Prologue

Cappie was standing on the Mistletoe’s deck, looking at the clear Christmas sky, wondering what had delayed Sandra and Em. Had their Christmas Eve deliveries gone long? she wondered. Was that even possible? Didn’t all gifts all around the world have to be delivered by midnight on Christmas Eve? The sun would be rising on a beautiful Christmas day in the tropics soon. She placed her last gift for Sandra under their merry tree set on the tugboat’s big deck and turned to go back inside. As she did, she realized someone was standing on her deck.

“Thomas,” she said. “You surprised me.”

Thomas Jackson said nothing in return. He simply reached out and handed her a note.

Chapter 1

Santanapped!

Location: Somewhere very secret
 

“Are they awake?”

“They should be.”

“Oh, we’re awake, aren’t we, Em?”

“Grrrrrrrrrrrrr.”

“And when we get loose, you two, and Thomas, and anyone else involved in this Santanapping are going to be so sorry.” Sandra meant it. Every word. And so did Em. Every growl.

“Fine then, if you’re going to threaten us like that, we’ll just keep you tied up. Don’t you agree, Christina?”

“Well, now, Gunny.” The headmistress of St. Annalise Academy, Christina Annalise, actually sounded a little sorry about this, thought Sandra.

“Gunny, you lying, no good, slithering, slimy, snake in the grass,” Sandra said loudly so she could be heard over Em’s growls. “And Christina! I trusted you. And Thomas. How could you? Cappie is going to be so heartbroken.”

Sandra struggled mightily against the ties that bound her hands and feet. She hated the vulnerability of being tied down and blindfolded, but if they were hoping it would make her compliant so she would do whatever they wanted, they were sadly mistaken. In fact, thinking of Cappie increased her anger.

“What have you done to Cappie?” She was shouting now. “Have you hurt her? Where is she? It’s Christmas! How could you all do this on Christmas?”

Her toughness now melted into despair as she realized that everything she thought she knew about these three people had turned into dust. Fairy dust, she decided. All sparkly in the air but almost always best to avoid.

Her mind flashed on all the things that had happened in the past month. She had turned eighteen, and despite the huge concerns everyone had expressed for her safety, and the many close calls that seemed to put her in peril, her birthday had passed by without any threat to her. She knew she had her parents to thank for that. They had provided her with the protective locket and chain she always wore. Besides providing protection, it had the magical ability to take her places, but her three kidnappers had made sure her hands were bound so she couldn’t reach it.

They had also tied up her fingers. She knew why. Gunny was one of the people she had confided in that the ring she wore, when twisted just right, could make her go invisible. Both gifts were invaluable for delivering gifts to children on Christmas Eve. The locket got her into homes quickly and the ring kept her presence secret from any children who might have stayed up late.

Not that many children were used to her being South Pole Santa yet. The selection had been made right before last Christmas. After a chaotic year of touring the world, trying to quell people’s fears about having a second Santa, and the fact that she was a girl, well, there was really no time for her to learn all she needed to know and go out on her own as South Pole Santa. So she and Em had ridden along with Santa and the reindeer to assist again this year. Next Christmas was to be their big “coming out party”, so-to-speak. If they made it till then.

She knew Em wasn’t scared. Em was never scared. She might look like an elf, aside from her bright green coloring, but Emaralda - her given full name - was in reality a delgin. A fine, beautiful, huge delgin. Sandra knew Em was all tied up or she would have been on her feet spinning into her big dragon size. While delgins are far kinder than their fire-breathing cousins the dragons, when mad like this, you would never want to face one. You would lose. Honestly, as mad as Sandra was at her “friends” that were now her kidnappers, she was worried for what Em would do to them when she and Em finally got loose.

“Sandra? Sandra?” She heard Christina talking to her again. “Sandra, are you okay? Did you hear what Gunny asked?”

“I’m listening,” she said sullenly. “Ask me again.”

“Okay, if you like,” said the voice Sandra knew so well as Gunny’s. He was the guy who came in second to be South Pole Santa. She was sure that was what this was all about. But why did Christina and Thomas have to help him? The whole thing made her shudder.

“Sandra, are you cold?” Gunny asked with concern in his voice. “Christina, grab that horse blanket from over there in the corner.”

