Well, the holiday season is upon us. I hope you enjoy the next chapter of a

Vision of Christmas. Time has gone by just too quickly, and I'm sorry that I don't

have more chapters of this done. We'll have to see if I can get more posted for this

before the season is over. ^_^; If this is the last chapter I have for this before

Christmas, then… have a Merry Christmas! ^____^ --star


A Vision of Christmas

by star

A child's bright eyes of hope,

Strains of chords singing silent night,

Destined journeys begin with the heart,

Within the darkness, billows of light.


Clutching the little girl's hands, Serena searched the spread out gathering in the intersection of alleys. A few bent over, coughing, rubbing their frostbitten hands by a trash can fire. All had different stories, different reasons for being there. A woman with a particularly nasty tongue and oily hair poking from under a ski hat curled up in a blanket by herself, a few old drunks consoled each other with humor, a family with two children held each other, with all that they owned in plastic bags.

Some roamed off during the day for a tiring search of an open place in homeless shelters, and if they didn't return by night, Serena would sometimes wonder if they were sleeping in a bed with food in their stomachs, were dead, or if they had simply moved on. There weren't many choices. The world had a cruel side, and Serena was living in it just like they were. You couldn't get a warm place to sleep without money (or charity, which seemed in short supply), and you couldn't get money, for both jobs and welfare because both required you to have that place to sleep—an address. You could walk in circles, trapped in an endless cycle with no way out.

It was why most of these people had lost hope long ago, why their eyes looked so dead—except one; just one of them had bright eyes and a beaming smile, his heart warm and glowing even in the dire cold that encased the streets. Serena needed help, and he would be the best one to give it. Sometimes he disappeared for small or large amounts of time, and the more she searched, the more she feared that now was one of those times.

"Come on Danny," she finally whispered, tugging at her young companion's hand. The child stared up with trusting hazel eyes when they were both startled by an outburst around them. Moans and cries of despair rose in the chilled air as the first snowflakes floated down from the black sky followed by bitter curses. Serena lifted her face, the bits of snow stinging and melting on her cheeks. It was like a beautiful death. The cold could only now increase; a useless battle for any form of warmth.

The sudden despair that heavied over the crowd was broken by a sudden, cheery rendition of Let it Snow humming wildly from a harmonica. A group of men around the trash can groaned, but a grin spread across Serena's lips as she turned, knowing who it would be. An old man skipped down the snow-powdered street, unkempt smoky white hair poking out from under a cap and a beard bushing around his face. His cheeks were red with cold, his gray eyes bright; a huge scarf wrapped snugly round his neck, and he cupped a silver harmonica to his lips. The upbeat strains of the Christmas song sang into the frigid air as the snow from the unsung lyrics filled the sky.

Spotting Serena, he strolled over, bending down to Danielle's eye level and blowing the final chorus. A smile sprung on Danielle's lips and the hum of the harmonica seemed to ring in the air even as Nicholas Christian pulled the silver instrument from his lips and wiggled his bushy eyebrows. He stepped back and gave a shout to the woman curled in the blanket that fidgeted and scowled. At this response he merely smiled and tossed her what looked like a peppermint candy cane. "For you!" he said.

She held it up and growled, "You're a fool! You buy food Nicholas Christian, not candy!" but despite the viscous words, her eyes seemed to soften and she broke off a piece of candy cane and plopped it in her mouth as she settled back down.

Nick turned back to Serena, raised his eyebrows humorously, and said, "But what the old broad doesn't know is that I get them free. Isn't Christmas just wonderful?"

"So where were you?" Serena asked as he dug into a coat pocket and presented Danielle with her own candy cane.

Still smiling, he shrugged it of, not looking at her. "Oh, here and there. How about introducing me to this pretty young lady here?" Did you know, he whispered to Danielle after being introduced, that the first snow brings good luck, and Serena watched as he prompted her to stick out a pink tongue along with him to catch the snowflakes. And that was all it took—an old senile homeless man with the exuberance of St. Nick himself—to make the snow just then magical…

* * *

"Thank you officer, I understand," Mrs. Arthurs, the head hostess for the Eddington household, said as strongly as she could with her back arched straight and hands folded as her hope began to fade with the police man's parting. Oh dear, oh dear indeed!

