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Authors: Judith Arnold

'Tis the Season

BOOK: 'Tis the Season
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“I'm having child-care problems,”
Evan confided.

“Gracie's teacher thinks I'm falling down on the job,” he continued. “And she's right. I'm screwing up. My kids are climbing out windows and pestering total strangers like you.”

“I could pick Gracie up from her school,” Filomena offered.

His eyes met hers. She
could
make his life a little easier over the next few weeks—yet he suspected she could make it a lot more complicated, too.

“But you're not going to get to know me sitting in your car in my driveway. Maybe we should discuss this some other time,” she said.

He did a quick calculation. “Why don't you come over for dinner tomorrow, and we can see how everyone gets along. I'll broil something.”

“Broiled something sounds delicious. See you tomorrow, Evan,” she told him, then left.

Damn
. He needed a baby-sitter for his kids, not a girlfriend, not a lover, not a babe to star in his fantasies. Not a sophisticated New Yorker who dressed like a gypsy and sat alone in a big house, drinking wine and listening to harpsichord music.

Not a woman named Filomena Albright, who seemed perfectly able to leave him spellbound….

 

Dear Reader,

The holidays are a magical time. The streets of small towns and big cities alike get cleaned up and dressed up. The music piped into the stores changes from all those sappy, predictable tunes we hear throughout the rest of the year to carols and other holiday classics. We indulge in foods we enjoy at no other time. (In my family, it's my special holiday sugar cookies—which are awfully hard to prepare, but I'm willing to bake them once a year.) And, of course, our children start behaving very, very well….

What better time to revisit THE DADDY SCHOOL?

Evan Myers, the hero of '
Tis the Season
, would surely argue that his beloved two brats, Billy and Gracie, are not behaving well at all. Yet their misbehavior brings him magic in the form of Filomena Albright, an exotic, intriguing woman whose life is somewhere else and who has no intention of remaining in Arlington, Connecticut, once the new year rolls around.

Filomena's magic alters Evan's life. Can he and his children work enough magic to keep Filomena from leaving them?

Happy holidays!

J
udith
A
rnold

'Tis the Season
Judith Arnold

This book is dedicated to the Smith College Class of '74
(and especially those very generous Albright women!)

CHAPTER ONE

B
ILLY DIDN
'
T HATE
Gracie. It was just that she could be a pain in the butt sometimes.

Like when she was whining, she cranked up her voice louder than an ambulance siren and he just wished she would shut the heck up. And she would follow him around when he didn't want her to, and she was always asking him to play stupid games with her, involving dolls and other icky stuff. And she liked to tell on him. Sometimes he told on her, too, but when he did, it was only because he had to, not because he wanted to—if she was doing something dangerous, for instance, or if she spilled popcorn all over the kitchen and Dad yelled at him to clean it up, even though it wasn't his mess. A guy had to defend himself, right?

But he didn't
hate
her. She was his kid sister, so he supposed he loved her, even if she was a pest.

He sure wasn't filled with love when he saw her emerging from the woods into the clearing by the haunted house. This was his special place and he didn't want her knowing about it. He hadn't even told his best friend, Scott, about it. He hadn't told anyone. But now Gracie was here, and she'd probably blab about it all over Arlington.

How she'd managed to follow him without his hearing her was a mystery. He must have been making a lot of
noise while he hiked through the woods. In the November cold, the leaves and branches cluttering the ground were so brittle every step he took made a loud crunch, and that must have drowned out the sound of her tramping along after him. Or maybe he hadn't heard her because of the crows, which never disappeared in the winter like other birds and which cawed louder than Gracie's whine. Or maybe he'd missed the sound of her because the wind kept kicking up and rattling the empty tree branches.

In any case, he was pretty startled when he heard her voice, loud and clear: “Whose house is that?”

He spun around and discovered her standing by the edge of the woods, staring past him at the house. Little puffs of vapor came out of her mouth. She had her hands on her hips, and she was wearing a jacket that used to be his a few years ago, blue denim lined with fleecy white stuff. It shouldn't have looked right on her, because it was definitely a boy's jacket. Billy would never wear a jacket that looked good on a girl.

But it looked okay on Gracie.

He turned back to the house. It was constructed of stones—not neat squared-off blocks of fieldstone, but big round stones held together with cement, which gave the building a cold heavy appearance. It had a back porch with a gloomy overhang and a sloping tiled roof. Billy didn't really think it was haunted—he was too old to believe that kind of garbage—but it was cool to pretend.

