Dear Reader, Now that we've reached the month of December, I'd like to share the opening chapter of my all-ages Christmas story with you ~ what could be merrier than Christmas in Victorian London? Scroll down to read on!
A Christmas tree croquembouche ~ a pyramid-shaped stack of cream puffs held together by caramel. It was originally invented by Prinny's own famous French chef, the great Antoine Careme, as a wedding dessert. Yum! (Photo cr. to Enlightened Age blog, click photo to visit.)
It's Jake's first Christmas with his eccentric magical relatives, but trouble never takes a holiday...
SANTA'S HORRID LITTLE HELPER Humbug hates being a Christmas elf. Instead of making toys, he'd rather make mischief! Angling for a new job in Halloween Town, he sets out to prove he's frightful enough for the task by ruining Christmas for as many people as possible--until Jake and his friends capture him. The kids set out on a rip-roaring adventure to the North Pole to hand the troublemaker over to Santa and collect the reward. But the way is fraught with danger, leaving them to wonder if they'll make it back in time for Christmas...or if they'll even make it back alive!
CHAPTER ONE A Very Merry Mishap
“I know the Christmas pageant in the village means a lot to Aunt Ramona. I just don’t see why I should have to be in it,” Jake grumbled, only half in jest, as they wandered out of yet another shop.
“Honestly—did you see the fake beard I have to wear?”
His three companions laughed, for they had.
It was dreadful.
“But you have to be our St. Joseph, Jake. You’re the tallest,” said Isabelle.
Jake looked askance at her.
Of course, his golden-haired cousin was quite content with her (very fitting) pageant role as the angel who would go and call the shepherds.
“Ah, well.” He let out a longsuffering sigh, but deep down, he supposed he didn’t really mind being made a fool of for his elderly aunt’s sake at Christmas. It was just that, as a tough ex-street kid, he had a certain reputation to keep up. Especially now that it turned out he was an earl. “All I know is I’m going to feel completely stupid in that getup, standing out there in front. Everybody staring at me. Why can’t I just hide in the back with Archie as one of the Three Wise Men?”
“You? A wise man? Sorry, Jake, you’re not that good an actor,” Dani O’Dell (their pageant Mary) teased. “I know!” The freckled redhead turned to him with a mischievous grin. “You could be the donkey!”
“Ha, ha.” Though he gave her a sardonic look, even Jake could not help laughing any more than he could hide the holiday twinkle in his eyes.
It was all a little bewildering, in truth. He had never felt this ridiculously happy two days before Christmas.
For the first time ever, the holidays had put a kind of spell on him beyond anything that even a good witch as powerful as Aunt Ramona could’ve conjured. There was magic in the air.
He could feel it in the afternoon’s light snowfall wafting over London. It dusted the cobbled streets around them like sugar and trimmed the bonnets and top hats of passing ladies and gents with its delicate, frozen lace.
This year he thought it very beautiful, but last year at this time he would have hated it, mainly because he would’ve been sleeping out in the cold most nights. Last year, instead of smiling at his fellow man with general goodwill, he would have been eyeing up the passersby with the goal of picking their pockets, watching for packages and coin purses he could steal.
Everything was different now, including Christmas.
The odd, merry mood had taken hold of him a few days ago, stamping his face with a slightly dazed smile, as if he had eaten a whole roly-poly pudding by himself. He felt so strange.
In the past, all the Christmases he could remember had been ordeals of torture, more or less. It was a day that made most of the kids back at the orphanage wish they were dead.
Ah, but this year, for the first time, Jake had something of a family. Not parents, they were dead, but two cousins and a few random adults who did not bother him too badly. (Very well, he quite adored them—not that he would ever admit to any such mushy sentiments out loud.)
He also had Dani O’Dell, his little Irish sidekick from the rookery. The carrot-head had taken charge of their Christmas shopping excursion, as she was wont to do in most matters.
“Indefatigable,” Archie remarked, sauntering along, hands in pockets, as he watched the redhead march ahead of them, her mittened hands balled up at her sides.
Jake nodded vaguely, though he only understood about half the words that ever came out of the boy genius’s mouth.
Dani stopped at the corner and glanced around, choosing which row of shops they’d tackle next. “Hurry up, you lot!” She beckoned to them when there was a break in the steady flow of carriages and stagecoaches, hansom cabs and delivery wagons rumbling by in both directions.
