When Kip gets himself in serious trouble, a strange spirit enters the house—one that at first poses as Santa Claus. But beneath that jolly exterior, lies a dark creature from legend and lore. Join Emerald O’Brien for the holidays, as she battles both psychic turbulence as well as the demons every mother faces when her child lands in trouble with the law.


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Chapter 1

It was three weeks till Christmas and the first snowfall of the season was hitting hard. We usually got a dusting of snow, or a few inches, but this year it was particularly chilly and the meteorologists were talking about something going on with the jet stream and La Niña and how we’d better brace for a whopper of a storm. So Joe made sure that we were well stocked with wood for the fireplace, and we had changed out all of the windows for double-paned ones, and made certain the furnace was cleaned and working well.

It still boggled my mind how willing Joe was to tackle the chores. Being married to someone who was interested in what was going on at home—someone who wanted to be in a partnership as opposed to a dictatorship—was proving to be a new experience for me. I was still getting used to the changes that had taken place over the past year or so.


On late Friday afternoon, I was almost finished with the last of the tree ornaments. Well, trees. We had two of them, an artificial one in the living room, which was eight feet tall, and then a large spruce in the front yard that we had to use a huge ladder to reach the top of. That one, Joe and the kids took care of. I wasn’t all that comfortable creeping fifteen feet up a ladder.

As I hung two perfect satin owls on the tree, Kip came racing in.

“Mom? Mom!” He skidded to a halt as I gave him the no-running-in-the-house look.

I stared at my son, catching my breath as I realized how fast he was growing up. He was only eleven, but he had undergone a growth spurt and shot up three inches over the past few months. He was almost normal height now. He’d never been tall and I doubted he ever would be, but he was lanky and lean and looking like a gangly preteen now.

“What’s shaking, kiddo?” I smiled. Kip had really blossomed since Joe and I had walked down the aisle. I hadn’t seen my son this happy in a long time. Miranda—my fifteen-year-old daughter—barely batted an eyelash as Joe had moved in. But Joe meant the world to Kip, providing the father figure he had wanted for so long. Roy, his birth father, was doing better but he would never be the father who would teach Kip to be a good man. He just didn’t have the dad gene. But I had to hand it to Roy. He had managed to stay in rehab for six months and though he was still battling with his alcoholism, he was trying.

“Mom, I heard something in the basement.” Kip cocked his head, watching as I tried to squeeze another dozen ornaments onto the tree. I decorated like a fiend and woe be anybody who got between me and my ornament obsession.

I paused, the glittering orb suddenly heavy in my hand. “Something…or some…thing?” Life had quieted down for some time on the astral level. Either that or I had just been so busy I hadn’t noticed anything going on. But neither spook nor spirit had raised its ugly head during the past six months. Even down at my tea shop—the Chintz ‘n China—the tarot readings had been easy, and life blessedly uneventful.

Slowly, I set the orb back on the coffee table, making sure it didn’t roll off onto the floor. I draped my arm around Kip’s shoulders and led him over to the sofa. He squirmed a little but let me sit next to him. Yeah, he was growing up, all right.

“I think…thing, Mom. There’s something down there.”

Damn it! I tried so hard to ward the house and keep the nasties at bay. “When did you first feel it? And is it…are you afraid?”

My son was as psychic as I was. I had taken him in hand a few years back after an astral entity had briefly possessed him and started teaching him how to ward and shield himself. It had proven to be an easy task, given that Kip took to magic readily. Miranda, on the other hand, wanted very little to do with that side of my life. Her focus was up among the stars. She wanted to be an astronomer. Or maybe an astronaut. She hadn’t fully decided yet.

Kip tipped his head to the side. After a moment, he shrugged. “Kind of. It doesn’t feel all that friendly and I know that whatever it is, it doesn’t belong in the basement. I think there might be more than one, though. The second one feels darker. Denser?” He frowned. “Like gravy that’s too thick.”

Dense energy usually meant “low” energy, which meant energy vibrating at a level that could be dangerous. And that meant I’d have to go investigate and, quite possibly, kick some ghostly ass. But the ghost busting would have to wait because we were ready for dinner, and I wanted to finish the tree. As long as nobody was actively trying to scare us out of house and home, I wasn’t about to let them interfere with our routine.

