This morning, when I answer the knock on my door, I’m presented with a woman in a Santa hat, carrying a frozen turkey.
“Hi, I’m Ann Gimpel. Don’t you just love the holidays?”
“It’s October 28,” I say and narrowed my eyes. “There are no holidays for about a month.”
“I know, but I’m here to help you cope with them.”
“It’s October 28,” I repeat. “There are no holidays for-”
At this point she brushes by me, plops the turkey on my counter and sits at the computer.
I sigh, resigned to the fact another author has control of my blog this week.
The “official” holiday season (at least in the U.S.) begins at some vague point after Halloween and extends through a week or so after New Year’s Day. Historically, it was a time for families to be together and engage in holiday rituals they’d developed over the years. By “rituals” I mean things like a Thanksgiving Day meal or putting out a plate of cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve. Hanging stocking from the mantle is another example. Or firing up the old pickup to head into the woods to select a perfect tree.
Let me roll the clock back. A mere hundred years ago, it was 1916. Cars weren’t all that popular yet. Most small towns still had at least as many horse-drawn conveyances. Television was years away. Radio was closer, but the first radio news broadcast didn’t happen until August 31, 1920. Families in that era tended to remain closer geographically, and it wasn’t unusual for people to be born, live out their lives, and die in the same town.
My point is that it was easier for families to develop and retain holiday rituals in a simpler era. Another important point is that people’s expectations were lower. No one expected to be happy all the time. No one expected that all their family members would be “perfect” or always treat each other kindly. And our ability to entertain ourselves was far greater than it is today.
Somewhere along the line, coincident with the rise of first radio, then television, then the Internet, came messages telling us how we’re supposed to feel and act. Those same messages proclaimed we should all be happy, surrounded by our families and loved ones, through a progressively more commercialized holiday season. I can see their rationale. Happy people spend more money, and coming out of the holiday season deeply in debt has almost turned into an American pastime.
Spending money doesn’t really make us happy, though. All it does is surround us with a bunch of stuff we didn’t need in the first place. And it leaves an uncomfortable, empty feeling that we should be happy with all this stuff, and there’s something wrong with us if we’re not.
We’ve come a long way from when my husband was delighted to unwrap new socks, one of a scant handful of gifts with his name on it beneath the family tree, to today when children rampage through dozens of brightly wrapped packages and don’t pay attention to any of them. It’s grown progressively tougher to raise kids with decent values when they see their friends drowning in material things, which is why prioritizing spending time with your children is so very important. Time when you talk or go for walks or do things that don’t cost bunches of money. The same is true for our friends and families. We need to relearn how to be with them minus having our heads buried in our phones or tablets. I’m not sure about you, but I don’t feel particularly valued when the person I’m talking with constantly diverts their attention to answer a text.
Back to the holidays for a moment, and then I’ll wrap this up. Create the type of holiday you want. It doesn’t need to look like the one you were raised with. Nor does it need to look like a picture-perfect Hollywood version. Consider volunteering at a local homeless shelter. Or a church. Or something your town has planned over the holidays. If being alone over a holiday saddens you, reach out. You’re far from the only person in your shoes, even though it might feel that way.
Stay tuned for part two, which will focus on families.
If you would like to see parts 2-4, please go to this link: http://eepurl.com/bbN3jf
Dream Shadow Press
Release Date: 9/6/16
Genre: Urban Fantasy Romance
Urban Fantasy Romance with a heaping side of Hexes, Spells, and Magick!
One of three remaining demon assassin witches, Colleen is almost the last of her kind. Along with her familiar, a changeling spirit, she was hoping for a few months of quiet, running a small magicians’ supply store in Fairbanks, Alaska. Peace isn’t in the cards, though. Demons are raising hell in Seattle. She’s on her way to kick some serious demon ass, when a Sidhe shows up and demands she accompany him to England to quell a demon uprising.
