Free holiday short story!
Two people who’ve written off love and magic find a little of both on the longest night.
After inheriting her grandmother’s house in suburban Connecticut, Rina Minkin revives her witchy improv character to help pay for necessary home repairs. When Miguel Alvarez shows up at her front door with two kids in need of a Winter Solstice miracle, even cynical Rina can’t turn them away. And the longer she spends with them, the more she wants them to stick around.
This is a 6,500-word contemporary romance short story, originally part of the Winter’s Embrace 2016 holiday romance anthology on Wattpad.
Someone was knocking on Marina Minkin’s door, and she was still dressed as a witch.
She’d just gotten home from emceeing the Pimsbury Historical Society’s annual awards ceremony, and hadn’t yet changed out of her costume. Whoever was knocking probably expected Rina Minkin, children’s librarian, and not Lady Clarissa Ravenwood, the Sorceress of Pimsbury, Connecticut.
With Christmas Eve three days away, Rina expected to be low on gigs. After all, who would want a witch hosting their holiday party? Surprisingly, a lot of people in Pimsbury found the notion hilarious, and her schedule was packed. She was a glorified clown for grown-ups—roasting guests, telling jokes, and making up spells off the top of her head, all of which left her even more tired than usual.
Maybe the knocker would go away if she didn’t answer. Then she could engage in a blessed hour eating dinner on the sofa while watching Downton Abbey, followed by a rousing night redoing the grout in the upstairs shower. Thirty-two and single in former tobacco farm country was anything but glamorous. After growing up in New York City, though, the quiet was kind of nice. Not that she’d ever admit it to any of the friends she left behind.
If they could be bothered to return her calls.
Whoever was out there knocked again. Louder. Damn doorbell was broken. Alas, it was low on the list of things that needed to be fixed. She eyed the microwave with longing.
A second later, a high, childish voice called out, “Lady Clarissa? Are you home?”
Crap. A kid? Calling for Clarissa, no less.
Rina stalked toward the door, the kitten heels on her black lace-up boots clicking on hardwood floors in need of polish, and wrenched it open. Outside, two kids gazed up at her with wide, shining eyes. Behind them stood Miguel Alvarez, a guy she knew from around town and had a slight crush on. Okay, a big crush. A big, daydreaming-about-his-lips crush.
Miguel shrugged and mouthed “sorry” over the children’s heads. Her heart beat a little faster at the sight of him.
Since she was dressed as Clarissa, Rina stayed in character, glaring at the kids and speaking with a nasally Queens accent a la Fran Drescher. “What do you want?”
“We need your help, Miss Clarissa,” the little boy said. He looked to be about six. He wore a red coat and hat, and an earnest expression behind his oversized glasses.
“It’s Lady Clarissa.” She cocked a hand on her hip and raised an eyebrow at him, hoping neither child recognized her from the library. “What do you need?”
“We need a witch.” The girl’s expression was too serious for her age. She couldn’t have been older than nine. Her dark hair hung in two long braids from beneath her turquoise knit hat.
It wasn’t a surprise Miguel had kids. He came to the library once a week to pick up and return children’s books, but he didn’t wear a wedding band, which led to a lot of speculation with her coworkers. Now was her chance to find out the truth.
Rina flicked her gaze up to Miguel. “Who’s this?”
“Santa,” said the boy.
Santa, huh? She made a show of looking “Santa” up and down. It was better than the furtive glances she shot his way when he stopped by the library. He wasn’t super tall, maybe five-nine, but he had a nice broad build and smooth golden skin. He worked for the city, doing something with urban planning. His black hair was cropped short, with a widow’s peak. His eyes were dark and full of good humor. He wore a bulky denim work jacket, black jeans, and scuffed work boots. “He doesn’t look like Santa to me.”
The girl rolled her eyes. “Duh. He’s our uncle. He dresses as Santa for the firehouse party. Santa’s not real.”
But witches are? She caught the slight shake of Miguel’s head. Jaded as she was, she couldn’t disabuse these kids of the notion that there was magic in the world. They didn’t even believe in Santa, for chrissakes.
Also, “uncle.” That was interesting.
“Why’d you come to me? You’ve got a perfectly good grown-up right here to help you.”