All the world was hurrying to finish up their yuletide preparations.
As for Jake and the others, their mission this day was almost complete.
Possibly the best thing about his new life as the rightful Earl of Griffon was that he now had the means to make Christmas a little less miserable for the orphans and assorted street urchins he had left behind in his old life.
If Father Christmas or St. Nick or Santa Claus or whatever the useless lout wanted to call himself could not be bothered to visit the orphans—which he never did—well then, Jake had decided, he would jolly well do it himself.
At all the different toymakers and linen drapers and food stalls they had visited today on their quest to gather presents, they had ordered everything sent to Beacon House, awaiting Christmas Eve delivery.
The trick was how to make the gifts appear magically, so the orphans would think that Santa had done it. They were still working on that. Maybe one of Great-Great Aunt Ramona’s magic spells would do the trick…
Jake wished he could see their faces when they woke up on Christmas morning to find that Santa had finally remembered them, especially the little ones, like Petey, a six-year-old who used to follow him around everywhere and tried to be just like him. Poor kid.
“Isabelle.” When they joined Dani on the corner, she gave the older girl a probing stare. “How are you holding up? Do you need a break?”
“Hullo? What about us?” Jake asked, nodding at Archie.
The other boy nodded eagerly. “We could use a break, too. Christmas shopping is exhausting.”
“We’re hungry,” Jake agreed.
Dani looked at him. “What a shock.”
Isabelle laughed. “I’m doing fine, thanks. Better than expected, actually.”
They all knew that being in the crowded city was difficult on Isabelle as an empath, picking up on the emotions of everyone around her.
She shrugged, reading the doubt on their faces—or, more likely, sensing it in their hearts. “Maybe I’m getting stronger or finally learning how to shield myself. But I think somehow it’s just easier to be out and about this time of year.” She glanced around at the busy street. “Most people just seem to be in a…kinder mood.”
The four of them exchanged wry, knowing smiles, then paused to appreciate the holiday spirit that warmed the frosty air.
Carolers nearby sang “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.” All the wrought-iron lampposts wore garlands of evergreen boughs tied with red ribbons. Sleigh bells jangled on the harnesses of the carriage horses trotting past.
But as to the question of whether to take a break from shopping, the mouth-watering smell of sweet cinnamon somethings baking somewhere nearby decided the matter for them.
“Maybe a snack is in order.” Isabelle inhaled the enticing odor with a dreamy smile. “Is that gingerbread?”
Jake flashed a grin. “Let’s go find out!”
They ran. Well, the boys did.
Isabelle was much too well bred to go pounding down an elegant London street like a wild heathen, thanks to strict training from her governess, Miss Helena.
Dani managed (just barely) to restrain herself to a sedate walk alongside the older girl, determined to be as ladylike as the older girl someday.
In any case, the boys were the first to reach what turned out to be not one, but two pastry shops crammed into one tall, narrow brick building.
On the left, a few steps led upward into a glittering, pastel jewel box of a bakery, whose sign read in flowing calligraphy: Chez Marie Pâtisserie Parissiene.
On the right, a few steps led downward into a snug, rustic, cozy space rather like a hunting lodge, its doorway proudly hung with the Union Jack and announcing in plain block letters: Bob’s British Bakery.
The boys had difficulty choosing which way to go first.
If they had waited for Isabelle, the empath soon could have told them that the two renowned pastry chefs—Marie and Bob—had once been partners, but now were sworn foes. They did everything in their power to antagonize each other.
Especially Bob, who had got his heart broken.
But, being boys, Jake and Archie were oblivious to romantic matters for the most part. They went whooping down the stairs, past the pinecone garland and the life-sized toy soldier just inside the door.
“Welcome, gents,” the mustachioed owner drawled. Bob himself was leaning idly against the counter talking about the latest sporting news with a few of his male customers: the London prizefights and the winter foxhunts going on out in the countryside.
The boys nodded back to him, then suddenly stopped in their tracks. “Ho! Look at that!”
They immediately rushed over to gawk at the gingerbread display: a towering castle with candy banners flying from the turrets. All around it, little gingerbread knights and soldiers were arranged as though tending to their duties.
There were even gingerbread horses with white-frosted manes, and gingerbread cannons loaded with peppermint cannonballs.
