Once upon a time, in a land far, far away (or as some call it, Jersey), there were three lovely maidens and a zombie off for a day full of mirth-filled Christmas shopping and friendship.
Okay, that’s not totally true. Yes, there’s a zombie, but there are only two maidens full of mirth and friendship. The third maiden is so unlike the other two maidens, she wouldn’t know mirth if it slapped her on the ass and called her Snuggle Bunny.
But she totally gets friendship. Swear it.
Back to the story. Allow me to introduce the players in our tale: The first of the trio is our fair Marty Flaherty. With hair fashioned of spun gold—or in some circles, a box of Clairol #222—light of heart and blessed with a gift for perpetual optimism (see Pollyanna), one can surely see the charming Marty comes by her title with ease.
A cosmetic/fashion guru/werewolf, our Marty is an admitted shopaholic, and happily married to her life mate, with whom she shares the blending of two cosmetic empires and a young daughter named Hollis.
The second maiden, equally as fair, is our ever-elegant and oh-so-tasteful Wanda Schwartz. Warm, nurturing, a paragon of decorum, lovingly titled “halfsie” by her BFFs. Which translates to half vampire, half werewolf. Wanda is also happily married, and has an amazing manservant named Archibald who loves to cook gourmet meals.
And then there’s Nina Blackman-Statleon…
Fair maiden number three. Though, I warn you, this storyteller is only using the word “fair” to keep things on an equal playing field so when all is said and done, there’s no bandying the word “unjust” about. #storytellereyeroll
Anyway, Nina is the trio’s resident vampire, adorned with almond-shaped eyes the color of coal and luxurious raven hair totally untouched by any sort of finery. In other words, according to the two previously mentioned maidens, a total babe without even trying.
Dark, broody—dare I say crusty?—and easily provoked, she’s a lover of whatever doesn’t irritate her. Which is next to nothing except for five things: All animals, the elderly, children, someone in paranormal distress, and Barry Manilow. Mother to little vampini Charlie, surrogate mother to zombie Carl, and happily married wife of Gregori.
On this bright, crisp pre-winter day in December, the women and their zombie Carl find themselves fresh off their recent OOPS (Out In The Open Paranormal Support; a crisis hotline, as such) case. A harrowing encounter, wherein they came to blows with the goddess of disorder and chaos, Eris, in a mythological battle to the bitter end to save their friend and client Quinn Morris from certain death.
It was all manner of crazy, people. Fire-breathing horses, serpents, even a Cyclops (hand to heart—swear it’s true) were among their foes—all of which they valiantly conquered like the true warriors they are. That skirmish included Carl, our sweet, sweet zombie, who defeated said Cyclops by using a mighty blow to his big, scary eyeball with, of all things, a copy of Jane Eyre.
Obviously, fine readers, the three fair maidens and one zombie were in dire need of some R and R. So on this unusually chilly, early December day, the gregarious and light-of-heart maiden Marty suggested a shopping trip to the outlet mall in Jersey (I think like exit 92 off the turnpike, for those of you who speak Jersey), one of her and Wanda’s favorite places to unwind, regroup, and most importantly, spend quality time girl-bonding.
Little did they know this particular day would not only change their lives forever, but take them on a treacherous journey filled with pitfalls, magic, a new pair of shoes (so cute!)—and bad, bad dudes.
Lots of bad dudes…
“Oh my God, Wanda! Would you look at this? Only twenty bucks!”
If Antonia Vitali had heard the name correctly, a woman named Marty held up a short, flirty skirt she’d pulled from the rack and was now waving it at a woman named Wanda, who was plowing her way through a pile of seventy-five-percent-off silk scarves.
Wanda’s elegantly coiffed head popped up, one long chestnut strand of hair out of place from her rabid hunt for the perfect scarf. She’d walked into Discount Designers as though she were royalty and had proceeded to methodically work her way through every sale rack in mere minutes. Tall, stately, wearing clothes Toni could only guess cost more than her entire wardrobe.
“Shut the front door, Marty!” Wanda squealed, her eyes glazed as she blew the errant hair from her face. “I don’t know what to look at first. There’s sooo much!”
“Look at the door first, halfsie. See the one that says ‘Exit’? The one we should be walking right the shit out of? Look at that first,” complained the frightfully pale woman named Nina, wearing a T-shirt that read “I Am A Delicate Fucking Flower” and leaning against the far wall, pushing her sunglasses back up onto the bridge of her zinc-covered nose.
Toni’s manager Bree, aka the most vapid twenty-year-old in the world and younger than Toni by twelve years, cocked her head at Nina, assessing her long, slender limbs. “You know, there’s a dress over there that would change your life!”
She pointed to the far left side of the store, where racks and racks of discounted designer dresses in multiple colors hung, as though she had some huge fabric lottery win she’d chosen to share with the lucky pale woman.
Nina rolled her tongue in her cheek, lifting her sunglasses just a hair to glower down at Bree. “I’d have to have a life to change to wear a dress—or actually give a shit.”
Right on, Colorless One, Toni silently cheered, fighting a chuckle while trying to make it appear as though she was deeply immersed in arranging the stack of leggings just delivered this morning.
“Nina!” Marty scampered across the store’s floor, as quick in a pair of heels as any athlete in high tops. She grabbed onto Nina’s arm and smiled with one-hundred-watt charm at the confused Bree. “She just means her life is small and lonely and,” Marty made a comical pouty face, “sad. So, so sad because she has no need for a dress. No parties. No chance for a date. No nothing. But do you have any hoodies? Black, of course, like her heart?”
Nina gave the woman named Marty a light nudge and made a face. “Get the eff off me, Crazypants. I don’t need a dress. I don’t need anything from this overpriced clothes rack. I can get hoodies online. Plenty of BOGOs to be had if you find a GD Groupon. Now finish whatever you two windbags are doing so we can go to the damn bookstore. Santa’s there today, and that’s all Carl’s talked about since you Skyped him behind my back and told him about this stupid excursion because you knew he was the easiest way to get me to agree to go. Now, Carl deserves a Santa, a nice new book, and some frickin’ ice cream for being used like a two-bit hooker, don’t ya buddy?” she asked the equally pale young man who was holding her hand and wearing a hoodie that matched hers.
The young man named Carl nodded his covered head, shooting Toni an endearingly shy, crooked smile from beneath the hoodie’s material.
Toni nodded her head without realizing she had. Who the hell wanted to shop for clothes when there was Santa and ice cream?
She smiled at Carl on her way to straighten the mussed pile of overpriced designer jeans. “I get it. I’d rather have ice cream, too,” she murmured as she passed him.
Bree cocked her head again, her fluffy blonde curls trembling when she stepped in front of Toni, her toe virtually tapping. “Excuse me?”
Toni gave her the infamous Vitali glaring eyeball, followed by the condescending rise of one eyebrow. “Sorry?”
Bree grabbed her by the arm and squeezed. “Don’t discourage the customers from shopping, Toni,” she hissed, her green eyes blazing. “Now shut up and go, like, fold something.”
Toni shrugged her off but Bree held tight, creating an angry spark of electricity along her spine. First, a woman almost young enough to have spewed forth from her vagina was chastising her. Second, she was being chastised—again.
Bree was always chastising her. Toni, did no one teach you to fold a scarf properly? The fold of the fabric should be on the outside, moron. Toni? How many times do I have to tell you to remind the customers to apply for store credit to receive an in-store discount? Toni, Toni, Toni.
She’d heard her name more times since she’d gotten this job than she had in her entire life. The sound of Bree’s falsely cheerful, squeaky voice had become less appealing than setting herself on fire.
But Bree was the boss.
While she couldn’t afford to lose this damn job, Bree couldn’t afford to push her around. Because she was going to lose an arm and maybe some of that luscious blonde hair.
Toni sucked in a breath, straightening her stupid pink blazer, a store-employee requirement. “Bree, please take your hand off my arm.”
Bree’s pouty grape-glossed mouth thinned. “Not until you acknowledge that you’ve heard me, Toni.”
“Heard,” she all but growled.
“If you were hoping to have me slap some whipped cream on top of that reply, hope harder. I hear it springs and it’s eternal.”
Bree’s eyes narrowed—but she was interrupted by Marty and Wanda’s screams, coming from the changing rooms, at first piercing then growing muted and distant.
“Go find out what those women are doing and check on their creepy boy-toy. He’s not right,” she ordered, giving Toni a light shove.
Closing her eyes for a brief moment, she repeated her daily mantra. God. Anywhere but here. I wish I were anywhere but here.