Her sturdy and able body sank weakly into a chair and she pressed a hand to her weary head, for once her sharp mind at a loss. The young Miss Danielle's disappearance had sent her control into frenzy.

There had been so much to do that day, though! She had woken in the dark early morning hours, supervising the rushed preparations for the Christmas Party that would take place the next day. The young master had left for the city the very day after Danielle Laynes arrived, leaving the haggard Mrs. Arthurs on her own to ready for the first grand party of the season and take care of a child!

She had been flying up the stairs, down the stairs, from room to room all day, barking orders to the bustle of maids, dealing with an upset caterer, and forced to take matters of things in her own hands when nothing was going right. There was no time to keep her eye on the child—who she had placed in the care of a younger maid. There wasn't even a way to know what time the girl had left.

"Would you like me to call Master Eddington," asked the soft voice of one of the older butlers.

She swiveled her head in his direction with unfocused eyes before shakily standing, lifting her chin high, and patting down the wrinkles in her crimson dress suit. "No, no," she breathed, swallowing. "That won't be needed." She dismissed him, sensing the parlor of her face and cold clamminess of her weathered hands that gripped the end of the chair. Nothing good, she thought, would come of telling Darien Eddington the news before it is absolutely necessary.

* * *

The night unfolded before Serena and it there felt like there was a little angel dancing in her world. Nicholas was his normal self—merry like none other in life could be, leading them in a line of Christmas songs. Serena couldn't think of two other people alive in the world that she had rather be around as she had sat and laughed with them in the chill of the night, white frosting the grungy street.

Serena made a vague prodding to take Danielle to the police, but Danielle shrieked, "No! I want to stay with you and Mr. Nick."

Nick ruffed his shoulders and said, donning a pompous voice, "See, she doesn't want to see any police." He pushed out his lower lip and gave a firm nod.

Serena's shoulders slumped and she turned to Danielle. "All right, Danny. No police. But your parents must be worried sick. We have to get you back! Do you know where they are?"

Danielle's brow furrowed and she tugged at Serena's sleeve, staring up at her with bright eyes. "I don't have parents. Can't I stay with you?"

Serena's mouth dropped and a slow, dull ache played in her chest before the words even sunk into comprehension. She shut her eyes for a moment and let out a long, cloudy breath. Nick frowned and sat back quietly. Unable to form any words, Serena opened her arms, feeling numb as the little girl promptly climbed into her lap and buried herself there, Serena's arms closing around her. "Danny," she breathed, "You must still have some kind of home…"

"No I don't. I don't have a home! They took me to my brother for Christmas--but he doesn't want me."

"How could you know that? Danny, it's been hours since you've gone. He must be scared out of his mind—" Serena leaned back, trying to look at Danielle's face which had buried in the crook of her arm.

"No he's not," Danielle cried. "I know 'cause I heard him say so myself and he only talked to me once before leaving me with the old lady."

Her aunt hadn't wanted to take care of her either. Serena's heart leapt into her throat and she tightened her hug, her brow furrowing as she shut her eyes. She knew what it was like not to be wanted. Her instinct was to never let Danielle go, but she berated herself for that longing. A child wasn't a stray dog she could take home—and even if she wanted to argue with that, she couldn't with the painful truth that she had no home. No, she just had to accept her new place in life.

A gentle hand lying down on her shoulder interrupted her painful thoughts and she lifted her face from Danielle's hair, her tired eyes trailing up to meet Nicholas' gaze. For the first time Serena had ever saw him, he looked serious.

His pale eyes shifted to Danielle and he crouched, resting his hand on the girl's back. "Danielle," he said gently and she lifted her head. "This… brother of yours, I think he might be lonely."

"Him—lonely?" Danielle whispered with wide eyes.

Nicholas nodded gravely.

"But… but he doesn't act as if he's lonely," Danielle puzzled out loud.

"Well, you see Danielle, some people are lonely without realizing it. Sometimes they realize it, but won't admit it. They don't think they need anybody. You know, I bet your brother needs someone just like you." He tapped Danielle's chest.

The enlightened look blooming on the child's face fell. "But he'll only let him stay with me for Christmas."

