Authors: Elizabeth Sinclair
Tags: #Romance, #Paranormal Romance
When Carrie frowned at the idea of the child being anywhere but at home with her parents on Christmas Eve, Meghan smiled. "It's a tradition. She and her grandmother make popcorn balls and decorate Irma's tree, then bright and early on Christmas Day, they show up here to open presents and have a big family breakfast. My mother only lives a mile or so down the road from here."
Irma and Steve came in from the kitchen, and each picked up a cup of hot chocolate from the tray. The peaks of whipped cream that had poked up above the rim of each mug had begun to melt. Irma seated herself beside Carrie, and Steve flopped into the big recliner, pushed on the arms until the footrest popped up, and then crossed his ankles and rested the cup of hot chocolate on his flat stomach.
Carrie sipped at her cup, licked the sweet whipped cream from her upper lip, and waited for their inevitable questions, the questions she wouldn't be able to answer.
Steve dropped the footrest and leaned forward, his elbows resting on his thighs, the mug cradled in his hands. "So, tell me, Carrie, what exactly do you remember?"
She set her mug aside and folded her hands in her lap. The warm, cozy feeling the house had produced in her dissipated and was replaced by the cold, empty hopelessness she'd experienced before.
"Nothing before I found myself standing on the street, I'm afraid." She looked from one to the other, and the desolation lying in the pit of her stomach grew. "You said you could help me remember," she reminded them.
"No, we said we could help
," Meghan said softly.
"But doesn't that mean… "
Irma laid a hand on her arm. "It means we'll help you find yourself. Your
Carrie shook her head. The throbbing in her temples had begun again. "I don't understand."
Meghan smiled. "What if we told you that there was a place where you could go and not only learn who you are, but what you are? A place where miracles happen and dreams come true?"
Unreasonable fear gathered instantly in a tight ball in the pit of Carrie's stomach. Her throat closed off, preventing her from saying anything in response. She gripped her hands together in her lap until her fingers hurt. Whatever had possessed her to come here with these people, with all their crazy talk about miracles and dreams coming true? For all she knew, they'd murder her and throw her body into the woods for the animals to feed on.
The fear that had grown in her stomach spread to enfold her entire body in its icy embrace. Never taking her gaze from them, she stood very slowly and edged around the couch. She forced a weak smile to her lips. "Thank you for everything, but I think I'd better go," she said, easing toward the door.
Irma quickly intercepted her and put an arm around her shoulders. "Where will you go, child?"
Carrie stiffened. "I… " Her voice quavered, making it hard for her to form words.
"Don't be frightened. We're not going to harm you," Irma crooned softly as if to a baby.
Almost instantly, Irma's words seemed to reach down inside Carrie and replace the fear and panic with calm and… trust? What was there about this woman that made Carrie feel as though she were a child being reassured by a loving parent?
"No one will force you to do anything you don't want to do," Steve added, going to stand beside his wife and pulling her to his side. "It has to be your choice, Carrie."
Hesitantly, Carrie weighed their words. Looking from one to the other, she could see without exception the honesty and gentle love shining from their eyes. Oddly, she felt as though that emotion was something she hadn't seen in anyone's eyes for a long time.
The hopelessness came back. If her life had been that bleak and loveless, that empty, did she really want to remember any of it? Maybe she should forget trying to remember and just go forth from this moment and build new memories, happy memories.
"There is no future without a past," Irma said.
Irma's words unnerved her. It was as though she'd been reading Carrie's thoughts. But that was impossible. Wasn't it? Whether or not she'd read her mind, Irma was right. No matter what her past held, how could she go forward without knowing where she'd already been?
And really, how much worse could it be than this limbo she'd found herself in? Knowing the worst had to be better than knowing nothing at all.
"This place… the one you spoke of, where is it?" Carrie could hear the tremble in her voice.
A radiant smile spread over Irma's face, making her look like an angel. "Nearby. We'll take you there if you'd like."
Carrie hesitated for a moment, and then, knowing instinctively that Irma wanted only what was best for her and that she'd trust this woman with her life, she nodded. "Okay."