Gutsy, opinionated, and outspoken, Colleen refuses to come. Witches need her help, and they trump everything else. Despite breaking a prime Sidhe precept concerning non-interference in mortals’ affairs, Duncan offers his assistance. Colleen fascinates him, and he wants to discover more about her. Lots more.
The Sidhe might be the best-looking man Colleen’s ever stumbled over, but she doesn’t have time for him—or much of anything else. She, Jenna, and Roz are Earth’s only hedge against being overrun by Hell’s minions. Even with help from a powerful magic wielder like Duncan, the odds aren’t good and the demons know it.
Sensing victory is within their grasp, they close in for the kill.
Excerpt from Witch’s Bounty:
Rain worsened from a steady drizzle to a pounding, punishing deluge of icy sleet. Colleen Kelly strengthened the spell around herself. It sizzled where it ran up against the droplets. At least she wasn’t quite as wet as she would have been without its protection. Pavement glistened wetly in the last of the day’s light. It was just past three in the afternoon, but December days were short in the northern latitudes and Fairbanks was pretty far north.
“At least it’s not snowing,” she muttered as she pushed through a nearby glass-fronted door into the magicians’ supply store she owned with two other witches in the older part of downtown. Bells hanging around the door pealed discordantly. She sent a small jolt of magic to silence them.
“I heard that. Not the bells, but you. It’s supposed to snow this time of year. How could you possibly be pleased the weather patterns have gone to hell?”
Jenna Neil stalked over to the coatrack where Colleen stood. Blonde hair, hacked off at shoulder level, framed a gamine’s face and shrewd, hazel eyes. Jenna towered over Colleen’s six foot height by a good four inches, and her broad shoulders would’ve made most men jealous. Between her trademark high-heeled boots and a scruffy embroidered red cloak tossed over skintight blue jeans, she looked as exotic as the anti-hex hoop earrings dangling from each ear.
Colleen rolled her eyes, shook out her coat, and hung it on the rack. “Spare me your lecture about global warming, okay? It’s cold enough to snow. It just isn’t, for some reason.”
“Mmph.” The line of Jenna’s jaw tensed.
Indian spices wafted through the air, mingling with the scents of herbs, dried flowers, and desiccated body parts from small animals. Colleen’s stomach growled. Breakfast had been at six that morning—a long time ago. Pretty bad when even dried newt smelled like food.
“Did you cook something?” she asked. “And if you did, is there any left?”
A terse nod. Jenna turned away, walking fast. Colleen lengthened her normal stride to catch up. “Hey, sweetie. What happened? You can’t be in this big a snit over the weather.”
Jenna kept walking, heading for the small kitchen at the back of the store. “A lot of things. I was just having a cup of tea. Shop’s been dead today.” She disappeared behind a curtain.
Colleen glanced over one shoulder at the empty store. The phalanx of bells around the door would alert them if anyone stopped in. The minute she tugged the heavy, upholstery fabric that served as a kitchen door aside, the pungent tang of Irish whiskey made her eyes water. “You said tea.”
“Yeah, well I spiked it.”
Colleen grunted. “Smells like you took a bath in booze. What the fuck happened?” She grabbed the larger woman and spun her so they faced one another.
“We got another pay-your-tithe-or-die e-mail from our Coven.” Jenna’s nostrils flared in annoyance.
“So? That’s like the tenth one.” There were new policies none of them agreed with, so they’d joined with about twenty other witches and stopped paying the monthly stipend that supported their Coven’s hierarchy.
“It’s not what’s bothering me.” Jenna pulled free from Colleen, tipped her cup, and took a slug of what smelled like mostly liquor.
Colleen fought a desire to swat her. Getting to the point quickly had never been one of Jenna’s talents. She clamped her jaws together. “What is?”
“Roz called with…problems.” Jenna turned and started toward the steep staircase ladder leading to her bedroom above the shop.