The girl’s voice took on a pleading tone. “Please? You’re the only witch in town. And it’s the solstice. It’s a sacred day for you.”
Oh, boy. These kids had done their research. And somehow, years of picking up books dropped by screaming children hadn’t made her immune to pretty-please entreaties.
“Fine, fine. Gimme a minute to get my stuff.”
“Your spell book?” the boy asked, bouncing on his toes.
Rina huffed. “Of course. I can’t go anywhere without my spell book.”
Crap. The spell book she used in the YouTube videos was actually an old cookbook she’d picked up at Goodwill and decorated to look like a Book of Shadows. There weren’t any spells inside, just recipes for bread.
“Go wait in the car,” Miguel told the kids. They trudged off the porch, muttering and dragging their feet. He turned to Rina. “I’m sorry to ambush you at home.”
She dropped the accent. “What is all this about?”
He sighed and watched the two children climb into the SUV parked in the driveway behind her shiny red Mini Cooper. “They got it into their heads that you can help them with a ‘Winter Solstice miracle.’”
“Miguel, you do know I’m not a real witch, right?”
“Could’ve fooled me.” His gaze swept her from head to toe, like she’d done to him a few minutes earlier. The heat of it stole her breath. She’d sometimes gotten the impression he was flirting with her, but had always dismissed the notion. At the library, she wore no makeup and comfortable, plain clothing. Clarissa took so much work to put on, even the thought of wearing mascara to work made Rina’s eyelids itch.
His eyes met hers and a small smile played on his sexy mouth, making her cheeks warm. Yeah, he was definitely flirting. That meant she could flirt back.
“If you come out with a lame witchy pick-up line, I’m going to hex you,” she told him.
He grinned, eyes crinkling at the corners. “Fair enough.” His attention shifted past her to the pile of paint cans just inside the doorway of the house.
“Doing some work?”
“Planning to.” Whenever she had the time.
“I—” It was on the tip of her tongue to say no, to refuse help as she’d always done. But why the hell not? “Maybe.”
There. That was progress. Her therapist back in New York had told her she needed to accept help and let more people in. Hard when you spent your free time pretending to be a witch.
“You still haven’t told me why you showed up on my porch with two kids.”
He chewed on his full lower lip and glanced at the SUV again. “Their mom…my sister, Marta…died earlier this year. I moved back here to be their guardian.”
She didn’t ask what happened to the children’s father. “I’m sorry.”
“They want your help communicating with her.”
Oh, damn. “I’m not a medium or anything like that. I’m just a librarian with improv experience, trying to make some extra bucks to fix up the house I inherited from my grandma.” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder at the paint cans. “I don’t know how I can help.”
“I know. I’m sorry we came here.” Despite his easy smile, sadness and exhaustion were etched on his handsome face. “I heard you were hosting at the Historical Society and didn’t expect you to be home. I’ll tell them something magic-related came up and you’re busy.”
She grabbed his elbow before he could go down the steps. “No, wait.”
Miguel raised an eyebrow.
“I’ll—I’ll do it,” she said in a rush. “Just let me get a few things.”
“You’ll do what?” He sounded incredulous—rightfully so.
“I don’t know yet,” she snapped. “This is improv. I’ll think of something. Go wait in the car. I’ll be there in a few.”
He put a hand on her shoulder before she could run back inside. “I’m sorry I dragged you into this. They’ve been driving me crazy all week.” His hand trailed down her arm to link with her cold fingers. His were warm, even though he wasn’t wearing gloves. “Thank you. I mean it.”
“You’re welcome. And I get it.” She squeezed his fingers, liking how it felt to hold hands with a sexy man who didn’t shy away from responsibility.
It had been a while. She hadn’t dated since Tyler broke off their engagement and she moved to Connecticut. No time for it. And if she was being honest with herself, she hadn’t wanted to. Why bother?
Miguel made her want to bother. She licked her lips, tasting the aptly named “Witchy Plum” lip stain she’d swiped on earlier. She’d rather taste him.
As if he knew her thoughts, his gaze sharpened and intensified, zeroing in on her mouth. The banked heat she’d told herself she was imagining in his eyes when she saw him around town cranked up, warming her from the inside. “I’ll make it up to you, Rina.” His voice was deeper than it had been a moment before, and held a note of wicked promise.