On the mantel, the interior of the small, green lantern began to fill with a fine white mist, evidence that an Assignment was due to arrive within the mystical village of Renaissance.
Earlier the same evening, somewhere in the mist of time
Clara Webb stood to the side while Emanuel drew up a chair to the kitchen table. When he was comfortably seated, she placed a steaming mug of strong coffee in front of the village Elder.
He smiled up at her. Her heart twisted. Sadness lurked in his usually bright, gray eyes tonight. Due to her long-standing love for this man, Clara felt his sadness more acutely than anyone else in the small village. But she'd never voiced that love. He was already charged with such a heavy burden to bear. All these needy souls, all looking to him for help. She wished she knew how to lighten his load. But then, he probably wouldn't let her. If she even offered, he would simply tell her that he had chosen to walk this road long ago, and that the burden was his alone to bear.
"Ah, Clara," he proclaimed, pulling her out of her reverie, "you always know what I need to warm my soul. I'll have plenty of time to enjoy this before the village goes into the first Transition stage." Then he sighed. "But I must admit that at this time of year, I do so miss Meghan's sugar cookies."
Clara chuckled and placed a plate of golden-brown sugar cookies in front of him. "I expect she knew you'd be missing her cookies, so when Alvin went to the cabin yesterday to tell Irma about the arrival of another Assignment, Meghan sent these back with him."
Assignments, the troubled souls from the world outside the enchanted village of Renaissance, came and went periodically, each with their own special emotional burden, each seeking peace. Most times, the Guides who lived in that outside world sent the Assignments to the village, but this time, Emanuel knew of this particular arrival before anyone else did. To ask him how he knew would be fruitless. Emanuel always knew things to which the rest of the residents of the village weren't privy, and no one ever asked the why or how of it. His uncommon sight was simply accepted for what it was: a blessing.
Emanuel smiled over the cup's rim at the woman who wove the cloth for the village of Renaissance. He moved aside an angel cookie and chose one of the frosted bells.
"The first Transition stage? Will there be more than one Assignment this time?" Clara knew it was rare that more than one troubled soul came to the village at a time. When Emanuel nodded, she asked, "Will they arrive together?" She refreshed his coffee.
He took a bite of the golden-brown cookie, then set both the cup and the unfinished cookie on the table and leaned back in his chair. "Ah, yes, the Assignments. No, they won't be arriving during the same Transition. One is being prepared as we speak and will arrive soon. The other will not come until Christmas Eve. I've decided that the first one will be yours. Only you can give her the special care she'll need, Clara." He frowned.
The snowy-haired woman slipped into the seat across from him. Outside her window, she could see that a fine mist had begun to gather. It would take a while for the mist to thicken and herald the Transition of the village from mystical to material. Shortly after that, the mist would part, and they would welcome another soul in turmoil, an Assignment, into their midst.
Emanuel's obvious despondency tore at her heart. She didn't know for certain why she felt his emotions more acutely than the others in the village did, but she had come to believe it was because her love for Emanuel was different from their emotional bond to him.
"This troubles you. Why?" she asked, her full attention concentrated on the man sitting across from her.
His bushy eyebrows drew together in concern. "I have to wonder why people mistreat each other so badly and then label it as love. Such a peculiar contradiction of the word." He shrugged and rubbed his large hands together. "But that's a worry for another day. We've more urgent concerns to occupy our minds at present. Your Assignment's life has been especially hard, very hard. She's lost her direction as a result. She needs to rediscover herself, to renew her faith in the person she has always been, a strong, goodhearted woman. And she needs to find the strength to face and relinquish all that has turned her life into a hell on earth. In short, she needs to rediscover love, Clara."
This Assignment indeed sounded special, and in dire need of the peace she'd find here in the village. Clara nodded toward the gathering mist outside the window. "And the other Assignment? Who will get that one? Surely you won't be giving both of them to me." Dividing her attention between two Assignments would severely disadvantage one or the other.