Under normal circumstances, before she was desperate and needed a job more than she needed her pride, Toni would have taken Bree out with a right hook to her pert little nose, lightly sprinkled with sun-kissed freckles.
But under her current poor-as-dirt, on-the-run circumstance, she couldn’t afford to get fired.
Making her way toward the back of the store where the changing rooms were located, she spied the woman named Nina poking her head into the changing room area, still clinging to the young man’s hand.
Damn. Was this some kind of scam where these women created a distraction, tied the employees up then robbed the store blind?
But then she heard Nina’s raspy yelp, too, forcing Toni to pick up her pace. She blew past the rack of leftover half-off summer maxi dresses and rounded the arched entryway to the changing rooms…
To find nothing but the slatted door of a dressing room ajar.
Toni frowned, her eyes scanning the store again for the women.
Nothing. Not a peep.
They’d disappeared completely, leaving only a pile of clothes they’d planned to try on just outside the changing room on a cushioned bench.
“Um, hello? Are you in there?” She wanted to kick herself for sounding so chickenshit, her voice coming off weak and trembling while she listened for a response.
More silence throbbed.
Her pulse pounded in her ears as she crept closer to the slatted door. Slipping her fingers around the edge, she whipped it open, half expecting the women to charge out, guns blazing while shouting orders for her to stay where they could see her. Which was, her rational mind told her, ridiculous. Three grown women and a pale man-child couldn’t all fit in the one changing room.
Yet there was nothing but a small whoosh of air, undoubtedly peculiar in a tiny room with no vent or window, but not nearly as bizarre as those women disappearing.
Her eyes caught sight of the soft beige-and-melon scarf on the floor the woman Wanda had been wearing when she’d entered the store.
Toni knelt down to scoop it up and the entire space shifted, tipping her completely upside down. Her head smacked against the carpeted floor just as weightlessness occurred, leaving her falling fast and furious.
Fear set in with a rapid jolt, her brain reeling as she clawed at nothing but black air. Her eyes watered from the vacuum-like effect of the swirling, downward slide her body had been forced to take.
She clenched her eyes shut and swallowed back bile just before she crash-landed onto what felt like…
Toni let her hand move with caution over whatever was beneath her.
Was that a hand? An arm? A person?
Just as she rolled away, her stomach pitching and her head throbbing, Toni heard, “Are you fucking kidding me? This is a fine, fine mess, you two crazyfaces. Look what the hell’s happened now! Christ and a GD road trip, Marty! You and all this bullshit girls’-day-out baloney. How many flippin’ times have I told you, I don’t need to damn well shop with you two to bond? In fact, I don’t need to bond at all. I’d rather have my skin peeled off at high noon and have vinegar poured on my seeping wounds on a hot July day under a Texas sun than bond. But no. Nah. No one ever listens to the vampire. ‘Oh, she loves us and she knows she does’.” The gruff, husky voice rose an octave, clearly mocking one of the women’s words. “‘She doesn’t mean it when she says that because we’re BFFs and that’s what stupid-ass BFFs do!’ Well. I’m here to tell you, ass-sniffer, the fuck I like to shop! The fuck I want to bond over some lip gloss I’ll never wear and hair gel I want to squirt down your throat until those stupid doe eyes of yours swim like little fishies!”
“Nina!” one of the women yelped.
“Don’t you damn well ‘Nina’ me. I have on a gown, Wanda Schwartz-effin’-Jefferson. A yellow flippin’ gown. Yell-the-fuck-oh. And wings. I have wings. Hear that?” she asked as a tiny flapping noise flew to Toni’s ears. “Those are my motherfluffin’ wings! Why do I have wings, Wanda? And why is my hair the size of the Eiffel Tower and as stiff as a ten-day-old corpse? What in the ever-lovin’ fuck is going on?”
“Nina!” yet another vaguely familiar voice from the store chastised. “When, I ask you, when has all your carrying on ever helped in a situation like this? Now come over here and give me a yank up because in case you haven’t noticed, Mouth, I have a gown and wings, too! Everything isn’t all about you, Selfish Pants. Now, my gown’s stuck in something sticky that rather smells of cotton candy and horse puckey. Help me up and shut up!”
Her gown? That made it plural gowns.
Toni’s brain told her to open her eyes and explore, but whatever, in Nina’s words, GD fine, fine fucking mess these women from the store had gotten into, she was clearly into it, too. And whatever the mess was, it sure didn’t sound good. Or feel good, judging from the lumpy pile of whatever was beneath her.
“Holy just-like-Disneyland,” one of the women whispered before she whistled.
Aw, c’mon, Toni. You gotta open your eyes, you big ol’ wimp. It’s Disneyland! When have you ever closed your eyes? You didn’t even close them when Stas had his hand around your throat while he used you like a punching bag at the gym and the barrel of his gun was stuffed clear up in the roof of your mouth. Man up, pantywaist.
She forced her eyes open. Then they opened wider.
And her mouth quickly followed their lead as her jaw dropped and her brain buzzed to life.
Toni rubbed her sockets with her knuckles and reopened her eyes. Just in case she’d been drugged—or was hallucinating due to her recent sleepless nights.
Naturally, it changed nothing.
But she tried again just for good measure, giving her eyeballs one last good scrub with her fist. Forcing them open one more time, she took a good, hard look around.
Yeah. She could see the Disneyland reference making sense.
Maybe it was the enormous gray stone castle and drawbridge off in the snowy distance, or the ornate, carved carriage with white horses. Or maybe even the quaint cottages with thatched roofs and men dressed in roughly sewn breeches and matching vests, all staring down at her from a safe distance as though she’d just dropped out of the sky.
Wait. She sorta had just dropped out of the sky.
Oh. My. Hell.
Toni sat up fast, making her head swim. She scurried away from the warm lump beneath her and rose to her haunches, letting her head hang between her knees.
That was when she noted her breasts felt like two freshly popped cans of dinner rolls, squeezed to maximum capacity. Not to mention, her ribs were surely in a vise of some sort.
A vise made of the most beautiful silver taffeta with the prettiest lavender undertones she’d ever seen.
Her hands flew to her chest, feeling for her nametag and the buttons of her pink jacket from the store. But they were gone, replaced with yard after yard of material whispering across the tops of her feet.
“Oh, save us all—she’s killed her!” someone shouted.
Someone British—maybe Welsh? Toni’s head popped up to find a long, thin finger pointing down at her with accusation. She slammed her eyes shut as small feet scuttled away.
“Is she dead?” another voice cried, evoking a round of loud gasps.
“Brenda’s not going to like this!”
Toni looked again at the shiny material and gulped. Why did this scenario seem so eerily familiar? And who the hell was Brenda?
Dropping down to the cold earth because her thighs were killing her, she opted out of giving any more credence to the billowing silver tulle beneath the shiny fabric bunched between her thighs.
Then Toni felt a hand at her back, easy yet insistent. “You’re the salesgirl from the store, right?”
The voice sounded as though it came from the woman named Wanda. She couldn’t be sure because there was no exuberant squeal to her tone like there’d been when she found the scarves for sale.
Toni nodded her head, forcing her eyes back open, but she kept them at ground level, risking only quick glimpses because if she looked up, and allowed her brain to register what she thought she’d just seen, she’d lose her mind.
“I don’t know what happened. I heard you all screaming and I went to investigate. The next thing I know, I fell into something. A hole or a vortex…or a vacuum that felt like a Dyson was sucking the organs right out of me or…I think—I don’t know—and then I landed here on top of…something…”
“I’m Wanda Schwartz-Jefferson. What’s your name?” she asked, the beautiful, shiny wings between her shoulder blades softly pumping.
Wings. This woman had wings. Genuine wings.
“Your name? Talk to me so I know you’re coherent.”
“Antonia Vitali. Toni is fine, though.”
“Do you want to know what you landed on?”
She stared hard at the snow beneath her feet. “I want to know a lot of things. Like why you have wings, and hair so big I don’t know how you’re still holding your head upright. But for the moment, I vote we wait. I’m sure that’s cruel and callous, because I’m thinking it’s not a stretch to say it was a person I landed on, but I can wait on confirmation if it’s okay by you.”
“You’re in shock. I get it. So for now, give me your hand, Toni. Let me help you up. It’s cold down there on the ground and your new outfit, while absolutely stunning, definitely is not suited for this kind of weather.” Wanda’s voice was warm and reassuring and tinged with kindness, making Toni suspicious.
No one had ever been this nice to Toni Vitali. Not in a long damn time.