“Please, you surely must know, that under the circumstances, and for the rest of our lives, I really want nothing from you.” Sandra’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “I’m not cold. Just disgusted. Keep your old horse blanket.”

“Suit yourself,” Gunny said as he set the blanket down next to Sandra. “Now listen--”

“No, Gunny, you listen! And you too, Christina and Thomas, who I know is there but just isn’t speaking right now. You all listen. This is wrong. You may think because I’m just the new Santa, that no one knows me or Em and won’t come looking for us, but you’re wrong! Some children already know us and like us. And Santa cares. And the elves. And Cappie, if you haven’t hurt her. And Birdie and Spence. Oh, my gosh! Have you hurt them? And what about Squawk? You better not have so much as ruffled a single red feather--”

“ENOUGH!” This time it was Christina who spoke up. “Let Gunny speak, Sandra. Please.”

Sandra was quiet for a minute but couldn’t help herself from continuing. “What about Jason, Christina? Your own son? Is he okay? Please tell me he’s not in on this too.” She really couldn’t bear it if her boyfriend had conspired on this Santanapping as well. It would just be too much.

“He’s fine, Sandra,” Christina said. “In fact, every person you named, including your beloved bird, Squawk, and Rio, your pretty dolphin friend, are all unharmed.”

Sandra didn’t know whether to believe her or not, but stayed quiet. For a moment. Emaralda continued to move next to her, trying to get loose from her binds.

“Okay, done for a minute?” Gunny asked. “So I can explain what’s going on here?”

She said nothing but glared in his direction through her blindfold.

“When I get big again, Gunny, you better run,” Em said in a quiet voice that was actually horribly frightening. Sandra felt scared for Gunny.

“I know, Em, I know. But first, a story,” he said.

Chapter 2

A Whopper of a Story

Location: Somewhere Secret on Christmas Day
 

“Alright, here’s the thing.” Sandra could tell Gunny was nervous because he was pacing as he talked. His voice was coming from different directions. It actually made her happy to know he was uncomfortable. Why should this be a good Christmas for him? He created this mess.

He started again. “The thing is. Well, the thing is--”

Gunny took so long to get started that Christina jumped in. “Oh, for the sake of all things Christmas, let’s get to the point already!” she exclaimed. “The thing is that nothing is what it seems. There. It’s out. So stop shouting and accusing when really and truly all we’ve done is try to save you and Em, Sandra. That’s the real thing.”

“Save us?” Sandra’s voice still smacked of sarcasm, but it was mingled with confusion now.

“Yeah, that’s right. Like it or not, we did this for you.”

Now Gunny was back up to full speed and plunged in, talking fast. “You remember when I left you that note after you won the South Pole Santa competition and I didn’t? The one that despite me scribbling it out, you were able to read, ‘You should know that’ and you’ve wanted to know what ‘that’ was ever since? Remember that?”

“Of course,” Sandra responded. “And I also remember that you left without any other good-bye, and that you wouldn’t tell me what ‘that’ was when I asked.” If she could have folded her arms in front of herself she would have.

“Because I couldn’t. Or at least I wasn’t supposed to,” Gunny said. “I wanted to, but it was better for you if I didn’t. At least others thought so, and I let them decide, but I should have followed my own heart, uh, reasoning, on that and just told you.”

“Told me what?” Sandra practically screamed at him. “Just tell me!”

“That I’m a guardian,” Gunny said. “There you go. To be perfectly clear about it, I’m your guardian. So are Christina and Thomas.”

Chapter 3

Guardians!

Location: Somewhere Super Secret
 

“A guardian! You mean, you all spy on me?” Sandra reeled, taking in this unexpected information. If Gunny and Christina had hoped this would calm Sandra, they were getting a good sense now of how wrong they were. “Who gave you that role? Or did you all just decide it for yourselves?”

“How about, before we go any further, we take your blindfolds off so we can talk face-to-face? That way you can see we’re telling the truth,” Christina said.

“Fine,” Sandra said. “But you do it, Christina. I don’t want Gunny near me.”

She couldn’t see it, but Gunny winced at her words.

“Me neither,” Em added. “I’m mad at you too, Christina.”