“It's haunted,” he told her, thinking maybe if he scared her she'd leave him alone and go home.

“I don't believe you.” For a kid who hadn't even started kindergarten yet, she could be a real wiseass.

“Of course it's haunted. Check it out. It's all dark and spooky.”

“So what? I don't believe in ghosts.”

“Did I say it was haunted by ghosts?”

That caught her interest. She tilted her head a little and said, “What's it haunted by?”

“Spirits. Invisibile spirits.”

“What are spirits?”

“They're kind of like ghosts, only different.”

“How can you see them if they're invisible?”

She was definitely too smart. “You don't see them. You
feel
them,” he told her.

“I wanna feel one,” Gracie announced, marching across the dead grass. It hadn't been mowed all summer and it had gotten pretty long before it died. Now it lay limp and matted like pale brown hair against the ground.

“It's not like you can just go up to a spirit and touch it,” Billy warned her as she walked right by him and up the steps to the porch. This was another reason he couldn't hate her. She was so brave. She was a girl, not even five years old, and she was braver than a lot of boys Billy knew.

He hurried up the porch steps after her. The windows overlooking the porch had shutters or something blocking them, and she was too short to see over the shutters. But she was trying, standing on tiptoe, gripping the windowsill and jumping up to get a view.

“Are the spirits inside?”

“Yeah. But they're invisible.”

“Pick me up, Billy. I wanna look.”

That was one of things he didn't like about her: she could be awfully bossy. “Say please.”

She put her hands on her hips again and rolled her eyes at him. “Please,” she said, stretching the word out to let him know how unnecessary she thought it was.

Scowling, he wrapped his arms around her belly and hoisted her up. She peeked over the shutters and he let her down. The porch had been painted a dark green a long time ago, and chips of faded paint flaked off when her feet hit the boards. “I can't see anything,” she said. “It's too dark.”

“You can see better from the side.” He led her off the porch and around to the side of the house, where the afternoon sun hit the windows. It was a pretty weak sun, more white than yellow, the kind of sun that promised snow. Billy knew better than to hope for snow, though. It hardly ever snowed in Arlington before December.

The windows were higher off the ground here than on the porch, but there were no shutters and the view was better. He knew; he'd spied through pretty much every window on the first floor, and the windows on this side of the house were the best. The room on the opposite side of the glass was filled with strange shapes draped in white sheets. Billy figured it was furniture covered with cloths to protect it, but the first time he'd seen the draped pieces was when he'd decided to pretend the house was haunted, because the white cloth did look kind of like ghosts. If seeing them didn't scare Gracie, nothing would.

She skipped alongside him to one of the windows, placed her hands on the windowsill and glanced over her shoulder at him to signal that she was ready for a boost. Not a please, not a thank-you—just that bossy look of hers.

Billy sighed and circled his arms around her. If he made a big thing out of her not saying please, she might start whining. Or worse, she might tell Dad about the house, and he'd say they shouldn't be wandering through
the woods by themselves and trespassing on someone else's property, and Billy would wind up in trouble.

So he braced his feet and lifted her up. “Oooh!” she said, almost a whisper. “Are those the invisible spirits? They look like ghosts!”

“You can't see the invisible spirits,” he reminded her. “They're invisible.” She was beginning to get heavy. Her coat was bulky, and it made her heavier.

“They're moving!” Gracie gasped. “Put me down, Billy! Put me down!” She wasn't whiny or even screaming. She sounded as if she was choking on her own breath. “Put me down!”

He lowered her to the ground and she bolted, heading straight for the woods. He knew he ought to go after her, just to make sure she didn't get lost, even though the woods weren't too dense and the distance between the haunted house and their house wasn't that far. But he couldn't chase after her until he looked first. He had to see what was moving.

He inched up to the window. There were all the weird cloth-covered shapes, just as he'd remembered from last time. Dust made the air thick, and with the sun so weak and wintry the room seemed hazy.

Then he saw it. A shadow moving, floating just beyond the doorway, dark and creepy, there and not there.

Whispering a curse that would have gotten him sent to his room for the rest of the day, he charged after Gracie, racing for the woods as fast as he could run.

 

BY THE TIME
Filomena got to the window, no one was there.

She was pretty sure she'd heard footsteps, the hollow thud of someone tramping on the back porch, but when
she'd peered outside the porch had been empty. Either the old house was creaking and groaning or her imagination was running wild. Or else someone
had
been outside and had run away.