"Ah—but Christmas is a very special time! A person's whole life can be changed by it. See, Danielle, there's a certain vision of Christmas. Some people can't see if very well. Some can hardly see it at all, even when they need to so badly. Everyone deserves to be loved, to be happy, at Christmas time." Nick's eyes flicked up unexpectedly to Serena's gaze and she drew in a slow breath before averting her gaze. He turned his attention back to Danielle and smiled at her. "Will you do that Danielle? Go home and take care of that brother of yours? Love is a very special thing."

Danielle nodded solemnly.

Serena began to smile, marveling at Nicholas. Many of the others on the streets grumbled and called him a loony, and sometimes Serena even thought so too, but there was something special about him. He was an eccentric old man, but one with a very good heart. After Danielle decided to go back to her brother, Nick became his blusterious self again and had the girl giggling in no time. The chill pricked at Serena as the night went on, sinking coldly into her blood. She smiled and sang softly the choruses Nick and Danny bellowed out, but her eyes were half glazed.

When Danny rubbed her sleepy eyes, asking where the doggy had gone, Serena took hold of the girl's hand and prodded her up, telling her Cinnamon would be around. "Come on Danny. You need to sleep."

Danielle blinked up at her with unfocused eyes. "Are we sleeping on the street?"

Serena hesitated, and then quietly answered, "Yes."

"Okay. You know, if you come home with me, you can share my bed."

Serena was silent for a moment, fingers tightening over the girl's small, cold hand. "Maybe," she said. Turning to Nick, she offered a thankful smile. "Take care of yourself."

He saluted her and she turned and tugged Danielle with her, making her way over to the fire escape. The rusted metal of the railing for the stairs was cold enough to sting as she grabbed onto it and scooted underneath it. Danielle crawled after her and Serena wrapped her arms around the girl, settling them down.

Her eyes fluttered sleepily as she laid her head down on the rumpled tarp, Danielle snuggling closer to her. She planted a kiss on the girl's forehead, whispering a simple good night and earning herself a wide stare before Danielle abruptly burrowed her head into Serena's embrace. Serena let her worn body sink into the tarps, tugging her thick scarf up over her ears and checking to make sure Danielle was warm enough tucked beneath her over coat.

She tried not to think of the feelings tugging at her heart, the whisper of warmth abridging the cold shell that had been with her for so long. For once, the pain and desolation wasn't so unbearable as she shut her eyes to a peaceful slumber. She heard steps crunching the snow nearby and the strains of a harmonica singing Silent Night. The song wrapped around her like dark, calm waves and unknown to herself, her frozen lips pulled into a sleepy smile.

* * *

Serena tried to break from her sleep that encased her like ice. She felt the never-ending chill nipping at her face, sensed the cold gray sky threatening more snow and the hard ground beneath her. Her dark lashes fluttered, but pressed stubbornly against her frozen cheeks as her dreams wandered achingly in her muggy mind. It was always a struggle to wake up. It was too tempting to stay lost in sleep. What was the point to wake up? Sadness always clung to her, but at least in dreams, none of it seemed real. Perhaps that was why her eyes had glazed over when she was awake—she was trying to wrap herself in the comforting illusion that a dream provided.

Every day though she had fought to wake up and won. The thought of giving up scared her too much. The thought of wanting to never wake up scared her. So she opened her eyes to face the cold and stare up at the rusting bars around her. The struggle was harder though as the days went on. She felt like a doll, a very heavy doll, left abandoned on the cold ground and unable to move. The tingle in her mind began its work; soon, she regained enough thought and awareness to get the overpowering feeling that something was different this morning. A small, warm body clung to her.

Remembering, her mind cleared to a crisp focus as her eyes snapped open. Stormy blue framed by dark lashes stared up at the ghostly white sky, her chest rising with breath beneath a child's weight and a cloud forming by her lips as it fell. Her stiff hand moved over the sleeping girl's back, rubbing comfortingly as Serena's eyes trailed down to the lump beneath her large caramel colored coat. A smile tugged then broke across her rosy lips and she shut her eyes another moment.

Something inside her fluttered happily. The lonely ache had somehow eased, against her will grasping onto the little girl's presence and solidifying her attachment. The realization dropped her serene smile flat and she had to suppress a frustrated cry. It would only make it hurt more when the source was gone. Gathering and brushing her pain into a far corner, Serena shook the sleeping child. "Danielle," she whispered.