“I know, Em, I know, but won’t it be nice to get to see again?”

The sullen delgin said nothing.

As the blindfold came off, Sandra blinked, prepared for the adjustment her eyes would need to make to daylight but instead she realized right away they were in a shadowed area that was easy on her eyes. She looked around to see where they were. It appeared to be a huge hay loft. Gunny stood right in front of her, a big cowboy hat on his head, with a look on his face she couldn’t quite make out. Concern? Sadness? Affection maybe? That couldn’t possibly be it, she thought.

She put those thoughts aside and asked, “Where are we? Where’ve you brought us?”

“Why this here, Madam Santa,” he said in his best Texan drawl, sweeping his hat in his hand all around. “Is one of the big barns on the Happy Holiday Ranch in Holiday, Texas.”

“Your ranch?” Sandra repeated in a questioning voice. Gunny was just full of surprises on this Christmas Day. “Does your mom know we’re here?” Sandra had liked Gunny’s mom and couldn’t believe she would approve of this.

“I sort of mentioned to her that I thought she’d have some extra people for Christmas dinner. You’ll get to formally meet all the brothers again, and my sisters and dad. It’s going to be a big ole Holiday Christmas party later,” Gunny said, smiling, trying hard to get a smile from her. Without success.

Sandra ignored him, in fact, and turned her attention instead to Em. “Good your blindfold is off too. Can you see now, Em?” she asked with concern. “Are you hurt at all?”

“I want untied,” Em said in response, still pushing on her bindings.

“I do, too. What do you say, Gunny? Christina? How about as a sign of trust between friends? Or wait, how did you put that? As a sign of trust between “guardians” and the person they are guarding, you untie the two of us?” Sandra asked directly, expecting the answer she got.

“Yeah, that’s not happening yet,” Gunny said. “C’mon, you and I and Em and Christina all know exactly how that would go right now. Em would spin. You would hop on and use the locket to get out of here. And that would probably only be after Em thrashed us a bunch and broke us up real good. I’ll untie you. I promise.” He added that as they both looked at him skeptically. “After you have heard our whole story. Then if you both want to go, neither of us will stop you.” He looked over at Christina for agreement and she nodded her head. “Agreed?” he said to Sandra.

“Talk,” was all Sandra said.

Chapter 4

Much More to the Story

Location: The Happy Holiday Ranch
 

“I’m going to be straight up front with you, Sandra,” Gunny said. “Even before you knew who you were, Christina and Thomas already knew. I didn’t find out until shortly after the competition, but since then I’ve known who you are.”

“And just what do you mean by ‘who I am?’” Sandra asked, not wanting to assume they meant the same thing as she thought they meant, lest they didn’t and she told them more than she cared to say.

“You’re a Leezle,” Gunny said, leaving no room for misunderstanding this time. “In fact, you are very likely the one and only Leezle left, and therefore, of the royal line and a clear heir to the elfin crown. That birthright makes you not just the whispered about possibility that has been the subject of hopes and dreams of many in the magic realm for years, but also the target of those who would prefer to see you gone. That would be so they, and their heirs, can take the rule from the elfins. You may or may not realize this, but it was long ago established that the nature and fairness of the elfins’ race made them the best and chosen species to rule all of the unseen world. This is the case unless, or until, there are no more Leezles left. At that point, the unseen world, made up of creatures you have yet to even know exist, and others you are well familiar with like the leprechauns, fairies, wizards, moonrakers, brownies, wood sprites – you know how long the list is – would then decide the next ruling party.”

Sandra sat silent, taking it all in, while Gunny paused. Even Em had stopped wrestling about and was listening now.

“I guess it shouldn’t be all that surprising to learn that many magical kinds want to take the rule of the realm, but probably none more than three particular groups. Those three would be the Shan fairies, other royal elfin families, and the granites who you likely do not know but as their name suggests, they are beings largely made of rock. A very powerful, strong family.” Gunny said, now pacing again.

