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"If I don't come up with the money, I'm in big trouble."
Claire Hoffman had been trying to ignore her brother, Freddy, who had burst into the kitchen of her candy shop, ranting about his latest financial emergency. It was under four weeks until Christmas; she had a ton of work to do, and no time to deal with his histrionics.
But unlike usual Freddy's tone, he didn't sound cajoling and playful now. He sounded serious. Very serious.
Her hand shook, ever so slightly, but enough to sabotage the delicate lacework icing she'd been applying to a tray of tiny petits fours. She lowered the icing bag. "What are you talking about?"
Ignoring her for a moment, Freddy grabbed a cafe con leche truffleone of her specialtiesand stuffed it into his mouth.
"Freddy?" she snapped.
"I'm starving. I don't even have money to feed myself."
She didn't ask why. Freddy made a fair wage ushering at one of the theaters on Broadway, but whatever he made was never enough to keep him solvent between paychecks. Which was why she hadn't immediately panicked when he'd burst in a few minutes ago, looking for cash. She was used to slipping him a twenty she could hardly spare, knowing the money was worth avoiding the nagging.
But she suspected a twenty wasn't going to cut it this time.
"What have you done?"
He finished chewing, then looked down at his feet, scuffing them on the floor. It might have been cute when he was ten and, five years older, Claire was practically raising him, since their delicate, prima ballerina mother was so often ill. But it wasn't cute now that he was twenty-one, and a lazy, often unemployed college dropout who seemed happy to coast through life.
After he'd spent his share of their mom's life insurance policy, he'd started bumming from Claire's. Now that she had invested every penny in updating the ancient building her uncle had left her, and starting her shop, I Want Candy, she could no longer serve as Freddy's ATM. "What. Have. You. Done?"
"It shoulda been a sure thing. I mean, that race "
A flush rose up his neck, mottling his cheeks.
"How much did you lose?"
"Well, it wasn't so much the race ."
She reached for a truffle and bit into it, then grabbed another one. She needed to busy her hands so she wouldn't strangle him, and busy her mouth so she wouldn't scream.
"See, when I realized how deep I was in, I went to leverage what I had left on last weekend's NFL games."
He snagged a petit four. She snatched it back. "How much? "
He mumbled a reply, so softly she couldn't be sure she'd heard right. Oh, God, please let me not have heard right.
"Um ten large."
"Tell me you mean ten oversize one-dollar bills."
He shook his head, looking miserable. "Ten grand."
The truffles threatened to come back up. For a moment Claire couldn't think. As if on autopilot, she reached for a nearby bottle of Grand Marnier she'd used in the truffles, twisted off the top and swallowed several mouthfuls. The liqueur burned a fiery path down her throat, snapping her out of her lethargy.
Setting the bottle down, she stretched her hands out and strode toward her brother, ready to choke him.
"Hey," he cried, shuffling backward. "What are you doing?"
"Strangling you. Your life insurance is paid up, right?"
"That's not funny."
"You think I'm joking? I am mad enough to kill you, Freddy!"
"I'm sorry," he squealed.
Her fury seeped out of her. "How could you do this?" she mumbled, collapsing onto a stool in front of the counter.
Of all people, Freddy should know better. But the fact that their gambler father had lost all his money and died of a stroke at fifty apparently hadn't taught him anything.
"I didn't mean to. Claire, you gotta help me. If I don't make good, the Rat King is gonna send the Nutcracker after me."
She gaped at her brother. "The who is going to send the what? "
"The Rat King's a bookie. The Nutcracker is his enforcer."
Torn between wanting to burst into hysterical laughter or scream, she stared at her imbecilic sibling. "The Nutcracker?'"
"Yeah. He got his name because if you don't pay, he, uh "
Claire waved a hand. "I think I can figure it out." Considering she'd often thought her brother needed to grow a pair, she wasn't sure the collector would be cracking much.
"I can't help you," she stated calmly.
Freddy's eyes rounded into saucers. "What?"
"I have barely enough to cover my expenses for the rest of the month. I'm counting on a big holiday season to make this place pay. My lines of credit are totally tapped out."
"You could rent the upstairs apartments ."
"No." The argument was a familiar one. "They're one step up from needing to be condemned."
"Come on, it's Midtown. People would pay five grand a month for the location alone. Screw the peeling paint on the walls!"
