Twas the night before Christmas . . .

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I watched flames writhe behind the wood-burning stove’s glass door. The Christmas tree sparkled in the corner of the living room, the tree-topper an inch or two from the ceiling. In the kitchen, Royal assembled the ingredients for hot chocolate. I bought a bag of mini-marshmallows especially for him; Royal loves them on his cocoa. He can’t wait for them to melt in the hot liquid and slurps them up when they are still gooey and chocolaty, then puts more in the mug. He has the sweetest tooth. I wonder he isn’t fat. Can a demon’s natural body heat burn away all the sugar? Does he have a hyped metabolism? His body is as tight and toned as when I met him.

I sighed. Whatever his advantage, I don’t have it. Come 2016 I’d be jogging, trying to get rid of the pounds gained over Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

I remembered when this room looked like it was decorated during Queen Victoria’s reign. Now, after Royal and I remodeled, it’s a nice place to relax, particularly this time of year with the lamps off, fire going and Christmas lights twinkling.

A massive whump from outside made me start.

That sounded close,” Mel said, almost making me jump out of my skin because I didn’t realize she was nearby.

I hurried to the kitchen. Royal stood at the big windows and I joined him. “What is that?”

A big red, green and gold object outside hid the view of the street.

“It’s big,” Royal said.

“No kidding.”

I went back to the hall and opened the front door to look out.

The vehicle which covered my front yard and jutted out in the street must have skidded off the slippery road and from the sound of it, ended up right next to the house. It looked like an old-fashioned sleigh, the kind the Jameson ranch uses to give rides on their property during the winter. But it couldn’t be a sleigh; there were no horses and any harness to indicate there ever were any.

The guy who climbed from it was big and wide. As tall as Royal, which is to say taller than me, and his red jacket strained over an enormous belly. He backed away and pushed his fur-trimmed red hat off his forehead.

“Santa Claus is coming to town!” Jack trilled as he came up behind me.

“Looks like he already arrived.”

Jack gasped as his gaze settled on the man outside. “It is! It’s Santa!”

“Don’t be silly.” I frowned at the obstruction flattening the snow on my lawn. “I was kidding.”

“It is! It is!” Mel wriggled like a puppy. “Santa, and his sleigh.”

“Then where are the reindeer?”

“Perhaps they got free and ran away after they crashed.”

Santa walked around the sleigh, then gave it a vicious kick.

I put on my fur-lined boots, down jacket and warm gloves, and went outside. Royal didn’t bother with cold weather wear; in his T-shirt and jeans, he strode out and over to the portly man.

The sleigh or whatever sat inches from my wall.

The man noticed us as I joined Royal, and stopped cursing at his vehicle. He swept off his hat to reveal long white hair, which matched his long white beard. “Sorry about this, Sir, Ma’am.”

“You’d have been sorrier if you’d hit my house,” I said with a scowl. “Going a mite too fast, were you? Lose control?”

“No I did not,” he grumped back. “It just quit on me. Just glad I wasn’t over the ocean.”

“Had a little too much to drink tonight, did we?”

He pulled himself up and straightened his shoulders. “I’ll have you know, Madam, I never drink on the job.”

“Well, Mr. . . .”

“Claus. But you can call me Santa. Everyone does.”

I hiked an eyebrow and looked at Royal, expecting him to step in. But he was speechless. He watched the old fellow with stars in his eyes.

“See, told you so,” from Jack as he hovered behind me.

“Can you give me a push,” the fat old fellow asked.

“That?” Not only was it a big, heavy vehicle, it was loaded with cargo of some type.

“It’s not as heavy as it looks.” He put a finger alongside his nose and winked. “The magic, you see. Makes a difference.”

“Magic.” I forced a smile and nodded too hard. “Uh huh.”

Not magic. Royal. I shot him a look—this was just the kind of trick he’d pull on Christmas Eve. Get a friend to dress up as Santa, someone else to bring him and the sleigh to my place, get it in position and skedaddle.

“Royal, would you like to introduce me to your friend?”

“It’s Santa Claus, Tiff,” he said in a voice heavy with awe. To Royal’s mind, Santa Claus was one step removed from god.