They’d just fallen into Cinderella’s lair—was it called a lair? No. It was a forest, wasn’t it? Did Cinderella have a forest? She shook her head. One of those God-awful princesses, with the lush hair swinging around their waists, trust issues out the wazoo and a lack of fortitude, had a forest. She just couldn’t remember which one. Either way, who remained calm and reassuring at a time like this?
Wait. Had Stas sent these women? Had that maniac and his crew finally found her? Had they drugged her back at the store? Given her some kind of hallucinogenic? Was she really in some padded cell back at Stas’s House of Horrors and she was just under the influence of drugs?
“Promise I won’t hurt you, Toni. Take my hand.”
Toni did so, but with great reluctance. Wanda snatched her shaking fingers and yanked her up, gripping her shoulders. “Look at me, Toni.”
She did as Wanda demanded, her eyes adjusting to her surroundings in slow increments. Snippets of the big picture flashed to her brain then retreated due to their surreal nature.
No. Effin’. Way.
Then some of it began to sink in. Okay, so thus far she seen a castle far off in the distance and snow-covered trees and a crooked signpost she couldn’t read without her glasses with the name of wherever they were, down at the end of a broad, muddy road winding endlessly into the surrounding forest.
There were horses tethered to wagons, cottages with thatched rooftops, and people all milling about in a cautiously wide circle around them, dressed in outfits right out of the Renaissance fair.
What the hell?
“Where?” she finally managed to whisper to Wanda. “H…how?” It was all she could sputter as she gripped the woman’s cool hand.
The woman named Nina popped into her line of vision, making Toni’s mouth fall open when she saw what she was wearing, but that didn’t stop her from stomping over to Toni and Wanda, the rustle of more yellow chiffon and taffeta than Joanne’s Fabrics had on an entire store’s shelves swirling in the crisp air.
“What in the ever-lovin’ fuck is this?” she demanded of Toni, flicking her almost-black hair.
Toni winced. It was a wonder she didn’t lose a fingernail with the amount of hairspray it must have taken to keep all that hair in place.
It was piled atop her head in a riot of sausage curls, at least three layers’ worth, spilling down her back and dotted randomly with bright yellow bows all around her head. This was the gorgeous woman who’d been wearing a hoodie and jeans just moments ago?
But it had to be. She had on the same pair of sunglasses. She had the same scary attack-mode stance.
“What…what happened?” Toni murmured, her fingers covering her mouth to keep from gasping.
“Yeah. I’d like to know that, too,” she said, kind of growly and suspicious as she pushed a long, raven sausage curl from her eyes with the back of her hand. “So why don’t you tell us, Toni? Who the fuck are you and why the fuck am I here? Who sent you? You’d better pony up or you’d better get right with your maker!”
“Sent me?” Toni repeated, utterly flabbergasted at the level of uncontained anger this woman was displaying.
Was this snarling, irate woman blaming her for their landing here? She’d taken the blame for a lot of things in her time—laundered money, snitching, even murder—but time travel to a place that looked like an amusement park set in a storybook? That was too damn far.
Nina, her pale skin like a soft glow against the buttercup yellow of her elaborate gown, now seethed. Like, opened her mouth and flashed her teeth.
“You heard me—who the fuck sent you, and what the fuck do you want with us? Did that crazy bitch Hildegard escape from Hell again? If you don’t start talkin’, I’m gonna start swingin’. Now warm that tongue of yours up with some answers before I snatch it from your pretty head, girlie.”
Wow. This woman was as scary as Stas had ever been, if not scarier. But Toni stood up to him once, gun to her throat and all.
And then she remembered something.
Crazy. Stas had once told her, always be the craziest fucker in the room and everyone would back down—which was how she’d managed to escape him three years ago.
So she let her eyes go wild as she stuck her face right back in Nina’s, her finger finding its way just beneath her nose. “Blow me, you crazy bitch! Don’t you threaten me! You have no idea who you’re screwing with. Got that? I’m gonna tell you once, back the fuck off or I’ll rip your throat out! We clear, girlie?” she bellowed.
Silence fell over the group of women and the small crowd of villagers backed up, clinging to one another.
And then Nina exploded.
Maybe Stas’s advice had been a mistake.
Clearly, Nina held the reigning title of Craziest Bitch In The Room.
Nina let out a hiss just before she lunged for Toni’s throat, her wings fluttering angrily behind her.
But her friend Marty soared through the air in a leap to rival that of a pole-vaulter, her enormous ball gown in a lovely shade of sky blue twisting around her legs.
She landed in front of Nina so fast, she rammed into her, making them tumble to the ground, the two women tangling up in each other’s elaborate dresses. Nina reached around her and yanked one of Marty’s wings.
“Ow! That’s my wing, Nina! I swear, I’ll poke your eyeballs out with my hair if you don’t knock it off!” Marty yelped and managed to wrestle Nina to her back, securing her by mounting her hips and pulling her glasses from her face.
Gripping Nina’s wrists, Marty planted them above her head as a small crowd of villagers gathered, passing a bag of coins and placing bets. “Knock it the hell off, Vampire! Why in all of the universe would you think this woman’s responsible for us falling through that hole in the dressing room, you violent, un-trainable, testy beast?”
Vampire? Had she said vampire?
No. This day wasn’t happening. It was not.
“Get the hell off me, Blondie, and give me back my damn shades or I’m gonna eat your face off!” Nina screeched with her closed eyes.
But Marty shook her head, the mile-high hair on the top of her skull never budging. “Nope. Not until you promise to use your manners. I absolutely will not have your chaos erupting all over the place like so much vomit until we know what’s going on and where we are. And I won’t have you threatening to beat anyone up until we need you to.”
Wanda leaned into Toni, smoothing one of her long white gloves over her elbow as though it had always been there while her friends continued to bicker. “Very impressive show there. I can’t remember the last person who stood up to Nina, other than one of us or her husband, Greg. Clearly, your fear factor is high, Kimosabe. I like that in a girl,” she said on a chuckle.
Toni turned to look at her, still visually trying to block out Candyland while people peeked out from behind trees and stood at the doorways of their charming, snow-covered cottages. “Question?”
“Did that woman—um, Marty, is it?—just call the angry pale lady a vampire?”
Wanda nodded, her hair equally as unmoving as Marty’s. “Marty it is, and she did call Nina a vampire. I fear we’ll have some explaining to do. Your world’s going to be rocked in more ways than one today, I’m afraid. But bear with me until we work out this little kink?” She waved an elegant hand at the ball of limbs and taffeta dresses Nina and Marty had become.
Toni nodded, also refusing to acknowledge that her own hair was now swinging at her waist. “Let’s table that for a little while and focus on,” she swept her hand around at the landscape, “um, this. You seem really reasonable compared to your friend, so I’m going to appeal to you. I swear I don’t know how this happened. Swear it on my life. I’m just a salesclerk at a stupid designer outlet mall store, making just above minimum wage. I don’t know anyone who’d do this. I don’t even know what’s been done, but if at all possible, I say we blame my boss Bree. She’s a horrible human being.”
Wanda nodded again and patted Toni’s arm, her long fingers giving her flesh a squeeze. “You know, I noticed that. Kind of pushy and power-hungry for someone so young, huh? You’d think she was ruling a kingdom, not an outlet store.” Then she giggled, like they weren’t in the middle of some whacked fairytale. “Sorry. Pardon the pun.”
“You heard Bree say those things to me?”
Wanda pulled at her earlobe with the shiny cascade earring attached to it. “Half vampire, half werewolf. Good hearing is one of the tricks of the trade. Though sometimes, it’s a curse.”
Werewolf… Toni gulped more air into her lungs while her heart raced. “Not ready to acknowledge that just yet either, if that’s okay.”
“Oh, of course, Toni. I understand. You have bigger fish to fry right now. We can talk later about that part of this—whatever this is. For now, I have to wrangle the twins. So if you’ll excuse me?”
Now Toni nodded, unable to do much else. “Of course.”
Wanda lifted the hem of her gorgeous champagne-colored gown and hopped over a patch of ice as though she always wore ball gowns and stopped to assess the two quarreling women as they tussled.
Looking down, she said, “Marty, I’m going to suggest you get off Nina and hand her back her glasses before she explodes into a pile of ashes. I know she makes you want to choke her out, but you’d regret the loss of her black soul. I know you would. You’d cry, and quite frankly, you’re a messy crier. Nina? Shut your big fat flapping lips until further notice, or it won’t be Marty you have to worry about.
“Now, the two of you will get up off this ground because you’re ruining your magnificent gowns in the dirty snow; you will introduce yourselves to Toni, who is as freaked-out and in as much a state of shock as we are; and you will do it with your manners intact and your indoor voices. Are we all in agreement?”
