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By Maggie Shayne Anne Stuart Judith Arnold
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFirst Week of Advent
It was snowing again. Angela McKenna navigated the icy roads with her usual panic, driving her old Jeep at a snail's pace. At least it had all-wheel drive. But even that wonderful invention wasn't foolproof when it came to ice. This was her second winter spent on the shores of Lake Champlain, and she would have thought she'd have gotten used to the driving by now. After all, she could navigate the heart of Chicago, the insanity of New York, the freeways of L.A. without breaking a sweat. But let a few flakes of snow start drifting out of the Vermont skies and she was swamped with a tightly controlled terror. It was a good thing she didn't have to go anywhere for work - she would have been hopeless. Except, maybe that would have forced her to learn how to drive in the snowy vicinity of Crescent Cove without courting a heart attack.
She usually avoided going out entirely when the weather was bad, but right now she was driving home from Burlington Airport after spending Thanksgiving with her parents in Chicago, and the sooner she got back the better. It was only going to keep on snowing.
They'd put the holiday decorations up in the middle of town while she'd been gone. Reindeer danced from everystreetlight, and the big tree at the end of the main street was ablaze with lights. Wreaths were on every one of the white clapboard houses she passed. Just after four and already growing dark, the sidewalks of Crescent Cove were empty.
She had to get home and off these snowy roads, she thought as she made her way through town with single-minded concentration, past the stores and restaurants, heading north, breathing deeply as she listened to the New Age holiday music on her car's CD player, when for some reason she hit the right turn signal. She took the turn, half in a daze. In all the time she'd spent in Crescent Cove she'd never gone down this particular narrow road, never even noticed its existence, and why she'd do so in the middle of a raging blizzard made no sense at all. Nevertheless, that was exactly what she had done.
Well, it wasn't actually a raging blizzard - more a flurry or two. And maybe she'd just been daydreaming - forgetting where she was, and taken the wrong turn. It would be easy enough to stop and head back the way she'd come. She'd never been gifted geographically, and if she kept going in a strange direction, God knows where she'd end up. Her safest bet was to turn around.
The street was packed with the early snow, and she pulled into a driveway beside a small store, then backed out again. Not into the street, but into a parking spot just outside the tiny shop.
Crescent Cove was too small a place, especially in the winter, for Angie not to have known every single side street, every shop, every restaurant. Nevertheless, this tiny shop was entirely new to her, and the warm light spilled out onto the sidewalk.
On impulse she turned off the car and climbed out. She never could resist a mystery, and the appearance of a new street, a new store, was unimaginable. Of course the street wasn't new - that would be impossible. She just hadn't seen it before - the snow made everything look different.
And once she could read the faded gilt sign over the front door she breathed a sigh of relief. Christmas Candles by Mrs. Claus, it read. The very cuteness of it should have been cloying, but Angie was in a generous mood. No wonder she'd missed it - it was a seasonal business. No one would be buying Christmas candles in the busy summer.
The snow was falling gently on her shoulders, and she realized she should return to the car and get her butt safely home, but something kept her rooted to the sidewalk. After all, she'd decided this would be the Christmas she would go all out, and it was important to support local businesses. Buy Vermont First, they said, and she opened the old oak door, listening to the silvery laughter of bells as she stepped inside.
She was expecting to be assaulted by artificial perfumes, but instead the place smelled warm and delightful, like Christmas cookies. Candles of various shapes and sizes were arranged on a number of tables, decorated with festive tablecloths and sweet-smelling greenery, and Angie felt a surge of happiness that hadn't been there in a long, long time. Christmas always did that to her.
"Merry Christmas, dearie." The woman seemed to materialize out of the shadows, and Angie would have laughed, except it seemed so right. The owner of the shop had dressed the part - rosy cheeks, wire-rimmed glasses, a red-velvet mob cap atop her soft white hair.
"Merry Christmas," Angie replied automatically. "I don't really know why I'm here ..."
"You're here for a Christmas candle," the woman said in a comfortable voice.
"Well, I suppose I am," Angie admitted. "I just hadn't realized ..."
"We seldom do," the so-called Mrs. Claus said. "I've got just the one for you, Angie."
Angie was startled. "How did you know who I was?"
"This is a very small town in the winter, dearie. Everyone knows everyone."
Angie was about to point out that Mrs. Claus was a complete stranger to her, but she was polite enough to keep quiet. Besides, it wasn't strictly true. There was a familiarity about the old lady that was unmistakable.
"I'm not sure what I'm looking for. Whether I want some kind of Christmas scent or - the candles are unscented," she said suddenly, just realizing it.
"No, they're not. They only release their fragrance when they're lit. And I promise you, there's nothing artificial about the scent. If you smell cinnamon and apples, then that's what's in the candle."
"Well, maybe a nice big red pillar," Angie said, always a sucker for cinnamon and apples.
"No, dearie. I'll get yours." The woman disappeared into the back of the store with a swirl of her red velvet skirts, then reappeared holding a wide, slightly conical shaped candle. It was deep gold, with Florentine scrolling around the top and bottom, and a line of angels dancing. It was a work of art, undeniably beautiful, and not in Angie's budget. If she had any money to spare it was earmarked for presents, not her own pleasure.
"I don't think I can afford it," she said.
"Oh, you don't have to pay for it," the woman said. "It's already been taken care of. You notice there are three angels dancing on the side of the candle? One is for Christmas past, one for Christmas present and one for all the Christmases of the future. It will last just until Christmas morning, and when the candle burns down completely everything you need will be yours."
Angie would have objected, but the old woman put the pillar in her hand. It felt heavy, warm and oddly comforting. "But who ...?"
"Does it matter? Think of it as a gift from Santa Claus. Or are you going to tell me you don't believe in him?"
She had been about to say that very thing but something stopped her. Certain things were meant to be accepted, not scrutinized, and she accepted the gift as she accepted the existence of Santa Claus. Unlikely, but very nice anyway.
"I guess I'll have to find out on my own," she said.
The woman calling herself Mrs. Claus smiled sweetly. "I guess you will, dearie. In the end, we all have to find out on our own."
Not until Angie was halfway down the town road to Black's Point did the oddness of the encounter hit her. The candle sat on the seat beside her, the rich colors glowing in the darkness. If all her wishes were going to come true when the candle burned down, then she'd better plan to burn it night and day. The old woman said it would last until Christmas Day, but Angie doubted it would make it halfway through Advent, the four weeks before Christmas. Still, it was a lovely thing, and its very presence in the car seemed almost a blessing, to ward off the danger of the snowy roads.
Excerpted from Burning Bright by Maggie Shayne Anne Stuart Judith Arnold Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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