Not what I meant. “Yeah, and he looks the part. Typical merry old elf with his hair and beard, the cheery red cheeks, the clothes.”

“My cheeks are red because it’s cold out here,” Santa said.

“If you think I’ve anything to do with this, you’re wrong,” said Royal.

I gave him a squinty-eyed look. “Yeah. Sure. We’ll see about that.”

I grasped a hank of Santa’s beard and pulled.

“Ow. Ow. Ow. Let go!

So the beard was not fake. Plenty of men have long white beards.

His thick, furry brows drew together. “I don’t have to look at my lists to know if you were naughty or nice.”

Royal spoke to Santa. “What happened?”

“Damn technology.” Santa growled. “Used to be, something went wrong, you found the cause, changed parts, and off you went. Now everything is computerized. Were I a conspiracy theorist, I’d say it’s all a government plot to get folk to put their money into car dealerships and garages.”

“Where’s Rudolf?” Mel asked.

“Rudolf? In his stable I should think, with the other reindeer.” Santa peered at Mel. He slung one hand at the sleigh. “Now I have this. State of the art, navigational system, bells and whistles all over the place.” He spun on the sleigh and gave it another kick. “Useless pile of junk.”

He eyed Royal. “You look like a strong young man. Want to give me a push, see if we can get the engine to turn over?”

“Sure, Santa, anything for you.”

I twisted on my heels. “Oh, good Lord!”

“Give me a hand, Tiff?” Royal asked.

I folded my arms. “You put it there. You get it out.”

“Sweetheart, I have nothing to do with this.”

“Yeah, and pigs might fly.”

“Do you want it off your front yard or not?”

“Okay!” I let my arms hang loose, then went to stand next to Royal.

Santa climbed in the sleigh, Royal gave him a thumbs-up, and we pushed. Man, the thing was heavy.

The sleigh slid a few feet. Deep inside it, something ticked over, then caught and rumbled, then whined and died.

“Again!” Santa yelled.

But the motor refused to catch again.

Santa dismounted wearily and pulled a cell phone from his deep pocket. “I’ll have to call for backup.”

He turned and walked away, the phone to his ear.

“Oh my, what about Christmas?” Mel said.

“He can’t make his deliveries!” from Jack.

“I’m sure he will work something out,” Royal said, slipping an arm around my shoulder.

If I rolled my eyes many more times, they would stick in a skyward position.

Santa came back to us. “They’re on their way.”

“Do you want to come in?” Royal asked as my face began to freeze. “I was making hot chocolate.”

Santa rubbed his mittened hands together. “Hot chocolate will go down a treat, thank you.”

Royal beamed.

Inside, Santa took off his hat, mittens and jacket and I hung them on the hall stand. We went in the kitchen.

Royal zipped to the stove and started the hot chocolate.

“You do have cookies?” Santa asked with a wink.

“I think there’s a packet of oatmeal with macadamia nuts and white chocolate chips.”

“Not homemade?”

“Not unless you want to make them.”

“Packaged will do,” he said quickly, then added, “although homemade are best. He got a dreamy look in his eyes as he sat at the table. “You know the best thing about Christmas? The food kind families leave out for me. Cookies, mincemeat pies, brownies, candy, mugs of cocoa, glasses of sherry or wine, or milk. And no Mrs. Claus to harass me about my waistline.” He smirked to himself. “One little girl left me a bowl of M&Ms.”

Royal came back with mugs of cocoa and I shot to the cabinets in search of the cookies. I brought them to the table along with some plates.

Santa took a big slurp of cocoa, and sighed. “Thank you. This is good stuff.” Then he munched a cookie in two bites.

“What’s it like at the North Pole,” Mel asked.

“Cold,” said Santa, and that he saw and heard Mel and Jack finally registered in my brain.

I admit, we were a jolly little bunch, eating, drinking, chatting and laughing. Santa had a vast repertoire of jokes about elves and penguins and I laughed so hard, my stomach hurt. Did Royal hire one of our local entertainers to impersonate Santa?

Santa stopped mid-joke and rose from his chair. “Ah, they’re here.”