Nina’s jaw clenched tight, her face a mask of anger. “Wanda, the fuck—”
Wanda’s fingers snaked out and clamped Nina’s lips together. “Shhh! Now. Don’t speak. Wag that razor-sharp tongue of yours again, lose your sunscreen.”
Marty let go of Nina’s wrists and rasped a sigh, shoving off from her friend’s lean torso to sit upright. “Fine. But one wrong move in Toni’s direction and it’s curtains for you, Dark One. Oh, and nice ball gown, Cinder-Nightmare. Very, very bright and sunny, just like your sparkling personality,” she taunted, letting her head fall back on her shoulders to laugh out loud.
Nina growled and with a flat palm to Marty’s chest, knocked her on her back. Scooping up her glasses to prop them crookedly on her nose with an aggravated hand, she shoved the stems of them into the nest of her triple-tier, wedding-cake-like hair.
“You watch yourself, Werewolf, or I’m gonna spin that color wheel of yours until you puke.”
Marty took Wanda’s hand and allowed her to help her up, but Nina dismissed the offer, slapping at the yards and yards of constricting yellow material around her legs when she rose.
Marty approached Toni as she brushed the wet snow from her gown, heavily embroidered with dark-blue and gold thread along the bodice. “I’m Marty Flaherty, by the way. So nice to meet you.”
Toni stuck out her frozen hand and offered it to the pretty blonde. “Toni Vitali. I’m really sorry about this. I’m as confused as you are—”
“No apologies necessary,” Marty cut in on a smile as warm as Wanda’s voice. “If you had any idea what we’ve seen…Well, let’s just say, we’ve seen a lot. We’ve also kicked some ass while we’ve seen a lot. So we’ll figure this out and kick some ass if the situation deems necessary.”
Wanda jammed a finger into the spot between Nina’s shoulder blades. “Speak, Cavewoman. Talk pretty. Make words.”
Nina popped her lips, crossing her arms over her chest, her stance defensive. “Nina If-You-Ever-Stick-Your-Face-in-Mine-Again-I’ll-Rip-it-Off Statleon.”
Wanda’s lips thinned as she drove two knuckles into Nina’s back. “Can it, Bruiser.”
“Well, all right then,” Marty said, a bright smile wreathing her face when she looked to Toni and tucked her clasped hands under her chin. “Let’s figure this out, huh, girls?”
Was it just her, or were these women behaving as though they’d landed on some movie set and a stagehand was going to come along at any second and whisk them off to their dressing rooms? Because they didn’t appear at all phased by this utterly implausible, completely insane turn of events.
Simply saying they’d seen things, as Marty had, could imply a wealth of scenarios, most of which were probably nothing like what was happening right now. But who’d ever seen something even close to this?
Toni finally looked down at her clothes and really absorbed her garb, her worst fears confirmed as she plucked at her incredibly tight, unbelievably itchy gown and held up the flouncy-trouncy skirt for the women to see. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing? I mean, we really are…um, we have on…we were just in the outlet mall and now we’re in…”
“Shamalot. You’re in Shamalot. Welcome, welcome!” said a tiny, tinkling voice full of cheer.
If that voice was attached to tiny wings of gossamer, Toni was headed for the nearest whatever they called a bar in these parts and drinking until she passed out cold. And if she was still here tomorrow, she was going to do it all over again.
She’d faced far worse than this in her time—a gun brawl over a borscht dinner…her brother’s finger sent to her doorstep via UPS…the death of her neighbor—this should be cake. Yet, her reluctance to find out whom the voice belonged to was almost bigger than she was.
She didn’t want any more upheaval and surprises. She just wanted quiet. She wanted to get up every morning at six sharp, drink a cup of shitty coffee from her half-dead coffeemaker, take a dribbling, lukewarm shower in her pathetic, rundown apartment, put on her ugly pink salesclerk jacket, catch no less than three busses to the outlet mall, and hand over her pride at the door to Queen Bree.
She’d adjusted to the everyday aches and pains of normalcy and almost-poverty. They were startlingly different from her old life, but they were now like macaroni and cheese, comforting if nothing else. Even if her life unequivocally sucked in so many ways, she was still free. Free of most of her fear. Free of the constant tension. Free of Stas Vasilyev.
It had been that way for three years now, and she didn’t want to give it up.
Wanda gripped her arm as the ground beneath their feet suddenly boomed with footsteps. “Stay near me, Toni. No matter what, stay close,” she whispered urgently.
She totally planned to cling to Wanda as ordered for fear of what might come next. Robin Hood and his band of merry men?
Inhaling deeply, Toni turned around with Wanda’s direction just as a light snow began to fall, the flakes soft and strangely fluffier than the ones in Jersey. They fluttered in glittering, actually defined shapes to the ground, landing one after the other, forming neat piles.
“’Tis so lovely to meet ye!” the same tiny voice said with a slight brogue attached.
Through the veil of shimmering white, a creature emerged, hulking and blue—oh yes, he was blue, wearing gold shorts with red piping, attached to suspenders over a naked barrel chest.
The crowd of stunned onlookers began to back up as he made his way toward them with lumbering steps that rattled the earth, knocking snow from trees and leaving a deep path in his wake.
He held out a very blue hand and grinned, flashing white teeth the size of small tombstones. “Dannan The Ogre, if yer wonderin’. Nice to meet ye,” he said, his helium-like voice a gross, almost comical understatement to his size.
Ogres. Didn’t ogres eat people?
“Holeee shitballs,” Nina uttered, shoving Marty behind her. Which, had Toni time to think about it, was in stark contrast to the way she’d nearly bitten Marty’s head off just moments ago.
“No need to fear,” Dannan said affably, as though he wasn’t easily ten feet tall with feet the size of fishing boats. Leaning down, he peered at Toni. “Whass yer name, lass?”
“Inedible?” she asked with a wince, nipping at her lower lip.
He chuckled, light and airy and remarkably like he’d sucked a balloon full of helium. “You’re frightened, are ye, maiden?”
Toni shivered, not just because she was scared, but because he’d used the word “maiden” in conjunction with her—which was utterly laughable. “Should I speak the truth?”
“Ye is petrified.”
With one finger, he patted her shoulder, the heavy weight of it not unpleasant. In fact, it was soothing and gentle. “I understand completely.”
“Absolutely no insult intended.”
He bounced his round head covered in spikes of snow-white, bushy hair. “Duly noted.”
Nina was the first to approach him, and even she did so with caution. “So, where are we again, Papa Smurf?”
“Yeah, yeah. I heard you, Dannan The Ogre. Now where the hell are we?”
“Shamalot, o’ course. Ye be deep in the heart of the Not So Sherwood Forest.”
Nina rolled her tongue along the inside of her cheek. “And we got here how, Blue Man Crew?”
“Again, I remind ye, pale lady, ’tis Dannan The Ogre. And I know not how ye came to be, but I think one of ye merry wenches wished yerself here. That’s usually how it works. In the process, ye have managed to effectively end the drunken adventures of the Mildly Irritated Witch of the East.”
Toni’s finger shot up in the air as she stared skyward, still unable to look at the body Dannan pointed to. “Are there any flying monkeys in this scenario?”
Dannan cocked his enormously round head, the trumpet-like ears on either side of his face fluttering. “Flying what, lass?”
Wanda The Soother, as Toni was secretly beginning to refer to her, smiled up at Dannan. “Can you explain the ‘wishing ourselves’ here you mentioned? Because I can’t remember ever wishing myself to a place like this. A quiet, padded cell sans my friends Nina and Marty? Yes. A warm, tropical beach—just me and my man all alone with nothing but the sound of the surf? Absolutely. But a place called Shamalot in a dress so tight my eyeballs are bulging and my ribs have realigned themselves to fuse with my spine? Never.”
Wished yourself here. Dannan’s words plucked a memory in Toni’s brain.
The one where she wished she were anywhere but the outlet mall?
Crap, crap, crap. She really was responsible for them landing here.
But there was no time to dwell on how horrible she was for the boom of thunder and the sharp crack of lightning.
“Aye, lass, ye’ve done it now,” Dannan mumbled at Toni as a streak of pink and white light crisscrossed through the sky.
Panic raced up Toni’s spine. “Done what?”
Dannan’s blue face was somber with a hint of irritation. “Brought upon us the annoyingly cheerful hospitality, sprinkled with pecan dust and just a hint of fried goose, of Bren—”
“Haaay, gurls, hay!” A southern drawl, lilting and sticky-sweet, touched Toni’s ears just as a beautiful woman floated to the ground—right from the sky. From. The. Sky.