A groan rolled from beneath the coat-blanket as Danielle squirmed, sticking her head out from the coat's warmth and yawning, rubbing at her eyes. "Serena!" The child's face lit up as she lifted her gaze to Serena.

Serena smiled, rumbling the girl's honeyed curls with affection. "Come on, Sweetie. We gotta get going."

Danielle wrinkled her nose. "Where?"

"Well, first we're going to get breakfast in our bellies and then you, Squirt, are going home," Serena breathed in a light voice, crawling out from under the fire escape and tugging Danielle up to her feet.

Serena turned away from the girl's depleted look, biting her lip as she stared at her duffle bag. She wasn't sure how long she'd be gone and didn't trust it still being there if she left it, so after a moment's decision she slung it over her shoulder. Turning to face Danielle, she was relieved to see that the sad face smiling as the girl petted Cinnamon who seemed to be in a playful mood.

Smiling herself, she took Danielle's hand in her own and headed out of the alley. Danielle twisted to look back with a laugh. "I think Cinnamon wants breakfast too!"

Serena nodded with a fond look towards the dog happily following after them, giving a gentle squeeze to Danielle's hand. Danielle looked up at her and Serena had to swallow the lump in her throat at the adoring hazel eyes. "Where are we eating?" Serena paused with a hesitant smile.

* * *

"Thanks Mina," Serena breathed gratefully, staring at the table where Danielle forked up a mouthful of eggs and beacon. The girl kept tapping and looking out the window to make sure that Cinnamon was still waiting on the sidewalk.

"Of course." Mina brushed away the thanks easily, leaning against the entrance to the kitchen with her arms crossed. With the business being slow in the morning and it being a new day, the waitress looked pipper and fresh in comparison to the shade of weariness that had grown on her the evening before. Her uniform was crisp and her rain-straight blonde hair half pulled up into a black barrette in back. She turned to look at the pretty but grungy girl with soft blue eyes who stood besides her still staring at Danielle. Mina's indigo eyes stared shrewdly. "What should I get for you to eat? Then we can talk."

Serena turned startled to Mina, recalling the girl's kindness and forced to look away from the girl's awaiting eyes. She shrugged her shoulders. "Just coffee, thank you."

Mina rolled her eyes with a groan. "Girl, don't give me that. If you don't get some food in you you're going to be walking bones. You're going to need your strength to get this girl home so you know you need it and if you don't order something decent in the next minute I swear I will get old Jerry to make every single breakfast item on the menu!"

Serena looked up, feeling tiny under Mina's stern and daring gaze. Still not wanting to give in, she conceded, "Maybe a… bagel then."

Mina stared at her for a moment as if she didn't hear her. "Two bagels," she declared with no room for refusal. "Sit down and I'll be right back."

Serena slumped in the closest seat and soon after Mina reappeared, clattering a plate of two bagels stuffed with cream cheese and a cup of coffee and proceeding to fall into the seat next to Serena. Under the watching eyes, Serena took a sip of her coffee, finding Mina had taken the liberty to fill it with creams and sugars, and obediently nibbled at a bagel. "I was a little afraid you wouldn't be here in the morning," Serena murmured after a little bit.

Mina grinned at her. "You were lucky. I work mornings Tuesdays and Thursdays. I set up my hours around my classes. I want to graduate for fashion design."

Classes. Serena's eyes glassed over, Mina noting it silently. "Do you go to college?" Mina asked. Serena sent her an odd, unbelieving look. Mina laughed and shrugged her shoulders. "How should I know?" quieting down though, Mina grew serious. "You want to though, don't you?"

Serena looked at her food, nodding. "Yeah," she said quietly after a moment. "It was my dream to major it music. Tour the world, you know, maybe settle down and teach. It's not like it'll happen though."

Mina frowned at her. "Don't say that! You don't know if it will or not."

Serena smiled in thanks at the girl, though still not really believing it.

Seeming to sense the girl's feelings, Mina leaned back in her seat and changed the topic. "So… does Danielle just live around here? You said you found her in an alley. She wandered off from her mom or something?"

