maybe Nolan could take me out there and confirm my story with the crew.”
There had to be a simple way to work this out.
“He’s coming back now,” Belle said.
“There was definitely a plane that landed from Vollan,” he said.
Jasmine felt a rush of relief.
“But they took off again half an hour ago,” he said.
Jasmine was sure she couldn’t have heard right. “They wouldn’t take off without me.”
“They did, ma’am.”
She staggered a step. It was more the awkward boots than anything else. But Belle reached out to steady her. The woman’s hand was strangely comforting.
Had nobody checked to make sure she was on board? Did Darren think she was resting in the bedroom? She’d been told they’d have two hours on the ground.
“They have to come back,” She said to Belle and Nolan. “Call them. They’ll come back for me, I’m—”
“They’ve already left the airport’s control area,” Nolan said.
“Surely somebody can contact them.”
“We can get a message through air traffic control,” Nolan said. “But it won’t help.”
“They will come back for me,” Jasmine assured the two.
“They can’t,” said Nolan. “The runway’s closed. There’s a blizzard coming in fast, and it’s likely to shut down most of the state.”
Jasmine couldn’t wrap her head around his words.
Her plane was gone. They’d left her behind, and they couldn’t come back.
“Don’t you worry, dear,” said Belle. “It’ll only be a couple of days.”
Disbelief took the strength from Jasmine’s voice. “A couple of…days?”
“Is there someone you can call?” asked Nolan. “We can help you find a hotel.”
It hit Jasmine then that she didn’t have her phone. She didn’t have anything. Darren had her passport somewhere on board. She didn’t carry money, didn’t have credit cards. And without her phone’s contact list, she didn’t know anyone’s number.
“She doesn’t need a hotel,” Belle said staunchly. “She can stay with me.”
“Belle, you can’t—” Nolan began.
“Nonsense,” Belle said. “I most certainly can.” To Jasmine, she said. “I have plenty of room. So there’s no problem at all.”
“I don’t have any money,” Jasmine felt compelled to tell the kind woman.
The royal family would, of course, pay for everything once her plane could return. But for the moment, she was destitute.
“You don’t need money,” Belle said. “This is an emergency.”
“Can someone at least radio the plane?” she asked Nolan. “And tell them I’m here? When they find me gone, they’ll be worried.”
She tried not to imagine the reaction of the security detail and then her father. One simply didn’t misplace the Crown Princess. Nothing remotely like this had ever happened.
“It might take a while to get through,” Nolan said. “But yes, we should be able to get them a message.”
“Thank you.” She was immensely grateful. “Please be sure to tell them I got off for some air. It’s important that they understand. Tell them I’m safe, and please warn them about the weather.”
“Oh, they’ll know about the weather,” said Nolan with a wry chuckle. Then he seemed to take in Jasmine’s stricken expression. He sobered. “But don’t worry. I’ll pass on the message.”
“Thank you,” she said again. She turned to Belle. “And thank you for rescuing me.”
“It’s my pleasure.” Belle took her hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. “You can meet my son-in-law and my granddaughters. You’ll love them.”
End of Excerpt