She landed lighter than a feather, gliding to a full stop, her white, bell-shaped skirt wafting down around her in a cloud of dreamy glitter. She, too, had wings, just like the trio of women, but hers were enormous and gorgeously complex, as though they’d been embroidered with silk threads.
With a wand of glowing silver in her hand, her platinum locks blowing behind her and teased to a mind-blowing mound at the back of her head, she grinned and winked at them.
Toni fought a hysterical scream and moved in closer to Wanda—who still remained outwardly unfazed. Even though, compared to Dannan anyway, this new addition looked harmless, the pile of oddities was finally ganging up on her.
“Howdee and welcome to Shamalot, y’all! I’m Brenda, the Good Witch of the South, and I’da baked a pie had I known you were payin’ a visit to my neck o’ the woods! So, let me be the first to welcome you ladies as honorary members of the League of Fairy Godmothers! We’re an esteemed group of women hell-bent on spreadin’ love and happily-ever-afters like soft butter on a pecan muffin!”
Now Marty tilted her head as the snow pelted her face and the cold left her cheeks rosy. “League of Fairy Godmothers? Is that like a bowling team? Do we get matching shirts?”
She didn’t know how to bowl. Shit. She was sunk. Toni’s breathing shuddered as her panic rose again, but Wanda gripped her fingers tighter and patted her arm.
Nina was the first to actually approach Brenda, and this time, unlike meeting Dannan, she wasn’t even a little hesitant.
Planting her hands on her hips, she sauntered toward the ethereal woman and spat, “Screw your pies and your league fairies and your HEA. Tell me how the hell we get out of here—”
“What Nina means to say is, thank you for the lovely welcome. Fab dress. Thumbs up on the big, big hair. Now, how the hell do we get out of here?” Marty asked pleasantly, looping her arm through Nina’s and smiling.
The beautiful woman tucked her wand under her armpit then clasped her hands together just under her chin and chuckled, her laughter echoing all around them in shards of muted sound.
“Well, bless your hearts! Feelin’ a little out of sorts after your trip, are ya, Puddin’?”
Nina popped her lips and rolled her shoulders. With a crack of her knuckles, she said, “I’m feeling ridiculous in this GD ball gown. Not to mention I can hardly hold my head up with this frickin’ hairdo, and I have wings. Wings. Now ante up, Princess Puffy. Because I wanna go home.”
Brenda shot Nina a smile that was not only stunning but meant to pacify. “Aw, darlin’, you do know what they say about big hair, don’t ya? The higher the hair, the closer to your maker.” She used her wand to punctuate her point by tipping it skyward.
“You know what they say about vampires, don’t ya? The angrier you make me, the closer I come to sending your lifeless carcass to your maker,” Nina mocked in a ridiculous imitation of Brenda’s drawl.
Marty instantly yanked one of the massive curls falling from the top of Nina’s head and down along her back. “Shut up,” she ordered from stiff lips. “We don’t know what we’re dealing with here, Elvira. This isn’t Jersey anymore. Now, zip it!”
Wanda again intervened, dragging a stiff, reluctant Toni with her. “Brenda, it’s lovely to meet you. Truly. However, we have families to return to back…back in our homeland—or whatever. We have people who’ll miss us, is what I’m saying. So while this visit has been absolutely incredible and your village is delightful, we really do need to get home. So, if you’d kindly tell us what the fairy godmother league means in relation to us and how we get home, Brenda, we’d be very grateful.”
Brenda used her silvery wand with the big ball on the end to point at each of the women, a serene smile on her face. “In order to leave this realm, y’all each have a job, and with that job you have to complete a task.”
“A task?” Wanda repeated, her eyes blank.
Brenda nodded, her smile still glowing. “Uh-huh.”
Nina snorted, her defensive stance returning. “Lay off the coy games and get to the frickin’ point. Tell us what we have to do to leave your theme park in clear, concise terms without all the pomp and bullshit, or I’m going to deflate that big, poofy hairdo of yours. Go. Now.”
Brenda literally floated toward Nina, capturing her eyes with a hard stare. “I’m doin’ my best to be hospitable to you, bein’ a stranger in a strange land and all, Buttahcup, but you’re makin’ my goodwill as shaky as a newborn thoroughbred. Just so’s ya know, I can turn you into a toad just like that.” She snapped her fingers in Nina’s face.
Nina growled, flashing those freaky teeth once more.
And again, Wanda intervened, stepping between the two women, Toni still latched onto her arm while she watched in silent fascination.
“Please, forgive Nina’s crass, pseudo-sociopathic behavior and deal directly with me from here on out. What’s our task, Brenda, and what does being an honorary member of the League of Fairy Godmothers have to do with it?”
Brenda’s face changed, going from dark to light. “Everyone who enters the realm of Shamalot has to give back, and I’m in charge of assignin’ y’all a job according to your aura’s mental state, if you will. Then you have to complete your assignment before you can go before King Dick and ask him to grant your wish to leave.”
“Our auras?” Toni squeaked. What kind of mumbo jumbo crazy business was this?
“Yep! So here’s what ya gotta do, Red,” she said, winking at Toni. “You have a journey to go on with a pair of to-die-for shoes. They belong to the king, and he’s gonna spit bricks when he realizes they’re gone from Castle Beckett.”
“Shoes?” everyone repeated in unison, their heads swiveling on their necks.
Shoes. Toni gulped some cold air. There were going to be flying monkeys, she just knew it.
Brenda bobbed her head before anyone had time to process her words and swirled her wand in the air, creating a puff of pink and white smoke just before she pointed in the direction of the body Toni had landed on.
And then she aimed that glittery stick of mayhem at Toni’s feet.
The atmosphere stilled for a moment, growing thick with the scent of gladiolas, the white haze of snowflakes slowing to almost a stop. Quite suddenly, Toni’s feet felt heavy, as though they were weighted down by cement, forcing her to stumble forward.
Wanda grabbed for her, righting her by throwing an arm around her waist and encouraging Toni to lean against her.
But then Wanda gasped. In fact, everyone gasped.
“PleasesayIdon’thavetheshoesonpleasesayIdon’thavetheshoeson!” Toni squeaked out, too afraid to confirm her deduction.
“Okay, so you have the shoes, but look on the bright side,” Marty chirped, rubbing Toni’s arm, her sky-blue wings thumping swiftly. “They’re fabulous. I mean, they match your dress like a dream, all purple and sparkly. Love!”
The day’s events welled up inside Toni, sitting square in her chest, overwhelming her, constricting her breathing. Enough crazy was enough.
She pushed off Wanda, stumbling toward Brenda as her ankles bowed and her legs wobbled.
Blowing a stray piece of hair from her eyes, she planted her hands on her hips to come off as authoritative as possible and said, “Let’s just cut to the chase, y’all. I have to take the shoes to Oz to see the wizard or a variation thereof. The guy you call King Dick, right? And along the way, shitty stuff’s gonna happen to me. A psychotic witch, on a bender to frighten even the best sociopath, is going to terrorize me, too, correct? Because all she really wants is the shoes on my feet. There’ll be fire, and rain, and psychedelic flowers, and flying monkeys. But the whole time, all I ever had to do in order to avoid the shitty stuff and the sociopathic witch was click my heels three times and say the words ‘there’s no place like home’, yes? So why don’t I just do that now and we can all part ways and be home lickety-split.”
Brenda’s face went utterly blank. She stared at Toni for a moment. But then her lips returned to that annoyingly happy grin. “What kinda crazy are you blowin’ out your piehole, girl? Didja hit your head on the way in? Who in tarnation’s the wizard? Never mind. No time for explanations. Your job is to take the shoes back to their rightful owner, King Dick. Because he’s the only one who can remove ’em from your feet now.”
“She stole them. Why can’t she take the shoes back?” Toni asked, pointing to the prone body with a cringe. Why had she had the shoes to begin with? What did the shoes mean?
Brenda rolled her eyes as though the answer was obvious. “Well, duh. Because she’s drunker than a coon who fell in a barrel o’ hootch, that’s why. The effects’ll last for days. Maybe even a whole month.”
Some of her old spirit returned, the fighter in her rearing its ugly head. The one she’d tried desperately to muffle for three years now. “Okay, then who says I have to be the one to take them back?”
Brenda’s next words were petulant, as though Toni had dared defy her edict and she wasn’t going to stand for it. “Said me, Sugar.”