Meanwhile, the girls had been unable to resist the glowing chandeliers and silk-hung walls of the French-style pâtisserie upstairs. As they entered, Isabelle told Dani that “pâtisserie” was simply the French word for a pastry shop; Dani thought it a fun word to say and kept repeating it.
As it turned out, the owner, Mademoiselle Marie, had no intention of being outdone by her ex-beau, Bob, during this most important shopping season. She also had made a dazzling gingerbread display to lure in customers. But—she being French—hers was of course the height of elegance and whimsy, and in every way superior. One only had to ask her to confirm that this was so.
Marie had made a gingerbread Versailles with candy swans in the fountain and meringue shepherdesses tending marshmallow sheep. Wee cookie courtiers in service to the Sun King strolled through the candy formal gardens; gentlemanly ginger-men, fashionably frosted; noble cavaliers, prepared to fight for the honor of their crispy kingdom.
While the boys bought chocolate-dipped pretzel lances below, the girls gazed in rapturous wonder at Marie’s marvel of baking artistry.
“What a lot of frou-frou,” Archie said, glancing around, brow furrowed, when the boys joined them upstairs a few minutes later.
“Yes…isn’t it wonderful?” Isabelle said breathlessly.
“Where have you two been?” Dani asked.
The boys told them about Bob’s British Bakery downstairs, and the girls hurried down to the lower level to explore it, too.
The boys followed, and while Jake went to show the girls the castle, Archie was drawn to an old photograph on the wall of a cavalry regiment. Apparently Bob used to be a soldier.
“Looks like they’re having a contest of some kind.” Jake nodded at the sign beside the gingerbread castle inviting customers to vote on which display they thought was better.
“Aha, clever way of getting more shoppers in the door,” Archie said as he rejoined them.
“I don’t think that’s entirely the reason these two have made a contest of it,” Isabelle said under her breath.
They all glanced curiously at her, but she was too discreet to gossip about the ongoing lovers’ quarrel she sensed between the two bakers.
Jake shrugged off her mysterious remark with a decisive nod. “We should vote, too.”
“Let’s!” Dani said. “I need to look at both of them again.”
Bob glanced over in amusement as the kids barreled back up the stairs into Marie’s dainty boutique to consider their choices.
Having already determined he liked the castle better, for it reminded him of the one he had inherited from his father, Jake wandered off hungrily to look around Marie’s fanciful shop and choose another snack.
He had never tried French pastries before, but looking around, it was impossible not to be impressed. He had to admit those French knew their food, despite the centuries-old love-hate relationship between England and France. Thankfully, there had not been bloodshed for many years between the two countries, but most good loyal Englishmen, like most French folk, could give you a list off the top of their heads why their country was better than the one across the channel. And yet, at the same time, they secretly admired certain traits about each other.
Clothes, for example.
Every London lady simply had to fill her wardrobe with fine French gowns, while men’s English tailoring ruled the streets of Paris.
As for food, well, most of the world had long since concluded that the French beat everyone in that category, except for maybe the Italians. Ah, but the British were better at sports and bred better horses, and, at least in their own opinion, told funnier jokes.
It was true the French were traditionally better at dealing out a witty insult with devastating style. But when it came down to a fight, Jake thought, ha! His country was better at war, as evidenced by the fact that they had trounced the French in the last one.
Ah, but of course all that was long before he was born, those bloody days of Napoleon versus England’s Iron Duke. And as an avid fan of all things edible, Jake was quite prepared to let bygones be bygones. He drifted through the cramped, crowded aisles of Marie’s shop, marveling at the exotic French sweets on offer.
He read the dainty placards with all the unfamiliar foreign names. The pastries were all such exquisite little artworks it almost seemed a shame to eat them.
There were rows of Mont Blancs, small whipped cream mountains with a candy perched atop each crest. There were Opéras with many thin layers of sponge cake held together by coffee syrup and topped with shiny chocolate ganache.
There was Strawberry Savarin dusted with powdered sugar and Tarte Tatin, a glossy puff pastry cradling caramelized apples. There were individual lemon soufflés and something called Canelé: tiny golden-brown bundt cakes. There were éclairs and Napoleons,Fondant au Chocolat and Forêt Noire. There were macaroons and Lunette aux Abricots, danishes that looked like pastry blankets wrapped around sleeping golden apricot babies.
But what stood out in glory, second only to the gingerbread Versailles, were the magnificent edible “Christmas trees” capping the ends of each aisle.