Oh, god. Butterflies erupted into motion inside her. She hadn’t been imagining it. And she wanted it, too. How many times had she fantasized about that lush, kissable mouth of his?
“I’ll hold you to that.” She cut her eyes to the car, where the children watched them. Releasing his hand, she swept back inside, sleeves and skirt billowing dramatically in the wind. “And the name is Lady Clarissa.”
As far as exits went, she couldn’t have planned that one better if she’d tried.
Ignoring the arousal coursing through him, Miguel climbed into the SUV with a stern frown for his niece and nephew. “You two be polite to Lady Clarissa, got it?”
“But Tio, she’s a witch,” Tommy said.
“All the more reason to be nice.”
“Because otherwise she might curse us,” Lia added.
Miguel rolled his eyes. “That’s not why. She doesn’t curse children.”
Tommy narrowed his eyes. “How do you know?”
“She told me. What, you think I wouldn’t make sure?”
“Thank you, Tio.” Tommy beamed, his wide smile so similar to Marta’s that it made Miguel’s heart hurt. Tommy looked just like his mother, while Lia looked like she could be Miguel’s own daughter, with her dark eyes and high cheekbones.
A few minutes later, Rina bustled over to the car. Miguel’s pulse pounded at the image she made. She’d thrown on a long, flowing black coat, and put a slouchy, slightly pointed, small-brimmed hat on her head. It looked like the haute couture version of a witch’s hat, decorated with sparkly cobwebs. In one hand, she held a broom that looked handmade, the handle polished wood and the bristles made of bundled twigs. It glittered, too. Over her shoulder, she carried an oversized black purse. Her smooth wine-red curls bounced around her shoulders—a wig, hiding the thick fall of brown hair that suited her better.
As Lady Clarissa, she wore dramatic eye makeup that made her hazel eyes look huge and, well, witchy. Her eyebrows, always a dark slash, had been darkened and lengthened, and she wore a dark magenta lipstick that enhanced the cool paleness of her skin.
She was beautiful, in a stunning, untouchable sort of way. He preferred her fresh-faced and real, with her arms full of books. Of all the librarians at the Pimsbury Public Library, she gave the best book recommendations. Tommy and Lia always enjoyed the titles she suggested, without fail. And when she smiled, everything inside him lit up like a Christmas tree.
The Lady Clarissa persona intrigued him, though. Most people went to Starbucks when they needed a second job. Why a witch?
She opened the back door. “Hold that,” she told the kids before tossing the broom inside and slamming the door shut. She climbed into the front passenger seat, mindful of her skirts.
Tommy and Lia squealed with excitement over the broom while Rina got herself settled. Then she turned and pinned them with a steely glare.
“All right, you two. First, what are your names?”
Lia slapped a hand over her brother’s mouth before he could speak. Jutting out her chin, she declared, “Names have power. Never tell a witch your name. Or strangers.”
Miguel opened his mouth to intervene, but Rina nodded approvingly.
“Huh. I see someone has been doing her research. And you’re right. But you came to me, and I’ve agreed to help you, which means you can safely give me your names. I can’t call you Thing 1 and Thing 2 for the rest of the evening, can I?”
Tommy giggled. “I’m Tommy.”
Lia chewed on her lip, then said, “I’m Lia.”
“And I’m Lady Clarissa Ravenwood, Sorceress of Pimsbury. You shall both address me as Lady Clarissa. Now, let’s manage expectations. What exactly is it that you need from me?”
“Our mom died,” Tommy explained. “You’re a witch. This is the longest night. Can’t you do something?”
Miguel caught the way Rina’s mouth tightened, and he bit back a sigh. It had been such a mistake to bring her into this. But the kids had started asking to visit her a week earlier, and their pleas had gotten progressively louder and more desperate as the solstice neared. When he picked them up from school that afternoon, they were both in tears. He’d taken them home, given them snacks, and hustled them off to Rina’s house before he even knew what he was doing.
Being a parent was terrifying. It was something he’d always wanted to do, but it had been thrust on him suddenly, along with a heavy dose of grief. He’d stumbled through the last nine months, and he was still catching his footing.