Toni shook her head and might have followed up with a stomp of her feet, but the heels were at least four inches and the ground was icy. “No. That’s not good enough. I want an explanation.”
“Tough cream puffs. You want out, you gotta do your time in the realm,” Brenda said, that beautiful smile still wreathing her pink lips. Then she turned to Nina, Marty and Wanda. “Now, y’alls? Your job is like findin’ a John Deere in your garage after your lawnmower just sputtered its last breath! You have to help Toni get to the castle and return the shoes, because that’s where she’ll find her happiness. Which is what we fairy godmothers do best. Shower folks with happiness. So, your job as honorary members is to get your girl here to Castle Beckett by Christmas Eve. And you three will have limited use of those special powers you got. Otherwise it’s cheatin’, ya hear?”
Toni closed her eyes. Special powers? She wasn’t ready to hear what their special powers entailed.
“Got any other jobs available? Like a Brenda the Good Witch of the South flayer?” Nina asked, her mouth turned downward in a sneer.
“How does honorary troll grab ya?” Brenda asked, her hand on her hip, her expression haughty.
Nina didn’t answer but she growled again, snapping at the witch.
Brenda assessed Nina for a moment, clearly unafraid before she said, “Listen, the realm assigns jobs according to your aura, and somehow, Cranky Pants, the realm thinks you should be a fairy godmother, one who helps a nice girl who needs some happiness in her life get to the castle. I don’t make up the jobs, I just assign ’em, Sugar.”
“Why can’t I just take the shoes off and give them to you to take to this King Dick? You two seem tight.” Toni planted a hand on Wanda’s bare shoulder to steady herself and rubbed her toes along the back of one shoe to push it off, only to find it wouldn’t budge.
“Because you need a J-O-B, Sugarlumps. You can’t be a fairy godmother; your aura’s all wrong for that at this point in your life. They stay on until you get to the castle, and that’s just that,” she said with another infuriatingly radiant smile.
Because of course it couldn’t be that simple, more panic seized her as she struggled to remove the shoes again, to no avail.
“And the woman who was wearing them? Uh, the Mad and Irate Witch of Whatserville? What’s her gig?” Wanda asked with a frown.
“The Mildly Irritated Witch of the East, darlin’,” Brenda corrected. “She’s my big sister, by the by. Got downright snockered on some thistleberry wine at the winter ball last week and stole the daggone shoes. Can you even imagine the hootin’ and hollerin’ over that scandal?”
“The horror,” Nina groused, brushing her many layers of yellow skirt out of the way of her long legs.
“Exactly!” Brenda agreed, punctuating her point with her wand. “Any ol’ way, she put ’em on and took off. Couldn’t find her anywhere! Musta been holed up with that cute blacksmith she was chattin’ up at the ball. Knew I should have checked there first.”
“Again, I ask, why me? What in my aura says I can’t be a fairy godmother, too?”
Brenda’s shoulders, covered in poofy material, collapsed. “Because your aura’s plain miserable, Red. Getting to the castle is the key to your happiness. Ya gotta trust ol’ Brenda on this. You need a happily-ever-after like a good southern girl needs her pearls and pumps.”
Perfect. She was so pathetic, so pitiable, even some shoes thought she needed a happily-ever-after.
Speaking of sisters and shoes, Toni gathered the courage to ask the question she dreaded the most as she finally looked to her left at the woman who lie in a lump under a snow-topped bush with red berries. Her body was tucked into a loose ball, the red and gold skirt of her ball gown flowing behind her.
Horror and shame washed over her that she’d waited this long into her conversation with Brenda before she’d asked after her sister.
“I’m sorry about your mediocre sister. Or whatever her name is. I would never hurt someone. Did I…kill her?” She gulped, holding her breath and crossing her fingers.
Brenda reached out a perfectly manicured hand and tweaked the tip of Toni’s nose. “Don’t be silly, Punkin’. She’s just passed out cold. I’ll give her some hair of the troll and she’ll be fresh as a little ol’ daisy in the time it takes you to say goober, and then she’s hittin’ fairy godmother rehab. On that you can count.”
Toni inhaled a shuddering breath. Thank God. “Okay, so let’s address this happily-ever-after then. I don’t care what my aura says, I’m good, really. I’m about as happy as I’ve ever been. So if you could just use your magicthingamajiggy and poof us to the castle, I’ll give the king his shoes and we’ll ask him to send us home and roll on outta here. That work?”
She used to be a pretty good negotiator in her old life in Jersey. Ask anyone at the flea market. She was infamous for talking the sock guy down on his prices. There was no reason she couldn’t be one here in Shamalot.
Brenda’s eyes, ringed by blue eye shadow and curly lashes, widened in reproach. “I can’t do that. It’s against the cotton-pickin’ rules, and it’s all kinda bad manners to ask me to just zap you on outta here. That’s an abuse of power I ain’t willin’ to touch, sister. The realm has rules, and if I break ’em, I’ll upset the balance of order. You have to make the journey to happiness on foot, and your gal-pals here are your guides.”
“Point of contention?”
Brenda looked confused as she cocked her head, her hair cascading over her shoulder. “A what? Speak English at me, Red.”
“Why is it just me who needs a happily-ever-after and none of them? I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus, but how did I get the kewpie doll? And I hate to be petty, but why does everyone get wings but me?”
“The answer’s simple—because you’re not a fairy godmother and they’re already happy.”
Toni’s shoulders slumped as her head throbbed. “But I’m telling you, I am happy.”
Mostly. Sometimes. Happiness was subjective, and if she wasn’t exactly skipping through fields of sunflowers, at least she wasn’t being held someone’s terrified hostage. It was as close to happy as she’d been in a long time.
“Now, now, Red,” she chastised. “No one gets to the realm if they’re shootin’ rays o’ sunshine outta their butts. It was you who wished you were anywhere but that outlet mall, wasn’t it? Somethin’ ain’t right in your life, and it’s gotta be fixed or you can’t ever leave Shamalot. You wished for it, you got it. The realm knows your heart, and there ain’t no foolin’ it. This is your journey.”
Her stubborn streak, the one that had saved Stas killing from her, kicked in. “Okay then, what if I refuse to go on the journey?”
“Then I guess you’d better see a man about rentin’ yourself one of those cute little cottages over yonder and settin’ up housekeepin’ for life. Oh, I know just the person, too! Sweet as peach pie on a summer day. You want his card?”
Toni didn’t have the chance to say one way or the other before Nina was in attack mode.
She circled Brenda and made a fist. “Hold the bloody fuck on!” Nina yelped, stomping her foot in the snow. “I’m no GD fairy godmother. I hate people. I hate all people, and the hell I’m wearin’ this stupid—”
But Brenda was no longer listening. With a wave of her wand, the tip of the silvery stick emitting a glistening silver dust, she said, “There’s nothing more I can do for ya, Dumplins. The realm has spoken. But here’s to you, Toni! Go on and get ya some of the good stuff. Bye, y’all!”
And then she and her unconscious sister were gone.
When the silence of Brenda’s departure became painfully awkward, when their mouths could no longer hang open without freezing in position, suddenly Nina became animated, her eyes darting around the clearing.
“Aw, for fuckity-fuck’s sake! Has anyone seen Carl? Where’s Carl?”
“Carl?” Nina hollered, frightening the villagers who’d begun to disperse and go back to doing whatever it was villagers did when they were done gawking at the realm-jumpers.
Nina lifted her skirts with an angry growl and began searching the perimeter of the village in a blur of motion Toni still couldn’t believe she was witnessing.
“Carl! If you don’t come back here right now, I’m taking away your broccoli cupcakes for snack for a solid week, and you’re gonna get coal in your stocking, mister!”
Carl had looked pretty pale back at the store. Maybe he was sick. Fear struck a chord in Toni’s belly, spurring her to action. Fear she understood. Fear had been her fuel for three years. This was her fault. She’d done this. She had to get her shit together and help find him.
“Is Carl the young man who was with Nina in the store?” Toni asked Marty with trepidation.
Marty nodded, her blue eyes full of worry. “That’s our Carl. He’s a zombie and the sweetest thing ever. He’s not used to being alone. We need to find him right now or—”
“Carl!” Dannan yelled, his tiny voice whipping in the blustering wind as he headed into the woods, selflessly helping to search for someone he didn’t even know. “Come to us, lad!”
“How about we split up into small groups? We’ll cover more ground that way,” Toni suggested, forgetting everything but finding Carl.
The tall pines to the left of them, separating the village from the path, rustled and parted as yet another tall figure emerged, and everyone stopped all motion.
Dear Realm, please don’t let this be Maleficent.
