Eight days to Christmas
Dear Santa Claus,
My name is Liam. I’m probably a little old to be writing to you—I’m fifteen. But I’m an orphan, so I’ve got no one else to ask. How fucking sad is that? My mom died in June this year. She had cancer, but she never told anyone. She just got really sick, really quickly, and then she was gone.
But I’m not entirely alone in the world. I have an uncle. His name is John Ryan, and he’s my guardian. Except I haven’t seen him, or even talked to him, since my mom died, and not for a while before that. We never saw much of him, but he always promised he’d be there if we needed him. And then he wasn’t. Just fucking poof and gone. Like my mom, except without the really good excuse.
My mom used to say it was complicated. Uncle John was a policeman and my grandad was a thief. He probably thought it best to stay away, like opposite ends of the country away. Grandad’s dead now, and Uncle John’s not a policeman anymore, but I guess it’s still complicated. Now he pays someone to look after me, like I’m some unwanted fucking puppy in a crappy kennel.
But Christmas is for families, right? And while he’s obviously a total dickhead, I miss my mom, and he’s all I’ve got. So, Santa, I would really fucking appreciate it if you could bring me my Uncle John for Christmas.
Seven days to Christmas
“Jingle bells, jingle bells,” Winter sang under her breath.
Christmas was a week away, and a fresh new year hovered on the horizon, with its promise of new beginnings.
This was going to be her year. The year she took control, found a purpose…made a difference, stopped frittering her life away. There was just one obstacle—a rather large and surly one—in her way.
She hesitated in the open doorway, and eyed the obstacle in question. Her dad was seated behind his desk, booted feet resting on the wooden surface, a half-empty bottle of scotch and a full glass in front of him. He was sorting through the mail, placing the letters into “naughty” and “nice” piles. His phone was tucked against his ear as he perused one letter, his heavy black brows drawing together as he listened to whoever was on the other side. After a minute, he ended the call, swore, screwed up the paper, and hurled it across the room. It hit Winter on the nose.
As it landed at her feet, she bent down automatically and picked it up, then sauntered into the room. She’d just be casual and ask him one more time. If he said no, then once the holidays were over, she’d go anyway, off into the world.
But she loved him and she wanted his blessing. And if she was honest—a good word from him would go a long way toward getting her dream career.
“So,” she said, “have you thought any more about me getting a job?”
He didn’t even glance up. “You have a job. Go wrap some presents.”
She rolled her eyes. “A proper job, Dad. I want to do something useful, something important.”
She understood his attitude, really, she did. Her mom—an ice pixie her dad had met on a trip to the North Pole—had disappeared when Winter was four. Apparently, her mom had always been a little flighty, but honestly, if her dad had wanted “steady,” he shouldn’t have taken up with a pixie. After that, he’d brought Winter up on his own, which made him superprotective.
And okay, maybe she hadn’t always been totally reliable—that was the pixie blood. She might have gotten into one or two scrapes over the years—maybe more than two—but she was past that stage. Pixies were notoriously late to mature—some of them never did—but she was twenty-six now, all grown up, and he still treated her like she was a kid with no sense. It was driving her crazy.
Each year, she asked nicely, and each year, he found a reason for her to stay. No more.
She sighed and crossed the room. Perching on the edge of the desk, she picked up his glass, took a sip of whisky, then fluttered her wings so the pile of letters stirred.
He glanced up with an exaggerated sigh, then focused his attention on her face. “What’s that?”
“A nose ring. Cool, isn’t it?”
“No. And what in Asgard’s name have you done to your hair?”
She’d cut her black hair so that it was level with the bottom of her pointed ears and put a crimson stripe through the front. Ready for a change, she was going for a Goth look, with lots of black eyeliner and dark red lipstick. She looked pretty cool, at least, she thought she did. Her last image makeover had been to wear sensible suits and heels, trying to look grown up and…sensible. It hadn’t impressed her dad and had bored her to death.
He studied her for a minute and she held her breath, waiting for him to blow. Instead, he grinned. “Suits you.”
Winter sighed, then glanced down at the paper screwed up in her hands. She smoothed it out, and as she read the words, something twisted inside her.
Aw, poor Liam.
“Why not this one, Dad?” she asked.
He shrugged. “The kid’s fifteen. Too old to believe in Father Christmas. And he swears too much.”
She re-read the words, then stroked her fingertip over the splotches on the paper. “He was crying when he wrote this,” she murmured. She could picture him, trying to sound tough and writing through his tears. Her heart broke for him.
“Yeah, boy needs to get a grip.”
She snorted. “Ho, ho, ho. So much for the spirit of Christmas.”
With his long dark hair pulled back into a ponytail and a black velvet patch covering his left eye, her dad looked nothing like a traditional plump, genial Father Christmas. But then, long ago, before mankind had decided to rename him and give him an image revamp, he’d been known as Odin. On Sleipnir, his eight-legged horse, he’d led the Wild Hunt across the skies at Yuletide, doling out presents to the deserving, and death to others. People tended to forget that.
But despite being a hard ass, she knew he hated it when he couldn’t come through on the genuine cases.
“You can’t give up, Dad, just because it’s not as easy as giving an iPad. This one is important.”
He scowled and filled his glass, then swallowed it in one gulp. “Hey, I tried,” he said. “I looked into Liam’s sob story. I even found his uncle. And to use the boy’s favorite word—he’s fucked. Little bastard might as well get used to being alone in the world.”
“And why’s that?”
“Because Uncle John works for the Order. I just had their HR department on the phone, confirming it. But as usual, they are not at liberty to disclose any further details.”
Her ears perked up. From the time she was a little girl, she’d dreamed of working for the Order of the Shadow Accords, the organization that policed the supernatural world. If she got in there, she’d be doing something useful with her life. Something important.
In the past, the Order’s main purpose had been to ensure that the earth wasn’t destroyed in the periodic wars that broke out between the demons and the Fae. That was exciting enough, but there were some major changes going on at the Order right now—they were getting ready to come out of the closet and reveal to humanity that monsters really did exist. She wanted to be part of that.
Of course the Order mainly employed vampires, but Piers Lamont, who was the big boss over there, was a friend of her dad’s and a sort of honorary uncle to her. She’d known him all her life and he’d said he would give her a job, but only if her father agreed. Up until now, that hadn’t happened.
“Did you talk to Piers?” she asked.
“Wasn’t available. But you know how secretive those bastards are. Liam will likely never hear from his uncle again. Poor kid.”
Yeah. He’d keep waiting for his uncle to show up, only it would never happen. Winter understood how hard it was to lose someone and never know what had become of them. She’d spent years wavering between believing her mother was dead, and believing she just didn’t care. Both scenarios hurt unbearably.
She had an idea. “I bet I could do it.”
“Get Liam his uncle for Christmas.”
He studied her for a moment, then shook his head. “They’ll never go for it. Human employees of the Order always give up their families. You know that.”
“Maybe that’s the way it worked in the past. But things are changing. I could try.”
“Then it’s no loss, is it? Come on, Dad, you know you want this. And the Order is probably the safest place on the planet for me to work. What can go wrong?”
He stroked his beard as he considered the idea. She clamped her lips shut; if she pushed him too hard, he’d go the other way. But she was already planning the logistics of her trip to London in her head. Finally, his eye narrowed under his bushy brow. “And what do you get out of it?”
She fluttered her wings and widened her eyes. “Just the pleasure of making a poor orphan boy happy at Christmas.”
He raised a skeptical eyebrow. “And…?”
She shrugged. “And your blessing when I ask for a job with the Order.”