We followed him to the window. A big semi backed down the street, with headlights flashing and a persistent beep-beep-beep as warning. It stopped with the back facing the sleigh, the door rolled up and a ramp slid out.

Santa’s gaze roamed the night sky. “And here is the alternate transportation, right on time.”

A small red light flashed on and off. At first I thought it must be a small plane and wondered how it would land in the street. But no, as it neared, I saw reindeer harnessed to a sleigh and heard bells jingling. And in the lead, Rudolf, his bright red nose blinking on and off. The sleigh made several passes over the street, each time getting lower, until it neatly landed and the reindeer brought it to my house.

I was stumped. I could come up with a way Royal made everything work up till now, but not a reindeer and sleigh flying through the night sky and landing in my street.

I had to do it. I couldn’t stop myself. In a trance, I went outside, walked to Rudolf and stroked his face.

“Hey, babe, don’t forget me!” Another reindeer called.

“You talk!” I stuttered.

“Of course,” said Rudolf. “What do you think we are, animals?”

What did I think? I thought I felt flesh and hair and warmth under my hand. I thought the impossible was possible.

“Let’s get the show moving, men!” Santa called out.

Elves swarmed from the back of the truck. I kid you not—elves, small men and women, dressed in green with those funny little green hats, and every hat sported a gold bell. They were all over the beached sleigh in seconds, removing sacks and boxes and bags, parcels of every size and shape, and packing them in Rudolf’s sleigh. Then they surrounded the first sleigh, dived underneath and a high voice sang out, “Heave ho!”

The slight lifted off the ground. Honest, it looked like it had little green centipede legs which trundled it along the street and in the back of the semi.

A tall elf climbed from the driver’s side and meandered over to us. By tall I mean man-sized. His green hat perched on curly brown hair and he wore a cheerful smile.

“Okay, Santa?” he asked.

“Just get this pile of junk out of here,” Santa grumbled.

“Your wish is my command. We’ll run a diagnostic and have it fixed in no time.” The tall elf swept a bow at Santa, winked at us and returned to the semi.

“Diagnostic, huh.” His gaze followed the tall elf. “He’s really human,” he said from the side of his mouth. “We’re going to have to tell him he’s adopted one of these days.”

He eyeballed his sleigh and the waiting reindeer. “I must be off. Thank you for the cocoa,” his gaze slid to me, “and commercially manufactured cookies.”

He sidled up to me and spoke in a low voice. “By the way, my dear. Where did you purchase those cookies?”

I made a face. “I don’t remember. Anywhere good cookies are sold?”

He climbed aboard and picked up the reins. The reindeer circled until they pointed down the street toward Clarion. Santa jiggled the reins. “Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donner and Blitzen!”

“Holy cow. He really said it!” I said.

Rudolf turned his head.

“And Rudolf!” Santa added.

The reindeer started off along the street and when they reached the brow of the hill, they kept on going, trotting in air. Higher and higher they went, and I heard Santa call back. “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!”

We waved as the sleigh circled and went over our heads. It climbed and was soon lost in the twinkling stars.

“It’s ready, Tiff!” Royal called. “Shall I bring it in there?”

I opened my eyes and blinked, feeling groggy and cotton-mouthed. I must have fallen asleep for a couple minutes. Thank heavens, it was all a dream. Santa and elves, reindeer. Ha!

“I’ll come get it.”

I heaved up from the sofa and went in the kitchen rubbing my eyes. Royal held a mug of cocoa out to me, but whisked it away when I went to take it. He pointed up at the mistletoe ball hanging from the ceiling. They were all over the house.

“Earn your cocoa, woman,” he said sternly.

“Yes, Sir!” I snapped back, and collapsed into his waiting arms. His lips were hotter than any mug of hot chocolate every made, firmer and sweeter than any marshmallow.

When I could breathe again, I took my mug to the window and looked over the street while I sipped. Houses shone with lights. Christmas trees glimmered through windows. A billions stars twinkled in the dark velvet sky.

“Hey, Royal!” I called as my gaze dropped. “Any idea why all the snow on the front yard is trampled down?”

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