It wasn't just peeling paint. Her great-uncle Harry had left her the run-down property, but no cash. Her mother's life insurance had given her enough money to get the first-floor shop renovated, along with the apartment behind it, where Claire now lived, but nothing else. The upstairs unitstwo on each level, going up three floorswere uninhabitable. Squatters living up there had had the good sense to move out, driven away by the frigid air that poured through the cracked windows. Then there were the holes in the walls, the mildewed bathrooms and the drooping wallpaper. Not a pretty picture. Someday, when the shop was thriving, she'd have enough money to continue the renovations and make the whole building a lucrative investment. But not now.
The only way she could get any money out of this place would be if she agreed to sell it to the investor who'd been coming around a lot in the last month. Yet the idea of giving up her chance to build a future for herself made her heart clench. Especially if she had to do it to bail out her idiot brother.
Claire got so tired of taking care of him of everyone. When their mother had gotten sick, Claire had been the one to nurse her. When her father had lost his money, she'd started working to help support the family. When they were both gone and it was just her and Freddy, she'd become a mother to a teenager, when she wasn't much past her own teenage years.
She was tired. So damn tired of being the caretaker. It had been such a long time since anyone had taken care of her, she honestly didn't remember what it felt like.
"Freddy, even if I would consider renting them, I couldn't get the permits. Everything above this floor is a ruin." Seeing him about to speak again, she threw a hand up. "And no, I'm not renting under the table. Legal trouble is the last thing I need."
"So what am I supposed to do?" he asked, sounding petulant.
She bit her tongue to prevent herself from suggesting that he grow the hell up, be a man and deal with his own problems.
"What about a payment plan?" she asked. "You could promise to give him a certain amount of your paycheck every week ."
Her brother rolled his eyes. "Bookies don't finance."
"You've got no other options. You have to at least ask."
If the "Rat King" said no, then she'd go into full panic mode and start considering selling organs on the black market. She could think of a few of Freddy's that could be spared, like his useless brain.
Otherwise was she prepared to give up everything she'd worked so hard for to save her brother's bacon? Again?
Oh, God, she hoped it wouldn't come to that. She just had to pray that in this magical season of giving, the rat discovered he had a heart, and the nutcracker went on vacation.
But she wasn't counting on it. This might be the time for miracles, but Claire had stopped believing in those long ago. She'd never been the type to fantasize about some rich Prince Charming galloping in on his white steed to take care of all her problems. And she sure didn't expect one now.
"My prince, please reconsider. We can't possibly live here." Philip Nadir, crowned prince of the Kingdom of Selandria of the Dry Lands, heard the dismay in the voice of his loyal but fastidious companion, Shelby, and smiled. "Of course we can, and we shall. This will do quite well," he said as he watched his bodyguard, Phateenalso called Teenyenter, muscling a mattress through the doorway. "Perhaps we should leave that until Shelby clears away the debris on the floor?" he suggested, remembering the condition of the small sleeping chamber, which he'd seen on a tour of the building yesterday.
"Until who clears away the debris?" the man squealed.
"Are you saying I should do it?"
"Of course not, my prince. But I can't be expected to "
Quirking a brow, Philip stared at Shelby, who was almost as spoiled as Philip was accused of being, and harder to please. A cousin, Shelby had come to visit when they were children, and had never left. Most looked upon him as a servant; Philip called him friend. But he could behow did they say it?high maintenance.
"Do you want to go back to Elatyria?"
A rueful frown pulled at the other man's face. He had been adamant that he be allowed to come along on this quest Philip's last chance to find a woman he could love, who would love him for himselfbut so far he wasn't acting very happy about it.
"No, Your Highness. But surely a scullery wench."
"We're supposed to be poor, struggling students. Poor people can't afford to hire, uh, I believe the term is cleaning ladies."
Shelby huffed. Never having been to this world before, he was having difficulty adjusting, daunted by the tall buildings, the crowds, the frantic pace and the lack of subservience.
Philip, on the other hand, was having the time of his life.
Though he'd been raised in Elatyria, he was fond of Earth, a world that somehow existed, as his father's sorcerer described it, "One plane over from our reality." He had been here a few times before, but only with guards and servants.