Jake heard a lady explaining to her husband that these were called Croquembouche, though she had never seen them made so large before. Creampuffs had been stacked up into pyramids like edible pine trees, held together by long ribbons of caramel.
His mouth watering at the splendid sight, Jake was wondering if his stomach had enough capacity for him to eat one all by himself. Probably yes, he mused, when suddenly, he noticed a whiz of motion from the corner of his eye.
The barest hint of a sparkle-trail followed as something went speeding along the top shelves of the shop, flush against the walls.
Startled, he looked twice, turning to catch a better glimpse, but he was too slow. It was already gone, the red-and-green sparkle-trail fading so fast that he wondered if he had imagined it.
Intrigued, he took a few steps out of the aisle and scanned the upper shelves, brow furrowed. Whatever it was, it had disappeared, but he was sure he had seen something.
Indeed, now that he noticed it, he could feel the slight tingling sensation at his nape that usually alerted him when something supernatural was close by.
Obviously, his first thought was to wonder if the shop was haunted. To be sure, there were ghosts all over London. It wouldn’t have surprised him.
But as far as he knew, only fairies left sparkle-trails. Not even their nearest cousins, the pixies, had that particular trait. He knew because he had just met some in Wales.
Hold on—! An astonishing question suddenly filled his mind. Is that how she’s doing this—baking such amazing things? Has this French pastry lady got fairies helping her?
Unfair advantage! Jake huffed in surprise, instantly indignant on British Bob’s behalf. Well, typical, he thought. Leave it to a Frenchwoman to make her own rules.
His instant suspicion of Mademoiselle Marie would have to be forgiven.
Though he was only twelve, all British males were warned from an early age to resist as best they could those magnificent, impossible French ladies, who were famous worldwide for doing whatever they pleased.
Humph. Nobody liked a cheater.
He shook his head in disapproval, determined to even the odds in British Bob’s favor—and to learn the secret of Marie’s exquisite skill. He started prowling around the small, crowded shop, on the hunt for the fairy or whatever it was that had made that sparkle-trail.
Small as fairies were—five inches tall or so—it could be hiding anywhere. Jake searched the high shelves, the back of his neck tingling away, but he never saw anything—and yet he got the feeling after a few minutes that the fairy had definitely noticed him hunting for it.
Aye, he could feel it watching him. The creature must’ve realized he was on to its trickery. I am going to find you…
He searched the shop for several minutes more while his companions bought a few goodies to eat. Stalking down the middle aisle, he sensed that he was closing in. It was close, very close…
Determined to take it by surprise, he suddenly jumped out of the middle aisle and spun in midair like a startled cat, facing down the next aisle. “Ha!”
The other customers looked at him strangely.
Alas, the fairy was already gone.
Once again, he saw nothing but the green-and-red sparkles already fading. No worries. You’re a fast little devil, but you’re mine.
Hmm. As he continued his hunt, collecting a couple of treats to buy along the way, he mused on the fact that although he had met his share of fairies, he had never seen a sparkle-trail in those strong colors before.
The royal garden fairies he knew usually had gold or silver or pastel-colored sparkles.
Was there some specific kind of Christmas fairy? he wondered. Burning with curiosity, he crept down the aisle, and then stood on his toes to peer warily behind one shelf’s display of cherry-laced Clafoutis.
The creature he was hunting must’ve started getting nervous about the danger of being caught, for suddenly, without Jake even noticing, it struck back.
Apparently, it hoped to get rid of him by causing a distraction.
“Timberrrr!” a small voice taunted.
And with that, the Croquembouche Christmas tree behind Jake started tipping over. He whirled around as the unseen speaker sped off with a snicker, red-and-green sparkles in its wake.
Jake gasped when he saw the Croquembouche toppling, sending a snowstorm of sugar-dusted cream puffs and macaroons flying through the air.
He started forward automatically, lifting his hands to use his telekinesis to try to save it—but thankfully, he stopped himself in time. It would have been a disaster for him to use his magical powers in public.
And so, there was nothing he could do but stand there and watch the beautiful, edible Christmas tree go crashing to the ground, destroyed.
It then occurred to him that, as the person standing closest to it, he was about to take the blame.
Aw, crud. Jake let out a sigh. Story of my life.
JAKE & THE GINGERBREAD WARS is available as an e-book (only $2.99), as well as stocking-stuffer sized trade paperback, and a wonderful audiobook. Click here to purchase.