“Dinner!” Joe’s voice rang out from the kitchen. He was a better cook than I was, though I could manage enough to fill my family’s stomachs without too much complaint.

I stood and held out my hand, pulling him to his feet. “Oof, you’re getting big, kiddo. How dare you grow up on me!”

“I can’t wait till the other guys stop picking on me because I’m short.”

“Yeah, I understand. Well, just don’t get too big for your mother, okay?” I nodded toward the kitchen. “Come on. Let’s go eat.”

He gave me a quick hug. He’d always been short and thin, but now he was four-foot-five. I still had a few inches on him but give him another year and he’d be as tall as I was. Yes, my Kipling was growing up.

“What are your plans for the evening? You want to help me put up garland?”

He flushed. “Can we do that tomorrow? I’d like to help, but I want to go over to Sly’s after dinner.”

“Kip, you know how I feel about that. You were over there last night.”

The flush turned into a frown. “But Mom, we’re working on a project together.”

I let out a long sigh. Sly, his best friend, was also a juvenile delinquent in the making. The pair had gotten in a lot of trouble through the years, bouncing off one another in ever-escalating fiascos. So far, the worst had been breaking windows in an abandoned house, and trying to be junior-size con men by shaving the fur off Sly’s dog and selling it as monster fur. But I was worried that one of these days their exploits would overstep the boundaries of high jinks. Kip promised that he’d be on his best behavior, but I knew how easily my son was swayed into stupid stunts.

“Okay, but be home by eight-thirty. Not a minute later than that, you understand? And if he’s alone, I want you to call me and tell me so that I know.” Sly’s mother didn’t keep track of her kid, and I worried about the boy, but there wasn’t much I could do. The one time I tried to talk to Katherine she had blown me off like a bothersome mosquito.

We entered the kitchen, where Joe was setting a roast and mashed potatoes and salad on the table. A fireman, he worked four days on, three days off at the firehouse. Tomorrow, he’d be heading back to work, but when he was home, he enjoyed taking over the cooking.

As we gathered around the table, Miranda came bouncing in.

“Hey, I can’t believe I made thirty bucks today tutoring the Jameson kid in math. He’s not dumb, but he hates to study.” She slid into a chair.

“Got plans for your windfall?” I asked.

She laughed as Joe handed her the juice. “College fund. Scholarships are nice and I know I’ll get one, but I’m not about to let anything go to chance.”

With that, we began to pass around the dishes, discussing our days over the clink of forks on china. After dinner, Kip took off for Sly’s house, and Miranda headed out for the library to meet with her study group.

Joe turned to me. “We have the evening free.” He rolled his eyes toward the ceiling.

I grinned. “I’d love to hop into bed with you, but first, I have to look into a potential problem.” I told him what Kip had said.

“Are you sure?” He wrapped his arms around me and pressed his lips to mine in a slow, fiery kiss. I was thirty-eight, Joe was twenty-eight, and we hadn’t moved out of the hot-for-each-other stage, even after a couple of years. Deciding the ghosts could wait, I took his hand and led him upstairs.


After a quick shower, I slipped into jeans and a sweatshirt and headed down to the basement. Joe offered to come with me, but it was easier if I went alone. That way I could suss out what was going on without anybody else’s energy intruding. And Joe had plenty of energy, not all of it aimed at the bedroom. He might not be what he thought of as psychic, but my husband could definitely sense the paranormal.

I made sure to wear my sneakers. I liked going barefoot, but the basement was littered with stray nails and splinters and I had no desire to accidentally impale myself. Joe used the shed out back when he was repairing or building stuff, but basements were like packrats. They tended to accumulate odds and ends that should have been tossed in the garbage.

The basement ceiling had a row of bare light bulbs, but two of the four were dark. I had started buying the energy-efficient bulbs, but in our house they seldom made it as long as the claims promised. But that was par for the course. Most mediums and psychics found electronics and gadgets had a tendency to fail on them when most needed. Something about our energy not meshing well with the electrical energy.