Rina handled herself like a champ, though, raising a haughty eyebrow. “I’m just one witch. What would you have me do? It’s not Halloween, when the veil between worlds is thinnest. This is Yule, the Winter Solstice, the longest night, a time to look toward the future, not the past. At Yule, we celebrate the rebirth of the Sun God. And the Sun God has no use for mortal affairs. So, I ask you again, what would have me do?”
The kids exchanged glances. “We want to communicate with our mom,” Lia said.
Rina folded her arms. “I’m not a medium. I don’t contact spirits.”
“What about using a Ouija Board?” Lia asked.
Miguel interrupted. “What do you know about Ouija Boards?”
“I don’t touch the things,” Rina answered. “Unpredictable, and unsafe.”
“Can’t witches see ghosts?” Tommy asked.
Rina shook her head. “You two watch too much TV. Besides, who says your mom is a ghost?”
“Ghosts have unfinished business,” Lia said.
“What would she have left undone?” Rina patted Miguel on the shoulder. “Seems like she left you in pretty good hands.”
Tommy sniffled. “We just want to talk to her.”
“Hey.” Rina pushed herself between the seats and pressed a black fingernail to Tommy’s chest. “You can talk to your mom at any time. You hear me? She’s with you. Always. You came from her, and in that way, she’ll never leave you.”
“But I want her to talk back,” Lia’s lower lip trembled and she chomped down on it with her teeth.
Miguel turned around and wiped a hand over his face. The kids had been attending grief counseling, but maybe it wasn’t enough. Maybe he wasn’t doing enough. None of the parenting books he’d read in the last few months had contained the answers.
“That I cannot promise,” Rina said, her tone serious. “However, I’ll show you what I can do. Buckle up. Miguel, take us to the town commons.”
It was a short drive, made in tense silence. Once there, they all piled out of the car. In the center of the commons, a huge Christmas tree was lit with tiny white lights and deep blue ribbons. At the north end of the square, a large silver menorah sat on the low brick wall, all candles lit. Icy remnants of last week’s snowstorm were piled at the curb and scattered across the lawn, but the weather was mild, even though the sun had just dipped below the horizon. Still, the kids were bundled up in coats, hats, and scarves. It was Miguel’s first winter as a parent, and he was doing everything in his power to keep them from getting sick.
Rina handed the broom to Miguel and rummaged in her bag while she explained her plan to the kids. “There’s magic everywhere, if you know how to look. And sometimes, if you’re paying close attention, you’ll spot signs from those who’ve passed on.”
The kids were riveted, staring at Rina with wide eyes as she handed them a few items.
“Is this a necklace?” Lia asked, holding up a thin chain with a crystal drop at the end.
“Close. It’s a pendulum.”
“Lia, you know what a pendulum is,” Miguel prompted.
Lia screwed up her face as she stared at the crystal. “Like in a clock?”
“Exactly.” Rina crouched down, her long skirt and coat pooling on the walkway. “Hold your hand out flat, palm up.”
Miguel pretended to study the broom while Rina explained how to use a pendulum to determine direction and answers to yes or no questions. Tommy leaned against her shoulder, mouth hanging open, while he watched the demonstration.
The kids had taken to Rina more quickly than Miguel would have guessed. They hung on her every word, listened without interrupting, and asked questions for clarification.
After their mother died, they’d alternated between sullen silence and manic exuberance. They acted out in school and at home. Summer was better. His mother came from Puerto Rico, and she let them run around outside all day. They fell into bed exhausted each night after Miguel got home from work, and on the weekends he took them out for day trips and overnight getaways to give Abuela a break. Turned out, they all liked camping. Who knew?
This school year was better, but in early March they would hit the one year anniversary of Marta’s death, and he didn’t know how they’d handle it. It would be a hell of a blow. For all of them.
There hadn’t been time for dating since he’d moved back to Pimsbury to assume guardianship of Lia and Tommy, but he’d noticed Rina right away and asked around about her. It was never the right time to ask her out, though—or so he’d told himself. In truth, he was afraid of dating as a single dad, which was what he was now, and he didn’t have the time or energy. But when he stopped by the library, he tried to make sure he did it when Rina was working, so they could exchange a few words, and he could try to make her smile.
She was smiling at the kids now as she showed Tommy how to use what she called a “dowsing rod.” It looked like a Y-shaped stick.
Tommy gazed at her with open adoration. She asked him a question, and when he nodded, she patted him on the back and sent him off across the lawn that was still covered in small mounds of melting snow.