“I know you feel you need not be concerned about any of them or any of this, Sandra, but I assure you there are many people who are and have worked to assure your safety.” It was Christina who picked up the story and was speaking now. “Your mother was the Crown Princess and her brother was the Crown Prince. When your grandfather died and your uncle inherited the crown, your wise and insightful parents chose to step away from the magic realm, leaving all of its privileges and responsibilities behind for others to sort out. They did not want any children they might someday have – for at that time, you were just a hope and dream they held for the future -- to be part of that world of power and politics, suspicion and greed. They wanted instead for their children to be able to lead simpler lives focused on contribution, kindness and, well, love for all creatures and all kind. She was happy to leave the royal title and politics behind for her brother and others.

“Sadly, though, your mother’s concerns were prophetic and her brother died just two years after taking the monarchy. He was a very good swimmer, actually, but he drowned. You can imagine how the accusations flew as to what had actually happened, but it was eventually ruled that it was an accidental drowning. Immediately, the search went out for your mother to step into the royal role.”

“But she, and your father, were nowhere to be found.” It was Gunny who said this, taking up the storyteller role again, looking as serious as Sandra had ever seen him. “A rigorous search commenced on the top of the planet and in the unseen world, as well, for years, looking for your mother. She and your father knew it was happening but they also knew something else. They had had you. And you, Sandra, meant more to them than any possible chance of them going back and putting not just Cassiopola – your mother -- in grave danger, but more importantly to them, putting you in the direct line of the royal throne and assured danger. So they worked to become as ‘invisible’ as possible.”

It was now Sandra who spoke up. “That’s why we lived on the Mistletoe and moved around from country to country, I’m sure.” Christina and Gunny nodded their heads. “And why when I was little my mother taught me how to hide the sparkle in my hair with a special shampoo so only we would know how shiny it really was. And why she used her magic to enable Squawk to talk and be my very best friend.” She looked over at Em after she said it to apologize, but even Em couldn’t object after hearing the story so far.

“All of those things, Sandra,” Gunny said. “It’s also why you have your locket and chain for protection. There were a few trusted people in your mother’s inner circle who always knew where the three of you were. But there were hundreds of others always searching – some to do her harm, some to bring her back, and some because they wanted to confirm for themselves whether or not you existed.”

“They found her, didn’t they? They found her and my dad, and they hurt them that day they disappeared, didn’t they?” Sandra asked quietly, voicing the worries she and Cappie had always wondered about.

“Probably, Sandra, probably.” It was the last thing Gunny wanted to say to her because he knew that, even though she suspected it, to hear it would still hurt. He knelt in front of her so she could see the pain in his eyes and know he didn’t want to tell her this.

“Can you take off our binds now, please?” she said. “We won’t leave. Right, Em? We won’t run away?”

Em nodded and Gunny moved over to untie Sandra’s feet and hands. Sandra stretched out while he moved to Em.

“It feels so good to move. I--”

“Whoa there, girl! Whoa! You said you wouldn’t run!” Gunny actually sounded a little scared as he tried to slow Em down from the spinning she had started the minute he had set her free.

“I won’t leave,” said the spinning delgin. “But I’ll be listening to the rest of this story full size.”

Chapter 5

Lots More to Know

Location: The Happy Holiday Ranch
 

“Alright then, where was I?” Gunny asked as he nervously eyed Emaralda at her full dragon-sized self. He was hoping his story wouldn’t make her mad because he was pretty sure he would lose that fight. Sandra wanted to move around but was too entranced with all she was learning about her own family history to fuss about much.

“Here’s the thing, even if the evildoers found your parents, they still didn’t know for sure about you. By putting that protective spell on your necklace to keep you safe till you turned eighteen, your mother assured that even if they wondered if you were a Leezle, they couldn’t possibly confirm it. That gave you time to grow up and to have the happy childhood they wanted you to have.”

“It was happy. We all had so much fun living around the world. Mom and dad and me and Squawk and Cappie. Hey, did Cappie know about all of this?” Sandra asked.

“She did,” said Christina. “She does. She took care of your mother as a child and voluntarily went with them when they left. She is not a guardian as a role she’s been assigned, but she is your beloved guardian in the most important sense of the word. She loves you truly and deeply and would give her own life for yours if she ever needed to do so.”

“And I would do the same for her,” Sandra added. Gunny and Christina both nodded with understanding. Em though, gave a big delgin huff at the very idea of Sandra being in harm’s way.