I reached the bottom stair and paused, closing my eyes as I tried to get a feel for what Kip had sensed. As I closed my eyes, I heard the faintest of movements. Maybe a mouse? But with four cats—Samantha and her now-grown kittens, Nigel, Nebula, and Noël—we rarely had any problem with rodents. Or bugs. Or leftovers, if we forgot to put them away in the fridge.

I listened more closely, tuning out everything else.

Joe was upstairs. He was doing the dishes, humming as he worked. Samantha was standing at the top of the basement stairs, peeking down. Her babies were tumbling through the house, full-grown but still enthralled with playtime.

I lowered myself deeper.

There… Beneath the bustle of daily life, I could hear it.

The sound of someone. Not breathing, but a rustling in the still currents of the air. Darkness wrapped up in a pretty package? Or just a simple lump of coal?

I opened my eyes and slowly headed in the direction of the energy.

Kip was right. Something was lurking in our basement and it wasn’t any of our usual suspects. My grandmother, Nanna, showed up a lot. She had started teaching me magic when I was knee-high to her apron. By the time she died, I had learned a lot but apparently she had decided I still needed her. Or she missed me. Or missed my kids. Whatever the case, I was grateful she’d decided to hang around, because she had been a huge help.

I skirted a bare post. Joe had been meaning to finish the basement, but time seemed to get away from us. We hardly ever used the space except for storage, and while it wasn’t totally made up of exposed beams and Sheetrock, it easily passed for the standard creepy hole beneath the house. Supporting beams created three separate rooms, with bare drywall defining the walls. Joe was renovating the space to create a media room that we’d actually use, a powder room, and a dedicated storage space, but it was taking time since he was doing all the work himself except for hiring in electricians and plumbers.

As I slipped in between the various trunks and boxes, the energy grew thicker and the hairs on the back of my arms began to stand up. Oh yes. There was definitely something here. I paused, hesitantly reaching out to find out whether this energy was dangerous. My home and life had been invaded too many times by freak show entities. I wasn’t about to let it happen again.

I peeked around a beam that was close to the back wall and froze. What the hell? I couldn’t be seeing this right. Maybe I had had too much eggnog earlier, but then again, I never spiked my nog. I didn’t drink anything stronger than espresso. Lots of espresso, yes, but caffeine wasn’t on the same level as alcohol. Blinking, I rubbed my eyes and looked again.

There, standing by the back wall of the basement, was a rather demented-looking Santa Claus. He wasn’t fully materialized. He was definitely spectral, but nonetheless, he appeared to be Santa. A large, rotund man with a long white beard, wearing a bright red outfit and cap and black boots…and…he was staring straight at me. Only instead of a twinkle in his eye, I detected a hint of red, and instead of a smile beneath that beard and moustache, he looked like he wanted to throw me across the room. His face shifted and for a moment I thought it was a mask, but—

I debated on what to do. I could stand my ground and try to find out what the hell he wanted, or I could turn and run. Except that would make him think I was afraid of him. Which I was, but I didn’t want him to know that. After all, I was the town witch; I was known for interacting with ghosties and beasties of all sorts. Most important, this was my home and nobody was going to traipse through it without my permission. So I sucked in a deep breath, standing my ground, and waited to see what his next move would be.

Santa Ghost arched his eyebrows and then, without a word, he came barreling toward me. I shrieked and jumped out of the way just in time for him to slam right through the beam I had been standing in front of. As I leaped out of the way, another figure caught my eye.

Oh great. Not only Santa Ghost, but one of his demented elves. A spirit dressed in green with red-striped socks and a feathered hat, and pointy ears to boot. A Christmas elf. He was just as misty as Santa Ghost, but instead of snarling at me, he waved me over his way with a concerned look on his face.

A glance over my shoulder showed that Santa Ghost was headed toward me again. He would reach me in about ten seconds.

The elf pointed toward the stairs as he jumped between me and Santa. I ran like hell. As I hit the bottom stair, I heard a groan as Santa Ghost passed through the elf and they both vanished. I gave it one more fraction of a second, then headed back up the stairs convinced I’d either lost my mind, or that we’d entered the parallel universe where Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Hermey the Elf were real, and Santa Claus’s evil twin had taken over.

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Holiday Spirits