He shook his head and patted her hand. His long beard swayed gracefully back and forth across his chest. "No, no. I want all your efforts aimed at healing this one's needy soul. The other one will be Alvin Tripp's."
That announcement surprised Clara. "Alvin's? But why?"
Alvin, the Traveler, was Renaissance's connection to the world beyond the perimeter of the village, the messenger between Emanuel and the Guides who found the wounded souls and sent them to Renaissance to heal. Ever since Alvin had come to them after the tragic loss of his wife, Clara had never known Emanuel to charge Alvin with the care of an Assignment.
"Alvin and our new Assignment have much in common. I believe in this instance that the Healer, as well as the Assignment, is in need of being ministered to." He patted Clara's hand. "I have put this off long enough, my dear. Alvin cannot go on forever shouldering this heavy burden, a burden that is not his to bear." He smiled wistfully. "Perhaps there will be three souls who find peace very soon."
Clara should have known that it hadn't escaped Emanuel's notice that Alvin kept to himself. That he only accepted responsibility if it didn't directly entail another human being's welfare. Sometimes Alvin's self-imposed isolation just tore at her heart. He had so much to give, if he could only find peace within himself. She could easily see the wisdom of Emanuel's choice, but would Alvin? However, she had learned long ago that Emanuel's wisdom often found its roots in things of which she had no knowledge.
A loud knock sounded on the door. Clara hurried to answer it. A very tall, very husky, middle-aged man, dressed in buckskin and smelling like crisp, fresh air, took up a good deal of the opening. His face, weathered by the elements through which he loved traipsing, was nearly hidden behind his unruly, dark brown hair and a beard that sprouted from his cheeks and jaw like an overgrown huckleberry bush.
He nodded in the direction of the table. "Emanuel."
"Good evening, Alvin." Emanuel motioned to the chair at his side. "Please, join me for a cup of Clara's outstanding coffee."
Clara smiled to herself. If Emanuel had a weakness, it was his love of coffee, and true to his diplomatic nature, he often made the proclamation that the coffee in which he was indulging at the moment was the best he'd ever had. She'd once asked him about it, and he'd smiled and explained that whatever cup of coffee he was drinking at the time was, indeed, the best he'd had, since it was also, at that moment, the only one. She knew it was just one small facet of the abundance of love he showered equally on those around him.
As Alvin started to take a step forward, Clara, though more than a foot shorter than him, stopped him with a firm hand to his broad, muscular chest. "Mind you wipe your feet," she admonished and kept a discerning eye trained on him until he did.
Satisfied that her gleaming floor would not be tracked up with the mud from the woods where Alvin had undoubtedly spent his day, she stepped back and made way for him to move past her into the room.
Between her weaving loom nestled in the corner near the blazing hearth and the imposing figures of both Alvin and Emanuel in her small kitchen, the keeping room seemed to shrink considerably. Clara hustled about, getting Alvin coffee. When she had it poured and placed in front of him, she joined the men at the table, eager to see Alvin's reaction to having his first Assignment.
"I have a job for you," Emanuel said, favoring his friend with a smile.
Clara saw no reaction from Alvin, but that didn't surprise her. Little that was said to him or happened around him stirred much of a response in Alvin, besides this was a request he'd often heard from the Elder in the past.
"Where will you be sending me this time?" Alvin asked without preamble or a change of expression.
"You won't be leaving the village this time, my boy." Emanuel pointed out the window at the gathering mist. "A new Assignment will soon enter the village, but there is also one due tomorrow evening. I'll be going to meet him in the woods above the Glen. Steve and Meghan will be bringing him to me."
A warm glow surrounded Clara's heart at the mention of the two people who had found love inside the village despite almost insurmountable odds. Both of them had learned the meaning of faith and trust and that the one true miracle was love.
Alvin had just taken a drink of coffee and swallowed hurriedly. "Figured it was the Assignment when I saw the mist as I came across the square." He glanced at Clara. "Yours?"
"Yes, Alvin," Emanuel broke in, sending Clara a silencing glance. "This one is Clara's, but the Assignment coming tomorrow night is yours."