For a brief moment, the skies, their dark-purple clouds spewing snow, brightened. Magically so. The heavens opened, and shafts of light mimicking rainbow prisms shone down upon a head of shiny ebony hair.
Birds chirped, frogs ribbited, and just shy of angels singing, Toni was sure she heard the strains of a gentle harp playing somewhere in the distance.
And from the tall trees, out stepped a man. A man so perfect, so magnificent, so chiseled and hard, each of the women, Nina included, stopped and stared as though he’d cast a real live spell on the lot of them.
His thighs bulged beneath the rust-colored pants he wore, the laces pulled tight in a crisscross pattern, ending at his tapered waist; his chest wide and muscled beneath his green shirt and dark brown vest.
Eyes of the bluest sapphire, fringed by a thick down of dark lashes, stared at her. His hair was wet from the snow but it gleamed in all its ebony-ness, slicked back from his face, the ends falling to his jawline.
His cheekbones were high, sharp, and his jaw square and lean. And his arms—oh, those arms. Just thick enough from heavy labor, but not so thick he couldn’t put them down at his sides.
There was a collective breathy sigh as everyone’s eyes glazed over. He was the most beautiful specimen of man she’d ever seen and it took all she had to keep from letting a breathy sigh escape her throat, too.
As he tromped from the woods, the snow swirling around him, he had his arm around the neck of a reindeer—a very pale and green-around-the-gills reindeer. “Milady?” he called, his voice like liquid warmth, washing over Toni, bathing her soul, and leaving her weak in the knees. “Would this be your Carl?”
Nina approached the newcomer slow and steady, lifting her glasses as the prisms of light above his head faded and the clouds returned.
The reindeer covered the distance between them, running toward Nina with a slow, crooked gait. The animal stopped in front of her and patted his hoof on the snow before tucking his head, antlers and all, into her hip.
Nina’s long fingers lifted his muzzle as she looked down into his eyes. “Carl?”
The reindeer reared his head up and tapped his hoof on the ground again.
“Aw, for Jesus’s sake, Carl! What happened, little buddy?” She ran her hands over his back and head, checking him thoroughly.
Toni stood off to the side as the women gathered around “Carl” and stroked him, and she wondered…what the hell?
Some inventory was necessary if she was going to go any further. Her brain was a jumbled mess of what was real and what was make-believe.
So far today, she’d been pitched down a rabbit hole in a dressing room, dumped in a strange land, knocked a drunken, kind-of-irritated witch out cold, heard talk of vampires, werewolves and zombies, nabbed a pair of cute shoes she couldn’t take off, met a blue ogre and a good witch with a magic wand, discovered she was going to be forced to have some happily-ever-after she’d never asked for, and now the sweet, shy man-child she’d met in the outlet mall was a zombie turned reindeer.
And none of it—none of it appeared to make these women question a single second of what was happening to them.
“Milady?” the devastatingly handsome man said, bowing regally before her. “Jon Doe The Stable Boy, at your service.”
And then there was this. Jon Doe. The stable boy. Seriously? A man of this ilk deserved a much bigger name than Jon. Maybe something like Perfect or Granite or Flawless, perhaps. But Jon seemed much too simple.
She licked her chapped lips and swallowed, holding out her trembling hand. “Toni. Toni Vitali.”
He nodded his perfect head and smiled, pressing his warm, yummy lips briefly to the back of her hand. “A lovely name for a lovely maiden.”
Her eyes would’ve rolled if they weren’t now frozen in their sockets. Maiden. Hah. But there was something else. Something new and unfamiliar to Toni. Her heart literally fluttered in her chest as though it, too, had wings just like these women, and her stomach gurgled. Not unpleasantly, but with an excited skip.
“Milady?” he asked, his eyes curious.
“Thank you for finding, um, Carl.”
“No trouble at all,” he offered gallantly. “He was just grazing in the woods, and his unusual coloring made me stop and ponder his breed—it’s like no other. He looks nothing like my stable of deer. It was then he began to whimper, and I worried he’d lost his mother. I see I was right. Odd as that seems.”
Toni snorted, condensation escaping her lips in a puff of white. “Odd? You don’t know the half of it.”
He pointed to her shoes, sparkling in the twilight. “I see you have the king’s shoes. How did you manage that?”
“The king’s shoes are pretty popular around these parts, huh?”
Jon ignored her question and instead asked, “Speaking of parts, what land is yours?”
“Yes, from whence you hail.”
“I hail from the land of designer outlet malls with wormholes. Better known as Jersey,” she said as she shivered, her teeth beginning to chatter.
Jon tilted his head, his blue-blue eyes twinkling. “Jersey? I’ve not heard of this place. Is it far?”
Toni shivered again, crossing her arms over her chest. “Far is a subjective term at this point. But you best believe, it’s a long way from Shamalot.”
Pulling off his vest, he wrapped it around Toni’s shoulders, his fingers brushing her exposed skin and evoking another shiver as a ripple of awareness shot along her spine.
“Have you sought lodging? The eve is upon us, my lady Toni, and the weather will sour quickly.”
Now, homeless and penniless, she knew. She had this. Rubbing her hands together, she asked, “Got a match?”
“Never mind. Listen, do you know how to get to the castle? Because according to Brenda the Good Witch of the South, I have to give these babies back.” She pointed to her shoes—shoes that were killing her frozen feet right now.
Jon’s face darkened for a moment and then it was as though an idea formed, because he smiled wide, his ultra-white teeth as perfect as the rest of him. “I do know the way to the castle. Do you need an escort?”
“She don’t need nothin’ from you, Hot Breeches,” Nina crowed, Carl nestled close to her side.
Marty and Wanda joined Toni, their eyes on Jon. Because really, whose eyes could will themselves away from a long hard stare at all that man?
Toni unglued her own gawking stare from his hulking physique and made introductions. “Jon The Stable Boy, this is Marty, Wanda, and Nina. All fair maidens dumped in your backyard.” Because of me.
Jon bowed once more, his thick, dark hair gleaming as the last of the day faded. “Miladies, the pleasure is mine. How can I be of assistance?”
Marty whistled and fanned herself with her hand, looking to Wanda, whose wings had taken up a mad whir. “Are you warm? Is anyone else warm?”
“On fire here,” Wanda croaked then swallowed, the light-blue veins in her neck working when she nodded. She grabbed the hand Marty was using to fan herself and pointed it at her own face as she lifted the back of her fancy hairdo.
Before she spoke, Nina eyed Jon, a little longer than Toni suspected was the norm for someone as gruff and indifferent as her. “You can assist us by telling us how to get the fuck out of here, Jon.”
He looked directly into Nina’s eyes, his expression one of confusion. “This word—fuck—means what? Is that from your land?”
Wanda groaned a sigh as she rolled her head on her neck while rubbing at her temples. “That’s just Nina behaving badly. My blanket apologies in advance for every word that comes out of her mouth until we part ways. Now, Jon, how do we get out of here?”
Now he smiled again in understanding, as though they were speaking his language. “Have you paid passage on a ship? I can be your guide to the ocean in less than seven days. What is the name of the ship you plan to sail upon?”
Nina brushed her hands together, her full lips going thin. “Yep. We’re fucked, folks.”
Marty poked Nina in the shoulder. “You don’t know that.” Then she turned to Jon, her blue eyes widening in a flirtatious manner. “Here’s our dilemma, Jon. We don’t know how we got here in the first place, but we’re not from your…your…”
“Realm,” Toni offered as she burrowed under Jon’s vest, her tone dry.
“Well lookit you, all speaking the native tongue,” Nina said sarcastically, giving Toni’s shoulder a thump of her hand. “If it wasn’t for you, I’d be at home on the Island right now reading my kid a Christmas story and putting her to bed so I could hunker down on the couch with my man in my very own castle. You heard what that nutbag Brenda The Sticky Sweet Witch said, you wished us here to medieval hell. This is on you.”
“Brenda?” Jon asked, his spine suddenly rigid, his tone aware. “You’ve encountered the Good Witch of the South?”
“Yeah, with all her big hair and whistles. The biscuits-and-gravy lady says we can’t leave here unless we take this one to the castle for her happily-ever-after.”
Jon’s face cleared again, his head bobbing at Nina. “Of course, of course. You were summoned to the realm of Shamalot because you were unhappy with your life?”
Toni wondered if this kind of thing happened often.
“Has this happened before?” Marty asked, tilting her head and asking the question Toni wasn’t able to put into a proper sentence.