“You can’t just drop that bomb and leave.” Colleen made another grab for Jenna to keep her in the kitchen. Worry for their friend ate at her. Of the three of them, Roz was by far the most volatile. “What happened? I thought she was in Missouri, or maybe it was Oklahoma, visiting that dishy dude she met online.”
“Didn’t work out.” The corners of Jenna’s mouth twisted downward.
Colleen quirked a brow, urging her friend to say more.
Jenna plowed on. “He only wanted her for her magic. Turned out he preferred men.”
“Aw, shit.” Colleen blew out a breath. “She must’ve been disappointed.”
Half a snorting laugh bubbled past Jenna’s lips. “Maybe now she is. At the time, furious would’ve been closer to the mark.”
Colleen’s throat tightened. “Crap! What’d she do? She didn’t hurt him, did she?”
“Not directly. She turned him over to the local Coven.”
“Thank God!” Colleen let go of Jenna and laid a hand over her heart. Roxanne Lantry was more than capable of killing anyone who pissed her off. It was how she ended up in Alaska. Roz hadn’t exactly been caught when her cheating husband and his two girlfriends went missing, but she hadn’t stuck around to encourage the authorities to question her, either.
Colleen and Jenna had already left Seattle when that little incident went down. Roz repressed her antipathy for Alaska’s legendary foul weather and joined them. Magically, she was strong as an ox, and she had a hell of a temper.
Colleen’s stomach growled again. Louder this time. It didn’t give a good goddamn about anything other than its empty state. She pushed past Jenna to the stove, lifted a lid, and peered into a battered aluminum pot. Curry blasted her. The spicy odor stung her eyes and made her nose run.
“Whew. Potent. Mind if I help myself?”
“Go ahead.” Jenna sat heavily in one of two chairs with a rickety wooden table between them. She picked up her mug and took another long swallow.
Dish in hand, Colleen slapped it on the table in front of the other chair and went in search of a mug of her own. There weren’t any clean ones, so she plucked one out of the sink and rinsed it. Back at the stove, she tipped the teakettle. Thick, amber liquid spilled from its stubby snout into her waiting mug. Jenna waggled the whiskey bottle in her direction.
“Nah.” Colleen settled at the table. “It would go right to my head. Maybe after I get some food on board.” She tucked in. After the first few mouthfuls, when the curry powder nearly annihilated her taste buds, the pea, potato, and ham mixture wasn’t half-bad.
Jenna drank steadily, not offering anything by way of conversation.
When Colleen’s dish was empty, she refilled her mug with tea, filched a couple of biscuits from the cupboard, and sat back down. “Are you going to talk to me?”
“I suppose so.” Jenna’s words slurred slightly.
Colleen cocked her head to one side. “I suggest you start now, before you forget how.”
“Oh, please.” Jenna blew out a breath, showering the small space with whiskey fumes. Colleen waited. The other witch could be stubborn. Wheedling, cajoling, or urging wouldn’t work until she was good and ready to talk.
Finally, after so long Colleen had nearly chewed a hole in her cheek, Jenna finally muttered, “Roz called.”
Colleen ground her teeth together. “You already said that. It’s how you knew what happened with the guy.”
Jenna nodded. “There’s more.” She picked up the whiskey, started to pour it into her mug, then apparently changed her mind and drank right from the bottle. “She’s in Seattle. Checked in with Witches’ Northwest, just to say hello, and because she wanted to touch base with people she’s known for a long time.”
Another long pause. Colleen batted back a compulsion spell. It wasn’t nice to use those on your friends. She shoved her hands under her bottom to reduce the temptation.
Jenna lowered her voice until Colleen had to strain to hear. “The Irichna demons are back.”
“But our last confrontation wasn’t all that long ago. Only a few months. Sometimes when we best them, they’ve stayed gone for years.”