“It was at about that time that I came into the picture,” Christina continued. “Before they disappeared, your parents had been looking for a place to put down anchor and stay for a while. They wanted a quiet spot where they could stay and let you go through school with friends besides just the two of them and Cappie and Squawk. It needed to be a private and safe place where you could have a more traditional childhood experience. They had reached out to me through a mutual, trusted acquaintance whom I shall not name, and I flew to the Polynesian area to meet with your parents about what St. Annalise had to offer. So, when, long ago, you asked if I knew your parents, it was because of that meeting I was able to say I had met them. I felt the meeting had gone well and we had agreed on you coming to St. Annalise. Unfortunately, it was shortly after that they went missing. Somehow though, you and Cappie still managed to make it to the island and the academy.”

“We got there because mom sent me a note in a bottle. Or at least I was pretty sure it was mom,’ said Sandra. They all looked at her quizzically but she dismissed them, not wanting to go into it. She hadn’t really meant to talk out loud. “Please, Christina, go on.”

“Well, you know most of it from there since you have lived at St. Annalise now since you were eleven. It’s been a privilege for me to have you there. Before you arrived, one of the highly trusted elfin council members reached out to me and to Thomas and had us swear an oath to take care of you. I don’t know if they actually knew you were Leezle, or just suspected, but, either way, there were those who wanted you protected. It was really all for naught, though. In all your years at St. Annalise, nothing even remotely peculiar ever happened. Nonetheless, we were ever on the alert. I believe there are others as well who serve in this guardian role, but it’s on a need-to-know basis. I suspect who they are, and Thomas and I did not need to know. We were sworn to secrecy from even telling you.”

“As was I,” Gunny said, now picking the story back up. “Fairies and elfins and magical beings in general don’t mean much to the working stiffs on a cattle ranch. Until, that is, I made it as a finalist for the South Pole Santa competition. Out of the blue one day, three fine fellows – and I use that description as code really for intimidating and somber – showed up while I was flushing out some strays in the far back land of the ranch. They needed a guardian for a part elfin young woman who was also in the competition to be South Pole Santa. They wanted to know if I’d be willing to do it. They said the need would be short while she did her best at trying for a part she wasn’t really right for. And before you even say anything, Sandra, those were their words, not mine. Though, at the time, you being a girl and all, and me being me, the perfect person to be second Santa, I quite naturally thought they were right.”

He smiled one of his charming Gunny smiles while Sandra struggled not to grin back. Em huffed at him and he continued.

“I’m not sure what they even would have done if I’d said ‘no’, but I knew it was something I needed to do. It was more than just appealing to my chivalrous side, it was a gut feeling inside that said I needed to step up. As it turned out, I believe they were right to look for someone to keep a watch on you.”

“I will never forget your quick actions that saved me from drowning in that deep vat of blue paint, Gunny,” Sandra said sincerely.

Gunny nodded, thinking back on the close call. “I think that’s everything. You pretty much know the whole story now.”

“Not really. None of that explains why we’re here and why you Santanapped us,” Sandra said to him firmly. The history was interesting but, guardian or not, none of them had any right just to snap her and Em out of the air.

“Okay, yeah, there still is that,” Gunny said, now with deep reluctance in his voice again. “That actually is the most disturbing part of the story. Yes, we did, I confess, take you and Em, rather roughly and without any notice, but it couldn’t be helped.”

“Couldn’t be helped? We were doing just fine! We had just finished our rounds, waved good-bye to Santa, and were headed back to St. Annalise. We were less than an hour away from home only to wake up rudely – in Texas of all places!”

“Hey now, there’s not a doggone thing wrong with Texas!” Gunny objected.

“Enough!” Christina intervened with her best headmistress voice. “Just tell her why, Gunny.”

“Yeah, why am I here in this hay barn?”

“Because, as your guardians we did our job, even if you end up hating us. We did what we had to do. We didn’t want you to go missing, too.”

“Missing?” Sandra asked confused. “Why would I be missing?”

“Because,” Gunny said with a heavy sigh. “Someone, or something, took Santa.”

Oh Oh Oh! To find out who took Santa and whether Christmas can ever be the same, look for The Santanapping, book three in the South Pole Santa series! Available on Amazon.com and BarnesNoble.com at the end of October.