Serena sighed. "Not quite. She told me she just snuck onto a bus and rode it for hours."

Mina raised an eyebrow. "That can't be good."

Serena nodded her agreement, idly stirring her coffee in hopes of dissolving the coat of sugar at the bottom. "She was running away. Apparently her mom died recently and she was brought to live with her older brother… There has to be some age gap though if he's living on his own. I'm not sure about the details, but she got the impression that he didn't want her. I figured after we ate that I'd look him up."

After listening, Mina piped up. "What's the guy's name?"

"Umm… I think she said Darien Eddington."

Serena looked over at Mina curiously as she watched the girl's eyes bulge. "What is it? You know him?"

Shaking her head, Mina sat back again though still with her bewildered expression. "Well, of him, yeah. You haven't heard of him?"

Serena shook her head slowly.

"Man, he has to have been all over the news—TV and mags…" Mina muttered.

Serena gave the girl a wry, pointed look. "I haven't had either of those things in nearly a year! Who is the guy?"

Mina looked thoughtful, tapping her nails on the table. "Well… from what I know, he's from this legacy millionaire family. He's young—fresh out of college," Mina paused for a laugh," Bet ya anything from Harvard or Princeton. But man… he could probably retire, but he's taking control over the family business. I swear he is so hot! I think some place ranked him in the top most eligible bachelors under twenty-five." Mina chewed on her pink lip for a moment. "The guy definitely does not live in New Jersey."

A sinking sensation began to overpower Serena and her face caved into her arms on the table. "I don't feel so good."


Serena was beginning to get frustrated with this waitress who was slowly becoming a friend. Why couldn't the girl get it through that thick blonde head? "Why? Do you know how I'll feel stepping any foot near this guy? Mina, I've been living under a fire escape for a week, and worse, I look like I've been living under a fire escape for months."

Mina shrugged. "So?" Suddenly, she grinned. "Maybe he'll even give you a reward for returning his little sis to him!"

Serena gave Mina a incredulous look and Mina threw up her hands in surrender. "All right, all right! I'm sorry. You're right. He'll probably get one look at you and send you off to prison for returning her. It all makes sense."

"You don't have to be sarcastic," Serena moaned, propping her head on her hands.

"Look, I'm sorry. Your negative thinking is getting to me."

Serena stared down at her plate. Mina had her there. She hadn't been such a pessimist before though. She used to have dreams, faith, and pretty rose-colored glasses. Having your family die in one night and becoming homeless just had an effect on a person she supposed. "I'm sorry too," she returned quietly.

Mina's dark eyes softened. "Hey, I know you're having a tough time now and are worried about Danny-over-there's brother. I'd go with you—I swear I would love to—if it wasn't for work and an afternoon class. Just don't let the guy walk over you, kay?"

Serena nodded with a smile.

"That's a good girl," Mina laughed.

Suddenly, the bell on the door rang and whir of brown bounded across the thin carpet. Serena gasped as an excited Cinnamon stood up, propping his paws on the table next to her with his tongue out and tail wagging. A just as happy Danielle trailed behind him. "Danielle!" Serena groaned, standing up. "You can't let the dog inside."

"But he was cold out there," Danielle returned, rubbing the dog behind his ear.

Serena opened her mouth to speak but Mina stepped in with a grin. "Awe… who's this handsome mutt?"

"This is Cinnamon!" Danielle responded with bright eyes. "He's Serena's doggie."

"Mina, I'm sorry. I'll take him right out—"

"Oh, don't bother!" Mina waved away Serena. "You heard the kid. The poor dog's frozen out there."

Serena's shoulders slumped as she looked at Mina, eyes imploring. "Serious? You're sure you won't get in trouble?"

"Don't worry about it. The big guy loves animals."

"Yeah, but in his restaurant?" Serena cried.

"There's no one here," Mina said lightly as she cooed at the dog and gave him a rub down.

Serena shook her head, turning to look at Danielle. "Hey munchkin, you ready to go?"

"Uh-huh." The girl nodded, still sliding her hand over Cinnamon's back.

"Mina… thanks for everything," Serena said.

"You going to go find Darien Eddington?" Mina asked as she stood up.

Serena nodded.

