Lorelei grumbled about fae as she made her way back down to the foyer.
“Lore!” Ziah was all smiles, standing at the foot of the stairs. She was gripping her planner against her chest and had a twinkle to her eye that screamed I’m about to organize this whole place, and no one’s going to stop me. “I have a surprise for you.”
Lorelei squinted back at her. She couldn’t really take another one.
Then Ziah’s face went a bit worried. “Wait, I should have checked. Tell me something, have you ever celebrated Christmas before?”
“Yeah. Like twenty-something of them.”
Ziah’s amber eyes lit up even brighter. “And you’re not going back to see your family over winter?”
Lorelei shuddered. “That’s a big no.” She had no desire to face any of the people from her hometown so soon after running out on her own wedding, and her mother was headed to the Caribbean with her new friend, someone named Alex, for the holidays anyway.
“Wonderful!” She pulled her down from the stairs and threw an arm over her shoulders, guiding her into the sitting room. The place looked like a made-for-TV movie had thrown up in it. Sparkling gold stars were plastered on the walls, the sconces had stiff, red bows tied to them, a massive wreath was hanging above the fireplace, and a Douglas fir stood so tall in the corner that its tip was bent over against the ceiling. Ren stood beside the tree, and if he could look somber, he certainly did then. A giddy Hana was handing off ornaments to him and directing which of the highest branches they needed to be hung from.
“A little to the left,” she said. “Next to that blue one. No, the other blue one, with the glitter.”
“This is very undignified,” he murmured as she pushed a string of lights into his hands next. He may have meant for himself or the tree, but it was likely both.
“Oh, this is what you were doing?” Lorelei chuckled, looking into the giant box set on the middle of the coffee table. It was still half-filled with holiday paraphernalia, and the bottom of it looked to go on well below where it should have ended. “It’s maybe a little early, though, isn’t it?”
Ziah shrugged and skipped across the room. She was carrying a fuzzy throw blanket covered in holly berries over to Mr. Ecknees, their ever-sleeping guest rocking beside the fire, and placed it on his lap. He didn’t show any signs of waking, not that he ever did. “Every winter we sort of spiff up the place, and everyone’s got a different holiday thing. I like to rotate the theme, but I’ve been wanting to do Christmas for ages.”
There was a jostle from the box then, and the alalynx popped out of the decorations, tinsel draped over her head and wings, and a green and white sprig in her mouth.
“What’s this?” Hana took the plant from Aly who dove back in and disappeared amongst the baubles. “Tag says number 208.”
Ziah flipped through a sheet she had tucked into her planner and read aloud to them, “Number 208. An artificial sprig of Viscum album, a toxic, parasitic plant that bears evergreen leaves and waxy, white berries. Associated with fertility and vitality in ancient human cultures,”—at that she waggled her brows—“this decor is meant to be hung in a doorway or by a windowsill and is considered bad luck to pass beneath without kissing. Common name, mistletoe. Oh, fun!”
Hana squealed, and Lorelei pinched the bridge of her nose—that couldn’t have fallen into better hands. She sauntered up to the mantle where they’d arranged a manger scene, which was odd enough for charmed folk seeing as they had a different idea of what constituted divinity which Lorelei had yet to figure out, but most of the figurines in the manger weren’t shepherds or kings bearing gifts. Instead, there were three snowmen, a set of reindeer with drums strapped to their backs, a skeleton in a neon green elf costume, a grown man with a Jesus-esque beard wearing a festive if ugly sweater, and Santa Clause himself seated in the center on a throne-like chair. “Hey, Ziah, what is…uh, where’d this all come from?”
“YuleCo. They do these boxes for charmed folk to get the total Christmas package but aren’t sure how things are meant to go.”
There was a grunt from the corner where Ren was struggling with getting the string of lights to work, plugging them in to no avail and tightening each bulb in kind. “Wait, Ziah, isn’t your mom human? Haven’t you, at least, celebrated Christmas?”
“She doesn’t do Christmas, and I usually spent winter in the nether with my father’s family anyway. The only one of us really familiar with it is Grier, and he hates it. But now we’ve finally got our big tree, and we’re going to hang mittens on the mantle and roast nuts in them, and we’ll invite over some geese, and, oh, do you know how to make a figgy pudding? Because Ando refuses, and—”
Lorelei held up a finger. “You might have gotten a couple things confused in there, but we’ll figure them out.”
“There’s one more thing.” Ziah picked up a small, drawstring bag and shook it. “I want to play Covert Kringle.” Lorelei’s eyes must have said she had no idea what the woman meant, because Ziah’s face fell. “I put everybody’s name in this bag, and we’re supposed to pick one, and—”
“Secret Santa.” Lorelei giggled. “Yes, okay, and you give that person a gift.”
Ziah opened the bag and thrust it toward her. “You’re the first one.”
Lorelei fished around inside, pulling out a slip of paper. In Ziah’s exquisite handwriting, it read Grier.
“But you can’t tell anyone who you have!” She snatched the bag back and frowned, serious.
Lorelei held the strip against her heart and nodded solemnly.
There was a clatter from the corner as Ren dropped the string of lights, his nostrils flaring for a second before he cleared his throat. “It is getting late. I believe you have things under control now, and I need to begin tracking my crepuscular query for the evening.”
Ziah made him pick from the bag before she let him leave, which he did without even looking at the scrap of paper. She watched him go with a grin then turned back to Lorelei. “We’ll get him enjoying things soon enough; you can’t have fun if no one knows where to start.”
“What is this?” Bridgette Blackburn was standing in the entry to the sitting room, her pink-painted lip upturned like the overwhelming smell of cinnamon in the air was offensive, and to be fair it sort of was. She had her hair pulled back, strange as it was usually in soft, blonde curls all around her face, and she looked a bit more tired than usual, but her eyes still had that hostile glimmer to them that she shared with her father, the mayor.
“Kissletoe,” squeaked Hana, shaking the plastic decoration over her head. The girl was perched on the edge of a side table and leaning out to fasten it over the doorway.
Bridgette’s brown eyes rolled upward as she stepped back. “Ew.” Then she gestured to the room at large with fingers spread wide. “I mean, like, everything.”
Lorelei tried to keep the grimace off her face, her Blackburn quota for the day already full. “We’re celebrating Christmas this year.”
Frowning, Bridgette shrugged. “Weird. Uh, you?” She pointed at Hana. “Can we get something to eat downstairs?”
Hana lilted out a yes, unendingly cheerful and accommodating, but Lorelei frowned. Conrad ought to come up and get dinner himself, not send his girlfriend up to do it, and especially not ask Hana to bring it down to them. She turned back to Ziah, but didn’t wipe the look off her face fast enough. Ziah frowned back, concerned, then Lorelei smiled at her. “I’m fine,” she said as quickly as she could and stuck her hand in the box of decorations. “Are there any nutcrackers in this thing?”