“Now what?” he asked, when she joined him on the walkway.
“Now we follow them, and pretend to be amazed by anything that strikes their fancy. I’ve given them divining tools and activated their imaginations. Hopefully, they’ll spot something that reminds them of their mother, take it as a sign she’s watching over them, and then we can all go home.”
They walked a few yards, keeping an eye on the children. The square was well-lit, both for the holidays and because of the stores that lined two sides. It was the last Friday before Christmas, and all the shops were doing brisk business.
Rina stood close enough to touch. It would be so easy to take her hand in his. Neither of them wore gloves—it wasn’t cold enough for the extra layer—but it might make things weird. And right now, the vibe was…comfortable. Easy.
He’d grown up enough in the last year to appreciate easy companionship with a woman. It added another layer to the desire, tempering it from a raging inferno to something more lasting. A steady, simmering heat that had the potential to burn forever.
The children relied on him to be stable. Any decisions he made about women needed to take them into account, which was part of why he hadn’t dated at all since becoming their guardian. But Rina was putting down roots in Pimsbury. It was a good sign.
He’d been quiet too long. Time to ease the tension, before he did something like ask to kiss her.
“What do we do with this?” He held up the broom.
She shrugged and flashed him a grin. “Sweep?”
He staggered in mock-disbelief. “You mean you don’t fly?”
Laughing, she socked him in the arm. “Shh, don’t say that so loud. You’ll ruin my rep.”
Score. He’d made her laugh. She looked so tired and serious when she was working, he considered it a personal achievement every time he made her smile.
“I found something!” Tommy waved excitedly from the big clock at the south end of the square. They all ran over to him and he pointed up at the place where the round frame of the clock met its sturdy stand. “A nest!”
“This is where the stick led you?” Lia asked, tone dripping with skepticism. Miguel shot her a warning look.
“What do you think it means, Tommy?” Rina asked gently, kneeling by his side and putting an arm around him. Her skirts landed in a puddle of melting snow, but she didn’t seem to care.
Tommy poked his bottom lip out while he thought, and even went so far as to tap his chin. “Hmm,” he said, dragging out the “mm.” “Well, a nest is a home. It’s a place where a mommy bird keeps her eggs. So…”
Lia jumped in excitedly. “Maybe our mom is showing us—through the nest—that she’s keeping us safe? Like eggs in a nest?”
Scowling fiercely, Tommy stomped his foot. “I was gonna say that, Li!”
“And you spotted the nest and felt like it meant something, like it might be a message,” Rina said, smoothly drawing his attention away from his sister. “You did a great job. Why don’t you two keep looking? See if there are any more messages.”
Lia ran off across the square to where she’d been following the directions of the pendulum, and Tommy held his stick out in front of him, pacing around the lawn with the tip of his tongue poking out of the corner of his mouth. He did that whenever he was concentrating hard.
The next hour passed in much the same way. Lia found two dimes, which she concluded meant her mom wished them good luck. She gave one to Tommy without prompting, which was a win in Miguel’s book.
“Look at this,” Tommy said, holding up a silver women’s hoop earring. “This must have been Mommy’s.”
Lia took one look at the earring and sneered. “That’s ridiculous,” she said. “How would one of Mom’s earrings have ended up here?”
Tommy’s chin wobbled. A second later he burst into tears.
Miguel rushed to his side to comfort him. Since Lia’s eyes were also looking shiny, Miguel held off on scolding her. Rina came to the rescue, snatching up her broom.
“Too much negative energy around here,” she proclaimed, swishing her sparkly broom in a circle around them. “I think we need to switch locations. Back to the car.”
Miguel could have kissed her then and there for making the night go more smoothly than he’d imagined. His best-case scenario had been that she’d say no and he’d have two disappointed children to deal with, but at least he would have tried. He hadn’t expected she’d take them on an adventure, or that she’d be so attuned to his kids’—and damn, they really were his kids—emotions.
After they got Tommy and Lia into the car, Miguel took Rina’s elbow and gently pulled her aside. They stood close enough that her skirts brushed his legs, and the heat of her body mixed with his.
Cranky kids in the car. He had to get it together and stop flirting with the fake witch. “Where are we going?”