"All right, you'll want to take the bus that stops by at the corner. Should be around at ten. The guy is like a century old and acts like a robot. You can get the dog on the bus in a cinch." Mina dug into her pocket and stashed some crumpled bills into Serena's hand.

"Mina," Serena breathed. "I—I can't—"

"Yes you can," Mina interrupted. "But before you go, you better sit your cute behind back down and finish that bagel while I go see if I can find this guy's address." Mina smiled and headed to the back.

Serena gaped at the girl, looking at the second bagel on her plate and back where the girl disappeared. With a sigh and hint of a smile, she sat and picked up her bagel.

* * *

White light poured through the bay windows in the twenty-fourth story condo, an empty silence hovering throughout the elegant rooms. Everything was a glossy sheen, the perfect angle for every object set upon the plush, beige carpets or hung on the crisp, white walls that led to the high ceilings. An UN-lived in air projected from the place, but small evidence littered randomly. Two mugs that used to contain sleep-depriving coffee sat neglected in the pristine sink, a keychain sitting on a cleared counter. Through the winding hallways, past the untouched bedroom, and within a small office room, a jacket was strewn on the floor and a dark-haired man typed ferociously on his keyboard.

Dark blue eyes with bags beneath them squinted at the sleek, thin computer screen, a shroud of black hair shadowing them. Darien Eddington leaned over his desk, sleeves rolled up, tie loose, and coffee growing cold beside him. With a finishing tap, Darien sat back, rubbing his sore eyes. He looked at his silver watch with a sigh, finding it mid morning. He shook his head, thinking of how he planned to take at least a few hours of sleep before he headed back home. He didn't dare lay down now with so short of time—he'd be too afraid that he wouldn't get up until the afternoon, too late to settle back down and over see things had been properly taken care of for the party.

He'd left for a week for his flat in the city to finish up some work. There was loads to do—who had time for the holidays? His meddling sister who was at school in Boston would not lecture him about the heartstrings of Christmas if she could see what he had to get done. Darien felt a streak of wryness play through him as he laughed at himself, mentally shaking his head. No, Raye would only glare and say to hell with the work—to hell with the business even! Their collected father would choke on his drink if he heard some of the things that ran out of that fiery mouth of hers.

Darien shook his head, a smile finally smoothing at his lips as he rubbed at the stubble prickling his chin. Dear old dad. The old man sometimes seemed to be the only one who really understood him, understood his responsibility to the family business and even slapped him on the back for it.

During Darien's musings, an intruder crept into the sleek apartment, black heels padding softly over the thick carpets. "Darien," a silky feminine voice sang.

Darien's head came up at the voice and looked woman leaning seductively against the doorway. A mass of red coils framed her coy face and rolled over her bare shoulders. Cat eyes grinned at him from a rim of coal eyelashes and glittering gold eye shadow. With smooth movements, she twirled and modeled her clinging, strapless black gown that swished at her ankles, broken only by two daring slits. "You like? I bought it special for the party tonight."

Darien let a smile crease his lips as he stared at the beautiful woman. "Yes Beryl, it looks wonderful," he said complacently with an admiring glance. "One look at you and we'll have a hundred new clients."

Beryl Mandridge pouted. "But the dress isn't for them," she moaned, slipping in back of Darien's chair and letting her hands slide over his shoulders and trail over his chest, rumpling his shirt further. "You look like hell, you know," she breathed in his ear, twirling a lock of his messed hair around a long finger. "I like it."

Darien shut his eyes with a breathy laugh.

"You haven't slept for days… You should have called me and invited me over. I had to learn from a client you met with that you were in the city. I would have helped you sleep."

"Sleep?" Darien asked in an amused, wry voice.

Beryl hit him playfully with a throaty laugh. "At least you'd enjoy it. You've locked yourself in here too long—it's Christmas."

Darien let out an agitated moan. "Hell, don't say that word. Please," he muttered, raising his aching body from his leather chair and collected his jacket.

Beryl sat down on the desk, crossing her legs and leaning forward with a playful grin. "Too many eggnogs, good will, and Joy to the World?"

"Yes! Damn it, the whole month drives me mad. I'll thank God when it's over," Darien sighed as he rolled down his sleeves and slipped into his jacket.