He had never been one to complain about the weight of his responsibilities, and had been the first to appreciate the benefits that came with being the bachelor prince of one of the richest kingdoms in his world. But until now he'd never understood the joy of walking down a public thoroughfare and being jostled by strangers, or of flipping a worthless piece of paper at someone and being given something called a hot dog. Escaping his usual retinue for this quest to find his bride was giving him the chance to be completely free. And what better time than during one of the most popular holiday seasons of this world? New York was bedecked with lights and decorations, and populated by happy, smiling people. He loved it already.
Shelby toggled a button on the wall that was supposed to send light flooding out of the ceiling. "Why won't this work?"
"Hmm." Philip walked over and tried it himself. Nothing happened.
Though it was only late afternoon, the shadows of evening were drawing close. The air was chilly, so apparently the heating apparatus wasn't working. He wasn't used to cold weather, being from a dry, desertlike kingdom, but knew he could "rough it," as the locals said, for a night or so. But Shelby was another story.
"I'll go downstairs and talk to the innkeeper," he declared, wanting to confirm a few more details with that man, a Mr. Freddy Hoffman. Philip had thought Hoffman would be here today for their move-in. But he had seen neither hide nor hair of him since yesterday, when Philip had met him and paid a month's rent, plus something called "security," for both the second-floor living units, one for him, one for Shelby and Teeny.
"Do start working on the debris, won't you?" Philip said as he exited.
He walked down the dingy corridor to the back stairway. If he wasn't mistaken, Mr. Hoffman had said this stairwell led to the first-floor shop and the owner's apartment.
Moving carefully down the steps, he frowned, feeling the sag of the boards beneath his feet and hearing their noisy creaks. He reached the bottom level, coming to a long, narrow hallway, shadowy and cluttered. At the far end was a door that led outside to a back alley. In the opposite direction was the front entrance to the building. In between were two other doors, the nearest marked Private. Another, closer to the front, was marked I Want Candy: Deliveries.
From behind it he could hear music. The sound grew louder as he approached, so he knocked once, then pushed the door open.
The music was much louder in here, and the smooth-voiced female singer was purring to someone she called Santa Baby, inviting him to leave her gifts. Philip placed the reference, though he was unaccustomed to hearing seductive songs about Santa Claus, a character most thought an American invention. But who, Philip knew, actually resided in one of the icy northern kingdoms of Elatyria.
Suddenly, that sultry tone was made sultrier by the addition of another female voice. He couldn't help moving into the main part of the large kitchen, intrigued by the throaty, feminine sound. He didn't see a duo of women performing, only the one. The instrumentation, and the first voice, emerged from a small electronic box. The other singer stood in front of a tall counter that was laden with sweets, and was singing along as she worked.
Singing very well. Working very hard.
Looking utterly beautiful.
Philip was used to the perfection of princesses who would never be seen without elaborately coiffed hair or elegant, be-jeweled gowns. Who would never allow a potential suitor to behold them in a state like this. But never had he seen a woman who so immediately appealed to him on such a deep, visceral level.
Her mass of dark brown hair strained to free itself from a haphazard bun, a few tendrils brushing her high cheekbones. The face was arrestingnot perfect, he supposed, but very attractive, with soft cheeks, a pert nose, and a wide, sensuous mouth. Her eyes were deep-set, green or blue, and ringed with thick, dark lashes, and her high brow furrowed as she concentrated on a tricky bit of work she was doing on a delicacy before her.
She continued to sing, and as she finished dabbling some icing on a sweet, she added a toss of her head and a swivel of her hips in time with the beat.
The toss caught his attention, making him wonder if all that glorious hair would tumble down about her shoulders. The swivel kept his attention, for he hoped it would be repeated.
Because, oh, did the woman have swiveling hips. She was incredibly curvaceous. The smock she wore over her simple clothing emphasized the smallness of her waist compared to the curve of her hips and backside. Not to mention the fullness of her breasts, the tops of which peeked above the apron.
She was also tallvery tall, compared to most women in his worldand if they were to stand facing each other, their noses would almost touch. Other parts would line up equally well. Some of those other parts reacted to that thought, until his newly purchased "Jean" pantswho Jean was and why men's pants were named after her, he did not knowbegan to tighten.
The stranger crooned even louder, and Philip couldn't help thinking about what he'd like to slip her under her tree. Before he could clear his throat to warn her of his presence, she turned to retrieve something, and saw him standing there watching her.