Whichever it was, she didn't care. The entire experience of being back in the house after so many years was eerie and disorienting. A few extra thuds weren't going to make a difference.

She glided across the small parlor to the window and gazed through the dirt-fogged window at the yard. She used to love romping in that yard—it always captured the afternoon sun, and the lawn would be so much cooler than the air, the grass brushing against her bare soles as she scampered around with her playmates. She hadn't had too many close friends in Arlington, since she'd spent only her summers and holidays here, living the rest of the time at boarding school or else traveling with her parents. The house had seemed much more isolated in those days. Now, newer houses had sprouted all around, right up to the edges of the five-acre estate.

The view from the windows made her smile. Turning, she surveyed the cozy parlor and smiled again. She tugged on one of the drop cloths that shrouded the furniture, freeing a cloud of dust. The piano was under that cloth. After a good five years without a tuning, it was probably a mess. God knew, spiders or rodents might have taken up residence inside it.

But she'd seen no evidence of rodents, and spiders didn't scare her. She lifted the cloth and tossed it onto the floor. Despite all the dust on the topside of the cloth, the wood underneath looked smooth and polished. Taking a deep breath, she slid back the keyboard cover and played a chord. A bit tinny, a bit flat, but not bad.

Her smile grew.

She hadn't been doing much smiling recently. Bad enough that her mother had died. At least she'd died doing something splendidly in character—climbing Mont Blanc. Filomena had flown to France, recovered her body, had it cremated as per her mother's wishes, then transported the ashes to Greece and scattered them into the Aegean Sea. Filomena's father had met her mother in Greece. They'd fallen in love there. When he'd died, her mother had scattered his ashes there and instructed Filomena that when she died she wanted to join him in the magnificent blue sea.

It had been sad—and remarkably expensive—but that was what her mother wanted, and Filomena was not going to ignore her mother's final wish. When it was done, she'd flown back to New York City to grieve. Her grief had taken a stunning turn when she met with her mother's lawyer, who reviewed the estate with her and explained, as gently as he could, that her mother left debts of nearly two hundred thousand dollars. “Climbing in the Alps is an expensive holiday,” he pointed out when Filomena had asked how such a thing could be possible. “Traveling through Tibet on the back of a yak doesn't come cheap. Snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef, sailing to the Galapagos…Your mother lived life to the fullest, Filomena, but she wasn't terribly prudent when it came to her finances.”

“But…but my father left her a small fortune,” Filomena argued.

“A bit too small for your mother's needs, I'm afraid. At least she didn't fritter it away on junk. I always admired your mother, even when I was warning her about
her dwindling resources. Obviously, she didn't listen to my warnings.”

“What am I going to do?” Filomena asked, feeling weak and dizzy. Two hundred thousand dollars? She barely kept herself housed and fed on the income from the modest trust fund her father had set up for her, combined with the research fellowship she received from the university. She was a graduate student, for heaven's sake! How was she going to come up with two hundred thousand dollars to pay her mother's debts?

“There's the house in Arlington,” the lawyer reminded her. “I'm not sure what condition it's in, but if you fix it up and sell it, it should bring in enough money to cover her debts and then some.”

It had never occurred to Filomena that this house would someday not be in her family. Even if she hadn't been back in five years, she'd always known that she
could
go back and it would be waiting for her, big and solid and secure. Given how much traveling her parents did, the house in Arlington was the one home Filomena could depend on. Her family might meet in Hilo for Christmas, in Gstaad for New Year's, or her parents might fly her to Fairbanks, Alaska, at the end of the spring term so they could do a little mountain climbing, but she'd always known she had a true home waiting for her in Connecticut.

She'd never been given to swampy sentiment, and she wasn't going to fall apart at the thought of having to sell the house now. It had to be done. Her mother's debts had to be paid.

But it would take at least a month or two to get the house into shape to put on the market. Using that time to fix the place up shouldn't be a problem; no one
shopped for a house in the weeks before Christmas, anyway.

She abandoned the piano and yanked the cloth off the wing armchairs facing it. They looked good, their embroidered cushions undamaged. She supposed she would sell most of the furniture along with the house—she certainly had no place for it in the cramped studio apartment she rented in a genteelly slummy neighborhood a few blocks from the Columbia University campus. Some of the pieces might be antiques; she should have an appraiser come in.

BOOK: 'Tis the Season
8.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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