Red lips spread to reveal a row of white teeth as Beryl pulled away from the desk and pressed herself against Darien, toying with his tie. "My dear, wonderful Scrooge. You're limo's waiting downstairs. I will meet you tonight at the party and then afterwards… I'll help you forget that Christmas exists."

"Tonight," Darien echoed, warily thinking of his need to sleep. As a businessman, he had pushed himself through many working-nights, but there was a limit. Beryl was a tempting enjoyment, but he found that he wouldn't regret it if she decided not to stay after the party. He massaged his temple for a moment, taking in a breath. Beryl was more than an enchantress; she was a snake. His sister always stared him down and demanded why he had such a fiendish for her type—sometimes he wondered the same thing, but he knew. He knew all too well why he attached to her type. Innocence was only a mask—those girls were the real snakes carrying such a deception. No… Beryl and her kind were honest about who they were. They were safe.

"Beryl," Darien sighed, "Perhaps—" A shrill of rings cut him off and he scrambled for his cell phone and brought it to his ear. "Hello—"

A gruff voice broke over him. "Confound this holiday--every one's mad!"

Darien's lip twitched in amusement at his father's rant. "Trust me, I have been thinking exactly the same thing."

"Knew you would, knew you would," muttered James Eddington with pride. "If I get one more package of Cuban Cigars… Bah! The idiots. They don't know what good cigars if it bit them on their noses."

"But, you have Marianne send the Cubans to our clients," Darien mused.

"Well, of course! You bloody well expect me to waste the good stuff on them?"

Darien shook his head, laughing. While doing so, Beryl, whose had had was resting on his chest, tugged the mouth piece to her lips and cooed, "Good morning, Mr. Eddington."

"Beryl? Was that Beryl?"

"Yeah Dad--"

"Darien, you sly old dog!" his father growled with a hearty laugh.

"Yeah, Dad listen. I'm going out the door now, but I wanted to know if you'll be there tonight?" There was a pause on the other end, and Darien was sure the old man was scowling in disgust.

"Nah, don't think that I will, son. You're a charmer--you don't need a grumpy old fool at a Christmas party with clients! You'll do just fine."

Ending the call, Darien swept past Beryl (the woman happily shadowing behind him) and began the trek to the ground floor, a whistling tune upon his lips. He was striding quite purposefully to the glass doors to where his limo awaited him when his merriment died in a gustful wrench in his stomach. A little girl was playing around in the lobby and the sight did not provide a happy reminder.

Beryl followed his gazed and moaned sympathetically, "You still have that pest for Christmas?" Beryl had never seen Danielle but disliked the majority of children-kind, instantly pitying Darien when he had shared the news with her.

He nodded at Beryl as she left him once outdoors. She must have kissed him and said something, but he found his mind entrapped by the thought of Danielle. True, he was able to escape to the city on the excuse of business, but now he couldn't avoid it. Mindlessly, he punched the numbers into his cell phone as he slipped into the awaiting limo. The housekeeper picked up promptly after the second ring and briskly answered his questions concerning the preparations for the evening party.

He hesitated near the end of the call, but then forced himself to inquire how Danielle was doing, whose care he had placed with the housekeeper. There was a tense silence on the other end.

"Ms. Arthurs?" Darien prodded with annoyance. "Are you there?"

"Yes, yes," the woman responded softly over the phone, though a nervous tremor seemed to run through her naturally business-like voice. "Danielle is fine. Just fine. No need to worry."

Darien frowned, wondering if he imagined the anxiousness tone. Picturing the tall, capable middle-aged widow, he decided to blame it on his own sleep deprivation. "Good, good." He gave a long sigh. "I'll be there in a couple hours in time to check things over, shower, and greet the guests. Expect me in--" he checked his Rolex watch, "--two hours. Good day, Ms. Arthurs." Darien shut off his phone and collapsed it into his pocket. Resting his head back against the limousine's plush interior, he shut his eyes and soon fell to sleep. Later on he would wake to the lingering images of St. Nick lecturing him, his sister Raye as an elf glaring at him beside the fat man, and a jumping little girl in PJs tugging at him to read the Night Before Christmas. He pleaded and begged to whatever power there was that Christmas would soon be over.