Tobias Duke stood on the side porch, just outside the kitchen, mouth agape and eyes comically wide. When he'd left to deliver a dinner package to the team on Christmas Eve rotation, his wife had been firmly ensconced on the couch watching a '50s holiday cartoon. There were a few decorations around the living room, and a massive, needle-dropping tree wedged in beside the fireplace. He'd expected to come home to a similar sight. At some point in the two hours he'd been gone, his wife had been body-snatched by a twisted Goth Christmas elf, the pages of North Pole Living had exploded all over his house, and someone had taken to torturing dogs on the radio.
"You're letting all the cold air in," the Viola-shaped Christmas Demon snapped, brandishing the floppy, gingerbread man end of a spatula.
Despite the lighted, black-and-purple Santa hat, red-and-green striped tights, and holiday sweater, it was his wife's voice. Duke shuffled into the house, but kept on his leather jacket. With his crappy luck, Christmas Demons exploded into showers of tinsel or something.
Finn, a set of reindeer antlers bobbing on his head, ambled through the kitchen and flopped onto the red-and-green bed under the built-in desk. Bells jingled when Finn rested his head on his paws. For the first time in his life, Duke felt a pang of sympathy for Viola's mutt.
The Christmas Demon twirled away from the stove and beamed up at Duke. Her eyes were twinkling and she smelled like nutmeg. It was a shame she was a wife-stealing demon. Duke enjoyed the way Viola's whole face lit up when she was happy and nutmeg was a comforting scent. He was going to regret making the Christmas Demon regret invading his house.
"Did Johnny and Juan enjoy the tamales? Did you give them the pumpkin bread?" The Christmas Demon asked. "You forgot the salsa, but by the time I found it in the fridge, I figured you were over halfway there."
Duke blinked. He closed his mouth, opened it. He licked his lips before closing his mouth again.
"Tobias?" The Christmas Demon extended an arm. Holiday-themed charms dangled from a silver chain. A small, warm hand tipped with red-and-white nails pressed against his forehead. "Are you all right? Did something happen to you?"
"To me?" He wrapped his fingers around the Christmas Demon's wrist and tugged it away from his face. "What happened here? It's like someone killed Christmas Cheer, resurrected it, and set the zombie loose in the house. And then they shoved the spirit of Baldor the Demented Elf inside you. And then they attacked the Christmas station so that every song comes out sounding like it's being sung by screaming cats. I thought we were having a nice, quiet holiday."
The Christmas Demon - Viola - deflated instantly. She tugged her wrist out of Duke's grasp and shoved her hands in the pockets of her green shorts. The hat slipped down on her forehead obscuring her eyes. "Sorry. "
"Vi," Duke sighed, reaching for her. She scurried backwards, shoulders hunched in and pigtails drooping.
"Run down to the store to pick up another half-gallon of milk, and I'll take care of it."
He started to say something, but the screaming on the radio was just too much. He snatched the stereo's remote off the counter and shut the music off. The sudden silence was a balm to his ringing ears.
"Milk," she repeated, eyes fixed on the Christmas tree mat on the floor.
"Whole milk, please. I need it for the fudge."
Her shoulders quivered and her eyes squeezed shut. He tamped down his irritation. He was cold, confused, and, thanks to the mouthwatering aromas filling the kitchen, starving. Was that mulled cider he smelled? And gingerbread? And what was that she'd said about fudge?
"Please." She swallowed, lifted her head a fraction. "Just go get the milk, Tobias. I'll clean up this and talk to Granny."
"Granny?" What did his grandmother have to do with the Christmas Horror Invasion?
"She called while you were out. Asked if we wanted to have dinner. I invited her over here. I ran up to the attic and got my boxes and I guess I went a little overboard. I just thought that since the holiday is all about family…." She shrugged, hung her head again. "It doesn't matter. I should have asked you or told her no."
"Vi, it's fine. I don't mind spending Christmas with Granny. I usually do. I was keeping it low-key for you. You don't care much for Christmas, so I wasn't going to force it down your throat." That had been his reasoning, but the words sounded wrong. What was it? What was he missing? There had been another reason he'd wanted to spend Christmas alone with his new wife.
She perched on the edge of a stool. Somewhere along the way, the stool had acquired a big, red felt bow. "It's my favorite holiday. At least it was until, well, you know. Livy tried but we never really celebrated it much because Mom was in the institution and Dad was gone. Kinda hard to celebrate when almost half your family is gone. I just thought that now… I don't know… it would be nice to try again."
He was an idiot. The biggest idiot on the planet. How had he forgotten teasing her about her Christmas obsession? He'd even helped her hang lights outside her bedroom window one year, and another year he and Sebastian had cut down a small pine tree for her to put in her room. She'd carried candy canes in her pockets and had been one of the first to memorize his "Twelve Days of Tracking Christmas" song. Then her father had gone missing, four days before Christmas, and that had been the end of Santa's gothiest elf.
"What did you do last Christmas, Vi?"
He arched an eyebrow. His wife was a bundle of perpetual energy. She never did nothing. "Come on, Vi."
"I bought myself a Christmas present or three from the liquor store across the street from the hotel and spent Christmas Eve watching It's a Wonderful Life. I don't remember anything else until Boxing Day."
He looped his arms around her waist and rested his chin on the top of her head. "You could have told me you wanted to go all out for Christmas, sugar. One word, and this place would have made Macy's jealous."
"I didn't know I wanted it until Granny called. We were talking about tamales and queso and eggnog, and it just hit me."
Duke leaned back, lifted her chin, and pressed his lips to hers. She tasted like candy canes and sugar cookies. Her eyelids fluttered against his cheeks and she sighed happily against his lips. He pulled back and flicked the fuzzy ball on her hat.
"The Duke Family Christmas Extravaganza is on. Hold on to your stockings, sugar." He grabbed the remote, hesitated. "Maybe without the Manic Mutts murdering 'White Christmas'."
By the time Granny arrived, there was a gingerbread army lined up on the counter, mulled cider steaming in the crockpot, and a tower of fudge cubes on the table. Bing Crosby's crooning was the perfect complement to the laughter and teasing. Once the tamales were gone and the eggnog had been liberally laced with rum, Duke led the procession to the living room.
Skulls-and-crossbones, bats, and Goth Gabby ornaments were interspersed between the silver balls and tiny cowboy boots on the tree. Granny had made Viola a stocking to match the one she'd made for Duke nearly three decades earlier, though hers looked like it had been purchased at the Halloween store.
He was distracted by Finn's attempt to get a gold bow off his tail and missed the bright red gift bag Viola grabbed from under the tree. It wasn't until he heard Granny's bark of laughter and Viola's squeal that he turned back around. Viola's face was as red as the bag and she was elbow-deep in the present.
"Oh, sweet mercy."
Oh. Yeah. There had been another reason he'd wanted to spend Christmas Eve alone with his wife. Something about the tree and the fireplace and the lights down low…
"Seriously, Tobias? Tassels?"
Vi's Fudge Recipe
2/3 cup cocoa
3 cups sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1-1/2 cups whole milk
1/4 cup butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Grease an 8" dish. Combine cocoa, sugar & salt in a large, heavy saucepan. Stir in whole milk and bring to a rolling boil - STIR CONSTANTLY! Boil, without stirring, until you reach soft ball stage (234°F or if small bit turns into a soft ball in cold water) Don't stir. Take off the heat.
Add butter and vanilla to mixture. DON'T STIR! Let it cool to until the pan is almost cool to the touch. Beat until it gets thick and matte. Spread in pan. Let it harden and then cut into squares.