“The old wooden footbridge over the Farmington River. I have an idea.”
The children were quiet on the drive to the bridge. They were getting tired. It was past the time of night when they started snapping at each other. At home, it was when Miguel instituted quiet time. If they were done with their homework, they could engage in quiet, solo activities, like reading or video games. He didn’t care what they chose to do as long as they weren’t fighting with each other. Keeping them out this late was pushing it, but they’d whine if he suggested they go home now. They had to see this adventure through to the end.
At the bridge, he parked in the tiny gravel lot at one end. Rina went first, making a show of sweeping the bridge of negative energy before they followed her.
Pims’ Bridge was a landmark of some historical significance, although Miguel didn’t know the whole story. Something to do with a herd of horses on New Year’s Day.
Rina paused in the middle of the bridge. Dipping her hands into her pockets, she handed each of the children a small item.
“What’s that?” Miguel asked, peering over Lia’s shoulder.
His niece held up a chunk of crystal. “Lady Clarissa said it will help us clear our minds to better look for signs.”
“Ah. Of course.” He stepped back to let Rina do her thing.
“This is a bridge,” Rina said. “What do bridges do?”
Lia raised her hand, like they were in school. Miguel hid a smile.
“Bridges connect things.”
Rina nodded. “Very good. Perhaps, being that we’re on a bridge, it will act as a connector, and you’ll be able to find clearer signs.”
The kids mulled that over, then nodded.
“First, hold the amethyst, close your eyes, and breathe deep.” Rina waited while the kids followed her instructions. Tommy’s nose made a soft whistling sound.
“Now open your eyes slowly, and take these flashlights.” She handed them each tiny lights.
“This is a keychain,” Tommy pointed out.
Lia shined her light on Tommy’s and squinted. “It says ‘Pimsbury Bank’ on the side.”
“They were freebies from the Septemberfest event in town. Now quit questioning me about the flashlights and go search for magic. But stay on the bridge!” she called, as the kids took off.
The bridge spanned the Farmington River, which wasn’t wide here, about the width of a two-way street. The sides were high enough that neither kid would be able to fall off. Buckets of flowers hung from the railing year-round, swapped out each season with varieties that could withstand the changing weather. Now, the bridge was also dressed for the holidays, with twinkling white lights, red ribbon, and fragrant pine boughs.
Miguel stood next to Rina, who leaned her elbows on the railing while she watched the kids run back and forth on the flat bridge, their footsteps echoing on the wood. Finally, he asked the question he’d been wondering for months.
“How did a children’s librarian end up dressing like a sexy witch on the side?”
She looked up at him from under black, spiky eyelashes. “You think I’m sexy?”
He barked out a laugh. “I’m not dead, so yeah.” He lifted a lock of red hair and rubbed it between his fingers, wishing it was her real hair. “But I have to admit, I’ve got a thing for cute, brown-haired librarians.”
She gave a surprised giggle. “Do you?”
“Yeah. Since I first saw you with an enormous stack of books in your arms.”
She blinked. “Really?”
“I wanted to ask if you needed help, but it was clear you didn’t.”
“Well, it is my job to carry stacks of books around. I’m kind of a pro at this point.” She looked down at her outfit and tugged at the layered, floaty skirts. “In answer to your first question, Lady Clarissa was a character I developed when I was part of an improv troupe in New York. I was a huge fan of Elvira, Morticia Addams, and Lily Munster when I was a kid. Clarissa was kind of a no-brainer.”
“Wow.” He raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Not the answer I was expecting.”
“What were you expecting?”
“I don’t know. Something kinky.”
She suppressed a laugh. “You wish. No, nothing so exciting as that. I joined the group in college, and we got a fair number of gigs. After I moved here…”
She hesitated, like she didn’t want to tell him the next part of the story.
“I’m a good listener, and I can keep a secret,” he said.
Sighing, she adjusted her witch’s hat in a nervous move. “Well, I moved to Pimsbury because my grandma died and left me the house.”
“I know that part. I had Mrs. Minkin for English senior year of high school.”
That made her smile. “I’m not happy she’s gone—she was a good grandma, and I miss her—but the timing was perfect. My fiancé had just called things off, and I needed to get out of the city.”
“Oh.” He wouldn’t ask. He wouldn’t ask. He wouldn’t—
“He developed a cocaine habit.”