Colleen shook her head. Even the sound of the word, Irichna, crackled against her ears, making them tingle unpleasantly. Irichna demons were the worst. Hands down, no contest. They worked for Abbadon, Demon of the Abyss. Evil didn’t get much worse than that. No wonder Jenna was drinking. Colleen held her hand out for the bottle—suddenly a drink seemed like a most excellent idea—and picked her words with care. “Did Roz actually sight one?”
“Yeah. She also asked if we could come and help. More than asked. She came as close to begging as I’ve ever heard her.”
“Erk. They have a whole Coven there. Several if you count all the ones in western Washington. Why do they need us?” Colleen belted back a stiff mouthful of whiskey. It burned a track all the way to her stomach where it did battle with all the curry she’d eaten.
Jenna just shot her a look. “You know why.”
Colleen swallowed again, hoping for oblivion, except it couldn’t come quick enough. She knew exactly why, but the answer stuck in her craw and threatened to choke her. The three of them were the last of a long line of demon assassins, witches with specialized powers, able to lure demons, immobilize them, and send them packing to the netherworld.
When things worked right.
They often didn’t, though, which was what killed off the other demon assassin witches. It didn’t help that demons as a group had been gathering power these last fifty years or so. Witches lived for a long time, but they were far from immortal, and demon assassin ability was genetic. She, Jenna, or Roz would have to produce children or that strain of magic would die out. So far, none of them had come anywhere close to identifying a guy who looked like husband material…
Colleen looked at her hands. Even absent a husband, none of them had a shred of domesticity. Certainly not enough to saddle themselves with offspring.
“What’s the matter?” Jenna grinned wickedly, clearly more than a little drunk. “Cat got your tongue too?”
As if on cue, a blood-curdling meow rose from a shadowed corner of the kitchen and Bubba, Colleen’s resident familiar, padded forward. When he was halfway to them, he gathered his haunches beneath him and sprang to the table. It rocked alarmingly, and Jenna made a grab for her cup. The large black cat skinned his lips back from his upper teeth, bared his incisors, and hissed.
“Oh, all right.” Colleen clamped her jaws tight and summoned the magic to shift Bubba to his primary form, a gnarled three-foot changeling.
The air shimmered around him. Before it cleared, he swiped the liquor out of her hand and drained the bottle.
“Would’ve been a good reason to leave you a cat,” Jenna mumbled.
He stood on the table and glared at both of them, elbows akimbo, bottle still dangling from his oversized fingers. “If you’re going to fight demons, you have to take me with you.”
“No, we don’t,” Colleen countered.
“You don’t follow directions well,” Jenna said pointedly.
“Isn’t that the truth?” Colleen rotated her head from side to side, starting to feel the whiskey. At least once when they’d humored the changeling, he’d almost gotten all of them killed. Problem was she couldn’t predict when he’d follow her orders, and when he’d decide on a different tack altogether. Then there were the times his fearlessness had saved them all.
Bubba might be a wildcard, but he was her wildcard.
“You forgot when I welcomed your spirit into my body—and kept it alive—while the healers worked on you.” Bubba eyed Colleen, sounding smug.
“If you hadn’t decided to play hero, and needed to be rescued, the demons wouldn’t have injured me.” Colleen winced at the sour undertone in her voice. That incident had happened five years before. Maybe it was time she got over it.
“Nevertheless.” He tossed his shaggy head, thick with hair as black as the cat’s. “When you conjured me from the barrows of Ireland, and bound me, we became a unit. You can’t go off and leave me here. It would be like leaving a part of yourself behind.” His dark eyes glittered with challenge.
“I hate to admit it—” Jenna sounded a little less drunk “—but he’s right.”
“See.” Bubba leered at them, jumped off the table, and waddled over to the stove with his bowlegged gait. Once there, he opened the oven, climbed onto its door, and peeked into the pot. He started to stick a hand inside.
“Hold it right there, bud.” Colleen got to her feet, covered the distance to the stove, and dished him up some of the curry mixture. “Get some clothes on and you can have this.”