“Often people visit the realm to see the king and ask that their wishes be granted,” Jon provided. “But no one from your land of Jersey, as I recollect. So is this why you have come to Shamalot—because you are unhappy?”
Why she cared if Jon knew she was unhappy or otherwise was unsettling, but somehow, it left her uneasy. “I’m not unhappy!” She felt like she needed to say as much again for Jon’s benefit—all out in the open.
“You work at an outlet mall. No one’s happy makin’ minimum wage and working for that yippy blonde with her dresses that’ll change your life,” Nina remarked, flicking her hard curls from her face.
Finally, she couldn’t take the guilt anymore. It rose up like a swell of remorse and overflowed all over the women. “Okay fine, lady. It’s true. I wished I were anywhere but there today. I didn’t even say it out loud, for hell’s sake. I only thought it. But haven’t you ever done that? Like ‘Wow, I wish I was watching paint dry instead of sitting through this movie’?”
Nina nodded, her curls beginning to fall flat from the heavy snow. “You mean like right frickin’ now?”
Toni let her hands drop to her sides with a slap against the lavish material of her dress. “It was metaphoric, for the love of Cheetos! I didn’t mean dump me and every person within twenty feet into a land with no running water!”
Jon placed a light hand on Toni’s arm, a hand that wrought all sorts of chills and dirty, dirty visuals. “What is a movie and Cheetos?”
Nina tapped his broad shoulder with a frown. “Oh, Jesus and a Renaissance fair—forget the damn movie, Flawless. Just tell us how to get the hell out of here!”
“I am Jon, for future reference. And I don’t know how you do that, My Lady of Discontent,” he shot back, towering over Nina, his jaw rigid. “I only know the rules of the realm, and they are, you must do as Brenda The Good Witch says. I can assist, of course, but I can’t detour and keep you from your happiness. As a member of the League of Fairy Godmothers, surely you know that.”
“How in the fresh hell do you know I’m a fairy godmother?” Nina growled at him, flashing her teeth.
He twirled his finger in the air around his head with an impish grin that made Toni melt. “The wings are a dead giveaway, but if not for them, then the hair. It’s all about the very large hair.”
“Okay, everyone just stop!” Wanda ordered, hiking up her skirts and squaring her shoulders. “We’re getting nowhere like this. Obviously, the realm or whatever wants us to take Toni to the castle and leaving isn’t an option. Now, it’s not like we’re strangers to an odd crisis or…what is it, now…eleven crises? We’re just not usually a party to them in quite this way. That said, we’re going to do what we do on every other case we’ve ever had—help the client. So buckle up, biotches, quit complaining, and let’s get Toni to the castle.”
The client? Cases? Toni held up a frozen red hand. “Well, hold on. Who says Brenda’s the final word on what’s what? Again I ask, what if I don’t want to go to the castle?”
“What if I drag you and your boogie shoes the entire way?”
Jon stepped between Nina and Toni, his hand going to his hip, where a silver sword sat. “I cannot allow you to harm the fair maiden.”
Nina snorted in Jon’s face and looked up at him, her eyes gleaming as she yanked her sunglasses off. “Here’s the score, Pretty Boy, no one tells me what’s allowed.”
Jon placed a hand at Toni’s waist and pushed her behind him. “I warn you, milady, I’m trained in the art of the sword. You do not want to do battle with me.”
Nina rocked back on her heels with a sly smile. “Oh really? Well, I’m trained in the art of carnage, buddy. You don’t want to see your innards wrapped around a tree, do you?”
Jon lifted his chin, the glimpse she caught of his eyes as she tried to get between them dark and stormy. “That would be heartily unpleasant, but no woman has come to harm while on my watch, and none ever will.”
Toni removed Jon’s hand from her waist—and if she were honest, reluctantly so—then stepped between he and Nina. “Look, this is my fault. I did this to all of us, I’ll fix it. You three and Carl go on about your business, and I’ll find my way to the castle myself. I’m no stranger to hoofing it alone.”
Wanda yanked a glove off and tapped Nina in the head with it. “She most certainly will not. This was an accident, Nina. You know, that thing we specialize in? Besides, you heard what Brenda said—it has to be us who takes her to the castle in order for us to all leave, and besides that, when was the last time we abandoned someone in their hour of need? Never. That’s when. Now you take Carl and go scout us out a place to stay for the night. Marty can find us some wheels; I’ll look for the nearest food court. We ride at dawn!”
Jon held up a broad hand tipped with lean, sun-browned fingers. “I can provide you with all those things, if you’ll allow me. And I can certainly be your guide to Castle Beckett.”
“You know the way to the castle?” Marty asked. “Smart and delicious. Phew. Ice pack, please!” she chirped on a giddy chuckle, her wings picking up their thumping pace.
“If you’ll all follow me through the woods, I’d be happy to shelter you for the night and we’ll begin our journey in the morning, yes?”
Nina stopped him with a flat palm to his shoulder. “What’s the going rate for shelter ’round Fairyland, Jon Doe?”
“Rate?” he asked, his gorgeous face confused.
Nina rubbed her fingers together. “Yeah, you know, like sheckles or rupies or a cow, or whatever the fuck it is you Robin Hoods want as a fee for using your facilities. Name your price, because I’m not going anywhere with you until we have some clear rules.”
Jon’s face went from confused to horrified in seconds. “I would never require a single pence as compensation for sheltering members of the League of Fairy Godmothers. It’s against the rules of the realm and punishable by death.”
“Oh, thank God,” Marty murmured, her body visibly relaxing. “Because I have no idea where my purse is. Not to mention my cell phone. How are we going to call the boys and tell them we won’t be home for dinner, Wanda?”
Jon turned to look down at them all, ignoring Marty’s chatter. “Are we in agreement?”
Nina eyed him for a brief, uncomfortable moment before she said, “I’m givin’ you fair warning, buddy. One wrong move, one shady shift of your eyes, and I’ll kill you. You won’t have time to use your sword if your Motel Six turns out to be Motel Hell. Got it?”
“What is a Motel Six?”
Jeez, he was cute when he was confused.
Wanda rolled her eyes and patted Jon’s arm. “Ignore her and just take us somewhere warm, please.”
But Jon didn’t budge. He placed a hand over his heart. “I would never soil my reputation. Rest assured, you’re safe with me. Now, shall we?”
He gallantly held out his arm to Toni who took it with little reluctance. She was damn cold and her feet were like blocks of ice. The sun had set, casting a purple haze over the clearing in the village, making her shiver again. She almost didn’t care if they stayed in a pup tent.
They met back up with Dannan The Ogre who clearly knew Jon and offered to aide them in their quest to the castle.
As she hung on to Jon Doe The Stable Boy, his broad back her marker through the thickening haze of snow, she stumbled and tripped her way toward wherever they were going.
And still, even with the wind and snow lashing their faces, the bitter cold making her eyes water, this was a cakewalk compared to closing the store with Bree breathing down her neck, demanding she move faster so she could go home and play with her friends on Facebook.
For that much, she was grateful.
* * * *
Jon forced himself to remain calm, yet his heart crashed in his chest so loudly, he worried the others would hear its harsh thump. As he held Toni’s hand, helping her over logs, pushing the brush from their path, he stole glances at her.
Good realms, she was beautiful. Her hair was like fire, dancing over her slender back and resting on her rounded hips, her eyes the color of the green gemstones he and his brother once dove for during summers at the lake.
She possessed lips he wished to press his fingers to in order to discover if they were as soft and plump as he imagined.
She smelled of the breeze in the summer, a hint of honeysuckle on the vine mingling with the lavender his mother used to grow.
This Toni was intoxicating, leaving him with a tight chest and a heady heart, and he didn’t understand this feeling. One he’d never felt before.
He’d never heard of this land she claimed to hail from, but he reminded himself to consult a map the moment he could get his hands on one.
In the meantime, he had to return her to the castle—a treacherous journey to be sure. Though, possibly not for the pale goddess whose title was Nina. She’d almost made him cringe as she’d glared at him and threatened his very life, her pale skin a pretty canvass for her darkly disturbing almond-shaped eyes.
And how was it she was mother to a reindeer? It was absurd. Did this land called Jersey have a new species of reindeer he’d not encountered?
And how odd that Toni had the king’s shoes. He vaguely remembered some sort of scandal at the last ball the king held, but he paid no mind to the matters of Castle Beckett these days.
As they approached his modest cottage and stables, the glow of the warm fire inside beckoning, these were the things he pondered.
But what he pondered most heavily upon was Toni—and how he was going to simply hand over this beautiful creature to the king when the time came and why, after only just meeting her, was he left with an emotion so strong?
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