That was unexpected. “Oh?”
“I told him to go to rehab. He said no. And that was that. A week later, my grandma died, so I moved to Pimsbury. Left it all behind.”
Her voice held a note of loneliness that struck a chord with his own. Seemed like they both had heavy reasons for moving to Pimsbury. She’d just shared hers. It was only right he tell her his.
“Their dad died in jail.” Miguel kept his voice low, so Tommy and Lia wouldn’t hear.
She sucked in a breath. “Oh. And your sister…?”
“Breast cancer. They caught it late. She went fast.”
Her hand sought his in the dark and squeezed. “I’m so sorry.”
“Me, too.” He rubbed her cold fingers with his thumb. “So, Lady Clarissa…was she a response to stress or something?”
Rina laughed, and he was glad he’d been able to lighten the mood.
“Alas, no. It’s another boring reason.” She shrugged. “I needed the money. I got a job at the library in town, but only for part-time hours. My grandmother’s house needs a lot of work, and renovations require money. The library pays the bills, and Lady Clarissa pays for the work on the house.”
“And the YouTube videos…?”
“Oh god, you’ve watched those?”
She let out an embarrassed snort and looked away. “Those are marketing content for the website. Also…they’re kind of fun.”
“I particularly liked the one about how a witch gets over a break-up.”
“A lot of wishful thinking went into that one.”
“I’m not worried.”
She laughed again and elbowed him.
“You do seem to know your stuff, though.” He jerked a chin at the kids, still running back and forth with their flashlights. “With the kids, and with the witch stuff.”
“I like kids,” she said. “And yes, I did a lot of research. My best friend from college is Wiccan.” A gust of wind tore across the bridge, and she gave a little shiver.
“Are you cold?”
She nodded. “A little. My witch coat isn’t as warm as my librarian parka.”
Miguel hesitated. “I don’t want to come on too strong…”
With a shy smile, she shifted closer to him. “You can put your arms around me, Miguel.”
He held her close, giving her the heat from his body, and brought his lips to her ear. “I want to kiss you, Rina.”
A sigh trembled from her lips, and she tightened her grip on his arms. “You will, but not yet.” Tommy went running by, flashlight held high. “And that’s Lady Clarissa to you.”
Curving around her, he chuckled and caught her scent—apples and cinnamon. “You smell delicious.”
“It’s my shampoo. I have a sweet tooth, so I try to assuage it by indulging in dessert-scented stuff.”
He pressed his nose into the curve of her neck. “I like it.”
The moment stretched, stayed comfortable and easy. His shoulders relaxed, the stress he’d been carrying all year receding as he held her. He’d intended to give comfort, give warmth, but through giving he received.
The interlude was short-lived. Lia came running up to them with tears in her eyes.
“There’s nothing,” she cried. “We can’t find anything.”
Miguel crouched down to hug her. She leaned all her weight on him, crying into his shoulder, her skinny frame shaking with sobs. Lia hardly ever cried like this; she took her role as big sister seriously and tried to be strong for Tommy.
Tommy clung to Rina’s skirts. Miguel held out an arm for him and the little boy launched into his arms. Despite holding both children, solid in his embrace, the ground seemed to shake beneath his feet. Helplessness weighed him down, and a sense of utter failure roiled in his belly.
“I miss her, too,” he whispered to them, because he did. Their mom had been his little sister, and he’d loved her. He’d held Marta when she was a baby, just like he’d done with her children. And now he didn’t know how to fix this.
Rina shifted beside him, and he looked up to find her wringing her hands. She bit her lip, her face pale and desperate.
He wanted to plead with her to help. It wasn’t fair of him to ask. She hadn’t signed on for this emotional mess. But he was exhausted from doing it alone, and it had been so nice, for just one evening, to share it with someone else.
It was why he hadn’t asked her out yet, after all these months of wanting her—it just wasn’t fair.
Maybe she saw the plea in his eyes anyway, because she nodded. Taking a deep breath, she pointed to the sky. “Everyone look up.”
Miguel lifted his chin. A jolt went through him as a streak of brilliant golden light flew across the dark sky. A shooting star. Everyone gasped, and Tommy shrieked, “Did you see that?”