He clambered down from his perch and over to several colorful canisters scattered around the house where she stashed outfits for him. Keeping Bubba clothed had been a huge problem until she’d hatched up a plan, and sewn him several pant and shirt combos with Velcro closures, since he didn’t like buttons or zippers.
The changeling dressed quickly and took the bowl from her. “I could’ve gotten my own food.”
“Better for the rest of us if you keep your paws out of the cook pot.” Jenna stood a bit unsteadily. “I’ll be right back.”
Bubba stuffed food into his mouth with his fingers. “Where’s she going?” His words came out garbled as he chewed open-mouthed.
Colleen looked away. “Probably to pee. Maybe to throw up. Um, look, Bubba, it might be wiser if we took a quick side trip to Ireland and released you.”
She glanced sidelong at the changeling spirit she’d summoned during a major demon war forty years before. He’d been truly helpful then, especially after he’d mastered English, which hadn’t taken him all that long. In the intervening time, he’d mostly clung to his feline form, eating and keeping their shop free of mice and rats. They’d lived in Seattle the first ten years or so after he joined them, relocating to Alaska to conceal their longevity. She dragged the heels of her hands down her face, feeling tired. It was getting close to time to move again, but she didn’t want to think about it.
Bubba shook his head emphatically. Food flew from the sides of his mouth. He scooped a glob off the floor and ate it anyway. “I have to agree to being released. I don’t want to go back to my barrow. I like it much better here.”
Colleen sucked in a hollow breath, blew it out, and did it again. Bubba was right. Rules were rules. He’d had a choice at the front end. He could’ve refused her. Witches respected all living creatures. The ones on the good side of the road, anyway. No forced servitude for their familiars, despite rumors to the contrary.
Jenna lurched back into the kitchen looking a little green. “You okay?” Colleen asked.
“Yeah. I drank too much, that’s all.” She rinsed her mug at the sink, refilled it with tap water, and sat back down. “Did you two come up with a plan?”
“I’m going.” Bubba left his dish on the floor and vaulted back onto the table.
Jenna rolled red-rimmed eyes. “That was the discussion when I left.”
“Your point?” Colleen swallowed irritation.
“Nothing.” The other witch sounded sullen, but maybe she just didn’t feel well.
“I offered to free him—” Colleen began.
“I refused,” Bubba cut in. He shook his head. “No recognition for all my years of loyal service. Tsk. You should be—”
“Stuff it.” Jenna glared at him. “We have bigger problems than your wounded ego.”
He stuck out his lower lip, looking injured as only a changeling spirit could, but he didn’t say anything else.
“I suppose we have to go to Seattle,” Colleen muttered, half to herself.
“Don’t see any way around it.” Jenna worried her lower lip between her teeth.
“What exactly did Roz say?”
“We didn’t talk long. Her cellphone battery was almost dead.” A muscle twitched beneath Jenna’s eye. “She’d just stopped in at Coven Headquarters and the group mobbed her. Said we had to come. They’ve already lost about twenty witches to stealth demon attacks.”
Colleen’s heart skipped a few beats. Twenty witches was a lot. Maybe a quarter of the Witches’ Northwest Coven. “Crap. When did the attacks start?”
“Only a few days ago. They’d planned to call us, but saw it as goddess intervention when Roz showed up.”
“Damn that Oklahoma cowboy.” Colleen pounded a fist into her open palm. “If his Coven doesn’t flatten him, I will.”
“He wasn’t a cowboy.” Jenna’s voice held a flat, dead sound. “He was supposed to be a witch. You know, like us.”
“Do you want to close things up here, or should I try to get someone from our Coven to fill in at the shop?” Jenna looked pale, but the tipsy aspect had left her face.
Colleen shook her head. “We haven’t sold enough in the last few weeks to make it worthwhile to pay someone to clerk for us.”
“Okay.” Jenna’s hazel eyes clouded with worry. “When do you want to leave?”
“If you asked Witches’ Northwest, we probably should’ve left three days ago.”
“How are we getting there?” Bubba squared his hunched shoulders as much as he could and eyed Colleen.
“Excellent question.” Jenna looked at Colleen too.
She raised her hands in front of her face, palms out. “Stop it, you two. I can’t deal with the pressure.” Colleen clamped her jaws together and considered their options. Roz already had a car in Seattle. It didn’t make sense to drive their other one down, plus it would take too long. Flying with Bubba was impossible. He looked too odd in his gnome form and his cat form didn’t do well with the pressure changes. They had to teleport, which would seriously deplete their magic and mean they couldn’t fight so much as a disembodied spirit for at least twenty-four hours after they arrived.
Jenna screwed her face into an apologetic scowl, apparently having come to the same conclusion. “Look, I’m sorry I’m not more help. There’s something about that particular mix of earth, fire, and air that I always bungle.”
Air whistled through Colleen’s teeth. It had been so long since they’d teleported anywhere, she’d almost forgotten Jenna’s ineptitude with the requisite spell. “How about this? You go down to the basement and practice. I’ll get a few things together…”
“What do you want me to do?” Bubba asked.
“You can help me,” Jenna said. “I’ll do better if I have an object to practice with.”
The changeling scrunched his low forehead into a mass of wrinkles. “Just don’t get me lost.”
“Even if she does, I’ll be able to find you.” Colleen tried to sound reassuring. She was fond of her familiar. In many ways, he was very childlike.
Heh! Maybe that’s why I’ve been so reluctant to have a kid. I already have one who’ll never grow up.
The bells around the shop door clanged a discordant riot of notes. “Crap!” Jenna shot to her feet. “First customer in two days. I should’ve locked the damn door.”
“Back to cat form.” Colleen flicked her fingers at Bubba, who shrank obligingly and slithered out of clothing, which puddled around him. She snatched up his shirt and pants and dropped them back into the canister.
“I say,” a strongly accented male voice called out. “Is anyone here?”
“I’ll take care of the Brit,” Colleen mouthed. “Take Bubba to the basement and practice.”
She got to her feet and stepped past the curtain. “Yes?” She gazed around the dimly lit store for their customer.
A tall, powerfully built man, wearing dark slacks and a dark turtleneck, strode toward her, a woolen greatcoat slung over one arm. His white-blond hair was drawn back into a queue. Arresting facial bones—sculpted cheeks, strong jaw, high forehead—captured her attention and stole her breath. He was quite possibly the most gorgeous man she’d ever laid eyes on. Discerning green eyes zeroed in on her face, caught her gaze, and held it. Magic danced around him in a numinous shroud. Strong magic.
What was he?
And then she knew. Daoine Sidhe. The man had to be Sidhe royalty. No wonder he was so stunning it almost hurt to look at him.
Colleen held her ground. She placed her feet shoulder width apart and crossed her arms over her chest. “What can I help you with?”
Okay, so he knows who I am. Doesn’t mean a thing. He’s Sidhe. Could’ve plucked my name right out of my head.
“That would be me. How can I help you?” she repeated, burying a desire to lick nervously at her lips.
“Time is short. I’ve been hunting you for a while now. Come closer, witch. We need to talk.”
About the Author:
Ann Gimpel is a national bestselling author. A lifelong aficionado of the unusual, she began writing speculative fiction a few years ago. Since then her short fiction has appeared in a number of webzines and anthologies. Her longer books run the gamut from urban fantasy to paranormal romance. Once upon a time, she nurtured clients, now she nurtures dark, gritty fantasy stories that push hard against reality. When she’s not writing, she’s in the backcountry getting down and dirty with her camera. She’s published over 30 books to date, with several more planned for 2016 and beyond. A husband, grown children, grandchildren and wolf hybrids round out her family.
@AnnGimpel (for Twitter)