“There it is,” Lia said, her tone hushed with reverence. “The sign. That’s Mommy.”
“She loves you,” Miguel said, holding them both tight and dropping kisses onto their foreheads. “Don’t ever doubt that, okay? Remember this moment forever.”
Tommy lifted his round face, the lights from the bridge reflecting on his glasses. “You love us, too, Tio Miguel?”
Miguel’s heart twisted, and a slight tremble went through his arms. “Of course I do.” He squeezed them again, one in each arm. “I love you both very much.”
“Even when we make you mad?” Tommy sniffled.
“Even then. Especially then. I only get mad because I care and I’m trying to do a good job. This is new for me, too.”
“But you won’t leave, right?” Lia’s eyes were huge and glassy.
Rina turned away, wiping at her eyes.
Rina stayed quiet on the drive back to her house, even though the kids conked out in the back seat. After they pulled into her driveway, Miguel walked her to her door.
He pointed at the sky. “How did you—”
“I didn’t.” She shook her head. “I was going to make up a constellation or something. They were so sad, and you looked terrified, and my heart was breaking. I just—I had to do something. But I had no idea that would happen.”
“I guess it’s a Winter Solstice miracle.”
She smiled. “I think so.”
He looked down at his boots. “I’ve wanted to ask you out for a long time.”
“Why haven’t you?”
“I know all this…” He glanced back at the car. “It’s a lot. I didn’t think it would be fair to bring someone else into it.”
“You mean how you did tonight?”
He ducked his head. “They were crying when I picked them up from school. I was at my wit’s end.”
“I can handle it. I wasn’t kidding when I said I like kids. And yours are great. Besides, I know I’m a lot, too.” She ticked off on her fingers. “My forty-year-old cokehead ex-fiancé left me to backpack around Asia. I dress up as a witch for extra money on my days off. And my two-hundred-year-old house is falling down around my ears. Trust me, it would take more than what you’ve got to scare me off.”
He moved closer. “You’re amazing, you know that?”
She let out a nervous giggle. “Sometimes I think I’m the only one who does.”
“I know it, too, and so do they.” He nodded back at the car. “All right, Rina. I’m going to kiss you now.”
“Good. I’ve been waiting for this all night.”
He moved in, taking her in his arms. A thrill went through her at the feel of his hard body enveloping hers with protective warmth. She’d loved it when he held her on the bridge, the easy touch making her feel human again, making her feel seen and connected. The last year had been so lonely.
His lips touched hers, warm and soft. She parted her lips, inviting his tongue, and he tasted like the ginger candy they’d shared on the ride home.
The kiss was sweet, with an undercurrent of fierce desire evident in the swipe of his tongue, the pressure of his fingers on her hips, and the growling moan in the back of his throat. Her knees weakened, and she pressed closer to him, wanting more.
He broke the kiss first, leaving them both panting.
“If you didn’t have two kids in the car, I’d ask you to come inside.”
“If I didn’t have two kids in the car, I’d say yes.” He rested his forehead on hers. “I want to see you again, Rina.”
“I’d like that.” She glanced over at the SUV. “I don’t date as Clarissa, and eventually they’re going to figure out that I’m really a mild-mannered librarian.”
“For now, we’ll tell them it’s your secret identity. And later…like you said, there’s magic everywhere, and it doesn’t always show up the way you expect. They’ll understand.”
She grinned. “Are you saying we have a later?”
“I hope so. I’ve been wanting to get to know you for a long time. You, not Lady Clarissa.” He jerked a shoulder. “She’s cool and all, but like I said, I have a thing for librarians.”
“That’s handy. I know a librarian who’s got a thing for you.”
His eyes sparkled, bright with amusement, and dark with desire.
“Come over tomorrow,” she blurted out, at the same time he said, “Come over for Christmas Eve.”
She laughed and hugged him. “Yes, I’ll come over for Christmas Eve. My home is not at all festive. I haven’t even put a tree up, because it would only get in the way of the painting.”
“We can’t have that. I’ll come by tomorrow. The kids and I will help paint. And we’ll bring you a tree.”
“Thank you.” She rested her head on his shoulder.
“Thank you. Tonight was—dare I say it?—magical.”
She gave a dry laugh. “You can say it. And yes, it was.”
A Winter Solstice miracle indeed.